The Leadership of a Democracy in Decline

India under its incumbent leadership is in the grips of an unprecedented variety of problems, but an alternate leadership and a transformative agenda for national renewal are nowhere in sight.

Listen to this article:

In one of his recent weekly columns, a senior and erudite leader in the opposition ranks, arguing for a reset of domestic economic policies, laid out some of the defining challenges of our times.

The list includes growth of unemployment, hunger, poverty, gender and digital divides, escalating economic disparities, a declining demographic dividend and fertility rate, the redefinition of human life in a technology-driven society and the looming energy crisis and climate change.

The politics of polarisation, majoritarianism and the disturbed equilibrium of Centre-state relations were also identified as impediments to the rise of India as an economic power. Also, resolving the perennial dilemma between “majoritarian passions” and constitutional constraints, accentuated by an institutional deficit, remains a defining challenge.

To this list can be added the challenge of cyber security, pandemics, water security, fake news, mass surveillance, pervasive infraction of human rights (rape, custodial torture, lynchings, among others), rising inflation and a democracy-deficit in “a world trapped in a moral order that seems unsafe and unjust.”

To complete the prognosis of a democracy in decline, attempts to demolish and reclaim disputed places of worship, thereby reopening the wounds of history, and the repeated testing of the emotional bonding of people bound by shared legacies, is a necessary part of the depressing narrative.

Also read: In Today’s India, the Law Is Being Subverted to Create Social Unrest

But unlike in a court of law, where the prosecutor could thus rest his case, the court of the people expects and demands much more from leaders privileged with the opportunity to chart the nation’s course in the past, and those who hope to do so in the future.

Since the burden of democratic leadership is not only to condemn opponents but to offer hope to people in distress, the nation will embrace leaders who can feel and share its pain and work to lessen it.

A civilisational state whose sensitivities are easily outraged – given the complexity of its social structures, diversity of cultural heritage, colonial history and a challenging geography – yearns for leadership with a largeness of heart and vision that can rise to the challenges of our times.

It is clearly not enough for the Opposition to act only as a messenger of doom, nor can it be content with a self-serving assertion of the moral superiority of its cause.

The challenges outlined above are real, but an alternate leadership and a transformative agenda for national renewal are nowhere in sight. Other than vicious personal attacks – whether in retaliation or by way of provocation – political discourse is largely bereft of any meaningful reflection on critical issues that must remain in the forefront of a constructive national conversation.

While the incumbent government cannot escape responsibility for some of the ills of a tormented nation, the Opposition’s record as the nation’s conscience-keeper is mixed, at best. Its remit goes beyond recounting the challenges. Nor can it revel in compulsive negativism, howsoever elegantly framed, at the cost of losing ideological focus to personal angst and debilitating  animosities.

Also read: Building a Political Opposition Is No Laughing Matter

It must discharge the onus of providing credible leadership that has the ability to navigate “powerful and contending forces of public cynicism and public idealism, and find “narratives in which everyone can find an honourable place”. Those who seek to revive a “democracy under siege” carry a heavy burden indeed.

The Opposition must ask itself whether it can rest its claim to the leadership of the nation only by stretching the visible fault lines of the present and hoping that the people will recognise someone within its ranks to displace the present dispensation.

While it may question historicism that equates ‘what is’ with ‘what is right’, has the Opposition succeeded in demonstrating, to the satisfaction of the people, that the perception that India needs a strongman to chart its future is a flawed appreciation of our current situation and the forces of history?

Considering its current state of disarray and the narrow geographical focus of its leaders, the Opposition’s search for unity of purpose to discharge its role, is floundering. Whether its leaders can subordinate personal vanities, ambitions and preferences to the cause at hand is a valid interrogatory.

Also read: Narendra Modi’s Personality Has No Place for Compromise or Repentance

Leadership, as we know, is about walking ahead and “making the road for the rest of us to tread…”. It is about the self-imposed discipline of a binding moral framework that can serve as a impenetrable armour against the temptations of power and its abuse. A nation seeking solace in the eventual triumph of hope over despair will only endorse leadership that is moulded by history and has the capacity to direct its course.

Those wishing to lead and make a difference must know that leadership is not about tokenism. It is about an unremitting, intelligent and purposive engagement with the masses; it is about establishing an emotional connect with them and giving meaning to their lives. And above all, it is about doing what is right, not what is expedient.

It is about the acceptance of responsibility, making tough calls and deciding wisely when options are few and choices must be made. Leadership is about the harnessing of social forces that change the thoughts of men and herald progressive change.

Notwithstanding a general distrust of the “cult of personality”, leaders are not interlopers born outside history. They are products of a historical process. Those who seek to live in the reflected glory of the past forget that history, ever in the making although intelligible to us in the light of the past, is not hostage to it. Leadership can, therefore, not be demanded or inherited.

Whether we have leader(s) who can summon the will of our Age and actualise it, is the question.

Ashwani Kumar is a former Union Minister for Law and Justice. Views expressed are personal.