India’s gaping leadership vacuum (Comment, Special to IANS)

A major reason why the forthcoming general elections may not usher in political stability is the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of today’s leaders. As a result, governance is likely to remain mired in scams, indecision and unethical compromises in the foreseeable future.

It is a truism that the political standards have been falling over the years. But the yawning holes which the decline has opened up were camouflaged for a time by the presence of several seemingly laudable personalities – seemingly because the dearth of their cerebral and ethical calibre was not so apparent earlier. But the deficiencies are out in the open now.

Among those who have let their admirers down are Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi. It may be recalled that prior to the Congress’s return to power in 2004, Sonia Gandhi had consistently secured high ratings in the opinion polls. These were only a few points below those of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who was then prime minister and invariably headed the popularity charts.

Now the scene is different. While Vajpayee has retired from public life and Sonia Gandhi’s party is facing a rout, no one has appeared in the BJP who is anywhere near Vajpayee’s stature. What is even more ironical is that the person – Narendra Modi – who was held responsible by Vajpayee himself for the party’s defeat in 2004 for failing to control the 2002 Gujarat riots, is today the BJP’s poll mascot.

Nothing shows more starkly the lowering of the perception of leadership qualities than Modi’s nomination as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate despite opposition from the party’s octogenarian mentor, L.K. Advani, and others like Sushma Swaraj, though in a more muted form. What is also significant is that the BJP found no one else since all its other contenders had some flaw or the other.

Advani, for instance, was thought to have exceeded the “sell by” date because of age, although he was the saffron brotherhood’s hero in the 1990s. And Sushma Swaraj was presumed to be too excitable to be the party’s nominee because her oratorical skills were overshadowed by the tendency to fly off the handle, as when she threatened to shave her head if “foreigner” Sonia Gandhi became prime minister, or suggested that the heads of 10 Pakistani soldiers should be cut off in retaliation for the beheading of an Indian soldier.

It is leadership failures of this nature, underlining the absence of inspiring personalities, which have cast a shadow on the possibility of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) reaching the 272-seat mark in the 545-member Lok Sabha (two members are nominated) to form a government. There are even doubts whether the BJP will be able to attract a sufficient number of allies to cross the magic figure because of Modi’s past when he was castigated by Vajpayee for failing to observe the raj dharma, or the duties of governance, during the communal outbreak in 2002.

If the BJP hasn’t found anyone who fits Vajpayee’s shoes, the Congress, too, has been at a loss after Rajiv Gandhi’s death. There is little doubt that he was the Last of the Mohicans even if the later stages of his prime ministerial tenure were marred by the Bofors howitzer scandal. Even then, the electoral defeat of 1989 apparently made him realize the need for making amends.

In contrast, the present-day members of the Nehru-Gandhi family appear to be clueless about the reasons why their party is going down. They are even reluctant to appear on television lest their vacuity is exposed. It isn’t only that Rahul Gandhi has shied away from a second TV interview after the first one showed him to be hesitant, even the otherwise combative Modi turned down a Facebook-sponsored question-and-answer session in case he is asked whether he told the police to go easy on the rioters in 2002.

If the Congress leaders had undertaken a “deep introspection” of the party’s problems, which Sonia Gandhi promised after the Congress’s 0-4 drubbing in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Delhi last year, they would have realized that none of the government’s flagship programmes – the right to food, the right to employment, the right to education – had helped the party.

Yet, it doesn’t take great political acumen to understand that this typical Left-oriented as well as feudal outlook of a supposedly benevolent government and a munificent dynasty is out of sync with the open economy which India embraced in 1991. What is unfortunate is that the man who presided over the liberalization of the economy as finance minister two decades ago meekly allowed the slow return of the discredited licence-permit-control raj because of his reluctance to oppose Sonia Gandhi’s socialistic preferences.

He did know what was going wrong for he said, in reference to the environment ministry under Jayanthi Natarajan, that the restrictions of the licence raj were being restored. He also said that the Left’s “outdated ideology” had no place in India. But he allowed the profligate rights-based programmes to impose an unbearable burden on the economy. Had he shown greater firmness in pushing forward his neo-liberal views, neither the country nor the party would have been in such dire straits as now.

(15.03.2014 – Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at amulyaganguli@gmail.com)

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