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Mandela, Obama and other men of straw

There are some men who lift the age they live in till all men walk on higher ground in their lifetime. Nelson Mandela belongs to that rare breed of men. A lifetime ago when the freedom icon had completed a quarter century in prison, yours truly had come up with an embarrassingly sentimental poem that a newspaper thought fit to print. For a young, impressionable mind, the idea of someone spending 25 long years, locked away in a dark, damp prison cell, was overwhelming. But then that’s what makes great men. They defy impossible adversities and personal insecurities for their beliefs and ideals.
Recently, in a blog a friend wondered why South Asian politicians couldn’t take a leaf out of Mandela’s book. The immediate provocation was the decision of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to try Gen. Pervez Musharraf for treason and more specifically for sacking Supreme Court judges, suspending the constitution and other sins. My friend recalled an anecdote shared by former US President Bill Clinton in a speech at American University of Dubai.
Speaking on leadership qualities, Clinton reminisced about his meeting with Mandela years ago and asking the great man why he didn’t go after former leaders of the Apartheid regime when he came to power. They had persecuted and imprisoned him for 27 years after all, not to mention the appalling crimes visited on his people for decades and centuries.
Clinton, a fixture of lecture circuits in the Gulf, bowled over his young audience in Dubai with the simple yet profound explanation that Mandela offered: “Bill, I was their captive for 27 years and I do not want to be their captive for the rest of life planning revenge against them I have forgiven them.” Recalling his release, Mandela later wrote: “As I walked out the door toward the gate that would lead to my freedom, I knew if I did not leave my bitterness and hatred behind, I would still be in prison.’’
Here’s someone who had suffered what few men ever have, my friend wrote. “Yet so strong is he in character and spirit that he forgave the tormentors who subjected him to solitary confinement and instead vowed to work to erase the ugly wounds of a divided country. And here is Pakistan’s third-time lucky prime minister who instead of addressing himself to the daunting challenges facing his nation chooses to go after his bête noire,” he added.
Well, few of us are capable of rising above our angst and agendas. It takes real courage to forgive one’s enemies. As Gandhi said, forgiveness is the attribute of the strong. The weak cannot forgive. Not everyone can offer the other cheek to be hit again, as Jesus did. Or pardon one’s mortal enemies on the day when the world is at one’s feet, as the Prophet did after the conquest of Makkah.
Sharif’s detractors argue that he could have assured himself a permanent place in history by giving his long tormented people a new dawn of hope. He could have been a Mandela, healing the wounds of his people and building a better tomorrow.
That said, even if Sharif were to forgive and forget, it’s unlikely that people of Pakistan will. The highest court in the land is monitoring the case and wants the General held to account. Of course, Musharraf had his redeeming points. He started well when power was thrust upon him. But in his hubris and hunger for power, he ended up adding to Pakistan’s woes. The country continues to pay, and will do for a long time to come, a heavy price for being thrown headlong into America’s all-consuming global war.
With his reckless abuse of power and targeting of institutions like judiciary, the General who is now trapped in his own labyrinth after coming home to “save Pakistan” once again inflicted irreparable damage on the country. Even after all those years of limitless power and all that that came with it, including numerous foreign bank accounts and mansions in London and Dubai, Musharraf’s ardor to “serve” Pakistan remains as strong as ever.
Power is a strange thing. It seems to be never enough as far as politicians in India and Pakistan are concerned. So at the ripe age of 86, BJP veteran Advani still dreams of making it to the top job in the land. And after nearly ten years in power, the last few being marked by one scam after another, the 81-year old Manmohan Singh hasn’t entirely given up on a third term. His job is eyed by someone who calmly presided over a state massacre of nearly 3,000 people.
In the Middle East, people have had to drag their ‘socialist, republican’ leaders out after decades of absolute power. Syria’s Assad has to kill his people in their thousands so he could serve them.
How does this compare with Mandela’s legacy? After his release and end of Apartheid, he served as South Africa’s first black President for only one term--from 1994 to 1999. At the height of his power and popularity, he decided to make way for a younger generation of leaders and devote himself to nation-building and reconciliation.
If South Asian politicians, or any politician for that matter, had paid the price that Mandela did in his long political career, spending one third of his life behind bars, they would have deemed it their right to rule till kingdom come.
So today, if the Africans — and the whole world with them — are endlessly praying for Madiba, in an outpouring of spontaneous love and support not seen anywhere in the world in a long time, it makes sense. This is something that you cannot earn with force, as a Persian proverb advises, or money and clever PR campaigns.
This week, Barack Obama joined millions of South Africans in paying tributes to the charismatic icon of freedom, emphasizing how Mandela had inspired him and other leaders around the world. The US leader visited the Robben Island prison, spending some time alone in the cell that once housed his hero.
Obama wrote in the visitors’ book: “We’re deeply humbled to stand where men of such courage faced down injustice and refused to yield. The world is grateful for the heroes of Robben Island who remind us that no shackles or cells can match the strength of the human spirit.”
Profound and sublime as ever, Obama’s words reminded me of memorable lines from Richard Lovelace’s poem — Stone walls do not a prison make, Nor iron bars a cage. But even as Obama’s stirring words move you, as they often do, you cannot help but wonder if he has remained faithful to the ideals and values of his hero that have transformed a whole continent.
From fighting secret wars and calmly targeting innocent, unsuspecting people in distant lands to presiding over the largest ever secret spying operation on one’s own citizens and friends and allies, this president has done everything that would make the Neocons proud.
As Tariq Ali argues, the most striking feature about the Obama presidency is the continuity with the reviled Bush regime. And those who have tried to draw attention to this side of the Land of the Free — whistleblowers like Bradley Manning, Julian Assange and now Edward Snowden — they are being hunted like wild animals by the empire. The other major letdown of the Nobel presidency has been the total and abject surrender to Israel.
How someone who believes that no prison cell can cage human spirit and is moved by the suffering of the South Africans under Apartheid can remain indifferent to the predicament of Palestinians under Israel?
Thousands of Palestinians including women and children have been rotting away for years in Israeli prisons that are worse than Robben Island. Gaza and the West Bank are the world’s largest open-air prisons. But I guess they are no burden on the conscience of politicians who are accountable to lobbies and vote banks. That is the difference between a Mandela and an Obama and between real leaders and men of straw. While everyone aspires for greatness, few can pay the price it demands.

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