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Dhaka Tribune

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A brief history of political climbdowns

Politics is often underscored by uncertainty in the lives of those who pursue it

Update : 28 Apr 2022, 11:15 AM

Eyebrows have been raised in Pakistan and elsewhere about the appointment of the articulate Hina Rabbani Khar as Pakistan’s minister of state for foreign affairs. By itself, the appointment is a new feather in the cap for Khar, who has been in politics for a good number of years. The problem, though, is in the fact that having served as foreign minister in an earlier Pakistani government, she has now agreed to go down a rung on the political ladder and become deputy to whoever will take charge as the new foreign minister. There are people who believe that the foreign minister will be Bilawal Zardari Bhutto.

Be that as it may, Khar’s appointment rekindles in the memory all those earlier tales of prominent individuals who went through the difficult, if not exactly painful, move of climbing down a step or two from the heights to assume responsibilities of a new sort. 

Inder Kumar Gujral, who served as information minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet, was eased out of the government since he could not get along with the callow Sanjay Gandhi in the early days of the emergency clamped on India in June 1975. He was sent off to Moscow as Indian ambassador to the Soviet Union. Years later, Gujral would come back to serve as prime minister and is today remembered with due respect.

A more heart-rending demotion concerns Czechoslovakia’s Alexander Dubcek. Following the Warsaw Pact invasion of his country in August 1968, he was humiliated into signing off all the measures he had taken to promote his Prague Spring. And then he was removed and packed off to Ankara as ambassador, but soon after was sent off deep into the countryside as a forest inspector. 

It was only when Vaclav Havel, triumphant in his Velvet Revolution, recalled Dubcek and had him take charge as speaker of the Czechoslovak national assembly, that the reformist of the 1960s returned to centre stage. But the joy of returning to prominence was short-lived. Dubcek died in a road crash in 1992. 

Turn your gaze to America, where Gerald Ford, defeated at the 1976 presidential election by Jimmy Carter, sought to be Ronald Reagan’s running mate as vice presidential nominee in 1980. Reagan ignored Ford.

A telling episode about the tradition of a downgrading in political fortunes concerns Adlai Stevenson. Senator John F Kennedy desperately wished to be his running mate at the 1956 US presidential election, but lost out to Senator Estes Kefauver. Once Kennedy was elected president in 1960, Stevenson expected to be appointed secretary of state in the new administration. In the event, Kennedy appointed him permanent representative to the United Nations. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. Stevenson collapsed and died on a London street in 1965. 

In more recent times, we have the instance of former Argentine president Cristina Kirchner taking on a new political position in Buenos Aires. She is now vice president under President Alberto Fernandez.

Sir Alec Douglas-Home served as Britain’s prime minister after Harold Macmillan resigned in 1963 for reasons of health. The Tories were defeated by Labour at the 1964 elections. Six years later, when Edward Heath led the Conservatives back to power, Home served as foreign secretary in his government. 

A pretty riveting instance of political fortunes undergoing change relates to Pakistan’s Mohammad Ali Bogra. He was serving as the country’s ambassador in Washington when Governor General Ghulam Mohammad called him back home in 1953 and appointed him prime minister. Not long after, Bogra was dismissed and sent back to Washington as ambassador. And that is not all. General Ayub Khan, the army commander-in-chief, served as minister for defense in Bogra’s government. Ironically, in the 1960s, Bogra was appointed minister for external affairs (as the foreign minister was then known) in the government of Ayub Khan. Bogra passed away in January 1963.

In Sri Lanka, it is the Rajapaksa family which dominates politics today. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who served as defense secretary when his brother Mahinda was president, not long ago appointed Mahinda Rajapaksa as the country’s prime minister. 

In Bangladesh, Mohammadullah took over as president when Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury resigned at the end of 1973. Following the passage of the fourth amendment to the constitution, President Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman appointed Mohammadullah as a minister in his new government. In the chaotic times after August 15, 1975, Mohammadullah became vice president under Khondokar Moshtaq Ahmed. 

He was also vice president for about twenty-four hours under President Justice Abdus Sattar. The Sattar government was ousted by the army chief, General HM Ershad, on March 24, 1982. As for former president Abu Sayeed Chowdhury, he was appointed a minister in Bangabandhu’s government on August 8, 1975. Under Moshtaq he served as foreign minister, a position he was to quit a couple of months later.

In early December 1971, faced with military defeat in occupied Bangladesh, President Yahya Khan appointed Nurul Amin as prime minister and ZA Bhutto as deputy prime minister and foreign minister of Pakistan in what was given out as a civilian government. In the aftermath of the emergence of Bangladesh as a sovereign state on December 16, 1971, Bhutto succeeded Yahya Khan as president of what remained of Pakistan in the west. He appointed Nurul Amin as vice president, a position the Bengali politician held till the adoption of Pakistan’s new constitution in August 1973.

Vyacheslav Molotov, remembered for the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in the pre-World War 2 period, was a powerful Soviet political figure, serving as chairman of the council of commissars and foreign minister under Joseph Stalin and under the new dispensation following Stalin’s death in March 1953. When Molotov fell out with Nikita Khrushchev in the mid-1950s, he was banished as ambassador to Mongolia. Though he was somewhat rehabilitated in the early 1960s, he was unable to return to political prominence but remained a staunch Stalinist to the end of his life.

Politics is history often underscored by uncertainty in the lives of those who pursue it. Hina Rabbani Khar is not the first person to have gone through the experience. She joins an exclusive, though not necessarily happy, club of individuals who have, in their careers, come down a step or two for reasons that were as personal as they were unavoidable. 

Sometimes, but rarely, a climbdown can pave the way for a return to the top. Not every politician can emulate Australia’s Kevin Rudd, who served as prime minister before resigning office and then returning as foreign minister. The next step was a journey back to the prime minister’s office, albeit for a few months, till his party lost the general election.

Syed Badrul Ahsan is a journalist and biographer.

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