What makes a good leader

Sunday, 22 September 2013 - 9:31am IST | Agency: dna

A few days ago, former Deputy Chief Minister of Bihar Sushil Kumar Modi reportedly tweeted: “Advaniji has failed to gauge the public mood”. He said LK Advani should have declared Narendra Modi as the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate for the coming general election.

It is no secret that Advaniji had held prime ministerial hopes for over twenty years, and now it’s too late. His brand of politics has been sharpened to rapier point by younger men. So he had to finally endorse Narendra Modi at public rallies.

Let us, for a moment, forget who is less suitable between the two men. Let’s examine Sushil Modi’s lobbing of unsolicited 140-character chunks of advice at “Advaniji”.

On the face of it, this is good advice. In a democracy, elections are a reflection of public will. If people are discontent and thirsting for change, they’ll let you know. And it is true that a politician ceases to be significant if he disregards the electorate. A good politician is aware of, and sensitive to, the public mood.

But the problem with Sushil Modi’s advice is that it reduces leadership to mere politicking. It takes away from a politician the right to be a leader. It expects a politician to bow to the ideas that please a sufficient number of people lest he/she is punished with powerlessness. It reduces a leader to an unthinking, spineless slave of the majority view (or whatever passes for the majority).

I don’t know if Advani’s misgivings about Narendra Modi’s leadership are moral. I doubt it. But I do think that our leaders owe us a personal moral compass. We need them to stand up for their own beliefs rather than just kowtow to the ‘public mood’.

Where have all our true leaders gone? This is our constant complaint. We imagine governance as a ship lost at sea. We think of politicians as wicked pirates (except they’re not fighting fit). But we forget what goes into the making of true leaders.

Think of the men and women whose names went into history textbooks for steering modern India through her independence struggle. MK Gandhi survived assassination attempts, not by the British but by Indians, who did not like his ideas on caste or religion. In nineteenth century India, notions of pollution-purity were the norm. Most leaders were upper caste and most of the country was illiterate. If public approval was all they sought, they would never have endorsed universal suffrage.

Inter-communal marriage was very rare in the 1920s. But Aruna Asaf Ali chose to risk public antagonism for the sake of her own values. Leaders like C Rajagopalachari risked political exile when they walked away from the party he helped build.

It is not the job of a leader to be the public. A leader represents us, yes, but must work for more than public approval. The job description includes upholding the Constitution; enforcing laws; making laws for a future; rejecting what is unworthy in our present; making justice a broader, more humane reality.

Sometimes this means being in conflict with the majority. If 51% of India wanted that 49% be turned into landless labourers with no access to drinking water, should a leader care about ‘public mood’? What if it’s 65% and 35%? What if it’s 78% and 22%? When does it become right to allow ‘public mood’ to dictate political decisions?

A good leader is someone willing to work to reshape popular ideas, redirect public energy and risk public displeasure. As far as gauging the public mood goes, any politician can do that.

This is the final Known Turf column by Annie Zaidi.

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