Monday, 13 October 2008

Mr Smith and the Leader as a Principled Pragmatist

We are not political writers, more into marketing strategy. Yet an article by Richard Norton Smith ( drew us to it. Its an apt article for these times. The US election this year and India goes to the polls by April next year.

He writes about the leader as a principled pragmatist!

Since we did not know, we would like to add that Richard Norton Smith is a 1975 Harvard graduate and author of eight books; his Thomas E. Dewey and His Times was a finalist for the 1983 Pulitzer Prize. Prior to accepting a 2006 appointment as Scholar in Residence at George Mason University, Smith served as director of the Hoover, Eisenhower, Reagan, Ford, and Lincoln presidential libraries. Presently working on a definitive biography of Nelson A. Rockefeller, Smith is also part of the team creating ambitious new exhibits for Ford's Theater.

Mr. Smith mentions that "Great presidents spend themselves in causes greater than themselves, for purposes nobler than re-election." Such a profound phrase. And no where is this tested as strongly as in India.

India is the land of the Mahatma Gandhi/ Sardar Patel/ Shartri...each a political leader that came to lead based on his moral authority. It is true that each prime minister in India has been built up by his political party over many years of struggling in the land, among the masses building his own political philosophy and succeeding in selling it to his constituency. (the only exception perhaps is Rajiv Gandhi, that experience ended sadly for all)

But as the political awareness and participation has increased, we find ourselves in a land of one billion, with so many special interest groups. Our last 4 governments have held together as coalitions. The Congress (a centre -left) ties up with the radical Left and some representation of "backward classes". There are over 200 registered parties that go to the polls. Compared to two in the US. Each government comes to rule on the basis of promises. Each voter looks only at the promises made by his special interest party. And yet, when you sum together all these promises made by various parties who have now come together to form a coalition, you ask the question how so manypromises can actually be fulfilled?

What does the leader of this coalition do? Who can deliver what the country needs, given that special interest groups have the power to topple the government? Who can argue then that small incremental steps, loaded with compromises, are better than nothing at all? Who can complain then that the rate of change in India remains so slow?

What use is the moral compass when it is in the hands of special interest groups. What is the benefit of winning an election when you know you could be toppled at any time? (the recent withdrawal of support from the Left parties over the nuclear issue is an example).

In a country where so much has to change fundamentally, the purpose of electing a government for 4 years sometimes is pointless. Change takes longer. The seeds sown by one (the hardest part) are seldom reaped by them. Yet anything longer and the political machinery loses accountability (as evident from the decades of rule by the Congress part in the 50s,60,70s and 80s).

Its such a difficult balance. The note forces us to look at this issue with the oncoming elections.

Getting the moral compass right and then having the opportunity over a 4-8 year period is a rare combination. the US at least assures (unless impeached) a 4 year term. In India, the prime minister is no longer sure how long his term wil last.

When a president in the US compromises with this principles in doing what he believes is best for the country, is it any different from when the prime minister in India compromises to ensure his coalition partners dont ditch him?

We cant say, but some day prime minister Manmohan Singh and President Bush will write their memoirs and we might know a bit more.

Do spend some time on the note by Mr. Smith.

Ritu and Venkat

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