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Rahul vs Modi leadership: with them or against them
Varghese K George
January 21, 2014
First Published: 00:09 IST(21/1/2014)
Last Updated: 02:47 IST(21/1/2014)

Whether or not Rahul Gandhi is formally called the prime ministerial candidate, it is clear that the 2014 Lok Sabha elections will be a faceoff between him and Narendra Modi, the PM candidate of the BJP.


Going by their style and substance over the last decade or so, one can distinguish between the leadership styles of these two. They are both reviled and ridiculed by one set while admired and adored by another. What is fascinating is how two great leaders who passed away within eight months of each other in 2013, Margaret Thatcher and Nelson Mandela — may have influenced Modi and Gandhi respectively.

The conflict between the leadership styles of Thatcher and Mandela in many ways captures the essence of the debate over development, governance, justice and public welfare at the beginning of the current century. Their political careers were overlapping but their world views were antagonistic. Thatcher supported the apartheid regime in South Africa and considered Mandela, who led the resistance, a terrorist. Both were successful; both will be remembered for decades for they changed the story of human progress. In life and in death, while Thatcher remained a divisive figure, Mandela was a unifying one.

Thatcher, and her ideological partner across the Atlantic, Ronald Reagan are considered to be the guardian angels of capitalism as we know today, ie, neoliberalism. Thatcher had a deep loathing for consensus politics, which she derided as “the process of abandoning of all beliefs, principles, values and policies.” Born a grocer’s daughter, she challenged and disrupted the elite bearings of British politics. Though from the lower strata of the class hierarchy, she too, like Modi, did not have any particular empathy for the underdog. Her revulsion for communism was comparable to Modi’s for secularism and welfare — the first, he said was a veil to hide corruption and incompetence. Both views reject government regulation; are not sympathetic to trade unions and activism. Leadership is all about the leader and his or her ability to get the rest to fall in line. Those who do not fall in line, fall by the wayside.

Thatcher not only led the final and fatal assault on communism, her politics forced capitalism to reorient and business leaders who emerged subsequently were modelled after her. Before Thatcher, the essence of leadership was about building consensus across divergent views. How radically it changed has been demonstrated in the leadership style of Steve Jobs, the icon of new capitalism. A scene from the 2013 film Jobs shows how he deals with disagreement. “Are you threatening to sack me?” a colleague asks Jobs during a heated argument in the early days of Apple. “I am not. You are already sacked,” answers Jobs. Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, two other ultimate markers of leadership success of our times, too, followed similar style. Bezos has famously declared that he abhors “social cohesion”, that “natural impulse to seek consensus.” The ultimate statement from this school of leadership was George W Bush — “you are either with me or you are against me.”

As such disruptive innovations became hugely successful — economically in business and electorally in politics — it created a self-perpetuating cycle with public opinion, which also began to view consensus-building as a mark of the weak leadership.

While the Thatcher-Jobs style that Modi follows is currently popular and successful, the Mandela style is the future of leadership, according to Linda Hill, professor at Harvard Business School who developed the theory of ‘leading from behind’. Her idea originates from Mandela’s autobiography, Long March to Freedom, where he relates his leadership style to a shepherd’s  — set the right path, be sensitive and caring but stay behind the flock while being alert that none strays. The second attribute of this style is that it considers leadership as collective genius rather than the leader’s individual brilliance. Hill argues that only such decentralised leadership will allow innovators to flourish and therefore is the future.

Hill’s concept of leadership from behind is derived also from the experience HCL, the Indian IT giant that was turned around by its former CEO Vineet Nayar’s strategy of ‘employees first.’ The core of Nayar’s strategy was to make each level of leadership accountable not to the one above it, but the one below it. This is roughly what Rahul Gandhi is doing. Nayar argued that until the lowest worker in the company is empowered and honoured, there is no future for the collective. What Gandhi said at the AICC session is clearly on those lines, regarding the role that he wants to give the Congress workers in the selection of candidates.  Gandhi has likened India to a beehive — where the leader or the queen bee is a passive presence, is a unifier, but millions of bees are acting individually and in common interest.

Modi ridiculed Gandhi’s ‘workers first’ politics, saying that for him it is country first. The claim that one keeps national interests above everything else — ‘India First’ — is not something original or even unique. Except the Maoists, all parties in India may swear by that commitment. The distinction lies in what that national interest is, and how it is pursued by the various leaders. Herein lies the key distinction between Modi and Gandhi and there is no better way than capturing that in their own words.

“Tricolour is my religion,” Gandhi said in his first and rudimentary political speech at the Hyderabad AICC session in 2006. “I am Hindu and I am nationalist. Therefore I am Hindu nationalist,” Modi said in an interview last year. For Gandhi, nationalism is religion; for Modi, religion is nationalism.


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