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Home > India > News > Columnists > Prem Trivedi

Politics: Crisis of leadership, not capacity

May 23, 2008

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The Indo-United States nuclear deal.  Violent clashes between the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Bharatiya Janata Party. Inflation. Agricultural distress. India's policy on Tibet [Images].

All widely disparate issues, yet they have this in common -- they were all justifications for disruptive acts of protest that rendered India's Parliament nonfunctional in 2008.  The situation is so bad that Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee notes: 'Considerable time is lost in Parliament due to disruptions, having gone up from five per cent in the 11th Lok Sabha to 21 per cent in the present one.'

Chatterjee might have one of India's most thankless jobs. He insists that shutting down Parliament to make a point 'subverts the very process of functioning of our legislatures', and threatens to erode people's faith in 'our democratic polity'.  He is right -- but who is listening? The Parliamentarians, at whom the message was addressed, were all out -- protesting.

These fractious disagreements don't just waste taxpayers' money; they point to a problem that is arguably the biggest threat to this young democracy. As former Punjab Director General of Police and until his sacking recently the head of the Indian Hockey Federation K P S Gill wrote in The Pioneer: 'The political discourse in India has grown so muddy, so partisan and so utterly adversarial, that there is not a single issue -- however critical it may be to the national interest -- on which a minimal consensus can be reached.'

The political wrangling over the nuclear deal is one example. Even if the nuclear deal goes through, the United Progressive Alliance government's hand-wringing indecision has damaged hopes that India can tackle tough domestic or international challenges with constancy of purpose. The deal offers its share of real controversy, but one can hardly dispute that political theatre has prevailed over what could have been a valuable debate on the trajectory of India's foreign policy.

A plea for some consensus is not a plea for political homogeneity. The problem is that meaningful consensus eludes leaders on issues far more urgent than the nuclear deal, like declining agricultural productivity and farmer suicides, for example. Consensus also goes missing on issues that should trouble leaders of every ideological hue, such as structural crises at all levels of education. When confronted with massive challenges, a smoothly functioning democracy must balance lively debate with the formation of credible coalitions that act swiftly.

Instead, partisan rancour has prevailed, and many Indians are angry. The media calls for political courage and denounces the short-term calculations that drive political parties' decision making. It's easy to blame self-serving and short-sighted political parties, but the fact is that there are still well intentioned and well qualified politicians.  What we need to ask is why their good intentions aren't enough to overcome factionalism and political opportunism more often.

There are two primary root causes. The first cause is something we hear about fairly often -- structural impediments to cooperation. India's diversity of ethnicity, class, caste, language, and religion is tremendous. Second, its election cycles are unpredictable and often held at the whim of a ruling party. Third, the first past-the-post electoral system encourages politicians to spend more time on electoral math than on building broad-based coalitions or investing in first-class support staffs.  The result of all these factors is a short-term politics dominated by vote bank politics and cash handouts. Dissatisfied voters routinely pull the plug on incumbents, and both sides are caught in a web of mutual mistrust. It's no surprise, then, that electoral politics has produced a plethora of competing interest groups that diminish the possibility of consensus.

We certainly can't wish away India's diversity, nor should we want to see a homogenised India. Diversity ought to be India's greatest strength not just on paper, but also in reality.  But it's a formidable challenge to change the rules of the political game so that they enable more constructive expressions of this diversity.  Amending these rules depends upon parties and politicians forging the most improbable of non-partisan accords, and will take time. Even as they lobby for these changes, reform-minded Indians must start finding ways to exert more influence right now.

The second -- and most fundamental -- cause of divisive politics is a collective failure to make a serious investment in developing and training political leaders. Unlike the structural impediments, we don't hear enough about this. It's a shame, because this is an area where much can be done, and where many are asking for progress. Young people, in particular, are clamouring for change. According to the World Bank's World Development Report of 2007, the percentage of Indian youth who were 'very' or 'rather' interested in politics climbed from around 35 per cent in 1990 to approximately 50 per cent in 2000. 

Interest is one thing, but youth are also ready to act.  The buzz over the 'Lead India' campaign -- which attracted over 30,000 applicants -- is one sign of the growing enthusiasm for political participation. On its Web site, Lead India highlights the need to find and nurture 'men and women with the vision and ability to empower India with the kind of political leadership that is so conspicuous by its absence.'

If India is serious about reaching this goal, it needs more than high-profile talent searches. It needs creative thought about how to design institutions that impart crucial skills and values. Student politics is not an adequate source for this political training. It is already too steeped in the destructive cycles of party politics, and is often so messy that it detracts from the main aim of universities. In a twenty-first century that demands a seamless marriage of specialisation and broad vision, India requires world-class political training institutes and public policy schools.

Establishing these institutes would send a strong message that Indians affirm the value of engaging with politics. These institutions must attract the best faculty from around India and the world, and they must carefully tailor their curricula to the Indian political context, drawing as much from Kautilya as from Plato. They must stress a national, collaborative ethos that makes politicians and bureaucrats think of working with, not against, each other. And they must equip India's young leaders with the vision to dream boldly, the acumen to plan down to the smallest detail, and the will to ensure that the last details are implemented. If all this happens, it will be another small step in a long struggle to change well-entrenched defeatist attitudes.

In both India and the United States there is a growing middle and upper-class sentiment that our most important task is to keep politics out of business and to keep ourselves out of politics. Privatise everything, and we will be just fine, is the prevailing mantra. No one is disputing that the excesses of the License Raj are undesirable. But the notion that we can solve all of our problems without the government is a fiction that overplays recent economic successes and ignores the realities in which most citizens live. More dangerously, it is an expedient fiction that lets us abdicate our civic responsibilities.  Indians are kidding themselves if they believe that, without engaging the state, they will somehow solve crises in education or healthcare, wish away separatist demands, or help India to negotiate favorable international agreements. No solutions to national challenges are viable without citizens' political engagement.

India's democratic institutions won the country its freedom and weathered post-Independence storms with remarkable resilience. Today, India faces a crisis of leadership, not a crisis of capacity. The 2008-2009 budget boasts a non-planned expenditure of over Rs 500,000 crore, and a planned expenditure total of more than Rs 750,000 crore. Instead of blaming politicians and parties, Indians must empower their elected representatives and bureaucracies to meet national challenges by making critical investments in leadership. One of the chief aims of Indian foreign policy is to establish the country as a great global power. It is no secret, though, that much of this battle must be won at home.

Prem Trivedi is an American Fulbright Scholar and former Indicorps Fellow currently based in New Delhi.

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