One of the great paradoxes of the democratic way is the public yearning for strong, decisive leadership. The great 20th-century heroes in non-totalitarian societies have either been saints (Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela) or leaders with a marked touch of imperiousness (Charles de Gaulle, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher).
India is no exception to this trend. Jawaharlal Nehru may be greatly admired by the liberal intelligentsia for his seminal contributions to the creation of democratic institutions. However, opinion polls have repeatedly confirmed that Indira Gandhi whose democratic credentials were always suspect remains, in the popular imagination, Indias most admired prime minister. Her authoritarian conduct did result in a fierce electoral backlash in 1977. But that is because she broke the rules of the game with the Emergency. In general, however, her determined and haughty style of leadership was admired. The aam admi (if such a creature does indeed exist) revelled in the realization that Mrs Gandhi was both respected and feared within her own party. She was, as the former chief minister of West Bengal, Prafulla Chandra Sen, feared and protested to the syndicate when it first nominated her for the top job, truly a Ma Kali.
The importance of both fairness and fear in governance and political management was always acknowledged by imperial administrators in India. In his critique of what he perceived was the Viceroy Lord Irwins generous accommodation of Mahatma Gandhi, Churchill told a rally of Empire loyalists in January 1931 that It is never possible to make concessions to Orientals when they think you are weak or are afraid of them. If they once think they have got you at a disadvantage, all their moods become violent, concessions are treated as valueless, and necessary acts of civil repression often only add to the flames.
It is no longer correct to make broad generalizations based on ethnic or national stereotypes. However, Churchills understanding of the behaviour of Orientals can be contrasted with other societies where fierce individualism is the norm, and where overbearing leadership pays limited dividends, except perhaps in times of war.
On July 13, 1962, for example, the British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, hitherto an epitome of unflappability, did something completely out of character: at one stroke he sacked seven members of his cabinet. The casualties of that Night of the Long Knives included the chancellor of the exchequer, the Lord Chancellor, the education minister, the defence ministers and the ministers responsible for Scotland and Wales. It was a political massacre, the likes of which had never been witnessed in Westminster. I feel my neck all the time, Rab Butler, who escaped the massacre, confided to journalist Harold Evans, to see if it is still there.
In his official biography of Macmillan, Sir Alistair Horne suggested that the drastic action was actually prompted by something that, in hindsight, seems fairly routine: economic sluggishness. By the summer of 1962, Macmillan reckoned that, like the human body, the British economy had developed a certain resistance to most medicines. The prime minister merely wanted to change the chancellor of the exchequer but he was also under public pressure to inject some new, younger blood into the cabinet. In a moment of rare impetuosity, he decided to combine these two very different imperatives and ended up sacking one-third of his cabinet.
The results were not rewarding. Far from being perceived as a leader who actually led, the cabinet changes were seen as an indication of Macmillans own vulnerability. It astonished me, Lord Kilmuir, the outgoing Lord Chancellor, wrote in his memoirs, that a man who had kept his head under the most severe stresses and strains should lose both nerve and judgment in this way
. Macmillan was later to describe Kilmuir as the stupidest Lord Chancellor but, in this case, the assessment was not wide off the mark. Macmillans approval ratings fell from 47 per cent to 36 per cent in nine days. In hindsight, The Sunday Times headline His own executioner proved remarkably prescient.
The negative reaction owed to two factors. First, the impression that the conservative governments troubles, however grave, did not warrant a revolution; and secondly, that playing butcher was not part of the job description of a patrician prime minister. It was the larger understanding of the personality of Macmillan, rather than any British penchant for moderation, that made the drastic reshuffle seem excessive and governed by personal considerations.
No such opprobrium was attached to the equally drastic reshuffle undertaken by Margaret Thatcher in September 1981 that led to the sacking of the foreign secretary, education secretary and leader of the House of Lords. Thatchers motives were unabashedly political: she wanted to recast the cabinet in her own ideological image. This may not have been to the liking of the Tory grandees but it corresponded to her emerging Iron Lady image. In short, a ruthless overhaul was something Britain expected from Thatcher. She was Britains Indira Gandhi.
In normal times, there would have been few expectations of drastic change from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh last Wednesday. Despite the Indian penchant for decisiveness of the Mrs Gandhi variety, past precedent wasnt an encouragement. The Kamaraj Plan that led to the redeployment of Lal Bahadur Shastri, Jagjivan Ram, Morarji Desai and S.K. Patil for party work hadnt been a great success; Mrs Gandhis sacking of Desai as finance minister in 1969 triggered a chain of events that led to the Congress split; and Desais dismissal of Charan Singh in 1978 deepened the fissures within the Janata Party.
Unfortunately, these are not normal times. In the 20 months since its re-election, the United Progressive Alliance government has had its way and become mired in corruption, mismanagement and non-performance. Despite the eight per cent growth of the economy, there is a recognition that India is slowing down due to the non-removal of infrastructural bottlenecks. In addition, far from regaining its status as the dominant party, the Congress has failed to make inroads in North India and has been seriously undermined by self-goals in its strongholds of Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. A ministerial overhaul doesnt automatically address the problems of economic sluggishness and political disarray but is seen as an index of political resolve to address the decline.
Manmohan Singh has in the past withstood charges of weakness by juxtaposing it to decency and personal integrity. Unfortunately, the recent kerfuffle over corruption has marred the prime ministers image because he has been seen to be wilfully looking the other way. To redeem his own reputation, he had to be seen to be doing something that indicated that his core values were also the values of the government. In short, he had to be seen to be retiring those who were either becoming a liability or were considered deadwood. The country expected a Night of the Long Knives.
Tragically for the prime minister, last Wednesdays much-awaited and much-hyped exercise has proved farcical. He has been shown to be lacking the political clout to drop even a single minister, including Manohar Singh Gill of Punjabi wedding fame and those whose health prevents them from playing any meaningful role as ministers. Worse, he implicitly acknowledged the inadequacy of this reshuffle by promising another one after the budget session. Where an axe was called for, he waved the all-too-familiar babu weapon, the transfer order.
Macmillan invoked disgust; Mrs Gandhi invoked shock and awe; but Manmohan Singhs reshuffle has invoked pity and mirth. Governments can withstand criticism but they are powerless to confront ridicule.