There are sadnesses which sometimes darken the departures from the limelight of men and women who have enjoyed power. And enjoyed everything coming in its wake. Part of the sadness is well deserved. Part of it is not. And in that latter category come Gordon Brown and David Cameron whose farewells to power at 10 Downing Street in recent times was fundamentally the end of good, strong leadership. There was brilliance in these men. There is, especially in Brown, a scholar forever ready with intellectual arguments that will put other, lesser minds to flight. He was not prepared to go. And yet the rules of democratic politics said he must. It is a strange thing, this obsession with democracy that would have a good politician lose office only because a cackle of mediocre voices would rather have someone with glamour stride into the corridors of power.
Sad was the day Richard Nixon gave up the American presidency in August 1974. But, yes, he deserved to go. With all that blackness called Watergate swirling around him and around the country, with the danger that unless he quit it would be the constitution that would be violated, with the very real possibility of impeachment hanging over him, Nixon resigned. He was the first president in his country’s history to do so. Nixon’s departure remains one of the saddest moments in modern times, considering especially the huge ambition that had always driven him towards his goals. He kept falling and then kept getting up on his feet. It was, they said, a new Nixon who beat Hubert Humphrey to the White House in 1968. And yet, in the manner of a Shakespearean tragedy, he plunged to his own doom. There was a powerful mind in him, an analytical thought process that clearly highlighted his superiority over his political contemporaries. But that sinister streak in him, of always seeing enemies in the bushes, did him in.
Indelible sadness was to come over France when Charles de Gaulle, in keeping with his promise to resign the presidency should voters reject his constitutional reforms proposals, walked away into the twilight. There are a million reasons why the French must be grateful to him; and one of them is the resolute leadership he exercised in the years between 1958 and 1969. As France’s liberator, from the Nazis, de Gaulle took charge of the country upon the reclaiming of Paris but then retired to his village when the country’s squabbling politicians made things too hot for him. He waited, until France called again, in 1958, whereupon he embarked on a programme of political readjustments. The result was the Fifth Republic. French politics was finally in a state of stability. President de Gaulle then took France out of Algeria, much to the disgust of many of his countrymen. Unable to agree with the Americans over Vietnam, he pulled France out of NATO’s military structure. The truth, a powerful one, about the era of Charles de Gaulle was the grandeur France came to acquire in the international arena.
De Gaulle went off, after the referendum defeat in 1969, to his village of Colombey les deux Eglises. A year later he was dead.
Speaking of sad farewells, Pakistan’s Ayub Khan, one of the most ruthless of strongmen thrown up by faltering democracies and military conspiracies, governed his country with an iron fist for a decade before a nationwide popular movement against his dictatorship forced his resignation in March 1969. He was not seen in public after that, though he did make an appearance before the Hamoodur Rahman Commission appointed by his one-time foreign minister (and, at the time, president) Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in 1972 to inquire into the causes of Pakistan’s military defeat in Bangladesh’s War of Liberation in the preceding year. Ayub enjoyed power to the hilt and would have dearly liked to stay on beyond 1969 had the army not refused to have anything to do with him any more. He did not live long after his resignation. He was dead by April 1974.
An instance of sadness defining a powerful individual came in Zambia when the country’s founding father Kenneth Kaunda was defeated in presidential elections by an idealistic Frederick Chiluba. In a world which reveres those who lead nations to freedom, Zambians had done the unthinkable in their eagerness to show the world how powerfully democracy mattered to them. And yet, within a few years, Chiluba was presiding over a venal, corrupt government that left Zambians bewildered. Kaunda was set upon by the new political elite, constantly harassed and regularly humiliated. He was not to return to centre stage again. Neither was Britain’s Margaret Thatcher to go back to high office once she had been pushed aside by her own government. The wicked ones say they are certain they spotted a tear in one of her eyes as she left 10 Downing Street after her conservatives had decisively dumped her.
Remember Nikita Khrushchev? In October 1964, a conspiracy hatched by Leonid Brezhnev, Nikolai Podgorny, Alexei Kosygin and Mikhail Suslov led to his unceremonious ouster from office. Once a formidable global leader, Khrushchev was soon to be forgotten by his country, by the world.
Power, says history, is fleeting. But where does that place you when you dwell on Mahathir Mohamad? He once bade farewell to Malaysians and yet is back in office. Indira Gandhi lost office in 1977, went through humiliation at the hands of her successors and then came back gloriously only three years later.