Dear minister, Words Heal or Harm

Banshan Ferdy Lyngdoh – write to ferdy@gmail.com

Many moons ago, of the few channels of communication, newspapers and the radio were the most popular. During the Second World War, Europeans would huddle around radios to listen to their leaders’ speeches. Among them was Sir Winston Churchill, who despite having only bad news to convey through the radio, instilled determination and hope among his listeners. Churchill remains a relevant example of communicative leadership, and among many of his famous adages, the most relevant to this piece is: “The difference between mere management and leadership is communication.” His effective communication skills augmented support from the general public, which was crucial to endure insurmountable difficulties and to ultimately win the war.

Today, we find ourselves overwhelmed with a plethora of sophisticated devices and numerous digital platforms that have enabled netizens to comment and debate on social media platforms in a language that’s usually clean and chatty, and often downright vulgar. And the most ridiculed is of course the political class. The lampoonery that our politicians currently face from the netizens is truly unprecedented.

It has become essential, therefore, for the political dispensation to exercise prudence and be effective communicators. Goofy gaffes are mercilessly trolled for days together. It is perhaps this fear of ridicule on social media that most of our MDA ministers shy away for tête-à-têtes. Therefore, one commends Bah Prestone Tynsong, the Dy. Chief Minister, who despite being the most lampooned, showed immense grit by turning up regularly to address the media. Despite the taunts, the so-called ‘Chief Minister of the Khasi Hills’ would beam from ear-to-ear while pronouncing government decisions. Lately, however, his remarks have exhibited his own mediocrity. Unbecoming of statesmanship, his words have not been taken kindly. And as things stand, the Chief Minister has visibly told his deputy to cool his heels. Bah Prestone now is nowhere seen at press briefings.

Earlier this year, during the strike over the perennial increase in fuel prices called by Meghalaya Joint Action Committee of Commercial Vehicles (MJACCV), we witnessed a stiff stand-off between the government–shielded by Bah Prestone–and the leaders of the taxi association. The Dy. CM confronted, “If the joint committee is adamant to continue with their indefinite strike and refuses to cooperate with the government, then we will have to explore the option of issuing additional permits for resuming of the taxi services.” He exhibited this callousness on February 12 after a measly rebate of Rs. 2/- was not accepted by the agitators. However, on February 17, the suave Conrad Sangma ran away with the adulation when he himself announced a generous discount of Rs 7. Popular opinion is shaped by optics, and the 7-rupee rebate was a chance for Bah Prestone to mend some bridges with the offended drivers, but that chance was snatched away, perhaps inadvertently.

But more recently, Bah Prestone can only blame himself for the bloopers that are now meme fests on social media. At a time when people are struggling to put food on the table, it is unwise to advise, “Instead of meat, have vegetables.” Perhaps he didn’t mean it literally, but it’s best to avoid subjective analogies during a crisis. People are desperate for food, and unsolicited ‘food-for-thought’ stoke more anger.

This blooper led to a squabble with Kong Angela Rngad of Thma U Rangli-Juki (TUR). TUR called for Bah Prestone’s head over the insensitive remark, and for ‘lying about income support’ announced in the year 2020. Allegedly, ‘less than 25% of the supposed beneficiaries got the Rs. 2,100 and Rs. 5,000 booked against their names.’ Now, any leader with better political acumen would have quashed such allegations tactfully, but Bah Prestone yet again had his foot in his mouth. ‘Go and study law,’ an irritated Bah Prestone suggested to Kong Angela, a lawyer by profession. The wise often draw their wisdom from literature, so our Dy. CM should turn to writers such as William Congreve for advice such as, ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.’ Reading, dear minister(s), is indispensable to improving communication skills.

It’s apparent that the Dy. CM has been side-lined, considering his conspicuous absence in post-cabinet-meeting briefings, and also in the recent cabinet meet to resolve the MeECL impasse. Since 2018, he has shouldered the burden of dealing with contentious issues. For instance, following the unrest between the local pressure groups and the residents of the Sweepers’ Colony (Them Metor), he was made Chairman of the High-Level Committee (HLC) to propose solutions to the recurrent problem. But, to date, the HLC has not submitted its report and is perhaps unlikely to come up with any viable solution.

People reckon that the CM endearingly calls Bah Prestone ‘Awang’ which in the Garo means a ‘younger paternal uncle’. While his ‘Awang’ is palpably in the eye of every storm, his senior party member and Chief Adviser, Thomas Sangma, is busy in law courts to resolve a ‘personal matter’. At a time when elderly advice will augur well, the CM has to rely upon his own wisdom to calm the storm that’s brewing among those whose livelihoods continue to be battered. To be fair to our CM, it’s been a rough three years owing to communal discords, protests, and now this pandemic. But we have also sniffed scams, and those dark mines continue to swallow-alive coal diggers. It is relentless pressure, but the restless mob too is awaiting solutions on the way forward.

As for Bah Prestone, he will have to find a way to mend bridges with the public. As things stand, he might return as an MLA in the next term, but it will require a herculean effort to convince the general public to endorse his leadership. Dear minister, your smile is infectious, but words are supreme–ka ktien kaba tam. And if flowery words as a Churchill’s are hard to come by, there’s no harm eliciting tears for the camera as Narendra Modi does.

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