For democratic governance to prosper
In popular perception, mythological visions of leadership usually contemplate a tall, handsome knight in resplendent shining armour, astride on a white stallion, slaying all demons on his way and arriving at the city with the head of the enemy on a pike, to the raucous cheers of the common populace. The near delirious people of the city then install him as their ruler, and all live happily ever after. As they say, elephants and other such mammals would fly before this ever becomes a reality. But populations across political landscapes continue to believe that this knight can still arrive one fine day.
Visionary leadership, though, is a more about human perception; its occurrence in history is recorded as an epoch at different times in different places. Winston Churchill in the United Kingdom, De Gaulle in France, John Kennedy in the United States, corporate leaders who created monumental empires through economic crises, military commanders who snatched victory against all odds, Gandhi and Martin Luther King who altered the world into a more humanitarian prism for the weakest and the poorest. Popular cheers and encomia have welcomed such phenomenal successes. In the pantheon of legends over time, there is verifiable evidence across geographies around the world that these persons were guided by their extraordinary conviction in their sense of right and what needs to be done to accomplish it. This brand of leadership necessarily had foresight and sagacity, and a demonstrable faith in a value system and confidence in the future of mankind, a future that it must prosper through equity and justice for all.
They also had the boundless optimism that things can change for the better and that he/she will herald that change. Their ethics and values, and the congruence between their public persona and the lives they led, inspired a mass willingness to follow the course charted by these leaders, who later became icons of history.
Times, however, change. The world today is waging a desperate fight against poverty and deprivation. The institutions of governance are under a constant challenge to render justice and acknowledge the rights of the citizen to pursue his excellence in return for being compliant with the law. Leaders across the world are expected to ensure peace and prosperity and not push their countries into war no matter what the provocation. It is the call of the moment that the shining armour is divested and the white charger put into the stables. Acquiring the right to govern through elections is essentially designed to use the prestige and eminence of office to negotiate solutions not so much through assertion but through persuasion. The power of the majority is the power to lead a consensus of goals and never through imposition. Perhaps, we are still struggling to acquire the cultural mindset that impels us from confrontation to compromise, from assertion to listening, indeed from authority to democracy.
This is not unlike the transition from homo erectus to homo sapiens, a millennia ago. The history of our democracy has enough to show that even majorities have not been able to suppress dissent through the force of the state’s laws and that who cannot appreciate that simmering dissent is capable of greater damage to the perceptions of a lack of governance than even an inept effort to persuade the dissenter to your point of view. Why is our elite pessimistic of its ability to perform and deliver and cynical about the citizen’s capacity to understand and appreciate the change they witness? Judith Shklar, one of the most erudite and respected philosophers of our time tellingly says that excessive fascination with hypocrisy- a splendid weapon of psychic warfare, cannot be a principle of governance. She examines the destructive effects of hypocrisy, snobbery, misanthropy, cruelty and betrayal on the liberal ethos vital for governance and citizenship and their grave implications for the government and citizens. She warns that liberalism is a difficult and a challenging doctrine and that demands a tolerance of contradiction and complexity. It is at this juncture that the eminence of political leadership navigates the solutions through the ethics of their ideology.
There are vital lessons here for the political class, which is constantly seeking grandeur by comparison and hoping to look good by running down its predecessors. Indeed this is the fallacy even the managerial class is obsessed with. All the mistakes belong to the predecessor and the glory belongs to the incumbent. Ultimately, the governing party has to convey their unshakeable belief in the sanctity of the well being of the citizenry. Once that is conveyed with sincerity by its every day actions and articulated with humility by its spokespersons, perceptions will develop positively. Governments do not have to manage perceptions; in fact they cannot manage them with any success for any length of time. They have to uphold the majesty of the institutions. It is all about content over form and not the other way around. Perceptions evolve dynamically from the practice of value based actions and not through induced favourable arguments. Something that is intrinsically good will find welcome and acceptance.
One can only remind the relevance of John Milton’s voice at the peak of the English civil war: “Give me the liberty to know, to utter and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties”.
This still can and does resonate in the contemporary context. The ethics of governance and public transactions will always be the bar at which all governments have to serve. And the leader who honours this bar will be the one in shining armour.