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Communication error

Communication error

In the classic BBC political satire serial, ‘Yes Minister’, the minister Jim Hacker asks his senior bureaucrat Sir Humphrey Appleby how to deal with a group of protesters. “Don’t worry sir, just appoint a committee to examine their grievances,” is the reply. “But won’t that be seen as surrender,” asks the worried minister. Sir Humphrey smiles:  “Committees buy you time, Mr Minister, and time is on our side!”

What was true of the past is no longer the case: notions of  time have shrunk. This is the age of Twenty20 cricket, fast food, instant messaging on Twitter and Facebook and 24×7 television, where today’s news can become the next hour’s history. Like all else in society, governments, too, have to adjust to new-age protests with an immediacy that perhaps was not required even a decade ago. Unfortunately, as we have discovered in the past fortnight, there is still a mismatch between a young and restless generation and a political class which believes that the wheels of government must move at their own pace.

“You cannot have instant solutions,” muttered a beleaguered home minister Sushilkumar Shinde when asked whether his government was willing to give the protesters a time- frame within which various proposals for the safety of women would be implemented. Yes minister, you are right: in a patriarchal society which for eons has treated women as second-class citizens, you cannot expect dramatic results overnight. But surely Mr Minister, genuine voices of protest have a right to be heard with empathy and not be met with the old-fashioned lathi.

The distance between the home ministry’s forbidding walls at North Block and India Gate is less than two kilometres. But the psychological distance is much, much greater. Till a lumpen element attempted to take over the agitation, a majority of  the protesters at India Gate were an enthusiastic crowd of energetic, bright-eyed Indians seeking to express their anger at the failure of  the ‘system’ to protect a young girl. Their anger was not against any individual or political party: it was the rage of a generation that felt lost and helpless in the face of perceived State apathy and misgovernance. It was a group that needed comforting; compassion more than confrontation was the need of  the moment.

Unfortunately, the political class failed to seize the moment, preferring instead to remain closeted in their bhavans and Lutyens bungalows. The home minister was particularly incensed when I asked him whether he or any senior member of his government should have gone to India Gate to meet the protesters at the very outset. “Governments cannot go anywhere like this. Tomorrow, it could be Congress activists, next day it could be BJP, you will even ask us to meet armed Maoists. What if 100 tribals are killed in Gadchiroli or Chhattisgarh, you will expect us to go there too,” was his agitated response.

The truth is, Mr Minister, governments must go to the people, be it Gadchiroli or India Gate. The idea of a home minister stepping out to meet students is not a ‘dangerous’ precedent, but an idea whose time has come. The wide and growing chasm between a ‘VIP India’ and an ‘Aam Aadmi  India’ lies at the heart of  the current crisis. VIP India which gets dozens of  well-armed securitymen to guard them day and night versus an Aam Aadmi India which has no such protection. A VIP India which travels in their lal-batti cars versus an Aam Aadmi India which takes an antiquated public transport system. A VIP India which can walk in a luxurious Lodhi Gardens versus an Aam Aadmi India which walks home on poorly-lit streets.

And what is true of Delhi is even worse in far-flung Gadchiroli where neither government nor the television camera will turn their gaze. If a 23-year-old was gangraped in a small village in Chhattisgarh, she would probably become just another statistic. It is unlikely that anyone would light a candle for her or spark off  street protests in her name. Her story is that of not even an Aam Aadmi India, but an ‘Andhera India’, an area of  darkness where few dare to venture.

Given these ever-widening divides in our society, it is imperative for governments to summon up the courage, enthusiasm and imagination to reach out beyond traditional lakshman rekhas. Communication is no longer simply about holding press conferences in Shastri Bhavan; it is about stepping out of  the confines of  the power apparatus and rediscovering the human touch. That is what the country’s original and most-effective political communicator Mahatma Gandhi would have done. In fact, Gandhi would probably have sat on the streets with the protesters, listening to them, giving them a sense of  direction and leadership.

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If ‘protocol’ didn’t permit a home minister from visiting India Gate, what of our numerous young MPs? Couldn’t they have been part of a delegation that met the protesters and heard their grievances? What of Rahul Gandhi, the politician who sycophantic Congressmen refer to as a ‘youth icon’ and the ‘conscience of the nation’? Could there have been a better issue for Rahul to appropriate and take a leadership role in than the safety of young women? Forget the photo-op, this could have been an issue that would have given him a much-needed emotional connect with a new India that is yearning for a new leadership that can break the feudal stereotypes of  netas as ‘rulers’ and not as one of ‘us’.

Post-script: I have little doubt that Manmohan Singh will meet US President Barack Obama on a few occasions in the new year. While the duo discuss global economics, maybe Obama could pass on a few tips on effective political communication? Because Mr Prime Minister, when it comes to reaching out to the aam aadmi, ‘sab theek nahi hai’!

The views expressed by the author are personal

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