Political Courage Under Fire
Sacrifice is integral to courage under fire
Courage under fire extends beyond the military realm: it can have a civilian and a political manifestation. However, courage in the military is not bluster, chest-thumping or braggadocio; often it comes in the mild-mannered, disciplined and dignified mould of ‘an officer and a gentleman’ or lady.
The legend of Major Shaitan Singh and his band of 120 indefatigable Kumaonis in the 1962 war is not a theatrical opus, but real guts and glory. It was a case of last man standing, to the last round and to the last breath. 114 were martyred and only six survived to tell the tale.
The citation of their leader reads: ‘When Major Shaitan Singh fell disabled by wounds in his arms and abdomen, his men tried to evacuate him but came under heavy machine gunfire. Major Shaitan Singh ordered his men to leave him to his fate in order to save their lives’.
In the civilian context, the moral leadership demonstrated by a Gandhi, a Mandela or even in recent times by a young Jacinda Ardern, is nothing short of courage under fire, albeit in the context of political leadership.
As in the military, it is personal behaviour demonstrated in political office under challenging circumstances that makes heroes and heroines, not vacuous ‘brave’ statements at political rallies.
While fear is a natural reaction to such a situation, bravery is a conscious leadership decision that can often become a personal habit. Politicians who are able to take the more politically difficult path, the less politically gratifying one, showing humility, kindness and concern, morph into inspiring leaders for the world to look up to.
New Zealand PM Ardern, from her deliberate choice of expressions and decisions, much like Mandela chooses not to express the language of retribution, insecurities or vanities.
Human empathy without discrimination is the hallmark of political courage under fire.
A similar contest between decorum and decency, and brag and swagger, is ensuing between US President Donald Trump and Andrew Cuomo the Governor of New York. Trump’s tone has been patently intimidating, taunting and dismissive despite his failures, which have not diminished his political instincts, as he relishes the power of perpetuating ‘divides’ and hatred in a crisis.
By contrast Governor Cuomo’s daily briefings show professional detailing and the clarity of thought and honesty that behoove a leader during a crisis. Governor Cuomo insists repeatedly, ‘The buck stops at my table, I assume full responsibility… County executives did not do this. The village mayor did not do this. The city mayor did not make these decisions. I made these decisions.’
Given the federal structure of the United States, Cuomo could have ranted endlessly at the President, but chooses to lower the political rhetoric and focus on the tragedy of the moment.
Not platitudes, distractions and window-dressing of the proposed relief packages and measures, but a genuine reach-out even to those who may not share the leader’s political opinion or relevance: it was in that collective spirit that Ardern made her ‘unity in grief’ moment after the Christchurch terror attack, seeking to heal the soul of a wounded nation.
Sacrifice is integral to courage under fire, be it personal or political. Those politicians who can never accept a contrary view or rise beyond petty blame games may continue polarising societies and reap the political harvest—but they do incalculable harm to future generations of the sovereign.
The perception that the opposition should refrain from criticising the government is only the traditional ‘rally round the flag’ convenience. Given that only the incumbent Union government can shape a satisfactory, planned and all-inclusive response to mitigate a socioeconomic crisis like Covid-19, it is hard to overstate the importance of an opposition voice on any omissions, chicanery or dissatisfactions with the said relief ‘package’.
Seemingly by its very nature the public gravitates towards the government of the day in a crisis and will shut down any unhelpful criticism from the opposition. Therefore the opposition too is forced to make precise, pointed and meaningful contribution towards forcing a better ‘package’ for the people.
Especially so in democracies where the ruling party has a thumping majority, the risks are high of the government running amok with its own agenda. The opposition voice can be drowned, and the control of supporting institutions done away with—the nation herein runs the grave risk of improperly planned and rushed, or even clearly wrong decisions.
Those rare leaders who show the magnanimity and statesmanship of listening and debating with all those in the Parliament and outside, without jeering or ridiculing their political opponents, are the ones who can show courage under fire.
Angela Merkel is another political leader with a rather unshowy, inclusive, unpartisan and professional approach in crisis, and unsurprisingly Germany has done well to cope.
The legendary general and former US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, who had the rare privilege of donning both military and political hats famously said, ‘If you cannot create harmony—even vicious harmony—on the battlefield based on trust across service lines, across coalition and national lines, and across civilian/military lines, you need to go home, because your leadership is obsolete.’
Sadly, and tellingly for politics, it was James Mattis who was made to go, while the likes of Donald Trump, remain.
Lt General Bhopinder Singh (Retd) is former Lt Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands & Puducherry.