Ideology, leaders and leadership

All of a sudden, there is a growing sense that Narendra Modi is failing. People are starting to believe the Opposition’s charges and disbelieve the government’s claims. 

There are many reasons for this but I think the main one is that though Mr Modi is a truly great political leader, his leadership in governance has been quite poor. And bad policy is not the only problem. 

A bigger problem for him is that there is now a question mark on his leadership as a prime minister. People who had supported him are beginning to ask if he is quite up to it. 

The problem is the usual one: Good political leaders don’t always provide good leadership in government. This is even more so when they have strong ideological beliefs, which cloud their judgment. 

Between 1964 and 2014, when India was led by single parties and coalitions, everyone would moan that those governments had no ideology, only leaders. They would point to the Jana Sangh/BJP and the Communists and say look they had an ideology, and it was only a matter of time before leaders of national stature emerged.

Well, the prediction turned out to be correct for the BJP at least. From September 2013 onwards, Mr Modi mesmerised the country, including me. Everyone assumed that he would provide great leadership. 

Mr Modi, meanwhile, thought that if he fixed the broken plumbing, the water would flow. That has not happened.

It is true that UPA2 had left the economy in a shambles. The country was willing to be generous to Mr Modi and gave him a lot of time and political goodwill. But he has frittered it.

Then, as Jean Dreze so accurately described it, on November 8, 2016, after two and a half years of non-performance, he shot the economy’s tyres with the demonetisation decision. The demonetisation decision was inspired by a mix of ideology and ignorance.

The paradox
This leads us to the original question. Are we better off with leaders who represent no ideology, or with those who do? 

History shows that ideologically inspired leaders are good at bringing about a change. But it also shows that they are not much good at providing good leadership in government. 

The past is littered with such people. Imagine Gandhiji as prime minister.

The right combination of good leader and good leadership is very rare and a country has to be very lucky to have both simultaneously. The closest we have come to it is when Jawaharlal Nehru was prime minister. 

But, alas, even he, the moment he allowed ideological considerations to creep into his policies — as he did at the Aavadi Congress, which adopted a ‘socialist’ route — began to falter. India is still paying for his policy errors.

Indira Gandhi was the opposite: A great political leader with no ideology whatsoever. She and Mr Modi resemble each other because she too won elections but failed after that. Her bank nationalisation was exactly like Mr Modi’s demonetisation — a terrific political success and an equally terrific economic disaster.

In contrast, her son Rajiv Gandhi was not a great leader. Nor did he have any great ideological moorings. And his five years (1984-89) were the best India had had in the previous three decades.

The same thing was true of P V Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and Manmohan Singh. None of them was a great leader in that they could not ensure political success on their own. But each provided good leadership in governance, which is where it counted most.

Yet, they were voted out, which speaks volumes for voter wisdom. You can see this phenomenon in many states as well. 

The fatal flaw
All heads of government, everywhere, seem to suffer from a common flaw: They always trust their political instincts to run the government. They simply don’t listen to anyone, distrust everyone, and, when things begin to go wrong, turn even more inwards.

This happened to Indira Gandhi in 1974; Rajiv Gandhi in 1987; Rao in 1993; and Mr Vajpayee in 2002. Everyone becomes an enemy after the first two or three years in office.

Mr Modi was never a great one to pay heed to others. But he listens to them, I am told. We must now see how many forced and unforced errors he makes in the 20 months left before May 2019.

He seems to be quite adept at that.

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