What Congress can learn about nurturing talent from corporates

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What does it take for an organisation, business or political party to throw up a capable and inspiring leader? There are some common threads. Rather than go directly into the political debate, obviously the most arresting, it may be useful to set context by looking adjacently at leadership progression at some Indian business houses.

J R D Tata, who built upon and ran a highly successful conglomerate, picked leaders early and nurtured them. Russi Modi, Darbari Seth, Sumant Mulgaonkar, Ajit Kerkar, F C Kohli grew from within and carried the flag to build formidable businesses and business groups. Note that only one of those named was a Parsi. There were, of course, many senior Parsis at Tata HQ but the leaders named were seen as having exceptional capability and natural leadership. Those leaders started well by identifying and nurturing talent within their business groups. However, along the way many of them fell victim to their egos and the malaise of propelling family and unproven favourites. Tatas have since then had to rely on externals for top positions, even at the apex board. TCS was an exception, as TCS leaders were nurtured outside the Tata bureaucracy.

Dhirubhai trained and mentored his sons, one of whom showed early promise and has proved a worthy successor. Other family-dominated businesses have succeeded or floundered based almost entirely on the caliber of succession. We see positive examples at Mahindra, Bajaj, UPL, Hero, Escorts,

, and poor consequence of family succession going the other way at UB, , Avantha, Modi group, Mafatlal, Jr Ambani and some others who are floundering.

While a worthy successor adds value, it is extremely difficult to dislodge an inadequately prepared or incapable family successor. Entrenched interests and slow to react boards seem to act only when there is proven misdemeanor. Consequence of poor family succession then endures through the decline to destruction! Talent development is hence a key focus of successful corporates, and so it should be for political parties.

However, parties must inevitably select long-haul candidates. To keep their large cadres motivated, they reward tenure, tenacity, energy, and some record of success. Unlike business, they do not normally entrust leadership to externally drawn talent, much as the young and articulate Jyotiraditya Scindia would wish otherwise. Narendra Modi was thrown up by an internal meritocracy. Whatever criticism he may draw from non-believers, no one can honestly say that there was a more charismatic or energetic alternative as successor to the BJP legacy. Before him, there was A B Vajpayee. Though L K Advani and Bhairon Singh Shekhawat were contemporaries, Vajpayee was rightly perceived as the best bet for the national stage. Although largely cadre-based, the BJP must now contend with self-propelled leaders such as Adityanath. The party is also not immune to dynastic leverage. Some regional parties like M G R (TN) and Kanshi Ram (BSP) built an enduring legacy by mentoring natural leaders to succession — Jayalalithaa and Mayawati respectively. Uddhav Thackeray in Maharashtra appears to be a fairly well-prepared successor to a mercurial father.

And now to the dilemma of the Congress where there is talk of Rahul Gandhi getting back after a hiatus. It bears no repetition that the party is characterised by sycophantic support to a single family, and that family does not at this point (and for some time past) appear to have a charismatic energetic natural leader groomed. The party (read family) has also wittingly or unwittingly stifled emerging leaders, probably to avoid competition and comparisons. A natural leader as Amarinder Singh had to assert and show teeth to the family while leading charge at the hustings, but age is not on his side to take on the arduous challenge at the national stage. Some others in the party may fancy their chances but either carry negative baggage or do not have the resume, charisma, capacity, or energy to lead from the front. The only possible natural leader who had a demonstrated track record, and age on his side, was Sachin Pilot. He seems to have imploded due to ‘high command’ inattention, and now has a hill to climb.

The Congress party faces an urgent imperative to support an internally tested meritocracy of natural leader/s with vision, capacity and energy to build an enduring organisation. Will the family see the light and put their weight behind candidate/s who can give the party a fighting chance to endure? The alternative is to prop up a tired lady or a lackluster family satrap and self-destruct, leaving the country to bear the consequence of unbridled one-party dominance!

The writer has served as Chairman, Monitoring Committee on Minimum Support Prices, Planning Commission, and was formerly Chairman, Cargill South Asia

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