Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking at a yoga event on Sunday while Pathankot fighting was on and even tweeting about it has drawn criticism and derision. How could he carry on with life as usual while our soldiers were locked in murderous combat?
This argument needs closer, and fairer examination. The answer will have a bearing on the fundamental concepts and approach to leadership in any environment, government, military, corporate, or any other. How should a big leader react and respond in a crisis? Should he be seen in control all the time, leading from the front, sharing with public his emotions, concerns and commitment? Or should he trust his teams and keep monitoring what he needs to, and pretend to carry on as normal.
My vote, as you may have guessed already, is for the latter. Great leaders trust their teams, do not micromanage, try to look and spread calm. The last thing their operating teams need in a crisis is the boss hopping up and down, screaming "just what the hell is going on". It applies most of all to a military situation where lives are at risk and calm hardest to find.
If you've been reading me, you know my weakness for the three-example rule of old-fashioned journalism. So here are my three cases in point. I will start with the one I was witness to personally, and which I have written about in the past, with Atal Bihari Vajpayee's concurrence.
I had asked to see him in early June, 1999 while fighting in Kargil was still grim. His office gave me 3pm. I arrived in time, was ushered into the 7 RCR waiting room. I waited forever. But I did not complain, conscious that a prime minister always had better claimants on his time than a journalist and now there was a war going on.
I was called in at 4.30 by an aide. Vajpayee was still ambling into the room and as I folded by hands in namaste, he did too and then said, in mock horror, "Arrey dekhiye bhai, anarth ho gaya, Shekharji ko pratiksha karwa di, naaraz ho jaayenge (What an awful thing I have done by making Shekharji wait, he must be upset)."
"No, no, how is that even possible," I said suitably self-effacingly, and asked if all was well, or some new crisis had had him preoccupied in which case, I said, I could always come back another day.
"Nahin ji, kuchh crisis nahin," he said. "Hum aadhe ghante ke liye soye thhey aur soye reh gaye, anarth ho gaya Shekharji (No, no crisis, I slept for half an hour, but just slept on.)"
Now it was my turn to show mock horror. "Kargil mein yudh, aur Atalji do ghanta soye dopahar mein (War is on in Kargil, and Atalji has a two-hour siesta?" I asked. You could take liberties with him.
"Theek kehte hain aap, Shekharji, meri rifle kahan hai, Atalji ab Kargil ki choti par ladne jaayenge, desh mein jawanon ki kami ho gayi hai na (You're right, somebody bring my rifle, Atalji will go fight on Kargil peaks as India is short of soldiers)." He hadn't got his rifle yet, but I was totally disarmed. Then followed a very brief lecture, maybe three sentences - with usual pauses - on how important it is for a leader to keep, and look calm. "Jhanjhawat aapke andar chalta hi hai, usey daba key rakhein (A hurricane does assail you within, but you must learn to keep it there)," he said.
The second example is from recorded recent history. How George Bush Jr carried on calmly with a speaking commitment at a school even as aides broke to him the news of 9/11. He was greatly pilloried then - or in today's terms heavily trolled. But he was playing big leader. People will talk!
The third is a story I hear from a very wise man, former top civil servant and previously L-G of Delhi, Vijai Kapoor. He was in the home ministry during the 1971 war and says Indira Gandhi had decreed that all routine government functions, including meetings of parliamentary committees, should go on as usual while fighting raged. At one of these, which she was attending, a sealed "eyes only" cover was brought for her. She saw it, poker-faced, calmly folded it, put it in her handbag and zipped it.
The note had the grim news that fighting in Chhamb sector wasn't going well, and while reinforcements were being inducted, the front wasn't stable yet. She simply carried on with the rest of the committee meeting as if nothing had happened.
We also saw the other extreme from Rajiv Gandhi during the initial weeks of the Sri Lanka-IPKF crisis. He was in Ops Room a lot, asked his generals persistent questions who, in turn, relayed the stress to field commanders for whom things were not going to plan anyway. It was only later when an overall field commander was sent and empowered that he was able to bring back calm and order. If you want to know more about it, please speak with Lt-Gen AS Kalkat, the IPKF commander I am talking about.
Lesson: Great leaders are calm and comforting, even sometimes nonchalant. They are also trusting of their teams. It is early days for Modi yet, but please do not crucify him on a mere yoga tweet.
Tailpiece: Covering that war in Jaffna in December 1987, I was stopped at dusk by a patrol of the 4/5 Gorkha Rifles, led by a wiry young major who advised me against crossing the lagoon in the dark because of mines and snipers. I told him I had nowhere else to go. He took me to his camp and I enjoyed great field hospitality, conversation and a night's shelter.
The young major's name was Dalbir Singh. He still looks as wiry and super-fit as then. Only his rank has grown, to General, and he is our Chief of Army Staff.