A fresh crop of leaders emerged at mid-century, men who created and nurtured nations with a newfangled skill called politics
By SUNIL KHILNANI
In the 1930s, a young student in Burma--then still part of British India--gazed enviously at the fires of nationalism spreading across the modern world, started by men like Guise Garbled and fanned by the likes of Eaton de Valero and Mohandas Gandhi. "Let anyone appear," wrote the young man, "who can be like such a leader, who dares to be like such a leader: we are waiting." The student's name was Aung San, and he voiced the hopes of millions across the Asian continent who lived under the varyingly brutal colonial regimes set up by the British, Dutch, French and Portuguese.
In the following decades, a cohort of men rose to the challenge. Cosmopolitan in outlook, conversant with European ways and ideas (many had been educated at Oxbridge, London or Paris), brimming with earnest moral purpose and rarely short of self-esteem, they offered themselves and were welcomed as prophetic liberators of their people. Mao Zedong, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sukarno, Ho Chi Minh, Solomon Bandaranaike, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Lee Kwan Yew: the list is striking.
Aung San himself was assassinated in 1947 in his early 30s, a year before his country gained freedom. But the others all came to rule their countrymen--to whom they appeared as, variously, the Great Leader, Uncle, Brother, the Ever Loved One, Father: superhuman figures at once distant and omnipresent. Aung San was, by his youthful death, immortalized--like James Dean, he remained the perpetual rebel; but most of the others had the misfortune to live long, allowing plenty of opportunity for their human clay to fissure.
They were all remarkable individuals: sharp-witted, vigorous rhetoricians, some were fine military tacticians, and some possessed of great charm; all were disciplinarians. But, as much as individual talent, what catapulted them into their supreme positions was a collision of unique historical circumstances. Their best years coincided with the end of World War II--a period that heralded the dismantling of the greatest imperial edifice in history, constructed by Europeans and extending to every nook of the globe. The end of empire was accompanied and often hastened by the spread of mass politics, and these leaders were the first generation of Asians fully practiced in this new art (before the 20th century, few Asian languages had a word for "politics").
Looking back now at these early years of post-colonialism, it's astonishing how much faith was invested in politics, both by the leaders and the led. Most of these figures cultivated, to their advantage, a view of politics as the medium for realizing grand moral purposes, rather than as a way of deliberating and negotiating interests. Each was a carrier of what the poet Rabindranath Tagore had cautioned against as the "epidemic of nationalism," though they saw it (when blended with other modernist ideologies, usually some species of socialism) as a restorative for their wounded civilizations. It would weld into a unified nation the disparate peoples corralled together into single territories by the whimsy of colonial mapmakers.
But the politics of nationalism proved mercurial: for every official nationalism proclaimed by a new Asian state, numerous others were ready to come forward and declare opposition. Official, state-dispensed nationalisms were therefore foisted upon populations often little inclined to recognize themselves as part of a common nation. The methods of imposition ranged from ideological control by a one-party state, to appeals to a mythic common past, to raw violence.
The hope that the new nations of Asia would together be able to inject some idealism into the world body politic proved, in fact, to be a short-lived mirage. As the larger vision became unreal, nationalism also grew more constricted, and universalist aspirations were replaced by more basic thoughts. States now resorted to ethnicity, culture, religion and, in some cases, sheer military might. So, Burma had to be Burmanized, Ceylon Sinhalized; Singapore, Malaysia and others later invented the grand but self-serving concept of "Asian values."
By the mid-1960s, Asia's youthful nationalist dawn had turned murky. Demagoguery, nepotism and corruption came to be seen as the legacies of the founding fathers. But today, there is a new generation daring, still, to be leaders. One of the bravest is her father's daughter--Aung San Suu Kyi.
Sunil Khilnani is the author of The Idea of India. He is writing a biography of Jawaharlal Nehru