In the course of the recent G-20 summit in Delhi, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his wife, both with roots in India, wished to make a trip to Haldirams, the reputed food outlet, in the Indian capital. They could not make it owing to reasons of the strict security cordon put in place by the Indian authorities to ensure a smooth conference of the global leaders gathered in the city.
Many years ago, US President Bill Clinton, on a visit to Dublin, took a brief stroll in the city before stepping into a pub for a beer. He exchanged pleasantries with everyone there and, his glass soon emptied, he left the pub. Within seconds, men in his security detail walked in and smashed the glass the President had been drinking from into pieces. Reason? They did not want anyone keeping the glass as a memento, with the President's fingerprints on it.
These two incidents are indicative of the naturalness, Clinton's glass apart, politicians sometimes are in the mood to demonstrate in public. Perhaps the formal nature of the power they wield in public life sometimes gets to be a little too suffocating, which is when they need to demonstrate before the world that they are all too human. Those public personalities able to break out of that mould make people happy, for they are then literally close to them.
A few days ago, it was such naturalness which defined French President Macron's brief but enlightening visit to Dhaka. He did not confine himself to official ceremonies but chose to do things he is generally unable to do as the occupant of the Elysee. He was at the home of a Bangladesh folk singer, listening to the artiste's songs and taking genuine interest in the indigenous musical instruments belonging to the artiste. Macron's boat ride on the Turag was one more manifestation of his interest in the cultural traditions of a people geographically at a remove from his native France. He partook of traditional Bangladeshi food at the official banquet in his honour.
Emmanuel Macron brings to mind other Frenchmen we have had cause to celebrate or hear about in our times. They were all natural despite holding presidential office. Francois Mitterrand, that ardent socialist who served as President for fourteen years, was noted for his intellectual prowess not merely by his people but also by his peers around the world. He too visited Bangladesh in 1990, a time when a popular agitation was building up against a dictator in the country. Mitterrand, as is the habit of intellectuals, often made it a point to walk down to bookshops in Paris or wherever he happened to be and come away with a book or two.
Not all politicians are intellectuals, of course. But many of them, around the world, possess the naturalness which has kept their images alive in the public mind. Ronald Reagan may not have been a great President, but his sense of humour, which he gave expression to every time he spoke in public, remains an underpinning of his character. His jokes flowed like a stream, one after the other, directed in a good humoured way at people he happened to be sharing the table with at summits and conferences. Many of his humorous stories were self-deprecating, which again is a rare quality not just in Presidents but also among the general run of people.
Think of Charles de Gaulle. Besides transforming France politically through inaugurating the Fifth Republic, he was an intellectually endowed man whose exchanges with people came in a wave of spontaneity. Asked by a reporter once about the major influence on his life, the general lost little time in responding to the question: 'Do not ask how many lambs a lion has eaten. I have been reading books all my life.' He was clear about his views on celebrities. As he said once, 'Brigitte Bardot is France.' Asked if he planned to take action against Jean-Paul Sartre, who was constantly needling him on certain issues, he deadpanned: 'You don't arrest Voltaire.'
There was the natural in Mikhail Gorbachev. His rise to power in 1985 was a refreshing break from the stiff political traditions which had come over the Soviet Union. Gorbachev spoke to the man in the street, argued with him just as any other person would, and did it all not in angry tones but in simple, soft manner. It is another matter that on his watch the Soviet Union disintegrated, but as long as Gorbachev was in office, his naturalness was a special mark of his vigour as a leading global political figure.
Desmond Tutu's laughter was infectious. He touched people's lives in a way that drew men and women closer to him. Nothing of the pompous came in the way of his interaction with people. His sense of humour made him out to be human just like everyone else. And with Nelson Mandela, the natural came in tandem with his unmatched politeness. Much to his advisors' alarm, he rose from his chair every time a visitor, high or low, came to see him. He did not heed advice that he did not need to get up to receive everyone who came visiting.
The naturalness in Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman remains legendary. He grew into a national figure over the years, all the way from the mid-1940s to his leadership of Bangladesh's liberation movement. But that did not detract from the spontaneity which always defined his attitude to people and to his surroundings. He had bundles of jokes he released on appropriate occasions; he laughed uproariously in company, a sign that beyond the calling of political power he remained the person he had always been.
Even when he was engaged in serious discussions with visitors, he found the moments to reassure simple citizens barging in with their problems that they need not worry. People heard him singing Tagore's jodi tor daak shune keu na aashe. He remembered faces, recalled names and incidents dating back to long-lost times. He spoke to people in their language, in his naturalness.
Remember Nikita Khrushchev, who engaged Richard Nixon in a kitchen debate in Moscow in 1959 and the very next year banged the podium at the United Nations angrily with his shoe? That did not show him in good light, but it was his naturalness, brought on by his rural upbringing, that defined him till the end.
Being natural is a feeling embedded in the depths of the soul. It is never a contrived thing. President Macron's naturalness sprang from the heart in him.