A world-class sumo wrestler cannot possibly be even an average runner, leave alone being a world-class sprinter. The general principle is that there are endeavors where excelling in one necessarily makes it impossible to excel in others. You can be a successful politician in India, or you can be a visionary. But in India, you cannot expect a visionary to be a successful politician any more than you would expect a sumo wrestler to be a sprinter.
A visionary is someone who sees what others cannot. But if you see what others cannot see, they will just ignore you. The last thing you need in a “democracy” like India is people to ignore you. To win in a “democracy” like India, you have to think and “see” what the people see. Since the people are singularly restricted in their vision, the visionary is the last thing they will bother about.
Vision does not win you elections. Which is why Indian elections have not seen the election of a single visionary leader. Elections are a popularity contest. Being a visionary will never win any popularity contests.
In a “democracy” it is not possible for the leader to be anything more than the essential character of the people. Take Dr Manmohan Singh. He represents the will of the people with such high fidelity that he has kept that job for over eight years.
(I know that he did not win any elections and that he was appointed to the job by the Italian woman Antonia Maino aka Sonia Gandhi. Most observers credit the success of the Congress party to her and rightly so: a lot of Indians vote for anyone associated with the Nehru-Gandhi family. Therefore, Dr Manmohan Singh represents the will of the people through the agency of Ms Maino.)
It is not politically correct to say this but realistically speaking, the average voter is not particularly wise or even smart. In general, voters are myopic, ignorant, bigoted and irrational. Consequently, their will as expressed in elections usually gives rise to “leaders” who are myopic, ignorant, bigoted and irrational. Raul Vinci aka Rahul Gandhi is the perfect combination of irrationality, bigotry and ignorance, and note how many proclaim him to be India’s prime minister.
I am convinced that the most successful politicians are certainly intelligent and street smart. Politics is tough business and the competition is harsh enough that it weeds out the stupid. Laloo Prasad did not get handed all the loot — he acquired it because he was better at stealing than his competitors.
What about the progenitor of the Nehru-Gandhi-Maino clan, Mr Jawaharlal Nehru himself — isn’t he hailed as a visionary and wasn’t he one? Not really. I see him as an anti-visionary. A visionary is someone, as noted before, who can see what others cannot see. An anti-visionary is someone who cannot even see what others have seen.
By the time Nehru got to dictate India’s fate, a lot of very smart people had seen that communistic command and control systems could not (and did not) work. They had written volumes on the failures of socialism and the inherent dangers it poses to economic growth and prosperity. These people were not obscure recluses — instead they were some of the most celebrated economists of those times.
Nehru was not an illiterate villager. He was literate and not just that, fancied himself to be an intellectual. It is quite possible that Nehru had the opportunity to read F. A. Hayek’s “The Road to Serfdom.” There are two possibilities, neither of which speak very highly of Nehru.
First, he never read Hayek. The mind boggles that a person who thought it was his destiny to rule an impoverished country did not bother to find out what ought to be done by reading as widely as possible those works that would likely inform the topic. Perhaps he was just arrogant and thought that he knew it all.
Second, he read Hayek but he did not understand what he read. There is the first degree stupid — not being able to originate the idea oneself. The second degree stupid is when the idea does not register even when explicitly told about it. Even if one is not smart enough to discover some truth on one’s own, one should not be so dumb as to not even understand them when explained at great length.
Politicians cannot be great visionaries but that does not mean that they cannot be smart enough to borrow the vision of visionaries. They can learn from the wise and the insightful. They can stand on the shoulders of giants, so to speak, to see farther. The problem with Nehru was that he was too arrogant to even realize that he did not understand. The essential humility that truly intelligent people have arises from knowing that they don’t know it all.
Nehru’s descendants illustrate that old adage about the fruit not falling far from the tree: they all were too stupid to be aware of their own ignorance. But who can blame them? They were told that they were visionaries and they believed it since it felt good to believe. When followers insist that the leader is wise and wonderful, does the leader have much of a choice but to go along?
Walter Adams and James Brock in their book “Adam Smith Goes to Moscow” relate this Polish folktale:
It is said that a wonder-rabbi of Chelm once saw, in a vision, the destruction by fire of the study house in Lublin, fifty miles away. This remarkable event greatly enhanced his fame as a wonder-worker.
Several days later a traveler from Lublin, arriving in Chelm, was greeted with expressions of sorrow and concern, not unmixed with a certain pride, by the disciples of the wonder-rabbi. “What are you talking about?” asked the traveler. “I left Lublin there days ago and the study house was standing as it always has. What kind of wonder-rabbi is that?” “Well, well,” one of the rabbi’s disciples answered, “burned or not burned, it’s only a detail. The wonder is he could see so far.”
It has become part of the Indian folklore that Nehru was a visionary. No proof necessary and no doubt ever expressed. The same goes for Gandhi, the man who arrogantly dictated the truth to others. It was not some truth that he had discovered and generously shared. No, he dictated the truth. And often enough, he threatened to kill himself if people did not obey.
I think it will take a few more decades before Indians wake up to the idea that India’s leaders have been anti-visionaries. Midway along the continuum from anti-visionary to visionary is the region of intelligent and clever. With time, Indian political leaders will come from that bit of the spectrum because the average voter would have become somewhat intelligent. And being smart and clever, those leaders will be able to borrow the vision of visionaries. But it will never be that any great visionary will ever become a great political leader. Specialization just does not allow that.