How should the 'powers' above deal with unrest from below?
Can we draw some lessons from these protests and learn how to embrace the protest and manage them too?
Get past your old fashioned reactive measures to douse protests. Times have changed. You must communicate, but more importantly, you must listen.
India is no stranger to protests and peaceful ones at that from the 1920’s non-cooperation movement, to the more recent trend of taking to the streets for candlelight vigils over issues like the Jessica Lal murder case in 2006, or Anna Hazare’s Lokpal agitation or the more recent peaceful protests demanding justice for ‘Nirbhaya’ who was brutally gang-raped and murdered. However, what has perhaps not changed is the treatment meted out to these peaceful protesters from those in the corridors of power. Consider this: when people in New Delhi gathered for peaceful protests seeking justice for the victim of the gang-rape and punishment for the accused, the police fired tear gas shells and water cannons to disperse the crowd and beat them with batons. Sensing the rage against these measures, the government went on to impose Section 144 to prohibit protests and demonstrations in the area around India Gate and on Raisina Hill and Vijay Chowk. Then, the government shut down the metro stations that fed these areas to dissuade and prevent protestors from congregating in contravention of the orders. While the government may have thought of these measures as quick fix solutions, its responses were unprovoked and exposed it as divorced from ground realities. Has the government totally misread the protests being led by vocal, urban, educated and potential middle class who use social media and are not willing to tolerate the unaccountable, unresponsive political class and bureaucratic elite? Given the media attention that these protests have been able to garner, does it not make sense for the political class (read the government/bureaucracy) to pay heed?
From the initial response, it seemed that the powers that be were only interested in dousing the protests. Perhaps the thought was that public memory is short and the government’s response to the peaceful protests would be quickly forgotten. In an interview to CNN IBN, the Home Minister said, “You cannot have instant solutions.” While the political class failed to seize the moment and act with immediacy, statements such as this are reflective of the mismatch between the young and restless generation and a government that is yet to adjust to the changing realities of this generation. Had it not been for such old fashioned thought processes, genuine voices of protest would have been heard with empathy and not tear gas, water cannons and lathi-charge. While stating these actions to be ‘politically stupid,’ Jayati Ghosh, Professor, JNU said during a protest, “The problem is that the government is not even listening.” All thanks to their thought process, the government missed the opportunity of defusing the anger by embracing the protests and providing comfort and reassurance. By the time the government started to get its act together, it was too late.
Corporate India too has witnessed its share of unrest and a few ugly ones at that. Can we draw some lessons from these protests and learn how to embrace the protest and manage them too? Perhaps, yes. Communication (a dialogue, to be more apt) must go beyond what Rajdeep Sardesai in his column terms ‘traditional lakshman rekhas.’ Essentially this means that when faced with such a situation those at the helm of affairs must step out, summon up the courage and enthusiasm and rediscover the human touch. It is only then that the anger can be channelized to bring about change in the policies and practices.
Unlike the lackadaisical attitude and approach taken by the government, the learning for organizations when confronted with protests would be to take them seriously, even if they are small or seemingly disorganized. An apathetic treatment could result in a seemingly small protest gaining steam and eventually morphing into a crisis. Engage with the protestors, get to the heart of the matter, identify the messages that the protesting groups want to air and address the issues publicly. Taking a cue from the on-going protest and how a few of our elected representatives held forth on the subject; organizations would do well to maintain a consistent undertone of respect, restraint and control, particularly with media communications. And yes, the message that needs to be sent out should be simple, direct and above all, honest. The writing on the wall is that by being responsive from the onset, these issues potentially can be contained and, hopefully, successfully concluded.