Why We Must Not Confuse Surnames With Leadership In Election 2019

by Rajeev Srinivasan - Feb 11, 2019 06:08 PM +05:30 IST
 Why We Must Not Confuse Surnames With Leadership In Election 2019Hoardings have come up in various parts of Lucknow to welcome general secretary of Uttar Pradesh East, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. (Deepak Gupta/Hindustan Times via GettyImages) 
  • India needs a deft leader who can navigate the treacherous waters, not someone whose only asset is a surname.

In the last few days, there has been a whirlwind of activity: remembering Mahatma Gandhi on Martyr’s Day, the death of George Fernandes, the march of a few aged Indian National Army (INA) veterans in the Republic Day parade, the alleged interview with Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar by the Congress president, the elevation of Priyanka Vadra to a senior position in the Congress, and the stand-off in Bengal by Mamata Banerjee. It certainly set off a mixture of emotion, not to mention boatloads of op-eds.

To me, the whole issue is about leadership. I wrote in a 1998 essay ‘Chalo Dilli’ (consciously echoing the INA war-cry) wherein I said that we must all invade Delhi, “For Delhi is the worst of India the parasitical Stalinist state, the self-serving, self-perpetuating, corrupting core of all that's wrong with India.” This was before the term ‘Lutyens’ came to encapsulate all that.

Furthermore, I said then, “recognise that the only ingredient missing is leadership”. That ineffable, inexplicable, ineluctable factor that makes a nation great: that we did have in the personae of our freedom fighters, in Subhas Bose, in Gandhi, and more recently, in George Fernandes. Is it possible to put into words what that means?

Purely by chance, I was browsing through the Economist magazine, and came upon a detailed piece about Max Weber (‘The Wheel of History’, 25 January 2019). To be honest, I had heard vaguely about Weber, but had no idea who he was (the article claims he’s ‘the founder of modern sociology’), but the write-up about him and his seminal 1919 lecture, “Politics as a Vocation” was so intriguing that I have to quote it at length:

“For Weber, the true political leader — one for whom politics is a vocation — is characterised by three qualities: passion, a feeling of responsibility and a sense of proportion. The leader has a cause; he or she is not a ‘parvenu-like braggart with power’; whose baseless policies lead nowhere. On the contrary, those marked out for political leadership have ethical backbones and an immense sense of purpose. But these are combined with sober judgment and a deep sense of responsibility. Together these qualities produce politicians who can place their ‘hand on the wheel of history’. It is ‘genuinely human and profoundly moving’ when (like Martin Luther) such leaders say: ‘Here I stand, I can do no other’.”

I would like to place this definition before you to consider who in India exemplifies these three traits. Of all the alleged leaders who are on offer in this election season, who is it? Arvind Kejriwal? Mamata Banerjee? Mulayam Yadav? Chandrababu Naidu? The Congress president? Priyanka Vadra? P Chidambaram? Shashi Tharoor? Narendra Modi? Amit Shah? Nirmala Sitharaman? Piyush Goyal? Who has the cause? Who feels responsible? Who has a sense of proportion? Who is a parvenu-braggart?

I rest my case.

Furthermore, Weber makes a distinction between two types of leaders; one ‘the saint’ and the other ‘the practical’: “... [A German leader, Eisner]... [was] an exemplar of the type of leader guided solely by a determination to stay true to his principles, whatever the consequences. This ‘ethic of conviction’, Weber argued, was the hallmark of saints, pacifists and purist revolutionaries who could blame the world, the stupidity of others or God himself for the impact of their deeds, as long as they had done the right thing. He contrasted that with an ‘ethic of responsibility’ which demanded that politicians own the results of their actions, making moral compromises to achieve those results if necessary”.

Despite its smacking a little bit of Utilitarian, Benthamite perspectives, it is only fair to say that the latter type of leader, who has to compromise with reality, is the more likely to be successful. A saint, like Gandhi, may end up achieving less than he could have and eventually become irrelevant, although it is true that Nelson Mandela managed a pretty good show. But there is also the sad example of ‘purist revolutionaries’ Pol Pot, Che Guevara, and our own Naxals.

