There is an axiom in American politics that a candidate who hopes to win should run in the primaries from the extremes and the general campaign from the centre. The wisdom behind the strategy is self-evident: You rouse the base to secure the nomination and, once nominated, use the remaining time to bring the wavering voters to your fold.
But once you win, do you rule to appease the fringe or speak from the centre?
This drama is not unique to the US. I saw that first-hand last week in Malaysia, while participating in the George Town Literary Festival, where the prime minister-in-waiting, Anwar Ibrahim, spoke to a packed audience in a stirring conversation with the bold and feisty writer Bernice Chauly. She has run the festival for eight years and now leaves that position, but not before having won for the festival an honour at the London Book Fair earlier this year.
Full marks to Chauly for stating her questions directly and bluntly—a quality many Indian anchors reveal only when they question opposition politicians (but who turn lily-livered when they face ruling party politicians). Full marks, too, to Anwar, for listening to the questions intently, responding to them honestly, and not using any melodrama in his answers—a far, far cry from India, now the home of rehearsed prime ministerial interviews conducted by fawning, selected journalists, with a pre-approved script, enacting a pantomime, which would put some state broadcasters to shame.
Whether Anwar is the man for the moment for Malaysia or a hero of the past who missed his chance because of unjust, profoundly flawed persecution is for history to judge. But Chauly asked pointed questions and Anwar didn’t squirm or drink water; he responded. Anwar captured Malaysian liberal imagination in the mid-1990s, when he was prime minister Mahathir Mohammed’s heir apparent. By 1996, Anwar had begun speaking out against corruption and collusion, which were thinly veiled attacks on crony capitalists surrounding the establishment. Then the Asian economic crisis unfolded, making many of Mahathir’s ambitions financially expensive. And, as more Malaysians demanded greater freedoms, Mahathir imposed capital controls and jailed Anwar.
In the two decades that followed, Mahathir was followed by two successors—Abdullah Badawi and then Najib Tun Razak—and the opposition foundered. But after corruption under Najib reached astonishing levels, Mahathir returned to the fray, joining hands with Anwar. The two buried their past and led a coalition comprising religious conservatives and social liberals, and won in May. There is freedom in the air now.
Penang is arguably Malaysia’s most liberal city and Anwar’s home state. Liberals across the country backed the alliance, accepted (some of them grudgingly) the 93-year-old Mahathir as prime minister and, meanwhile, have been waiting for Anwar.
What kind of a leader would Anwar be?
In recent weeks, Anwar has cautioned Malaysians to be wary of “super-liberals". He has not hidden his friendship with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, dismaying many who see Erdogan as authoritarian, given the number of newspapers he has closed down, academics he has dismissed, journalists and writers he has jailed, and the repression he has unleashed. (There is historic parallel in Nelson Mandela, who stood by Fidel Castro of Cuba, despite Castro’s dictatorial rule, since Castro had campaigned against apartheid. Anwar said to Chauly’s question that Erdogan had defended him at every opportunity; their friendship is personal, not political).
Meanwhile Anwar’s wife, Wan Azizah, who is Malaysia’s deputy prime minister, compounded matters, making remarks that could be read as supporting female genital cutting, a practice that’s horrific, misogynistic and violates human rights. In defence, Anwar explained the circumstances that thrust politics upon his wife (and his daughter Nurul Izzah) and how they rose to the challenge and fended off attacks from the powerful ruling party, the United Malays National Organisation.
Then he said something that goes to the heart of politics: “You want me to succeed in my political career, at the same time you want me to do things that would destroy my political career." Anwar is right in stating the paradox. But he has to use all his talents and skills to rise to the occasion without destroying his career and transform the politics which makes the ideals, he says, he represents appear ‘unelectable’. He can do so by embracing the humanity of all Malaysians.
The politics Anwar represents is the politics of hope and inclusiveness. He made people who felt apathetic about politics to step out, shouting Reformasi back in 1997-98; those Malaysians did not lose hope. They kept the flame alive during the dark time Anwar was in jail. And at the right moment, they held their noses and backed a Mahathir-led alliance, with the implicit promise that Anwar would, perhaps within two years, replace him.
As the former British prime minister Harold Wilson had once said, a week is a long time in politics. Two years is an eternity. Many things can change. At 71, Anwar is not young. He may yet become prime minister. But he needs to remember the base that supported him and stood by him, in spite of the humiliation, the beatings, and the character assassination he endured. Those Malaysians embrace Malaysia’s diversities. If he stays true to those aspirations, Anwar will have not only fulfilled his destiny, but helped many Malaysians realize theirs, too.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi
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