1918. The days immediately before the Russian Revolution. Tsar Nicholas II was ruling the vast Russian empire. The Russian people were in a terrible mood. Their country was at war and they were starving. The army was so ill looked after and abused that many soldiers were fighting barefoot, going hungry much of the time, a fate they shared with the vast majority of their countrymen. People were crying for a change in a world that was changing fast. They knew Russia needed a change and deserved it.
But the man ruling Russia never heard their cries. He had grown up believing monarchy was divinely ordained and it was the duty of the people to submit to it. His family had been ruling the empire for three hundred years and there was no reason to believe they will not continue to do so for generations to come.
One of the essential requirements for a leader is to be in touch with his people. This is true whether the ruler is an autocratic monarch, as in old days, or a contemporary leader today, in politics, industry, business or any other area. It is as essential for a leader to know the needs of his people and their moods as it is for a mother to know why her baby is crying. Sensitive mothers know this instinctively, but a leader is not always sensitive, especially when leadership is inherited rather than achieved, as it was in the case of Nicholas II.
The Tsar was totally out of touch with his people. Whenever he saw them, it was from a distance. He never met them and talked to them on the streets. He never visited their impoverished homes or their shops or bazaars. He had no idea of the terrible working conditions in the factories. The royalty and common people had no contact points. Tsar Nicholas II was not an evil man and if he had been in touch with the needs of his people and their moods, possibilities are his family would not have been exterminated and much of the bloodshed and tragedy caused by the Russian Revolution could have been avoided. But because of the total lack of contact between him and the Russian people, because of the great distance between them, when they eventually collided, the impact was so explosive that it took the entire royal family with it.
Just as the Tsar did not understand his people, his people did not understand him, which again required their mutual contact. Nicholas II had reluctantly assumed power – he had no desire to be Tsar, instead what he wanted was to be an adventurer sailing round the world. He did not exult in the exercise of power, as people misunderstood. He was a suffering man, and much of his indifference to the needs of the people was because of his suffering. His son Alexei suffered from a bleeding disorder, haemophilia, and no medicine, no doctor, could stop the blood flow. This made the Tsar a prisoner to his own unhappiness. Had the people known this was the reason for his isolation and the amount of time he spent in imperial church, they would have had a different attitude towards him.
And then Rasputin entered the picture. The monk with a powerful mystic aura succeeded in what no doctor or medicine that the Russian emperor could command could do. He was successful in stopping Prince Alexei’s bleeding. At one stage, when the bleeding was so bad and the royal family feared Alexei would die, Rasputin saved the child’s life. Alexei’s mother, Tsarina Alexandra, became devoted to the man who had saved her son’s life.
Alexandra’s devotion to Rasputin was seen in a completely different light by the Russian people, again because they were totally out of touch with the royal family and the family too kept Alexei’s disease a secret. What could have been a reason for sympathetic understanding became the cause for the vilest of rumours. The common people were convinced that the Tsarina and the monk were having a sexual affair.
The common men and women were not alone in this misunderstanding. The nobility too shared this belief. For, the royal family had kept them too about the family problem and the role of Rasputin in solving it.
As Rasputin’s influence over the royal family soared, their lack of contact with people and alienation from them became complete. They had now lost contact not only with the common man, but with the aristocracy too.
The Russian people now openly demanded change.
Nicholas II was willing to abdicate – he, in the first place, never wanted to be the Tsar. And he announced to the Russian people and their provisional government that he was abdicating in favour of his younger brother Grand Duke Michael.
But that is not what the people wanted. Again, the Tsar had misjudged because of his isolation from his people. The provincial government announced Michael was unacceptable. Michael remained Tsar only for one day – the next day the provincial government declared the monarchy dead. The Russian Revolution had begun. Soon not only Grand Duke Michael and Tsar Nicholas II, but also the entire royal family including Empress Alexandra and Prince Alexei, would be killed. [According to one tradition, Princess Anastasia and a couple of others would escape the carnage.]
