It's time to ask a simple question: have we lost Kiran Bedi? She has always had a formidable reputation as a no-nonsense police officer in India. On the many talk shows in the past more than a year, hers was a spirited voice in the defence of democracy. Her opinion counted, for her reputation preceded her. When she became critical of Narendra Modi on the issue of Gujrat 2002 --- and that was before the elections which brought the Bharatiya Janata Party to power in India in May last year --- people took her remarks seriously. Yes, she did disappoint people somewhat when she ditched Anna Hazare. But she was not the only one. Arvind Kejriwal did that as well. But perhaps no shock was bigger than when Kiran Bedi joined the BJP only weeks before the elections to the Delhi assembly, was happy to be anointed the party's chief ministerial candidate and went about giving the impression that victory was within her grasp. She was dismissive of Kejriwal's offer of a public debate on the issues.
And then she lost. Her party lost. Things did not have to happen this way. Ms. Bedi could well have stayed above the fray which electoral politics generally is and could have remained a discerning voice of reason ready and willing to speak up for people every time politicians looked about to make a mess of things. She has now fallen silent, which is a pity. When, if ever, she will return to public life remains a huge question. It is always hard for a fallen politician to come back to centre stage, unless sheer determination and an abundance of luck are at hand. Think here of Richard Nixon. He lost to John F. Kennedy by a whisker at the 1960 US presidential elections. Two years later, he decided to seek gubernatorial office in California. He and indeed nearly everyone else knew he would beat Governor Edmund Brown handily, for Nixon was a nationally known figure. Besides, it was a given that he would seek the presidency again and the governorship would only be a step toward gaining the place he had so narrowly lost to Kennedy. In the event, Nixon lost to Brown; and then he told newsmen in all the bitterness he could summon that they would not have Nixon to kick around anymore "because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference."
But Nixon did come back, in 1968, when he narrowly beat Hubert Humphrey to succeed the Vietnam-tainted Lyndon Johnson in the White House. Growing American casualties in Vietnam certainly helped Nixon, but there was something else too. In the years between 1962 and 1968, as an out-of-office politician, he travelled the world, studied global politics and wrote scholarly articles on foreign affairs. At the mid-term elections of 1966, he campaigned vigorously for Republican candidates, most of whom won and then were grateful to Nixon for his support. He was already creating a new base for a fresh run for the presidency. You now get to ask the question: how much of a similar act might we see from Kiran Bedi? It will be a shame for India to lose her, or for her to pass into oblivion.
In Bangladesh, there have been quite a few individuals who might have made the difference had circumstances been different. We lost Tajuddin Ahmad the day he was asked to leave the cabinet by Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. And then we lost all the brave men who conceived the movement for liberation for us. Bangabandhu was dispatched first, through conspiracy no one thought could fell the leadership of a country which had triumphed in a hard-fought war. And then Tajuddin Ahmad, Syed Nazrul Islam, M. Mansoor Ali and A.H.M. Kamruzzaman were done to death in their state of imprisonment. But if death removed these great men from the scene, there are the tales of others who ought not to have disappointed us. The extremely able Zahiruddin, elected member of the Pakistan national assembly on an Awami League ticket in 1970, was unable to associate himself --- for whatever reasons --- with the War of Liberation. He simply lapsed into silence after the war. And was never to be heard of again. Move away from the Awami League, to focus on the brilliant parliamentarian which Moulvi Farid Ahmed was. He was made of different stuff, and was quite unlike so many others in the rightist camp in pre-1971 Pakistan. And yet he made that bad mistake of collaborating with the enemy in 1971. Taken prisoner by the Mukti Bahini, he was not seen again.
One of the more unfortunate happenstances in independent Bangladesh's history has been the widening chasm, followed by a complete parting of ways, between Sheikh Hasina and Kamal Hossain. Dr. Hossain, a brilliant individual we associate with Bangabandhu and his times, could have made a huge difference in Bangladesh's politics. He did well as law minister and then went on to do a good job as foreign minister. In November 1981, there were many among us who expected him to beat Justice Abdus Sattar for the nation's presidency. He lost to the sympathy wave that worked for Sattar in the aftermath of the Zia assassination. And then the Awami League lost him. Bangabandhu lost Tajuddin. Sheikh Hasina lost Kamal Hossain. Sit back and ask yourself the question: would we not be better off had Tajuddin stayed, had Kamal Hossain not gone off to shape his Gano Forum?
There are times when mortality steps into the picture and leaves societies reeling from the shock generated by the passing of leaders who should not have died when they did. The Soviet Union clearly needed the wisdom and strong leadership of Yuri Andropov after the Brezhnev years. And it did get Andropov, for only a few months. Andropov was an intellectual, a man who had his pulse on history. With his death went the old-fashioned wisdom which shaped the Soviet Union into a superpower. For all that, though, the arrival of the relatively young Mikhail Gorbachev in March 1985 seemed to be informing the world that all was not lost, that indeed a renewal of spring was in the air. Gorbachev's glasnost and perestroika captured the imagination of the world, before they consumed him, before they pushed the Soviet Union to sudden death. Yes, you do have Vladimir Putin reviving the old Russian glory. But Putin does not have the old country. Neither does he have communism to hold out hope for the downtrodden of the world.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, for all his flaws in relation to the Bangladesh war, was one man who could have taken Pakistan to the heights after 1971 had his inordinate ambition not come in the way. He was Pakistan's first elected leader, of course by default. But that very reality was one which enabled his country to rise from defeat and seek a fresh new position in the global scheme of things. He swallowed his pride when he went to Simla to meet Indira Gandhi, from whom he extracted a deal that convinced Pakistanis he had not come back with empty hands. He sought new alignments for his country abroad, through reshaping foreign policy. In the end, it was his hubris and his army which killed him. After July 1977, Pakistanis have not had the strong leadership Bhutto epitomized, before arrogance got the better of him.
History is often a long tale of lost opportunities. More pointedly, it is a sad story of lost leaders. Michael Foot was the good prime minister Britain never had. Eugene McCarthy should have been president of the United States. Subhash Chandra Bose disappeared into the mists of time, through mistakes made by his colleagues in the Congress, through missteps the responsibility for which lie at his door.
That question, again: have we lost Kiran Bedi?
Syed Badrul Ahsan is Associate Editor, The Daily Observer. E-mail: [email protected]