We have too many successful politicians, but few real leaders | editorials | Hindustan Times
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We have too many successful politicians, but few real leaders

Inspirational leaders, such as Barack Obama, shape opinions, they don’t always go with the flow. We have far too many successful politicians and few real leaders

editorials Updated: Dec 03, 2017 20:06 IST
Barack Obama, former president of the United States, during the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, December 1.
Barack Obama, former president of the United States, during the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit, December 1. (Satish Bate/HT PHOTO)

At the recent Hindustan Times Leadership Summit in the capital, former US president Barack Obama said that politicians take a cue from society. “...frankly, politicians tend to be more of a mirror, and more of a reflection of forces in society,” he said. “Every once in a while they get out ahead and actually lead. But oftentimes, they are reflecting.”

“So, if you see a politician doing things that are questionable, one of the things... is to ask yourself, “Am I encouraging or supporting or giving licence to the values that I am hearing out of the politician.”

Mirroring public opinion, of course, is the surest way to win an election. For instance, across much of Europe and in the US, incomes have not increased significantly in real terms since 2008. People are angry, and are happy to vote for a politician who can create a plausible “them” that’s responsible for the problems of the “us”. In the US, for instance, Donald Trump’s them was immigrants.

But surely, there’s more to leadership than just winning elections? In truth, that’s a very difficult question to answer. India is a parliamentary democracy with a federal structure, with powers divided and shared between the central government and the states. A national party such as the Congress or the Bharatiya Janata Party has to be in constant campaign mode: it’s easier, to some extent, to implement nationwide programmes and push national agendas if the same party is in power in New Delhi and the states; the states are also important because they hold the key to the upper House of Parliament.

Given that parliamentary elections and state elections do not happen together, a national party in India can’t afford to stop campaigning. Indeed, the same analogy can be extended, albeit not as strongly to states and municipal bodies.

Several people, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former President Pranab Mukherjee have spoken in favour of simultaneous elections; as has government think-tank Niti Aayog. “All elections in India should happen in a free, fair, and synchronised manner so as to cause minimum “campaign-mode” disruption to governance,” the body said in an April report.

If that happens, serving governments and politicians will be able to better balance the sometimes conflicting objectives of good governance and winning elections. And if that happens, maybe leaders will finally lead, rather than reflect.

Inspirational leaders, such as Obama himself, do not just reflect societal forces and opinions; they shape them. They are unlikely to stay silent or, worse, go with the flow simply because that’s what’s the majority wants. Like Mahatma Gandhi they believe that “even if you are a minority of one, the truth is the truth.”

And the truth today is simply this: we have far too many successful politicians, but few real leaders.