I want to explore an important comparison that has not been addressed about Nelson Mandela.
There have been many great twentieth century leaders. Some like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Aung San Suu Kyi never became presidents or prime ministers. But three did – Mandela in South Africa, Jawaharlal Nehru in India and Franklin Roosevelt here. Nehru and Roosevelt held onto power until they died in office.
In Roosevelt’s case I’m glad he did. Roosevelt understood German, read Hitler’s Mein Kampf in the original, and understood the Nazi threat long before most Americans did. Thank heavens he was moving this country to support the British with Lend Lease and toward an industrial war footing before Pearl Harbor. American democracy was old enough and mature enough that it did not absorb Roosevelt’s years in office as a path to be followed. The Twenty-Second Amendment, ratified during the Truman Administration six years after Roosevelt died, banned anyone from holding the office more than two terms.
India was not so lucky. Nehru was president from 1947 until his death in 1964. Nehru was indeed a great leader. The Congress Party which he and Mahatma Gandhi led took India to independence and embodied some of the finest ideals of our age, including the brotherhood of all mankind and mutual respect for Indians of all faiths – Hindu, Muslim and others.
But there was a flaw. Nehru served seventeen years and never stood down. He, his daughter and grandson served all but three of India’s first forty-two years. And the Congress Party did not even temporarily lose power for three decades after India’s independence. I remember chatting over the phone with Akhil Amar, a highly respect constitutional scholar at Yale and himself an Indian-American, and Akhil commented on the importance to America of Jefferson’s victory in 1800. It established early that parties could succeed each other and the value of competition for office. India had been deprived of the experience of the outparty winning an election and the result had been a period in which Indira Gandhi tried to rig the process so she could stay in office, a period of several years the Indians remember as The Emergency, which tested India’s commitment to democracy. India withstood The Emergency and restored democracy with the help of a Supreme Court that showed some spine. But the cost was the corruption of the Congress Party and of the Indian bureaucracy. It was a costly struggle.
Mandela set a precedent, which South Africa has continued to follow, of the peaceful transition in office. That was a great act of statesmanship made all the more remarkable by its rarity even among leaders of his stature. Mandela stayed true to his dream of a world and a country ruled by justice and equality to the end of his life.
Since the end of Apartheid government in 1993, however, South Africa has not yet had a change of parties leading it. The nation he led still needs our prayers. Momentous forks in its democratic road still lie ahead.
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 10. 2013.