Comment | What Rahul Gandhi’s public consultations with experts say about leadership

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. File   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Congress MP Rahul Gandhi’s publicised conversations with experts Raghuram Rajan last week and Abhijit Banerjee on Tuesday on the national response to COVID-19 pandemic are possibly part of efforts to remake himself ahead of his potential return as the party president. The conversations generated both praise and ridicule on predictable lines.

A more fundamental question has also been raised, whether a leader might undermine his own stature if he is seen as in need of advice from an expert. But these episodes were entirely in tune with Mr. Gandhi’s personality. Mr. Gandhi has said many times he does not possess any special attributes that makes him extraordinary. He has, in fact, warned against the idea of anyone making such claims.

Addressing captains of Indian industry in 2013, he said:

“One man riding a horse cannot solve the country’s problems, but it is a collective effort. The architecture we have to build is to connect the grassroots with the political system, open the political system. …People talk about individuals, large number of problems can be sorted out by the lower level people. Give a billion people the power to solve a problem, it”ll be solved in a jiffy.”

But the politics of India was already on a different course, and people were rallying around a man who promised to solve all their problems. In fact, not only in India, but around the world in several democracies such superman leaders occupy the centre stage now. These leaders claim omniscient wisdom on everything, offer instant solutions, and project an image of strong and decisive action. U.S. President Donald Trump has said he “knows better than anyone else” on topics as wide-ranging as construction, campaign finance, drones, technology, infrastructure, ISIS, H1B visa programme, environment, the power of Facebook, renewables, courts, steel workers, golf, banks, trade, nuclear weapons, tax laws and lawsuits. This catalogue is without even accounting for claims he made in relation to coronavirus, in recent weeks. Simultaneously, he has ridiculed experts, including those in his own administration.

Consultative leadership

The notion of consultative leadership that Mr. Gandhi tries to project is not popular, unfortunately for him, for various reasons. For one, the protagonists of this model, generally free market social progressives, have a problem of legitimacy. The Congress Party and the Democratic Party of the U.S. are very similar in this regard. Carrying the accumulated baggage of corruption, nepotism and double standards of several decades, they are not seen trustworthy by large numbers. People see their parading of expertise often as a facade for motivated policies; as a ploy to undermine their democratic power. This mistrust for experts is global — whether the pandemic will revive expertise as an essential requirement in the making of public policy is yet to be seen. The instant case, anyway, is not about the utility of experts, but the effect of a leader being seen as in need of advice.

The unwillingness of the public to take an expert’s view as the last word on any topic is partly related to the cognitive dissonance created by democratisation of information and its dissemination. Everyone has the capability to broadcast his or her views regardless of their validity. More consequentially, the chances of an idiotic piece going viral is always more than an intelligent one doing so. But experts also must share the blame as they undermined themselves by manufacturing knowledge that dominated our lives, but was discredited subsequently.

Trade and borders

Consider trade and borders, two most contentious topics that drive populism around the world. Expertise on these topics almost universally argue that trade and open borders make a country prosperous. These arguments based on macro trends often disregard the impact of trade and immigration on particular communities. Profit-driven corporations hire experts and fund research that makes spurious knowledge in all fields. As knowledge production increasingly moved from public funded models to profit-seeking models, its character changed. It is experts that said Iraq had Weapons of Mass Destruction, making a case for the U.S. invading Iraq. Experts have said market economy would bring prosperity to all. In the last several decades, almost nothing that American strategic experts predicted has come true, while the country was dragged into war after war based on their expertise.

The notion of a post-truth, post-fact world is linked to this degeneration of expertise. Expertise is expected to arrive at facts and truths that are autonomous of particular experiences — the Holy Grail of enlightenment. But the macroeconomic fact of trade with China contributing to economic growth is experienced very differently by the banker in Wall Street and the the auto worker in Michigan. There can be alternative facts, actually! Or at least, different subjective experiences of the same fact. Accusing the auto worker of living in an alternative reality is denying him his most intimately lived fact of deprivation and job loss. His emotions. That indeed has been a function of expertise in the modern era. In the extreme, the surrender to facts, experts and data sets erase all emotions and feelings from public discourse, a curse of modernity that Charles Dickens captures in Hard Times. The central character, a schoolgirl, who often strays into feelings, wonderment and fancy is warned: “We hope to have, before long, a board of fact, composed of commissioners of fact, who fill force people to be people of fact, and of nothing but fact. You must discard the word fancy altogether.”

The Congress Party and the Democratic Party in the U.S. mirror each other, in this regard. In fact, centrist parties all over the world have been taken over by professional experts, consultants and data scientists who mistake knowledge and technology for politics. Mostly, these experts have no sense of public sentiments, and this disability often leech into the leaders they advise. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s promise that she would render a lot of coalminers jobless was meant as a climate saving proposition but what rankled was its disregard for the feelings of real people. Mr. Gandhi’s repeated claims during the 2014 campaign that his party gave 35 kg of free grain to people was more an affront on people’s self-respect than a proof of a sensitive politics. It may not be a coincidence that popular leaders like Mamata Banerjee, Sharad Pawar, and Jagan Mohan Reddy were leaving the party as it increasingly became a prisoner of “experts.”

Asking very concerned questions to experts may not make Mr. Gandhi an inspiring leader. When a leader appears to be in search of answers, potential followers become unsure. The leader needs to be sure-footed, and even when he is not, he must appear to be so. If he wants to reassure himself of any positions, and requires expertise, he must seek that by all means — but that is not meant to be a public spectacle. Expertise on any topic is a commodity that an efficient leader can assemble at will. Effective leadership then must be about communicating and mobilising public opinion on a viable, sustainable policy — which the experts usually are incapable of.

The supermen leaders have no time to waste on consultations and committees. They believe that they instinctively know what is to be done. Mr. Trump is sure China trade is ruining American economy, damn the experts. These leaders use experts for the limited purpose of augmenting their image and politics. Mr. Trump used Stephen Bannon and Prime Minister Narendra Modi used Prashant Kishore but kept them in their places. In other settings, they actively reject expertise or ridicule it — “hardwork, not Harvard,” in Mr. Modi’s telling, in justification of demonetisation. He said all those experts who were running the economy for decades had no clue about the subject. He apparently even overruled the opinion of fighter pilots and told them that clouds could give them cover from Pakistani radars when they went into its airspace.

Supermen leaders are experts in knowing the emotions of the masses. When they are making seemingly insensitive statements, they are playing on majoritarian sentiments. In the competition between expertise and emotion, the latter wins. That is why the whole world’s expertise on one side against demonetisation did not move Mr. Modi’s voters, who voted for him again.

The future of leadership

It is not that expertise does not matter — it matters immensely and it is dangerous to run a country ignoring expert knowledge. Turning specialised knowledge into intelligible politics is the job of a smart politician. The opposite of junking expertise is not surrendering to expertise.

One needs an expert driver, but the driver does not get to decide where to go. As data, knowledge, technology and expertise are available for hire and purchase, the real mark of a leader will increasingly be his or her intuitive power and instinctive capability to understand the public mood and influence it. Emotion unfettered by expertise is dangerous; and expertise dismissive of emotion is ineffective. That is the leadership dilemma of our times.

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Printable version | Mar 1, 2021 7:01:52 PM |

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