India Faces Leadership Crisis or Democratic? 

indian parliament

History stands witness to leaders at practically all levels, from Kings to revolutionaries, having always accorded great importance to promoting their images through their dresses and appearances as a whole. Interestingly, there has been no decrease in this trait still being considered important by leaders practically in all parts of world but with a difference. If monarchs in past viewed their expensive dresses and jewels probably as a means to display their magnificence before the ruled, to a degree, this practice is still followed by recognized Kings and Queens to perhaps glorify their images amongst the people. Irrespective of whatever be political credentials of monarchs’ dress-code, there is no denying the present age appears to have taken this practice to new heights with apparent emphasis on its democratic legitimacy.

Perhaps, India takes a lead on this front. The explanation for this does not rest on India being the most populated country. One may attribute this more strongly to divisions marking the country along numerous dimensions of which the most prominent are social marked by religious, caste, class and other ethnic factors. Equally prominent is the fact that no religious community or caste can claim to have identical cultural beliefs in different regions of the country. Officially, the country has 29 states. Though in the present phase, common Indians are visible in traditional attire in keeping with their respective social identities largely on select occasions, the same cannot be said about most politicians – nationally as well as regionally. The latter’s key aim is apparently to display their specific identities – along regional, religious and/or other factors assumed to bear strong significance for people in areas they try to reach.

Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi appears to have a very strong affinity for donning dress of states and/or people he apparently tries winning political support of. Recent days were witness to him reaching out to people in Kerala, a state in southern India wearing the dress linked with the state’s regional identity. In addition, he met a delegation of Church leaders in Kerala, where the Christians constitute roughly 18 percent of the state’s population. Earlier, while in Delhi, Modi visited a Church on Easter. With parliamentary polls due in around a year, from one angle there is nothing surprising about these communication strategies being exercised by Modi and other leaders.

Of course, all leaders have the right to dress and exercise other communication strategies they view as appropriate to win electoral support of people. Usage of dress and other communication tools may be linked with leaders’ aim to enhance, even glorify, their image before the people. This is the perspective that they apparently view and thus use their respective communication strategies accordingly. It is pertinent to examine the strange nexus between leadership marked by these strategies and democratic credibility of the same. Should they be viewed as reflective of effective leadership or suggestive of leadership crisis? And how does one view democratic credibility of the same? There is no guarantee that each or even a significant percentage of population gets carried away by nature of such communication strategies, including different dresses used specifically by leaders to display their association with regional identity of people not for one but numerous reasons.

Howsoever extensively any card is used by various leaders, as suggested earlier, chances of it having the desired impact on the entire population or even a group may be viewed as minimal. Notwithstanding the hype raised about certain religious issues, no leader can claim to represent all members of any religious community. Indian political arena is dotted by quite a few leaders going overboard in displaying their religious affinity through their attires, practice of certain rituals, their prayer services, indulgence in rhetoric and so forth. To assume that this country has any Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Christian or any leader who is recognized and accepted as representative of the entire religious community he/she may claim to represent or stand for would be erroneous. The core reality of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and other groups being divided within themselves and affiliated to different political parties cannot be ignored. Just as majority of leading national party (Bharatiya Janata Party)’s members are Hindus, the same stands for the key opposition party, the Congress. If all Hindus belonged to one political party, only a few parties would be contesting Indian elections at various levels. More than 650 political parties contested 2019 parliamentary elections. In addition, numerous independent candidates were in fray with more than 8000 candidates trying their luck for 542 parliamentary constituencies.

Besides, each religion is marked with divisions which surface fairly prominently in politics. Caste-factor’s role among Hindus has led over past few decades to emergence of political parties along these lines. Of course, political necessity has led caste-lines be pushed to sidelines by aligning with individuals and/or parties, of other castes/religious communities. Nevertheless, that this factor continues to be played upon while appealing to people for votes on basis of their castes cannot be ignored. Socio-political divisions among non-Hindus, including Muslims and others also prevail similar to that of castes among Hindus. Regional disparity has played its own role in leading to rise of more regional leaders as well as parties than number of states this country has.

It is impossible to specifically elaborate on numerous socio-cultural differences bearing distinct political traits. Dress is just one of these. In addition to religious, regional and other factors mentioned, it may be pertinent to note that over 700 languages are spoken in this country, while officially India has 22 languages.

Yes, of late, a lot of importance has begun being accorded to pressure being exercised by dominant leaders over media. Besides, significance accorded by various parties to political strategists and tools of media during their electoral campaigns cannot be ignored. This also highlights tactics put to use by practically most key political parties to display their command over outlets of media by use of specific communication strategies that they can exercise. Simply speaking, just as national parties have power to exercise their pressure tactics, other parties are not totally devoid of similar moves at their own levels. Certainly, tools of social media and rise in online newspapers, etc. have contributed to these playing roles at two prominent levels- as tools (or pawns) of their sponsors and as strong critics of the same.

Statistically speaking, there are around 500 satellite television channels and over 70,000 newspapers in India. There is no denying, as suggested earlier, pressure tactics are exercised to propagate and spread “news” desired by dominant leaders particularly by those holding key power-strings. Here, the role of manufactured news cannot be ignored. And this demands explanation about what is this really suggestive of? When communication strategies, bordering on pressure-tactics, are used, it would be erroneous to assume the same as speaking highly of these leaders and/or parties’ democratic credentials. Rather, some attention should be given to these apparently displaying a lack of confidence about their own democratic command. It may of course be debatable whether excessive dependence by leaders and/or parties on going overboard in using strategies to project inflated images about their own selves should be viewed as suggestive of leadership crisis or not. But yes, this perception cannot be ignored within national politics and also internationally.

With respect to national politics, communication strategies of this nature may be linked with leadership crisis in most countries. The issue of their nexus with democracy, however, bears relevance primarily in countries regarded as democratic, at least constitutionally and as per political ethics their power holders are supposed to respect. If one were to form opinion based on stereotyped images held about India in international circles, including global media, democratic crisis would be viewed as endangering this country. True, one cannot shut eyes to incidents of minorities being targeted, demolition of their houses as well as places of worship, freedom of media, communal incidents, legal action being pursued against rival politicians and so forth. But this is one side of the picture. Indian media, critics and public have not refrained from questioning the legal as well as socio-political legitimacy of these incidents. Opinion formed by majority is not confined to what select tools of communication try propagating. Democratic strength of common Indians has been witnessed in recent years through massive support they have displayed for protest of farmers (Aug 2020 to Dec 2021) and Shaheen Bagh protest of Muslim women on issue of citizenship (Aug 2020 to Dec 2021). They have not failed to join smaller protests including that of women’s wrestlers against chief of Wrestling Federation of India (WFI) for sexual harassment, attack on certain journalists and other cases. Media coverage accorded to these protests has been fairly substantial. When viewed from this angle, it is difficult to accept the notion held about Indian democracy being in perils and/or facing a crisis.

Yes, attempts being made by key power-holders to limit its strength at various levels cannot be ignored. Nor can the fact about this being another crucial indicator of their leadership apparently facing crisis. The reason for this crisis rests not on India being the most populated country but on its populace having retained its democratic strength through numerous means of communication, including people to people interaction. Irrespective of whatever be stereotyped notions about these, there hardly prevail chances of these being easily snubbed to stage of India facing democratic crisis. At least, not at present. The same cannot, however, be said crisis/crises facing leaders at their own levels!

Nilofar Suhrawardy is a senior journalist and writer with specialization in communication studies and nuclear diplomacy. She has come out with several books. These include:– Modi’s Victory, A Lesson for the Congress…? (2019); Arab Spring, Not Just a Mirage! (2019), Image and Substance, Modi’s First Year in Office (2015) and Ayodhya Without the Communal Stamp, In the Name of Indian Secularism (2006).


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