a year ago

Gorbachev . . . and tales of statesmanship 

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In death, decades after he made his way out of power, Mikhail Gorbachev is the subject of discussion in the West, which has gone into binge celebrations of his role in ending the Cold War and with that the collapse of the Soviet Union.  

People elsewhere have had cause to reflect on his legacy in a different way. Russians continue to hold him in disdain, unable to forgive him for the speed with which he dismantled communism and presided over the death of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). 

But such subjective analyses of the late Soviet leader do little justice to him. Gorbachev, despite the adulation of the West over his role in 1991, was a fervent communist till his final days. He certainly did not imagine that perestroika and glasnost would lead to the break-up of his country.  

It is simply that politics, or more precisely the idea of geopolitics, slipped from his grasp. Besides, the West, obsessed with thoughts of seeing communism fall and the Soviet Union pass into history, did nothing to help him reform the political system in a way that would ensure a better, more peaceful era for the world. 

The hard truth is that Gorbachev was a brave leader. He needed to give the sclerotic Soviet system a good shake and he did it. The results were disastrous, but that does not obscure the fact that Gorbachev looked to a more cooperative future for the world. The pity is that in his search for that future he found himself pushed into the past, a has-been. 

In our times, quite a few political leaders have been there whose courage and vision propelled them into assuming the mantle of statesmen. It will not do to forget them or to downplay their achievements. When Willy Brandt, as chancellor of what was then West Germany, knelt in penitence in Warsaw before a memorial erected in commemoration of the victims of Nazism in the Second World War, he was not drawing cheap attention to himself.  

The gesture was a bold move on his part. None of his three predecessors had done what he did. Brandt opened a window to European integration through his Ostpolitik. He made a point of travelling to communist East Germany, rekindling the logical notion that Germans were a single nation. In more ways than one, the reunification of Germany in October 1990 was a tribute to the sagacity Brandt demonstrated in the early 1970s. 

One of the more remarkable tales of courage in leadership was demonstrated by Anwar Sadat in November 1977. His nocturnal mission to Jerusalem in search of peace, four years after he had gone to war against Israel on Yom Kippur, was a mark of foresight on the part of the Egyptian leader. Many in his government did not approve of his trip; his Arab allies deserted him one after the other, accusing him of undercutting the Arab cause.  

They had a point, of course. But of greater importance was the need for statesmanship to break the deadlock in Middle Eastern politics. Sadat turned out to be that statesman. It was a diehard Zionist named Menachem Begin who welcomed him. The Middle East would never be the same again. 

Which takes us back to the excellent diplomacy pursued by Richard Nixon in policy over China. There have been all those moments in history when men engaged in rabid politics have turned out to be peacemakers through a change of heart and, more to the point, an understanding of global politics. When the anti-communist Nixon travelled to Beijing and engaged in constructive negotiations with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, he certainly gave hope to the world.  

It was a week, as he would say, that changed the world. And it did, despite the current state of adversarial relations between Washington and Beijing. One can condemn Nixon for Watergate, for a host of other reasons. But one will always be grateful that he went to China, that he convinced the world that diplomacy could work wonders. 

Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman remains one more instance of a national leader rising to the pinnacle of statesmanship through his moves in the interest of peace in South Asia. Having promised Bangladesh's people that the 195 war criminals, all senior figures in the Pakistan army who had presided over the genocide in 1971, would be tried in Bangladesh, he eventually came round to the requirement of reconciliation between Bangladesh, India and Pakistan.  

Under the terms of the 1974 tripartite agreement, he agreed to let the prisoners go on the promise made by the Bhutto government that they would be placed on trial in Pakistan. It is another matter that none of the war criminals were ever tried by Pakistan. Some of them ended up occupying high positions in the Pakistani government, some went into politics.  

But what stands out is Sheikh Mujibur Rahman's courage in letting the war criminals go. He was not happy with his decision, but he believed that the South Asian subcontinent needed a fresh beginning. He went to Lahore to attend the summit of Islamic nations; and he invited Z.A. Bhutto to Dhaka for talks in June 1974. Bhutto's intransigence caused the collapse of the talks, but the statesman in Sheikh Mujibur Rahman remained on prominent display. 

Bold statesmanship was clearly the idea behind Atal Behari Vajpayee's bus diplomacy with Pakistan in 1999. Known for years as an implacable enemy of Pakistan through his leadership of the Jana Sangh, Vajpayee as prime minister cut through the detritus of decades to travel to Lahore, meet Nawaz Sharif and inform Indians and Pakistanis that the bitterness of partition did not have to linger, that the future did not have to be shackled to the past.  

Vajpayee's bold diplomacy was accentuated by his poetry, conveying the sense that men of literary power are often the harbingers of change. His statesmanship has not been equalled since that trip to Lahore. 

Mikhail Gorbachev needed to change the world. His ambition was never to preside over the death of the Soviet Union. Nor was it to adopt a political and economic system that would be in tune with that of the West. He wished to reshape his country, to offer the world a more humane and positive idea of communism.  

His policies did not fail him. The abortive coup in August 1991, followed by Boris Yeltsin's adventurism and the sudden desire on the part of the West to see Yeltsin undermine Gorbachev ruined it all. 

And yet Mikhail Gorbachev will be remembered by future generations as a statesman who had the boldness and intellectual acumen to go for change. That will be his legacy.  

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