Voting for the country

By Dr R Neerunjun Gopee

Let us not be blindly taken in by those who will shout that they have been the pioneers and initiators of all developments, forgetting and ignoring the farsighted leaders who struggled to lay the foundations

Local elections will be held shortly in the State of Maharashtra in India, and a few days ago I was watching a panel discussion being aired on Indian TV about these elections. One of the points that was being debated was that, despite the fact that there were a number of what in some panellists’ views were pressing problems (such as employment) in the area, voters did not seem to be focusing on them.

A cadre from a well-known polling agency who had also intervened regularly during the Lok Sabha general elections in 2019, predicting the victory of the Modi-led BJP party, and who was going about meeting the people, pointed out that he had noticed a change in their attitude. It was not that they were not concerned about the local problems, but they felt that the country’s national security was at this stage of greater importance, especially following the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution which aligned the rights of the people of Jammu-Kashmir and Ladakh with those of the rest of India. They would therefore, he said, be ‘voting for the country’ and that, he felt, was what was going to be a major factor in the electorate’s mind.

Perhaps there are lessons from us from this debate, as well as from other sources as we shall see shortly, as we ourselves gear up for the coming general elections. The bugle has been sounded, and battle lines are already being drawn as we are witnessing on social media and in the public meetings that have begun to be held. We are a small country, and there is therefore not much distinction between local and national issues as in big countries.

Many of the shots that will be fired during this campaign are things that we would have heard many times over in the past few years, and while repeating them may titillate the baser instincts of some targeted constituencies in the electorate, they are likely to become tiresome as the campaign unfolds. As potential voters, we must therefore separate the wheat from the chaff, and seriously engage ourselves to ‘vote for the country’, keeping the future in mind: what kind of country do we want to leave for our children and their progeny?

We must, therefore, be less swayed by mega-promises, and opt rather for more realistic and actionable measures that will address our short-term concerns, but that will also not waste or siphon off our resources – especially financial – and thus compromise the future of our coming generations.

On the other hand, let us not be blindly taken in by those who will shout that they have been the pioneers and initiators of all developments taking place in the country, forgetting and ignoring the farsighted leaders who struggled to lay the foundations and principles of the Welfare State as we know it today. It would be wise for them to have some humility and be inspired by what famous physicist Sir Isaac Newton said, namely that if he had seen further than other men, ‘it is by standing on the shoulders of giants’.

We cannot deny that those leaders – though they may not have been giants in the Newtonian sense — took the considered decisions at the nascent stage of nationhood that have brought to the country the relative prosperity that we continue to enjoy today. This is particularly the case when we compare ourselves to many of our neighbouring countries which are still in the throes of seeking political and social stability. We have achieved a decent measure of this because by the by we have learned to live together as a people in mutual respect, and realized that unless we work together for our collective welfare it is our children and the country that will suffer. A great responsibility therefore lies on us and our leadership to so conduct the campaign that we stay the course in the direction of the stability and harmony that we have achieved, and do nothing that will threaten this fundamental.

Here our political leaders, both the seasoned and the aspiring ones, will find much food for thought from an article in The Conversation of October 15, 2019 titled ‘How to be a successful political leader’. It is penned by Gareth Evans, Chancellor, Australian National University who was earlier a Cabinet Minister in the Hawke and Keating Labor Governments from 1983-96.

He starts by noting that ‘Not only in Australia but right around the world’s democracies, the quality of political leadership is as low as I can ever remember it – ranging, with only a handful of exceptions, from the underwhelming to the desolate to the appalling.

Just about everywhere one looks, at least one – and often many more than one – of what I would regard as the essential attributes of responsive and effective political leadership have gone missing.

In many ways, this is not surprising. Politics has always been a bloody and dangerous trade, and it has become significantly more so in an age of instant communication, relentless 24/7 news cycles, social media and dramatically reduced personal privacy. And more exposed than anyone else in politics are those who aspire to leadership positions – as Francis Bacon put it four centuries ago,

He doth like the ape, that the higher he clymbes the more he shows his ars.

Our political personalities will definitely consider themselves as being successful leaders, for having won and lost and again won elections before. But still, there is no harm in paying attention to sound guidance coming from leaders who have experience at continental level, and Gareth Evans is one such who dares to ask, ‘So what are the attributes we should reasonably look for in choosing between them?’ He then goes on to identify those that in his view matter most, ‘based on my own direct observations of both Australian and foreign leaders over several decades’.

They are:

Serious intellectual ability;
2. Empathy;
3. Sound judgment;
4. Basic organisational and time management skills;
5. Communication skills;
6. A clear sense of strategic direction, combined with the ability to craft and communicate a clear narrative of what the government is trying to achieve overall;
7. Unimpeachable personal integrity, ‘being, and being seen to be, personally honest and incorruptible is a universally accepted baseline’;
8. A work ethic, well above the prevailing norm;
9. Resilience;
10. ‘Spark’: the capacity, through sheer force of personality, to ignite enthusiasm, and on occasion real excitement, in one’s colleagues and the wider community.

There is a touch of realism: ‘Of the ten boxes I have described, not many political leaders would tick every one of them all of the time. And I fear that most of are essentially innate – you either have them or you don’t – rather than capable of being readily learned, in preparation for or on the job.’

‘But,’ he concludes, ‘if many more of our leaders, both at home and abroad, came closer to consistently displaying all those attributes than is the case at the moment, the world would be a lot safer, saner and happier than it presently is.’

Let us hope therefore, that once the litter of this campaign is cleared, we will be able to look forward to a country that is ‘a lot safer, saner and happier than it presently is.’

* Published in print edition on 18 October 2019

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