‘If all the good people were clever
And all the clever people were good
The world would be nicer than ever
We thought that it possibly could…’
Those lines are neither very good nor very clever, but they do touch us somewhere in our hearts as being very, very true.
They were written by Dame Elizabeth Wordsworth, a grand-niece of William Wordsworth, who lived in the zenith of Queen Victoria’s reign and was herself a figure of no small ‘command’. Principal for 30 years, from 1879 to 1909, Elizabeth Wordsworth must have known some good people who were done in by the clever, and the clever who were sanctimoniously rejected by the good. Goodness knows into which of the two groupings she placed herself. The world being very contrarian, we can be sure, that if she thought herself to be Elizabeth the Good some of her peers would have placed her among the too-clever-by-half. If she regarded herself as clever, there would have been those who thought her to be anything but... ‘Clever, is she?’
Be that as it may, the two defining categories of ‘good’ and ‘clever’, with the possibilities of their inter-change, have fascinated me.
Take Gautama the Buddha. Suppose he had been clever rather than Enlightened… His contemporaries would then have seen a very smart King Siddhartha and a very contented Queen Yashodhara. Kapilavastu would have been a happy kingdom. But what of the world, of history ? They would never have known the Tathagata, his wisdom, his compassion. And by extension, history would never have seen Emperor Ashoka dotting the land from today’s Afghanistan to today’s Andhra with his profound Dhamma edicts. Nor would it have known great monarch Kanishka facilitate men of the intellectual brilliance of Nagarjuna, Asvaghosha and Vasumitra to propound Buddhist ideals for a future world’s enlightenment and trigger the astonishing marvels of Graeco-Buddhist art. Had Siddhartha become a routinely clever King, there would have been no Sarnath, Sanchi, no Taxila, Nalanda, no Ellora, Ajanta, Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, no Bamiyan. Nor would our times have witnessed Rahula Sankrityayana restore Buddhist manuscripts, Nehru propound the Panchashila, Ambedkar convert famously to Buddhism, His Holiness the Dalai Lama flee from Lhasa into exile but also enrich World Teacherhood, the venerable Thich Nhat Hanh vivify Zen Buddhist tenets for our violent times, and Aung San Suu Kyi bloom like a lily revived miraculously from stony earth. None of these would have happened if Siddhartha had been just another clever King.
Conversely, if Aurangzeb had been a gentle fakir, not Alamgir… he would have spent his time in calligraphy, perhaps creating a hand-crafted version of the Koran, or in stitching skullcaps. He would not have had his father made prisoner, his noble elder brother Dara Shukoh butchered like a goat, his other brothers — the dissolute Shuja and the temperamental Murad — hounded into oblivion. But no, Alamgir was clever and that spelt doom, hideous and barbaric, for anyone he regarded as a threat. His being clever rather than good did have another effect which history acknowledges. It imparted, for the time he was Emperor, a certain stability to the 21 provinces of his Hindustan. The Peacock Throne, under Alamgir had bloodied talons for its four feet but it stood like a rock. Manucci’s estimate that “30,000 European soldiers could have swept away Aurangzeb’s authority and occupied the whole empire” only shows that Aurangzeb presided over a large and well-defined empire. If Dara Shukoh, not Aurangzeb, had become Emperor, the world would have known a philosopher-King, a poet-King, a ruler with a difference. But what of the map of Hindustan? Some three centuries later, the transfer of British India to India that is Bharat, might in that case have seen many more residuary shards of French India, Portuguese India and even Dutch and Danish India rubbing borders with recalcitrant remnants of Princely India’s satrapies, kingdoms, chiefdoms, wazirates, nizamates and nawabis.
‘Bhala’, in Hindi means good ,and ‘bhola’ means innocent and oh, the difference! Goodness is extolled, not naivete. Cleverness, of course, is admired even when it is resented. Yet, cleverness over goodness in a monarch remains an unwelcome choice. There is, however, a simple human layering of pragmatism over the processes of ‘high choice’ which tells us it is good that leaders be clever as long as their cleverness does not become crass and self-serving. It also tells us it is good that leaders be good but , please, without being ingenuous.
Which is why Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel were trusted for their goodness and admired for their intelligence and a man like Lal Bahadur Shastri seemed just the right man to become prime minister.
What of today?
Intelligence of every kind being at a premium, cleverness is seen as an extension, a desirable extension, of the same. Cleverness, in any variety holds our breath, holds our wonder.
Political technicians, financial screw drivers, administrative fixers are, therefore, in demand in the emporia of statecraft.
Inevitably, the good who speak the truth, the wise who sound warnings, are unwelcome. Like the punctual tax-payer, the red-light-at-midnight respecter and queue etiquette minder, the un-clever one in politics is the bhala guy. Give him a knock or two of adversity and he will be garlanded with the khadi-yarn of ‘bholapan’.
My regret today is not that the good in India has been overtaken by the clever, but that our blind investment in cleverness is becoming systemically dangerous. Having deteriorated into the crassest self-service, when that dubious faculty is made available to the State, it yet remains a public-private-partnership. It is a private gift, a private asset, a private indulgence, a private enterprise for private gain, private advancement, private aggrandisement and when harnessed to a public purpose, is offered after a private negotiation, again for some private interest, private protection.
Today’s Siddhartha would be King but Kapilavastu’s happiness would not be his aim, nor today’s Alamgir’s intention be the stability of the Peacock Throne.
Gopalkrishna Gandhi is a former administrator, diplomat and governor
(The views expressed by the author are personal)