Politicians in all their politeness

It is always morally uplifting to read of or know political leaders who have exhibited polite behaviour throughout their careers. Nelson Mandela died three years ago and yet he lives on in the popular imagination not merely because of the transformation he caused in South Africa but also because of the way he related to people. There was little hauteur in him, as almost everyone who had cause to come in touch with him will testify. There never was a moment when he did not get up from his chair — and this was when he was President of South Africa — every time a visitor entered his office. His exasperated aides went on telling him he did not need to do that, but Mandela would not listen.
The long-time prisoner of the apartheid regime knew only too well how important it was to understand people, ordinary citizens. In prison, he always had a nice word or two for his white jailors. To those who were incensed by his release, Afrikaners who yet considered him a terrorist who ought to have been hanged, he was unfailingly respectful. In the end, these very people ended up being charmed by Mandela. Some of them even wept when they recounted the gentleness they spotted in the great man as he interacted with them. He took it upon himself to pour tea into the cups for them.
There are not very many political giants you can name who you think are remembered for their polite demeanour in public. Among this small group of great souls is certainly Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, whose extraordinary talent in making friends of people and laughing with them is a story we yet recall. He had a capacity to reach out to the ordinary masses, simple citizens about whom not many politicians care. But Bangabandhu remembered them, their names, even their villages and their parents with whom he might have interacted in his days as a rising Bengali politician. There were all those times when simple farmers or workers came away from Bangabandhu’s presence in happy tears, for he had spoken to them not as a leader to his followers but as a person to other persons.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s biggest asset was his respect for people, even for those politicians who fought him long and hard over crucial national issues. He took everything in his stride and proved unfailing in displaying the very best in terms of interaction with them. His smile and natural goodness disarmed his enemies, foremost among whom was Ayub Khan. They were all charmed, as charmed as the academics he unfailingly showed deference to every time he met them. He would quickly get to his feet when scholars, who themselves were constantly in awe of him, came into his presence. He never called an academic by his name, in that very formal sense. Every scholar, every teacher was ‘Sir’ to him. It was quintessential Bangabandhu. In him there was simplicity of the kind you do not spot in very many political figures around the world.
But, yes, there was Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. He was the illustrious Muslim scholar-politician whom Mohammad Ali Jinnah derided as the showboy of the Indian National Congress. Azad, unlike Jinnah, saw far and deep into the future, which quality convinced him that Pakistan was a bad proposition. He made it clear to everyone around him that India’s Muslims had their homes only in a united India. But, unlike the votaries of the ‘two-nation theory’, he was rational rather than shrill in his arguments. There was the old-fashioned tehzeeb, that sense of values and ethical behaviour, indeed that integrity, which had him keep his dignity intact when Jinnah refused to shake his hand at a meeting between Congress and Muslim League leaders.
Maulana Azad read voraciously, wrote unceasingly and dealt with the world on his terms. But he did not let himself forget that there were others who viewed the world in their own ways. And therefore his dealings with them were on the basis of mutual respect in a very proper sense. It was a trait which was much in evidence in Jyoti Basu and his successor Buddhadeb Bhattacharya as well. Both men, being communists, built their careers on their relations with the masses. Socialists, when compared with politicians in other categories of the political canvas, generally come off better in their dealings with people. But with Basu and Bhattacharya, there was something extra in the way they carried themselves in public. Neither of them talked down to people, from their fellow politicians down to the poorest peasant, a quality that marked them out from others. They were not seeking popularity — politicians of commitment to causes never do that — and so their attitudes to others were a natural affair.
In the West, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are, you sometimes feel, two of our own. That feeling comes up because of the ease with which both these American presidents have exercised power not only in the White House but also in the minds of all the ordinary men and women around them. Both are intellectual supermen, both have an ability to indulge in self-deprecating humour, both have looked individuals in the eye and let them know that they understand the complexities of life. Clinton hugs people spontaneously and Obama pats them on the back. That is the human touch they have brought into politics. And being human is one of the ways of emphasizing decency and politeness in a person,
especially when that person holds power and uses it.
Politeness in political corridors is a rarity. But when it is there, it surely does something marvellous for the soul. People found that quality in Zhou En-lai.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Associate Editor, The Daily Observer