Among the invaluable leadership lessons that Valmiki Ramayana gives us is about the need for a ruler/leader to be in touch with his people. When Dasharatha asks the citizens of Ayodhya why they wanted his son Rama to be crowned as the crown prince, among the numerous reasons he gives is the fact that he was constantly in touch with the common man. The only time he was not in touch with people on the streets on an everyday basis was when he was away at a war. But as soon as he was back, he again began meeting every day the people whose prince he was and enquiring about their welfare.
Samgramat punaragamya kunjarena rathena va
Pauran svajanavat nityam kusalam pariprchhati;
Putreshu agnishu dareshu preshyasishyaganeshu cha
Nikhilena anupurvyachha pita putran iva aurasan.
“After coming back from the war, he used to move among the people on an elephant or by a chariot every day. He would then ask of their welfare as though he were, they were members of his own family. He would enquire about their children, about the sacrificial fires they kept, about their wives, about their servants and disciples. He would enquire about them in detail, as a father enquires of his own sons.”
The Ramayana also speaks of Rama’s constant touch with people whose ruler he was in many other places and ways. It says he used ask the brahmanas about their how well their disciples served them and the kshatriyas how fit and ready his soldiers were. And every time there was a festivity in a common man’s home, he used to feel his joy as a father would his son’s and when a misfortune befell any man, such was his empathy that he felt it as though his own sorrow.
It is interesting to compare an incident from the life of Tsar Nicholas II with this. The Tsar’s wife was Alexandra, granddaughter of Queen Victoria of England. To celebrate a royal wedding, it was a customary to give a banquet to the subjects. Nicholas II too followed the custom and gave a banquet to his subjects. Such was the state of poverty among his people at that time that a huge mass of humanity turned up for the feast. In their hunger and impatience, they all rushed to grab food, and this led to a stampede killed several people. Nicholas failed to express any sorrow at this and continued the festivities, including a ball in his honour that he attended.
Rama was a deenanukampi, says the Ramayana: He felt deep compassion for people who were poor or suffered in any other way. Such was his love for his subjects that every woman in Ayodhya, young and old, every day, when she prayed to the Gods in the mornings and evenings invariably addressed a prayer to them, begging them to make him their crown prince.
We see this care of Rama for ordinary people, whether they are his subject or employees, repeatedly in the Ramayana. When Bharata meets Rama at Chitrakuta and Rama advices him the duties of a ruler, one of the things he reminds Bharata of is about the need to pay soldiers on time – remember the Tsar’s soldiers were fighting his battle for him going hungry and barefoot in the Russian climate.
If the Russian people executed the Tsar and his family, while Rama was leaving for the jungle, a huge section of the population left everything and followed him, insisting that for them Ayodhya was wherever Rama was and if he lived in a jungle, they would live there too. Such was the tenacity of these people, that Rama had eventually escape unnoticed while the people slept in the night, tired of following him the whole day. The whole Ayodhya goes berserk when they hear of their beloved prince leaving for the jungle on an exile. Speaking of this the Ramayana tells us how the entire city fell into a swoon, all their strength deserting them. As he boards his chariot, along with his wife and brother, the whole populace run towards him in despair, forgetting themselves. People wail aloud in the throes of uncontrollable agony. Even animals go crazy with grief, says the poet of Ramayana. Women cried openly, filling the earth with sounds of their sorrow. The dust raised by the chariot immediately settled down, drenched by the tears of the wailing populace. That evening, no prayers were offered to any god by anyone in Ayodhya, no food was cooked in any home, cows refused milk to their calves, and even mother’s who had given birth for the first time felt no joy at the childbirth. The entire earth, says the Ramayana, went into mourning, and even the sun and the moon lost its lustre.
It is not fair to compare a reluctant Russian ruler like Nicholas II with a legend like Rama who made it his life’s mission to establish standards in leadership and values for all times to come and no comparisons are meant. At the same time contrasting them gives us an invaluable lesson in leadership: a leader should constantly be in touch with his people. The closer to them he comes, the more effective hebecomes as a leader, and the more he distances himself from them, the more ineffective he becomes.