The tools of political expression are many, each with an attendant risk and expected though unlikely reward. As the reputation of politics in this country is being steadily done down by design and incompetence, let's ponder the importance of the democratic art.
Most recently, the Herculean efforts of Tony Blair come to mind. Over the years, he has emerged as one of the most able politicians of our era, possibly of all time. Blair's resolute defence of his unpopular position on the Iraq invasion was a work of sheer mastery. Combining manipulation, leadership, carefully chosen words and the dark arts of intimidation and coercion, the British Prime Minister pulled off a political coup of astounding proportions. He tamed a cabinet and caucus emboldened by public opinion polls against the business in Iraq. He led from the front on the national and international stage. He won the day, at least for now.
And how did he do that? Not with guns, money or lawyers, but with politics, the art and science of the possible. How else to marshal a free society behind an unpopular course?
Even George W Bush-assisted by extremely able and almost nameless advisors-has steered a brilliant political course in the days since 9/11. Don't forget that before the horrible event, he was one of the least popular and most inept presidents in modern US history. Bush's predecessor, Bill Clinton, was-if anything-even more adept at politics than his friend Blair. Clinton was wildly popular for most of his latter years in power, but he began his time in office with his right wing opponents, the media and much of the public thinking him weak, vague and indecisive. His amorous dalliances-much shouted about by prurient journalists and evil, agenda-driven opponents on the right-were distractions at best. Elected with a large pool of left-of-centre support, he pushed through a succession of right wing policies: so called welfare reform, balanced budgets, bombing a pharmaceutical factory in Sudan and so on. And he got away with it all because of a silver tongue, a vast intellect and immense political and people skills.
Which brings us to Nepal. This week began with an almost uplifting demonstration of the art of the possible. The Ministerial-Maoist peace talks at the Hotel Shankar appeared on the surface to be a sterling political occasion, with the two sides giving space for disagreement and looking first at common ground and interests. Time will tell whether one side or the other is as sincere or honest as they appeared on the first day.
The fierce disagreements that loom will be the true tests of Baburam Bhattarai or Narayan Singh Pun. But so far, so good. Look beyond the talks and it all goes to hell. I do not believe that it is constructive or accurate to blame Nepal's political parties for much of the current mess. All of society, and especially the answerable elite, must also own up to their parts. But what frustrates is the lack of political creativity displayed by the parties and their agents. Got a grievance? Make a speech. Send out your heavy mob disguised as students to disrupt normal life for everyone but the targets of your wrath. Call a torchlight procession. Declare bandhs and call them off. Threaten more violence and prey upon people's uncertainties.
Let's not forget that some of these are tactics that helped bring democracy to the country and, as such, they have emotional weight. Also, undemocratic forces have made full use of such tactics when it suited them. To decry them when the opposite is true is rank hypocrisy. But I can only wish and plead that our political forces might pause for a moment and consider their position. They are the building blocks and the critical mass of democratic space. If they could only spend some time taking thoughtful counsel and attempt to learn the lessons of politics as practised in the wider world.
I have a suggestion. Instead of aid, experts and conflict resolution seminars, can we have Tony Blair and Bill Clinton for a weekend? Perhaps our politicians can learn a thing or two from the gurus of the possible.