New Delhi: Usually, political leaders are very alive to changing trends of public opinion. Public opinion forms the basis of their careers. If they cannot detect the changes to them that are potentially harmful, adverse public opinion will eventually consume them.

You would think that something so obvious couldn’t possibly escape the understanding and calculation of such highly intelligent creatures as politicians. But it often does, and with disastrous results. Margaret Thatcher did a stupid thing like stopping free milk for school-going children. Britain couldn’t hate her enough for it. It wasn’t as though free milk was blowing a hole in the exchequer as gapingly large as the one that sunk the Titanic. Thatcher simply lost her connect with the people having too often successfully ridden roughshod over colleagues and the opposition.

It happened to Indira Gandhi, too, and she paid for it with her life. It was said in the days when Indira Gandhi was at the zenith of her power that she was totally cut off from the world and that she solely trusted the information and intelligence brought to her by a handful of courtiers. Those were the days without internet, social media, private news channels, and a mass print media. Mrs Gandhi became convinced that the press was against her and resolutely refused to have anything to do with it. Seeing her self-isolation, her courtiers exploited her. They told her things that she wanted to hear.

This state of affairs could hardly continue without producing a crisis sooner or later. It did. The Emergency was an outcome of Indira Gandhi’s deep-seated persecution complex and paranoia. She thought the whole world was against her. It was madness that made her lock up the Opposition, institute press censorship, pursue forced sterilization, and invent foreign conspiracies that were allegedly destabilizing her regime. She lifted the Emergency, lost power, regained it, and then, in a second fit of madness, created conditions that made Operation Bluestar tragically inevitable. Her anger at the Akalis for opposing the Emergency provoked the most dangerous exploitation of religion for politics which led to the military assault on the holiest shrine for Sikhs and culminated with her own murder by her personal security guards.

As much as the pre-Emergency Indira Gandhi was an outstanding nationalist, her life and times generally still suggest an overpowering authoritarianism which her successors in office should recognize and shun in themselves. The first rule for a statesman in a democracy is that they must guard against isolation and never restrict access to a chosen few. Interest groups build up and the statesman is led to believe over time that all is well when they are not. Certainly a Prime Minister cannot keep an open house. But it makes sense to rotate information carriers and courtiers and judge their integrity over a period of time.

It is also wise to not depend entirely on the bureaucracy to deliver political goods, because they sometimes won’t and often cannot. The permanent bureaucracy is loyal to nobody except itself and will do everything to perpetuate its grip on the administration. To make far-reaching public announcements based on official inputs without political double-checks is foolish to say the least and politically damaging. It is a good thumb rule to be modest in public pronouncements, to keep competitive politics out of them, and to structure the whole in a way that the opposition gets no purchase to criticize. Politicians of the Hindi belt are geniuses in this method of communication. You could rarely fault Atal Behari Vajpayee in his speeches. He was never aggressive, there was something in it for everyone, and he changed the way people thought with his gentle words.

Another way to prevent becoming a prisoner of the system is to remain in perpetual proximity to the people. The public should not be categorized on the basis of societal and religious divisions or even visualized as voters. They must, one and all, be considered as citizens with equal rights who deserve and merit equal treatment from the government. Nothing beats personal interaction with people. Radio, television, mobile apps, etc, are important means of communication but highly impersonal. The people do not get a real feel of their leader, the leader they have elected. Nor are mass rallies the answer, where the leader is miles away on a stage and giving thunderous speeches. Those are purpose-built for political campaigns, though their effectiveness even there is doubtful. People like to have their leader at handshaking distance; not always, which is not possible, but as often as work schedules and security needs permit.

Once they are elected, political leaders often grow distant. This distance is not always their fault but it severs them from the people nevertheless. It produces two contrary results. Leaders either try to break free of their shackles and merge with the crowds at every opportunity causing a nightmarish situation for their security detail. Or they withdraw into a cocoon, willingly surrendering to the natural privacies offered by office. Both extremes are to be avoided. The correct balance is to keep public engagements alive and active and in non-election mode, and to make the government compassionate in both deed and appearance in the course of these engagements. Mothers, for example, need to be feted for their sacrifices in raising families; mothers are the conscience of a nation. The last thing the nation will accept is to have the police hound them.

Finally, the statesman needs to reacquaint himself, as often as his office permits, with the innocence of children. By denying milk to schoolchildren, Margaret Thatcher failed to realize that she was pricking the national conscience. Little children accept you for what you are. They are not impressed with your importance, your fancy clothes, your power, and all the other silly things that engage and excite grownups. In being with them, you forget yourself for a while. You lose your vanity, your hubris; you laugh; you regain your real, untainted self. You drop your pretences. You become truthful and you learn once again to be kind and compassionate. The nursery is a great place for political learning and rejuvenation. It is a welcome change from isolation and crooked courtiers.

And it doesn’t breed authoritarianism.

When in doubt, head to a school.