The Good Doctor is no Good

Manmohan Singh
Manmohan Singh

Fundamentally, the job of the Prime Minister is not to micromanage the minutiae of policy across the wide spectrum of roles that the Govt. of India plays. Indeed, it’s basically humanly impossible to give proper attention to everyone and everything that requires or clamors for the PM’s attention and intervention — just the numbers of ministries that are traditionally with the PM are umpteen.

  1. But, the fact that the Dept. of Space or the Dept. of Atomic Energy is led by the PM doesn’t mean that the PM has to be a space or a nuclear expert. It’s for professionals who have spent their lives in these fields to take care of the details and enlighten the political leadership as required. The job of the executive leadership is to provide the broad contours of policy or the framework within which the details will operate.

  2. In the wake of the attacks in Mumbai, President Zardari has been more visible than PM Singh. Patrick French reminded us in a recent article in the New York Times about the conveniently forgotten history of Zardari by saying that he is “not fit to hold high office, or even low office.” And yet, he’s out there thundering away in press conference after press conference including one alongside the British PM Gordon Brown a few days ago. Where is the Prime Minister of India meanwhile?
  3. Should not the PM be out there performing various actions in a very public and visible way that will have some impact? We live in the age of television and that’s a reality that can’t be wished away. But moving away from the immediate issues of Mumbai and even terrorism in general, what is the nature of leadership? Is it about academic brilliance?
  4. As President Elect Obama makes his cabinet selections, the phrase “the best and the brightest” is much in vogue. But definitely the discussion is not about whether the President himself or herself has to be a near genius. What Barack Obama (and President Kennedy and President Reagan before him) has done is bring certain sections of society together and make them believe in certain ideas.

It will be a challenge for the next American President to convince Americans why it’s a good idea to keep the fuel prices artificially high with a gasoline tax (an idea proposed by Tom Friedman of the New York Times). It will be up to him to make a convincing case to the people why it’s important to work like crazy to develop hybrid vehicles and battery-operated ones even though the price of gasoline has come down drastically in recent months. In short, it’s the job of a leader to make people see things that are not obvious, things that are over the horizon.

Why should not it be the role of the Prime Minister of India to play a similar role in Indian society? The issues of climate change and carbon emissions are not confined to America. Who will make Indians realize the dangerous consequences from rising sea levels or catastrophic climate changes? How dearly one wishes that there was someone like Jawaharlal Nehru in our own time who would understand India’s ancient history deeply and yet be acutely conscious of the power of science as the only tool that will assure a bright future for India and Indians. And who will be out there making a case why Indians need to let go of meaningless rituals and phantom fears and start focusing on real ones. Someone who would have been overjoyed with India’s recent success with the Chandrayan Mission and whose enthusiasm would have been hopefully contagious and spread to the rest of India.

APJ Abdul Kalam is one such name that comes to mind. But I am sure he deserves to devote time now to private pursuits after more than a half century of extraordinarily dedicated service to the nation. Is there anyone else out there, hopefully a little bit younger who can carry the baton from PM Nehru and President APJ Abdul Kalam? 1,160,000,000 — that’s roughly the number of people there are in India as far as I can tell.


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