I paused at length before two news items published by Asharq Al-Awsat on its front page last Wednesday, and I found myself amazed by the glaring contrast in the words of two leaders from to two different generations. One spoke in a way that reflected a failure to grasp the challenges of diversity and coexistence and the need to understand others and hear their demands, while the other spoke with wisdom gained from experience and harsh lessons, and realized the importance of coexistence in light of religious and ethnic diversity.
The first piece of news was Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki’s assertion that dictatorship is better than chaos, saying, Chaos is far worse than a dictatorship because warlords can exploit it to implement their own agendas. The second news item quoted Rahul Gandhi, grandson of Indira Gandhi, who was recently promoted to vice president of the Congress party, which has ruled India for decades. Gandhi suggested that power was akin to poison, and warned of the dangers of failing to address underlying sectarian and ethnic grudges.
Maliki was speaking against the backdrop of repeated accusations against him from his opponents that he is becoming increasingly autocratic. This has even led to disputes between Maliki and some of his close allies, who have begun to overtly suggest that they are seeking to replace him. Some have gone on to say that there is a great difference between the Maliki who spent years as a political opponent in exile, and who criticized the oppressive and dictatorial nature of Saddam Hussein’s rule, and the Maliki who is now clinging on to power, has no patience with political opponents and demonstrators, and is trying to convince Iraqis that dictatorship is better than chaos.
Many dictatorial regimes have tried to intimidate their people by emphasizing threats to justify their authoritarianism. Sometimes they warn against chaos, sometimes against Al-Qaeda and terrorism, and sometimes against foreign conspiracies. We heard this same rhetoric in different forms from Gaddafi, Mubarak, Saleh, and Ben Ali, when the streets were full of rage and despair and the people were protesting against corruption, bankruptcy, and repression. Today Maliki is repeating the same rhetoric, merging all excuses and justifications into one, warning of chaos, warlords, and foreign entities eager to see Iraq immersed in sedition and chaos. It is sad that Maliki-who came to power through the electoral process-is now unable to stand the voices of his political opponents. He is suppressing demonstrations while trying to convince the people that dictatorships are better than chaos. Of course, he is not trying to reproduce the Saddam Hussein regime. Instead, he is seeking to justify his style of governance whenever he is accused of autocracy. He is always trying to find excuses for his failure to fulfill the people’s aspirations, for using violence against demonstrators, and for marginalizing his political opponents.
Without a doubt, no one wants chaos. However, the greatest danger Iraq is facing is sectarianism, which seems to have grown rapidly and is now ravaging the country, having been fueled by those who “treat power as a business.” As a result, there are now parties and groups using sectarianism as a political tool, and recently groups have emerged that are fighting and killing in the name of sectarian identity. This is the gravest danger that Iraq and the Iraqi people could face, and everyone must stand together to maintain the integrity of their country, end the bloodshed, and prevent the emergence of a dictatorship, sectarian or otherwise.
Maliki’s words were in complete contrast to the speech given by Rahul Gandhi. They followed his appointment as vice president of the Congress party, positioning him up as the successor to his Italian-born mother Sonia, who has chaired the party ever since the assassination of her husband Rajiv. Sonia Gandhi is a symbol of coexistence and has helped India maintain its democratic system despite its religious and ethnic diversity. Thus it was more poignant when Rahul addressed the Congress party after his appointment, saying, “Last night my mother came to my room and she sat with me and she cried. Why did she cry? She cried because she understands that the power so many people seek is actually a poison”.
Sonia Gandhi described power as poison because of her bitter personal experience of its effects. Her husband Rajiv, the sixth prime minister of India, lost his life as a result of political struggles and sectarian strife when he was assassinated in 1991. A Tamil woman holding a bunch of flowers approached him during a public meeting before detonating a bomb hidden in her belt, killing them both. When a court sentenced a young woman named Nalini Sriharan to death for plotting Rajiv’s assassination, Sonia Gandhi intervened and asked for clemency because Sriharan had a young daughter, and so the sentence was reduced from the death penalty to imprisonment.
This was not the only lesson to come from this story. Priyanka Gandhi, Rajiv’s daughter, went on to visit Nalini in prison, and afterwards announced that she felt pity for the woman who had taken part in the killing of her father, as her time in prison created a barrier between her and her daughter. Like her mother Sonia, Priyanka said she bore no malice or hatred towards Nalini.
When addressing the Congress party audience on the dangers of sectarian and ethnic division, Rahul Gandhi also gave an example from his own life. He recalled how he always used to play badminton at his grandmother Indira’s house, yet this all changed when two soldiers shot Indira Gandhi-the then prime minister of India-dead in October 1984. What Rahul failed to say, although it was well known to the audience, was that the two soldiers, who were part of Indira’s personal guard, were followers of the Sikh religion. They had carried out the assassination to avenge the Indian troops’ invasion of the Golden Temple in Punjab, a sacred shrine for Sikhs.
Sonia Gandhi has learned a lot about the exorbitant price of political power when it becomes embroiled in sectarianism. This is why she cried when her son took his latest step forward along the path their family has forged in the world of politics. However, she taught her son and daughter the significance of tolerance and the importance of remedying sectarian and ethnic wounds. She also taught them an important lesson by refusing the position of prime minister when the Congress party won the election under her chairmanship in 2004, making room for another candidate, Manmohan Singh, to become India’s first Sikh prime minister. This was another gesture of tolerance and an attempt to reconcile with the Sikhs and defuse any underlying sectarian malice.
Some politicians in Iraq should heed Sonia Gandhi’s message to her son about how power and prejudice are dangerous poisons.