Correct and Politically Correct

I joined Intel in 1991, the time when it was a growth company. Most managers were young, driven and for the most part correct rather than politically correct. As the company grew, a larger employee base, seasoned managers, large cash reserves, it became evident that managers were more politically correct than correct. By the time I left in 2005, a correct statement, honest feedback, was rare and refreshing. In an article below by N. Vithal in Mumbai Mirror, he quotes leaders in history who made difficult turnarounds by being correct.

Truth is one but wise men articulate differently. Ekam satyam vibrah baluda vadathi.

The same is true of policies in public governance. In recent times, when public issues are debated, two types of correct approaches are highlighted. One approach is inherently correct and the other is politically correct. In the olden days, what is today called ‘politically correct’ was described as being diplomatic. As Wate Lip Mann pointed out, diplomacy is “putting in the other person’s words what you want”. It has been said that the British civil servant prefers the silky circumlocutions to straight talk. Diplomacy or using circumlocutions are our methods of sugar coating the unpleasant truth.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the issue of correctness and political correctness, the distinction is different. In the context of the current debate on reservations for OBCs and social justice, anyone questioning the reservation as a tool of social justice, as a sort of correction for thousands of years of social exploitation will be considered politically incorrect. Any champion of merit will be seen as being anti weaker sections and social justice. Nevertheless, real progress comes not by being diplomatically and politically correct, but by being correct.

An Asian leader who built a nation virtually from scratch and converted a third world nation to a first world is Singapore’s former Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew. His autobiography is titled ‘Third world to the first”.

In that he makes the following observation (page 59): “I learned to ignore criticism and advice from experts and quasi experts especially from academics in social and political sciences. They have pet theories on how a society should develop to approximate their ideals especially how poverty should be reduced and welfare extended. I always tried to be correct, not politically correct”. One of the secrets of Yew’s success.

Another leader of our time, who was correct and brought the necessary corrective in the overall approach to economic development, was Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher who had a remarkable innings as prime minister of Britain. When she came to power she said she was “a conviction politician” not a “consensus politician” and went on to implement her policy of strict confrontation with unions and succeeded gloriously.

The question is, in our present level of development and deliberative democracy in India, are we likely to see the emergence of statesmen and leaders who have the courage of conviction to be correct rather that politically correct? In fact, the words “politically correct” themselves indicate a bias and give priority to immediate political consequences as a result of a policy option. A correct policy looks beyond the immediate term and into the medium and long-term. For a leader to be correct, he must have not only his own conviction but the capacity to influence opinion and make people realise the validity of the policy.

Unfortunately, today in our country, with the splintered and fragmented politics, the scope for emergence of leaders like Yew or Thatcher is limited. But if awareness spreads that being politically correct all the time leads only to short-term fixes, the situation may improve. This will require, to begin with, leaders in politics who have clear objectives and courage of conviction. Thatcher and Yew had the same clarity of thought and conviction. Yew systematically built a meritocratic society and even in handing over power he saw to it that he inducted a lot of professionals.

Today in our country, if professionals have to be inducted in governance, the only route is the Rajya Sabha. The manner in which Yew identified and inducted talent in government cannot be replicated in India. But a systematic method by which talent in different fields can be harnessed and professionals with competence and conviction brought into the political scene must be explored by the country’s think-tanks. We may then see the emergence of leaders who will take correct decisions, not merely politically correct ones.

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