Lead, don't pretend

In the early 1980s, when the late AR Antulay was Maharashtra chief minister, reports came in one afternoon of a communal flare up somewhere in Bhiwandi near Mumbai. Antulay called in the chief secretary and issued simple instructions: "You have all the powers of the chief minister. Go to the spot and put out the fire. Don't return till this has ended." When the orders are this clean and clear, when the goals are well set and when the message is sent down the administrative line-up, there is hardly a chance of anyone walking off the given path. Later, as the Union Minister for Minority Affairs during the tenure of UPA-I under Manmohan Singh, Antulay spelt out his view: "I would sternly tell the chief secretary of the state that something would not be tolerated, and he would make no mistake."

A similar sharp message has been sent out by the Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee as the state battles to put down communal fires after zealots wielded swords and pistols during Ram Navami processions in two areas.    It is true that Banerjee has herself been accused of "competitive communalism" by setting out Trinamool-led processions to counter the BJP ones. But she has quickly pulled back and sent out a clear message: "Strong action must be taken against anyone who has broken the law. Nobody should be spared. I have instructed the DG and all SPs…It doesn't matter which religion a person follows. Even if one person has died, it is wrong. He belongs to my family, he is a citizen of my state."

These are words of comfort and signal a commander's intent. They empower and enable the administration to drive order and to brook no violation, particularly if it takes on a communal colour. And they will help isolate the mischief makers who have, as the chief minister has correctly pointed out, understood nothing about the culture of a state where all religious festivals are celebrated in peace and harmony.  

None of these messages required complex communications operations, a strategic plan or popular social media handles -- the machinery that the BJP leadership has at its disposal but has never used to send out these clear messages at a time they are needed the most. One of the low points of the government will remain Narendra Modi's complete silence on the shameful cases of lynching targeted at Muslims and Dalits, often in the name of protecting the cow. And when he spoke, it was a case of too little, too late, a voice that carried little or no conviction because it was in the nature of ticking the box, not protecting the weak or stopping criminals from spreading terror.   Weaponising genuine reverence for the cow among millions of Indians to spread terror is one of the many ways in which Hinduism has been given a bad name by this government.  

The slide has now led to the ludicrous – in Maharashtra, there are demands for testing kits by none other than meat traders who want safety from allegations and threats that the stock being carried is beef. The Mumbai police will now have an anti-beef unit. Elsewhere, minister Smriti Irani wants to distribute 10,000 cows in Amethi. In West Bengal, while the  imam  of the mosque made a moving appeal to keep peace after his 16-year-old son was killed in the riots in Asansol, the BJP MP and Union Minister Babul Supriyo was screaming, "We'll skin them alive". A video travelling on Facebook shows a blind couple somewhere in West Bengal being forced to say  Jai Shri Ram. This is a monumental fall for India; it tears into the very heart of a tradition and a philosophy that has tolerance and respect for all at its root. This is a race to the bottom and it is led from the top.

As the West Bengal riots were breaking out this Ram Navami, Narendra Modi's team prepared to put out the latest in its wide array of communications gimmicks – an animation video on YouTube of the prime minister doing yoga  asanas.    Alongside, on  narendramodi.in, is the latest episode of  Mann Ki Baat, with the headline: "Entire world sees India with great respect today". The prime minister has also sought ideas from the people of India on the "logo, slogan and motto" for the 150th  birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi.

The messages offer validation of what has been criticised as a government run by event management gurus, mistaking for strategy what essentially are over-packaged, over-glamourised and over-peddled messages from an establishment that runs the risk of being sold on its own hype.    Much effort goes into tapping social media and seeking nirvana, like hackneyed brand managers do, in 'likes', 're-tweets' or 'shares'. And it is easy from here to measure achievement by an array of numbers with fanciful terms that can dazzle the uninitiated (but with nothing yet on the communal trouble in West Bengal or in Bihar, where Nitish Kumar, too, has accused the BJP of fomenting trouble).  

Along with the package come spokespersons and activists who are inevitably shrill, mostly discourteous and often megaphone-loud, feeding on the same hypotheses that louder is clearer and shouting out is a style.  Except that the game of communications and certainly the more serious task of governance does not work this way. Running the government is not the same as selling soap.  Melodious jingles and colourful wrappers cannot substitute honesty of purpose. They can preach but to the converted, putting off a much larger set of people who never were supporters in the first place.

As fatigue with these loud voices and vaudevillian drama grows, and as the nation looks for an alternative in 2019, political space will open up for those who can demonstrate a different kind of leadership. We have been taken too far away from our natural moorings and there is now value and opportunity for those who can help the nation pull back from the brink. Mamata has stood out, at least for now, and the message should be that voices like these can drive new equations that the BJP cannot afford to ignore. When it came to the crunch, it can be said that Mamata stood clearer and sharper. She sent out a powerful message in a manner Modi never has.

(The writer is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR) (Syndicate: The Billion Press)


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