Open Essay

Maybe some paraffin for a nation stuck

Bennett Voyles writes on global trends. He was formerly with The Economist Intelligence Unit
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The person you really have to watch out for is a certain energetic public servant from Gujarat, because leaders’ biggest troubles are almost always self-inflicted wounds

Dear Mr Modi,

Eight or nine years ago, while on a tour of the Cango Caves in South Africa, a woman in our party began shimmying through a tight tunnel between one chamber and another, but got stuck. Various people in the group tried to pull her out, but the more she tried to get out, the more wedged-in she became, a human cork. I tried too, but couldn’t budge her at all. After a few tugs, she shook me off. “I need a strong man!” she wailed in disgust. “Get me a strong man!”

I thought of that poor lady just now as I reflected on your election. True, her problem was unlike India’s—obesity is certainly not your country’s biggest challenge—but her sentiment echoed what the Indian electorate said in no uncertain terms last week: ‘Somebody, get me out of here!’

Your supporters aren’t alone in this feeling. Voters in many recent elections have tried to send similar calls for help. I think voters of the populist parties in the European elections on Sunday, for example, were trying to send the same message.

But will all these frustrated voters get their wish? It depends. I suspect this new class of European MPs is much less well positioned than you are to deliver anything positive, focused as they are less on solving the real problem—weak economic growth—than on finding ways to make life a little harder for immigrants.

Your government, however, is another matter, given your clear focus on economic development, your solid majority in Parliament, and firm mandate from the people. With all that behind you, what could go wrong?

Plenty, unfortunately. But the challenge won’t be fractious neighbours or communal strife or a Congress Party bent on disruption. If history is any guide, the person you really have to watch out for is a certain energetic public servant from Gujarat. Not because of your character in particular, but because leaders’ biggest troubles are almost always self-inflicted wounds.

Fortunately, if you keep seven factors in mind, you should be able to avoid the most common disasters:

One: The air is thin at 7 Race Course Road. It’s not only lonely at the top, there’s usually not a lot of oxygen. Even the savviest political alpinists, once they reach the summit, may be subject to symptoms that are surprisingly like altitude sickness—disorientation, hallucinations, and psychotic behaviour. It also has nothing to do with cleverness: even a character as wily as Richard Nixon was not immune. One case in point: by 1973, five years into his presidency, people thought he was losing it. Congressional leaders of both parties started to worry about his mental stability. The US Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger felt his boss had become so deranged that he quietly made a rule that the military should not respond to any orders from the President unless he or Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had also approved them.

Two: Your friends always keep their best interests in mind. On the whole, friends in politics tend to be more dangerous than enemies. Politics is always a business of trading favours, but give too many favours and it’s easy to turn your government into a kind of private equity fund focused on delivering a steady stream of dividends to your pals. If the gang is just putting a ‘straw in the milkshake’, to use Professor Bhagwati’s simile for corruption in China, that may not matter much in the scheme of things. But don’t let them take the blender.

Three: Scandals are inevitable. You’re lucky in that you don’t seem prone to the usual vices that afflict public figures. As lust, avarice, and addictions don’t seem to be your cups of tea, you’re already ahead of the game. Even the disclosure of your marriage seemed more quaint than shocking. In the West, you would probably have to go back to Victorian times to find a plot line in a political story that included revelations of a secret marriage.

But you’re unique. Outside Singapore and certain parts of Scandinavia, public servants succumb to temptation with dreary regularity, as if government were a factory designed to induce corruption. Scandals also strike both the Left and Right alike, although I think pro-business-administrations tend to have a particular propensity for money-related peccadilloes. This seems to me more a sign of affection than greater venality—I suspect pro-business politicos end up with more loot for the same reason cat owners are presented with more dead mice.

Careful vetting of candidates will help reduce the risk, but they won’t get you out of trouble entirely. There’s just no end to the kinds of trouble people can invent for themselves—education ministers who plagiarise their dissertations (Germany); attorney general nominees who cheat on their taxes (US); a leader who cheats on his wife (practically everywhere at some time or other).

Human nature being what it is, you might almost call a scandal a ‘normal accident’, to use the phrase of disaster sociologist Charles Perrow. The real question is how you handle it.

The conventional procedure is to cover up the dirt and hope it never sees the light of day, despite the fact that this almost never works and tends to derail the remaining years before the next election.

A somewhat rarer approach is to pretend to not be shocked. This usually works with the French, who have a high tolerance for various kinds of scandal (some presidents have even had extra- curricular First Families without causing much fuss), but this might be hard to pull off in a more conservative society.

If all else fails, you might try an experiment that is seldom attempted but at least theoretically possible: tell the truth.

Four: Vengeance is only sweet at first. I don’t know how many political disasters have begun out of a desire of the victor not simply to win but to out-and-out clobber the enemy, even after victory has clearly been won. Unfortunately, as Nelson Mandela noted, “Resentment is like drinking poison and then hoping it will kill your enemies.”

Five: War is not a board game. Military adventures are always satisfying to start, but they often don’t end well, even for brilliant strategists. Think of Napoleon, one of the greatest generals in history: if he hadn’t gone to Russia, French gossip magazines today might well be filled with the antics of Napoleon VIII and various Bonaparte princelings. The twentieth century also offers some instruction in this regard: things went badly for Mussolini and Hitler, but Franco, the stay-at-home fascist, ruled Spain for nearly 40 years and died in bed.

Six: Fixers should be fixed. Often, there’s a choice between getting something done right away and getting something done right. Unfortunately, the changes that matter most in a democracy are the kind that don’t just accomplish a short-term end but change a process for good. Reform candidates tend to complain about the system until they’re elected by it, and promptly forget those suddenly inconvenient promises. Just ask Silvio Berlusconi. (You can write the former Italian premier, appropriately enough, c/o the Sacred Family Foundation, a hospice for Alzheimer’s patients outside Milan, where he is doing community service on a tax fraud conviction.)

Seven:Watch out for falling hopes. Remember when the whole world was excited about Barack Obama? The Nobel committee even gave him the Peace Prize a few months after his inauguration, mostly because they were under the somewhat mistaken impression that he wasn’t George W Bush. But disillusionment can set in very quickly. There’s a reason they call those first months a honeymoon. Be prepared for voters’ ardour to cool, sooner or later. As the film actress Rita Hayworth, the star of Gilda, once said, “Every man I ever knew went to bed with Gilda and woke up with me.”

This may be an even greater risk for a candidate who is not only positioned as a break with the past, but who has campaigned on the idea of being a hard-charging, no-nonsense CEO. Politicians in a democracy often have an idealised vision of the CEO’s absolute authority, but the truth is that there’s as much politicking within companies as on the floor of any legislature. Maybe more, given the lack of party discipline. Jack Welch said that “public hangings are teaching moments”, but more of his success as chairman of GE actually had to do with something called the Workout that sounds suspiciously like democratic talkathons in which workers told their bosses in detail all the things the organisation was doing wrong, and the bosses agreed to fix those things.

In the end, a strong man never did come to the rescue of my fellow tourist at Cango, but she was rescued by several ambulance teams who eased her out with the help of some rock climbing equipment and a barrel of paraffin. I mention this because a similar recipe may be useful at the Lok Sabha. You may, however, want to order extra paraffin.

Yours, for a successful term,
Bennett Voyles