Posted in democracy, governance, institutions, politics by jrahman on August 30, 2015

If only we had the right leader….

If only Bangabandhu (or Zia) had lived….  

If only we had a Mahathir….  

I am sure you can finish the sentence with all sorts of claims about how Bangladesh would have been, or could still be, a much better place with better leadership.  Never mind the fact that all things considered, Bangladesh might actually have done more-than-okay.  To many of our chattering classes, we’re doomed because we haven’t been blessed with the right leader.

How much does leadership matter?

In one sense, a lot.  Janan Ganesh put it this way in a widely read recent Financial Times article:

Leadership is to politics what productivity is to economics: not quite the only thing that matters but almost. A party with a good frontman or woman can afford to get everything else wrong, and probably will not. Most other variables — policy, strategy, organisation — flow from the leader.

He goes on to say:

All democracies are presidential. Some, such as France and America, make it official; others, such as Britain and Canada, drape theirs in a parliamentary cloak. Voters are not just slaves to the teleologic drive of history. They judge a party — its competence, its comprehension of the national mood — by its leader, and pitilessly weed out anyone who falls short. Politics is more Darwinian than Marxist.

His piece is ostensibly about the British Prime Minister David Cameron, but the argument can be applied more generally.  In our own history, actions of individual leaders arguably mattered more than any notion of historical inevitability.  Never mind Sheikh Mujibur Rahman or Ziaur Rahman — if Sarat Chandra Bose had broken with Congress hierarchy and joined forces with AK Fazlul Huq, the latter might not have gone to Lahore in March 1940 and the map of our part of the world might have looked very different.  Or it might not have.  Parlour games of ‘what ifs’ this post is not about.

Instead, let me dig a bit deeper.  Productivity is the reason why some countries are richer than others — we’ve known this from the time of Adam Smith, whose classic is after all titled The Wealth of Nations. And since his time, we’ve known that ultimately productivity rests on ideas and institutions.  Exactly how ideas and institutions interplay, and thus how they can be best utilised — those are the big questions in economics that, to use a Nobel-winning economist’s words, once you start thinking about, it’s hard to think about anything else.

Leadership might be to politics what productivity is to economics in the sense that ultimately successful leaders depend on ideas and institutions.

On ideas, John Maynard Keynes put it famously at the end of his General Theory:

The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas. Not, indeed, immediately, but after a certain interval; for in the field of economic and political philosophy there are not many who are influenced by new theories after they are twenty-five or thirty years of age, so that the ideas which civil servants and politicians and even agitators apply to current events are not likely to be the newest. But, soon or late, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.

And what allows the ideas to be sorted out such that the leader chooses the ones that serve the people well?  That’s where institutions come in.  This is how James Madison put it while help establish one of the most successful polity in history:

If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

Let me use an example.  The Indian election of 2014 was a de facto presidential contest between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi.  Reflecting on Mr Modi’s triumph, my friend Shafiqur Rahman observed:

With support from one or two smaller regional parties, the NDA coalition can comfortably cross over the hallowed 67% or two third Special Majority mark. And with Special Majority, Emergency Proclamation, Amendment of the Constitution via article 368, Removal of Supreme Court Judges, Removal of President etc are all within the grasp of an NDA government led by  Modi.

Shafiq continued:

Those who dismiss the potential for disruptive change in an established democracy like India, do not pay sufficient heed to the confluence of charismatic and ambitious leadership, large and enthusiastic support from people and resourceful interests and power of mass media in shaping mass psychology; a conjunction that has shown its potency in recent history time and time again.

Over a year later, nothing too dramatic seems to have happened in India.  I have no idea what ideas animate Prime Minister Modi, but it is quite clear that not much of his agenda has been implemented.  Perhaps he prefers talk over action.  Or perhaps Indian institutions, for better or worse, do work against disruptive change.

Another example from the same essay:

Most often, democratically elected leaders are moderate and reasonable men but occasionally, we also see leaders like man-on-a-mission George W Bush, who religiously divine mandate for radical change.

Mr Bush might have been hearing voices, but the radical change the voices called for — unilateral war in the Middle East to show American might, tax cuts for the rich and dismantling of the New Deal at home — were part of the American right’s agenda for years.  And not just the right, most centrist pundits supported a pre-emptive war in Iraq in 2002-03.  These ideas were not unique to the president, and American institutions ultimately prevented those radical changes.

Of course, I wholeheartedly agree with Shafiq’s main point:

Collective leadership as a mechanism of power-sharing through checks and balances among competing political camps, but also incorporating more dynamic and pluralistic decision-making process seem to be more suited for the age we live in.

Consider Shafiq’s other example, China:

This collective leadership was a reaction to three-decade long all-powerful and capricious rule of Mao Zedong. During Mao’s rule the PSC was a totally ineffectual body and there were no mechanism or institution to check Mao’s disastrous policy decisions like the Great Leap Forward in the 1950s or the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s.

After Mao’s death Deng Xiaoping started to develop rules to govern decision-making at the top level and manage power succession.

George Magnus echoes in the Financial Times, and then elaborates on recent trends:


Deng’s task in a pre-industrial society without a middle class and social media was, in many ways, easier. Determined to avoid the concentration of power in one individual, he empowered government bodies and ministers, especially the State Council and the prime minister, and encouraged openness and a consensus-driven political model. This worked well enough until the 21st century, but gradually tended towards atrophy. The party succumbed to corruption and paid scant attention to citizens’ concerns about social, environmental and product safety. The economy built up high levels of debt, overcapacity and an addiction to misallocated and credit-fuelled investment.

To address these serious problems, President Xi Jinping has turned the clock back. He has accumulated more power than any leader since Mao and consistently emphasised the Leninist need for “party purity” to avoid the fate of the Soviet Communist party.


Do the Chinese institutions have the capacity to stop Mr Xi going off course the way American institutions stopped Bush or Indian institutions are stopping Modi?

All this, of course, has material relevance for Bangladesh.

It feels odd to quibble with Shafiq’s brilliant essay, because I agree with his bottom line: I believe that single leaders as messiah or saviour is out of place in today’s world.

Unfortunately, few in our chattering classes seem to share our view.  Some see a saviour in our current prime minister.  Those on the other side either look at her rival’s son as the promised one, or despair at the very thought.  Meanwhile, our institutions are exactly the opposite of Madisonian ideals.  And as Zia Haider Rahman observed last year, Bangladesh is not very conducive to ideas.

Instead of hankering for the leader to arrive, it’s time our pundits started taking ideas and institutions seriously.



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