Few days back there was an interesting piece by the NYTimes columnist David Brooks, on personal traits that correlate with successful presidencies with Mitt Romney as the case-in-point. Many times I disagree with the way Brooks interprets things, just like many other times I agree with the points he makes. And, this was one of those times he was making some sense though his analysis was not comprehensive enough to rule out other possibilities.
Anyway, even though the four simple criteria he suggested may not be relevant to the Indian context, but reading this piece just made me feel like analyzing Rahul Gandhi within the same limited framework, which Brooks uses for Mitt Romney. So here it is:
Like Brooks article, the question at large is: Will Rahul Gandhi make a successful Prime Minister? Taking the route which Brooks took, one-by-one I am just going to take up the four traits of successful presidents he listed and see how Rahul Gandhi fares on these criteria as an individual because it is quite likely that he would become the Prime Minister of India someday.
1. Brooks says, “First, successful presidents tend to be emotionally secure. They have none of the social resentments and desperate needs that plagued men like Richard Nixon. Instead they were raised, often in an aristocratic family, with a sense that they were the natural leaders of the nation. They were infused, often at an elite prep school, with a sense of obligation and responsibility to perform public service.”
Obviously here our Congress Scion scores well: He belongs to the India’s first family and however much we may be jealous of him, we can’t take away from him his sense of being a natural leader, and obligation and responsibility to get into public service. If he didn’t believe that, then he probably wouldn’t have entered the Indian politics. We can disagree with him saying that it is not right for him to have feelings, or can say that we don’t think that he is really a capable leader. But no one can stop him from thinking that either he is, or he can be a good leader; just the way he can’t stop others from saying otherwise.
Therefore, to paraphrase Brooks, this sort of premier occupies his position “with ease and confidence, is relatively unscathed by the criticism of the crowd, is able to separate the mask he must wear for public display from the real honest self he knows himself to be”. I wouldn’t hesitate to give him a point on this one.
2. Second characteristic of a successful premier of a country according Brooks is: Superb Political Judgment. He also quotes Isaiah Berlin there to define political judgment as “a capacity for integrating a vast amalgam of constantly changing, multicolored, evanescent perpetually overlapping data”. He goes on to say that political judgment is some sort of implicit knowledge developed slowly by the political insiders over decades through the rich experiences they accumulate.
Given that Rahul Gandhi is just 41 and became an MP first in 2004, he definitely can’t boast a lot on the experience front. Maybe a strong team of advisors who have had rich experiences as political insiders for long could help him overcome that barrier, but public is mostly confused on this front because of the mixed record of public perception about actions/stands he has taken so far (or not taken in many instances). Maybe because I am also young and inexperienced, I feel that it has got a lot about how a leader uses her/his advisors, though others may feel that no number of advisors can fill this lacuna because it is almost impossible to find advisors who can be trusted absolutely in the game that we know as politics.
Another important means of developing such judgment is by having “voracious social contact”. From what we read about Rahul Gandhi, he definitely comes across as someone with a compulsive desire to connect with commoners though we don’t know whether he has developed a sense of gauging what the person in front wants or can actually deliver.
Whatever the compulsions are (or inability), selections of candidates fielded in state after state elections don’t give us (who are not political insiders) the confidence that he has developed a superb sense of political judgment in terms of people. His positions (or lack of) on many issues and follow-actions don’t help either.
On the whole, based on information available to me now, I wouldn’t score him high on the political judgment front. Upcoming elections in UP and other states would definitely be his litmus test. And yes, as his lineage has already given him great advantage, he would be adjudged using higher/stricter standards or metrics than other politicians.
3. Third characteristic which Brooks chose to focus on is the fact that most great leaders have had experienced crushing personal setbacks. Having lived through two assassinations of the loved ones in the family certainly puts him into this category.
He definitely comes across quite composed as an individual. Also, he didn’t do anything like Rahul Mahajan or whatever the stereotype we normally have in our minds for a powerful Indian politician’s son. I (and probably most people) would like attribute such composure to a combination of upbringing and the inherent personality of an individual.
Brooks says that such setbacks typically give these leaders a sense of sympathy for those who are suffering, and a personal realization of the frailty of everything. He continues saying, “They are resilient when things go wrong. They know how dependent they are on others, how prone they are to overconfidence. They are both modest, because they have felt weakness, and aggressive, because they know how hard it is to change anything”.
I don’t know Rahul Gandhi, so can’t say about the resilience part but he definitely comes across as a modest person for the power he holds with him. Overall, I would say he scores well in this category.
4. Fourth criteria he mentions is that “great leaders tend to have an instrumental mentality”. I will just continue quoting Brooks as he is way better than me in articulating arguments. He continues, “They do not feel the office is about them. They are just God’s temporary instrument in service of a larger cause. This sense of being an instrument gives them an organizing purpose. It gives them a longer perspective, so they don’t get distracted by ephemera. It means their administration marches in one direction, even though it is flexible and willing to accept incremental gains along the way”.
Though based on scarce information from whatever little I have read about him and heard about him as the personal assessments of some people who happened to have interacted with him. I am convinced that he has such a sense of instrumental mentality. Definitely many would question me on this, and my response would be in the form of another question to them. That is, put yourself in Rahul Gandhi’s shoes and keeping in mind that he chose not to become anything like Rahul Mahajan (i.e. he is a sensible person), think what you would do if you had also bequeathed such a legacy, which he was lucky enough to receive? Isn’t it obvious that probably you would also like to devote yourself to a cause much bigger than you and everything around you to secure a worthy place in the history books?
All in all, our dude RG scores reasonably well on three out of four criteria Brooks focused on, though his score on the really important criteria of political judgment is at best inconclusive. Brooks ends by saying that great premiers are often aristocrats and experienced political insiders. However much we hate the aristocrats part, it seems that is the hard reality of the world that a significant number of great leaders and reformers belong to that class. So maybe we should not hold that against Rahul Gandhi, but that doesn’t mean he should be allowed to do away with the requirement of political judgment if he wants to be a PM or the next great social reformer of India.