Friday 18 November 2011

Leaders who will not lead

Afraid of their people, none in the US, India or Europe will take hard decisions needed to improve living standards
by Thomas L Friedman

Driving to the covered bazaar in the exotic western Indian town of Jodhpur last week, our Indian guide stopped to point out a modern landmark. "Do you see that stoplight?" he asked, pointing to a standard green-yellow-red stoplight in the busy intersection. "It's the only stoplight in Jodhpur. There are 1.2 million people living here."

The more you travel around India, the more you notice just how lightly the hand of government rests on this country. Somehow, it all sort of works. The traffic does move but for the first time in all my years visiting India, I've started to wonder whether India's "good enough" approach to government will really be good enough much longer.

Huge corruption scandals have stripped the government of billions of dollars of needed resources and, as much as I'm impressed by the innovative prowess of India's young technologists, without a government to enable them with the roads, ports, bandwidth, electricity, airports and smart regulations they need to thrive, they will never realise their full potential.

This isn't just a theoretical matter. The air in India's biggest cities is unhealthy. You rarely see a body of water here - a river, lake or pond - that is not polluted. The sheer crush of people - India will soon have more than China - on an unprotected environment really seems to be taking its toll.

Without better governance, how will India avoid becoming an ecological disaster area in 10 years? Eventually the law of large numbers - 1.2 billion people - just starts to devour every minimalist step forward that India makes. India doesn't need to become China, and isn't going to. But it still needs to prove that its democracy can make and implement big decisions with the same focus, authority and stick-to-itiveness as China's autocracy.

Mr Azim Premji, the chairman of Wipro, one of India's premier technology companies, did not mince words about the future when he announced his company's earnings two weeks ago: "There is a complete absence of decision-making among leaders in the government. If prompt action is not taken, the country will face a setback. You must appreciate how serious it is."

Sound familiar? Mr Premji could have been speaking about the European Union or the United States. No leaders want to take hard decisions anymore, except when forced to. Everyone - even China's leaders - seems more afraid of their own people than ever.

One wonders whether the Internet, blogging, Twitter, texting and micro-blogging, as in China's case, has made participatory democracy and autocracy so participatory and leaders so finely attuned to every nuance of public opinion, that they find it hard to make any big decision that requires sacrifice. They have too many voices in their heads other than their own.

Here we are in America again on the eve of a major budgetary decision by yet another bipartisan "supercommittee", and does anyone know what President Obama's preferred outcome is? Exactly which taxes does he want raised, and which spending does he want cut? The President's politics on this issue seems to be a bowl of poll-tested mush.

At a time when, from India to America, democracies have never had more big decisions to make, if they want to deliver better living standards for their people, this epidemic of not deciding is a troubling trend.

It means that we are abdicating more and more leadership to technocrats or supercommittees - or just letting the market and Mother Nature impose on us decisions that we cannot make ourselves. The latter rarely yields optimal outcomes.

The European Union has a particularly acute version of leaders-who-will-not-lead, which is why both Greece and Italy have now turned to unelected technocrats to run their governments. Writing in The Financial Times on Saturday, Mr Tony Barber noted, "In effect, euro zone policymakers have decided to suspend politics as normal in two countries because they judge it to be a mortal threat to Europe's monetary union. They have ruled that European unity, a project more than 50 years in the making, is of such overriding importance that politicians accountable to the people must give way to unelected experts who can keep the show on the road. "If so far there is little public outrage in Athens and Rome, it is surely because millions of Greeks and Italians hold their political classes in such contempt."

Yes, it's true that in the hyperconnected world, in the age of Facebook and Twitter, the people are more empowered and a lot more innovation and ideas will come from the bottom up, not just the top down. That's a good thing - in theory.

But at the end of the day - whether you are a President, Senator, Mayor or on the steering committee of your local Occupy Wall Street - someone needs to meld those ideas into a vision of how to move forward, sculpt them into policies that can make a difference in peoples' lives and then build a majority to deliver on them.

Those are called leaders. Leaders shape polls. They don't just read polls. And, today, across the globe and across all political systems, leaders are in dangerously short supply. 

Published in The New York Times, 15 Nov 2011

Thomas L Friedman is a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner

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