Contrarian views on the leadership challenge that is affecting India’s anti-corruption debate
As I was following news updates on India’s 64th Independence day, it was nearly impossible to miss that anger against the omnipresent corruption, was the dominant theme across the country. Well at least, that was the case for middle class Indians and NRIs, and we tend to believe that our India is the only India
To make an objective assessment of the state of the nation on the eve of its 65th birthday is a complicated exercise. For more intelligent people and institutions than I am, have attempted that exercise with mixed results, and I won’t go there.
But I am going to write about a specific theme that I refer to as nation builders, in the context of the anti-corruption movement, and argue that we are below the pass mark in this regards
The structure of this article would be to assess our quality of nation builders, and the context of the anti-corruption movement separately, and then conclude on how the lack of quality amongst our national builders, has skewed the anti-corruption debate in the wrong direction
To start with, I lay down, 5 broad categories of people (in no particular order), who are behind successful institutions of all sorts (be it a sports team, or a country, or a business). The emphasis would be on countries though:
- Do-ers / Activists
- Thinkers / Intellectuals
- Change agents / Innovators
- Artists / Entertainers / Evangelists
In my opinion, most successful countries have good systems & processes, governance mechanisms, advantages of nature, and many other contributing factors. But where the human capital / leadership, does not have a healthy balance of the above, it is difficult to see the long term success and stability of that country
Each and every one of us combines a few of the traits above, and it is difficult for one to be only a do-er or a thinker. But some primary traits dominate the other traits, and hence the categories. Also, some extraordinary figures in history have combined multiple traits in a rare way: for example Rabindranath Tagore was a thinker, artist, change agent, all rolled into one person
The do-ers / activists
These are the people, who do not necessarily think much, but have the passion, energy and time to jump to contribute to any cause. These are excellent foot soldiers, who under proper guidance and command from a superior of higher intellectual capacity, do an extraordinary job for a cause. Think of the soldiers that brave all odds for their countries, the people who take to streets for various revolutions that have shaped modern history, the millions that believed in Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King’s methods, or millions of others who heeded Subhash Chandra Bose’s call.
The ideas or causes may not exactly be their original views, but once they sense some cause worth fighting for, they are out on the streets, literally.
They would typically do well when the leadership that drives them has an intellectual and a moral authority. They would create havoc where there is no high standard of leadership, such as the Al Qaeda terrorists, or the looters of the recent UK riots.
Thus, these set of people can be a the source of enormous power or enormous tragedy to a country, depending on how they are utilized
The thinkers / intellectuals
These are the philosophers, writers, speakers, gurus, scientists who shape our thinking. These people dedicate their life to widening their knowledge and sharing that with us.
When combined with the right circumstance and a receptive society, they leave a significant impact on us, which lasts beyond their lives. Think of Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, Karl Marx, Leo Tolstoy, and many others.
Some of the thinkers can also be guilty of being idealists, or dreamers, or way ahead of their time. But, while we may not necessarily agree with their views, we cannot deny their massive influence and legacy.
The very survival of a nation, without the pragmatists, is impossible. These people are the engines on which nations run, and while it is possible to somehow get through without the other categories of nation builders, without pragmatic leaders, we simply cannot survive
Think of all sorts of kings and leaders staring from Emperor Ashoka, to Nelson Mandela, and that ability to balance between thought and action shines through.
Quite often, pragmatists are well read, intelligent, and capable of thought as well as action. But by ceding ground to the intellectuals and the do-ers in their respective areas of strength, they play a crucial role of running the show.
While it is possible for the do-ers / thinkers to be away from the mainstream politics, a pragmatist is one who would get his hands dirty in the mud of politics, to lead, govern, think, and shape the society.
In my opinions, some of the best pragmatic leaders of civilization would have made fine do-ers or thinkers, if they chose to prioritize one aspect over other.
India was at once stage blessed with a plethora of pragmatists such as B.R Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Vallabhai Patel, but sadly there is absolutely nobody of that stature and class today. The only two people who have come close are Atal Behari Vajpayee, and Manmohan Singh (at least circa 1990s, and UPA1)
It is ironic that we have a shortage of pragmatic leaders. I genuinely believe, many Indians are very pragmatic in their approach to daily life (career, family life, community activities etc), but cut to the political class – even at a local MLA level, we are found wanting here
The change agents
These are people with a burning flame to achieve something extraordinary, in a focus area of their choice, and leave a lasting impact on their small scope
Think of all sorts of innovators, entrepreneurs / business men, and social activists working for a specific cause.
