This was first published in MINT on Jan. 4, 2016
Respected Prime Minister,
In October 2012, at the height of gloom and despondency about India amidst growth challenges, corruption charges and collapse of governance, Shankkar Aiyar, the author of Accidental India, wrote the following about leadership: “Leadership is not about pickled intellect. It is driven by imagination, a willingness to reflect, ability to inspire, to listen and to have the courage of conviction to embrace risk.”
Indeed, leadership has many dimensions as he has pointed out. But above all, it is about credibility. Credibility starts with truth and realism. For example, economic optimism ought to be founded on economic realism. The previous government took economic growth for granted. It paid a political price for it, but the country might have paid and might still be paying a bigger economic price for it.
Recently, the former finance minister cited the mid-year economic review of the finance ministry to proclaim the delayed arrival (or the non-arrival) of Achhe Din. He failed the credibility test because the bulk of the blame for India’s economic travails falls on the government he was part of. The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s biggest mistake has been the underestimation of the challenge of reviving growth in an economy left in a complete mess by the previous government. It is not the only mistake, however.
The commerce ministry is brave to counter the export pessimism of the mid-year economic review of the finance ministry. But it is certainly not being realistic. For India, growth will be hard to come by in a world riven by conflicts, geopolitical ambitions and fading economic growth prospects. Hence, the role of leadership becomes that much more critical. Indeed, it can be argued that strong, effective, competent and enlightened leadership may or may not have been necessary for today’s developed economies because other factors were vastly more favourable to them. East Asia became rich when America was willing to do anything to stop the spread of communism. China prospered when globalization was fashionable. India, on the other hand, faces climate change hurdles, de-globalization and trade protectionism. A growth rate of 7-8%, properly measured, is far from assured.
Leadership is a popularity contest but with a twist. It is about appeasing the current generation versus courting the goodwill of future generations. Successful leaders bet their future on the uncertain goodwill of the unborn. To its credit, the NDA government has not concentrated its energies on appeasement as the previous government did. Moreover, it is fighting the cronyism that flourished under the previous regime. That might explain the private sector investment funk. However, states where the Bharatiya Janata Party has not fared well in local elections have resorted to irresponsible measures to woo back the electorate.
Further, the Union government is guilty of many errors of omission. It has not been able to persuade the nation of the merits of amending the land acquisition bill, of labour reforms, of privatization of airports and of raising the standards of Indian education. Higher pay for government workers is fine, but the nation needs a quid pro quo in terms of productivity and accountability—not just from bureaucrats but from ministers too. Even now, the University Grants Commission makes news for restricting educational institutions rather than liberating them. Several well-known institutions have received notices for operating off-site campuses. In short, the government has been ducking hard choices more often than it has embraced them.
Reversing this would require the government actively seeking expert advice that is not afraid to deliver the truth to the leadership. The initiative has to come from you. Tamil sage Thiruvalluvar had dedicated one chapter (10 couplets, from 441 to 450) to the idea of surrounding oneself with wise men who would keep kings grounded and ensure that they rule the kingdom well, in the interests of all the subjects. I share the translation of four of them here:
A king wise enough to have men of greater wisdom than he to advise him shall be a powerful ruler. (Kural No. 444)
Where the king’s counsellors possess the courage to reprove him when necessary, nothing on earth can bring about such a king’s ruin. (Kural No. 447)
Without courageous counsellors to point out his faults and so protect him, a king will ruin himself, even without foes. (Kural No. 448)
It is foolish surely to incur enmity of many foes, but 10 times worse to lose righteous friends. (Kural No. 450).
Finally, successful leaders eschew coercion and embrace persuasion. Communication is the difference between persuasion and coercion. After all, in the age-old fable, it is the sun that gently bears down that removes the cloth from the itinerant traveller and not the fierce wind that threatens to snatch the cloth from him. The sun succeeded because it made the traveller feel that it was in his interest to let go of the shawl, whereas the wind threatened to snatch it away from him. Success comes to those leaders who share it and who make others feel that they were in command of their decisions.
Wishing you and the nation more glory and prosperity in the new year.