Leadership dilemma of India: Burden of Narratives

Recent outing of Indian contingent in Olympics, with exceptional leadership of our sports minister and thoughtful officials of IOA has been huge success. They were very generous to take few sports person with them and getting them ‘international’ exposure. These sports people even managed to win 2 medals. Officials showed utmost dedication and even cancelled few of their evening parties to cheer. Dedicated IOA vice president sent his own son to take care of medical needs and boost their moral.

Irony aside, examples are plenty of bureaucratic apathy in India. Apathy is defining norm of the entire bureaucratic system. Why do we accept this behavior, justifying it instead of penalizing?

Power, competency and being jerk have been so strongly associated, that being jerk is good enough, other two adjectives are given. If any of the other two is proven, being jerk is expected. Unfortunately, to judge a specific competency, we have to be competent ourselves in that field. Power and jerk behavior do not require us to be one.

Same norm is dominant across administration and management, be it businesses, politics, government or even spirituality. The norm is dominant in all ‘power circles’. There are few exceptions too of human ingenuity and compassion. However, those are ‘exceptions’. Majority remains silent spectators. This is surprising as we all (including bureaucrats) belong to one country, same group still indifferent to each other!! Certainly, it’s not about individuals, it’s not ‘only’ about bureaucrats, it’s not ‘only’ about leaders.

The best way to understand a society is to understand the stories they tell among themselves, narratives which defines their behavior norms of leaders, of bureaucrats or all the social roles.

“We are the stories, we tell ourselves.”

Narratives are main tools to share the accepted behaviors in a society. As humans, we define ourselves, not as a sequence of random events but as a ‘narrative’. These narratives also shape our future.

“We become the story we tell ourselves.”

Not because of fate, or self-determination, but because we filter the future and edit the past to fit our preferred narrative. Narratives carry human emotions, defined by the situation of their creation. The characters, the events evolve, fueled by human imaginations. Logic takes the back seat.

When these narratives are created first, the intents are honest. Overtime, variant behaviors get included, multiple narratives merged. The narratives lose their context, intent lost, conflict between behavior/actions and feelings, confusion reigns, resulting in chaos.

When the situation changes, questioning these old narratives, is part of “growing up” as society.

Now, let’s take one of the most prominent narratives from Indian society, most commonly referred among education, business and political world, “Chanakya”.

It is the contextual narrative defining Indian bureaucracy. He is referred as ideal employee, bureaucrat, advisor and administrator in India. Intelligence is almost synonym with this name.

The guy lived in 4th century BC and is considered finest brain in governance, politics, economics and philosophy of ancient India. Before Game theory got published and got Nobel, he had already applied it and was a champion. He worked during King Chandragupta Maurya’s reign, considered his star student as well as patron.

Every child prodigy is compared with “Chanakya”, every stratagem in corporate or politics is credited to him. Chanakya has three TV series made as well as key roles in another 2 TV series. There are books, apps, websites listing his quotes and teachings. If you google “Chanakya”, it throws 45,70,000 results. Compared to this, his star student, patron and the king, “Chandragupta Maurya” throws 5,12,000 results. Chandragupta has one TV series and only fleeting mention in few serials focused on Chanakya. How many of Indians even are aware that there were two famous Indian rulers named, Chandragupta (Maurya and Gupta)? Chanakya’s narrative rules.

Is it any surprise that Indian post-graduate schools churn out more number of ‘renowned’ strategy consultants, finance consultants, investment bankers and economists rather than engineers or scientists or even leaders? We are a society of aspiring ‘king-makers’, groomed to serve the ‘powers’, not to be independent thinkers. Have you heard this, “Who are we to decide right or wrong?”

Consider different stories woven around Chanakya, to understand the accepted norms. Note that there are multiple versions, none of these events can claim complete factual accuracy.

  • Chanakya was a scholar from the only university existed in his time, Takshasila. He was an orphan, adopted by a teacher.
  • He had odd appearance with broken teeth, crooked feet, considered ‘ugly’. As per a story, he was born with full set of teeth which was a sign that he would become king or emperor. However, he chose not to become one, thus, broke his teeth.
  • He was humiliated by Magadh king, his looks were made fun off and was thrown out of court.
  • He took revenge for his humiliation, by overthrowing Nanda dynasty from power, by assisting a young mercenary Chandragupta Maurya to become the king.
  • He worked as a political advisor and administrator, under the services of King Chandragupta and later his son.
  • He used every trick of trade to gain or hold to power. He killed or got people killed for political gains. The trick to power was hook or crook (fourfold policy). It was practice of ‘impassioned and detached’ power politics.
  • He authored a great book on political science and governance, “Arthashastra”; collecting all the teachings on these subjects at that time, as well as his view points. Note that this also covered “economics”. The book was lost after 5th century, appearing again in 20th
  • The book mostly famous for ideas of ruthless power administration, also have great ideas on governing an effective welfare state by taking care of citizens, specially weaker section, as well as, treatise on foreign diplomacy.
  • As per his book, he viewed women as ‘fickle minded, deceitful, having seven natural flaws’. No wonder, he remained bachelor for entire life.
  • His student and master, Chandragupta Maurya became a monk in his forties, leaving his throne and kingdom. He followed or converted to Jainism, not the same intellectual school as of Chanakya.
  • Chanakya’s died in old age. His death was controversial, shrouded in distrust and treachery.

