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Leadership in turbulent Covid19 times

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Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan
Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan
The author is practicing advocate in the Madras High Court

We live in scary times. The world is under Lockdown. The leader of the free world initially bombastically claimed that “Coronavirus is a hoax. It is conspiracy floated by the Do Nothing Democrats who failed to get me impeached”. Trump said he was now a ‘Wartime President and he would thump the invisible enemy”. Trump who repeatedly said he was not ‘worried’, is now a ‘scared man in the Oval Office’ as Politico reports.

A President ‘who had an attention span less than that of a second grader’ as Daily Beast brutally put it, now is furious with his aides for ‘talking nonstop nonsense on this wretched Covid19”. Notwithstanding Trump’s efforts to disregard the scientists and medical professional on the viral spread of this Pandemic, he has now been forced to pivot and backtrack shamelessly as he says, “America is poised to face its worst ever and Americans better get their seat belts on.” Times they are a changing and how.

Such a President as he claiming to be a Wartime President, is a cruel joke perpetrated on history. Read Susan Rice on Trump as ‘Wartime President’. There have been leaders who not only ate last but came first to stand on the front lines to bravely face adversity. Trump, the narcissist, had his way, with no crisis on hand , like 9/11 or 2008 financial crisis or Iran Contra deal or Iran hostages or even the Obama Bengazi raid, until Covid-19 hit hard. His America First and Isolationist policy and treating even NATO nations not as allies, but as contributors or competitors, had vitiated the environment completely. He picked up quarrels with China and was friendly only with dictators as in Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Hungary. A tragedy was waiting to happen. By god, what a crisis the world is facing but without the leadership from America, which would have surely been a soothing balm in these critical times.

Forget not that Barack Obama was at the helm, when SARS and Ebola broke out, no less harmful viruses. He led the world in the fight and there was ‘close co operation and co ordination like never before since the Allies got together in the second world war, except this time there was no Nazi Germany at the end of the spear, but the deadly diseases’, gloated Joe Biden, likely Democratic nominee for 2020 presidential elections. It only makes the present a stark reality that Trump has exposed the entire world to face its own battles, each for himself or herself, without an international leadership, which was desperately needed.

These thoughts and more crossed the mind, as one was reading and re reading the works of Doris Kearns Goodwin. Her husband was a brilliant speech writer for Presidents and Presidential aspirants and the historian herself a scintillating story teller. “Pulitzer Prize-winning author Doris Kearns Goodwin demonstrates how leaders are made, not born, as she thoughtfully explores the highs and lows of four U.S. presidents who faced moments of horrific national/international crisis. Goodwin’s clean, assured sentences set the stage as each future president discovers within himself the desire to enter politics, the calamitous blows that knocked each one down, and how they tackled the struggles that tore at the sinews of the country. Most fascinating is Goodwin’s revelations about how very differently Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Lyndon B. Johnson approached not only their political careers but how they developed the character traits that helped them see— or make— a path toward a critical response that many others disagreed with.

Lincoln’s delivery of the Emancipation Proclamation, Theodore Roosevelt’s handling of labour strikes, FDR’s battle against the Great Depression in his first 100 days, and Johnson’s prioritization of civil rights, while a nation mourned were actions that could have ripped the country further apart but eventually bound it together and strengthened its democratic foundations. The rare weakness within Leadership: In Turbulent Times is the outlining of specific qualities, such as “Take the measure of the man” and “Set a deadline and drive full-bore to meet it,” that are meant to distil leadership wisdom into bullet points, like contemporary business books. Goodwin’s strength is in the rich context she provides as she shows that great leaders develop in dissimilar ways but ultimately have a vision they reach for and rely on when times are at their most turbulent.”

Closer home, Narendra Modi is our chosen leader. Is he up to it? Is he on the right path? Were his Janatha Curfew clapping and Diya Chalo routines, symbolic or inspirational ideas to infuse much needed resilience and solidarity among We The People that We Shall overcome? One thing is clear and undeniable. There has been no crisis of this magnitude ever before seen in the world. No country has faced such attacks from all flanks, health, mental, physical, economic and more. The leader has to be uniquely qualified to lead. The messages have to be loud and strong. But, at the back of it, there must be planning and execution on the ground.

India and the world have no precedent to follow. Wuhan, Hubei province in China was virally impacted on Nov 17th, 2020, for the first time. It was not long before Jan, 21st that World Health Organisation conceded it was a Pandemic or a Global Health Emergency and China locked down Wuhan on 23rd Jan. Valuable time was lost to the world. That has made the task of the leaders of the world all the more difficult and it therefore requires leadership of even more extraordinary faculties, to face the onslaught.

It is too early to judge Modi’s measures. He has been trying every trick in the trade. We are a huge country of more than continent size. We are densely populated with 1.3 billion of us packed as sardines, rendering social distancing a tough practice. When the US and UK were procrastinating on ordering a lockdown, Italy and Spain were constrained to do so. That gave India the go ahead to go early from 25th March, 2020 for a 21 day national lockdown. Yes, it seemed sudden, unplanned and came out of the blue, giving little time for the teeming migrant labourers to make their choices for residence. Add the #FakeNews that the lockdown may last 3 months, the migrant labourers got panicky and started their long mach home, making mincemeat of social distancing and we all felt sorry for them.

As for the economic package, the first of them has come, as the Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaraman suggests. We are likely to have the next in a week, even as Narendra Modi called for an all party meeting on 8th April, 2020. The situation is dicey. That Modi has been forced to reach out to past Presidents and Prime Ministers, communicates to us, loud and clear, how difficult leadership in these climes is. Truth to tell, absence of a firm and strong leader in the White House was a huge let down for the entire world. Trump has failed not US of A but the world at large. We have to wait for a Doris Kearns Goodin to record history.

 (Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan-Author is practising advocate in the Madras High Court)

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Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan
Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan
The author is practicing advocate in the Madras High Court
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