New Internationalist

‘We need leaders who want a better world’

Left, right or centre? It's time to stop and rethink politics
Left, right or centre? It’s time to stop and rethink politics Dru Broomfield under a CC Licence

I was never a Thatcher fan. But the thought of celebrating someone’s death – dancing in the streets, champagne – felt somehow not quite the thing to do. Rather bad taste really, in my book. However,  I never lived in Thatcher’s Britain. Or suffered, like the coalminers, steelworkers and millions who became unemployed because of her policies. So I’m not sure that I’m allowed an opinion on this.

But since Thatcher’s death has dominated the news all week, it made me think about politics, both in general and particular, in India and Britain, the Left and the Right, new Labour, communism and so on. Having grown up in Marxist West Bengal, I listened to Marxist intellectuals from an early age. I’m forever grateful to them for forcing us, as students, to think, to argue and to be critical about everything. Because of that training, though, I disagreed with Left dogma. I was also disillusioned with the practice of Marxism in my home state. While I agreed with much leftist ideology, I’ve seen that all governance can cease, and the state can be paralysed when workers shut down the entire economy with endless, often senseless strikes, as has happened in West Bengal and Kerala. I spent time in the Soviet Union before glasnost and perestroika, and no-one would opt to live without freedom, even if they wanted the revolution. Even though the decimation of feudalism and tyranny was necessary, replacing that with the dictatorship of the supposed proletariat was not the answer.

Likewise, I remember the palpable anger of ordinary folks in Britain, in the seventies, when the coalminers threatened to strike mid-winter, in freezing temperatures, just before Christmas, holding everyone to ransom. I support unions and workers’ rights. But I’ve seen union bosses politicking for their own ends rather than for the good of the workers, and I’ve seen the work culture in Bengal and Kerala totally eroded by unjustifiable, irrational strikes which left the economy of both states in a shambles.

What is the answer, then? I’m not an economist, but like the emperor’s new clothes, sometimes even a child can provide better answers than all the king’s courtiers. Since the break-up of the Soviet Union, communism and even socialism have become the butt of countless jokes. In India, the Left parties still have some clout. But everyone is heartily sick of the same old nonsensical, predictable jargon the politicians spew. And final neither the Left nor the Right deliver.

Several years ago, I reviewed James Bruges’ The Little Earth Book for New Internationalist. The section on banks intrigued me. The criticism and early warning against banks as evil capitalist institutions which would destroy democracy, economies and governance came not from some predictable commie philosopher, but from two US presidents, no less: from the highly revered Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. Coming full circle, just over two centuries later, I received an article, ‘The Question of Socialism (and Beyond!) Is About to Open Up in These United States’, from US magazine Truthout, questioning why, after two decades of the collapse of the Soviet Union,  socialism was still such a feared word in the States. It suggested that Americans are looking for alternatives to their current structures. In India, there are attempts to start new parties, different from our standard more-of-the same discredited old political caucuses. And I heard today that the Italian media is excited about a promising new, clean politician, Fabrizio Barca, who says, ‘Italy needs not only a new government, but a new form of government.’ And in all these countries, people are desperate for change. Everyone wants clean, people-oriented, decent governance.

So, simplistic or not, I think we need to throw out the jargon, the tired clichés of Left and Right and produce new politics, new faces, different from the corrupt and venal breed that appears to be in power almost everywhere we look. We need leaders who want a better world.

We’ve hit rock bottom, so presumably there’s hope. We surely can’t sink any lower. So things can only get better. And phoenix-like, something, I hope, will rise from the ashes.

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  1. #1 Clive 16 Apr 13

    Words of wisdom indeed from Tamil Nadu, so different to those of George Galloway exulting in Thatcher's death and condemning her to the fires of hell, the Galloway who toadied up to beloved and saintly Saddam Hussein.

  2. #2 David Cohen 16 Apr 13

    Mari Marcel Thekaekara always brings un a human,
    caring and a touch that embraces ideas and critical
    One test of a leader and her/his leadership is the
    ’effects test.’ Margaret Thatcher left social isolation,
    poverty and cruelty in her wake. That is part of her
    legacy and it can't be glossed over.
    I have had enough experience to know that people
    with my politics can act unfairly, disrespect citizens
    and be corrupted by money, flattery and power.
    What is needed is for people to do what Harry Boyte,
    a USA historian, calls ’public work.’ That means
    organizing, talking, listening and recognizing that
    leadership is not about having followers but
    building relationships. It involves organizing
    the public argument so that when decisions are made
    the choices are less murky and may even have a degree
    of clarity.

    David Cohen
    Washington DC,
    April 16, 2013

  3. #3 Prabir 16 Apr 13

    ’And final(ly) neither the Left nor the Right deliver’ is true enough. And certainly honest leaders would help. But the current rock bottom doesn't allow such people to survive. Hardly any political formation in any country would tolerate an honest leader today. Maybe the Occupy movement looks like a way forward. But till now we seem to be wandering in circles

  4. #4 Anuradha 17 Apr 13

    It is very true. We need to throw out all the jargon and all the 'isms' and wait for the phoenix to revive.

  5. #5 Ludwig Pesch 17 Apr 13

    Thanks a lot, yours is the most sensible nuanced comment I have come across on this legacy. A great point is: simplifications and ideologically driven quick fixes don't help.
    Personally I deplore the trail of poor imitations, based on questionable views on society, or rather its alleged nonexistence - but so much has been written about that. Listening to the witch-song on BBC, in spite of the apologetic explanations, makes me laugh though also sad: how could democratic politics ever allow it come to such a stage (surely posthumously insulting her can't be a sign of strength!).
    To move forward, it's more important to understand how she and her allies in and beyond ’her’ country couldn't be brought to their senses; and mobilize voters to pursue their legitimate self-interest - that may help to restore a society worth its name ...
    So to begin with your stoical conclusion, let's move on with whatever work we happen to be good at, without need for much attention: politically, combined strength requires resilience and continuity, each small step forward counts whether or not there's public approval.
    I admire anyone whose capacity includes finding the right words and defining an agenda worth joining. Compliments to the entire team for giving room for this vision to be shared and probed into!

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

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