In praise of cooperative leadership
Shashi Tharoor | 25 Dec, 2020
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
When the editor asked me to write on leadership in the global context in our pandemic-afflicted world, I felt a certain dismay. We are living in an era where our societies are increasingly becoming fractured, where questions of identity and ideology appear to be driving us further away from each other—and at a time when the vacuum created by the absence of a leadership that can once again help us achieve the collective aims of unity and consensus is being felt across all aspects of our daily lives.
It started with a backlash against globalisation that took two forms: economic and cultural.
The economic backlash was straightforward. The poor and the unemployed in the developed world began to feel that they had no stake in the globalised system, and demanded to know why their governments’ policies benefited people in faraway lands like China and India with what used to be their jobs. They wanted to reduce the growing inequality in every ‘developed’ economy and go back to the security of older, more familiar economic ways, in which each generation assumed they would earn more and live better than their parents did.
The cultural backlash derived from the same resentment but expressed itself in a different arena: the political denunciation of global trade led to hostility towards foreigners, as more and more people sought the comforts of traditional identity and ways of life. Rage was expressed against what the writer Keerthik Sasidharan called the ‘alchemical brew served up in the name of progress—liberal politics, theologies of social emancipation, technocrats, trade agreements, multiculturalism’. Animated often by bitter working-class and lower-middle class resentment of global elites (for the masses have adopted, or been persuaded to adopt, a narrative of their victimhood at the hands of such elites), this translated into a rejection of the entire brew—cosmopolitanism, multiculturalism and secularism—in the name of cultural rootedness, religious or ethnic identity and nationalist authenticity.
Political leaders were quick to seize the opportunity to tap into both kinds of backlash against globalisation. Leaders like Donald Trump, who rose to the presidency of the US on slogans of “America First” and “Make America Great Again”; Boris Johnson, who took his nation out of the European Union (EU) on a wave of xenophobic populism; Russia’s Vladimir Putin, who has presided over the resurgence of Russian nationalism after the shambolic collapse of the Soviet Union; Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Narendra Modi of India, who successfully persuaded their voters that they were more authentic embodiments of their nations than the allegedly rootless secular cosmopolitans they sought to displace; and a host of others—from Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil to Viktor Orbán of Hungary—who combined nationalist fervour with a determined articulation of popular prejudices, all restored nationalism to its place as the default model of national self-definition. (Collectively, they constitute what is oxymoronically seen as a ‘Nationalist International’.)
To be sure, these leaders were challenged by liberal intellectuals who lamented their defiance of the recent consensus that the world was moving ineluctably towards greater integration, where borders were becoming less relevant and sovereignty could be pooled for the benefit of humanity as a whole. But, given the emotional appeal of nationalism to most voters, these internationalists could not win elections as nationalists could.
Worryingly, these trends have only accelerated during the Covid pandemic, with borders becoming more rigid, communities marginalised and the notion of ‘us versus them’ attaining a primary importance, all aspects that I believe clearly demonstrate a certain crisis of leadership that is being experienced across the globe. It seems increasingly likely that Covid-19 will inaugurate an era of deglobalisation. The signs are mounting that the world may embrace isolationism and protectionism in a far more enthusiastic way than prior to the outbreak, including in India.
The indications are evident. The pandemic has confirmed, for many, that in times of crisis, people rely on their governments to shield them; that global supply chains are vulnerable to disruption and are therefore unsustainable; and that dependence on foreign countries for essential goods (such as pharmaceuticals, or even the ingredients that go into making them) could be fatal. Nations tried aggressively to acquire medicines and corner vaccine supplies for their own people at the expense of each other. There is a rush to reset global supply chains and raise trade barriers: the demand for more protectionism and ‘self-reliance’ (echoed in Modi’s call for atma-nirbharta), for bringing manufacturing and production value chains back home or at least closer to home, is mounting. A suspicion of international co-operation has grown into a rejection of multilateralism.
Leadership in a country like ours, and in a time like this, should be anchored in empathy. Where there is discontent, it will be necessary for our leaders to understand what provokes it
A typical case in point could be seen early into the pandemic in the attempts that were made to de-legitimise and discredit the World Health Organization (WHO), led by Donald Trump who accused the international organisation of covering up the initial outbreak in Wuhan and then pulled the US out of the body. But the fault was hardly the doing of the world body alone—let’s not forget that when WHO sought to send a team of experts to Wuhan to study the pandemic in the first week of January 2020, they were roundly rebuffed by a belligerent China, which is exactly the way UN agencies have been set up by the big powers to be run. What happened must be seen as part of a graver crisis within the international system, whose work has been increasingly politicised by major powers that manipulate their actions and strip them of any capacity for independent leadership and autonomous action.
