Half a century ago, a wry joke used to make the rounds in Washington DC. It went roughly as follows: Harry Truman had already demonstrated that just about anybody could be the president of the United States of America; Dwight Eisenhower now proved something of even greater significance — the country does not need a president at all.
A smart joke; so what' While Eisenhower had his credentials as a victorious general, Truman was indeed a very mediocre man. This former haberdasher from Lamar, Missouri, had little formal education. He was, from early life, active in local Democratic Party affairs, and got elected to the US Senate on the grace of machine politicians. Worthier Democrats were tired of running as Franklin Delano Roossevelt’s vice-president for terms on end. On the fourth occasion, they did not mind naming for the slot the homespun senator from Missouri. FDR died during the very first year of the term and Truman, president by accident, led the US in the final phase of World War II. He took the crucial decision to drop atom bombs on Japan. He gave the nod to George Marshall, his secretary of state, to organize massive economic and military aid for western Europe and build it as a bulwark of resistance against the pestilential communists. This ordinary individual, disowning FDR’s liberal legacy, authored the package of global policy measures which got known as the Truman Doctrine. In a direct challenge to the resurgent People’s Republic of China, Truman despatched troops to South Korea. He turned the eye the other way even as assorted Congressional committees launched an indiscriminate witch-hunt to flush out “reds from under every bed”. The Bretton Woods institutions, heralding American supremacy over the world monetary system, also sprouted during his tenure.
Many of the initiatives Truman took were, without question, repulsive to the core. But even diabolic acts, to be successful, call for a measure of competence and organizational flair. True, a man often grows in stature once catapulted to a position he is not quite prepared for. There is, however, a bit more to it. Grave decisions, some of which are of an earth-shaking nature, such as the one Truman took to ‘nuke’ Japan, have to be taken by the person with whom the buck stops. There is always some apprehension that, given the antecedents of the individual concerned, he or she might commit an irretrievable blunder for which the nation — and perhaps the world — could suffer enormously.
What usually stands in the way of occurrence of disasters of this nature is the system of checks and balances a modern State develops over a period of time. Harry Truman might have been a greenhorn from the Southwest backwoods, but he could fall back on an efficient civil service apparatus. Some of the best minds of the US traditionally gravitate towards the nation’s capital, including the cream of economists, scientists, jurists and experts in international affairs. They either serve in different branches of administration, or are with private law firms but available for official consultation. Scholars in universities too are within easy reach of the White House. This pool of knowledge ensures the creation of a milieu from which even a dud of a president can gather wisdom to sustain him in his daily perambulations. It was no different in Truman’s case — and in the case of Dwight Eisenhower in an advanced state of dotage.
Several of his pals in the American Congress, all wizened politicians, were also around to offer counsel and advice to a president like Truman. Besides, the judiciary has always been an integral element in the US political system, exercising a restraining influence on possible executive waywardness. It is not possible to ignore either the role often played from behind the scene by important persons in the public domain, such as Bernard Baruch and W. Averell Harriman or journalists of the calibre of Walter Lippmann and James Reston. Presidents have come and presidents have gone, some of them with intellectual faculties nothing to write home about; the ship of the US has nonetheless remained steady.
The experience in many other countries is similar. Brilliance at the apex of government is more the exception than the rule. As long as the polity has attained a certain level of maturity though, someone even with nominal intelligence can still complete a more-or-less bloomer-free tenure.
The problem arises with countries yet to enter what can be called the zone of stability, and is afflicted by the familiar maladies of under-development. Like charity, any critical appraisal of the quality of administration in such countries too should begin at home. It hardly matters if, in India, mediocre specimens adorn the offices of president and vice-president; the dignitaries in these positions wield little power. Consider, however, the situation that could well arise in the early summer of 2009 — or, as current speculation suggests, even earlier — following the next Lok Sabha polls. The so-called national parties, already derelict, would conceivably undergo a further eclipse by then, and power in New Delhi would be shared by a pot-pourri of parties and groups whose horizon of experience and depth of understanding of issues would be severely circumscribed by parochial and sectarian considerations.
To put it bluntly, they would be mostly a collection of petty-minded individuals sans vision or any ideology worth the name. Few among them would have any clue to the complex functioning of a political arrangement that has to cope with the challenges presented by the existence of diverse nationality groups in the far-flung parts of the country. The nature of evolving international relations, including the intricacies of global finance, would be equally beyond their comprehension.
It is futile to hope that these individuals could benefit from advice profferred by a vibrant legislative wing. Legislators in either house of parliament are bound to come from the same background as that of those who would constitute the government. They would be lacking in imagination, with their minds riveted on the narrowest of issues.
We have been grilled since childhood that even if all else fails, the judiciary would still bail us out. But if the senior-most lawyers practising in the highest court of the land are discovered to be supping with the devil, for how long can the judicial framework remain immaculately virtuous' The gossip one hears in this regard is shocking beyond belief. And as for the media, the era of a bitingly devastating Sachin Chaudhuri or a sagacious Sham Lal is long past.
Hope springs eternal in the human breast. The ruling politicians might be a moronic bunch, the parliamentarians could be crooks, even the judiciary might be suspected to stray from the straight and narrow path, but would not an honest and efficient civil service still save the day' The hypothesis presupposes the existence of a competent bureaucracy manned by wise and dedicated individuals, the brightest and the best the nation can produce. Have a random survey though of middle-class households in the country. Most of the children have, on coming of age, migrated elsewhere, mainly to the US. Of the remainder, the overwhelming majority has headed for the IT sector or chosen cushy executive jobs in the corporate world. Only the dregs enter the portals of government offices; they are a highly unlikely lot to act as rescuers of the nation.
Such are the victuals for sleepless nights!