Why I miss Vajpayee and Narasimha Rao
.. Leadership at a premium
Large swathes of rain forests have been destroyed over the years in printing scholarly articles on leadership. It is not my intention to add to the noise. There are, as I explain to my pre-teen daughter, only 3 true tests of true political leadership.
Vision: You must demonstrate an overarching vision for taking the people, the entire nation forward. Your vision must be inclusive, must make space for conflicting ideologies and aspirations and would be something that posterity will remember you by. Above all, you must be able to articulate that vision in terms that everyone in the country can understand and connect to.
Team-building: You must be able to build a strong consensus around your vision. You must be able to identify a core and extended team that will evangelize the vision, buy into the success of the vision and want to execute on the vision.
Execution: You must be able to execute on your vision and put together lasting systems and processes and people who will take your ideas forward even when you do not exist. You must clearly articulate short-term milestones and long term goals. You must understand conflicts and their sources and encourage the constructive ones and ruthlessly root out the unproductive ones.
Let’s see how Vajpayee measures up to these tests. He will be remembered by the Golden quadrilateral: a gigantic visionary project as much as moving to limit the number of ministers in the cabinet and statutory measures to limit the fiscal deficit. In all these, he articulated the vision, ensured a coalition of support and executed in the face of a very tenuous parliamentary majority. Contrast this with Rajiv Gandhi, a politician who certainly had it all: popularity, huge parliamentary majority and unquestioned leadership within his party. All we got was a lot of hot air and by way of lasting legacy, the Shah Bano case.
Now let’s see how Narasimha Rao fares. He also ran a government with tenuous majority, if that. But, he had a vision for the economy, he built a team (Manmohan Singh, Montek et al) and insulated them from political pressures as they lay down the blue-print for the frenetic pace of reforms that followed. Those that credit Manmohan Singh as the architect of reforms, have to only see his record as PM with Chidambaram as a FM. What initiative would this team be remembered for? The same man, more powerful position but without political management of a master, a chronic underperformer.
It is probably no accident that Narasimha Rao and Vajpayee were close personal friends. They may have been on two sides of the poltical divide, but they were more alike than you would normally think.
As we get into election season and have to choose among parties, their programs and their leaders, how I wish we were choosing between Vajpayee and Rao.