These global bodies were conceived in the hope that they could provide a platform that would bridge our divides and work towards the common good. Instead the crisis of leadership in the international order has been seen elsewhere, including within the EU, where European solidarity took a sharp blow when countries turned on each other in the race to shore up their supply chains (and even suspended the visa-free Schengen arrangement in favour of closing their borders). The pandemic has undoubtedly served as a catalyst for the de-legitimisation of institutions that were supposed to bring us together and has spurred the rise of a divisive brand of global leadership that has locked nations into a zero-sum battle against each other. Instead of strengthening the capacity of our global institutions to cope with a future crisis, the world’s reaction to the virus may well end up destroying the most fundamental feature it has exposed—the idea of our common humanity.
This external trend has been complemented by grave domestic developments in countries headed by strongmen that have used the pandemic as a cover to continue to further their designs of shoring up their own power and control in their respective nations. Notable examples can be found across the globe: whether in Hungary, where Orbán used the excuse of the coronavirus pandemic to suspend parliament and rule by decree, or of Turkey, where Erdogan has consolidated power over a longer timeframe, alternating as president and prime minister, and rewritten the constitution to his taste.
A similar narrative has emerged in our own country, where the project to fundamentally redefine our democratic foundations has accelerated at a rapid pace during the pandemic. The virus has offered the ruling dispensation a fresh impetus to further dispense with democratic niceties, whether it is federalism, parliamentary oversight, the inalienable rights of individual citizens, the independent functioning of institutions that guard against the overreach of the executive, and the encouragement of a free and courageous media to shed light on the government’s failures. All of these have gradually been hollowed out or subsumed by political developments conjured by a Government that deems only itself as capable of defining the national interest.
But as we saw first with widespread protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, and now with the protesting farmers at the gates of the nation’s capital, Indian democracy remains capable of fighting for its life, and the nationwide disgruntlement over the appalling treatment of the migrant workers trudging homeward after Modi’s no-notice lockdown of 2020 and, more recently, the massive movement by farmers against the contentious new farm bills, have indicated a growing demand for a different kind of leadership altogether.
As our deficiencies in the response to the pandemic have made abundantly clear, despite this movement towards a more fractured and insular global order, it nonetheless remains true that the future of leadership will and must be global. That may seem obvious enough to a former UN official like myself, but in fact it is also true for everyone—and even at a more trivial level. Take for instances the forces of globalisation that are irresistibly transforming the world, and the information technology revolution that brings to our breakfast tables, our living rooms, and increasingly our computers and our mobile phones, snippets of information and glimpses of events from every corner of the globe. These are forces of convergence, which have made the world one village, one market, one audience. Paradoxically, these have been accompanied by forces of divergence and disruption: acts of terrorism, the unmitigated spread of climate change, the cultural and economic backlash against the liberal world order, the assertion of cultural authenticity by populist leaders, civil and political strife, a burgeoning refugee crisis, not to mention a host of divisive developments from Trump to Brexit—all of these are factors that are pulling us away from each other.
Therefore, even as we accept a reality of an interconnected world and the need for leaders in the 21st century who can think beyond a reflexive assertion of national sovereignties, it seems clear to me that we also need leaders who are capable of operating in a world of contradictory forces. The pandemic has been no respecter of borders, ethnicities, races or religions. It is clear that we can no longer afford the luxury of not thinking about the rest of the planet in anything we do; and that instead of attacking WHO we should have been strengthening it. Let us not forget that 9/11 made clear the old cliché about our global village—for it showed that a fire that starts in a remote dusty cave or tent in one corner of that village can melt the steel girders of the tallest skyscrapers at the other end of our global village. The same message has been echoed by the pandemic. If violence and rampant spread of a virus can be global so must the response be.
In today’s world, even those countries that once felt insulated from external dangers—by wealth or strength or distance—now fully realise that the safety of people everywhere depends not only on local security forces, but also on guarding against terrorism; warding off the global spread of pandemic disease, of pollution, of illegal drugs and of weapons of mass destruction; and on promoting human rights, democracy and development. Jobs everywhere depend not only on local firms and factories, but on faraway markets for products and services, on licences and access from foreign governments, on an international environment that allows the free movement of goods and persons, and on international institutions that ensure stability—in short, on the international system. We are all interconnected.
As someone once said about water pollution, we all live downstream. And that means we can simply no longer afford to be indifferent about our neighbours, however distant they may appear. Ignorance is not a shield; it is not even, any longer, an excuse. What does that mean for leaders in India?
