Wednesday, September 21, 2011
Where are the leaders when you need them ?
It is difficult to define what leadership is. Some may say it is the social influence you exercise to attain a particular goal, others say it is instinctive, exercised by the leader of a wolf pack or a silverback gorilla.
Others see it simply as a management skill, to be taught and learnt. Most people would put it down to influence, and throw in words like “charisma” for good measure. But they would also say that a leader has the ability to inspire others to do their best, or bring out the best in a people. It is not surprising that leadership often reveals itself in the midst of a crisis. This is the time you need that other great feature of a good leader— the ability to take risks and go beyond the seeming logic of events.
Anna Hazare put it this way in his TV marathon of Tuesday evening, “Jab sankat hota hai to bhagwan ek aadmi khara kar deta hai (Whenever there is crisis God gives us the man)”. With self deprecating modesty he did say he was not sure whether he was the chosen one. Messiahs are, of course, part of the religions of the Book, sent to rescue frail mankind in their hour of crisis. But messiahs are for believers, usually giving short shrift to the unbelievers. In another category, alas too frequently in history, is the Man on the Horseback who promises so much and eventually brings great misery.
Today, most of the world is in a crisis of sorts. Economies have tanked, jobs are scarce, politics are adrift, worse, there are countries at war. The blood and iron of a war has thrown up great leaders in the West — Pitt the Younger, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. Yet, strangely, the one thing that seems marked by its absence, is the lack of leadership everywhere—the US, India, Japan, Europe.
The 10-year old War against Terror seems to have had quite the opposite effect. It has shown up the leader of the Free World, George Bush, as a bumbler extraordinaire who single-handedly undermined the effort by veering off to fight a war against Iraq. So we have the quagmire in Afghanistan, and the new threats in Somalia and Yemen. If anyone’s leadership stands out in this period it is of the Amir ul Momineen, Mullah Omar.
For a while it appeared that Barack Obama, he of the soaring rhetoric, would seize the mantle of leadership. But sadly, he has been all talk. His team misread and mismanaged the US economic crisis and the result is another quagmire, this time at home. Of course, he has lacked that other thing that all good leaders must have: luck. With Europe also going into a tailspin and the Afghan war not making any headway, the Obama presidency seems doomed and can only be redeemed by the fact that his Republican challengers in the next elections are pygmies compared to even him.
The situation in Europe is no better. Leaders of UK, France or Germany seem to be helpless in the face of the slowly unfolding Eurozone crisis, layered upon the failure of their social policy defined by the word “multiculturalism”. David Cameron set out on his prime ministership with broad bold strokes, but the past six months seem to have reduced his swagger. He has lost the opportunity to reform the NHS, and the recent riots have put a question mark over his other social policies. Nicholas Sarkozy was mooted as a leadership icon when he was first elected but he has not worn his crown well. Polls suggest that resentment against Sarkozy’s leadership style and lack of results runs deep in his country.
Angela Merkel has never been the flashy leader of the Sarkozy variety. But her hesitation in dealing with the economic crisis has doomed her as well in the eyes of the electorate. The situation in Japan is too obvious to comment on. Here is a country that has had six prime ministers in the last five years.
You will not find great leadership elsewhere either. Vladimir Putin has belied the hopes that had accompanied his rise in Russia and the prospect of a renewed presidential term next year inspires little confidence in a country that seems to be drifting. Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao have done well, but not so much as leaders in the class of Deng Xiaoping, being highly able bureaucratic caretakers who have taken China to great heights. The world still awaits a display of genuine leadership from China, whether on some difficult domestic issue, or the larger world where China has become so much more important.
In his first term, goaded perhaps by his Leftist “allies” the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh displayed considerable leadership qualities in, for example, taking the Indo-US nuclear deal and pushing it through his party and parliament, providing a stable riot-free polity after the trauma of Gujarat 2002. In the second term we only see drift. Perhaps it is a function of his peculiar situation of being a leader without a party, or maybe age has caught up with him. Clearly, he seems to have lost two vital leadership ingredients—a fire in his belly and the stomach to take risks.
In the Opposition there are people who have leadership qualities. Two of them stand out, Mayawati and Narendra Modi. But, their record reveals deep flaws which does not bode well for the future, were they to be thrust in a larger role. Self-centred Mayawati has given little to her state in terms of good governance, not even to the Dalits.
On the other hand, while Modi has provided good governance in his state, he has a deep moral flaw arising from his handling of the 2002 Gujarat massacres. The issue is less whether Modi, then new to his job, planned the violence, but
more about his cynical use of the killings to consolidate his own position and
his very public lack of remorse for what happened.
India can therefore partake of schadenfreude from the awareness that we are not the only ones who are suffering from a lack of leadership. But that does not alter our predicament, just as it does not give comfort to the Americans, the Japanese and the Europeans. But the needs of a desperately poor country, confronted with the opportunity of an era, are much greater.
Our leadership cannot just run the system, as the Chinese leaders have been doing, or allow it to run down as the Americans and Europeans are doing. They need to do things. Someone has to fix our education system whose products are unemployable, or agriculture which has been underperforming for the past two decades. Or, provide a health care system that will prevent the poor from being beggared, or move 400 million people from marginal agriculture to the factory in short order.
No doubt many of the unfortunates we have discussed would bemoan the circumstances into which they have been thrown— Nine Eleven, the financial crisis of 2008, the Eurozone debt crisis of 2009 and so on. They are good men, thrust into conditions they are not able to control or alter. But it is only such circumstances in which we look to our leaders and in which their qualities are tested.
For the present we can only await that leader and hope that we do not get someone who has a direct line to god, or a fuehrer determined to take us to his version of a Ram Rajya.
Mail Today September 21, 2011