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Is the CEO Model of Political Leadership the Answer?

The Indian upper classes have been clamouring for a corporate-friendly political ethos. They want a set of chief executive officers in the political realm, those who will be accountable to them, not to the masses. In this, the US Ivy League has been busy facilitating, via high-profile training programmes, the emergence of such a class of leaders. The tragedy is that such a model of leadership has been discredited in the very land of its origins, but this does not deter the Indian elite.


Is the CEO Model of Political Leadership the Answer?

Vidyadhar Date

The Indian upper classes have been clamouring for a corporatefriendly political ethos. They want a set of chief executive officers in the political realm, those who will be accountable to them, not to the masses. In this, the US Ivy League has been busy facilitating, via high-profile training programmes, the emergence of such a class of leaders. The tragedy is that such a model of leadership has been discredited in the very land of its origins, but this does not deter the Indian elite.

Vidyadhar Date ( is a senior journalist who worked for The Times of India for many years.

Economic & Political Weekly

february 21, 2009

s the five star hotels, Taj and Oberoi, faced the heat of the terrorist attack in Mumbai in November last year, the upper class reacted angrily over the failure of politicians. To a certain degree, the anger and disgust are justified. Some politicians are vile, but the need for the political process is, in fact, stronger now. This is particularly evident from a recent warning issued by the International Monetary Fund’s managing director, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, regarding unrest growing in many parts of the world as a result of the deepening economic crisis. The situation can become serious if the financial system is not reorganised to benefit everyone, not just a small elite, he warned. Obviously, only a committed political class can save the situation. Bernard Crick, the political philosopher, who died in December last year, argued vigorously for the primacy of p olitics in his famous book, In Defence of Politics (1962).

Politics has now acquired a negative connotation; the electronic media has trivialised it and reduced it to entertainment. But politics is the only tested alternative to a government by coercion, as Cricks argued.

Accountable to a Few

The upper classes in India have been clamouring for the last few years for a corporate-friendly political ethos. They want a chief executive officer (CEO) who will be accountable to them, not to the masses. But this whole model, guided by Thatcherism and Reaganism, has been proved to be bankrupt by the financial crisis and the complete failure of leadership in the US and many parts of the world. But it is this very model that the Indian upper classes have been trying to emulate in collaboration with the American establishment. This is best illustrated by some of our members of Parliament taking lessons in

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politics in the US in the last two years, which is, to put it plainly, indoctrination at the official level.

Thirteen members of the Indian Parliament attended a four-day course in political leadership at the elite Yale University in America in June 2008, with the full backing of the Indian and US corporate

interests. Among the Members of Parliament (MPs) were Suresh Prabhu of Shiv Sena, a former union power minister, and Jyotiraditya Raje Scindia, the young m inister of state for communications. Later, they met senior politicians and businessmen. On the face of it, though, there is no problem about that as such. One should go even to China in search of knowledge, as prophet Mohammad said. True, Yale has a big name and is among the top Ivy League universities in the US.

But Yale has an unsavoury reputation in some ways, which is described in detail by Ajay Gandhi (EPW, 30 April 2005). Its first benefactor, Elihu Yale (1649-1721), who had amassed a fortune through i llegal profiteering via secret contracts with Madras merchants, was the notorious governor of Madras and a director of the East India Company in the late 17th century.

There are some other aspects which need to be taken into account. The university is notorious for its very secret society called Skull and Bones of which former US President Bush was a member. Its patent for an anti-AIDS drug, jointly held with Bristol Myers, illustrates how the university puts the profit motive above the public purpose. The university has been a breeding ground for Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) recruits drawn from upper class students and has produced a number of top politicians including former US presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush. So a question can be posed, if Yale is so good in training political leaders, how is it that America has such a poor political leadership which is being widely ridiculed? This raises extremely serious, wide- ranging questions pertaining to colonialism and imperialism, the very elite nature of certain universities and their role in creating a conservative p olitical leadership.

There is also the need to question the very concept of leadership. How can we still think in the old mode of leaders and


followers? Some of the people we call our leaders can best be described as our representatives in the legislature. Very few p eople like Mahatma Gandhi or Jawaharlal Nehru can be called genuine leaders. It is people who need to be empowered and given leadership opportunities. From America we can take the most relevant name of Rosa Parks, the black lady, who refused to give her seat in the bus to a white person in 1955, defying the law which segregated whites and blacks in buses. That sparked a protest movement which ultimately paved the way for the civil rights movement. That is the importance of ordinary citizens becoming conscious of their rights, asserting themselves. Martin Luther King Jr was a very important leader. But, as Noam Chomsky has pointed out, it is activists like Rosa Parks, who sustained the movement. The world social forum, which has visions of creating another world, does not have any formal leadership. We do need politics and activism, but of the kind that serves the interests of the common people, not vested interests.

The Yale programme for Indian politicians was jointly organised with the Federation of the Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry. That raises several questions. Among others in the Indian team of MPs this year were Jyanti Natarajan and Abhishek Singhvi, the articulate spokespersons for the Congress and regular television personalities, and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi of the Bharatiya Janata Party. A similar team of MPs a year earlier included Yashodhara Raje Scindia, the former tourism minister of Rajasthan, Naveen Jindal of the affluent industrial family, and Chandan Mitra, the pro-BJP journalist.

So there is a very clear US-friendly section in Indian politics. There is an India-US forum of parliamentarians with Abhishek Singhvi as co-chairperson and Omar Abdulla as convener.

