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Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Rats all: Why leaders prefer to hide from their people

There is a common thread running through all movements:They are demanding
authentic leadership – not its demise

Law Minister Salman Khurshid says misuse of the RTI is affecting “institutional efficacy and efficiency.” His colleague in the Company Affairs Ministry, Veerappa Moily, said much the same thing the other day.

A former chief justice of India asks for an exemption for the judiciary from the RTI – and the Supreme Court is hearing its own plea against the RTI. And Parliament wants to hide behind its privileges – it wants to question and muzzle people who criticise its functioning, whether it is a Prashant Bhushan or someone else.

Why leaders shy away from scrutiny — whether through the RTI or other means — it reminds one of cockroaches disappearing in the dark corners when a light is shone on them. Are our leaders nothing more than people who want to do their work under cover of darkness?

Let’s see more such examples.

Sonia Gandhi will keep her illness a top secret, and rule the country from behind a barbed wire fortress at 10, Janpath. Her son and future prime ministerial hopeful Rahul will descend and mix with the hoi polloi at his own convenience and then disappear behind a security wall. Narendra Modi, Mayawati and J Jayalalithaa will speak to the masses only behind a phalanx of Black Cats.

Why do our leaders need so much shielding from the people?

In the US, people on the right and left – the Tea Partyists and the Occupy Wall Streeters – are showing a marked disdain for traditional leaders – just as the entire Arab world is showing, though less menacingly.

In the UK, ordinary folk used Blackberry messengers to rob and loot: it all started from Tottenham, and copycat riots spread to other cities, including London. In China, the leaders are comfortable with the people only by exercising tight control of the media, and especially the internet. Even simple facts on the economy are taboo subjects. The media outside reports hundreds of local eruptions, nevertheless.

Everywhere, it seems, the governors and the governed are at odds with one another, with ordinary people who defy class and classification coming out on the streets in record numbers.

What is the common message underlying all this? Or, is there a common message at all?

To answer the second question first, there is indeed a common thread running through it all. Even though the reasons for the Arab Spring are different from the Anna Hazare uprising or the Tea Party movement – if you had brought them together they wouldn’t know what to tell one another – one thing is clear: they are demanding openness and democratic governance. They are demanding authentic leadership – not its demise.

Most leaders are afraid of the people – whether it is America or UK or China or India – and unable to speak the whole truth to their people.

One may object: Arabs and Chinese demanding democracy and fighting tyrannies is one thing, but what about functioning democracies like the US, India  and UK, where the people are periodically consulted through a free media and through elections? This, after all, was the argument used to delegitimise the Anna movement: either get voted in or shut up.

The real answer is counter-intuitive: most people have probably quietly concluded that elections are not enough, and democracy needs to mean something more. They want open government, more visible communication between leaders and the led – though they might not put it this way.

The consensus, of course, ends here, for no one knows what the replacement can be to the current system, or how democracy can be deepened and widened. But the angst with the current system or sterile leadership and surface democracy is palpable.

In fact, the protesters may often have completely contradictory positions on issues. The Tea Party may want less government, the Occupy Wall Streeters more government. In Europe, arguments are just beginning on whether the nanny state is failing – as the continent finds welfarism overburdening the exchequer and bringing down jobs and growth.

The Arab Springers may want different things in different places, ranging from better distribution of wealth in some countries and/or more democracy (Saudi, Egypt, Tunisia), removal of tyrants (Syria), or more (or less) Islamisation (Turkey, Iran) .

The Anna Hazare group may want an all-powerful Lokpal to threaten the corrupt, and the Aruna Roys may merely want a better Lokpal.

So, if one were to ask how all these conflicting positions are ever going to be reconciled, there can only be one answer: authentic leadership.

Unfortunately, in most places the leaders are either in hiding or unable to speak the truth to their constituencies. Most leaders are afraid of the people – whether it is America or UK or China or India – and unable to speak the whole truth to their people.

Consider how clearly a Gandhi or a Nehru or an Ambedkar were able to communicate with the people. Gandhi could tell his followers unpleasant things and even suspend a popular agitation when he thought it was going off the rails; Nehru could challenge a communal mob to kill him before they abused Gandhi; Ambedkar could write openly about what he thought of the idea of Pakistan (no one banned his book then, but today we would ban it) and take on Gandhi on his pet foibles. Every one of them was an authentic leader – people who spoke their minds and the truth as they saw it even if they had to lose popular support or lose an argument.

In contrast, today’s leaders globally are afraid of the people. An Obama is unable to tell his people that open trade benefits all (he is telling his people what they want to hear, that protectionist legislation will create more jobs in the US). He is even unable to tell Israel that he will back a Palestinian state since that is the right thing to do – all for fear of the Jewish lobby in the US.

Our own alleged reformer Manmohan Singh is unable to us that the economy cannot go anywhere without reforms, or that he can’t keep subsidising oil products forever. A Rahul Gandhi will not speak a word about the real economy because he is afraid that the poor don’t want to hear the truth about the economy’s ability to pay for his largesse. Sonia Gandhi won’t tell us what ails here because she is afraid whether that will lead to infighting and loss of authority inside her own party.

In the states, no leaders thinks he or she can get elected without bribing the voter – whether it is a Karunanidhi with his TVs or a Jayalalithaa with her laptops or a Raman Singh with Re 1 rice.  The BJP, which wanted the Indo-US nuclear deal when the NDA was in power, went hammer and tongs against it when Manmohan Singh asked the same thing. The BJP wants a Lokpal to cover the PM, but in Gujarat the CM is wary of the Lokayukta.

The Congress wants quotas for Muslims, but doesn’t want to espouse the cause beyond a point, for fear of losing the Hindu vote. It wants a Sachar report to pretend that it will do something for Muslims, but in reality it will not do practical things to help them with education and jobs.

Whether they like it or not, leaders cannot hope to be all things to all people. They cannot pretend to be something to one community and the opposite to another community.

We can go on and on, but the short point is this: leaders everywhere are shying away from leadership. They are suppressing their real views from the public – choosing to be led by populism and opinion polls. In fact, what they are offering is the very opposite of leadership: they are following the mob. Leadership is not about finding a crowd heading somewhere and running ahead of it.

If the disconnect between leaders and the led is to end, and if people have to be sent back to their homes to do things other than protesting, the first step is for leaders to behave like leaders and come out in the open. They have to develop integrity and authenticity – and speak the truth.

India and the world need leaders who are wysiwyg (what you see is what you get), not those who are afraid of the people. The people are out in the streets because our leaders are lurking in the shadows, mouthing falsehoods. Anna Hazare has struck a chord because he is outing this underlying feeling. It is not really about the Jan Lokpal.

Salman Khurshid should stop fretting about the RTI. The RTI is worrisome only for those who have something to hide. If ministers and bureaucrats are afraid of the RTI, it can mean only one thing: all of them have something to hide.

The people are out on the streets because real leaders are in hiding.


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