Pragmatic | Leading in a representative democracy

Political leadership can not be solely about pandering to public opinion

On one of the many trips to Uttar Pradesh, this blogger was struck by the slogan on one huge hoarding by a candidate running for the post of Mayor: Mayor usko chune jo aapka pratinidhi ho, neta nahi. Loosely translated, it reads: Elect someone as a Mayor who is your representative, not your leader.

Nothing could be farther from truth in a representative democracy like India. A representative democracy is by nature, delegated democracy, where whom the people elect are supposed to both represent and lead the people. The balance between the two is hard to attain, and political populism has led to a situation where leaders want to be seen as followers, and not as leaders. The constant harping on the infallible wisdom of the average Indian, aam aadmi or the masses in the public space further makes it difficult for elected leaders to go against what is perceived as the popular view.

But this predicament is neither recent nor uniquely Indian. Here is what John F Kennedy wrote in his Pulitzer prize winning book, Profiles in Courage, in 1955:

It is difficult to accept such a narrow view of the role of United States Senator – a view that assumes the people of Massachusetts sent me to Washington to serve merely as a seismograph to record shifts in popular opinion. . .  The voters selected us, in short, because they had confidence in our judgment and our ability to exercise that judgment from a position where we could determine what were their own best interests, as a part of the nation’s interest. This may mean that we must on occasion lead, inform, correct and sometimes even ignore constituent opinion, if we are to exercise fully that judgment for which we were elected. [Chapter 1]

And Winston Churchill, when advised by a colleague in the British Parliament during World War II to “keep his ear to the ground” responded thus:

I see it is said that leaders should keep their ears to the ground. All I can say is that the British nation will find it very hard to look up to the leaders who are detected in that somewhat ungainly posture.

It wouldn’t harm the Indian politicians to look up these two quotes once in a while. And it would help their posture too.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.