OPINION: 'Politics is the art of the feasible'

Milia Ali in Dhaka/The Daily Star
Asia News Network13 January 2013

Dhaka (The Daily Star/ANN) - In the closing hours of 2012, while the "fiscal cliff" drama was being played out in the US Congress, the media was rife with speculative theories about rising taxes, huge spending cuts and whether or not the country would sink into a greater recession. Much of the blame for not reaching an agreement on the budget crisis was attributed to the petty wrangling and partisan ego battles among Republicans and Democrats.

In short, public opinion about the Congress and politics had reached its nadir!

Like most people, I, too, was tired of the endless political squabbling that seemed to yield no immediate solution. While in this negative frame of mind, I headed to the Mall to watch Steven Spielberg's new movie Lincoln. My interest in the film was triggered by the raving reviews and an admiration for Abraham Lincoln. I entered the theatre gearing myself for a long drawn out political drama about the passage of the thirteenth amendment of the US Constitution that abolished slavery.

Surprisingly, Spielberg's Lincoln succeeded in dispelling much of my negative impressions about politics. As a matter of fact, it gave me an appreciation of the powerful role that politics can play in transforming great ideas into actions; ideas that can change the world.

The movie's portrayal of Abraham Lincoln is sensitive and honest. That the 16th US President was an intelligent, compassionate man of vision is common knowledge. But what we discover is that he was also an astute and pragmatic politician willing to make compromises and deals when needed.

To achieve his ideological objectives, Lincoln used every single political card testing the loyalty of his followers, softening the hardliners to moderation and even winning over supporters with lucrative jobs and patronage. But the concessions he made were not for personal gains or fanning his ego but for attaining greater public good a contrast to the prevailing brand of "winner-takes-all" politics!

The film also confirmed that visionary leaders make tremendous personal sacrifices to fulfill their professional goals. Spielberg's Lincoln was a morally conflicted hero but one who pursued a higher vision with a single-minded determination. He has often been criticised for the tremendous loss of human lives (about 620,000 casualties) as a result of the bloody civil war. But, he refused to cave in to the pressure of ending the war "prematurely" because he realised that this would compromise the larger objective of freeing slaves from bondage.

The director brilliantly portrays the inner conflicts of a man who was compassionate and fair but pursued a prolonged war as a means for attaining a greater victory for posterity.

The movie presents a breed of politicians who are ready to endure public censure in making hard choices. Lincoln did not wince when the choice was between slavery and freedom, even though it was at the cost of peace. Of course, political choices are not always as morally well-defined as in Lincoln's case. However, the long-term lesson is that the success of politics often lies in making a balanced decision that will yield benefits for most citizens. And, accepting the consequences as part of the decision making process.

The nature of politics has changed substantively. Today, in most countries politics is highly polarised, obstructive and corrupt. In addition, the constant media exposure encourages grandstanding and posturing by politicians at the cost of focusing on core issues.

No wonder there is fading interest in politics as evidenced by the persistently low voter turnout in many democracies.

More importantly, talented young people are hesitant to join the political profession since politics is generally viewed as a dishonest and hypocritical business. I sincerely hope that Lincoln's story will inspire the youth to veer towards politics. Because elected politicians can make a difference in changing the order of things in ways that no other profession can. I realise that not every sincere and honest politician can be a Lincoln but it's only by infusing new blood into the political system that we can hope to find a Lincoln of our era.

Post Script: The power and strength of the American political system were tested in the beginning of the New Year when the legislation for averting the "fiscal cliff" was passed in a bipartisan manner (85 Republican and 172 Democrat votes). The cycle of contentious politicking was broken, reassuring the public that another recession has been prevented. There are many budget battles ahead, but that is a subject for a different column. For now, politics has triumphed!

The writer is a renowned Rabindra Sangeet exponent and a former employee of the World Bank.