Some say there is a leadership crisis in the country while others aver that there is a plethora of ‘electable’ (a word used in Pakistan) politicians who are our leaders. The truth precariously stands somewhere in between. As the current term of the Congress-led coalition comes to a close, the leadership battle is heating up. The heir apparent of the single largest party in the country today says, “The prime minister’s post is not my priority. I believe in long-term politics.” Rahul Gandhi has ruled himself out as the leader of the next government, if his party wins the 2014 elections. But as we have seen in the past, leaders can be ‘persuaded’ by persistent supporters to take up the mantle of leadership.
Rajiv Gandhi was thus anointed as prime minister on the death of his mother even though he had barely exhibited any leadership skills. Similarly, we have seen Deve Gowda, IK Gujral, Chandrashekar and Dr Manmohan Singh become prime ministers when not even they, let alone the people, expected them to be elevated to the job that Jawaharlal Nehru called “First Servant of the Indian people, pledged to their service and their betterment.” One year before elections, the names in the running for the 14th Prime Minister are Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj, Nitish Kumar, Mayawati, Chidambaram, AK Antony and the one that never goes out of fashion: LK Advani, and one that may have run out of steam: Manmohan Singh.
In the next 12 months what should we look for in our prime ministerial candidates? Ideas. How many of them have ideas and solutions to the current problems? Are they new ideas and workable solutions or is it the same old rhetoric? Have they a proven track record of seizing the moment and pushing forth, with clear goals and robust strategies?
Does the candidate have a reputation of being a team person? Has he or she come up in public service because of machinations or freak of birth or is it because of being persuasive and practising consensus politics? Here again, inheriting a mantle does not mean that the person may not acquire capabilities needed for the job. Indira Gandhi and Vasundhara Raje Scindia were to the manor born but both observed their respective parents who were consummate leaders.
They inherited, acquired and developed leadership skills on the job. Is the leader’s inner drive and ambition directed towards nationalist goals or personal aggrandisement? Is there a messiah complex that we must be on guard about? Does the leader recognise the unique place India occupies in the region, a democracy that works, a country that the world thinks has potential of being an economic super power, its untapped potential and its tendency to slide down the slippery path just when it is doing well?
Does the leader promise to provide stability without authoritativeness? Does the person seem fit enough to represent as well as protect every strata of Indian society, whether economic, social or religious? Arguably, not all these qualities are present in one individual and even if they are, we may not agree with the policies and programmes of the party that the person represents. Often, Indians choose the party and the local candidate, and not necessarily the prime ministerial candidate.
In the 1990s, BJP fought elections with the slogan ‘Ab ki baari Atal Behari’ with a clear signal as to who would be their prime minister. The Congress has also won elections with ‘Indira lao, Desh Bachao’. But in the 2004 elections, the Congress did not project Manmohan Singh as its prime ministerial candidate. It won the elections and Sonia Gandhi nominated the quiet, simple and non-ambitious Singh as the prime minister. The 2009 elections were fought with a clear signal that it would be five more years for Dr Singh as opposed to the BJP’s ‘mazboot neta, nirnayak sarkar, projecting LK Advani. That ‘mazbootness’ was rejected outright.
It wasn’t that the people did not want stability and strength. They just didn’t want the kind of solidness which veered towards rigidity. In the months ahead, we will have to identify the party which appears cohesive, collaborative, organisationally united, is sensitive to social, gender, communal issues, and offers credible policy options. Does each one of us have the time and energy to examine all this? In any democracy, the people outsource this job to the media, which should dispassionately analyse and fairly project the options available. Hopefully the leaders, the media and we all will fulfil these duties before the 2014 elections. Our time begins now.
Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash