What Prime Minister Narendra Modi can learn from former US President Lyndon B Johnson

The rule by the worst Can PM Modi release us from the clutches of a kakistocratic democracy
Blog Indian Politics Friday, October 23, 2015 - 13:20

Only yesterday while browsing through some very old copies of the LIFE magazine, I stumbled across a new English word that I was totally unfamiliar with - kakistocracy. As it was used multiple times in the article, I had to consult my antiquated edition of the Webster's Dictionary.

To my surprise, the word had first entered the English language in the late 18th century with its etymological origins in the Greek word 'kakistos' meaning ‘worst’.

The meaning of the actual word as adumbrated in that volume was: 'a government by the least able or worst citizens'.

I then began to wonder whether this expression would be appropriate for the state of affairs in India over the last two decades-and sadly had to conclude that we indeed have become victims of 'kakistocracy'. The only question that remains is whether we have been unwitting victims or that is a choice that we have made for ourselves.

With more than half our legislators embroiled in criminal cases perhaps the description of India as a kakistocratic democracy may find many takers. The sad aspect is that there seems to be a total lack of motivation to alter the state of affairs and that concerns me the most.

The most striking feature of kakistocracy that I observe is the pathological reluctance to extend accountability amongst our elected representatives. The UPA 2 was characterized by widespread corruption. However the people at the helm were reluctant to accept responsibility for these actions and subject the prima facie guilty individuals to the rigours of accountability demanded by a robust democracy. Sadly at least on this account, I find the present lot equally reluctant to read out the riot act to their errant colleagues.

We have over the last few weeks observed a catalogue of statements from the ruling legislators (some of them holding ministerial ranks) and irreverent thuggery by their allies which have left many feeling psychologically wounded and let down. This has resulted in some knee jerk reactions by some very well meaning citizens. I do not concur entirely with their position but their disappointment does strike a chord with many.

Personally I am irrevocably opposed to the practice of a new ruling formation resorting to elaboration of misdeeds of its predecessors as a first line defense to deflect any concerns placed before them; and this is what seems to be happening with disconcerting regularity. The Prime Minister has rightly expressed his annoyance and deployed the party president and some senior Cabinet ministers to place the government position unequivocally on the offensively indiscreet utterances of some of his own party members and uncivil vandalism by his prime ally.

But many have begun to wonder if that indeed is enough. It probably would be if the Prime Minister and his senior colleagues can reassure that an upbraiding of this nature would serve its end and put a stop to this conduct. Sadly the actions of those chided and upbraided do not give much room for comfort. It seems like a metaphorical rap of the knuckles which is clearly not sufficient.

I am tempted to recall what another head of the government did way back in 1965 when confronted with a roughly analogous situation. Lyndon Baines Johnson was a crude Texan Democrat who was keen to make a mark by signing a new Civil Rights Legislation. His main opponent was not the opposition Republican Party but an Alabama Democrat named George Wallace who was occupying the gubernatorial position in that state. Wallace was an avowed segregationalist and a rabid opponent of any extension of civil rights provisions.

Being a Southerner, it could not have been easy for Johnson to take on a fellow Southerner and that too from his own party. But he decided that Wallace had to be taken head-on. As the top journalist Pierre Salinger stated:

Furious, Johnson told Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to write a press release stating that because Wallace refused to use the 10,000 available guardsmen to preserve order in his state, Johnson himself was calling the guard up and giving them all necessary support. Several days later, 50,000 marchers followed King some 54 miles, under the watchful eyes of state and federal troops. Arriving safely in Montgomery on March 25, they watched King deliver his famous “How Long, Not Long” speech from the steps of the Capitol building. The clash between Johnson and Wallace–and Johnson’s decisive action–was an important turning point in the civil rights movement. Within five months, Congress had passed the Voting Rights Act, which Johnson proudly signed into law on August 6, 1965.

Salinger also described a very interesting meeting that Johnson had with Wallace who had been summoned to the White House in June, 1965. Johnson made the 5'3" tall Wallace sit on a low settee and then howered his entire 6'3" frame over him leaning on that settee his face just a few inches from that of Wallace and literally told him that he wanted the two of them to make a joint appearance before the press in the next few minutes and declare Wallace's support for the Civil Rights Bill and that he would not let Wallace leave the room until he agreed. Wallace, left with no choice, did as he was told and the rest is history!

I may not entirely agree with Johnson's modus operandi in toto but his decisiveness for a cause that he held dear is worthy of commendation as was his determination to take on his own party colleague from the South. This action of his ensured his place in the Valhalla of great presidents - despite his failure in Vietnam.

Would it be too much to expect the Indian Prime Minister to adopt this posture -especially on positions that are fundamental to our existential position? That would convince many including myself that we are finally emerging from the grips of kakistocracy!

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