Monday, November 09, 2015

Bihar Verdict - a Business Manager's view of what went wrong in Modi-Shah's game-plan

Never wear a suit more expensive than your boss'

(first published in +ABP NEWS )


Called up my Dad - recently turned 85 - to check his reaction on Bihar results. He quoted from Browning's Patriot "It was Roses, Roses all the way.....18 months ago...........". So, how did Modi and Amit Shah manage to fritter away a historic mandate in such a short time ? In the coming 24 hours and over the next several days there will be saturation analysis of what went wrong for BJP and worked in favour of the Mahagathbandhan - with many "I told you so pieces", as indeed epitaphs for Modi. Therefore, leaving the politics aside for the pundits let us spend a few minutes on the faulty mechanics and management of the BJP campaign.

There is no way Modi and Amit Shah could have underestimated the importance and challenge of Bihar. In fact, it is believed that lot of decisions of the government were taken (or hard calls and aggressive reforms were withheld for that matter) with the Bihar elections in mind - not just the Rs 1.25 lakh crore package declared just before the polls. It was apparent that, the government was banking on the Bihar Polls (followed by UP and Bengal next year) to shore up its strength in the Rajya Sabha for getting many crucial legislation through.

It may be argued that, the media and chattering classes had turned comprehensively against Modi and rooting for it to bite dust - but that was something Modi-Shah duo should have anticipated. They had successfully countered a more hostile media in the run up to the Lok sabha Polls - so where did their act fall apart this time around. It is easy to cook up conspiracy theories (and some of it may not be entirely unfounded) but again that is the job of seasoned campaigners - especially if they are from the ruling establishment - to tackle. How - therefore - did they lose the Midas touch ?

Right from day one - Modi government's handling of the media has been callous. What appeared deliberately calibrated (for reasons inexplicable - except, perhaps, for past grudges and arrogance  of winning the election 'despite them') at the start soon turned out to be plain incompetence. Last year - exactly at this time - one may recall, Modi made a feeble attempt to thaw the ice at BJP's "Diwali Party" - which was a heady selfie "kiss and make-up" moment for journalists - even those who had been critical of him in the past. But, that's where it ended. Somewhere, due to the "We know best" syndrome that afflicts this government - they seem to have dispensed with the professional help, that Modi-Shah were rumoured to have used for the Lok Sabha polls, just like they jettisoned Shah's own discovery - Prashant Kishor, whom Nitish was quick to pick up. Instead, Media Relations were left largely to someone like Arun Jaitley - who may be friendly with certain sections of the media (largely in the English speaking Lutyens' circuit - but an outsider for the vernacular and regional sphere) but isn't exactly a "media manager" - in the way, say an Ahmed Patel, of the Congress is.

In a recent piece in another publication, the author had discussed how "fist mover advantage" is short-lived in a competitive world - where people are quick to "copy with pride". Therefore, what has worked in the past - whether in Gujarat or the Lok Sabha Polls - loses its edge over time unless re-sharpened and re-engineered periodically.

But, the bigger task for any leader or manager is to manage expectations of stakeholders. here, Modi seems to have developed a disconnect between what he considered important for the electorate and what they had expected to see on the ground. Any new leader, need some quick wins to establish his or her credibility. This is where Modi failed miserably - partly due to the opposition tripping him in Parliament (like the Land Acquisition Bill and GST) but mainly due to his own misplaced priorities. Social welfare schemes like Jan Dhan Yojna and Atal Pension Yojna may be good talking points in the ramparts of the Red Fort on Independence Day - but doesn't cut much ice with people who have been spoilt by doles. So no amount of Neem quoting of Urea can take away the sting of Rs 200 /kg Arhar Daal, cut in agricultural subsidies and withholding release of MNREGA payments for fiscal prudence. Today, not only the masses expect immediate gratification - but even the young blue collared workers and business honchos are more concerned about the "here and now" rather than a handsome superannuation scheme.

Finally, as more and more professional Managers start working for Family Owned Enterprises, business schools are teaching how to balance the priorities of owners with that of the external stakeholders. Here Man Mohan Singh's job was easy - as he worked for a sole proprietor. Modi - on the other hand - has to work with a traditional HUF (Hindu United Family). A cardinal rule in business is never to wear a suit more expensive than your boss' and travel first-class when your austere malik flies "Cattle Class". Modi erred on both counts. MMS had no problem with the first - wearing the same blue turban for 10 years. Though it is alright for a Prime Minister to dress well - the blue suit everyone agrees was a little over the top.

Modi's foreign policy forays were no doubt phenomenal. But, not only that was a cause of envy for his opponents at home but also, one suspects, made some other nations wary of his meteoric rise in the international scene from being a pariah just 18 months ago. The bigger issue, however, this was the most visible part of his tenure so far - even if he was working 20 hours a day on all other fronts - which opposition could easily taunt with a rural electorate.

It is a dangerous thing - when the 'Malik - Parivaar' begins to lose confidence in the CEO - feeling he is not acting in their best interest. Since, he can't be sacked immediately - some of the family stalwarts - who want to see him fail start pulling the rug silently from under the feet. That to a large extent explains the reluctance of RSS to reign in their fringe elements or Mohan Bhagwat making irresponsible statements on the eve of crucial phases of the election. Even other members on the team - confused by mixed signals - of which way the wind is blowing begin to get disengaged though may appear to maintain a brave front outside. 

In what was always expected to be a polarised contest - driven by caste arithmetic - BJP's salvation rested on the last mile and last minute booth management by RSS cadres. It is questionable - if RSS was sincere about throwing their full weight behind Modi. Though they may not have wished to see him defeated - but perhaps a little mauled. It's another story - once the grip is loosened - the rope can slip much more than one had bargained for.

Modi and Shah need to seriously revisit their strategy going forward - if they don't want an encore of Browning's Patriot - "Thus I entered and thus I go" - not only to ensure a return in 2019 but, though harsh as it may sound, salvage the remaining 3 and half years of the current term.