How India can address national leadership deficit

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Updated: April 5, 2019 7:22:39 AM

Perhaps it is fair to say that competition for political leadership is more robust at the regional level. Therefore, one systemic way to deal with India’s national leadership deficit is to give subnational governments more policy space.

In that case, one might get better leaders on average, and one systemic way to deal with India’s national leadership deficit is to give subnational governments more policy space, both in terms of revenue raising and spending authority.

With the general elections just around the corner, opinion polls suggest that some of the suspense about the outcome has dissipated. Of course, as the US presidential election illustrates, nothing is certain until the votes are cast and counted. But India’s ruling coalition seems very well placed to retain its position. Its main constituent, the BJP, has a relatively robust organisation and national presence, and the government it has led has done enough to compare favourably to its predecessor in perceived economic performance. It also has a leader with experience and credibility, nationally and internationally. There are subnational political leaders among the Opposition, of course, but they lead political parties that are firmly regional, and their national profiles tend to be limited. The main Opposition party, the Congress, is, of course, led by someone whose main qualification is based on genealogy, and it is not very clear what the party he leads stands for.

Leadership matters. One does not have to use basket cases such as Zimbabwe and Venezuela to see the damage that poor leadership can cause. Just look at the United Kingdom, where poor leadership from David Cameron resulted in a Brexit referendum that was manipulated by the racist UK Independence Party, with scaremongering and falsehoods that were almost certainly the determining factor in the shocking outcome. Cameron’s poor leadership has caused, and will continue to cause, his country significant economic harm.

The UK is an interesting case, because it is an advanced economy with a well-established parliamentary system. It is an example of what Douglas North, John Wallis and Barry Weingast have called an “open access order”, in which there is competition for political and economic leadership positions that is relatively free of the biases of circumstances of birth. It is true that the current political leadership in the UK is not a good advertisement for this theory, but on average, well-functioning competition is more likely to lead to better leaders, even if there are counterexamples. Indeed, this seems to be true for economics as well as politics: family firms in India may be less well-managed on average than other companies.

As far as I know, Ashok Kotwal and Arka Roy Choudhuri in What Will Improve Governance, published in India Review, were the first to explore political leadership competition in the context of India. They offer a lucid summary of how the Congress party fell victim to dynastic politics. It seems uncontroversial to suggest that this is a major reason for that party’s inability to serve as a true opposition party, with an identity based on policies and not personality. Kotwal and Roy Choudhuri do note the dangers of the BJP falling victim to a personality cult and the concentration of power in the Prime Minister’s Office: these are also steps that can damage competition in different ways than dynastic succession. Yet, on the whole, the BJP seems to operate in a manner that merges ideology and internal organisation, unlike the individual- or family-dependent parties that dominate India’s political landscape.

Kotwal and Roy Choudhuri do not analyse the various regional parties, and doing so adds considerable complexity to the story of Indian politics. Regional leaders will always matter because of India’s scale and diversity, in ways that they will not in a country like the UK. These leaders can operate within the boundaries of national parties, or outside them. Sometimes they go back and forth between those two modes of operation, but the broad tendency has been for them to go out on their own, simply because there are few opportunities for rising to national leadership through party hierarchies. The current prime minister is a good example of an exception to this constraint, and one can speculate that overcoming India’s leadership deficit requires more such examples, until they are no longer exceptions.

I am not aware of a systematic study of regional political leaders in India, and how they came to power. There are those who led farmers’ organisations, those who represent caste groupings, many who succeeded a parent, and some who have simply made their way up the political ladder, going back and forth between national and regional roles. Perhaps it is fair to say that competition for political leadership is more robust at the regional level. In that case, one might get better leaders on average, and one systemic way to deal with India’s national leadership deficit is to give subnational governments more policy space, both in terms of revenue raising and spending authority.

If that is the case, the centralising tendencies of the current ruling coalition could hold India back economically, if it is returned to power in the national election. It would be ironic if a national leadership deficit, depriving India’s voters of a robust choice in the general election, leads to a stifling of leadership and political competition at the subnational level. There are separate worries about suppression of cultural diversity and weakening of national government institutions that provide checks and balances. All of this makes it sad that dynastic ambitions have attenuated democratic options in India’s upcoming election.

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