To begin with, leadership in a country like ours, and in a time like this, should be anchored in empathy. And where there is discontent, it will be necessary for our leaders to understand what provokes it, and to find long-term answers that benefit the maximum number of people. Together we must now move beyond narrow concerns of national security (freedom from terror and attack) to a broader vision of human security (freedom from hunger and hopelessness)—of a world where everyone has food, clothing, shelter; where democracy reigns, where people’s creative and entrepreneurial energies are freed, where human rights are upheld and the environment is protected.
The pandemic has undoubtedly served as a catalyst for the delegitimisation of institutions supposed to bring us together and spurred the rise of a divisive global leadership that has locked nations into a zero-sum battle against each other
This also means that leadership in a chaotic democracy such as ours must be able to live with, welcome and embrace diversity. Leadership that emphasises division and difference, communal or caste identity, rather than seeking unity, is always inferior to leadership that seeks common ground and serves to unite people. A true leader builds bridges, not walls. I have long been a votary of Swami Vivekananda’s principle of acceptance—not mere ‘tolerance’—as the basis for mutual respect that alone guarantees harmonious co-existence.
But this also means that our leaders will need to get comfortable in operating within the innumerable paradoxes of our society. The old joke about our country is that anything you say about India, the opposite is also true. We like to think of ourselves as an ancient civilisation but we are also a young republic; our IT experts stride confidently into the 21st century but much of our population seems to live in each of the other 20 centuries. Quite often the opposites co-exist quite cheerfully. One of my favourite images of India is from the Kumbha Mela, the big Hindu religious festival, of a naked sadhu, with matted hair, ash-smeared forehead and scraggly beard, rudraksha mala around his neck, for all the world a picture of timeless other-worldliness, chatting away on a cellphone.
The brand of leadership is an equally important question to raise. In India today we are confronted nationally between two very different types of leadership: the hero on the white stallion with upraised sword, who says he understands all the problems, knows all the answers and will cut through every Gordian knot in the country for you (and we know how badly that has worked out so far in the last six-and-a-half years), versus a collective, consultative leadership based on building consensus, leveraging the experience, background and interests of very different people in an effort to arrive at a mutually acceptable set of solutions.
Of course, the latter must be careful not to tip over into weakness or indecisiveness either. One is reminded of Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin, the 19th-century French politician who became the interior minister in the provisional government that was created in Paris after the Revolution of 1848, who looked out of his window during the tumultuous events of that time and saw a mob rushing past on the street. He promptly headed for the door, saying, “Je suis leur chef, il fallait bien les suivre (I am their leader, I should follow them).” That is one kind of leadership, but hardly the most effective or enduring kind. By and large a leader is expected to lead, even if, from time to time, a good leader also knows how to be a good follower.
But doing either blindly is a recipe for disaster. Leadership over a group or a movement also necessitates a capability of managing and rising over the baser instincts of the mob. What can start off as a principled movement can, along the way and at certain points, mean negotiating with the temptations of violence and anarchy, as we witnessed during isolated instances of looting and chaos during the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in America. A successful leader must be capable of negotiating and guiding us to rise over these instincts through their own actions.
It is also important to note, however, that not everyone wants to be a leader. In 2009, the Girl Scouts of America released the results of the largest-ever nationwide survey of young people in America on leadership. The survey, which covered a random sample of more than 4,000 children aged eight to 17, provides a rare in-depth look at how the next generation of voters is thinking about leadership, at least in America. There was good news and bad news. The good news was that four-fifths of those surveyed, of both sexes, said that women and men are equally qualified to lead. The bad news was that the survey confirmed that a majority of children and youths in the US have little or no interest in attaining leadership roles when they become adults. Instead, they ranked ‘being a leader’ well behind other goals such as ‘fitting in’, ‘making a lot of money’ and ‘helping animals or the environment’.
In that same survey, for instance, the young people who were polled on leadership defined leaders not so much as decisive authority figures but as people who prize collaboration, stand up for their beliefs and values, and try to improve society. This echoes the sentiments first expressed in 6th century BCE by the Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu, who wrote:
Of the best rulers,
The people only know that they exist;
The next best they love and praise
The next they fear;
And the next they revile…
But of the best, when their task is accomplished,
their work done,
The people all remark, “We have done it ourselves.”
Co-operative leadership, which grants people not just stakes in but co-ownership of the leader’s triumphs, is, in other words, the name of the game. The most successful leaders, then and now, know that ensuring their objectives matters more than getting credit for fulfilling them, and that the most effective results are those of which the beneficiaries take ownership.
The Indian National Congress had a great slogan towards the latter stages of its 2014 campaign which did not deserve to be jettisoned in the wake of its calamitous failure in that election: ‘Main nahin, hum’. It’s not about one individual leader, but about all of us—we the people, in whose name leadership is sought to be exercised. That’s the only kind of leadership the world deserves as we stumble, masked and vaccinated, into the post-Covid world.