Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Mr Clean or a Mr Fast as a leader???

The reason I pose this question as an “either or” is because experience shows its pretty impossible to get both together. The way Indian politics and media are, anyone who is fast and decisive is branded corrupt. On the other hand, a leader who is slow and undecisive (takes years to decide on things) is often confused for being honest. Fast decision making somehow connects with being corrupt….

The reason for this post of course is Defence Minister AK Antony, known as being “squeaky clean”….but one who is notoriously slow in taking decisions. Unless of course those decisions are about canceling tainted contracts! For Antony, the mere whiff of an allegation of corruption is enough to trigger an exaggerated reaction. The latest example is the imminent cancelation of the chopper deal with Agusta Westland. The media pressure on Antony is so intense that he has decided to go the whole hog and pull the plug. Instead, a more measured reaction – demanding a return of the commissions paid, levying penalties as the agreement allowed, and bringing to book those found corrupt – would have been better. Antony’s single-minded focus on proving his honesty will force the country to make a big compromise. We will now either have to select the second best chopper, the Russian one, or waste another decade in choosing another “best” one. An already slow defence procurement process will be slowed further.

Take the exact opposite of Antony as another example. Praful Patel, as Civil Aviation minister was one of the most efficient and decisive ministers in UPA-1 and 2. During his 6.5 years as civil aviation minister, Patel transformed the sector. We owe the modern airports we now have in most major cities to Patel. Of course, like all “fast” decision makers, Patel also faced allegations of corruption.

One was that he ordered new planes for Air India “in haste”. Apparently, Patel took the decision “overnight”. Such speed is supposed to indicate that he is corrupt (don’t ask me for the logic. This is how India works!). And hence, though there was no evidence to prove it, Patel was accused of corruption. The poor man had to face the wrath of our TV editors (hardly editors….they are mostly TRP-greedy conmen willing to twist any story as long as it pulls in listeners) and “defend” his decision to buy planes “so fast”. The poor man had to struggle to claim that in reality, he was a very “slow worker” and that he took as many as 17 months to decide! Imagine this work culture in the private sector – a junior manager telling his boss that he will need another year to decide because he doesn’t want to decide in haste!

It’s a moot point whether people prefer ministers like Praful Patel (fast decision makers, but accused of corruption) or Antony (slow like how, but squeaky clean). I think people are smart. They want to see visible development, and they understand that politicians have their compulsions to do what they often do. It’s my bet people vote for leaders who work, and not for those who are merely honest.

That is why most politicians who have made their way to the top have belonged to this category. Sharad Pawar, Pramod Mahajan, Narendra Modi, Chidambaram, Kamal Nath and YSR Reddy are/were leaders who belong(ed) to the Praful Patel Club. If you notice, most of these leaders belong to states known for being business oriented. Work must get done…..and fast. I must clarify here that Narendra Modi, known for his “decisiveness” is actually one who belongs to the “efficienct but corrupt” camp. People who deal with his government know exactly what I mean (most of his land deals for Tata and Maruti, and his proximity with Adani would have been branded “corrupt” had there been a Lok Ayukta in the state).

Now the question of who should take the blame for this. I think to a very large extent, it is our media – which exaggerates and sensationalizes issues and fails to analyze and present facts correctly and in a measured way – that has to take the blame. If politicians knew that they would be assessed reasonably (not accused of corruption all the time), they would be encouraged to take “fast” decisions. Right now, politicians are judged almost entirely on how clean they are. No one cares if they just sit and do nothing. Antony will be spared, trust me. This chopper deal will never become a Bofors, no matter how hard the BJP tries, because the charges simply don’t stick on Antony. And by canceling the deal, he has shown he is “honest”. He will emerge a hero and a victor. Rajiv Gandhi on the other hand, was a man in a rush. He wanted to modernize India at double quick speed. The poor man opened himself up for charges of corruption….(totally unfairly).

The real truth is that “fast” and “clean” must co-exist when describing a strong leader. For that to happen, we have to provide a condusive atmosphere. Our media must be more responsible, resisting the temptation for grabbing more eyeballs by dishing out trash. If media doesn’t change, we will be setting ourselves up for failure. Already the government works at a snail’s pace. It may soon simply stop to work….

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