Sunday, December 7, 2008

India Seeks New Leaders

The era of India’s aging leaders is about to end. Their last hurrah will be over with the next election, scheduled for 2009. Current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is 76 years old. The leader of the opposition in Parliament, Lal Krishna Advani, is 81. Other leaders of the lesser parties at the federal level and provincial chief ministers are mostly 65 to 75 years old.

Their time is over. A new generation of leaders must take over, but there are not many potential candidates. The children of the leaders all aspire to fill in the void, but none is capable enough to lead a country so diverse, with an economy so complex, as India.

The country’s largest party, the secular Congress Party, has had a policy of discouraging any up-and-coming leader other than the current leaders’ children. Jawahar Lal Nehru maneuvered to place his daughter Indira Gandhi in a leadership position after he was dead. Indira Gandhi in turn placed her son Rajiv Gandhi in charge when she died. He in turn passed on power to his Italian wife, who is the present kingmaker. She is working hard to place her dull-headed son in a leading position after she is gone.

The opposition Bhartiya Janata Party has not had great success either as an opposition party or when it was in government. It was an insignificant force until the mid-1990s. It managed to form a durable government in 1998 with aging leader Atal Bihari Vajpayee. One thing good about this party is that the leaders have not promoted their children after they are superannuated.

Other smaller parties have not fared any better. Most party leaders are a one-man show. The party dies after the leader’s death, or becomes an insignificant force able only to muster a few people for civil disobedience if they do not like the government’s actions.

Many provincial leaders in India have a record of promoting their children. Notable among state leaders who have only children or wives in their succession planning are the leaders of Tamil Nadu, Haryana, Bihar, Karnataka and Punjab. Somehow this logjam must be broken.

Who should India depend on to lead the nation? At the federal level, the present ruling party’s boss is angling to place her lackluster son or daughter in a leadership position. Leading a nation is a hard job. Understanding politics, economics and the social welfare needs of the people requires leadership, decision-making capability and generally an ability to distinguish right from wrong.

The children of Sonia Gandhi do not fit this mold. They have been enjoying a privileged life; hence they do not know the real India. Their educational qualifications are also below par. Hence the ruling party must look outside the family for a new leader.

The BJP is fortunate to have a few people in its fold who are quite capable and are not part of the present party leader’s immediate family. Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat, is a good administrator and a leader par excellence. In his two tenures as chief minister, he has brought prosperity to the state and kept evildoers at bay. He is young, in his mid-fifties, and could become the BJP’s leadership choice at the federal level, as soon as the present leader of the opposition, Advani, decides to retire.

Another up-and-coming leader in the BJP is Arun Jaitely. He is young, a political strategist, and is credited for the party’s big win in Karnataka. Formerly he served as a minister from 1998 to 2004 in the BJP government at the federal level. His articulate decision-making routed the opposition in elections.

Leaders of the lesser parties, both at the federal and provincial level, do not fit the mold. They are not even good at leading a state let alone governing at the federal level.

One leader who fits the mold but leads the wrong party is Parkash Karat, boss of the Communist Party Marxists. He is well educated, young and a good decision maker of the type India needs. He made up his mind to oppose the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal and stuck to his guns. Now he is busy forming a third front of the leftist parties. If he were not from the wrong party, he would have been an ideal candidate for leadership of the country.

In the next election, the ruling Congress Party will go to the polls with either the son of the present leader or the current prime minister as leader. This is a sure recipe for an election loss. Timing matters – and the current time is not good for either of them. Inflation worries and endless talks on the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal with the communists do not favor the current prime minister coming out successful.

The BJP is stuck fielding its aging leader, Advani. If the BJP wins the election, the nuclear deal will be only a bad memory. The communists, because they have alienated the middle class by opposing the deal, will come back with less importance. Regional parties with a mob mentality will be more successful, making governance harder.

If India does not invest in future leaders and sticks to its usual sycophancy, the going is going to be tough. The economy has to be kept churning at 9-10 percent; otherwise the people will vote the communists into power. They read and hear about communist China’s success and will not be averse to voting for the communists.

Two enemies – Pakistan and China – are sitting on India’s border waiting for an opportunity to cut it down to size. They will singly or jointly descend on India if they see any weakness in its political structure. Hints of this are audible in Sikkim, Ladhakh and Arunachal Pradesh. The Pakistanis will keep their jihad alive in Kashmir for many generations. But right now their own house is in a mess, hence they are a lesser threat.

A leader of India without a killer instinct, and the ability to tell these external forces to get lost, will be a failure. He will have to back his argument with military, economic and political muscle. The nation and national prestige will bite the dust if external machinations succeed.

A future leader, while subscribing to secular and non-interfering Nehruvian philosophy, must have enough sense to let potential external threats know that India means business and will not back down.

Alternatively, the Congress Party, which has never had an internal election to promote a leader, could finally do that. An election process similar to the U.S. political parties’ election primaries could be quite suitable. It would give all the states and primary members an opportunity to vote to find a leader.

For Narendra Modi to succeed on the job, his image would have to be cleaned up. He has been much maligned by the Congress Party and Muslim interests in the state. He probably is not what propaganda about him tells the masses. The man displayed a killer instinct when he dealt severely with religious fundamentalists four years ago.

The people of Gujarat, including the Muslim masses, are thankful to him today. He single-handedly prevented Gujarat from turning into another playground of Muslim interests. Without him Gujarat would be what Pakistan is today. Recently he has been voted into power for the third time.

In summary, the leadership race in India is open. The elderly leaders are disappearing from the scene. The search for new and capable leaders must begin in earnest. Both major political parties have to do their homework well. If they don’t, the masses will vote the communists into power. They have a successful political model in China that can win mass support.


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