The involvement of a chamber of commerce in the course of MPs makes the role of corporate interests obvious. The A merican interest in developing leadership qualities among our MPs surely is not born out of some element of social service. They would like our MPs, academics and businessmen to promote American corporate and geopolitical interests. It is significant that Yale also organised, with the Confederation of Indian Industry, a conference in September 2007 in New York which was called “Incredible India at 60”, that is, 60 years after independence. What is so incredible about India? A recent UN report showed that poverty and malnutrition l evels in some parts in India are worse than those of Ethiopia.

Role of Elite Institutions

Of late, the urban upper class in India has been clamouring for a CEO-type elite leadership. But the record of governance of such an elite is far from bright. It is best demonstrated in a book aptly titled The Best and the Brightest. The author, David Halbertstam, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage in New York Times of the war in Vietnam, has shown how the best and the brightest students from Ivy League colleges who held top positions in the John Kennedy administration, including Robert McNamara, were responsible for the shameful attack and blunders in V ietnam. These bright boys from top u niversities are found to be highly unethical warmongers.

Curiously, the president of Yale University, Richard Levin was a member of a commission appointed by former US President George Bush to investigate the failure of the American secret service in Iraq. The commission observed, in its report of the year 2005, that the intelligence community was dead wrong on all its pre-war judgments. The CIA may be equally blind about the nuclear capabilities of North Korea and Iran. Even the spy satellites, which consume so much of the budget, failed to provide much information. All the bigwigs and strategic decision-makers got their training in Yale and other top universities. Why did they go wrong, making serious blunders on Iraq and elsewhere? Levin has a rather lame explanation. He says they remained aloof, insular from the world around them (His interview in The Financial Times, 29 September 2007). Yale and other Ivy League universities have produced men who knew as much about literature and art and Dante as about bugging a room and preparing a cigar that would explode in the face of Fidel Castro.

Some elite universities in America are becoming so rich that Business Week p ublished an article last year with the heading “Dangerous Wealth of Ivy League”. It said that higher education is increasingly becoming a tale of two worlds. The elite schools are getting richer and buying all the talent and other universities are left gasping for funds for s urvival. Yale recently bought the entire healthcare campus of the leading multinational pharmaceutical company Bayer in the US, spread over 136 acres with 17 buildings, at an astronomical cost. That should give us some idea of the tremendous amount of money power of these universities. Naturally, these universities, which now intend to set base in India, want to win over our political leaders.

The disadvantages of elite education are intelligently outlined by William D eriewicz in an article in the American Scholar magazine in its July 2007 issue. The universities, he says, forget that their main mission is to socialise students to think critically, not just to make careers. The author, who studied in Yale University, says that at the age of 35 he realised that he could not talk with a plumber in his language because all the people around him seldom had anything to do with ordinary people. In institutions like Yale, the authorities never tired of telling students that they are the leaders of tomorrow. Most students are from very affluent, privileged backgrounds, and the fees are astronomically high. These s tudents are made to feel that it is not worth talking to people who have studied in less-privileged colleges. Elite colleges promote a false sense of self-worth, selfimportance. The talk of meritocracy is one big fraud. Admission is restricted mainly to the privileged that get all sorts of concessions; their academic interests are always protected.

It is also a myth that these elite institutions are centres of meritocracy. The myth is exploded in the book The Chosen – The Hidden History of Admissions and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale and Princeton, written by Jerome Karabel, a sociologist. There is definitely a quota for the rich and influential. Without this George Bush would have never got admission into Yale. But Bush is opposed to affirmative

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Economic & Political Weekly


action for blacks and others in the US. In fact, there is more competitiveness in admissions to the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs). But the idealism among the students of the 1960s and the 1970s is missing now.

Emulating the Discredited

The neoliberal model of governance has collapsed. The Guardian (9 October 2008) put this succinctly while reacting to the government’s part nationalisation of the financial sector in Britain. The government has delivered the funeral rites on the corpse of Thatcherism, strangled to death by the very monsters it brought forth from the deep in the reckless frenzy of “big bang” deregulation 30 years ago. The Indian political leadership, which has come in for justified criticism in the wake of the terrorist attacks, can derive some consolation from the fact that its former mentors, George Bush and o thers, too have been strongly condemned in the western media. This should also cause some embarrassment to our leaders who have been blindly following them.

The Indian elite, in its pursuit of m aking Mumbai a global city, is obsessed with the demand for a powerful mayor, independent of the state’s political a pparatus. The trouble is that every p olitical model of leadership this class clamours for has miserably failed in the US. Increasingly, a leadership vacuum is being experienced in the US where vast resources are being devoted to leadership training. There may have never been an era when people have talked so much about leadership but exhibited so little of it, as Newsweek (13 October 2008) pointed out.



The parliamentary left in India, despite its limitations, is morally far superior to other political parties. It can as well keep its distance from five-star culture. It was embar rassing to find that among those trapped in the Taj Mahal hotel during the terrorist attack were two communist MPs. And there was also Maharashtra’s home secretary, the top-most bureaucrat who should have been spearheading the a ntiterrorist operation. So this is a lesson for bureaucrats as well. Leave alone the moral aspect, the economic downturn demands a simpler lifestyle on the part of every one.

That apart, we need to create leadership among the people, and empower them. The eminent Marxist poet and dramatist B ertolt Brecht made the point in his poem “In Praise of Learning”. It is addressed to common people and has a refrain – You Must Take over the L eadership.




Economic & Political Weekly

february 21, 2009 vol XLIV No 8

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