| Leader, where are you? Listen carefully and you can't miss this subdued wail amidst the raucousness of Indian democracy. Strange, especially so in a country where you have every type on display, sustained by almost all possible variations of ideologies and sociologies in the book. The profusion of netas doesn't mean an implosion of ideas; and they haven't acquired a secure space in the popular mind. A sceptic nation? Or, as a British essayist predicted a few years ago, the death of politics? |
Or, is it the case that history no longer lets leaders grow larger than life? The India Today Mood of the Nation Poll magnifies a paradox that fills the space between power and leadership.
Take this: the most powerful Indian is not in power, and the man who is in the highest seat of power is not the most powerful Indian. Not a new discovery, but it hasn't changed since Sonia Gandhi-led UPA came to power in 2004-or more specifically perhaps, since the day madam renounced and Manmohan Singh was astonished to be the chosen one. Sixty per cent in our poll say Sonia is more powerful of the two, with Manmohan getting 22. Sonia has lost 3 per cent since the last poll in August 2005 and-not bad-the prime minister only one. His performance, the majority believes, is average, and in popularity, he is third. The UPA hasn't improved its voting share either; rather it has come down a bit, from 235-245 seats (38.8 per cent) to 232-242 (38.3 per cent). The ruling coalition is stagnant; the prime minister, still not a leader with a mass appeal but a dutiful, efficient manager, makes no political difference, and the institutionalisation of the Paramount Leader brings a bit of the old Kremlin to Indraprastha: The supremacy of the party over government. Still, the size of Sonia's power is not reflected on the ground, where cracks are widening. Maybe she is hovering too high to see what is going on below. The base in the north is shrinking; there is bad blood between coalition partners, the spat with the Mulayam Singh government in UP being a good example. She is let down by her own team. And the maximum leader couldn't reach out to stop the collapse in Karnataka.
In any democracy, it is the ideas and actions of the elected ruler that define the political moment, sway or divide the national mind-and get the votes. Isn't Watch the Leader an exciting experience of the times, stretching from the US to Latin America to Europe? In India too; the leader, though, is not the ruler. As the poll shows, the prime minister of India is not the prime mover of Indian politics. There is a kind of perfection about him, and he doesn't look someone who has the political mandate to make the grand gesture-or take that risky leap. That may partly explain the UPA's state of stillness as a ruling coalition despite discernible popular optimism in the economy and quality of life. What is missing in the script is that big political statement, and Sonia hasn't come out with one. The combined effect of an apolitical prime minister and a self-conscious supra-leader hasn't taken the UPA further up in popular esteem.
It doesn't mean that it's all rosy on the right side. The NDA's popular rating may have remained steady since the last poll, but its crisis too revolves around the leader. Like the Government and its official face, the Opposition and its leader have scored only average in performance. Obviously, the politician is losing the market value, and which cannot be interpreted as the irrelevance of politics when markets have acquired a life of their own. Rather, politics has a variety of brands to offer in this big bad world. In the poll, you can't miss one that is refusing to fade out. Atal Bihari Vajpayee is the second most popular politician in the country, just three points below Sonia, but nine points above the prime minister. So there is something more than the power of office when it comes to popularity. It has to be about a value system; about the way a politician makes use of power in a style that is singular. The original Mrs Gandhi is the most missed leader today.
India may not get another. For the one India has, power is still not an attitude that can change India, and the one she has chosen to be in power is just doing the job.