Politicians and Statesmen

October 22, 2023 4 mins to read

Over the last few months, my  articles have discussed Work, Politics, Entrepreneurship, and Life experiences, although one area has been left out – Politics. Politics is an intriguing and contested subject given the current state of politics globally.

The Honourable Fidel V Ramos, the retired Filipino general and politician is a great friend and mentor. He served as the 12th President of the Philippines from 1992 to 1998 and is well known for his humour. In his coffee-side chats, the distinguished stateman used to tell me about politicians not giving up power by using an analogy: ‘going up the mountain is a choice, coming down is mandatory.’ It is important to remember the Philippines enacted a law to limit Presidential tenure to a single six-year term to avoid any repeat of the 21-year Marcos era.

Despite the institutionalized system of democracy in the United States of America, after the recent elections we witnessed the unfortunate situation of someone losing the election yet refusing to give up. One can understand if this happened in a third world banana republic, but not in a nation that is the beacon of the free world. The saying ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’ is probably true. One man with a mass appeal can destroy the soul of a nation. It takes a long time for a nation to recover from such experiences.

Yet, politicians can be charming and inspiring with their sheer ability to always smile and articulate their views. My own experiences and interactions with many politicians in several countries, both in the developed and developing nations, have been mixed. While a few aspire to serve their constituencies, it is commonplace to find most focused on getting elected to office. Their original intent to get into politics take a back seat. Their policy shifts and changing stances leave the public perplexed. While the politics of identity, race, religion, colour and class, devoid of a policy focus, can get one elected, it does very little for humanity.

I was reading President Barack Obama’s The Promised Land. I can understand why he rose from being a politician to a statesman. His acknowledgement of rival John McCain’s contributions and acceptance of the contest of ideas as something that is necessary sets him apart from many politicians. Very few politicians make the transition to a being a statesman, let alone a great one. Most freedom movements and change initiatives stem from the convictions of a statesman. President Abraham Lincoln stood by his word; he was a man of honour. Mahatma Gandhi’s nonviolence movement, Martin Luther King’s Civil Rights movement, and Nelson Mandela’s Truth Reconciliation movements set them apart from politicians. Statesmen are “characters in history”, considering their legacies.

Whenever I think of Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe, I am reminded of two freedom fighters. One cannot miss the difference between them. Mandela was indeed a statesman however critical you maybe of him: Mugabe was a politician despite all his good intentions. Modern statesmen forget the fact that they are just characters in history. Men and Women of noble character would rather be jeered at during their lifetime than by posterity. Posterity will last as long as the earth lasts. Future generations will remember their deeds.  In a recent anonymous article, I was stunned by the words:  ‘Never in history has there been so great an occasion for a great man and yet we no longer expect from a statesman generosity, clemency, fair dealing, or even as much truth.’

I would replace the word ‘statesman’ in the above piece to ‘politician.’ Recently, I also have  been perturbed by one whom I thought was indeed a statesman. This person is charming, decisive, articulate and inspiring, but unfortunately, it turned out that he remains a true politician. It seems that the climb to becoming a statesman was just too much. A statesman has a vision for the world. Sadly, in this scenario, it was more about staying in power and belting out the same cliches, instead of rising to the occasion and cementing his legacy in history by contributing to uplift humanity.

Statesmen stand on a platform of fundamental truths. They hold on to their core values that one may agree or disagree with; they do not change them to get ahead in politics. Politicians agitate people: statesmen inspire people. Yet, I remember what a friend recently told me over lunch – ‘It is all too messed up, what will be will be’ referring to the Que Sera Sera song by Doris Day.