His acts portray him as a vengeful and ruthless manipulator. He was highly knowledgeable scholar, competent jerk, discounting human compassion in action. That is also called ‘harsh pragmatism’. He served his master, not led as a leader himself.

The image is gleefully filled by media with obsessive spotlight on political plays of Amit Shah or Mayawati or Lalu. Every politician craves to fit in this narrative, unfortunately, still claiming to be “leader”. Unfortunately, independent pursuit of excellence is ignored when ‘not focused on political play’. Have you heard what P. Gopichand or Viren Rasquinha have been doing for sports? Not just sports, how many people other than politics, get to define our social norms, be role models? Individuals, be in science, sports, or even social service get a temporary spotlight when recognized by global institutes or proximity to politicians. Do we still recognize “Kailash Satyarthi”?

Cricket and Bollywood are another two power centers, apart from politics. The means to power differ slightly, however, blind worship of power (super-stars) and abuse of power by ‘king-makers’ still persists.

Now consider the human behind “Chanakya” narrative; “a scholar with odd looks, grew up as an orphan in a city of schools, the only place which he could call ‘home’ burnt down to ashes by an invading Greek army, desperate to find a patron in royal court, being humiliated and his come back.”

The narrative have all the right emotions of “underdog wins” story. A PhD guy from Rawalpindi (Pakistan), grown up as orphan, taken care by a teacher in school, becoming a professor himself, his school burnt down, all his known being either killed or made to run away, migrates to Bihar (India) for job, thrown out by Lalu Prasad, humiliated for his looks and damn, he returns after few years, with a young man from Haryana (India), help him to become new CM of Bihar while becoming Home minister himself, ensure that king’s son gets the throne while king becomes a monk, write a book, dies alone, ridden in conflicts.

Lessons ingrained are;

  • Be ruthless, discount emotions, be cold, be a jerk
  • Always be focused on power
  • Associate or align with power holders, serve them
  • The end justifies the means

By all means, Chanakya was a very practical person and great strategist. His coldness is understandable, considering his upbringing, personal loss and experience of being “powerless” against a feudal autocratic structure. However, if that’s the ‘dominant’ narrative for ‘ideal’ bureaucrats and politicians even now, then should we be surprised with people behaving as indifferent advisers, in the role required to be leaders?

Isn’t it natural to expect and behave in cold and calculated manner for all intelligent, devoid of warmth and empathy?

Isn’t it anti-thesis of leadership by trust?

Isn’t this the same attitude which makes bureaucrats accept manipulation by power, even though being aware that it weakens the system?

Isn’t this narrative create a delusion of ‘power by association’ among bureaucrats while accepting narcissistic behavior of their ‘superiors’?

The narrative use of Chanakya’s identity is not recent though. Buddhist, Jainism and Brahmin scholars, all claimed affiliation of Chanakya in their versions of stories. However, biggest beneficiaries were none other than scholars of Takshasila (most dominant group among ancient Indian courts as ministers and advisors).

Isn’t it similar to branding tactics employed by McKinsey, BCG and Ivy business schools, glorifying actions of their alma-matter?

The ‘power narrative’ in Indian society is, “feeling of powerlessness”, leading to “hunger of power” with approach of “by association”. Chanakya felt powerless when he was humiliated. As a cure, he sought ‘power’, “power by association” with the next king, ruthless tactics and manipulations.

The “contextual narrative” might have very situation specific origin in history, however, we currently use it rationalize our “cold” behavior, generalizing it to entirely different time and situation. We justify our jerk behavior as “shrewdness”, even calling it “intelligent”. While justifying it, we assume our “powerlessness”, our desperation, while non-existent.

That’s our ‘traditional’ norm, ‘quest for power by all means’, even if our situation is no way desperate as Chanakya’s. Our culture emphasizes loyalty to the power, even at the cost of ethics, impassioned or detached attitude towards subjected mass, be it sports person, employees or entire common population.

All of our different skills are irrelevant, only power politics takes our cultural mind space. Independent minds are exception and survive despite of our current cultural narratives, not because of it.

Unfortunately, this is completely against human nature. As humans, we seek empathy. Our systems and collaborations are dependent on it. Harmony between our actions and feelings is essential for collaboration to work. Do we need better example of its disaster than thousand years of domination by invaders?

Chanakya’s book was aptly named “Arth-Shashtra”; “Arth” does not refers to ‘money’, it refers to “meaning”. In end, I want to refer another old subject of ancient tradition, Anviksiki (the science of reasoning). Isn’t it time for us to apply this on our narratives? Shouldn’t we start questioning these narratives, understanding their context and implications? Refine them or reject them or create new!!