Billionaire Warren Buffet once said that reputation is built through a set of consistent actions and behaviour over decades and it is destroyed within minutes.
In 2012, the reputation of India and its 1.2 billion citizens suffered as they decided to give a go-by to the norm of demonstrating consistency, transparency and honesty of purpose in public communications, especially while addressing sticky issues at hand. The biggest jolt to India’s reputation came through a series of out-of-turn, off-the-cuff remarks by lawmakers, regulators, law enforcers, political leadership, members of the opposition, corporate sector, civil liberties groups as perceived by 1.2 billion Indians, the key stakeholders of world’s biggest democracy.
The year began with media reporting the messy battle by the then army chief, Gen. V.K. Singh, and the defence ministry over his age, opening the floodgates for a series of issues marked by mistrust. General Singh became the first army chief to have dragged the government to the Supreme Court on the personal issue of his date of birth. The court’s view that his approaching it was against the generally accepted behaviour of a serving general ultimately led to his withdrawing the case.
The trust deficit accentuated further as media flashed the army chief’s letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, pointing out that the army’s tanks had run out of ammunition, the air defence was almost obsolete and the artillery was short of critical weapons, leading to speculative stories on who could have leaked the letter, causing grave risk to the country’s security.
This was topped up by a national newspaper reporting how in January, Raisina Hill was spooked with two key army units moving towards Delhi on the day the army chief’s case came up for hearing in the Supreme Court.
While it’s difficult to imagine the impact of the series of events on the morale of the 1.3-million-strong apolitical army, it would be naïve to assume that it didn’t tarnish the country’s reputation.
The highly-decorated army chief continued to unnerve the government, this time with a bribery charge against a former colleague to clear purchase of sub-standard Tatra all-terrain vehicles.
Criticism that the government seems to be increasingly incapable of battling corruption only grew louder as allocations of coal blocks by the government to a series of influential industrial houses came up for the Comptroller and Auditor General’s scrutiny with its accountants putting the presumptive loss at Rs.1.86 lakh crore. A set of financial irregularities by an NGO run by a union minister’s spouse too was a cause of embarrassment for the government.
These incidents cast a shadow of doubt on the propriety of those involved and pointed to the total absence of transparency – a trait so essential to building the reputation of a nation. Unfortunately, the revelations that followed in the media continued to sully India’s image. Efforts by the political leadership to clear the air only helped muddy the waters with a series of insensitive, often sexist, foot-in-the-mouth comments.
Inter-ministerial and inter-departmental differences, instead of being debated during meetings of the cabinet or a group of ministers (GoM), were allowed to boil over as full-scale duels of words and public spats.
The lack of a singular voice in pronouncements by union cabinet ministers and government spokespersons proved time and again that the government’s public communication efforts left much to be desired. There was hardly a department that could lay its claim to zero-defect communications. How else would you explain two newly-appointed ministers being asked to take charge of the same ministry in a Rashtrapati Bhavan communique?
“I was misquoted by the media” became a common excuse to wriggle out of unsavoury situations caused by foot-in-the-mouth statements by politicians – from the naïve to the most experienced. The shoe-hurling media personnel of yesteryears gave way to eminent political leaders seeking to keep out certain media houses.
The prime minister acknowledged the “frustration and anger” over corruption. As the year went by, GDP growth dipped to the lowest in a decade, strengthening the perception that not enough was being done to keep up the pace of economic reforms. The opposition chose to level charges of policy paralysis, with corporate honchos joining in occasionally. India’s reputation suffered even further as Time magazine, in a cover story, called Manmohan Singh an “underachiever”.
As the news of slowing GDP growth unfolded quarter after quarter, foreign investors did not take kindly to the retrospective imposition of taxes on the Vodafone deal inked over a decade ago. The sovereign rating agencies continued to lower the investment ratings assigned to India.
Growing intolerance to its criticism, especially in the social digital media, leading to the government directing service providers that certain online posts be taken off, dimmed the shine that India enjoyed by offering freedom of expression to its ordinary citizens.
The utterances of political leaders – including gaffes from Narendra Modi, Mamata Banerjee and Shri Prakash Jaiswal – on women’s issues brought out the insensitivity in full measure. Each of these utterances and the communications crisis they created would compete for an award for worst communications anywhere in the world.
The events following a brutal attack on a young woman on December 16 night point to how we have failed make women feel safe even after 65 years of independence.
It’s unfortunate that we have to end 2012 on such a sad note that where the justified public outrage on the inadequate safety of women itself has given birth to crisis of a magnitude that despite all reactive efforts refuses to ebb.
It’s time India turned the tragic demise of the young physiotherapy student into a sensitivity with adequate safeguards where every mother, sister and daughter can feel safe, like nowhere else. And women get the equality, respect and safety they deserve as a human being. The message is clear that “chalta hai (everything goes”) is no longer “theek hai (Ok)”.
By Sanjiv Kataria