Today, this democracy is 25 years old. We need to appreciate the leadership we’ve had so far. This means we need to celebrate our presidents (including those who had the opportunity but couldn’t make 2 consecutive terms). A moment of celebration, I think, should also be a moment of empathy. Let’s empathise with our presidents, past, present and even future. Let’s consider their fears, worries and, even most importantly, their challenges. Trust me, their challenges are innumerable (and, I’m not saying I’ve been a president before). Just trust me.
Perhaps, the greatest challenge in political leadership is how to get the ‘right’ persons to work with (and, here, I’m speaking within the context of presidents and their ministers). Getting the right people entails combining competence with loyalty in the right proportions. But that’s not all, a leader has to do this within certain legal, time, sociocultural and economic frameworks. So, first of all, its not easy to get the men and women for the job.
The second great challenge, I think, is the ability to, having appointed some persons to work with, instil discipline into such appointees. Of course, if political appointees were kids, a leader could use disciplinary tools like, reprimand, corporal punishment, ‘silent corner’, etc. to achieve some discipline. But when you are dealing with grown ass men and women with greys in all manner of places, then, you know it’s a different ball game. In such circumstances, dismissal becomes the only (if not the most) viable way to ensuring discipline.
So you’ll probably be wondering why dismissal isn’t used a lot of the times. Well, thing is dismissal, too, isn’t without serious questions. The first question is political clout – can you just dismiss the woman you have rewarded with a ministry for her enormous contribution to your journey to office? Of course, if her contribution was merely pecuniary, you could still venture a wager and hope to find other ways of settling your pecuniary debts with her. How about if she represents a major voting constituency?
The second question is replacement. It is true that one man’s misfortune is another’s blessing – sacking an appointee presents a job opportunity for another party member. So, the replacement question is not really about nominal intra-party equations. Rather, the replacement question takes us back to the beginning of the dilemma – getting the ‘right’ person to work with. Only that the question turns into how may I get a better (or even similar) replacement. A leader would still have to face the same legal, time, sociocultural and economic framework and above all loyalty-competence mix; this time round afresh and with even more rigour.
The third question (which is inseparably-linked with replacement) is assurance. Political situation is probably one of the most unpredictable on earth. Even the weather has a say in it. Even army-worms may have a say. Persons with impeccable professional acumen have been drowned in exceptional failures in political situations. CVs are helpful but certainly not very reliable anymore. The assurance question here is: what’s the guarantee that the new appointee won’t commit even more grave blunders? There’s a conventional answer to this question. It has something to do with known devils and unknown angels.
But there’s also a fourth question – the ‘gang-up’ situation. No one understands allegiance better than politicians. A president who shows signs, no matter how faint, of freely plucking off ministers for wrongdoing also exposes herself to the ‘gang-up’ situation. Soon, the ministers would realise that none of them is beyond wrongdoing. Soon, they would realise that none of them is safe. Soon, they would agree among themselves that all should be for one and one for all. They would gang up and pit up against the President. And, if the President is to rely on them for advice in ensuring discipline (which he’s bound to), what would be the direction of such advice? No one wants that. Certainly, not when the opposition is warning up on the touchline.
Often, dismissal for wrongdoing is considered a strong sign of good governance. It shows that a president has a good sense of judgement. It also shows that she’s in “control”. In fact, governments lose elections simply because they failed to sack some appointees. But often, too, dismissal may be seen as admission of incompetence; and if it happens often (as principle-based dismissal is bound to), then, the opposition (rather than the government) becomes the ultimate beneficiary. This is the fifth question – confidence. How do you run your government in such a way as to not lose the confidence of the electorates?
What I’m trying to say is that the next time you ask a president to fire an appointee, do not just focus on one side of the equation. Do well to consider all these questions and more. Happy 25th birthday to this democracy that the events of 31st December, 1981, gave us.