Does a Politician Need Literature?

This is an English translation of D.V. Gundappa's 1950 essay in Kannada titled, "Does a Politician Need Literature?" It has much valuable advice both for aspiring and serving politicians.
Does a Politician Need Literature?


IN A LETTER DATED March 3,1938, D.V. Gundappa wrote as follows to Mirza Ismail, the then Diwan of the Mysore Princely State. 

"No more the pose of a public man for me… My role is that of a humble student and I am content with that… my wish is to give the rest of my life to the work of interpreting to my countrymen some of the things that I value in the great books I have read – in poetry and philosophy and politics; Shakespeare and the Ramayana and Plato are the voices that call me and to them I would go in my freedom. Public life has made me sick. My soul is crying for peace. So have mercy and let me go out of public life." (Emphasis added)

The letter sounds ironical but it is actually characteristic of the impulses that drove DVG’s life. Ironical because DVG had made his mark and his career in public life – as journalist, editor, publisher, and had served on various Government bodies. True to his word, DVG completely quit public life in 1940, aged fifty-three, and for the rest of his life, strove to do exactly what he had declared in his letter: explaining the value of things which cannot be valued by money. 

We notice this quality in most of his writings and speeches following that era. Of these, I have selected a random essay titled, Does a Politician Need Literature? The original, in Kannada, was published in 1950. The following are some excerpts from it. 

Happy reading!

Does a Politician Need Literature?

LITERATURE IS THAT which shakes the heart. Any sentence reading which causes an indescribable movement in the heart, which opens up a new vista of experience —that sentence can be called literature. 

Our country has recently attained freedom and adopted democracy as the choice of Government. Is literature capable of providing any assistance in this new circumstance? 

Those who are well-versed in the nature of both politics and literature say that good literature is the natural ambrosia that tempers the natural poison of politics, and that this is the only function of literature vis a vis politics. 

Politics is the agglomeration of the likes and dislikes of an entire population. In politics, one man’s sweetness is another man’s bitterness; one man’s garland is the other man’s noose. 

Thus, political life is a perpetual clash between mutually conflicting and competing interests. Is it therefore surprising that in such a life, the basest and the vilest human impulses come to the surface more often than not? The basic nature of politics is the unrelenting assault made by selfishness.

This trait is more pronounced and more visible in a democracy than in any other form of Government. Democracy essentially implies that everybody has a say in everything, and that everybody interferes in everything because by definition, all people are equal in a democracy. Everybody has the right to aspire for any position or authority. Because everybody is a citizen, everybody is a Government official in one form or the other. Therefore, it is a given that if something good has to ensue from wielding such authority, the person who desires it must have the wisdom and the discrimination to sift out the good from the bad. 

Because the well-being of the state is theoretically incumbent upon every citizen,  it becomes the first duty of the citizen to make himself deserving of the authority he aspires to wield. The first qualification in this regard is to consciously cultivate the notion of, and realize the nature of justice and fairness. The study of literature enables the possession of this qualification. 

There is yet another danger in a democracy: the person who wishes to emerge victorious must compete to win the support of the maximum number of people (votes). And there are inevitably a large number of victory-aspirants who stake a claim for votes. In this competition, there is again, inevitably, the element of self-praise and the criticism of the competitor. In this process, all the dirt and impurity hidden in the heart of such people will gush forth in an unstoppable torrent. And so the following questions emerge: is this humility? Is this dignified behaviour? The power-aspirant knows that it is not. However, he also knows that without indulging in such contemptible behaviour, victory is impossible. Thus, the constant obsession with votes coarsens the character and personality of the politician; it causes embarrassment to his near and dear ones, and it erodes whatever is left of his culture and refinement in speech and manners. 

However, whether we like it or not, this has become the reality of the competitive politics of today. In such a situation, is it possible for a politician to redeem himself of this dirt that invariably sticks to him? 

The answer is yes, and it is literature that makes it possible…the world of the poet and the litterateur is the world of words; the world of the politician is the visible world of the masses of people. But for this difference, the dealings of the litterateur and the politician are pretty much alike. Both must possess the same qualifications: oneness with the people, insight into the hopes and fears of humans, and the ability to contemplate about the welfare of the people. 

From this perspective, all of us can agree on the fact that the study of good literature is like a preface to the activities of a politician. He who has not studied the story of Nala, he who has not felt the pain of Nala’s longing, he who has not felt compassion for Damayanti’s plight, he who has not studied the Ramayana, he who has not contemplated on Bharata’s sacrifice, he who has not studied the Mahabharata, he who has not bowed his head before Bhishma’s loftiness, he who has not experienced the plight of Dharmaraya, he who has not felt the tragedy of Duryodhana’s sad end in (poet) Ranna’s Gadayuddha, he who has not laughed uproariously at Kumaravyasa’s depiction of Uttara Kumara…what largeness of heart can such a person have? What would be the extent of their nuance on any given subject? What height can the soul that hasn’t burnt in the fire of high literature, that hasn’t swum in the waters of poetry, attain? Such a soul can only bask in the illusion that the basal darkness of the jungle of instinct is a grand palace. Its vision is that of the sleepy-eyed; its ears are wooden ears and its speech is a stammer. And its politics is the politics of chaos. 

Literature is but one of the facets of human life. The other is politics. The imagination of the poet and the writer gives expression to various vagaries and delicacies of life through words. The politician attempts to do the same through various systems and institutions of public life.

THE LIVES OF GREAT POLITICIANS and leaders are first-hand evidences testifying to this fact. England’s Gladstone took inspiration from Homer, Shakespeare, Milton and others. Lincoln derived his inspiration from the Bible and Shakespeare. Mazzini took his from Dante. One can cite several such examples. 

We must not also forget the fact that the classics of world literature have had politics as one of their key focus areas. The Vedas have had Rajarshis (Statesman-Sages) as prominent figures: Harishchandra, Divodasa, Janaka, and Vishwamitra. Politics is the main theme of our epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata. Plato’s most celebrated work, The Republic, is a treatise on politics. Plato and his disciple Aristotle are the founding fathers of western political philosophy. Key portions of the Bible deal with the stories of Kings. Several of Shakespeare’s celebrated tragedies are centred on kings. Politics was the key theme of renowned poets like Milton, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley, and Burns. The corpus of work by such eminences as Burke, Carlyle, Mill, and Maculay deals almost entirely with politics. They are the invaluable treasures of the English language. In other words, these writers and poets have, in a way, claimed politics as their property. Indeed, Shelley said it best when he said that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” 

The study of literature is thus a prequalification for political life. Literature is the summit of dignity amid the din of everyday, street-level political sloganeering which often clouds judgement and blurs the line separating right from wrong. Both the citizen and the politician must not lose sight of this summit if they don’t want to go astray. The person who tries to practice politics without passing through the refinery of literature is akin to a blind man holding a rifle. Likewise, public service without the aid of literature is akin to a dumb person serving a feast in a dark room.  

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