The run up to the 2014 elections has brought to the fore, some very interesting glimpses into leadership styles, which may in many ways disrupt the prevalent narratives of what constitutes effective leadership. A stark contrast is being offered between the incumbents Dr Manmohan Singh and his lieutenant P Chidambaram on the one hand, both technocrats, decorated with academic degrees from Oxford and Harvard respectively, who were brought in for their credentials as economists, but are today being blamed for policy paralysis and the consequent economic downturn, and the challenger Mr Narendra Modi - a college dropout (on the insistence of well-wishers later he completed his graduation through external examinations), but who learnt his lessons from the hard knocks of life and who is increasingly being seen as somebody who can turnaround India’s fortunes.
This paradox has played out in many interesting ways, especially in the exchange of jibes between the two sides. Chidambaram chided Modi for his apparent lack of academic rigor, by claiming that Modi’s knowledge of economics “can be written on the back of a postage stamp”. He pointed out that the Gujarat Chief Minister “has said nothing about the fiscal deficit, nothing about the CAD (Current Account Deficit), nothing about monetary policy”.
It was expected that Modi would counter this by spelling out his policy vision for the economy in his “big speech” to the industry leaders. But instead of parroting these terminologies, to display an acquaintance with them, or using idioms like ‘animal spirit’, ‘escape velocity’ etc., Modi chose to focus entirely on his ability and his record in solving problems. As columnist R Jagannathan noted “if the gathering… was expecting tall talk about how Narendra Modi was going to combat fiscal deficits, cut subsidies, implement various reforms and boost growth, they would have been a trifle disappointed”. “But the Gujarat chief minister” the columnist added “went beyond the vision thing and offered something that is sorely needed: the promise of a 24-hour prime minister who would tackle the country’s problems by getting to the roots. His message: vision is important, but execution ability is super-critical.” Modi returned the jibe on Chidambaram saying “I don't need a lot of bookish knowledge. I can enlist people with knowledge”.
In many ways, Modi’s response and approach brings up a very important leadership phenomenon, typical of Indian worldview, that is of late being studied by Management Gurus – the concept of contextual resourcefulness. As eminent scholar Dr Devdutt Pattanaik notes in his book ‘Business Sutra’, the Indian approach to leadership, in contrast to the Western and the Chinese ways, among other things, “relies on resourcefulness”.
The Indian spiritual texts which form the bedrock of the Indian psyche are averse to over-reliance on theories, books and experts and instead emphasize on one’s resourcefulness in decision making. In the celebrated dialogue of Yaksha Prashna in the Mahabharata, Yudhishtira, the eldest of the Pandavas, is asked the question ‘What is the right path?’ to which he answers, “Reasoning has its limitations, sacred books contradict each other, not a single Rishi’s words can be considered absolute. The essence of Dharma is hidden in a cave. Great men tread their own paths”. Dharma – the wisdom that drives decision-making is considered in this verse of Mahabharata, as beyond theories, books and experts. It exhorts leaders to base their actions on the knowledge “embodied” (hidden deep within the metaphorical cave) within one's experience and intuition. Rajiv Malhotra, a scholar of Indian civilization, who coins the word “embodied knowledge” suggests that the Indian worldview holds this knowledge unique and non-substitutable by other means. He counts this as one of the differentiating aspects of Indian civilizational thought.
While being open to ideas from different sources, the Indian worldview, considers it the responsibility of the leader to figure out which ideas can be effectively acted upon in a given circumstance, which may not and which ideas are best left for academic discussions. This approach comes in handy, especially when a lot of problems that the leaders are expected to solve, are by nature dynamic, contextual, constantly unfolding and defy past theoretical patterns.
As a news item quoting a source close to Modi notes, the Gujarat Chief minister has a team of academicians and intellectuals who help him get a theoretical grasp of issues, but he uses his empirical learnings to “distill a point down to the basics”. His empathetical connect with the masses probably helps provide him the empirical learnings and an independent reference point to scrutinize these theories and have his own mind.
The Indian electoral landscape until now has relied heavily on the ‘manifesto approach’. While this approach may be useful in spelling out priorities, it also implicitly assumes that the problems are stagnant, that they have already been identified, understood and crystallized into ideological positions. Narendra Modi, has for the first time unabashedly tried and added ‘resourcefulness’ as an important part of his promise and an attribute of his leadership.