Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Here, ego is bigger than the nation

(First published in The Pioneer dated May 29)


As Prime Ministers, Jawaharlal Nehru and Atal Bihari Vajpayee regularly reached out to Opposition leaders. They did that not only to enhance their personal image of being statesmen-leaders but also to learn from the others and add value to the task that they had been entrusted with. No other Prime Minister has had that quality. Perhaps the other Prime Ministers did not do so because they believed they had nothing to learn from the rest or that they were too insecure to seek guidance, more so from their political rivals.
This is a strange attitude given that the complexities of governing a country like India within the constraints of democracy would require all the advice that an incumbent Prime Minister can get from people who have seen it all and dealt with similar if not exactly the same situations.
But, for Prime Ministers to seek guidance from their predecessors and other senior politicians, requires a level of maturity that is sadly missing in our political system. Excelling in petty politics and scoring brownie points against opponents occupies so much of a Prime Minister’s time that the incumbent leader of the Government simply fails to think beyond these pursuits. Even if a Prime Minister wants to break the glass ceiling, there is no institutional mechanism that can come to his (or her) aid. There is no — official or unofficial — Prime Ministers Club which can meet at regular intervals and discuss the state of the nation, share notes on matters of governance, or simply discuss friends, family, films and books.
By contrast, the United States of America, easily the world’s most powerful democratic country, has an institutionalised Presidents Club comprising former Presidents or whose expertise the incumbent President often draws from in governing the country. Club members meet regularly and keep in touch in other ways all the time. At some time or the other, these members have been bitter political adversaries of one another, often having waged acrimonious campaigns. Yet, those differences are set aside in the larger interests of the country. Remember, the first calls that President Barack Obama made after the elimination of Osama bin Laden were to former Presidents George W Bush and Bill Clinton — the first being from the rival Republican Party and the latter a fellow Democrat whose wife had challenged him for the presidency in 2008.
The fascinating story of this unique bonding among former American Presidents and the assistance that the club has extended — whenever asked for by an incumbent President — in resolving crucial matters of the state, has been laid out in a wonderfully written book, The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity. Americans have the gift of glamour, and this book has been packaged to read glamorous even when it deals with weighty matters of statecraft. Yet, the authors, Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy, have lent the book a great deal of gravity with material that had earlier not been in the public domain. More importantly, the book offers a deep insight into how politically mature leaders, whether in power or outside, come together when it concerns the larger good of the nation.
The authors cite the instance when Lyndon B Johnson took over the presidency after the assassination of John F Kennedy. The United States was in turmoil in the wake of the tragedy, and political uncertainty loomed in the air. The first person Johnson (a Democrat) turned to for guidance was his rival, former President and, as the authors say, “his old sparring partner”, Dwight Eisenhower (a Republican). The book quotes Johnson telling Eisenhower, “I need you more than ever now.” The latter then arrived at the Oval Office and “wrote out on a legal pad what he thought Johnson should say to an emergency joint session of Congress.” Can such a thing happen here in India, where an incumbent Prime Minister seeks similar guidance from a former Prime Minister belonging to the Opposition?
Despite having to leave in disgrace after the Watergate scandal broke out and he was panned by his rivals, Richard Nixon remained a most sought after former President for advice by his successors. He was not found wanting. To quote the authors of the book, Nixon told newly elected President Ronald Reagan in 1980, “President Eisenhower said to me when I visited him after the election of 1968, ‘I am yours to command’. I now say the same to you.”
There are many instance of the incumbent President reaching out to his predecessors for help and the latter responding generously, regardless of their political affiliation. But there are also examples, even if rare, of Presidents demonstrating a sense of magnanimity, and in the process rising several notches high in public esteem. The authors speak of the controversial decision that Gerald Ford as President took to grant Nixon a pardon over the Watergate issue. The book quotes Ford as saying in exasperation, “Everybody was trying to crucify the guy and I finally said to people, ‘Enough is enough. Pardon him.’ I don’t care on what basis. Enough.” Contrast this conduct of a US President with the manner in which our Governments and its leaders launch witch-hunts against their political rivals with the battle cry, “Finish him!”
Perhaps a ‘Prime Ministers club’ could have gained shape in India too had we leaders of calibre to undertake that initiative. Harry Truman and Herbert Hoover got together to establish The President Club at Eisenhower’s inauguration as President. Since then, the club has had nearly all through the period former Presidents whose services were available to the incumbent President. In India, though, it was not until the mid-eighties that the country was blessed with living former Prime Ministers. Lal Bahadur Shastri took over after Nehru died; Mrs Indira Gandhi assumed office after Shastri’s demise; and Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister in the wake of Mrs Gandhi’s assassination. When VP Singh took charge, Rajiv Gandhi was available for advice as a former Prime Minister. But, given the situation then, such an idea was unthinkable.
However, later, on many occasions the Government of the day could have drawn on the expertise of former Prime Ministers Deve Gowda, IK Gujral, Narasimha Rao and Chandra Shekhar. The first two are still around but there is nothing to indicate that our incumbent Prime Minister has ever sought their counsel in matters of governance. Mr Vajpayee is, unfortunately, in no physical shape to offer his expertise, not that the Congress would have been eager to have it.
Both in the US and in India, political rivalries are deep and often acrimonious, and the race for the top position is filled with intrigue and back-stabbing. But there is one big difference that explains the existence of The Presidents Club and the absence of its equivalent in India: In the US, it is the post (of the President) that looms larger than the image of the incumbent to that position, whereas in India personalities are seen as bigger than the position of the Prime Minister. Thus, although Manmohan Singh is the Prime Minister, it is Congress president Sonia Gandhi who is the more powerful person. With those like Mr Singh at the helm, how can the Prime Minister’s post be considered with respect, and which former Prime Minister will reach out with any advice to such a weak-kneed leader?
Not that the US Presidents have been infallible. But at least they took their own calls and were not remote-controlled. They made mistakes, and historians will judge them. As the authors say in The Presidents Club, “Historians measure and rank Presidents. But when they take the longer view, Presidents do not just compare themselves to one another; they weigh their leadership against what might have been.”
Now, if only that leadership had been evident in our incumbent Prime Minister to be weighed

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