The quality of leadership isn’t carried in bloodlines or acquired through the accumulation of wealth. It doesn’t occur because rooms full of people call you “sir,” or because a nation can be held hostage to your whim. It isn’t in the exaggerated personality cults surrounding lofty public offices and it certainly isn’t in the public display of personal aggrandisement.
Leaders don’t enjoy an exemption from popular scrutiny, (in fact quite the opposite) and they are especially not excused from measurement and accountability. To be made a leader doesn’t create a freehold on power, instead, it implies a legitimisation of authority-authority being essentially different from power because of the fact that it is only ever given rather than taken.
Genuine leaders, wherever they have arisen, did so because they kept their focus on the needs of the people they led, and not because they sought an opportunity to exploit them.
Thus, the conceptual difference between power and authority requires us to recognise that having power does not necessarily translate into having authority, and authority is not necessarily buttressed by power.
“This is all well and good,” some might say, “but what purpose is there to this academic diatribe about power and authority, when force has become the dominant mechanism in political relations?”
It serves a vast purpose, as the distinction between power and authority differentiates the personalities that are able to avail of either, or both, and will determine the quality of governance that will subsequently be generated through them.
But more interestingly, it allows us to understand why authority is conferred in the first place, when this is, in essence, a surrender of personal sovereignty. Well, it has to do with trust, and trust, as anyone who has ever been a lender or a borrower knows, has everything to do with character.
We’re not strangers to good leadership, Bengalis. Many great leaders have arisen among us, a listing of whom would require several words. Without going too far into the past, we could for example, begin at Ram Mohan Roy, who, in the 1820’s, after coming into contact with the British and the stifling climate of imperial racism, attempted to lead Bengali society, predominantly the Hindu-part, into the Age of Enlightenment.
He was followed shortly by Debendronath Thakur, Kobiguru Robindronath’s father, whose early attempts at social reform brought Bengal, and India, closer to the modern age. The journalist Bipin Chondro Pal from Sylhet, was a firebrand, and led one of the first stirrings of independence in the form of the Shawdeshi Movement, along with fellow Bengali Shri Aurobindo Ghosh, before the latter became a spiritual leader and left politics altogether.
With Netaji Shubhash Chondro Bosu, affirmative nationalism tried its hand at militant revolution, driven by conscience and the desire to ameliorate the population from the pressures of exploitation. As chief of the Congress party, his reach was India-wide, but despite a valiant attempt he was denied the opportunity to establish self-governance, leaving his elder brother Shorot Bosu at the helm of a movement that redirected its efforts towards a united independent Bengal with Abul Hashim, the Muslim Bengali leader. Abul Hashim was an associate of Huseyn Suhrawardy, who, in spite of being a divisive element in Hindu-Muslim relations was a prominent part of 20th century Bengali leadership.
He’s considered one of Pakistan’s founding fathers, but he fought for the people in this part of the world, along with his colleagues the “Red” Maulana Hamid Khan Bhashani and the “Tiger of Bengal” – Abul Kashem Fazlul Huq. All of these men were loved and followed for their solidarity with the oppressed, a quality which set Bengali leaders apart almost as certainly as pomposity did crass colonialists.
Their political successors included populist leaders like Ataur Rahman Khan and Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, who formed an administration together and ran East Pakistan until 1958, before Ayub Khan’s martial law abolished the last East Pakistani Assembly, and Sheikh Mujib eventually ushered in Bangladesh. Mujibur Rahman’s contemporaries included great men like Tajuddin Ahmed, and also a little later, over across the fence, the brilliant Jyoti Bosu.
We will never know what might have happened if our leadership had remain as steady as it did for decades in West Bengal. In Bangladesh, the 80s belonged to the generals but whatever else General Zia was or wasn’t, stories suggest he didn’t pillage public funds indiscriminately, and was careful to make sure there was efficiency and accountability.
He also led men into war and fought to liberate us, a selfless and noble quality of enormous proportions.
Our nation has known leaders like these, but if the ones sitting in our National Assembly today are really their descendants, something crucial has surely been lost in transmission.
To be measurable against the leaders of the past, today’s leaders should reflect upon their motivations for seeking power and authority, and then evaluate what they use it for, finding out through this exercise whether they are really leaders at all, or just capable usurpers and decorated extortionists.
And if, in the end, they are found wanting, it should come as no surprise when they are not relevant anymore but are instead relegated to the rubbish heap of history’s great pretenders.