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India is facing a crisis of leadership

June 14, 2012 11:23 IST

This should have been India's moment to lead the way. But the Indian story seems to be over even before it began, says Harsh V Pant.

They say when it rains, it pours. In recent days, bad news has been the norm in so far as India is concerned. The nation is at a crossroads and its leadership is asleep at the wheel.

We were recently informed that India's GDP grew by 5.3 per cent in the first quarter of this year, far below expectations and much lower than the 6.1 per cent growth seen in the last quarter of 2011.

In fact, it's the slowest growth since March 2003. And now the credit rating agency, Standard and Poor is suggesting that India could be the first among the so-called BRIC group of emerging economies -- Brazil, Russia and China are the others -- to be downgraded into the junk category, citing slowing growth and political roadblocks to policy-making.

The news will keep getting worse unless our leaders wake up and smell the coffee. There is a growing sense of disquiet and a crisis of confidence is growing, but is anyone in charge?

Rebutting corruption charges levelled against him by Team Anna members, the prime minister, in a rare case of public engagement, expressed outrage and suggested that he would quit politics if those charges were proved correct.

Given his lack of leadership over the last three years, the nation can be forgiven for thinking that he had quit politics long back. The prime minister and the top leadership of the Congress party, including Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, don't like engaging with the public.

They don't explain their decisions, they don't talk to the people of the nation directly, they don't seem to believe that there is any need to engage with ordinary Indians. The prime minister makes no effort to create and mould public opinion to help him in governance and in support of his policies.

No wonder, most of the country feels that there is hardly any government in New Delhi.

Recently, Sonia Gandhi has suggested that it has become fashionable to say there is policy paralysis in the government. But fashionable or not, that's the reality.

One just has to look at the economic data. Data doesn't lie, politicians do!

That this should be happening at this juncture in India's economic transition is a real tragedy. This should have been India's moment.

The Western world is mired in an unprecedented economic crisis. The Eurozone crisis has made it impossible for most European economies to grow and this will remain the case for a number of years. The US is also finding it difficult to get out of the economic morass it has sunk into.

The political deadlock in Washington and the US presidential elections in November have forced the American government to postpone tough choices. As a consequence, the developed world is looking inwards as a vacuum is felt in global leadership.

China has its own political transition to worry about and recent events, including the Bo Xilai affair, have made the Chinese Communist party more cautious as the change of guard approaches. More significantly, China's economic growth has also weakened.

This should have been India's moment to lead the way. But the Indian story seems to be over even before it began.

The rupee remains Asia's worst performing currency, there is a growing deficit, investor are refusing to invest in India due to policy uncertainty, and the common man is facing the spectre of an ever-rising inflation.

There is a persistent sense of chaos at the moment domestically with the government unable to take any decision and having the force of will to implement them.

The government's allies and the Opposition have sensed this weakness and they are making sure that this government, which still has two more years to govern, becomes a lame duck entity.

For the outside world, especially for India's friends and allies, this is a disappointing time.

The US, which has invested significantly in a strategic partnership with India, finds the relationship struggling to regain the past glory.

India's allies in East and Southeast Asia, who had hoped New Delhi would emerge as a critical balancer vis-a-vis China, are looking elsewhere. India's friends in Afghanistan are shifting their loyalties fearing Pakistan's resurgence after NATO forces withdraw in 2014.

The only saving grace in this bleak scenario is the fact that domestic turbulence in China and Pakistan has prevented these States from taking advantage of the disarray in India.

Yet, the Indian political system is behaving as if nothing is wrong. India is facing a crisis of leadership that has allowed this drift to set in.

Sonia Gandhi has all the power, but no governmental responsibility; Manmohan Singh has responsibility, but no power.

For a party that won a decisive mandate in 2009, this all-pervasive decline is almost difficult to decipher. Economically, the party has not allowed the government to proceed with the second generation of the reforms programme.

Socially, the stench of corruption is now too odious to bear. All major institutions of governance are now struggling to retain their legitimacy. Politically, the party in power has lost all the capital it had earned in the 2009 election. There is no coherence in the government with all departments working as if there are no national imperatives, only departmental interests.

The political landscape of contemporary India tragically is devoid of both, effective CEOs and visionary leaders. The prime minister, despite his noble intentions, has singularly failed to either manage the country well or to provide a vision for the nation's future.

Yet, it is not his fault. He didn't earn the political capital in the last elections. Sonia Gandhi, as the leader of the Congress, did and yet she seems to have failed to use the capital that she had earned against heavy odds to carve out a vision of where the Congress should be leading India in the crucial years.

Regrettably, there is hardly any choice before the Indians. The Bharatiya Janata Party, as the main Opposition party, is equally bereft of leadership. Various chief ministers, once they become popular, start running their states as their personal fiefdoms. Regional parties propagate a version of leadership that is even more draconian than the two main political parties.

Today's political class seems incapable of either inspiring or effectively managing the country's myriad problems. It says something about the dearth of political talent in the country when the best that Indians are offered are either the derivatives of various dynastic legacies -- the Gandhis, the Scindias, the Singhs, the Pilots -- or are those who play to the worst fears and anxieties of their countrymen -- the Narendra Modis, the Thackerays, the Mulayam Singhs, the Mayawatis. No wonder, India continues to look to the film industry and its cricket pitches in search of its idols.

India today is in dire need of leaders who can not only spell out an idea of India that this moment in history demands, but can also effectively manage to bring that vision to fruition.

Surely, this about-to-be the most populous nation on earth can produce leaders who can dream big and help Indians realise those dreams by embracing 'the better angels of our nature'.

Dr Harsh V Pant teaches at King's College, London

Harsh V Pant