A deluge of homage through editorials, articles, opinions, blog posts poured in after Atal Bihari Vajpayee left his mortal coil. The electronic media was abuzz with discussions on the tallest leader that India has ever produced. After those exhaustive and emotional encomia showered by everyone, the opposition included, what else is there to write? After every paean has been sung what is left for me to say?
Atal leadership theory for India
Despite many thousands of empirical studies, leadership remains a tantalising enigma for many – me included. Is it possible to annotate Atalji’s actions? Is it at all possible to codify the colossus called Atal Bihari Vajpayee?
To fit his great persona into a frame, to capture his myriad methods and to titrate his thoughts would greatly tax even a scholarly brain; but, the practical value of that exercise will be invaluable for the country. Therefore, I will make an attempt.
His leadership style, elusive yet effective
All the leadership theories espoused by the west are inadequate to describe Atalji’s style. His style straddles the oldest to the latest western theories effortlessly, but the core of his unique leadership style is completely elusive. Not much has been understood about the guiding ‘force’ behind his style.
When Atalji addressed the ISKCON meeting on Ram Navami on April 5, 1998, he said "I am all in favour of globalisation of the message of the Gita and messages of all the sacred books of the world with which the message of Gita bears close conformity.” This openness expressed by him would have been categorised at best as a collaborative or an inclusive style by the Western theories but ‘Niti Shastra‘ of Kautilya would elevate the same to a higher level of ideological depth – ‘Which country, which faith is foreign to a man of true learning?’it says.
After the 1999 Pakistan coup, Prime Minister Atalji had to deal with the crafty general Musharraf. Atalji persisted with his offer of friendship but when that was resisted by Musharraf, he made another attempt at Agra which also failed. But three years later, it was Musharraf who made the long walk at the SAARC Summit in Islamabad to greet him. He made a commitment then not to allow any territory under Pakistan’s control to be used for terrorist activities against India!
No western style, however contemporary, explains this persistence and patience of Atalji. However, the eastern tradition of Taoism highlights this kind of engagement. “The leader who is centred and grounded can work with erratic people and critical groups without experiencing harm. The wise leader is like the water that can YIELD yet LEAD!"
A Rajarishi- led coalition
Atalji was a great harmoniser. He aligned different coalition partners and managed to drive major reforms during his tenure as the Prime Minister. He was the great unifier who built bridges between different ideologies, political parties and countries. What made the coalition partners align with Atalji? Why was he was fondly referred to as the 'Gentle Giant' and ‘Ajatahshatru’ (someone who has no enemies)?
According to Kautilya, a leader will turn into a ‘Rajarishi- a King Sage' thru purity of speech, of the mind, of heart and of the senses. All these can be acquired only thru ‘Indriyajayah’ - control over the senses – lust, anger, pride, arrogance and foolhardiness.
The traditional philosophies Taoism and Buddhism also explain how leaders deal with the complex dilemmas of the real world. Taoism explains this craft beautifully - “Because the leader does not push, the group does not resent or resist: A moderate ego demonstrates wisdom: remain open and receptive, no matter what issues arise: Learn to lead without coercion. Both praise and criticism should not excite – Interestingly Indian scriptures too praise ‘Sthitaprajna’ (to remain stable thru intellect) as a great leadership trait!
Atalji was known for long spells of silence and contemplation. The Tao principle, 'Wu-wei' generally translated as non-action or non-doing is the most powerful of all. Paradoxically, it’s not about inaction but is about ‘Action without Effort’. All the tenets of Tao resonate with our very own ancient prayer to the universe “Samastha Lokaha Sukhino Bhavantu” (May everyone in all the worlds be happy). No wonder Atalji the Rajarishi could lead the largest coalition effortlessly.
An Aikido Master
Atalji’s biggest success in foreign affairs was in bringing relations with the US back from the brink after the US imposed sanctions on India – This cannot be explained effectively by any theory, only Aikido can. Aikido, a Japanese martial art, is where practitioners defend themselves while protecting their attacker from injury. The tactic of blending with an attacker's movements for the purpose of controlling their actions resembles a dance rather than a fight. How Atalji restrained the US, to protect India yet rallied support for the US later by controlling China’s nuclear aggression is but the skill of an Aikido Master!
His style beyond theory
No theory spoke about how ‘silence’ can silence the enemy or how 'contemplation' can control the situation. No leadership theory spoke about poetry paving pathways into people’s hearts. No theory praised a dignified ‘retreat from public life' as a laudable leadership trait.
ALT is the key for India
His leadership style, call it the ‘Mother Leadership’ that is intuitive and all giving or the ‘Mother of Leadership’ styles that straddles all existing theories, is the key for India's progress.
The exercise to codify his leadership style will have far-reaching implications for the country's progress. For patriots it should be a blueprint to follow. For people in power it should be taught as a refresher course and for the newly elected politicians, it should be introduced at the orientation training. ALT (Atal Leadership Theory) is as much about ALT key of change as it is about Altruism– it is a theory about Impact, Influence and Inspiration. A Master Class on leadership paradoxes- for ALT, WHEN I GIVE MYSELF I BECOME MORE is but the MOMENT OF TRUTH!