Openness and leadership

Surely the government has learned a lesson from how it botched the initial an­nouncement and implementation of the national lockdown? There was simply no reason for it to be announced like demonetisation, as if it were a state secret that could only be put out on television with a few hours’ notice. By allowing time for preparation by individuals, companies and local governments, the many issues with the lockdown could have been avoided — hoarding, the lack of social distancing as people gathered at markets and bus stations, the abandonment of migrant workers miles from home with no other means of support.

Yet it appears that no lessons have been learned. Once again, we are being told that the prime minister will address the nation and tell us about the future of the lockdown, currently scheduled to end on Tuesday. What is going on?

This is an unfortunate by-product of the form of governance and leadership that has served Prime Minister Narendra Modi well politically, but has been less beneficial for the nation as a whole. Rather than decisions being made openly, transparently and through discussion, the impression has to be provided that the prime minister alone will decide, and surprise us with his decision. Yes, he is due to discuss the lockdown with chief ministers. But that is hardly a substitute for a more transparent discussion with doctors, public health experts and administrators as to what the next step should be.

Many of the countries and jurisdictions that have done well during this pandemic are those that have taken their own people into confidence. South Korea and Taiwan, which have been exemplary, have demonstrated their democratic credentials through open decision-making and privileging medical advice. In the end, people are more important to the success of the lockdown than the government. This is particularly visible in Hong Kong, where a deeply unpopular ruling oligarchy has made several missteps, but the care taken by the population in general has led to the pandemic being relatively controlled. When you depend on the people, you need to trust them and to communicate often and openly. Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York has won plaudits for his daily detailed explanation of what is going on in that American state, which is a major hotspot for the disease.

In India, there are daily press conferences from the Union health secretary. Mediapersons have rightly complained that many of them have been excluded, and anyone who has watched the press conference recognises that there is more defensiveness on display than anything else. Some chief ministers have done better than the Union government at communication, and many have been holding daily video conferences or sending out messages. Some of them have been quickly responsive to problems on the ground. The difference with the closed-off Union government could not be starker.

It is too soon to make any predictions about how politics will change after this crisis is gone. For one, we truly do not know how long it will take to properly dissipate — over a year, probably, perhaps two, maybe even more. Many things will be irrevocably changed since then. But it is more than likely that one big change will be on the levels of communication and transparency that people in democratic countries expect from their governments. Transparency will be politically wise.

Nor is it less important for a country’s stature internationally. The People’s Republic of China may have claimed to have conquered the virus that originated within its borders, but the lack of transparency within its system and the widespread lack of trust of its government means that this assertion is not quite believed. Meanwhile, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany began her virus fightback by saying, openly, that it might be the case that 60 to 70 per cent of Germans are eventually affected. By creating a clear sense of the possibility, the German government moved to impose a social distancing in stages, while being quite clear about how it was infringing on important civil liberties. Merkel’s big televised speech — which I urge you to watch on YouTube — is a masterclass in communication, explaining what needs to be done and why, as well as indicating how difficult she personally feels it will be. Germany’s mortality rate has been low, but her most recent statement on the subject indicates this is not a reason to relax, but merely for continued vigilance. People appreciate her openness; her approval rating has soared to 80 per cent.

As 1.3 billion people wait with varying levels of patience for our prime minister to tell us what to do and then vanish again from our television screens without a single question being asked, it is worth noting that this is not how the rest of the world is being led, or what other democracies expect. It is possible one day that we, too, will wake up.

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