In Indian politics, a leadership deficit
It is unlikely that we will return to a benign global environment given the permanent changes precipitated by the virus, climate crisis, technological disruptions, geopolitics and massive economic uncertainty driven by asset bubbles and imbalances in government finances
“The buck stops here”: President Truman displayed this plaquette in the Oval Office as he went about the task of rebuilding the new world order post- World War II (WWII). Is there any contemporary politician who reminds us of this core ethic? Long gone are the days of Lal Bahadur Shastri who resigned taking full accountability for a train accident. All we see today are increasing levels of chicanery, expertise and sophistication in the game of passing the buck, especially in times where crisis leadership is required.
It is unlikely that we will return to a benign global environment given the permanent changes precipitated by the virus, climate crisis, technological disruptions, geopolitics and massive economic uncertainty driven by asset bubbles and imbalances in government finances. In an interconnected world, a crisis is unlikely to be contained irrespective of its origin; and will be exacerbated by the underlying social inequities and economic divides.
India will not be isolated from this mega trend. Do our leaders across the political spectrum demonstrate the ability to navigate such an environment where they need to deal with existential threats to the well-being of citizens? Do they have the skills for crisis leadership? Leadership has always been about driving positive change and establishing order amid chaos, but now the scale of the challenges will be far less predictable and controllable. The one institution with the mandate and resources to address these challenges is the central government with a capable federal leadership.
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Stewardship of public trust and a commitment to public good is the most crucial of such traits for those who volunteer to don the mantle of providing leadership with access to immense resources, power and influence provided by the will of its people.
Unfortunately, public trust in leadership has eroded considerably across the world driven by Bolsanaro, Trump, Duerte and Erdogan. In India too, despite unparalleled social capital, Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces his toughest challenge in this regard now. Rahul Gandhi has not demonstrated the leadership to handle even intra-party crises, and must single handedly bear the responsibility for transforming India to a virtual one-party democracy and leaving citizens to face the consequences. Many regional leaders are adopting the dynastic way with a concomitant rise in family wealth garnered from the business of politics. The larger political system has an increasing number of public representatives with corrupt, criminal antecedents.
In such a polity, public trust and moral stature in leadership are non-existent precepts and, when a crisis with increasing complexity hits us again, we will remain exposed in the absence of crisis leadership skills to navigate these at the highest political levels.
Crisis leaders bear some common characteristics. They are thoughtful; they realise that confronting the truth of the crisis which they cannot control is essential to overcoming it; they know how to strike the fine balance between realism and unbridled optimism; they are inclusive and have the humility to accept the role of luck in success rather than claim credit for every positive outcome. This is vital for credibility, which, in turn, is necessary to rally a nation behind an articulated strategy to overcome a crisis. Dwight Eisenhower publicly admitted the role of the weather in the D Day victory at Normandy in WWII. Creating a sense of trust and hope by clear, repeated communication drives the community to collectively adapt, prepare and then jointly fight a crisis. Winston Churchill, and more recently Andrew Cuomo, created benchmarks for crisis leadership amid catastrophic, ambiguous circumstances. So did Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narasimha Rao.
Developed over the years, the four-point leadership playbook is standard. Accept responsibility; be the role model for the behaviour you need the public to follow using your own body language, words, and actions to signal conviction in the stated strategy; say you are sorry when things go wrong, confront and systemically fix the problem; communicate transparently, hold yourself accountable to the stated goals while adapting to evolving circumstances. Under such leadership norms, the team of ministers and bureaucrats instinctively rally behind the leader.
A consultative approach with different stakeholders gets the best output in terms of innovative ideas. John F Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 is a benchmark of consultative but firm leadership known as “group think” which provides a sound basis for innovative thinking till today.
Today’s bureaucrats, though, infer the pursuit of truth to be a risky proposition and feel constrained in an atmosphere where sacrificing the ethics of management on the altar of public relations campaigns have impacted performance culture at all levels. Commencing with creeping data integrity issues in the budget documents from 2011 it has now transmuted to various statistical figures, including under-reporting of cases and deaths in many states, where floating dead bodies jarred us to the state of data integrity challenges today. The solicitor general’s assertions in the Supreme Court that there was no migrant labour crisis in 2020, or oxygen crisis in 2021, indicate the extent of the trust deficit facing us. Resignations of the chairman of the National Statistical Commission, chief economic adviser, vice-chairperson of Niti Aayog and chief of the scientific advisory group on Covid-19 (INSACOG) tell their own story.
Winning elections and good governance require two different skill sets which both politicians and voters need to recognise. Irrespective of an individual’s political persuasion, a nation needs a competent, thoughtful and accountable government to navigate the challenges of public health, economy, environment and security in an increasingly fragile world. Politicians with mass appeal and social capital must use it to create governance frameworks with competent teams which deliver. Voters too must support leaders with intellectual acuity and stellar governance records, ignoring considerations of religion, caste and infantile myths of personal infallibility crafted by their acolytes.
Both must happen soon. Given that goodwill and popularity are depreciating assets, placing hope over experience is no longer an option.
Prabal Basu Roy is a Sloan Fellow of the London Business School
The views expressed are personal