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Strengthening Democracy, Broadening the Leadership Base - Nikhil Picardo

Updated: Apr 14, 2021

Human civilization is over 5,000 years old. Democracy as a sustainable governance model is around 400 years old (England first, then France and the US). Modern democracy in all forms (direct, indirect, presidential, parliamentary) dates to the 20th century. The start of the 20th century saw the women’s suffrage movement, later in the century the liberation of erstwhile colonies, and finally, the collapse of the USSR and a global push towards 100% literacy, accelerated the rapid spread of democracy.

In this century, we have clean and fair elections, better use of technology, and greater cybersecurity that may allow voting via smartphones (Estonia leading the way). The spectre of an illiterate CM (Rabri Devi) governing over 10% of India’s population is in the past.

So, there has been rapid progress, in this short period that democracy has been gaining ground. Right from Ashoka to Aurangzeb, leaders were killing or imprisoning their family members. Even with foreign/ world leaders, Genghis Khan or Alexander, we find nothing to value or take forward from such empire-building. “56-inch chest” leadership belongs to the past, the future will be about deepening and strengthening the value system.

What are these values? There may be several, but one common value all agree upon is that fear-based polarization caused by narcissists and their sycophants are a threat to democratic values everywhere. Simply because they seek to have one so-called “enlightened, divine leader” or family above all else and thus stifle any debate or opposing viewpoints. This works well in low HDI, low-income nations simply because most people are looking for a saviour and stability. Marx said, “Religion is the opium of the masses” and this was true until the state took over most of the powers from religion and commanded tithe/ taxes). The “saviour” or chosen leader becomes the political saint. Such saviour may be of a special family, or special by deeds or team-building strategies but most of all special via sustained media campaigns, conquering the mind space in much the same way that a Genghis Khan or Alexander or Ashoka would conquer lands. The subjugation of princely states has given way to subjugation or silencing of intellectuals. All dissenting viewpoints are seen as not just a threat to the special leader but as a threat to the nation, itself and sedition laws are invoked.

To prevent such narcissists from seizing absolute power, certain nations, notably the US has a term limit of just two terms for the top post. Civil society demands free media, free not just of government interference but also free in the sense, not completely bought by politically funded channels. Comedians generally enjoy the freedom to tell a joke and thus make one think and are invaluable when dissent is crushed on mainstream media.

The second common and related value is basic truths (first principles) and unbiased comparison regarding time, place, event. For example, Nehru could not have moved India towards solar power or 5G technology simply because it did not exist. No one compares their Twitter followers or smartphone model with their great-grandparents.

Scientific and technological progress cannot be the preserve of one Da Vinci, Galileo, Newton, or Einstein. But we can compare the progress of a certain leader with the performance of neighbouring nations. For e.g. If China has grown its railway system or increased bullet trains rapidly or if Bangladesh has gone past India in per capita income the blame cannot be my great grandfather’s! Or for that matter Rahul Gandhi’s great grandfather’s. Blaming the past, cursing our ancestors does not create a better future or a valid excuse for our failures. If the US had slavery in the 19th century, we cannot excuse bonded labor today.

Just like science did not start or stop with Da Vinci, Galileo, Newton, or Einstein a nation or a society cannot be a one-man show, or a one-family show (de facto monarchy). If Amma canteens were started due to Jayalalitha, Delhi metro was rapidly built by Sreedharan, or government services, rations, education, and healthcare improved under Kejriwal government, these are mere starting points for future progress. As discoveries and inventions come about all nations benefit, except those that believe in war, either external or internal and are in too much conflict to plan for long-term progress. The basic value here is progress for the maximum number without harming anyone and that can only be achieved by peace. Not just the absence of war but peaceful intent. Polarization or spreading hate cannot be a shortcut to win elections as it sets society back.

How can we do this? How can we stop narcissists, sycophants, outright liars from hijacking democracy, spreading hate, and stealing credit to become a “supreme leader” almost a dictator like in North Korea? Is it even possible when every party revolves around a personality cult rather than values or processes?

Yes! It is undeniably possible but in a way that planting a seed for a slow-growing but the large tree is possible. We may not live long enough to see the fruits. The results will not be seen in the next election, which is why the long term, but certain solutions are rarely pursued.

One way is to address those who are ignored as a political force. Middle-class urban India, the intellectuals, the qualified white-collar professionals, and apartment owners (outside the slums and shanties). These are generally not large vote banks. Easier to get vote banks from slums in urban areas and poor farmers in rural areas. The ignored sections are maybe less than 30% but they are not just voters but potential local leaders. Many of them are still physically and mentally fit and fine when they retire as managers, GMs, or VPs from a TCS, HDFC, ONGC, or other large organizations. Most of these people are in metro cities.

Can we find, at least in metro cities, enough of such people who are capable and willing to contest local municipal elections to improve governance? Can we move towards a value system where local politics is about giving back to society, not a means for earning? If these are people who have worked honestly their entire life and saved up for retirement, they are unlikely to succumb to corruption as senior citizens. They may also be willing to have only one term of five years as they see it more as a social service and will be happy to mentor someone to take over for the next term. If we can do this even in one city with a focus on values over any personality it will be a huge step forward for democracy. Personalities may tweet but they will never be interested in running for the position of municipal corporator or even a city mayor. Those who have worked six days a week, earned respect without commanding fear, might just be willing to improve their city. Their children might have better connect with the youth who can spread the idea in colleges and just the novelty of one term only or politics as a social service, not a career should make sense to many who are fed up with rampant corruption and the “hafta” system.

Broadening the leadership base. This is the first step in democracy, especially at the grassroots level, at the local municipality, ward level. Else, whatever we do, we remain in search of the next “divine, supreme, enlightened, most beloved/ feared leader”. And no such leader will ever agree to a two-term limit for themselves, or their sycophants – at any level.

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