I was in the United States the morning after the senseless bombings at the Boston marathon. I watched President Obama deliver a message of succour and strength at the city’s memorial service, pausing to personalise the tragedy of a young eight-year-old boy and his last living hours; offering resilience to an emotionally ravaged people by vowing: “You will run again.” It may have been theatrical, rhetorical or that day’s assignment for a spin-doctor at the White House. But, in that moment, it hit the right note, and even made someone like me — normally an absolute admirer of our noisy, colourful, chaotic multi-party democracy — feel regret for the absence of a culture of communication in my own country.
Eleven thousand miles away, my hometown was erupting in a rage reminiscent of the anti-rape protests of December last year. This time the anger spilt onto the streets after a little girl who after being sexually violated with bottle-shards and candlesticks, was battling for her life. It seemed like déjà vu in Delhi. Not just the horror of the assault itself, but also the responses — shutting down metro stations, callous police handling and platitudes — are mostly anodyne political interventions. Yet again, the prime minister and the Congress president chose strong words and statements over conversation and an emotionally distant formality over a more direct look-in-the-eye communication. This, though, seems to be a departure from their first instinct — silence. Remember Dr Manmohan Singh’s rehearsed, almost reluctant address to the nation eight days after the Delhi gang rape? And the police’s crackdown on agitators?
Like in December, most disappointing was the response of younger politicians. The galvanising of young men and women on the streets of the national capital should have been a point of inflection for a generational shift in Indian politics. One would have thought that with the hype around the question of our polity ageing and turning archaic, this would be the moment to see young MPs fanning out across colleges and schools, talking ‘to’ and not down at their constituents, participating in the national debate on the age of sexual consent and proving that it was their ideas that were youthful; not just their age. But for most part, they remained emotionally diffident and disengaged.
Why do our politicians find it so difficult to talk directly to people? Either they believe that political communication is some airy-fairy new-age concept that is irrelevant to elections or they are trapped in a yesteryear style of delivering speeches to a crowd, from the safe distance of an elevated stage, instead of connecting personally with the individual. You wouldn’t believe it, listening to some of them drone on endlessly on prime time TV. The sheer noise of political conversation in India can mislead you into believing that there is too much being said, not too little. But the structured template of gladiatorial television debates, where everyone plays out an assigned role, is no substitute for modern leadership, which in an age of hyper-information, can only be rooted in emotional accessibility and an openness of style.
Even the participation in the relatively controlled environment of television debates — and I can perhaps say this with the authentic experience of an insider — is often quite reluctant. On this score, the BJP, which was quicker at embracing social media and organising its own army of online troopers, does much better than the Congress. The opposition party has a lengthier, more enthusiastic line-up of spokespersons than the ruling party, which somewhat bizarrely often refuses to nominate anyone to defend itself. This past week, as mushroom clouds of multiple controversies threatened to rain down on the UPA, I actually had to scrap a scheduled debate programme on the government’s interference in a CBI affidavit on the coal scam report after the Congress refused to participate in it.
Twitter wars between supporters of Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi may suggest that 2014 will be the clash of hashtags. But not just are elections in the world’s largest parliamentary democracy much more complex and mathematical, what you can most certainly forget is a direct debate between the two, no matter the salivation of headline hunters who seem excited by the prospect of a near-presidential election. Don’t imagine them coming face-to-face ever; it’s unlikely that either politician will ever do any hard-nosed interviews. Narendra Modi remains suspicious and wary of large sections of the English media, especially those reporters who were on the ground in 2002 during the riots. And Rahul Gandhi has never done a single interview since taking the political plunge. He may meet journalists on the odd occasion while on the campaign trail, but has refused to put himself under the scrutiny of a one-on-one interview. The two combatants of the next election, whether as prime ministerial candidates or otherwise are adversaries in every way, in style, ideology and politics. But in the essential opaqueness and emotional distance that defines them, they are similar. These are not politicians we will ever get to know intimately, these are not politicians who will ever just be ‘regular guys,’ who will let you into their space with a laidback informality that can only come with supreme self confidence.
Last year, as I moderated a Town Hall conversation in Kolkata with Hillary Clinton, I marvelled at how unfazed she was by the tough, spontaneous questions thrown at her by young students in the crowd. The world’s most powerful diplomat was willing to bend the power equation and allow a 17-year-old to talk to her like an equal. That is what contemporary politics is all about. And this is what people expect from their leaders, to admire them, but yet feel comfortable with them. Leaders in the 21st century need to emanate both confidence and compassion. It’s not rocket science, just common sense. If only our politicians could read the writing on the wall.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal