In democratic nations, a politician’s career begins with a promise. They promise their citizens a world that they will create when they are elected and thrusted into office. In the early days of change and in the early days of the victorious thrust into office, optimism runs high. With time, this optimism turns to pessimism, these promises turn into bleak hopes, and dreams turn into realities.

For political leaders who are handed the reins during a time of peace and prosperity, the only true agenda during their tenure is not to undo the legacy of their predecessors. But that, too, can be a tall order for people will want the same old–especially when they are generally content with the way that things are being run, save a few grumbles and complaints here and there.

It is hard to start a political movement in good times, for even if we are disgruntled, there is no real impetus to change. But when the bad times descend upon us, our minor grievances balloon into unbearable burdens and we become co-creators of an era of chaos.

It is too easy to blame a single man for mass genocides, atrocities and inhumane policymaking. But what can one man do without the support and mobilisation of others who feel the same way that he does or believe it to be in their self-interest to walk alongside him and not against him? He probably can’t do much.

But when he is no longer alone in his anger and in his deep-seated frustration; a new order can emerge. But as long as he is alone, he remains a victim of his circumstances. And yet, buried within these deep feelings of victimisation, there is a possibility for victory over the forces that oppressed you and diminished you.

It takes many precipitating factors to come together to the create chaos that creates change. We can’t blame our governments for all the ills of society for sometimes the truth remains that people do not change even when the legislation does. The Netflix documentary series Amend whose goal is to educate the viewing public on the history of civil rights in America, brings to attention the stark reality of what happens when the justice system changes and people’s hearts do not.

The Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which guarantees equal protection under the law for all citizens was ratified in 1866. In episode 3, which is entitled WAIT, attention is drawn on how despite the Supreme Court’s ruling to outlaw segregated schools, the practise continued on in some states in the US.

The landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education found that U.S. state laws establishing racial segregation in public schools are unconstitutional–even if the segregated schools are otherwise equal in quality. In a unanimous decision issued in 1954, the Court held that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”, and therefore laws that impose them violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution.

In the states of the Deep South, where racial segregation was deeply entrenched, the reaction to the ruling met with what has been called “Massive Resistance”. Four years later, in 1958, in the case of Cooper v. Aaron, the Court would reaffirm its ruling in Brown, explicitly stating that officials and legislators had no power to nullify its ruling.

Legislators had successfully and unanimously changed the laws, but they were powerless when it came to changing people’s hearts.

Former Supreme Court, Singapore. Artwork by Dipa Sanatani

In a situation such as this one, can we blame our leaders for failing to do the job we elected them to? If they do not have the unanimous support of their citizens, how can they fulfil the promises they made? The case can be made that leaders have to represent all the people under their care and not just the people who voted for them. At the same time, the case can also be made that a leader’s responsibility is, first and foremost, towards the voters who elected him; and not the ones who opposed him.

From a certain perspective and worldview, we could say that equality is a higher virtue than segregation. But for the people who had benefited greatly from segregation, or quite simply did not see anything wrong with it–they did not feel the same way as those that did.

At the heart of any democratic political system, polarities tend to exist because they reflect the needs and concerns of the diverse people whom they represent. It has never been up to one man to set the agenda. One man cannot do it. He can promise his people the world at its fingertips, but the people must also want it, demand it and be willing to work for it. If they do not desire change, they will resist it.

And even if they do desire change, they may not be willing to work for it. And lastly, even when things do finally change from a legislative and legal perspective, their hearts may not change. And until we have that change of heart, no politician’s promise will be able to change our lives.

It is not a politician’s promise that we need to believe in, put our faith in and put our trust in. And it’s not because politicians are liars, but it is because they are also people like you and me. They have their flaws, their blind spots, their errors in decision-making and also an assortment of moving targets that they need to meet. What does a leader prioritise in the face of so many moving targets? The sad truth is that many a times, the leader himself also becomes a target.

Despite the high levels of security that political leaders are afforded, many of them are assassinated, forced into exile and even voted out of office. Perhaps it is not that our leaders are not strong. Perhaps it is not that we voted for or believed in the wrong leader. Perhaps it is because as people our leaders are also vulnerable.

To my knowledge, there is no one in this world who is all powerful; no matter how much power has been vested in them–either by the people under their care or by the state and its institutions.

From a particular worldview, it could be said that a leader is answerable to the people who catapulted him into a position of power. But perhaps all a leader can do is do the best with what he has and the best job he knows how to do at the time and call it a day. It’s simply not humanly possible to do anymore that that.

They may well be our heroes and our villains. But at the end of the day, they’re just people. People like you… and me.

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