Ratu Mara: One with ‘the common touch’

It is this quality of the “common touch”’ that enhanced the charisma and stature of our former prime minister, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara. Picture AP

In the wake of the recent general elections in Fiji, much public discussion and commentary has focused on the nation’s present political leaders and their standing within the community.

What are the true hallmarks of a great leader?

Intellect, vision, integrity, communication and decisiveness are expected attributes.

But Rudyard Kipling speaks of yet another elusive quality.

“If you can walk with crowds and keep your virtue, or walk with kings, nor lose the common touch … yours is the Earth and everything in it.”

It is this quality of the “common touch”’ that enhanced the charisma and stature of our longest serving prime minister, Ratu Sir Kamisese Mara.

At the urging of my friend, Vijendra Kumar, the former editor of The Fiji Times, I have decided to narrate an incident involving my late father, Babu Jagir Singh, popularly known as Babuji, and Ratu Mara.

Fifty years ago, exactly on July 7, 1972, Ratu Mara’s official entourage was passing through Narara Pde, near the Lautoka Post Office, when he suddenly asked his chauffer to stop the car, creating quite a commotion.

He got out of the car and walked a short distance to a building which previously housed the offices of Munro Warren Leys, and later, lawyers Stuart and Reddy.

He told the office receptionist he wanted to see his friend Babuji, who was the chief law clerk there. Imagine everyone’s surprise seeing the Prime Minister had come to visit an old friend! He sat with my father and chatted with him for a while and then left to continue his tour.

I do not know when and how the two met and forged a life-long friendship, but it happened some time in the early 1960s.

They remained close until the deaths of both my parents in 1993. Whenever Ratu Mara happened to be in Lautoka, he would ring Babuji and ask him where they should meet.

Most often he would visit Babuji at our home on Tavewa Avenue and sometimes Babuji would meet him at the hotel where he was staying, mostly the Cathay on Tavewa Avenue.

They would talk about all sorts of things, but not much about politics.

I remember an interesting event of one evening when Ratu Mara was leaving our home, he and Babuji were just saying good bye on the roadside.

A few noisy revellers from the Cathay Hotel’s public bar happened to be passing by. Suddenly, they saw Ratu Mara and quietly sat down by the road as a mark of respect for a high chief.

They moved on less boisterously after Ratu Mara’s departure.

Before his surprising visit to Babuji at his office, Ratu Mara had just two months ago won a landslide victory in independent Fiji’s first general election under a new 1970 Constitution.

The election was held from April 15 to April 29 in 1972.

He had led his party, the Alliance, to pick up 33 seats to Siddiq Koya’s National Federation Party’s 19 seats in the 52-chamber new Parliament.

He was obviously touring the Western Division in a celebratory mood where the Alliance had captured a sizeable block of votes from the Indian community.

He had campaigned long and hard in the Western Division prior to the election and true to his nature, he had easily and freely mingled with farmers, labourers and villagers. And he was there now to thank them for their support.

Another example of Babuji’s friendship with Ratu Mara that I saw was when we had gone to Suva some time in early 1970s. We were passing through Veiuto when Babuji asked the driver to turn and head for the Prime Minister’s official residence.

He got off the car and told the sentry at the gate to notify the Prime Minister that Babuji would like to see him.

“Ask Babuji to come in”, came the answer and the two met and chatted for a while. Such was the level of informal friendship and rapport between the two.

• DIDAR SINGH is the youngest son of Babuji. He worked in Fiji as a bank manager before retiring and then moved to live in Brisbane, Australia.

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