Why Congress will not let Rahul Gandhi's Toyota Way work

Rahul Gandhi is a fan of the famed Toyota Way. The Toyota Way is a series of best practices that underlie the managerial approach and the production system of the automobile company Toyota. This management philosophy grew out of the Toyota Production System.

As Aarthi Ramachandran writes in Decoding Rahul Gandhi“According to Dr Jeffrey K Liker, the author of the The Toyota Way, one of the most authoritative books on the subject, its core principle was that 'the right process will produce the right results. It aimed to do this by eliminating 'waste' in the production process to almost nil. It held that 'standardized tasks are the foundation for continuous improvement and employee empowerment.”

Rahul and his team are trying to build a similar sort of system within the Congress which would make standardisation possible. The idea is to build systems and processes which would keep working irrespective of whoever is in charge. Or as Rahul Gandhi put it at a convention of All India Congress Committee(AICC) in November 2007, “If we are to truly develop leaders of whom this nation is proud, we need to do two things. The first is to build an organisation that is open and relevant to the broad range of Indians who believe in our values and seek to serve the nation. The second is to build a meritocratic organisation. Young people bring tremendous passion and energy into our organisation.”

The idea it seems was to move Congress beyond the appointment system, where only sons, daughters, relatives and loyalists of senior leaders could hope to make it through to the upper echelons of the party.  In order to do this Rahul and his team have gradually taken over the administration and the running of the Congress party, over the last five to six years. In the process, they have managed to alienate the old timers of the party. Also, the idea has been to bring some sort of measurement into political leadership.

Sonia Gandhi with Rahul Gandhi. AFP.

Sonia Gandhi with Rahul Gandhi. AFP.

As Rasheed Kidwai writes in 24 Akbar Road, “Team Rahul is also believed to be working on a plan that aims to reward performance and quick response. Ticket aspirants who can produce excel sheets on Aadhar cardholders and cash-transfer beneficiaries in their constituencies are likely to have the edge over those armed merely with recommendations from regional bosses.”

This has led to the old timers in the party getting very uncomfortable with Rahul's laptopwallahs. As The Economic Times reports “A growing worry is Rahul's penchant for picking teams which party veterans term strange. In some circles, Rahul's personal team members such as Kanishka Singh, Sachin Rao, Kaushal Vidyarthi and K Raju are jokingly referred to as "aliens who want to do mass politics through data on laptops, just as those wiz kids who led Rajivji up the garden path.”

But whatever it is that Rahul is trying to do, doesn't seem to be working. The party has lost elections in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi and Chhattisgarh under his leadership. This means that the party has been been wiped out in the big states of North and Central India. In Uttarakhand the party just about managed to form the government, with the help of independents.

There are several reasons why Rahul's Toyota Way isn't really working for the Congress. It is worth remembering that the Congress is a party which thrives on dynasts and their chamchas. As Ramachandra Guha explains this in an essay titled A Short History of Congress Chamchagiri which is a part of his book Patriots and Partisans.“Most Indians are too young to know this, but the truth is that until about 1969 the Congress was more or less a democratic party," writes Guha.

But after that Rahul's grandmother Indira Gandhi took over the party and made it a family run concern. As Guha writes in the essay Verdicts on Nehru which is a part of the same book “Mrs Gandhi converted the Indian National Congress into a family business. She first bought in her son Sanjay, and after his death, his brother Rajiv. In each case, it was made clear that the son would succeed Mrs Gandhi as head of Congress and head of government.”

While Gandhis were the dynasty at the top of the hierarchy, there were several other dynasties that kept the party running in different parts of the country. And this over the decades has led to the Congress party becoming a 'property for dealers'. Bharat Bhushan writing in the Business Standard uses this term quoting an anonymous Congress leader. As he writes “The same Congressman who saw hostile public sentiment reaching cyclonic proportions, lamented, "We are not a party but a property. A party has leaders; a property has only dealers. All the dealers are looking to their own benefit in the Congress. There is no public purpose left.”

Now that is the way the party has evolved and suddenly expecting to start attracting public spirited individuals who care about the people of this country is rather naïve. Over and above this Rahul has made it very clear that he is looking to induct youth into the party. As he has said in the past “our political organisations are designed in such a way that youth cannot enter them...The most important job in Indian politics is to get youth into Indian politics.”

