Harsh V Pant, Jan 14, 2014:

A nation adrift

The prime minister, despite  noble intentions, has  failed to manage the country well and provide a vision for the nation’s future.

 ‘Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold:’ William Butler Yeats. Apart from the fact that the prime minister was addressing the media for the third time during his entire tenure of a decade, there was nothing extraordinary in Manmohan Singh’s recent goodbye message to the nation.

It was as insipid a performance as one has come to expect from Singh. Perhaps it’s too much to expect inspiration from him now, but even what he said sounded rather lame in the light of his own marginalisation in his party. Forget the nation, one wonders whether the prime minister’s own partymen and women were listening to him even as he himself now awaits history’s verdict on his performance. 

They say when it rains, it pours. In recent days, bad news has been the norm in so far as India is concerned. The economy is in trouble, the political dysfunction has attained heights never seen before in recent years and there is a growing sense of disquiet as a crisis of confidence is growing. The nation is at a crossroads but its leadership is asleep at the wheels.

The prime minister and the top leadership of the Congress party, including Sonia and Rahul Gandhi don’t like engaging with the public. They don’t explain their decisions, they don’t talk to the people of the nation directly, they don’t seem to believe that there is any need to engage with ordinary Indians. The prime minister has made no effort to create and mould public opinion to help him in governance and in support of his policies. No wonder, most of the country felt that there is hardly any government in New Delhi for the past three years. 

That this should have happened at this juncture in India’s economic transition is a real tragedy. This should have been India’s moment. The western world is mired in an unprecedented economic crisis. The eurozone crisis has made it impossible for most European economies to grow and this will remain the case for a number of years. The US is also finding it difficult to get out of the economic morass it has sunk into.

As a consequence, the developed world is looking inwards as a vacuum is felt in global leadership. This should have been India’s moment to lead the way. But Indian story seems to be over even before it began. There has  been a persistent sense of chaos domestically for the last several years with the government unable to take any decision and having the force of will to implement them. 

For the outside world, especially for India’s friends and allies, this is a disappointing time. The US, which has invested significantly in a strategic partnership with India, finds the relationship struggling to regain the past glory. India’s allies in East and Southeast Asia, who had hoped New Delhi would emerge as a critical balancer vis-à-vis China, are looking elsewhere. India’s friends in Afghanistan are shifting their loyalties fearing Pakistan’s resurgence after the Nato forces withdraw in 2014. 

All-pervasive decline

Yet, the Indian political system has behaved as if nothing ever went wrong. India is facing a crisis of leadership that has allowed this drift to set in. Sonia Gandhi has had all the power but no governmental responsibility, Manmohan Singh has had the responsibility but no power. For a party that won a decisive mandate in 2009, this all-pervasive decline has been almost difficult to decipher. Economically, the party has not allowed the government to proceed with the second generation of reforms programme. Socially, the stench of corruption is now too odious to bear. All major institutions of governance are now struggling to retain their legitimacy.

The political landscape of contemporary India tragically is devoid of both -- effective CEOs and visionary leaders. The prime minister, despite his noble intentions, has singularly failed to either manage the country well or to provide a vision for the nation's future. Yet, it is not his fault. He didn’t earn the political capital in the last elections. Sonia Gandhi, as the leader of the Congress, did and yet she seems to have failed to use the capital that she had earned against heavy odds to carve out a vision of where the Congress should be leading India in the crucial years. His son is proving to be a political liability, so India’s grand old party is trying to go back to another member of the dynasty, Priyanka. The nation has moved on to new political idioms but the Congress party, it seems has lost the will to do imaginative politics.  

Regrettably, there is hardly any choice before the Indians. The BJP, as the main opposition party, is equally bereft of leadership. Various chief ministers, once they become popular, start running their states as their personal fiefdoms. Regional parties propagate a version of leadership that is even more draconian than the two main political parties. Today’s political class seems incapable of either inspiring or effectively managing the country’s myriad problems.

It says something about the dearth of political talent in the country when the best that the Indians are offered are either the derivatives of various dynastic legacies-- the Gandhis, the Scindias, the Singhs, the Pilots -- or are those who play to the worst fears and anxieties of their countrymen-- the Narendra Modis, the Thackerays, the Mulayam Singhs, the Mayawatis. In this bleak landscape, the Aaam Aadmi Party is providing a ray of hope but it is yet to translate its social activism into an operational agenda of governance. 

India today is in dire need of leaders who can not only spell out an idea of India that this moment in history demands but can also effectively manage to bring that vision to fruition. Surely, this about-to-be the most populous nation on earth can produce leaders who can dream big and help Indians realise those dreams by embracing ‘the better angles of our nature.’

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