Leadership lessons from the mishandling of the Delhi protests

We need to address the crisis of accountability by replacing the current crop of leaders with a leadership of listeners
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First Published: Wed, Dec 26 2012. 01 02 PM IST
Protesters demanding justice for gang rape victim during a demonstration at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Protesters demanding justice for gang rape victim during a demonstration at Jantar Mantar in New Delhi. Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Updated: Wed, Dec 26 2012. 04 04 PM IST
What started off as a wonderfully constructive campaign by students to ensure the horrific rape in Delhi would lead to major changes in laws and policing and even mindsets of people, soon degenerated into a pitched battle between Delhi police and protestors. While the personnel of the Delhi police as well as the Rapid Action Force became the arch villains, the real problem lay in the flea-bitten leadership. Events of the last week showed that whether it is our Prime Minister or the state chief minister or, of course, the faintly ridiculous home minister, leadership isn’t their forte.
What are the leadership traits that we missed over the last few days?
Proactive leadership: Monday (17 December) was when first reports of the horrific rape of the young girl came in. By Wednesday, the mood of the people, particularly young women, was clearly turning sour at the perceived inaction. To anyone but the most dense, it should have been obvious that it was leading up to a dangerous confrontation. Yet, not one political worthy thought it worth their while to take any action, waiting passively for the crisis to blow over. This one time it didn’t.
Transparent leadership: Our politicians are past masters at secret parleys for deals and horse trading. But when it came to an issue as inflammable as this, the supposed holding of talks with a hand-picked lot of activists boomeranged on the government. When the first lot of people to meet the authorities came out of their hush-hush meeting with the home minister, the assembled crowds paid little attention to what they said. If the same conversations had been in the open, on television, there might have been a better appreciation of the government’s position.
Courage: Nearly 2000 years ago, Publius Cornelius Tacitus, senator and a historian of the Roman Empire wrote: “The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise.” A leader hiding behind an elaborate security apparatus, scared to face a crowd of 5,000-7,000 young people in the heart of the capital, has no business to lay claim to any position of authority. Manmohan Singh and Co. should read their history and find out where Gandhi was during the partition-period riots – in unsafe and highly charged places like Naokhali.
Power of symbolism: Indira Gandhi’s now famous elephant ride to Belchchi in Bihar, when the then government had been trying to put road blocks in her way, stopping her from getting to visit the survivors of the Dalit killings, is part of political folklore. Water cannons and tear gas shells and lathis can’t be. All they showed was the state’s aggressive intent. During his famous peace mission through the riot-torn villages of Naokhlai, Gandhi stopped at one where both Hindus and Muslims refused to come out for his call for prayers. The wily old man then picked up a ball and called all the children of the village to come out and play with him which they did quite happily. Whereupon, wrote the late Madhu Dandavate in his Gandhi’s Human Touch, the Mahatma turned to the villagers and said: “You have no courage but if you want that courage, induct it from your children.”
Only connect: Leadership is about finding and nurturing the elusive connect with people. Think of Martin Luther King’s eloquence or Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s poetry or even Nelson Mandela’s toyi-toyi dance. In moments of crisis, great leaders use the leverage that this connect provides to reach out to people to defuse tension or rouse sentiments. The Prime Minister’s belated and bedraggled attempts at connecting through a prepared TV speech, only ended up making him the object of derision.
Having an ideal: A leader has to have an overarching passion that we all associate him/her with. Nelson Mandela’s statement from the dock of the Rivonia Trial that led to his imprisonment ends with these words: “I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” What is the grand ideal that we equate Manmohan Singh or Sonia Gandhi with?
Humility: Most people would have gladly made Mandela president for life, a trend quite popular in Africa’s tin-pot democracies. But precisely because of that, Mandela decided to buck the trend, voluntarily walking away, much like Gandhi did in refusing to take up any position of power in a country that he had helped free. Leaders accept their failure, listen to their inner voice and walk. On the day that a master like Sachin Tendulkar decided to walk away into the sunset, did we hear a single important functionary say, I am sickened by the remorse of not being able to prevent this terrible tragedy and want to give up my exalted position?
Engage: Chief ministers, ministers, prime ministers, hold office because thousands of people made the effort to walk across to the election booth and cast that vote for them. Ignore what men like Sushil Kumar Shinde say about the government not going to the people, a political leader is duty-bound to engage with the people who have elected him.
Leadership is theatre for sure, but the curtain needs to come down on such bad theatre where the props are always being rearranged with no satisfying and effective outcome. Viktor Frankl, the Austrian neurologist and a holocaust survivor, said that the Statue of Liberty must be replaced with a Statue of Responsibility. In India too, we too need to address the crisis of accountability, by replacing the current crop of leaders with a leadership of listeners.
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First Published: Wed, Dec 26 2012. 01 02 PM IST