India’s Leadership Crisis: Myths and Realities


(Brig (retd) GB Reddi)

We are facing leadership crisis in India – both at national, state and even local levels. The ‘collective good of humanity’ and enduring peace as the ultimate ends is hardly any concern of present day leaders. Also, they are least concerned about moral values as means to achieve ultimate ends.

Let me highlight that leadership decline or vacuum or paralysis is a national security threat. And the rise and fall of any regime or nation is a function of leadership in all fields: political, religious, bureaucratic, judicial, media, technological, security forces, corporate, academic, student, labor and NGOs. Importantly, history abundantly proves that effective leadership is by exception only. In reality, leadership cowardice is on grand display obdurately sticking to status quo ante postures when the dire need is “rapid Change” to adapt to emerging environment.

Review of leadership transformations over the past nearly 71 years reveals dangerous shifts – from self sacrificing leadership of freedom struggle to self centric leadership (I-Me-Myself-My Progeny) today at all levels. No wonder, there is gross political mismanagement or policy paralysis.

More importantly, leadership decay in bureaucracy and judiciary is real. Many eminent IAS, IPS and judicial personalities have been lamenting on the erosion of ethical and moral values. Richard Hodder Williams stated “little doubt that basic assumptions of the industrialized world’s bureaucracies – professionalism, impartiality, rationality – are not widely internalized in the Third World.”

Leadership in democracy is a social phenomenon. It springs from the people. It is mutually interdependent and all-inclusive. However, a myopic view is skewed towards dynasty which is perilous. Ipso facto, dynasts, few rich neo-Maharajahs and majority criminals are masquerading as leaders.

Imperfect and ineffective leadership presides over India’s destiny. Rajiv Gandhi stated: leaders are like fences that protect the crops. But today we have leaders who do not serve but oppress the poor, who cheat the state and whose only concern is their private welfare at the cost of the society. They have no work ethic – no feeling for the public cause, no involvement in the future of the nation, no comprehension of the national goals, no commitment to the values of modern India. They have only a grasping mercenary outlook, devoid of competence, integrity and commitment.”

Ipso facto, there is leadership craze what with everyone wanting to become a politician or bureaucrat. Passion for politics is the qualifying condition. Otherwise, it is to become a contractor or businessman. For politics, bureaucracy and business provides easy path to power, wealth and status. No formal grooming is necessary for all such occupations. Accident of birth is a qualifying condition. So, there is no surfeit of elected representatives masquerading as leaders without possessing vision based on profound knowledge of history and sense of service to their constituency.

With 2019 elections soon, every political leader wants to be in the race for the Prime Minister’s post and pose as the challenger against Modi. Most pretenders lack essential qualities of honesty and integrity and who can elevate the national discourse on key issues with mutual respect in an atmosphere of negotiation, conciliation and consensus – upholding basic tenets of democracy.

For example, Rahul Ghandy (RG) is a dynastic leader. Nowadays, RG is just the angry man and most vociferous example. He is operating through deceit, deception, deflection and distraction spreading confusion on the ‘Rafale’ fighter issue with utter disregard national security.  RG is on bail along with his mother in the National Herald case.

Next, N Chandrababu Naidu, the spearhead of Mahaghatabandhan, is yet another leader, who lacks qualities of honesty and integrity, nurturing ambitions for the coveted Prime Ministers post involved in “Cash-for-Vote” scam. Others in line-up include: Mamata Banerjee of the TMC, Deve Gowda of the JD (S), Mayawati of the BSP, among few others waiting for an opportunity to seize.

Ironically, media discourse is mostly leadership-centric at the expense of focusing on more fundamental things like “Strategic Vision or India’s Dream”, Core Strategic interests and objectives (political, diplomacy, social, energy, economy, technology and security forces), grand strategies and policies at the macro or grand strategic level. At the grass root level, hardly there is any debate on population control measures, job creation opportunities, education and health among many others.

Yet another irrefutable fact that is worrisome is ongoing visual and social media coverage which is highly personality-centric partisan depending on patronage. For media, personality centric cacophony and hype attracts viewership and increased TRP status.

