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Leading Questions

By: on Feb. 19, 2007

Last week police questioned British Prime Minister Tony Blair for the second time in relation to the "cash for honours" allegations surrounding the government. He has already seen two of his close aides arrested in this connection and bookmaker William Hill shortened the odds of the same fate befalling him to just 7-1.

Everyone involved in the scandal insists that they have done nothing wrong, of course, and Mr Blair also said that he had no intention of "pleading for his integrity". However, a shadow hangs over his New Labour Party and indeed British politics in general. While it seems unlikely that Mr Blair will be forced into a Nixon-like departure, public cynicism is at an all time high.

These days no one expects leaders to be paragons of perfect virtue; after all the behavior of society in general could hardly be cited as an example of this, and leaders, especially where democratically elected, tend to reflect prevailing values. If say, drinking to excess and a certain amount of womanizing are widely acceptable, then we will probably tolerate that in our leaders, as we have seen. We may even turn a blind eye if it emerges that a politician partook of the odd forbidden substance in the impetuosity of youth. But there does still seem to be a line that they cannot cross, the murky line of corruption and dishonesty. Nixon marched boldly over that line, of course, with disastrous consequences. We don't want to be cheated and misled and will soon drag down those caught in the act. If politicians are found filling their pockets from the public purse, or using their office for some sort of personal gain, then woe betide them.

Which has to be a good thing, surely. We have to expect at least some moral standards in our leaders. After all, leading nations is a weighty task and one would hope that those entrusted with it have some sort of qualifications for the job. But is this always the case? As Charles De Gaulle said, "Politics is too serious a business to be left to politicians." Usually the main skill of an elected leader lies in campaigning and convincing others of his personal value and the complete absence of any value in his opponents. We listen to the arguments and if they sound alluring enough we give them our vote. It is certainly unfortunate if that person is later impugned in some way and found to be sadly lacking in basic morality.

Perhaps then, rather than being dazzled by an impressive array of promises, we should first consider the moral case when selecting leaders. This in fact is what Vedic wisdom recommends. Srila Prabhupada writes, "...public leaders must be tested crucially by their character and qualification." According to Vedic standards, which are admittedly high, there are four principal vices that a leader should entirely eschewæintoxication, gambling, womanizing and animal slaughter. These correspond to the four "legs of religion" or virtue, which are austerity, cleanliness, mercy and truth. If these four basic merits are there then such a person will be free of all other profligacy.

Using these criteria to select our leaders would, it has to be said, very probably eliminate most of today's candidates. Nevertheless, they are without doubt desirable qualifications and we do look for them at least to some degree. We want leaders to be somewhat austere, in that they should not take pecuniary advantage of their situation. Cleanliness means within and without, being a gentleman, which is nice, and the quality of mercy or compassion is also something a good leader should surely display. Animal slaughter is pinpointed as the chief destroyer of mercy in men. And as for truth, well we have already discussed that; certainly it has to be there.

Where though are such leaders to be found? And even if we do find such highly moral men, will they have the necessary abilities to run a country? Perhaps we need to more fundamentally consider the whole question of democracy. Vedic society did not give a vote to all and sundry and thus leave the critical function of leadership at the mercy of many who may themselves have no idea about the matter. Only those who were learned and spiritually pure in heart were entrusted with such decisions. Society would also nurture a class of men who would be trained from birth in the science of statecraft and leadership, along with the necessary accompanying morality.

We are a long way from that these days. Pure hearted persons tend to be thin on the ground, and the training for leaders seems to be undergone by a process of trial and error once they have been thrust into office. Maybe though we should give it some thought. Let's start by looking more carefully at the moral character of our would-be leaders, rather than just the often empty promise of a (cruelly slaughtered) "chicken in every pot".

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