During the last few years, Rahul and his team were working on this by trying to get internal elections held for the Youth Congress all over the country. In the first election which was held in Punjab, with the help of retired election commission officials, Ravneet Singh Bittu, the grandson of the late Beant Singh, a former Chief Minister of Punjab, was elected.

This was a trend that has since been repeated all over the country. Ramachandran gives a series of such examples in her book on Rahul. As she writes “In Haryana, Chiranjeev Rao, son of senior minister Ajay Singh Yadav won the polls. In West Bengal, Mausam Benazir Noor, niece of veteran Congress leader and former Union minister, the late A B A Ghani Khan Chowdhary was the victor. In Uttarkhand, Anand Singh Rawat, son of union minister Harish Rawat won the post. In Himachal Pradesh...Virbhadra Singh's son, Vikramaditya, polled the most votes in a controversial election.” And this story goes on in other states like Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Goa, Jharkhand and Tamil Nadu.

So while Rahul might want to create a structure of internal democracy within the Congress, the senior leaders who are most hurt by this, wont let him do so easily. As Ramachandran writes “The results indicate that senior leaders have used the Youth Congress to extend or defend their turfs. By getting family members into Youth Congress, they attempted to get a foot into the new Congress under Rahul.”

The other big problem with this approach is how does Rahul expect members of the Congress to be serious about internal democracy, when there has been no democracy at the top levels of the party for many decades now. He and his mother, who are the top two functionaries of the party, are a symbol of that. So in that sense its really a chicken and egg problem.

At the same time, there has been a lot of talk Rahul's team using measurement systems to select candidates that will represent them in elections. Whatever they are doing doesn't seem to be working. An excellent comparison here is with the Aam Aadmi Party which used a lot of data analysis in the recently held, Delhi elections. And it did so over a period of around one year since its formation. As Aloknanda Chakraborty writes in the Business Standard “The AAP...is light years ahead of its opponents in the way it has collected, analysed and used massive amounts of data to identify, connect with and mobilise potential voters for the just-concluded Delhi elections.”

Also, it is worth remembering here that the Toyota Way talks about standardised tasks. Rahul Gandhi himself doesn't seem to be following that. He likes to take a hit and run stand on issues that he espouses now and then. (You can read the detailed argument here). In fact this is something that comes out even in Rahul's personal behaviour. As The Times of India reports “he (i.e. Rahul) alternately comes off as aloof and warm to his colleagues.”
Given this, Rahul Gandhi does not come across as a serious politician. To me a appropriate comparison seems to be a corporate scion who wants to be a painter, but is stuck with his or her family business. Ramachandra Guha put it best when he told Firstpost in an interview “He(i.e Rahul) has no original ideas, no heart for sustained and hard work. He should find another profession.”

There are other issues also about the Toyota Way being implemented in the Congress party. As Ramachandran writes “A political party is not a corporate organisation...Election nominations are specifically distributed on a number of factors ranging from right parentage, to money and resources, and clout with influential voter blocks. How would a corporate-style performance management system be able to capture it all?”
Rahul has always maintained that what he is trying to engineer is a long term process. But it is worth remembering that running a business is not always about strategy. It is also a lot about short term tactics, especially in times of trouble. A business which stays glued only to strategy in times of trouble has a huge chance of running itself into the ground. The same stands true for a political party.

Hence, it is time for the Congress party and Rahul Gandhi to cut their losses. As The Times of India reports “Party leaders don’t dispute the need for refashioning the party. Their concern is about the timing, with many holding that the fast approaching elections leave too small a window for the ambitious experiment that Rahul seems to fancy.”

Since Rahul is a fan of the Toyota Way, he should be trying nemawashi, which is a part of the Toyota Way. As Dr Jeffrey Liker points out in The Toyota Way, one of the most authoritative books on the subject “Nemawashi is the process of discussing problems and potential solutions with all those affected, to collect ideas and get agreement on a path forward.”

If Rahul wants the Congress to survive, he should now be talking to the party old-timers, before its too late.

(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek) 

Independence Day