Some years ago, during an election in Delhi, we were talking to a group of men and women in one of the northwestern slums. Who is a good leader, we asked. A woman, thirtyish and charmingly opinionated, said “Indira Gandhi”.
“She knew who was poor and who was rich and what each of them needed. She would go from house to house asking after people. For her, everyone was equally important.”
I had a hard time imagining the haughty Mrs Gandhi stepping through those shit-laden lanes and the woman was clearly too young to remember the Emergency and what Sanjay Gandhi actually did to slum dwellers. But she had the right idea: a good leader is one who can make everyone feel that they are important. This is particularly important in a country like India where the weight of historical inequities is enormous and discrimination based on class, caste, religion and gender is a way of life. BR Ambedkar, who knew the pain of that system first-hand, got it exactly right when he wrote: “Democracy is not merely a form of Government. It is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards our fellow men.”
If democracy is to be an articulation of mutual respect, a leader in a democracy leads by showing respect to all. Not agreeing with everybody, of course—a leader leads precisely by giving us direction—but ensuring that every constituency, be it the RSS or Muslim, beef-eater or Jain, gets a polite hearing and a reasoned response.
But a leader is more than just a sympathetic listener. She (or he) needs to ask questions and get people to respond candidly, listen to what they are saying, and be able to engage and sustain the resulting debate. This might sound obvious, but leaders these days are increasingly accorded an oracular status, and it is rare to hear them challenged by members of their own team. Rita Bahuguna had to quit the party before she took on Rahul Gandhi. Critics of Narendra Modi in the BJP are pretty much officially sidelined. And while Arvind Kejriwal talked about how much he values Yogendra Yadav’s advice, that didn’t stop Yogendra from getting expelled.
Yet, most people who have worked with governments have had occasion to ask why a particular policy makes sense (implying that it does not) and have been told that “what to do…the leader had a brainwave….” The norm in today’s India is that leaders are not to be challenged, which is one important reason why so many government programs end up half-baked or worse.
Strangely, when Nitish Kumar recently came out and actually asked for help with figuring out how to implement prohibition, the media reaction was slightly derisive. Instead of praising him for saying that he didn’t know, it seemed to question his wisdom in trying. This is the kind of reaction that reinforces the sense that being questioned or admitting ignorance is a sign of weakness rather than of wisdom, and makes leaders and their hangers-on lash out at interlocutors. What makes a leader great is not the fact that she (or he) has all the answers, but the ability to inspire and empower us to find the answers.
This is, in part, a willingness to take the long view – asking questions is not very useful if you are not willing to wait for the answer. The leader needs to accept that the answer may not be available before the next election.
In part, it is accepting the need to try and (sometimes) fail. It’s not an experiment if success is guaranteed. Whenever we try something new, mistakes will happen. Seemingly good ideas will fail and need to be re-thought. It is no one’s fault and it is the leader’s job to ensure that no one is blamed for those failures. Great leaders share the praise but not the blame.
In part, it is being prepared to look beyond partisan positions and interests. The right answer will sometimes come from the wrong side. Franklin Delano Roosevelt eventually became the greatest liberal leader of 20th century United States, but he started as a fiscal conservative. His greatness is founded in his willingness to change his mind to save his country from the Great Depression.
In this sense, it is a huge pity that the current NDA government did not have the forbearance to let the AAP experiment to play out instead of finding ways to paralyse them — all policy-makers in India could have learnt a lot from AAP’s willingness to take risks and try things out.
And finally, and perhaps most importantly, leadership is talking about ideas and dreams, trying to make us understand why a certain issue deserves our shared attention, scolding us when we are insufficient to our aspirations, inspiring to us aim higher.
Mahatma Gandhi used to do this, and so did Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, Atal Behari Vajpayee and Rajiv Gandhi. But both Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh mostly stayed mum. In the early days of Modi there was a return to this tradition—we once again had a leader who was willing to engage with us at the level of ideas—it mattered less whether we agreed with him. But that quickly got lost in the need to defend partisan causes, and at this point, it is not clear that anyone except his groupies are listening even when he has something important to say. We need that back — we need a leader and not just a glorified manager.
The writer is a Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics, and director, Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, MIT