A leader first must be accepted as one, and in a country which generally believes in idolizing a leader, creating a space for one is not easy
Should there be no room for flexibility in organisations, if yes then what should be done to accommodate the aspirations of your trusted lieutenants
The Bal Thackeray case study on leadership and succession planning
“…For men may come and men may go, but I go on for ever…” reads Lord Alfred Tennyson’s poem ‘The Brook’. Perhaps other than ‘time and the brook’, a living entity can’t claim immortality, and more so a political entity. Yet, there are exceptions. Given that a number of political parties and leaders have come, dazzled the political firmament and then disappeared into oblivion; creating a political outfit, shaping it and remaining its undisputed and revered leader for over four and half decades is an exception of sorts. Bal Keshav Thackeray (known more as Balasaheb Thackeray or Sena Supremo) stormed into the political landscape in 1966 when the opposition political space in Mumbai (then Bombay) was gradually becoming a stronghold of Left-leaning trade unions. Keeping aside the debate as to whether the ruling Congress used him as a ploy to corner the Left or not, what is worth knowing is how his political philosophy based on identity-politics changed the prevailing political discourse. What was the unique leadership trait of the political cartoonist that generated such a followership; was it his charisma; or was it the political vacuum; or was it Balasaheb’s ability to articulate, and that too aggressively, widely shared anxieties?
A leader first must be accepted as one, and in a country which generally believes in idolizing a leader, creating a space for one is not easy. You need to strike a chord, pinch where it hurts the most and espouse and address issues which affect the general masses. You need to have a set of trusted lieutenants who can carry forward the legacy with the same zeal and zest.
Perhaps, Balasaheb realized it early on. To begin with, he wanted to fight for the identity and rights of the sons of the Marathi soil, not fight elections. He did not go beyond the demand for jobs for Marathi youth. This struck the right chord with unemployed youth. His aggressive diatribes at leaders made him seem like a person with steely determination, unwavering in the pursuit of his goals and far from being emotive in public. He did not only do plain speaking; at local levels there was a genuine ability to translate bragging into action – in effect this was the major reason for the outfits’ early success. He provided a collective identity and pride to the people who were feeling marginalized in the globalizing city of Bombay. If a leader can stand up and raise a voice for a cause that will benefit masses, followership is not far away. He had a band of leaders, cutting across the social strata – be it Manohar Joshi, Narayan Rane or Chhagan Bhujbal, all grass root leaders who had unfailing belief in the brand of politics they were associated with and the vision of the leader. It was only when Balasaheb did not approve of the recommendations of the Mandal Commission that leaders like Bhujbal dissociated themselves. In the management context, the question arises – should organizational philosophy be rigid, should there be no rooms for flexibility, if yes then what should be done to accommodate the aspirations of your trusted lieutenants?
To remain politically relevant, he took up issues one at a time, connected with people and expanded his political base. He began with a tirade against communists and migrants. The first target were the Gujaratis, followed by South Indian migrants and then labour from UP and Bihar. He simultaneously embraced the ‘Hindutva’ agenda to appeal to a larger electorate. Old age, frail health and the limitations of identity politics did get the better of the Sena Supremo (after early electoral success in 1995); however what is noteworthy is the enormous support and power that he wielded in Maharashtra. Since his early days in politics he had mastered the art of developing a symbiotic relationship with his political opponents in the corridors of the Mantralaya. He was suave in using the ‘powers that be’ politically, openly or clandestinely. Perhaps these and many more such attributes made him the mass leader that he was.
The man on whose charisma the Sena was born and reached its pinnacle is no more. And this raises the most relevant question on the future of Shiv Sena, the outfit. Will it crumble or will it re-invent itself? Like majority of contemporary political parties, the outfit too is a family fiefdom; the quitting of Rane (2005) and Raj Thackeray, Balasaheb’s nephew (2006) raised the question on succession planning. All the while Balasaheb scoffed at dynastic politics but when the moment of truth arrived he too gave in to the lure of family succession and handed over the baton to his son, Uddhav. Though the party has managed to remain afloat, thanks to the charisma of Balasaheb and the Sainiks’ implicit support of his vision, political commentators argue that the future of the party is bound to be tumultuous. It was the loyalty to Balasaheb that held the party members together and is seen to be a major roadblock in the party’s future success. Leaders can take a leaf out of this entire episode – build an organizational brand; the organizational culture must be such that potential talent flock to the company not because of an individual leader associated with the organization.
The way the succession was handled has some lessons in succession planning. Should the next in command be the kith and kin of the incumbent leader? How do you decide who is the best suited? What about the aspirations of the others? The rank and file of Sena leaders saw Raj as the natural successor, for it was Raj who measured up to senior Thackeray in charisma. As is evident, post the split, Raj has struck an emotional chord with the people and has used identity-based political ideology in the same way as his late uncle. Leadership abilities, the ability to come up with a strategic plan, organizational and people management skills are but a few attributes that should be looked into when deciding on potential successors. Many in the know say that Uddhav does not fit into the mental construct of a leader; on the other hand Raj epitomizes his late uncle and many are comfortable with his leadership traits.
Identity based politics is losing steam and it is time for Shiv Sena to rethink and opt for a new political philosophy; perhaps one which is more inclusive and development oriented. In the same vein, leaders in general should not carry on for long with strategies that follow the law of diminishing returns – they must at some point of time opt for disruptive innovation. Just like political parties must come up with new political planks, organizations too must show and come up with ‘thought leadership’ which will not only propel the organization / sector on a fast track growth trajectory but will also contribute to society at large – what Prof Robert S Kaplan and Michael Porter term as ‘creating shared value’. The new (political) leader at helm should have a national agenda, have concrete plans to transcend the regional boundaries and make an imprint on national politics.
Though, Balasaheb’s column in Marmik (a political weekly), ‘Vacha Ani Thand Basa’ (read and keep quiet), became a hit; realizing that the only constant is ‘change’ he changed the title to Vacha Ani Utha (read and rise). Lessons for leaders across the spectrum – you too need to accept and embrace ‘change’.