The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, February 2, 2003
Lead Article

For all those who tread softly
M. K. Agarwal

THE word ‘soft’, in common parlance, means a person, a thing, an act, or an organisation, that is gentle, smooth, pleasant or pliant. Several interesting features and aspects come to mind, some of which I wish to share with the readers.

The attribute of gentleness is to be found at its noblest and pristine best in motherhood. There is no picture more dignified, soothing and comforting than that of a mother lying in the bed and softly fondling a baby at her breast; or, singing him a sweet, little lullaby to put him to sleep; or, lovingly and encouragingly, leading him by her hand, as he totters ahead, to find his feet.

Then, who doesn’t know that in the whole universe it is the soft sex, which is the more charming and graceful, more devoted and caring? Woman has the looks, the figure and the charisma to inspire man to perform heroic and chivalrous deeds in the face of severe danger, abject misery, and extreme hardship. Much too often she is at the centre of his ardent dreams, amorous thoughts, and valiant exploits.

Nearer home, we all love soft-hearted people for their gentleness and spirit of indulgence; the soft-spoken for their amiability, and sweet and pleasant words; the soft-headed for their gullibility and feeble-mindedness. We should be particularly grateful for the last-mentioned tribe: but for them, wrote Mark Twain, the rest of us could not succeed. We instinctively shrink from a fellow who is smart in his dealings. But, a stupid servant or a master, who is soft in the head, constitutes no danger to our peace or existence; in their company we feel secure and relaxed. By the same token, most wise girls choose a not too shrewd husband as a life partner.


In our day-to-day life, we come across several other specimens of ‘softness’. Parents, for instance, are known for possessing a soft spot for their children, which makes them blind to their defects. But this weakness becomes banal when the wards of those wielding political and administrative power start committing mischief, for pleasure or gain, in the certain belief that their doting parents will see nothing amiss in their conduct, and will eventually bail them out. To take another example, if one subtly soft-soaps the boss in the office, and the spouse at home, one can really hope to go far in one’s career, and in love. Because, the universal experience is that it is easier to flatter than to praise; and a person is yet to be born who hates flattery, though he may disapprove of the manner in which he has been flattered. In the market place, a successful salesman, in the long run, is not the one who is clever and loud in his claims and who tries to browbeat his customers, but he who soft sells his wares, using gentle persuasion, restrained talk and sincere counsel, as his tools. Like-wise, an effective and popular manager ensures that, while emphasising the achievements of his people, he soft-pedals their mistakes and failures.

Moving to the national level, we discover, to our great regret and shame, that we are a soft state. This means that our respect for law and its enforcement is pathetic, and our love for work and the country, a sham. The fall-out can be seen on various fronts. For example, a reckless driver can over speed on the highway, jump the traffic lights, break every other safety rule, and still get off scot-free. A bank manager can pile up dead assets, an inside trader ruin the stock market, a wily contractor put up substandard bridges, a sharp coloniser gobble up public land, a crafty financier disappear with investors’ money, an unscrupulous examiner short-change the candidates — and none of them being ever the worse for their misdemeanour. In offices, especially those which are public, a person can earn a full day’s wages by doing half day’s work, sit over the files, pass the buck, line his pocket — for, there is neither any punishment for procrastination, nor for indecision, and exercise of discretion for personal benefit is hard to prove.

Even more tragic is the fact that we are so often soft targets for the miscreants. A swashbuckler may nonchalantly hijack a plane; a brigand, kidnap a VIP scion; a hooligan, hold up a train — and then go on, not only to dictate their terms, but also demand of the state to genuflect. And lo and behold, genuflect it does! For, the truth is that we are not looking for solutions but compromises, not for hard decisions but soft options.

So, what final picture, one should like to know, emerges from the above delineation? Is ‘softness’ a virtue or a bane, a merit or a defect? Without making a generalisation, it can justly be said that while softness is likeable in a thing or an act, and acceptable in an individual, it is deadly for an organisation, and even more so for the state. What is sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander! The state, foremost, must be just as well as firm: it must, to use the words of Gladstone, ‘make it easy for the people to do good and difficult to do evil’.