Gujarat, Style, Substance And BJP Leadership
(Source: BloombergQuint)

Gujarat, Style, Substance And BJP Leadership

BloombergQuintOpinion

Even three weeks after the Gujarat poll-quake, the epicentre at Ahmedabad is reeling with the aftershocks of this question: What was the most critical fallout of this seminal political event?

  • Was it the Bharatiya Janata Party’s sixth consecutive victory? Proving its invincibility? Nah…
  • Did the win by a whisker crack the formidable Modi-Shah Teflon? Maybe yes, but…
  • Did Congress’ spunky show under Rahul Gandhi herald its revival? Ummmm…
  • Did the Young Turk’s Triumvirate of Hardik/Jignesh/Alpesh flatter to deceive? Yes, but, no…
  • Were you surprised by Nitin Patel’s rebellion when the finance ministry was taken away? Yes...
  • Were you even more surprised when Amit Shah called him at 7 am to concede his demand? Yes, yes...
  • Were you most surprised when Nitin Patel publicly boasted that Amit Shah had called him to concede? Yes, yes, yes!
  • Finally, did Purshottam Solanki’s follow-on rebellion surprise you? No.

And that’s where a tale hangs. Prime Minister Modi and his formidable colleague, BJP President Amit Shah, are the supremely feared duo of Indian politics, for an ally and adversary alike. Just before the Gujarat results, no colleague dared disagree, forget about any rebellion.

That Nitin Patel could cock such a snook, and win, is a staggering post-Gujarat event whose ramifications cannot be foretold so easily.
Gujarat Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel, BJP President Amit Shah, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani at the swearing-in ceremony at Gandhinagar, Gujarat on December 26, 2017. (Photograph: Santosh Hirlekar/PTI)
Gujarat Deputy Chief Minister Nitin Patel, BJP President Amit Shah, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Gujarat Chief Minister Vijay Rupani at the swearing-in ceremony at Gandhinagar, Gujarat on December 26, 2017. (Photograph: Santosh Hirlekar/PTI)

What Matters? A Leader’s Style Or Substance?

For me, it reignited a mental tussle I’ve had over the nature of leadership. I’ve wrestled with this intangible dichotomy for years now — does the style of a leader matter? Or does only the leader’s substance create an impact? Let me elaborate a bit on this quandary before I return to the Gujarat question.

Think of political leaders with very different styles: Barack Obama, Narendra Modi, Donald Trump and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Now add iconic business leaders to this mix: Ratan Tata, Richard Branson, Sundar Pichai and Silvio Berlusconi. All of them are giants within their spheres of influence. Yet, all of them are so utterly different on the style spectrum, from chalk to cheese.

  • So who makes a better leader, an extrovert or introvert?
  • Is a loquacious leader more effective than a taciturn one?
  • Should you whisper your message or speak with a boom?
  • Is networking skill imperative or do loners make the cut?
  • Can you look straight while lying or do your eyes give you away?
  • Do you look kind and forgiving, or unsmiling and ruthless?
  • Should you empower or centralise?
  • Are you a consensus builder or my way has to be the highway?
  • Do you sleep and wake up early or late?

Once you begin to plot these attributes for each successful leader, you will see the sheer randomness of the graph. You can be loquacious, an introvert, straight liar, empowering and late sleeper — and just as effectively, you could be a networker, taciturn, whisperer, power centraliser and early-to-rise person.

Clearly, a leader’s style-to-success mapping is utterly zigzag and haphazard.

There’s no discernible trend or correlation there.

Style Is Skin Deep, Substance Is Core

Now, look at a leader’s substance. Irrespective of his style or quirks, no leader can be successful unless he or she can:

  • Motivate a team and make them commit to causes;
  • Rouse hope; make people feel good and optimistic about following the leader;
  • Command respect, awe, trust and a measure of fear;
  • Have a clear direction/vision of the path to take — good, bad or ugly;
  • Have courage of conviction and supreme confidence in one’s own judgement — again, it could either be good or bad, fair or unjust, kind or vindictive, edifying or ugly;
  • Have the capacity to never forget, irrespective of whether he or she chooses to forgive or not.

To conclude, style is skin deep and trivial, while substance is core to a leader’s success.

Absolute Leaders Can Snap But Not Bend

But why did I take this philosophical detour to give you my instinctive treatise on leadership? What’s that got to do with the BJP’s near-win (or near-defeat, depending on which Twitter timeline you follow) in the Gujarat polls?

Well here’s the thing: all through the feverish campaign, the focus was entirely on the BJP’s style; but after the ambivalent outcome, a lengthening shadow fell on the substance of the party’s leadership. Their fearsome aura was challenged by Nitin Patel, at best a provincial politician — and, somewhat unbelievably, the BJP’s top guns got stared down by a junior colleague who earlier would not have dared look them in the eye even in a nightmare.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah during the swearing-in ceremony of the new Gujarat government in Gandhinagar on December 27, 2017, (Photographer: Santosh Hirlekar/PTI)
Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP President Amit Shah during the swearing-in ceremony of the new Gujarat government in Gandhinagar on December 27, 2017, (Photographer: Santosh Hirlekar/PTI)

The BJP’s defenders say they bought peace at a delicate moment; it was a tactical retreat to avoid a bigger political crisis. But that’s the argument I will not buy. The BJP leadership is an absolute one. They do not brook any opposition. They command fear, followed by awe and a grudging respect.

The very substance of their leadership is incompatible with a tactical retreat which allows a junior colleague to proclaim, and then parade, a political victory over them. 

The BJP’s duo cannot suddenly become ‘consensus’ oriented, willing to bend but not snap. Within their lexicon of leadership, a bend is a snap. The maximum concession that Amit Shah should have made is called Nitin Patel to say “back off now, and at the right time, we will give you the extra power that we think you deserve, but back off now”.

When ‘take no prisoners’ is the hallmark of your leadership, you simply cannot allow renegades to dictate terms and open the prison gates. Because then, a tiny and potentially widening political crack also opens up.

Raghav Bahl is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of two books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, and ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’.

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