Whats the good word Costly game!

Written by Subhash Agrawal | Updated: Nov 12 2005, 05:30am hrs
One of the most interesting aspects of the Natwar Singh controversy is not the fact that he was eased out of a crucial office, rather how his continuance became ultimately untenable because of his own petulant outbursts and ungracious behaviour. To call a report of a high-level Volcker Committee bullshit was perhaps the height of recklessness, no matter how illegal or emotionally provocative the whole Iraq invasion has been.

Notwithstanding any alleged biases, the committee was set up and authorised under a UN Security Council resolution, and as such carries the imprimatur of the world body, of which India is a part.

This episode holds a crucial lesson for our leadership class, and that is the need to imbibe gravitas, circumspection and civility in our discourse. The media is a strong and double-edged weapon that works in unpredictable ways. Thanks to the information revolution and 24-hour channels, outrageous comments or exaggerated postures by political or business leaders are now broadcast to the furthest corners, repeated multiple times, minutely analysed and aggressively dissected. In effect, what our politicians say, and how they say it, is ready fodder for admiration and scorn on a daily basis, and they have to constantly walk that fine line between saying too little and speaking too much.

In this age of media overkill, even a minor gaffe or outlandish statement, howsoever privately expressed or howsoever quickly retracted, gets more public play than facts. The end result of this hyper-connectivity, and this zooming up close on all those private warts, pores and flaws of public figures, is a frequent sense of collective epiphany, something on the lines of what kind of crappy clothes is the emperor wearing

Public gaffes and these come in various shapes and sizes, including speaking too much, or out of turn or with too much manufactured indignation is now a global phenomenon, and almost always the public reaction is negative. John Deans presidential campaign in last years American election was destroyed by his infamous outburst in Iowa, which turned the former presidential front-runner into a late-night comedy punch bag. The repetitive nature of TV channels broadcasting his famous screams on stage, and what some US comedians successfully lampooned as the I Have a Scream speech, suggested to the audience that Dean did not have the temperament to be president.

More recently, Angela Merkel, the incoming German Chancellor, is another example of someone who almost lost the race simply because of her gaffes and the crotchety demeanour of her associates. Starting with an enviable double-digit lead in opinion polls, her slide started after her party colleague passed disparaging remarks against ex-East German voters. This was compounded by the media projecting her as frumpy and her husband as what a German commentator called an inept socialiser and killjoy who speaks only in brusque monosyllables. The end result was a media image of someone distinctly with less than admirable qualities, and it almost knocked her strong lead over rival Gerhard Schroder. So worried was her party that it actually forced a change in her wardrobe.

A senior leader who actually destroyed his career, not almost but completely, was Yoshiro Mori, the ex-Prime Minister of Japan, who had a tendency for embarrassing comments and unnecessary assertions, especially his description of Japan as a divine country. This alarmed Japans Asian neighbours, Japanese companies that face the brunt of overseas antipathy and even more than a few modern-minded Japanese. He was eventually dumped by his own party in a typical backroom deal.

Closer to home, there is Bangladeshs ex-home minister Altaf Hossain Chowdhury, whose callous comments have outraged even his party rank and file. Some years back, before his home portfolio was unceremoniously taken away from him, he addressed public concern at rising crime in the country by amazing remarks like It is not possible to prevent crimes including murders since criminals do not announce beforehand that they are going to kill someone. Another bizarre comment came during a visit to a victims family when he philosophised that ..life or death are in the hands of

Allah... Allah has taken back his creature.

Going back in time, to an earlier era, news reports from the 1960s are replete with theories of how Nixon lost to Kennedy in the 1960 presidential race simply because he pouted, grimaced and scowled during their televised debate, and all the while Kennedy smiled and oozed charm. In fact, like Natwar Singh, Nixon was someone who rarely smiled in public, and his gruffly delivered I am not a crook has become an evergreen favourite in comedy routines.

What all these examples tell us is that people across most cultures seek not just honesty and capability from their leaders but also some higher human qualities, like grace and charm and civility. This lesson needs particular emphasis and reinforcement in India, given our excessive verbosity and tendency to use clever dialogue as a substitute for knowledge. We must know when to speak and when to shut up. And we want our leaders to be leader-like and likeable. But at minimum, we do not want them to be an embarrassment.

The writer is editor, India Focus