Jacinda Ardern New Zealand’s outgoing PM stands tall among the leaders of her ilk who stood for human values & renounced power voluntarily
In a world full of unhinged politicians, reckless ambitions, and amoral shortsightedness, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern stood out like a colossus. For a distant and tiny country with relatively low impact – Jacinda Ardern had become a global byword for ‘empathy’ and radiant sincerity in leadership. Only she could have sought a legacy, “as someone who always tried to be kind”. It wasn’t easy to be always so, especially as the nation of 5 million was struck by its worst-ever terror attack (Christchurch in 2019, which killed 51), deadly natural disaster (volcanic eruption on White Island, killing 20), and of course the crippling Covid pandemic, back-to-back. It was Jacinda’s acute sense of solidarity personified by her famous ‘they are us’ in a different scarf, which exemplified and differentiated her dignified humanity from the thundering, divisive, and vainglorious world of ‘strongmen’ across global capitals. A rare Gandhian of her time – even as the Mahatma is sought to be diminished and politically out-of-favor, even in his own homeland.
Jacinda had once confessed, “I had first heard of the Mahatma when I was a schoolgirl” and added, “Gandhi himself understood the inner truths of all faiths of dignity and humanity that bind all people and all religion. Like Gandhi, we should not be afraid to stand up and transform our society for the better”. Like the Mahatma and his intrinsic belief in non-violence, honesty, and inclusivity – Jacinda had posited her own empathetic style of leadership not as a measure of weakness, but as tremendous strength. Clearly, ahead of her times and often accused of ‘woke’ sensibilities, Jacinda had reneged on her Mormon upbringing on account of its regressive stance on homosexuality, she like Gandhi, always put humanity over puritanical religiosity.
Even on the now increasingly dissed issue of political dissent, she invoked Gandhi on non-violent opposition, “It is critical to resolving tensions in a peaceful manner. I believe that Gandhi’s legacy is as relevant as it was before”. For one who is arguably amongst the most progressive leaders of the twenty-first century, Mahatma’s teachings are not irrelevant or signs of enfeeblement as she noted, “We look forward to Gandhi’s principles to address the pressing problems. There are three aspects of Gandhi’s message that carry particular weight: tolerance, equality, and sanctity of non-violence and peace”. Like Gandhi, she shunned tags of extraordinariness like ‘super woman’ and infallibility – she did infamously fall victim to a hot microphone when was picked up calling the opposition leader, “such an arrogant prick”! Ardern had apologized, as she should have.
Today, the refreshing note of integrity and honesty in leaving the highest office of her land owing to what she calls “nothing left in the tank” is in stark contrast to leaders who peddle everything in their wares to retain their positions. It is true that her personal and political brand was fading and with the looming elections, she was not guaranteed success – yet she had time on her side and no pressures to throw in the towel immediately, and certainly not at the age of 42! But that’s exactly what she did and reconfirmed what the Harvard Political Review had identified as the ‘authentic, empathetic and bold’ style of Jacinda’s leadership. Perhaps this authenticity is borne out of her Gandhian beliefs, as she invoked the Mahatma’s timeless values by insisting, “these are values that we should always keep in the forefronts of our minds not just in good times but especially when faced with difficult choices”. Jacinda faced her own difficult choices and the truth about her incapability to lead any further with her mantra, ‘you can be your own kind of leader – one who knows when it’s time to go’, and she ultimately left with minimum fuss or fanfare.
Importantly, while there is much talk about her dipping ratings owing to unfulfilled promises, inflationary pressures, mortgage rates, housing crisis et al – yet she had remained statistically more popular than her rivals, and still decided to pull the plug, on her own terms. Like her arrival on the political scene championing the rights of the proverbial ‘others’ in terms of minorities and the already disenfranchised on account of gender, ethnicity, orientation, or faith, she talked about a country for all citizens and not just certain groups whose support, she naturally courted. While kindness as a state policy was her leitmotif, her political honesty disallowed reckless populism that is thriving in the post-truth era of today – she perhaps paid a price for that too, as it invariably happens in participative democracies.
Politics in democracies do not have to reflect majorities, it can also create them – politicians can if they wish to construct majorities out of vivid diversity by embracing even those that they usually choose not to include, within. Earlier Mahatma Gandhi taught us that one could be morally strong and kind simultaneously, today a young Jacinda Ardern reconfirms the relevance and necessity to
‘Be Strong, Be Kind’. Oddly enough, even in her unprompted exit, she has defied many stereotypes and enhanced her respectful politics and personal brand of liberal and ultra-democratic leadership, to aspirational levels. As Mahatma Gandhi profoundly said, ‘In a gentle way, you can shake the world’, Jacinda Ardern certainly did, even in her exit.
(The writer, a military veteran, is a former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. The views expressed are personal)