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August 2018

Hearty Leadership

“Chote man se koi bada nahin hota aur toote man se koi khada nahin hota….” (Greatness can’t be achieved with small heartedness while a weak heart won’t let you win). These lines from Atal ji’s own verse summarizes the true legacy of the finest statesman of our times. It probably reflects his life too wherein he effortlessly straddled between contradictory narratives that allowed him to play out a difficult combination of an inclusive yet a firm leader. Its common place to find either firm leaders or soft leaders but rare to find a blend of both which makes Atal ji stand out amongst the crowd. He was a democrat and liberal to the core for whom taking everyone along was a way of living life but when it came to drawing a line and putting a full stop in the larger interest of the eco-system he could go ahead on his own. While he could let the Agra Summit fail for want of his senior colleagues not on the same page with him to write the historic chapter he could go ahead to write another historic chapter of nuclear test on his own. While he could take the warm initiative of reaching out to Pakistan with his iconic bus ride to Lahore despite the consternation of the nationalist establishment but once betrayed he would come hard on striking the adversary firmly to drive out the intruders during Kargil. It is no surprise therefore that he became the role model of running a successful coalition government having completed the first full term of a coalition government in India when very often leaders with complete majority have struggled in the past to keep their flock together.

How did this play out and worked so well for Atal ji and are there any lessons for us to emulate in our personal and professional lives? And if yes what positive implications it could have on the affluence of our society, nation and world at large?

Well there could be more than one ways to dissect this maze and one of the ways which could help us understand to see through this is the battle between the heart and the mind. These two make us tick and different than other living beings on this planet. While they are at work jointly however, basis our emotional construct our decision making is driven by one more than the other. Some of us are instinctive decision makers driven more by what we feel while some are logical decision makers driven more by what we see. Some understand by heart while some judge by mind. Don’t we see this on a daily basis in our lives? When shopping we either pick something we might have liked or on the basis of our need and value for money analysis. We may choose our service providers basis the matching values and therefore our ability to trust them while some may do so on the basis of the best price. Some of us may be transactional and driven by short term opportunities whereas some of us may be relationship oriented driven by long term rewards.

Atal ji probably was in the category who believed that while it’s a must to consult your mind for its intellect but it is your heart which should prevail with its wisdom. So at the Agra summit while his counterpart was immensely keen to achieve closure on the Kashmir dispute and ensure a permanent place in the history for himself and the mind would have spoken to Atal ji about the same too but may be his heart told him to stay away from signing on the dotted line until there is buy-in from his colleagues for a historic decision. It told the difference between a dictator and a democrat. Probably a large hearted approach did its job here. However, when it came to Kargil clear instructions were given to the armed forces to recapture the nation’s territory without violating another’s. May be the firm heart was at play here. In both situations he chose his heart to lead but he calibrated towards large hearted when it came to altering the history and towards firm when correcting a short term aberration. So heart was always in the lead but what truly defines the Atal phenomenon was his enigmatic wisdom to straddle between the timing of when to be large hearted and when to be firm.

At another instance while he graciously steered a rainbow coalition of 21 political parties on a consensual bottom ups style he could also simultaneously push with his progressive economic agenda from the top much against the liking of the proponents of swadeshi economics from within his own parivar. While Narasimha Rao along with his protégé Dr. Manmohan Singh might have started the journey of economic liberalization of India it was Atal ji who accomplished the milestones of structural reforms whether privatizing the PSUs, opening telecom to private players, national highways program, modernizing airports or liberalizing the FDI regime. India truly started shining after he lost the 2004 elections on the same plank when the momentum of his economic policies spilled over during the tenure of UPA I which propelled them back into their second term.

Atal ji’s life and leadership style is a marvellous case study which can be emulated by one and all both in our personal as well as professional lives across the length and breadth of our relationships and leaderships situations. A firm heart shall help us to move ahead despite all obstacles while a large hearted approach shall ensure that we haven’t left anyone behind. This can help us at our homes as well as at our work places. A consensus based decision making process is inclusive in nature and breeds mutual respect, trust and ownership which collectively form the foundation of prosperity of any eco-system. Can a family progress where there is trust deficit between its members? Can an organization progress if it fails to capture the best ideas from all across? Can any family or any organization progress without its members having a feeling of skin in the game? Any form of organization is a group of individuals and unless and until each one of them feel that they are the family, they are the organization, they are the government it can’t move ahead.

In the times of Putanistic style of self-centred leadership the Vajpayee doctrine reminds us that the role of the leader is not to assume an entitlement to the powers to be but running the responsibility of doing good for the people whose lives can be touched by your conduct. Every leader – whether in business or political domain should see their role as a God send opportunity to give it back to the society. Any business comes into existence if it solves some problem of the society and continues to remain relevant as long as it is meeting that Purpose. The society then pays to the business in exchange of solving its problem which then fuels the careers of people who are part of the business organization. Business is a bridge between the society and its employees. It serves the noble Purpose of making the society happier and running the homes of people which work towards that. Any business therefore is actually the most real and the best form of giving back to the society. If business was the only religion in this world then any business organization would be its temples. Business leaders should see it that way too for they have been bestowed with a role which can positively impact the society. They have to exercise this role with a sense of responsibility towards ensuring fair allocation of revenues collected by the business. This must be towards capital investments to continue to grow the business, revenue expenses for the efficient running of the organization, profits for the shareholders and lastly to themselves. This way the business would become the engine of creating affluence in the society.

Similarly, a political organization solves the aspirational problem of any society and every political leader has to see that they have been bestowed with the responsibility of lifting the lives of their countrymen. With the entire resources of the governance machinery at their command they can leverage the government’s platform to usher in a change whose time has come. Instead of frittering away the coffers of the government to write off loans they have to bring in reforms to improve the productivity of the society so that it can pay back its commitments on its own. Instead of dividing the society across the lines of regions, religions and ethnicity the only religion that they should propagate is business so that the society can prosper by solving its own problems and paying for itself. Instead of building temples and statues the ease of doing business should be improved. Instead of securing themselves by centralization of power they should look at empowering every citizen with world class education and healthcare to become the leader of their own lives not dependent on the government of the day.

Atal ji’s final journey was a real life canvas of what true leadership is all about. In a literal sense he was a true leader with many leaders in the tow including the Prime Minister and several chief ministers. Another lens showed that he actually ended up creating so many leaders who from serving in his rainbow cabinet went on to become some of the strongest and most successful chief ministers. As someone said a true leader is the one who creates leaders and through that his legacy continues to live.

Like a billion Indians Atal ji was my hero too. While his soul would have assumed a new life his legacy shall continue to live and be the guiding lamp that shall remain alight irrespective of the storms which would keep coming and keep going. Let the heart always prevail.

Rohit Sarin
August, 2018