Police action on protestors marks failure of govt's outreach
In the classic BBC political satire serial, 'Yes Minister', minister Jim Hacker asks his senior bureaucrat Sir Humphrey Appleby how to deal with a group of protestors. "Don't worry sir, just appoint a committee to examine their grievances," is the reply. "But wont 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 20-20 cricket, of fast food, of instant messaging on twitter & facebook, of 24 x 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 last 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 Union home minister Sushil Shinde, when asked whether his government was willing to give the protestors 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 to 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 protestors 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 protestors 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 Chattisgarh, 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 admi' 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 Admi India which takes an antiquated public transport system. A VIP India which can walk in a luxurious Lodhi Gardens versus an Aam Admi 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 gang raped 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 Admi 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, a Gandhi would probably have sat on the streets with the protestors, listening to them, giving them a sense of direction and leadership.
If 'protocol' didn't permit the Union home minister from visiting India Gate, what of our numerous young MPs? Couldn't they have been part of a delegation that met the protestors 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 Dr Manmohan Singh will meet US president Barak Obama on a few occasions in the new year. While the duo discusses 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 Admi, 'sab theek nahi hai'!
More about Rajdeep SardesaiRajdeep Sardesai was the Editor-in-Chief, IBN18 Network, that includes CNN-IBN, IBN 7 and IBN Lokmat. He has 22 years of journalistic experience during which he has covered some of the biggest stories in India and the world. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the Managing Editor of both NDTV 24X7 and NDTV India and was responsible for overseeing the news policy for both the channels. He has also worked with The Times of India for six years and was the city editor of its Mumbai edition at the age of 26. During the last 22 years, he has covered major national and international stories, specialising in national politics. He has won numerous other awards for journalistic excellence, including the prestigious Padma Shri for journalism in 2008, the International Broadcasters Award for coverage of the 2002 Gujarat riots and the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award for 2007. He has won the Asian Television Award for best talk show for the Big Fight on two occasions and his current flagship show on CNN-IBN, India at 9, has been awarded the best news show at the Asian awards for the last two years. He has been News Anchor of the year at the Indian Television Academy for seven of the last eight years and won more than 50 awards in this period. He has also been the President of the Editors Guild of India, the only television journalist to hold the post and was chosen a Global leader for tomorrow by the world economic forum in 2000. An alumni of St Xavier's College, Mumbai, he has done his Masters and LLB from Oxford University and has also played first class cricket for the Oxford University team. He has contributed to several books and writes a fortnightly column that appears in seven newspapers.
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