Many of them are virtually unknown outside of their sphere of work, but within that domain they have played exceedingly well
Think of those who shaped India’s position of dominance in IT service, the guy who created a program to feed hungry people in South India, the guy who decided to build a casino in the middle of nowhere and make Las Vegas virtually out of dessert sand, think of Ramesh Ramanathan who decided to quit a successful corporate career and start Janaagraha in Bangalore (An organization whose philosophy I admire tremendously, and have volunteered for. It is possible that the movie Swades was loosely based on his life).
There are many more such innovators in all sorts of fields, in different parts of the country, and I am always excited to learn more about such “real life heroes”, as I call them. One such website I have started following recently is: http://www.thebetterindia.com/
These people are quite often out of the mainstream politics / governance of a nation and each has their niches. But successful societies have many such home grown heroes in many small towns across the nation.
In fact, one of the foundations for America’s success was its emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation.
The Artists / entertainers / evangelists
This is a broad category comprising people in the performing arts, literature, who do a dual job of entertaining, as well as spreading a message.
To me, this layer is the icing on the cake, where a nation has a good base on the other layers. It is the crucial, final step in a country’s progress, and interestingly many nations get there even when there is not much governance / development.
The power of a good musician, or a brilliant writer, or an actor, is too strong to be impacted by other aspects of the country. India is by itself a wonderful example of how you can have a thriving arts and expression scene, without having to necessarily build infrastructure, or be an economic power.
And our arts scene, has also been blessed with many tall figures who have lent their hands for socio political causes ranging from women’s empowerment to the present day anti – corruption movement.
This also includes the opinion makers in the media, who shape our public perceptions. I use the word evangelists for them, and I hope you understand that it’s not in the context of a Christian preacher!
Lack of quality leadership in the context of the anti – corruption movement:
Now, I am going to jump into the topic of the anti-corruption movement, and look at how a cross section of the people who have strong opinions here, have got it so wrong.
Firstly, for some context into the root causes of the massive demonstrations, protests, and fasts:
- Un-precedented corruption across levels of public service. The mess, should never have been so bad, and its time all of us acknowledge the extent of the loot. There is enough written about the various scams in the public domain, so I would not elaborate
- Stalled / half-baked economic reforms, implying that babus still have enormous political and economic clout in the system. This was best seen in the auction of the 2G licenses, where the telecom ministry enjoyed massive discretionary powers, that should never have existed in the first place
- Addition of unnecessary political layers such as the NAC, instead of reducing the layers of governance / policy making. Today, the Congress party has no legitimate grounds to term the civil society movement as extra constitutional, as it started the trend by creating the NAC. The NAC was the Gandhi family’s brain child to enjoy enormous political power, with zero accountability
The context above set the ball rolling for various actors to get involved in various capacities in the anti – corruption movement such as the “Civil society” members of Anna Hazare’s team, the Yoga Guru Baba Ramdev, the 24*7 news media, the layman Indian activists online and on the streets, and even members of the arts world
Faced with media grilling, protest marches all over, and opposition baying for blood, and a leadership in hibernation, the ruling congress dug itself into an even deeper hole with its dictatorial tone against protestors. By cracking down on protestors, by creating a diluted and idiotic Lokpal Bill version, and by fostering false accusations against those leading protest, the Congress has taken our politics to its lowest and ugliest level.
Together with our media, they have made a Gandhi out of a well-intentioned, but not so pragmatic man and his movement, and they have made a Bose out of a maverick yoga guru. Most sadly, the Gandhi family (no relation to the Mahatma Gandhi) does not want to acknowledge the role of unfinished reforms kick started by its own party leaders (Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh). Instead, it just wants to indulge in populist measures, targeted for votes in upcoming elections, as if money grows on trees. I don’t expect much from the Gandhi family, but what the hell are intelligent people such as Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, and P. Chidambaram smoking?
But has the rest of the country that’s not in the ruling country, shown their leadership traits? Absolutely not, and here is what they are guilty of:
The Civil society members believe their solution to the problems (aka Jan Lokpal Bill, with some decent, and many outrageous provisions) is the sole one, and are un-willing to follow democratic processes. For example I found the idea that Ramon Magsasay award winners should be on the Jan Lokpal bill team, plainly laughable. Why not film fare award winners, or Arjuna award winners?