In addition, “A modern nation following the democratic path, Weber argued, had two options: rule by bureaucrats and parliamentary cliques acting from self-interest and ‘living from’ politics; or a ‘leadership democracy’ in which a charismatic leader, ‘living for’ politics, commands a party machine that can mobilise voters…. Voters had a choice between irresponsible and responsible kinds.”

There again, you have a crystal-clear differentiation. The former is Congress rule, self-interested and corrupt, run by and for a Lutyens clique of babus, judges and media. The latter is what Modi has brought us for the last five years. Which is better? You be the judge, especially now that AgustaWestland fugitives are showing up in droves. Involuntarily, too. And Mallya, on his way.

The fact is that we are being subjected to mass propaganda, a “manufacturing of consent” in Chomskian terms, when the Congress/Lutyens ecosystem puts forth a narrative of Nehru dynasts as serious contenders for leadership. Narratives do work, as suggested in the recent ‘Theranos and the Dark Side of Storytelling’ in the Harvard Business Review. They create a “willing suspension of disbelief”, as though this were a movie, not real life.

But in fact it could be a movie: The Manchurian Candidate. This is about a candidate for the US president who’s seriously brainwashed by a foreign power (guess which one!): he’s a walking, talking automaton who is programmed to respond to subtle signals from his handlers. As president, he would be a grave threat to the US.

There is the possibility that, similarly, the Congress president may be a ‘Manchurian Candidate’. He may be a decent man (in the same vein as Chance the gardener in Being There, was a decent man) but he’s likely being manipulated by the Svengalis around him who treat him like a wind-up toy and make him perform to please them.

Consider many incidents. One is the Manohar Parrikar episode, wherein the Congress president appears to have manipulated a dying man with terminal cancer, and then lied about their conversation. Earlier, there was the infamous hug and wink in Parliament. Before that, there was the confidential report from the US Ambassador (leaked as part of Wikileaks trove, I think) that suggested that he suffers from worryingly deep psychological problems. Then the recent video where he’s at a podium, and has to be prompted by several around him before he can actually say anything.

I fear the Congress president is going through the motions, trying hard to please his handlers, and ending up causing revulsion. I am reminded of a tweet from @gopimaliwal. He mentioned how the communist-hunter US Senator Joseph McCarthy was asked by a rival, appalled at his vileness: "At long last, have you left no sense of decency, sir?"

Similarly consider Priyanka Vadra. The Lutyens ecosystem went into positively indecent paroxysms of joy when she was announced as a Uttar Pradesh general secretary for the Congress. This, despite her having never once lifted a finger to do anything useful in her entire 47 years.

I fail to see, by Max Weber’s definitions above, what kind of leadership model this brother-sister pair have. Quite honestly, they are not leaders; their only asset is their Nehru dynasty genes. Without this, neither would win any election. They have not demonstrated any leadership ability at any time in their approximately 50 years, and it’s hard to believe they will suddenly do so in future.

Since elections are everything, the Congress has to win 2019. And, as I warned in the case of Karnataka, they will do anything, ANYTHING, to win 2019.

Sadly for the Congress, there is a real problem that they, and the dynamic brother-sister duo face: the natives are fed up of being given a storyline. They are getting restless, and the pitchforks and torches are getting readied. According to Nassim Taleb, there is a pattern where the glib pitches of the elite are being actively resisted by the average bloke on the street: Modi 2014, Brexit 2015, Trump 2016. This pattern may continue.

In the end, it’s the sense of dynastic entitlement that really jars. I might not mind if a real leader were, for instance, a little corrupt: for instance, P V Narasimha Rao, a leader by all accounts, was not exactly lily-white. But someone like the Congress president/Priyanka Vadra who has no accomplishments to speak of, and who will be used as a front by their handlers, is neither entitled to lead, nor should anybody be taken in by the siren-songs on their behalf.

India has everything other than leadership: a fertile land, a clever populace, and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity now to become a great power, as the US and China spar and will probably end up in a conflict – even a proxy war in some part of the world. India needs a deft leader who can navigate these treacherous waters, not someone whose only asset is a surname.

Rajeev Srinivasan focuses on strategy and innovation, which he worked on at Bell Labs and in Silicon Valley. He has taught innovation at several IIMs. An IIT Madras and Stanford Business School grad, he has also been a conservative columnist for twenty years.

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