In these times of renaming almost everything, from cities to welfare schemes, aligning leadership positions of our political system with that of a post that every armed forces officer covets — the commanding officer (CO) — would not be out of place. The qualities expected in and duties expected from our political heads are embedded in the persona of the CO saab, as he embodies all that a leader ought to be.
In his book, The Challenge of Command, author Roger Nye paints a trail of leadership qualities required in a commander at different levels — from a sub-lieutenant accumulating experience leading a company to a colonel, brigadier and finally a general leading an army. Alas, he stops, but the next would be the political leadership, whose chief is the ultimate commander of a nation.
Can one extrapolate and make suggestions so that the CO saab, for whom a soldier, sailor and airman would lay down his life, becomes a touchstone for political leaders to emulate? Loyalty, integrity, personal probity, knowledge et al are all attributes of any course on leadership but what cannot be taught are humane virtues needed for making a person worthy of the exalted position of a CO — ditto for a political leader?
Conscience keeper of his formation, the CO’s professionalism and beliefs get reflected in his actions that are visible to one and all. If ever there is a person absolutely transparent to others it is him, for he is under scrutiny 24x7. His appraisal starts with probes into his professional soundness. On operational deployments does he lead from the front, a la the brave Colonel Santosh Mahadik, or does he send his second-in-command? How well does he fly? What is his response under enemy fire? The political leader, likewise, is continuously under scrutiny, with people evaluating his governance capability, decisiveness and projection as the leader of his country. No one likes to follow a dud and so a CO saab, err... the political leader, better be a good professional if he is to be respected.
Personal probity comes next — does the CO walk his talk? Pontification about expectations from subordinates, if not seen in his deeds, will lead to loss of moral authority to govern. In the event, the lay soldier will follow the CO’s orders, more out of a requirement to do so than out of conviction and empathy. In the political field, the public “tolerates” the leader and awaits the next ballot to express its views.
Congruence of personal beliefs of the leader and the follower is vital and perhaps the most important in multicultural and multi-religious India. Getting confluence in this ethereal requirement is the real test of a leader’s skills. In his personal life the CO is free to subscribe to a set of values and beliefs but in practice he is the embodiment of diverse faiths of all his subordinates. For him, life is an amalgamation of their cultural and religious beliefs; for him, God, though omnipresent, is resident in different places of worship, each with their distinct rituals.
The CO saab is the head disciple of all faiths as also the head pandit, maulvi, granthi and padre, all rolled into one. In the book mentioned earlier, the author says that for those concerned with doing their duty, life is a succession of choices. In matters of faith, however, a CO has no choice. The expectations from a political leader are no different; he should know that he too has no choice. Comments Patton in his book, War As I Knew It, “A man’s military life is lived for about three minutes, parcelled out in bits and pieces of decision-making that he alone can make correctly, because of his unique experience and learning.” The time spent by a political leader on taking crucial “life and death” decisions for his country is also a fraction of his time in politics.
There is no shortcut to “real life” wisdom necessary to take such decisions; it comes only through sweat and toil in “field” operations while rising up the hierarchy. The essence of good political leadership, thus, is no different.
So, a suggestion from a footslogger who has been in uniform all these years: why not absorb the essence of the persona of the CO saab in our political lexicon? It may influence the way India’s politics works — away from caste and religious orientation and for the betterment of the common Indian.