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Mainstream, Vol XLV, No 38

The Pluses and Minuses of Leadership

Sunday 9 September 2007, by Shree Shankar Sharan


The need for leadership is strong in a country which needs an icon to look up to because it has been used to it or has not been in the habit of solving its own problems because they are too many or too complex or opinions on them are diverse or deeply divided or the country has because of a long span of foreign rule or an exploitative socio economic system has lost its self-confidence. It could also result from having had outstanding leaders in the recent past who related directly to the masses, showed them deep compassion, rose above the barriers of class, caste or creed, guided them away from all excesses of greed or anger and produced a climate of self faith and self reliance. We have all these reasons to want a leader but do we have them? Gandhis and Nehrus, Rajendra Prasads and Rajajis and Shastris and Azads or JPs and Lohias come once in a century and not again and again.

Mahatma Gandhi was not a mere leader. He was a philosopher like Socrates or Marx. He led by example not by exhortation. Leaders only carry credibility when they have earned enough moral capital and thereby the right to lead. Such leaders have been rare in history and are only born to meet a big challenge like our freedom struggle, or the Italian unification or the American civil war or the Russian or Chinese revolution. The leaders who had been purified in the fire of the freedom movement under Gandhi or partly of Marxist persuasion were exceptional men with gifts of head and heart and make a rare category.

The truth about our country today is that we haven’t had a mass leader in the second generation after independence The closest that came to being a mass leader was Indira Gandhi but too much power also turned her head and tempted her to turn the country into a controlled or guided democracy. Leadership has an authoritarian ring and has been the cause of much misery in the world. The best leaders have also been tyrants like Hitler, or Stalin or Mao or Mrs Gandhi or Churchill in relation to the British empire.. Nehru was a democrat but ran his party like an autocrat. While we should feel sorry for being ruled continuously by mediocrity with some good flashes, we should be relieved that we have not produced a tyrant. However, mediocrity has claimed its price by being vulnerable to catchy foreign ideas and policies or to the glamour of high technology, for example, nuclear energy or the trickle down effect touted by the capitalist market economy as the palliative for the poor.

The country remains in an uneasy state because of the gap between promise and implementation. Governments both at the Centre and in the States have time and again received hard rap on their knuckles on many issues, the latest being in Nandigram, Singur and possibly Navi Mumbai on the setting up an SEZ at the cost of farmland without the consent of the local people. The people of the country, including those in the farm sector, are waking up to their small reality but refusing to part with what they have for the fake currency of political promises that have been broken countless times before in the name of some other exigency.

The country is learning to be its own leader. It is a pity that although we have given ourselves a democracy, we continue to be prisoners of a state system that has roots in the concept of a central authority vested with absolute power from whose will all of civil life flows. In a democracy sovereignty vests in the people and state power is delegated power. It is people who must prevail over the state and not the other way around.

WE have to dismantle the state system we have blindly and somewhat conveniently inherited from our foreign rulers because it suited the purposes of our then leaders who were fond of exercising power to shape the country according to their dreams. With the exception of Mahatma Gandhi it was no part of these dreams to vest power in our people. The dream indeed was to lift the people from poverty but not to hand over the power to the poor except to vote every five years to choose their representative government and then let the government rule.

All the trappings of office, of treating glamour and luxury as part of office, of holding effectiveness as more important than popularity, of vesting discretionary powers in bureaucrats rather than local bodies or panchayats, of vesting decision-making in the bureaucratic machine or a committee of MLAs/MPs or in the State Government rather than local people or their elected local bodies have been copied from our imperial rulers with small modification for elected representatives to the Assemblies or Parliament, but still removed from the people.

There is a lesser and lesser role for the leader if more and more powers are vested in our people. Our nation will grow strong in the measure in which its people and not just its institutions are strong. Strong institutions cannot survive on weak foundations as our own record of the last 60 years has shown.

There is a sense in which we still require leaders. Leadership is the natural outcome of unequal capabilities in influencing people’s opinions or mobilising people to form opinions on larger policies which impact people over a span of time, not instantly visible. These leaders should be such as relate both to larger policy and local needs. To guard against a tilt away from the latter they should have sprung from the grass-roots. It is such leaders grown out of our soil rather than that of Harvard or Cambridge which we should cherish for the future.

Had Mahatma Gandhi’s blueprint for a pyradimical Constitution with a system of indirect elections been accepted, such leaders would have naturally travelled upto our highest offices. They will now have to compete hard with the city dwellers. At some point of time if we can build a consensus we should at least partially convert to that blueprint.

Yet another problem that has been thrown up by centralised power and the misdeeds of the market economy is the pervading evil of corruption which has travelled both up and down. There are no easy answers to it except less government, more devolution of power and enforcement of accountability. A poor people and a greedy rich invariably lend themselves to exploitation and corruption is one of the means to exploit them. It will take an awakened people less on the margin of existence and a more ethical rich to be rid of this evil. Also a will to be our own leader.

TWO things have happened which have fundamentally altered the character of Indian leadership. Sixty years of exercise of democratic power or the forced denial of the right to exercise it has brought about a backlash, distancing of the deprived castes, the Scheduled Castes and the OBCs from Centrist parties like the Congress, emergence of casteist parties or casteist leaders in all parties. But they have not changed the quality of leadership, nor the content of the development plans of the States which are bound by a strong nexus with the Planning Commission and Finance Commission allocations by the Centre.The thrust of these parties or leaders is not to set new standards of governance but to spread their caste men at all levels to better guarantee their own survival and progress in power. There has been a sad loss of interest in the maintenance of integrity in such a polarised society. Polarisation has also been attempted on communal lines but seems on the wane. Electoral knocks have been a better teacher than anything else along with impartial enforcement of law by the higher courts.

Leadership is only another name for excellence. Each man who excels, whatever his profession, is a leader. All political parties should attempt to recruit these natural leaders, including in the farming and manual labour professions, into the top leadership of the country till more basic changes can be made. All excellent men should also stand up to be counted in political leadership on a part-time basis, if not whole time.

One of the misfortunes of our country is that at the very hour at which the country needs its best talent to lead it, the latter has shunned it as the refuge of scoundrels. The cause and effe ct have been strangely confused because the scoundrels have only filled in the gap left by the decent and the talented. For the best among the young, politics after independence became the second option after trying better options in the civil services, the Tata administrative service, or the professions. After the economy has been opened up, a job with a multinational with a five- figure salary has become the best option. The country has been left to the mercies of the second rate, with only some exceptions of entrants from the civil services or some survivors of old-time politics. Some States cannot even boast of second rate leaders, and have been taken over by pretenders or plain criminals. We are therefore in a growing political crisis which can be set right only by an influx of fresh blood of men who can rise above temptations of instant income or fame on the model set by Motilal Nehru, C.R. Das, Subhash Babu, Maharshi Aurobindo Ghosh, Jawaharlal Nehru, Jayaprakash Narayan, Lohia and a myriad other people.

One of the ways to motivate and attract young men to take to politics, whole time or part time, is to impart them the basics of politics in a school of leadership, one of which has been attempted by a School of Politics opened by Sri Seshan at Pune modelled after the Kennedy School of Government in Washington. Some of us are attempting to start a School of Leadership at Patna to address the problem of more poverty-ridden States in the east within the reach of the poorer and weaker section students. We have been promised some international aid if we can also find a local sponsor. We are still on the lookout for one.

The author is the Convenor, Lok Paksha, Patna/ Delhi.

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