A Parliament of Words

A British prime minister who was also a novelist, a US president known for his works on history and nature, an Indian statesman who was a famous philosopher... they all make compelling cases that politics is not a full-time occupation, that its practitioners can shine in other fields, such as writing – beyond autobiographies or political polemics – for one.

Through the ages, there have been iconic leaders – not only of people but also of thought, intellect and language. Though involved in intense political activity making their countries great powers, directing make-or-break wars, and heading freedom struggles or revolutions, they also found both the time and inclination to write enduring works on the events they were part of, as well as on history, nature, philosophy, travel and even fiction.

Among the first in this illustrious league was the most famous Roman of all times. A masterful politician and a successful soldier, Julius Caesar was also acknowledged as among the best authors of Latin prose. Though the bulk of his writings has been lost, his commentaries on the wars he fought he fought are still available. Of them, “Commentarii de Bello Gallico” (usually translated as “Notebooks about the Gallic Wars”) is the account of the nearly decade-long war against the Gauls in what now constitutes France, Belgium and Switzerland. It’s model of simple and direct but polished and elegant style. More than 20 centuries later, it is still used as a textbook for Latin students. Following him was a tough order, and it was only in the late 19th century that the talent resurfaced.
 Twice British prime minister and one of the founders of the modern Conservative Party, Benjamin Disraeli (1804-81) entered parliament in 1837. By then, he had already penned 11 novels as well as some non-fiction works. In his 44-year political career that saw him implement a reformist agenda, strengthen the constitutional monarchy, take control of the Suez Canal, influence the contours of Europe, and make Queen Victoria the empress of India, he also wrote seven more novels (one left unfinished at his death) and the biography of a contemporary statesman.

One of the youngest US presidents, Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919) was also a noted author, naturalist, explorer, historian and war hero. Between entering politics in 1882 and his death, he published dozens of works in these fields (many with several editions), testifying to the range of his interests and breadth of his knowledge. And these in a life which saw him in many roles – legislator, cowboy, New York police chief, New York governor, commander of a voluntary cavalry regiment in the US-Spanish War, vice-president, president (1901-08), and the first American to win a Noble Prize (for peacein 1905). If that wasn’t all, after his presidential term, he went to East Africa to hunt and followed it by exploring and mapping a river in Brazil (subsequently renamed after him) – all described in robust prose.

Vladimir Ilyich Lenin was a prolific writer, too – on the practical aspects of carrying out a revolution. His role in transforming Marxism into a workable political strategy for seizing power was stupendous, and is laid out in his voluminous collected works – 54 volumes in Russian, 45 in English, each one more than 650 pages long. Lenin’s writings may only appeal to a niche audience, not to mention being overtaken by events, but they are significant as an expression of successful theory (never mind the result).

Sir Winston Churchill has received many accolades for his determined leadership of Britain in the Second World War, but a key one was for having “mobilised the English language and sent into battle” – for his inspiring oration. A reputed author with over 40 books (chiefly history and biographies), thousands of articles and at least two film scripts to his name, he was the first (and so far the only) top politician to win the Nobel Prize for Literature (1953).

Plato spoke about the desirability of a philosopher king, but India is one of two countries to have made it a reality (Czechoslovakia with Vaclav Havel was the other). A leading scholar of comparative religion and philosophy, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was India’s second president, but is equally famous for re-interpreting Hindu philosophy and shaping Hindu identity for contemporary times. His translations and commentaries of “Bhagavad Gita”, “Dhammapada” and “The Principal Upanishads” played a major role in influencing the understanding of Hinduism in both India and the West, despite criticism of his inclusive approach as well on post-colonial grounds.

Complementing him was India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, whose “Discovery of India” is a
path-breaking account of the ethos and idea of India down the ages. “Glimpses of World History” was one of the first comprehensive, modern analyses of the rise and fall of civilisations and empires from an Asian viewpoint. Sadly, the recent record (both in India and elsewhere) does not offer any notable instance of a contemporary leader excelling in transposing their verbal skills onto the printed page.     – IANS