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A billion people, but where are the leaders?

July 19, 2010 19:07 IST
Nitin Gadkari's early warning that he is not a mature leader fit to be the head of India's second largest political party points to a general poverty of leadership in the country. Indeed, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the last national leader.

Come to think of it, even Sonia Gandhi's influence is confined to a few states, says Virendra Kapoor

Much was expected of Nitin Gadkari when he was first appointed Bharatiya Janata Party president last December. It was widely believed that he would be a huge improvement on his predecessorRajnath Singh, who had divided the party with the objective of consolidating his own position.

The three years the second-rung politician from Uttar Pradesh stayed as the head of the second largest national party, Singh did not grow in stature. After the end of his term as BJP chief, he has gone back to being one of the many not-so-big players in UP's politics.

Initially Gadkari did come as a breath of fresh air after Singh's lacklustre stint. He meant well, did not feel insecure, though all along he had been a sub-regional leader in Maharashtra. More importantly, he did not feel small in consulting senior leaders before taking major organisational and policy-related decisions.

So far, so good. But the problem is that as the national president of the main Opposition party, Gadkari remains in the public eye constantly. Therefore, however hard he might try to stick to the script, the real Gadkari cannot hide behind rehearsed lines a la Sonia Gandhi.

Nor can he play hard to get like the Congress boss around whom a mystique is sought to be created by denying access even to very senior Congress leaders for months on end.

Since Gadkari is exposed daily to party colleagues, the media and people from all walks of life, there is no way his real persona can be hidden behind rehearsed lines and all-too-brief encounters with various interlocutors where he is expected to do nothing more than exchange pleasantries a la Sonia Gandhi.

And it is here he comes across as a run-of-the-mill provincial politician without a national perspective, any big idea, or even the intellectual maturity to couch his thoughts in a civilised language.

Anyone who has interacted with him at some length comes away disappointed that he uses crude language which certainly ill-becomes the president of a national party.

Indeed, when he said at a public rally that leaders of the Samajwadi Party and the Rashtriya Janata Dal, who had roared like lions before the trust vote in Parliament ran away like 'frightened dogs' when it actually came to voting against the government, everyone had given him the benefit of the doubt. He could as well have compared them to rather inoffensive rats.

Though Laloo Yadav and Mulayam Singh Yadav had angrily ticked off Gadkari, others had dismissed the verbal excess as a mere slip of the tongue.

But soon it became clear it was no one-off slip of the tongue. It seems that is exactly the way Gadkari speaks, couching his mundane thoughts in bazaar language wholly unmindful of the fact that as the head of the BJP he is expected to speak in a restrained and measured manner.

Thus, his latest gaffe questioning whether Afzal Guru, the death row convict in the Parliament attack case, was a 'son-in-law' of the Congress party, has only confirmed his reputation as a crude person, unable to maintain a sense of balance.

Calling Congress leader Digvijay Singh, Aurangzeb ki aulad (Aurangzeb's son) , too was typical Gadkari. Even his senior colleagues are shocked that the BJP president should be speaking the language of the gutter.

Gadkari's early warning that he is not a mature leader fit to be the head of India's second largest political party points to a general poverty of leadership in the country. Indeed, Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the last national leader. Come to think of it, even Sonia Gandhi's influence is confined to a few states, given the fact that the Congress is an insignificant force in UP and Bihar and a few other regions.

Paradoxical as it may sound, the truth is that post-liberalisation, the country has thrown up no national leader. Aside from Indira and Rajiv Gandhi from the Congress's first family and Vajpayee from the Opposition, there has been no political leader who can claim to be popular throughout the length and breadth of the country.

A nation of billion-plus people is woefully short of a charismatic leader who can cut through differences of caste, creed, region, etc, and inspire the entire country.

To put it differently, when the country was poor, it threw up an Indira Gandhi who won a famous victory in the 1971 election on the heady slogan of Garibi Hatao. In 1984, Rajiv Gandhi won a huge mandate against the backdrop of the emotional upsurge created by Indira Gandhi's murder by her Sikh bodyguards.

And Vajpayee as the BJP's prime ministerial candidate had his admirers throughout the country, even in those states where his party had no presence. But he was the last of the national leaders. They do not make leaders of that calibre any longer. Maybe astute sociologists will undertake a study of the inverse link between a growing economy and a depleting leadership pool.

Now that India is growing at a decent clip, and our dollar billionaires regularly feature in the world's rich list, there is an acute poverty of leadership all around. Come to think of it, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had lost the Lok Sabha election the only time he had entered the electoral fray.

As for Gadkari, well, the leader of the main Opposition party has all along been a member of the Maharashtra legislative council, not, mind you, the legislative assembly to which one is elected directly.

There are no genuine national leaders who, cutting across divisions of caste, creed, region, language, etc, can command a nation-wide following. Small wonder, then, the vacuum has been filled by regional/casteist leaders like Mayawati, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Laloo Yadav, Nitish Kumar, M Karunanidhi, J Jayalalithaa, etc.

Cry, my countrymen. A nation of over one billion people but no true national leader a la Nehru or Patel or even an Indira Gandhi or Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Remember, the stature a national leader commands helps in many known and unknown ways, including resolving many ticklish disputes with the sheer force of charisma and statesmanlike approach to men and matters.

Besides, being an unofficial ambassador at large, a la Nelson Mandela of South Africa, a true national leader comes to symbolise the country for global audiences. For instance, Vajpayee was the toast of NRIs, whether in New York or London, long before he became prime minister.

Can any leader in today's political firmament lay claim to that honour, even if sycophants can always be relied upon to rig up a small crowd for a visiting Congress or BJP leader in a foreign capital? The answer, one is afraid, is a firm 'no'.

Virendra Kapoor