Indian politics is once again at the cusp of debating how to have a strong leader who does not undermine the significance of the political party he or she belongs to. In the popular perception, a good leader is someone who is decisive and clear-minded. But the leader is also expected to be more amenable to public opinion, approachable, and accountable. These popular perceptions of leadership influence the manner in which political leaders manage their parties and the way they project themselves.
Indira Gandhi was lauded for her strong, almost authoritarian, personality, and was portrayed as “Durga”. But she was also chastised for undermining inner-party democracy, and for initiating a process of de-institutionalisation and making demands for a “committed judiciary” that finally landed Indian democracy in the crisis of the Emergency in 1975. This tension, and friction, between the rather opposing imaginations of leadership is a continuing thread of Indian politics and democracy.
Arvind Kejriwal was touted as an honest and approachable leader, who cared about public opinion. But when he sat on dharna and did a sit-in while being the chief minister of Delhi, he was roundly criticised. The general opinion then was a leader cannot bring down the prestige or garima of an official position by taking to the street as a “commoner”: He needed to maintain dignity that comes from keeping a distance from the street. Looking approachable was no longer perceived to be an act of bringing power closer to the common citizen — read direct democracy — but as a violation of the sense of self as a citizen. Kejriwal himself has agreed that what he did came as a “cultural shock” to the aam aadmi in Delhi and elsewhere.
A “good leader” also can’t be a “part-time” politician; he has to be a professional and committed to spending all his time with the machinations of party and government. This view coexists with the idea that a good and strong leader is ascetic, who believes in renouncing his personal and private pursuits for the larger cause of the nation. By this logic, those without a family are often, ipso facto, considered to be honest leaders. Power has to be managed with a single-minded pursuit and without personal attachments. This is the gift of the Gandhian imagination of brahmacharya, which means celibacy in the immediate sense, but also indicates a sense of detachment, in the broader sense.
It is, therefore, more than a coincidence that among those considered strong and popular leaders are Modi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Mamata Banerjee, Jayalalithaa, Navin Patnaik, and Mayawati. They pursue power single-mindedly all the time and never display private emotions. Even leaders who work outside the institutions of state are often gauged by these very standards.
There is deep discomfort among Indians with the idea of the private and with being ordinary. The leader has to be larger than life and, perhaps, masculine to gain the “respect” of fellow partymen and the cadre. In this mode of imagining, the leader should not ever have to face dissent or difference of opinion, which are considered signs of weakness and disrespect.
There is a serious problem for those who lead an active public life to retreat into the anonymity of the private. This seems to be something specific to the culture of our nation. Nelson Mandela, who led a tireless public life as part of the anti-apartheid struggle, very seamlessly slipped into a quiet private life. Even George Bush preferred to pursue painting, after rather “eventful” two terms as president of the United States. However, mass leaders and politicians in India rarely ever announce retirement from public life.
Given the dominant public morality in India, it only looks logical that leaders and their lifestyles assume a greater importance over parties and procedures that are seen as necessary to keep them democratic and open. Personality cult is not, therefore, that which emerges merely from certain ideological proclivities; its source may well lie in the way public morality is structured. What we are witnessing in Indian politics today has a long history and deep socio-moral base. What it will do to Indian politics in future is something that will determine the essence of democracy in the country.