As per Burns, “The personality cult – a cult of devils as well as heroes – thrives in both East and West”. So, India is no exception. Personality cults exercise profound impact on common man’s psyche. So, leaders and coteries are deliberately building an invincible halo of Demi-God status by shielding their leaders behind fortresses, gunmen and bulletproof shields.

Personality cult syndrome in free India can be traced to Indira Gandhi, when she imposed emergency rule in 1975-77.  In her pursuit to consolidate power, she gave overriding preference to personal loyalty. Extortion, coercion, vandalism and destruction became the fashion of Indian democracy.  Personality cult promotion campaigns have bred sycophancy among followers instead of grooming leadership qualities.

Furthermore, leaders are employing populism and fudged sloganeering, the means, to grab power – the ends.  “Gharibi Hatao”, “Ham Do, Hamara Do”,  “Atma Gauvaram of six crores of Telugus”, “Rs 2 per Kg Rice and Rs 20 per Sari”,  “Stable Government, and Able Prime Minister”,  “Sonia aisle Neta Hai, Jaise Indira Gandhi The”, and so on, are only a sample of populist and fudged slogans making rounds.  Primarily, they are vote-catching means – the pathways to power. None is concerned about their adverse long-term fallout’s of populism.

Yet another fudged slogan used is “Status quoism represents stability”.  It is used to retain power derived by accident of birth.   Status quoism, based on over centralization bordering on authoritarianism, denotes rigidity and sure recipe for self-destruction.  Devolution of powers and empowerment of people, demassification of democracy, remains an illusion.

In reality, society has reached a point where leaders set the terms for how the society sees the world, rather than society setting the terms for how leaders should serve society. As per modern political pundits, it’s easy to fall into the trap of leader-centrism, because it makes things easier. For leaders, aided by partisan media, frame decisions for people. From complexity, they offer simple choices. But it’s not a recipe for forging the type of consensus required to move forward as a nation.

Unwittingly and unfortunately, people have fallen into the trap deviously played out by political leaders in connivance with media whose sole focus is how to remain in power for self aggrandizement and perpetuate dynastic rule instead of service to the society.

If real leaders need to emerge possessing a sense of shared purpose, and collective responsibility to serve the society and consolidate national security interests, there is a need to mobilize the electorate to focus on key issues affecting their lives and national security. If we want our leaders to appeal to a sense of shared identity, then we need to forge one. We must bridge the divides in our own lives. It will be impossible for our leaders to do it for us. And, developing a shared sense of citizenship in difficult times, rather than merely promising that they are the answer to making the difficult times magically disappear is not easy.

In retrospect, the course of mankind is driven by complex and fluid human relationships. Emotions rather than reason influence their outcomes. Like shifting sands in a desert storm, they alter their shapes. Its fury is inevitable, continuous, cyclical and unstoppable. No society can be free from its vicissitudes. Mankind cannot, therefore, escape the fury of perpetual leadership crisis. Great leaders can manage such turbulent transformations with tenacity on the right course beneficial to nations and humanity. But great leadership – intellectual, moral, transactional and transformational – is yet to be sighted in India.

On reflection, perfect leadership is a conceptual impossibility. History offers abundant proof of large-scale leadership failures, if judged by the criteria outlined in the foregoing. India is no exception.

Indian leadership situational complexities are far more complex than can be ever imagined by aliens. Political parties opt for leaders with corrupt and criminal records due to winning prospects. “Winning” is the sole criteria; popularity is the least concern. People are left with no alternative but to opt for them as their representatives. On being elected, political parties confirm confidence in their credentials by giving cabinet berths. On being elevated to cabinet berths, leaders fail to realize that it is in their self interest to change, but they want to cling to status quo and stick to British Colonial legacy with monotonous stupidity: policy of divide and rule; rule through power brokers – Maharajahs and feudal lords; and laws fit for slaves.  Such is profound absurdity of leadership situation. Why?

