Can there be excellence in politics?

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

In politics the contenders have to run down each other in order to show that they are better, and there’s no holds barred as to the number of skeletons that can be pulled from the cupboard to denigrate the adversary…

While writing my article ‘Excellence for all’, published in this paper two weeks ago, I wondered whether there could be such a thing as excellence in politics – or, for that matter, an excellent politician, as when we talk about an excellent teacher or doctor, etc. Where the latter are concerned, there are quite specific criteria that would qualify them for excellence, starting with qualifications and technical skills, and how they go about putting these into practice for the benefit of those they are called to serve.

People would be ready to accept some of their quirks if this is compensated otherwise. Many years ago in the last century, there was a well-known general practitioner in Curepipe who was notorious for his irritable disposition; he would shout unpredictably at some patients, many of whom came from a poor background. In spite of this they kept going to him, because not only did they get better, but there was even more: either he would not charge them, or reduce the fees (in the days when consultations were at Rs 5) – and even give them the medicines that he had prescribed from the samples that he had. He may have had what used to be called a mauvais caractère – but his patients were prepared to forgive him for this because he had a heart of gold and his treatments were effective: these more than made up for his neurasthénique trait.

Leadership experts assess politicians on the basis of their competence, character, and credibility. Competence is a combination of qualifications/training and skills. Though politics is said to be the only field in which no formal qualification is required, nowadays most people would expect their politicians to have some basic educational qualification, which may not necessarily be at high academic level. In any case most political aspirants now would possess diplomas or degrees, and our own Parliament can pride itself for having harboured many highly qualified members down the years, including some self-made ones. However, qualification alone is not a guarantee of level of discourse, which can indeed sink very low more often than one would wish, and be accompanied by some choice epithets especially in Creole to have more effect. I have learnt that there was a time when sarcasm and subtle irony could have more devastating impact than the hardly veiled base allusions coming from opponents.

Since politicians speak a lot, naturally they are expected to possess oratorical skills, but this is not given to everybody. Not only the manner of delivery but also the contents are what differentiate one politician from another. However, one may be relatively soft-spoken and yet make a strong impression because of one’s charisma and stature – for historical or other reasons – that allow one to display a reassuring confidence. I think of Nelson Mandela, of Vajpayee, of Obama and Modi, of Mitterrand who made such a wonderful speech at the state banquet when he visited Mauritius for the first time and evoked the ‘émanations telluriques’ which bound Mauritians together. They are the models to be emulated in this regard, and one would be really hard put to find a local equivalent.

Of course we also expect political leaders to be able to be good negotiators in any situation where national interest is concerned, and when they face bodies such as the trade unions to find the proper balance so that both national and sectoral interests and aspirations are safeguarded. If, instead, they are more inclined to yield to the pressures of vested interests or to bend to political correctness, to the extent of tweaking rules and regulations if need be, this puts into question their commitment to maintaining the soundness of the polity and the welfare of the population.

As regards character, this depends a lot on personal upbringing and their own development as they go through life, like everybody else, but once they throw themselves in the public sphere they expose themselves to rigorous scrutiny. With the spread of social media, every little detail can be magnified and ‘fake-newsed’ depending on what is sought to be projected about the individual, which is all the more reason for politicians to walk a path that can ensure that their heads are held high at all times. Which means that with time they must show signs of maturity and a certain philosophical disposition, and develop a broader and more inclusive understanding of their country and its people. This should lead to a willingness combined with a capacity to listen, and decisiveness in running the affairs of the state, all desirable traits which can help them to play their role more effectively.

Besides, they must have a holistic vision for the country, laying down strong foundations for the coming generations without encumbering them with unsustainable debts that they have to carry like nooses around their neck. Physical developments may make a country, but that’s not enough to make a nation, which should be an organic entity bound by shared values and goals. We have seen this at work in the recently concluded inter-island games, but these surges of unity soon die down. They must be present on a more sustainable basis, and political leaders have a major role to play in this respect, because they are the ones who most often claim space on public platforms. They therefore have a greater responsibility than the common citizen to not only emphasize the importance of living by these values, but set the example by their own words and actions. Instead, here we have had to witness a woman being grossly shouted out of a meeting by a minister from whom she was seeking a clarification. Some behaviour indeed.

All the above will factor in into the credibility aspect, but to a large extent this will be determined by how faithfully they have fulfilled the pledges and promises that they made to the people in order to get elected. A far cry from excellence, it would seem to me that the most that politicians and political leaders can do is to deliver on their manifesto, and demonstrate that they will abide by the country’s constitution and the rule of law.

That there can never be excellence in politics is hard-wired into the very nature of the political process. As far as we are aware, our political parties do not have any criteria for selection of candidates, such as a minimum level of literacy if not education, a certain track record or certificate of morality, let alone an overarching social perspective. There is no established code of conduct to abide by, no set of norms and standards to look up to and be held accountable in case of default.

Compare this with what happens in other domains of human activity, where by virtue of their own work done to defined standards – and even beyond — people can achieve the highest levels of excellence and receive appreciation from peers and other stakeholders. But in politics the contenders have to run down each other in order to show that they are better, and there’s no holds barred as to the number of skeletons that can be pulled from the cupboard to denigrate the adversary, including personal attacks. In this modus operandi there can never be place for the best, because potentially there is always a casserole waiting round the bend for almost everyone.

* Published in print edition on 2 August 2019

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