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Strength of a leader

Pinning hopes on strong leaders while blaming parties is risky for democracy.

Written by Tariq Thachil |
October 12, 2013 2:08:09 am

Pinning hopes on strong leaders while blaming parties is risky for democracy.

Rahul Gandhi’s abrupt condemnation of the executive ordinance regarding convicted politicians has deservedly dominated news headlines and political discussions for the past week. Gandhi’s critics and champions alike have focused on the implications of this episode for the strength of India’s political leaders. The former (including many in the opposition) have criticised his impetuousness for enfeebling an already weak prime minister. Conversely,more positive accounts have celebrated his stern condemnation as proof of a decisive authority he has far too rarely displayed. Even better,they argue,this decisiveness was driven by public pressure for greater accountability,despite strong political incentives to protect fellow party members and potential coalition allies.

These evaluations of Gandhi’s newfound aggression raise fundamental questions about the role of elected leaders within democratic politics. Much of this discussion has implied that decisiveness and responsiveness are complementary and necessary traits for India’s top leadership to effectively govern this vast polity. A strong leader can first listen to public demands,and then overpower the entrenched interests of political parties,the chief villains of our electoral arena. Gandhi illustrated this potential by using his considerable personal influence to override a decision arrived at through an established protocol. This process may have damaged his own party and prime minister,but many are prepared to forgive these sins. Their thirst for strong leadership outweighs (and is often even at odds with) their desire for strong parties.

Across the political aisle,a similar sentiment has fuelled the ascent of Gandhi’s chief rival. Narendra Modi’s supporters have repeatedly cast him as a strong leader who rises above his feckless party to impose the will of the people. The fact that Modi has alienated and weakened many leaders within the BJP,as well as the larger Sangh Parivar,is thus not only condoned,but also touted as evidence of his commitment to nation over party. Indeed,even as Modi and Gandhi are often pitted as polar opposites,both have now visibly attempted to capitalise on a popular preference for strong leaders over strong parties. It is this calculus that explains their seemingly inexplicable willingness to undermine the very organisations they will lead to the polls. Our collective desire for strong leaders also sustains the compulsion to frame the 2014 Lok Sabha polls as a Modi versus Rahul contest. Of course,this highly inaccurate portrayal is driven by the media’s need to distil complex coalition politics into digestible headlines. But it also reflects increasing aspirations,especially among India’s middle classes,for “presidential” prime ministers over party-centric Parliaments.

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What are the implications of this discussion for the lives of ordinary citizens? Most simply,we as a public should be mindful of the political behaviour we encourage,and the sacrifices we are willing to make at the altar of muscular leadership. We should also be cognisant of the dubious assumptions upon which this willingness rests. For example,there is no clear logic for why the decisiveness of a leader should necessarily correlate with their responsiveness to public opinion. A strong leader may be able to more forcefully implement their policy vision,but that hardly guarantees this vision will reflect public desires. If leaders are able to decisively override unpopular decisions,they are equally capable of decisively overriding popular ones. That we like what Gandhi did in this instance should not obscure how he did it.

Indeed,the broader study of democratic politics would caution us against blindly pinning our hopes on strong leaders while blaming political parties as the true enemies of responsive policymaking. Much of this literature has argued precisely the opposite: that democratic responsiveness is compromised when parties are weakened (often by the leaders who head them). Political parties should be encouraged to develop strong organisations,not simply trained to bow to strong leaders. India needs well-institutionalised parties,those which follow established protocols to select candidates,staff internal positions and craft policy platforms. Such robust parties are key vehicles for collecting the vast array of opinions this nation contains — a task beyond the capacity of any one individual — and translating them into policy outcomes.

It is therefore essential to understand that when leaders act to weaken political parties and increase their own strength,they usually reduce rather than heighten the responsiveness of our political system. After all,Gandhi’s recent ability to decisively respond to public will rests on a dynastic power that has repeatedly weakened his party’s ability to listen to its constituents in the past. A crucial example is the absence of competitive and consistently held elections within the Congress for its internal posts. Three years ago,the Congress party president of a major Indian state told me there was no point holding such elections,since everyone knew New Delhi decided which candidates were actually fielded. Consequently,he argued,in his state,the party consistently advanced candidates who were popular with the first family rather than with local voters. The current forecast for the BJP is no less bleak. If the Gujarat unit of the party provides any illustrative evidence,Modi’s intolerance of internal debate and opposing viewpoints does not bode well for the likelihood of rigorous,competitive internal party procedures under his leadership.

This brief discussion is hardly meant to suggest that stronger organisations are a silver bullet for the many other shortcomings of our major parties and the people who lead them. Instead,it is to remind us of the value of the regularised procedures of debate and deliberation,at a time when our understandable frustration with an ineffective PMO threatens to crowd out all our other concerns. If we still believe democracy is the best of a bad set of options (to paraphrase Churchill),then we should direct our energies towards calling for stronger parties that work through democratic procedures,rather than simply for strong leaders with the authority to subvert them. Even if such procedures do not always yield the specific outcomes we want,they are essential for our parties to develop into the effective,responsive and responsible actors we deserve. As the experience of our own Emergency should remind us,when strong leaders are allowed to centralise their authority at the expense of the parties they lead,democracy itself can be fatally compromised.

The writer is assistant professor of political science and South Asian studies at Yale University

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