If you turned on the television the day Olympic medal-winning boxer Mary Kom came home, you saw rings of police personnel struggling through a mob, trying to keep it at bay from what looked like — well, nothing. Mary Kom is a very diminutive person, so for several seconds it looked like anarchy focussed on a small empty centre.
That image seems applicable to the current idea of India. Sixty-five years after independence, we still have the quite beautiful Constitution around which this country was built, but somewhere along the line, in the maelstrom of too-clever-by-half politicking, lousy governance and shaky institutions, the central ideas – of freedom, equality, social justice and tolerance – seem to have become hollowed out.
As in all societies, Indians cleave first to local loyalties of language, custom, religion, profession, food, and clothing — these knit individual communities together, and these are the things to which people respond first. Our justly lauded plurality and diversity refract our energies in a million different directions. Without balancing the centrifugal forces of diversity with the centripetal force of a vision and common intent, we can expect to revert to a primal soup of local interests and chaos, with, for example, Marathas persecuting Bihari construction workers, spooked Assamese staff fleeing the hotels of Bangalore back to their burning homes, and the egregious, repeated abuse of women all over the country.
Building a team requires the ability to make people pull for the same collective goal over and above individual and local goals. In this we fail spectacularly — evidence poor governance, unethical business practice, a threadbare social fabric, and our embarrassing record in sport. The one thing we’re all agreed on is that we should all make money, but there’s more to a society than the per capita income, and those things need nurturing too.
For all the talk about Team India, India Inc, and the India story, we still have sports officials riding to London to holiday rather than to support athletes; health officials stealing money from the leprosy eradication mission; army officers scamming their way into housing societies; and monetary scandals of mind-boggling proportions within the government. Our inability to muster the teamwork required to build what’s needed, fix what’s broken, and move forward, has much to do with our shortcomings as citizens burdened with poverty and illiteracy, but a large part of it has to do with a failure of leadership.
Government might be about administration, but leadership is about having, and cheerleading, a vision for people to pull for. India’s political class offers policies, schemes, sops, and a lot of outrage over perceived slights to India’s image abroad, but I don’t see a single political party offering an inspiring vision.
It’s not enough just to have the vision, of course — you also have to have the charisma to win people over to it. Did you hear, or read, the PM’s Independence Day speech? It’s a study in dull, defensive, even somewhat patronising evasions. It even sounded a bit whiny. Look, we did this, and we mean to do this, really, we’re trying, it’s not our fault.
Why leave spirited rhetoric to the fruitcakes? We need to hear from those in power – from the PM, from Sonia Gandhi, from the Opposition’s leaders – not because we’re children in need of emotional reassurance (though possibly that too), but because they are meant to be our team builders. Why can’t our leaders address us directly more than once a year? Why shouldn’t they be made to face off on talk shows before elections, so that voters can make up their minds? Our leaders don’t work with us, let alone inspire us. Without that we’ll get by, but at a fraction of our potential, and at many times the fair cost in terms of time, energy and blood.
Government and the bureaucracy could begin by understanding their role as that of facilitators, rather than as spokes in the wheel. They could begin by building a coherent team of their own, to give us enlightened policy, good infrastructure, and law enforcement with teeth — and then get out of the way. Good leadership is not a clever marketing gimmick; it’s conviction. It’s certainly not coalgate, the 2G scam and policy paralysis.
Until India’s leaders develop a viable vision for where they mean the country to go, and until they learn to communicate it to us effectively, and win our co-operation, they can continue to prop up Maharashtrians and Kashmiris, Assamese, Gujaratis, Biharis and so on, but they will not be helping to create Indians, let alone a Team India. And without a Team India, the India Story is, in more than one way, just another bubble poised to burst.