14 August 2020 02:04 AM

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Lt General BHOPINDER SINGH | 10 APRIL, 2020

‘War-time’ Leadership in the Covid 19 Era

Required inclusivity and wisdom


Prime Minister Modi has repeatedly and rightfully stated that the fight against the CoronaVirus is no less than a ‘war’. He invoked the 18 days battle in the epic Mahabharata to posit the dharmayuddha (‘just war’) that can be metaphorically contextualised to justify the inevitable sufferings caused by such a ‘war’ in the 21st century.

Given the syncretic-civilisational-philosophical bent of the nation, galvanising the morale and spirits of the nation by beseeching popular codes of culturalism, has a leadership function. In his speech after ordering the invasion of Iraq, US President George W Bush found a place for the classic American philosopher and theorist, Thomas Paine’s quote, ‘These are the times that try men's souls’.

War-time leadership is essentially distinct from standard peace-time leadership, not lesser or more, just plain different. The Armed Forces understand the distinction of ‘combat-leadership’ that does not naturally accrue to seniority or the winning side – as, despite the Nazi defeat the Panzer Generals like Rommel, Manstien, Guderian etc. are recognised for their combat brilliance, as indeed, the maverick American General George Patton. In the Indian context, Generals Manekshaw, Harbaksh or the unsung Sagat Singh, who is acknowledged as India’s ‘finest combat commander’, are the sort of ‘war-time’ leaders who may or may not have made it to the top job in service.

However, in political leadership ‘winning’ is almost everything, as also, ensuring that the ultimate benefits of the war outweigh the ‘price’ paid by the common citizenry. The complexities, angularities and sensitivities of war-time leadership by the political leaders are of a more asymmetric nature that necessitates the highest level of professional understanding, maturity and statesmanship – that is rarely tested in peacetimes.

The means deployed to win the ‘war’ are also pertinent, as leaders like Joseph Stalin or Mao Zedong may have ended up on the winning side, but their ruthlessness and sheer brutality against their own, made them ignoble examples of ‘war-time’ leadership.

Even the still popular and two-time US President Barack Obama will find himself struggling with his ‘war-time’ record, as it had been less than spectacular with the indecisive, lingering and prohibitively expensive legacy that he passed on to his more, less-than-capable successor, Donald Trump.

So, ‘war-time’ leaders are certainly brewed differently as they require a certain disposition, aura and mannerism that may actually be counter-productive in peacetimes – Winston Churchill and Indra Gandhi are shining examples of indisputable ‘war-time’ leaders who gave their respective nations proverbial ‘finest hours’ in wars, but were soon rejected by the electorate.

Above all, the leaders who pass muster during ‘war-times’ are always assessed for their ability to galvanise the entirety of a nation towards the justness of actions required, irrespective of previous political ‘divides’ and perceptions.

Secondly upholding the cause and concern of all (not just the majority) and accomplishing the end-results, without shifting the goal post becomes imperative.

Third, history always assesses if the leader put the most competent and qualified resources to fight the war, or if the leadership persisted with personally-loyal, politically-non-threatening and underqualified ‘generals’ on the battle ground.

Fourth, maintaining a peripheral vision and concern for the obvious and unobvious sufferers of the ‘war’ and the ability to still win, whilst, getting the least bruised and wounded as a society, is critical.

Last and perhaps the least appreciated test of the leaders is their ability to go beyond their previous or peace-time actions to convince the nation at large of their personal intent (or neeyat in Hindustani) that goes beyond their political instinct, urgency and ambitions – the test of personal character is at its peak, as even those who opposed him/her earlier look up to the leader for reassurances, and only a true statesman survives this test.

Two aspects of Churchill’s leadership puts him in the pantheon of great ‘war-time’ leaders, even if his outlook towards dominions like the Indian sub-continent, was certainly questionable and racist. His first action on becoming the Prime Minister at the outbreak of WW2 was to induct leaders of all parties like Atlee, Sinclair and Chamberlain in to a coalition government (he even took rival Labour leader Atlee with him to the Potsdam Conference). Most importantly, Churchill’s passion towards winning the war was so resolute and committed that he did so, at the cost of his own party’s interest or concerns – not for him, was an eye fixated at electoral prospects, at all times.

Another aspect of ‘war-times’ leaders is their inherent humility and acceptance of the fact that they need to listen to professionals and plan accordingly. Beyond her obvious iron-will, Indira Gandhi showed deference, respect and statecraft when she took the push-back from Field Marshal Sam Manekshaw, who sought time, wares and provision, before making the decisive move. War-time leadership is as much about tenacity, as it is about empowerment, equanimity and instilling confidence, in all.

Some war-time political leaders like Woodrow Wilson may have been on the winning side in WW1, but he goes down in the annals of history as the one who crippled the American economy in the bargain, diminished civil liberties and made gargantuan mistakes that were to sow the seeds of unrest, domestically and internationally.

Others like Lyndon Johnson who typified the cowboy tactics of intending to bludgeon the Vietnamese till they ‘cry uncle’, was misplaced muscularity and bravado, that sometimes afflicts leaderships in democracies.

Whereas, Nelson Mandela presided over a leadership challenge that had all portents of an imminent ‘war’ of revenge – he wisely chose the more difficult, less-politically attractive path, but the one that led to sustainable peace and progress, thereafter. Mandela’s signature ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ is a model leadership move that ended a sure ‘war’ prematurely, in a poignant, dignified and reconciliatory way.

Our ‘war’ against the Covid-19 is both, similar and different, from the previous understandings of ‘war’, but is undoubtedly more than a conventional ‘war’ in terms of potential devastation and ‘price’ for all. This begs a different level of leadership skills, ‘inclusivity’-challenges and the visible showing of the intent (neeyat), then was perhaps required, ever before.

Will we meet those requirements, or will we still play by the previous rules of engagement, only time will tell?

Leaders will have to become statesman – this will require a different touch, language and reach-out, hitherto, unseen or ever-deployed. Indeed invoking cultural codes and symbolism are important and required, but history suggests the accompaniment of far more substantive, profound, inclusive and measurable imperatives that go into the making of great ‘war-time’ leaders.

Lt General Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry.

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