The King Can Do No Wrong

The myth of the Great Leader with incompetent followers

A recent article in Business Standard newspaper by noted journalist Shekhar Gupta tried to analyse why Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s big ideas do not lead to any real economic reforms. Mr Gupta arrives at the conclusion that the Modi government lacks the kind of truly good bureaucrats that some of his predecessors such as PV Narasimha Rao, Atal Behari Vajpayee or Dr Manmohan Singh had. The current generation of bureaucrats, Mr Gupta says, is simply not of the calibre of their predecessors who helped their political bosses pilot major reforms.

Though excellently written, this is not a new theory. Other noted political columnists have often trotted analyses on similar lines. Tavleen Singh, for example, has often blamed a weak cabinet and stonewalling bureaucrats for misleading Mr Modi. Others have also echoed those thoughts.

This is a nice theory. It is also completely erroneous as anyone who has any basic understanding of leadership will tell you. Leaders come in a great many shapes and sizes and characteristics. What all good and great leaders have in common is one thing – the ability to articulate their vision and motivate a team to execute it flawlessly. They also choose exactly the right people for the right jobs. There is no great leader who has blamed a bad team for his failure to achieve his goals or big ideas.

There is actually very little in common between great leaders except for their ability to achieve their goals again and again, in good times and bad, and often in the face of great odds. They elevate their organisations and find the right teams to execute the right tasks. I will just take a couple of examples, from the corporate world and also from politics to illustrate my point.

The late Steve Jobs was as unlike Satya Nadella as any two persons can could be. Jobs was a perfectionist who could drive people mad, a devotee of great design and a person who could dream up great products that consumers themselves didn’t think they needed until Apple introduced them. He was also, by most accounts, not a great human being. He was tough on his subordinates, often irrational in his demands, and could break them emotionally. But he built an organisation that churned out one great product after another, and chose a team of superstars who could execute his vision down to the tiny detail – from Jony Ive in design to Tim Cook, the super executor who could turn prototypes into perfect product lines.

Satya Nadella is quiet and  swears by empathy and teamwork. He turned Microsoft around from the stagnation of the Steve Ballmer days and has churned out one hit product after another while building a fantastic team and also a very pleasant workplace. He has never claimed to be a creative genius like Jobs though he is very clear about the direction he wants Microsoft to go. And he is one of the most successful technology leaders of this generation.

Let us turn now to politics, and home. Most economic observers agree that some real reforms were initiated and piloted by the governments led by the late P V Narasimha Rao and the late A B Vajpayee. These men were vastly different from each other and they followed very different political ideologies as well. Both faced considerable headwinds – Rao had to deal with an economic crisis, a fractious coalition and even opposition within his own party. Despite that, he managed to pick and build a cohesive team that delivered the kind of economic reforms that his successors would build upon.

A B Vajpayee also led a coalition but probably a more benign one than Rao. He also faced some stiff opposition from people within his own party and from the RSS, the ideological mentor of BJP, who thought he had turned too liberal. (He had not, in my opinion). But he put together a team of efficient ministers and bureaucrats who adroitly manoeuvred disinvestment, tax reforms, infrastructure development and foreign policy despite enough grumbling at home.

Neither man ever blamed anyone else – or expected their supporters to blame external conditions – for any failure to achieve any of their goals.

On the other hand, consider Mr Modi and his inability to execute economic reforms, as Mr Gupta posits. Mr Modi has won a huge mandate – not once, but twice. He works with handpicked officials, some of whom have worked with him for long during his stint as chief minister of Gujarat. His cabinet is also handpicked. He has not kept many stalwarts from the Vajpayee cabinet – people such as Yashwant Sinha, Major General B C Khanduri or Arun Shourie, who all had proven administrative ability — preferring to pick an all new cabinet personally loyal to him.

Mr Modi relied on the late Arun Jaitley, the late Manohar Parrikar, and relies on Piyush Goyal and Nitin Gadkari. All of them have a reputation for efficiency and brains. Mr Modi also picked Suresh Prabhu, another person with a track record of being a good administrator, though he was later dropped from the cabinet. Mr Modi also had enlisted the support of many retired bureaucrats from time to time – from N K Singh to Nripendra Misra.

Despite that, his economic reforms have been singular failures. Demonetisation was a terrible idea and it was executed even worse. GST could have been a great tax reform but ended up destroying small and medium industries because of its many flaws. Despite the big noise made about Make in India, it was essentially the National Manufacturing Policy of 2011 under a new name and bigger publicity budget.

PM Garib Kalyan and the power sector reforms were bad copies of ideas already tried earlier. MNREGA is an old scheme that Mr Modi had once rubbished but has fallen back on currently to provide relief to the poor. His one genuine reform has been the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC) but that is also now going down because of constant tweaking of regulations.

On the other hand, no one can fault Mr Modi for failing to achieve his political goals. He wanted Article 370 gone and he figured out a way. He wanted a BJP government in every state and he has pretty well succeeded in that, even in states where his party did not manage to get enough votes. Despite not having a galaxy of eminent lawyers that the Indian National Congress boasts of, his team of legal eagles convinced the Supreme Court to allow Ram Temple to be built. He wanted to get rid of Triple Talaq and he succeeded. He got the Citizenship Amendment Act passed by Parliament despite protests. When he has wanted anything politically, he has generally succeeded – with a little help of Mr Amit Shah, the Home Minister and his closest confidante.

So what can one deduce from his successes in the political goals and his failures on the economic reforms? I can only propose two theories. One, that Mr Modi is really not interested in economic reforms. Two, he may be interested but he doesn’t trust economic ideas from professionals that do not gel with his own ideas.

Either way, his political successes and economic failures have led to a small army of columnists to find out who can be blamed to absolve Mr Modi of any personal responsibility on that count.


Prosenjit Datta

Prosenjit Datta is former editor of Businessworld and Business Today magazines

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