(By the way, if you have not read either of the bills, you have no business commenting on the issue)
I at least have some respect for Anna (for his age and his work in rural Maharasthra), Kiran Bedi, the Bhushans, and Arvind Kejriwal. But Baba Ramdev takes the lunacy a few notches further. Notwithstanding his scientifically shallow statements on AIDS and other diseases, his proposals for making India free of corruption are pipe dreams at best
The Opposition BJP is trying to ride bandwagon without having a clear strategy. No neutral person could miss the BJP’s hypocrisy in being cheer leaders for the civil society team in Delhi, while attacking civil society member Justice Santosh Hegde of Karanatka Lok Ayukta, who exposed its corrupt CM Yediyurappa. Also, BJP is shooting a lot of self-goals, as it won’t take Congress any time to create a dozen Hazare’s and Ramdev’s if BJP were to come to power. Any opposition party in the world, with half a brain, would not have ceded so much political ground to hitherto unkown actors, when the ruling party is in such a deep mess. The BJP’s tactics of late, have been suicidal to put it mildly
The media, especially the TV media makes heroes out of Anna and Ramdev one day, only to take them down the next day. Neither of the extreme caricatures are true, and it is a reflection of the confusion, power collusion, idiocy, and hypocrisy in our media, The Indian Express has been consistently critical of the movement, and while I personally would take the criticism a couple of notches down, I am impressed with their consistency on the issue. The TV channels are guilty of creating a spectacle for their TRPs, and changing tunes to suit their political chums
The intellectuals are taking criticism of the people’s movement to an extreme level, and not spending sufficient energy on articulating their solutions, some of them actually very good. I’ve personally enjoyed reading the views of the Pragati national interest group: http://pragati.nationalinterest.in/ There are more such blogs, but you may not have seen them, because most of them are too busy making Anna Hazare jokes up on Twitter / Facebook / SMS. And you may also not have read them because you don’t care enough. All of us need instant 2 minute solutions to fix the country’s problems, and the moment somebody has something that provokes a thought, but is more than one sentence long, we have lost interest
The angry middle class people, are jumping at an opportunity to “do something” without reading or understanding anything, leave alone having an intellectual approach to the debate. Where the intelligence fails, so does the standard of debating, as I‘ve seen a thousand people mushroom overnight on the internet claiming to be the sole saviours of India. I find this growth of internet experts deeply disturbing, as they do not believe in a civilized debate, do not want to learn, and are adamant in taking the my way or highway route to every topic
The polarization amongst the various categories above , leading to silly generalizations such as “If you don’t support Anna Hazare, you are a traitor”, or “Anna Hazare fan boys have no brains and no say in political discourse”, or worse still “All Anna Hazare supporters are RSS members”. First of all, it’s not a crime to be affiliated to RSS, although I hold absolutely no brief for them; and secondly it does not reach some people’s brain that you can have a view on a given topic that is similar to RSS’s views, without having any affiliation with them
The absolute lack of application of brains to think, read, understand, and come up with solutions to this problem is shocking. I don’t have any magic bullets to solve corruption, as it involves multiple things to happen over a period of time (more reforms – especially opening up sectors such as retail, less government, strengthening democratic institutions instead of creating more extra constitutional layers such as NAC or Lokpal, more awareness campaigns on different forms of corruption etc )
I am deliberately not elaborating on this although I have some views to fill a blog post, as I am humble enough to say I am not an expert. Also, the few good experts I know have done a far better job articulating them in their words. I would urge you to read a plethora of blogs, publications and magazines to open yourself to different and innovative ideas on tackling this problem in sustainable way, without having to take to the streets. I hope to read, share, and be educated on well thought out solutions, to a complicated problem
So, how has our modern society shown leadership, especially in the context of the anti-corruption movement (using a scale that reads: Poor – Average – Good)
Doing / Activism: Good
I would say that the only good thing that has come out, and would be proved right in the long run, is a middle class waking up from a slumber. The bulging middle class is not indifferent any more, and is taking socio political involvement beyond their coffee table discussions. They are hopelessly wrong in the present episode with their logic and approach, but in the long run, you would rather take a stupid public, than a dead one. I hope I am proved right on this
Thinking / Intellect: Average
We have some experts, and lots of good ideas, but most of the country does not read blogs or listens to 1 hour lectures on tackling corruption (On an average, I would say only 1 out of every 10 visitors to this blog would have read so far, without leaving out of boredom, or because I said something about someone they are a fan of). And they do tend to have a class bias in that mocking / condescending tone used for Anna or Baba. Further, they ought to be doing a far better job of evangelizing their few good thoughts.
Pragmatic leadership: Poor
Here is a question to those who don’t vote: why they hell don’t you vote? Here is a question to those who do vote: why do you still vote for a caste / community / family name, and then crib you don’t have good leaders.
