Modi@One: The big change is India has a leader - and a vision we can buy into

Contrary to all the literature which claims Modi is a micro-manager, Year One of his Prime Ministership shows him not as just a manager or micro-manager, but a real leader. He has given India a different vision for the future, and many are buying it

Rajeev Srinivasan May 26, 2015 14:31:08 IST
Modi@One: The big change is India has a leader - and a vision we can buy into

Many pundits have pontificated over Modi@one, and a few threads are clear:

- There is grudging admiration even among foes that there is a positivism in the air, absent through much of the lost decade of UPA misgovernance.

- There is impatience at the slow pace of reforms, which suggests that the agenda of development has become conventional wisdom except among the hard Left.

- The external profile of the nation has improved; foreign policy is a surprise success, despite carping by some.

- The entrenched vested interests have been emboldened by what appears to be tolerance by Modi: so the news-trader media and babu-dom and erstwhile looters are feeling their oats.

- The BJP has now become the central pole of Indian politics, as all its rivals are driven into desperate coalitions with a single-point agenda: get the BJP.

- Committed conservatives are annoyed that their nationalistic agenda have not been taken forward; appeasement policies continue.

- Even the hard Left is embarrassed by the Congress’s meltdown and Rahul-mania; and they are hoping to repeat the Delhi magic of #ak67 by ganging up on the BJP.

ModiOne The big change is India has a leader  and a vision we can buy into

PM Narendra Modi .Reuters

There is much that is a repeat of NDA-1, even to the extent of suffering the unremittingly hostile media. Even though the Modi administration has kept mainstream media (MSM) villains at arm's length, their consistent barrage of criticism has troubled the government, although it should just ignore them. Interestingly, some foreigners have started giving grudging praise. First, The Economist: their in-depth story, while sounding in places as though it were ghost-written by a fellow in the MSM that I can identify by name, was forced to admit that they had been wrong in supporting Rahul. The Wall Street Journal provided a handy comparison chart that showed UPA-2 in a bad light. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Times of India poll gave Modi a 77.5 percent rating.

All of the criticisms and encomia have an element of truth to them; but they underestimate the larger impact that Modi has had, the potential game changing difference he has made. That boils down to a simple Organizational Behaviour perspective on the difference between a leader and a manager.

Much of what we hear about Modi is related to his prowess as a manager. He is able to whip things into shape; he has a list of action items with deadlines that he reviews regularly; he does not put up with malingerers and clock-watchers. All of this is good, and it is as it should be: a manager has the responsibility of telling others what he expects from them, and then monitoring for performance.

That much is Management 101. In fact that is what a good manager does – he/she tells people what they are expected to do (the “What”) but doesn’t tell them the “How” of doing it. A micro-manager, or a bad manager, will tell the team exactly “How” to do something, thereby de-motivating them. They see the project as owned by the manager, and they feel no responsibility. Besides, any creativity and insight they have is extinguished, and they just go through the motions.

Unfortunately, the standard model of the manager in India seems to be that of the Big Man, who, capriciously and whimsically, tells people random things on “What” to do, as well as often “How” they should do it. The Big Man is supposed to know better; woe be to you if you, a mere underling, came up with an idea that contradicted, however obliquely, the Big Man’s views (I include the Big Woman too, but for ease of use will use the male noun).

This pattern was established by Jawaharlal Nehru, partly because he was a megalomaniac (he thought he was Emperor Ashoka reincarnated to bring about World Peace), and partly because he admired Soviet-style Stalinism so much. So that became the paradigm for every institution in India. Do you wonder why Indian universities are awful at research? Why have Indian R&D labs produced not one, I repeat, NOT ONE, world-class result since 1947? This, when there were people like CV Raman and Srinivasa Ramanujan, SN Bose and JC Bose even under the imperialist yoke.

In essence, Indians have laboured under terrible managers since 1947. Some of them, I have to admit, saw through the charade; but it benefited them personally to keep half a billion people in penury, so they didn’t point out “the Emperor’s new clothes”, and went with the programme. And this is why, when East Asia rocketed ahead, India remained mired in poverty: a simple failure of management.

But there is one more question: it is not only “What” and “How” that matter, but it is important to know the “Why” as well. Why are we doing the things we are doing? Why not something else? Is there any end point for all this slogging?

The “Why” question is Leadership 101. A leader tells people why they should do certain things, broadly. A manager tells people specifically what they are supposed to do. A micro-manager, or a bad manager, tells people how to do the things they are told to do.

During the Independence struggle, despite Gandhi’s various failings, he was able to articulate a clear “Why”: that is, you have to sacrifice everything for freedom. And the people responded: he was able to turn a defeated and docile people into those who stood up for what they believed in. But that was the end of it: Nehru was no leader at all, in hindsight. He had no “Why” that he could articulate. He had no idea of strategic intent.

In all the years of the Non-Aligned Movement, all the way up to 2014, if you asked people what India’s goal was (and I have asked generations of students) they had no coherent answer. The more thoughtful of them would say that it would be one of the top five countries in the world in GDP, which, I told them, India would be, by sheer inertia of population. Not one of them thought that India should aspire, audaciously, to becoming Number 1, overtaking China and the US.

They all accepted the axiom, “It is important to participate, not only to win”. This utter inanity is mouthed by all Indians, and only by Indians. People of other nations are in it to win, for example at the Olympics. Indians go there to hang around as part of the scenery. This is the direct result of an absence of leadership.

With Modi, and earlier with his role model Lee Kuan Yew (I was perhaps the first columnist to point out the similarities between them a couple of years ago) there is a tangible strategic intent. LKY was clear: he was going to make his country prosperous, and all his people knew it, and so they cooperated, and they made it happen.

Similarly, the sea change with Modi has been that he has given people a vision of their country as one with boundless possibilities. The “Why” question: because India will once again be a great nation, a major power in the world, one of the top three, and hopefully Number 1, in their lifetimes. That strategic intent is something that people can understand, empathise with, and work towards. If you now ask young people what India’s goal is, you get a different, can-do, more self-confident answer. They are not content with being also-rans. Number 1 is something we can all relate to; it is meaningful.

The biggest job of a leader is to inspire his followers. Modi can do that. In other words, for a change, India has a leader. That is the single ingredient that makes all the difference, and it has been the single missing ingredient – India has all the others.

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