Let me provide a perspective of the evolution of leadership thought in outline. As per Aristotle, a prudent statesman should reflect notably justice, courage, moderation, liberality, honor and proper ambition. In the ultimate analysis, the real statesman must balance the practical or national interests of the State with those moral principles upon which the regime is established.

However, the issue of morality in statecraft has always been controversial.  Machiavelli and Nietzsche had detached ethics, morals and values totally from politics. For them, morality plays no role in politics. Leaders act in their own interests. It is called realism or sometimes skepticism or hypocrisy. Instead of shaking out of the shackles of Ruler ship, today’s leaders have succeeded in clinging to it with monotonous stupidity. The familiar motto “the end justifies the means” governs their behavior.

For majority, “evil means have become the real end and the good end forgotten”. They may not admit, but their actions clearly illustrate their penchant for realism or survival or clinging to power at any cost.  Cut-throatism, crime and corruption are the means adopted to somehow grab power.

Consequently, power hungry criminals turned leaders in the garb of neo-Maharajahs; neo-feudal lords and nouveau-rich industrialists with insatiating greed are hell bent upon grabbing power in the name of democracy.  It is grossly unfair to single out any one for special mention.  All alike are only manifestations of such an ugly process. No wonder, self-interests predominate over societal and national security obligations.

Leaders are least concerned about the prevailing chaos, anarchy and violence – instability and uncertainty. Quite often, leaders create crises by hurling provocative, adversarial and acrimonious personal allegations against each other knowing full well that slender are the margins that separates them character wise. Following crisis proliferations rebounding on them, they are at a loss to resolve them amicably. Suffice to highlight that the hostile situations of today are self destructive processes initiated by leaders themselves only, which have passed beyond their leadership competence.

So, finding a middle ground between the two extremes is the biggest challenge for the Indian political leadership. Having cultivated, promoted and practiced the Machiavellian twist, they cannot suddenly change gear and switch towards the middle ground and strike a perfect balancing chord.  It is a major challenge for modern statecraft.

More significant to understand is the need for transformational leadership either through reform or revolution – peaceful or violent. Reforms are not easy to promote. Few rich may favour reform for they may favour their interests, but the poor majority favour revolution. The middle class in India neither favors reform or revolution or status quo. It swings the way the wind blows. Reforms are a tedious and time-consuming process. The tale of their cost-over runs and missed opportunities are legendary.

By contrast, leadership requirements for managing revolutions are more demanding. High quality leadership is an imperative for ushering and managing revolutions.  But, it is fraught with many dangers. Many may not survive to witness its follies or fruits.

Indian political leadership may promise electoral reforms and the moon. Today’s leadership symbols, flaunted to demonstrate power in the garb of personal security, reflect truly leadership cowardice in democracy. Indian leader’s penchant for personal security is enormous: fortress type houses, gunmen, bulletproof screens and AC cars and cellular phones. As a consequence, leaders distance themselves from people whom they are supposed to represent and serve in a democracy.

In sum, India’s leadership prospects are poor. People are opting for leaders with corrupt and criminal records. Political parties are confirming confidence in their credentials by giving cabinet berths. Bureaucracy has become sycophantic, supine and covetous. They fail to realize that it is in their self interest to change, but they want to cling to status quoism and stick to British Colonial legacy with monotonous stupidity: policy of divide and rule; rule through power brokers – Maharajahs and feudal lords; and laws fit for slaves.  Such is the profound absurdity of leadership situation. If leadership degeneration is quite grim, enlightened leadership prospects are bleak.

Four essential steps must be implemented if we are earnest to stem the leadership rot.  First, carryout a de novo review of the Constitution and opt for a system, structure and processes suitable to promote effective leadership to emerge at polls.   Second, organize institutional programs to develop dynamic leadership qualities among elected representatives on the basis of moral values.  Third, restore professionalism, particularly in judiciary, bureaucracy and other essential services. Finally, ratify laws on their Code of Conduct and enforce them without fear or favour. Current realities do not lend hope for such a prospect. Future alone can dictate its course.