The consequence of the apathy above, is reflected in the quality of our political leadership, and no major party or leader has shown good leadership in this episode.
Change / Innovation: Poor
In this context, a few success stories would have made an overall impact on the national mood. But our economic growth has stalled, inflation is high, worries of recession impact is high, and economic success stories are far and few in between. A few success stories may not get rid of corruption, but do help to keep our spirits and brains on a high.
Artistic expression: Good
Bollywood, TV and radio shows, artistes of all hues have donned the hats of activists, and the same assessment that applies for the activists, holds for them as well. On a slightly different topic, the convergence of mainstream commercial movies and what we used to call earlier as Art films, means that we are exposed to some good ideas and messages in films such as (to name a few on top of my head): Rang De Basanti, 3 Idiots, Lage Raho Munnabhai, Swades. The quality of books coming out on Indian issues, is also good, so not many complaints here.
Juxtaposing the two strains of thought, I would conclude that in the most vital areas of political leadership / pragmatism, intellectual capacity and innovation, we fare very poorly, while we are doing okay with activism and expression. It’s almost like running a car equipped with excellent tyres, mirrors, and seats, without a good engine.
That engine of pragmatic, strong, and responsible political leadership, is at the heart of any good democracy. And the heart of a democracy is its diverse people. While some of our ignored people cried their hearts out, we Indians of middle class India slept. We were blind to the pains of the underprivileged, the tribals, and the poorest of the poor in our hinterlands. Today, we wake up with tremendous energy and are firing on all cylinders, albeit in the wrong direction. How different are we from the tribals up in arms against the corrupt leaders in their regions? The voting class is more awake than ever before, and the best way to use the energy is at the time of elections, by voting for, demanding for, endorsing for, and evangelizing for the few good leaders we have , cutting across our party, caste, community, class, and language biases.
The process of the change in politics would be slow, painful, and bumpy, but there is no better way, as every other alternate form to democracy, is fraught with far more dangers.
If in the meanwhile, you really want to do something useful there are many different ways to do so. You could do so be a change agent, show your skills as an entrepreneur and provide employment to a few people. You could contribute money, or volunteer for a cause. If you can sing, dance or write, you could use that skill to support various causes. Or just by merely trying to read more, understand deeper, and sharing your knowledge with others, you could do your two cents to the society. You don’t have to sit and fast on the streets, or force people to do so, to be a useful contributor to the society.
I personally aspire to be a Pragmatist / change agent, based on my introspcection of my qualities, and personal situation.
After all the evolution in the leadership quality, starts with each and every one of us, so before we expect a sea change from our ruling class, we have to be prepared to take a few baby steps in our lives.
Since, I first published this blog, L’affaire Lokpal has become a soap opera that our 24*7 media has lapped up. Irrespective of who comes out on the winning side between team Anna & the government, the media houses are clearly smiling at their triumph.
But I am happy that finally some intelligent views have started emerging. First up, I was really impressed with Arun Jaitley’s speech in the parliament questioning the government’s handling of Anna. The gist of his brilliant oratory was: 1. You copied up to Anna first, 2. Then you dealt him with an iron hand, and created a mess, 3. BJP may not agree with many of Anna’s demands, but supports his right to protest, 4. The government should have handled this subject with much more political tact.
As an unexpected by-product, our parliamentarians have woken up, taken cognizance of the world looking at them, and are starting to show their responsible face.
Here is the link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zsVVIoTaDCE
Then, Nandan Nilekani defended the existing parliamentary institutions of our democracy, in a far better way than most veteran politicians can manage. He is of course focussed on his UID project and how it can change retail corruption, and he is showing a lot more respect to our parliamentarians, than many of us would. But his views are worth hearing nevertheless. And, I wish congress leaders who are in silent mode, listened to his speech and took down some notes:
In the meanwhile, Team Anna is hell-bent on riding the emotional wave of last few weeks, and ramming down its version of the Lokpal bill down our throats. I was wondering how Anna and co have become so stubborn, and dictatorial, but as more articles and interviews emerged on their backgrounds, it all makes sense now.
Here is a brilliant profile of Arvind Kejriwal, by the Caravan magazine:
And here are some stories you may not have heard, about the Anna whose name is on your T Shirt or cap:
I still remain firm in my views, that the so-called intelligent class has to hard sell its solutions (Nandan style), and not attack the personalities in Anna’s camp. But it is revealing to read about how Anna runs Ralegaon Siddhi (beating up drunk people, insisting on his solutions, moral policing), and I shudder to think of the wider negative impact when such people gain more political power.