A tormented world, shaken out of its comfort by a pandemic whose devastating reach mocks humanity’s collective capacity to prevail, yearns for answers about our common future. Glaring and persisting inequities of the world order, accentuated by the virus and digital divide foretell the story of a failed leadership and failing realisation of the millennium development goals.
The question of leadership befitting the moment was, therefore, seldom more relevant. History beckons us once again to summon leadership that can navigate a happy and secure future for all, anchored in the inviolability of values that define our humanity. Whether one subscribes to the view that history is a chronicle of accomplishments of the great men and women of their time, or believes that they do not make history “…as they please but under circumstances existing already…” the centrality of leadership at transformative moments in history stands empirically established.
As Will Durant reminds us, “…leaders are the very life and blood of history, of which politics and industry are but a frame.” Arnold Toynbee, in his monumental work, A Study Of History, tells us similarly, that the rise and fall of civilisations is a history of periodic challenges and our response thereto. Clearly, the question of leadership is integral to the context that summons it.
A survey of the present landscape is both daunting and depressing. The global retreat of democracies, relegation of the ethical imperative to an obsessive pursuit of raw power as an end in itself, a crisis of institutional legitimacy and the challenge of forging a political consensus necessary for hard but necessary decisions, interrogate the proclaimed assumptions of democratic resilience.
The rise of ‘jingoistic nationalism’ in confrontation with an international cooperative endeavour to face common challenges, a skewed balance between demands of security and sanctity of civil rights, the sordid saga of fake news and misinformation, an unprecedented global financial crisis that has weakened our collective capacity to rescue national economies, loss of millions of jobs with an estimated 3.4 trillion dollars lost in labour revenue and the resultant social distress, heightened geopolitical rivalries, racism, xenophobia and woeful absence of a united global response to the challenge of climate change, collectively present a potent cocktail of societal instability and political disruption.
Privacy rights amid a pandemic
Increasing encroachment of the private sphere by a “surveillance State” through the abuse of digital technologies and artificial intelligence systems et al, raise discomforting questions about the flawed dominance of efficiency over ethics and power over principle. Notwithstanding the wholly welcome technological empowerment of vast swathes of humanity, digital inequality, the omnipresence of algorithms-driven platforms and commercial harvesting of personal data raise disquieting questions about an unhindered infraction of privacy rights and human dignity.
Issues concerning accountability for autonomous systems, the absence of enforceable global norms on cyber security given the expanding reach of cyber bullies, communal polarisation and violence facilitated by social media raise questions about the future of liberty and dignity in an age of rights.
In a world driven by untamed technology, the relationship between its creator as the “measure of all things” and his creation has been reversed. Digital “code wars” are seen as the new ideological confrontation with a potential to divide the world. Diminished authority of the State to regulate the impact of technology on our social and political life questions the original premises of the social compact. The “insidious creep” challenges the idea of the democratic State itself.
A new definition of democratic leadership
Absence of an enforceable philosophical framework of values defining the boundaries of the digital world in which “life as a drama of decisions” is supplanted by algorithms and robots, impels an unhurried reflection on the kind of world we want and the choices we must make. The new world in which life will be reengineered and adapted to unprecedented changes will need extraordinary leadership that can apply knowledge of the new age to challenges of the future within a moral framework that celebrates freedom and fairness as cherished values.
Leaders, moulded in different frames are expected to follow their own trajectories, hopefully, without falling to the seduction of absolute power induced by narrow nationalisms. Indeed, they must decide the bridges they should burn and those they must cross. Leaders are expected to mould the collective reflections of the people and flesh out a vision befitting the task at hand. They must reconcile power with public sentiment.
In a world scarred by conflict and injustice, leadership is about giving hope in their future to the marginalised, respecting aspirations and mediating amongst competing views to forge a sustainable political consensus through powerful messaging.
Integrity, consistency, empathy, relentless determination, self-effacing humility, a binding moral compass and the ability to motivate masses within the inviolate ethical and ideological framework of politics are leadership attributes more relevant today than ever. A largeness of heart willing and able to rise above the petty and personal, together with intellectual depth necessary to lead the battle of ideas for the establishment of a dignitarian global society, best define qualities of leadership in these troubled times.
Arrogance, ignorance, obduracy, boastfulness, and ‘scapegoating’ have no place in the lexicon of elevating leadership needed to address the vexed questions that we confront. True leadership is about loyalty to larger purposes of the day and which, when confronted with a necessary choice, owes no apology to loyalty to individuals. It is about investing politics with a high moral purpose.
Existentialist questions of the day magnify the importance of inspiring leadership committed to a liberal, inclusive and a truly egalitarian order. The state of the nation demands leadership that can summon the peoples’ will to foster national renewal. Our ability to distinguish ‘selfhood from selflessness’ and ‘individuality from individualism’ must define our search for leadership.
Indeed, as I have stated elsewhere, the nation needs leadership powered by a vision that mirrors a yearning for a just social order based on freedom and inclusion. The task cut out for us warrants leadership that is not ‘wrapped up’ in itself, can rise above petty vanities, demonstrate a generosity of heart and sincerity of purpose to realise the nation’s optimal potential.
Democratic leadership is about bonding. Those who cannot bond will not bind, and are therefore, unable to lead. The Mahatma reminded us that a leader is measured ‘by the purity of his life, the unselfishness of his mission and the breadth of his outlook.
The time for such a leadership is here. Those aspiring to lead will have many challenges to meet and lessons to learn.
Ashwani Kumar is former Union minister for law and justice.