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The spectacle of the king and the cheetahs

Why should a cheetah make me think of King Charles of Britain?

And why should the two of them make me think of the collapse of Manmohan Singh and his government? It’s a little complicated (if not farfetched) so bear with me while I explain.


If you have been watching news television then you will know that for several days, the big news story was the scheme to re-introduce cheetahs to India. There was a time when cheetahs roamed the Indian wild. But for several decades, they have been extinct. There has long been talk of getting cheetahs from Africa to India so that they can repopulate the wild. During the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, Jairam Ramesh, who was the minister in charge of environment and forest, evolved the outlines of such a scheme.


   But if you get all your news from TV channels, you might be forgiven for thinking that one morning, Prime Minister Narendra Modi woke up and decided that it would be a good idea to put the cheetah back in our jungle. So, he arranged to import some from Africa.


   For days on end, the news was full of the arrival of the cheetahs and when their release into the wild coincided with the prime minister’s birthday, the news channels went berserk as did social media. Clearly, this was the most important event in India, one that demanded saturation coverage.


   You could take the line that the fuss about the cheetahs reflected our warped priorities. You could argue, as many high-minded people do, that it shows us how the prime minister gets everything wrong. At a time when inflation and unemployment are rising, surely he should have more important things to do? What is this: Governance or spectacle?


   But if you did adopt these lofty positions, you were wrong. As far as Mr Modi is concerned, the journey of the cheetahs is crucial to his popularity as prime minister. It is because of his ability to turn each event into a national celebration that he remains the most popular politician in today’s India. He knows how to capture the public imagination and he knows how to connect with voters.


   While Indian TV was lauding the prime minister as the champion of the cheetah, British television had a different focus.  Queen Elizabeth had died and the UK was in mourning. For much of the second half of the Queen’s reign, questions had been asked about Prince Charles’s suitability as the heir. Could he really reach out to the people? Or was he just an opinionated crank who talked to rose bushes and got agitated about modern architecture? And what about Camilla, the woman he chose to marry after the death of the popular Princess Diana? In the aftermath of Diana's death, Camilla had emerged as one of the most hated women in England. Admittedly, this was some time ago but would the UK be ready to accept her as Queen Consort?


   "It sounds silly and trivial to compare the death of a beloved monarch to a stunt involving spotted animals. But there are parallels."

   As it turned out, the doubts were quickly forgotten and Camilla’s new position attracted no protests. In the days following the Queen’s death, I watched how Charles behaved. He made an excellent address to the nation and then travelled throughout the United Kingdom, attending services in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Everywhere he went, he met local notables and chatted with them. Wherever there was a crowd, he broke with protocol to go and shake hands with the assembled multitudes. Camilla made a similar effort.


   Charles is not a young man. He is 73. So I wondered how exhausting it must have been for him to always be on the move, to let no hand go unshaken, to make every stranger he met feel special, to attend memorial service after memorial service and to keep marching behind his mother’s coffin. Often he looked emotionally drained — his mother had just died — but never once did he pause or stop to take a rest.


   Apparently, the routine for how the new sovereign would behave had been planned years ago by smart people who recognised that for the King to connect with his subjects he had to reach out to them, all over the UK. If the public saw that he was making an effort to get through to them, they would reciprocate in kind. And the spectacles, the parades, the vigils around the coffin and finally, the funeral would help the Kingdom get used to the idea of a new King.


   It sounds silly and trivial to compare the death of a beloved monarch to a stunt involving spotted animals. But there are parallels. Both Narendra Modi and King Charles recognised the importance of spectacle, and they both respected the need to reach out to ordinary people at a level that went beyond party politics. It smoothed Charles’s accession. And it has kept Mr Modi’s popularity high.


   And then I thought back to the last years of the UPA. People often make much of the fact that Manmohan Singh gave press conferences and Mr Modi does not. But even if one accepts that Dr Singh was more willing to engage on political issues, we cannot deny how completely he failed to connect with his people. Nothing he did during UPA II caught the public imagination and nor did he even understand why this was necessary.


   In Dr Singh’s mind, it was enough for him to concentrate on matters of state. He did not like being accessible to the people and so he largely shut himself away. He got away with it in UPA I but in UPA II when things began to go wrong, he hid when he should have talked. Sonia Gandhi was never a particularly extroverted politician and for much of UPA II she was not in good health. So it was up to Dr Singh to reach out to the nation.


   Would history have been very different if he had ventured out of Race Course Road, travelled across India and met people? If he had connected with citizens by thinking up grand non-political projects that captured the public imagination?


   It is hard to be sure. But I think it would have. Any leader — whether a prime minister or a king — needs to make people connect with him or her on a level that goes beyond bread-and-butter political issues. Of course it makes no difference to India in the long run that cheetahs have been flown in. And of course, you cannot judge how good a monarch Charles will be by the way he reached out to people in the first week of his reign.


   But never underestimate the importance of the grand gesture or the warm personal touch. People are not machines, they need to feel wanted and to be excited at the level of the imagination. Fail to do that and no matter how brilliant you are, you risk ending up like Manmohan Singh, a good man but a failed leader.




  • Dr. Mohammad Aleem 24 Sep 2022

    Very nice.

Posted On: 24 Sep 2022 11:25 PM
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