People will have to find a Gandhi – and the world several more

to lead them out of the terrible mess we have created through the many false narratives which have been built to push narrow selfish agendas

By Arvind Saxena

“The sign of a good leader is not how many followers you have, but how many leaders you create.”
— Mahatma Gandhi

All the qualities of a good leader can be gleaned by studying the personalities of the leaders mentioned in my previous article, published in MT, 26 Oct 21. To start with they have vision, knowledge, integrity, ability to delegate, communication skills and gratitude. They believe in unity and universal human rights, are educated and well informed, have learning agility, empathy and respect of all. They are consensus builders and have a sense of history. They have the courage to take critical decisions and believe in team work rather than be obsessed with instant gratification and personal image building.

Good leadership is less about a strong or charismatic individual and more about a group of people working together to achieve results. The leader maximizes the efforts of others, for achieving a goal. He gives more credit to his team when things go right and takes more blame when things go wrong. He does not find fault but finds remedies.

Jim Rohn, the well-known American entrepreneur rightly said “the challenge of leadership is to be strong but not rude; be kind but not weak; be bold but not a bully; be humble but not timid and be proud but not arrogant.”

These qualities appear to be fairly obvious, and most leaders will have some of these qualities, if not all.So why is the number of good contemporary leaders coming down, and consequently, why is democracy losing its appeal?

Everything appeared to be going well till the 1970s and countries elected sound leaders with vision, not only for their countries but also for the world as a whole. In a democracy, where the government is theoretically formed by representatives of the people, it is supposed to act for the people. Strategic vision for the nation is defined by the peoples’ representatives, who work in unison irrespective of their party affiliations.

National leaders, once they occupy high constitutional offices assume the mantle of statesmen and stand above the politics of their parties. They assume responsibility for the welfare of all citizens. So long as this happens everything is fine. Increasingly, however, what we started seeing across the world was the emergence of cult leaders and the subversion of democratic systems by ‘big money’.

The cult leaders project a vision that is alluring though unscientific, and mostly rhetoric. In many Asian countries renunciation or  ‘tyag’ is taken as a very high quality in a good leader. A man who has no family is unquestioningly accepted as a ‘tyagi’, who is superior to even those who work tirelessly, against tough odds in a fiercely competitive world, to fulfil their obligations towards family and friends. Hugely false narratives have been propagated to build images of ‘tyag’, which gives political legitimacy to religious leaders who come to wield immense power over affairs of state.

Simultaneously, political parties in many countries realised they could make up for their weaker popular support by spending large amounts of money for propaganda and influencing the election outcomes.They started seeking increasingly larger sums of money from the corporate sector, which in turn built leverage to influence the policies of the government.

A small set of oligarchs emerged who used their cosy ties with the government to enrich themselves while denying due rights to the working people, plundering the nation’s wealth and ravaging the environment. They covertly become the real rulers, even though they were by no means representatives of the people.

Their vision was, however, short term and limited to consolidating individual power. This is where things started going wrong and governments failed their people. Lying by governments became the norm and, quite wrongly, people started losing faith in democracy.

Nation building or setting global objectives presumes commitment over a considerably long period of time. Leaders who initiate such plans may not see the outcomes in their working lives, or even their entire lives. Such leaders, thus, perforce evolve into institution builders. They invest their time and energy to set up systems which will be abiding in nature and will have the strength and autonomy to keep moving ahead over long periods of time. The leader working with a strategic vision will endeavour to carry every member of his team with his objectives and will entrust responsibility to his team members.  

The imperative lesson is that plans for nation building must have a wide consensus across the spectrum of all stakeholders, so that there is no discontinuity when regimes change. Delaying a good decision at the national level for lack of consensus, may have an opportunity cost, but bulldozing through a decision without consensus, or through subterfuge, can be devastating and can cause long term setbacks for the nation – the simple reason being that such decisions will not be carried forward with the same conviction and commitment after a new regime comes to power.

The time and wealth lost in such discontinuity is a huge burden on the nation. A good leader will need to be open to new ideas and accept contrary viewpoints – even critical opinions. Above all he has to be a constant learner – as President John F. Kennedy said: “Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.”

What happens when large corporate houses get into positions to set the national agenda? As an illustration, if huge infrastructure companies of a powerful country want to build roads, railways, ports, airports, power, water, telecommunication and similar projects on a massive scale, they would need to destroy the existing infrastructure in another poor country, so that they can step in and corner the multi-billion-dollar projects, which will be funded by the people of the rich country or paid for by the natural resources of the devastated nation.

In either case the people will lose their wealth. “We the people” – the taxpayers of the country, whose intelligence agencies, at the behest of the corporate-guided political leadership, created the strife and war, were never consulted. The war was certainly not in their interest. Sounds familiar? The question here is – can the interest of a few corporate houses be called national interest?

The challenge is separation of political power from big money. Nations will prosper and people will enjoy better standards of living only if their elected representatives are systemically insulated from big money. Can laws help? Most certainly they can; but who will create those laws?

In most countries today political parties criticise each other’s policies for the sake of coming to power. When it comes to transparency in running their own affairs, especially in matters of raising election and party funds, all of them come together to maintain the status quo. Expecting change to come from political parties is therefore a pipe dream. The change can come only through a peoples’ awakening. People have to rise and say no to their exploitation and plunder of their nation’s riches.

We now come to the need for another level of leadership, a ‘Gandhian’ kind of leadership to awaken the people, built around an unshakable faith in truth, honesty, non-violence, love, peace, oneness of all humanity and a deep respect for nature. Sounds like wishful thinking? Well Gandhi was real, isn’t it?

People will have to find a Gandhi – and the world several more, to lead them out of the terrible mess we have created through the many false narratives which have been built to push narrow selfish agendas.  All it needs is to educate the masses so that they can sift truth from falsehood. An informed and questioning people will always elect good leaders. Can we start making an effort to educate the people in small circles around us?

Arvind Saxena is a former Chairman of the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) in India.

* Published in print edition on 29 October 2021


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