By leading the BJP to a thumping majority in the recent Lok Sabha elections, Narendra Modi & his core team have scripted a success story worth studying. The victory was not unexpected, but its margin invites positive exploration. How did they pull it off? Does this story have something to offer students of leadership & organizations? Let us dive in leaving aside both political affiliations & political grandstanding.
People all over the country were deeply discontent with the Congress. But that does not mean electoral victory was a cakewalk. The political scene has too many players of various hues & colours, each owing its emergence to a cause or a support base that lends itself to mobilising power. How could Narendra Modi & his team break through the clutter in such a fractured polity?
Four key actions stand out.
Sustaining & building upon the Core Foundation – What is the one thing that made it possible for Narendra Modi to take charge within the party & establish primary credibility with voters? Take this one thing away & Modi did not stand a chance. It is so fundamental that it becomes non-obvious simply because we take it for granted. Narendra Modi didn’t. This one thing is a track-record of industrial & infrastructural development in Gujarat. This is the core foundation on which Modi’s individual credibility as known to the world rests. A foundation that promised an encore at the national level. A foundation so compelling that it decisively influenced business decisions to set up shop in Gujarat; decisions that had to factor in political ramifications in the context of Gujarat riots. This business backing was the straw which showed which way the wind is blowing. It was a foundation that opened up rich possibilities..
It is here that Modi, the individual stands out. He was a performing chief minister with larger national ambitions. The Gujarat riots had weakened his position within his own party. A fidgety leader would have scurried to milk whatever success he has had & cosy up to party bigwigs for a hastily acquired national role. Narendra Modi decided to consolidate. He valued the authority & respect of hardcore performance. He wanted his performance to count for bigger things in the future. His party was swept out of power in 2004. The party leadership presided over a slow decline. But Modi did not choose to stake a claim inspite of being the standout performer. He chose to bide his time. He knew that if he continues to make the Gujarat story bigger, his time will come. This is long-term thinking at its best.
Safeguarding party morale in internal power-struggle– A party out of power for almost a decade being led by an insipid leadership is ripe for internal turmoil & change of guard. If he so wished, Narendra Modi could have put on a brazen show of strength on the ground as party cadres were slowly buying into the ‘Modi-the saviour’ story. Even as one makes allowance for Modi surely orchestrating the background chorus from behind the scenes, he did not go for broke. Why? Modi & his core team knew that how they win the party stakes is as important as winning itself. If the old guard is wiped out in a bitter power-struggle, the party morale will suffer a death-blow. They will win the battle only to lose the war. Narendra Modi knew that the party had to be re-invigorated for the elections. Every significant political gambit was aimed at gaining ground within the party without letting the party come apart. This was an extremely challenging balancing act. They succeeded in energizing party cadre by sharing their vision & articulating a meticulous action-plan. It is a testimony to their success that Modi & Co. emerged on top in the internal power struggle without blunting the party campaigning at the grass roots level.
Reframing the election mandate – In sustaining the core foundation & safeguarding party morale, Narendra Modi was persevering & patient. He did not go for broke. In reframing the election mandate, he went all-out for dust or glory. The Congress helped him go for it by retreating into a defensive space with Rahul Gandhi at the helm. In terms of battle-hardened credentials, it was a no contest. Narendra Modi is a seasoned administrator who has earned his political spurs by working his way up the ranks.
Modi & Co. had already been at work within the party to project him as the prime-minister. At a significant inflection point when they knew the party would not break apart, they decided to stake that claim for him in the public realm. Six months before the general elections, Modi was declared as the prime minister should the NDA come to power. Modi & Co. also reframed the election mandate into a presidential-style contest by throwing the gauntlet at the Congress to come up with its prime- minister designate. They played to their strengths.
Given the perceived opposition to Modi as PM among present & putative allies, this was a decision fraught with risk. There was also the risk of Modi-allergic voters who might otherwise consider BJP. How will they take it?
It turned out to the one move that changed everything! A decisive strike.Political allies were forced to square up to reality & clarify where they stood. Post-poll political manoeuvres – if they were needed- could be planned for. But the most potent impact was on the decision-making of the voters. In a fractured polity where people grapple with many factors to decide whom to vote for, Modi & Co. took away all that complexity. The voter was given to understand that it was Modi they will be voting for. But even this is not going for broke. Going for broke is when the party asks voters to vote for Modi no matter who their party candidate is. This does make the individual subsume the party. But the narrow focus at the time was on going for an all-out win.
Intensifying the Voter outreach – Modi & Co. integrated grand strategy & tactical flexibility into a seamless & professional electoral campaign. So professional that it is sure to give pride of place to management excellence in planning & executing future political strategies. The BJP made regional pacts in sync with its grand strategy. The main plank was development & good governance as manifested by Gujarat. The other less publicised plank was consolidating votes based on identity-politics.
The significant part was that Modi & Co. reached out to voter-segments wherever they were & customized their message. Narendra Modi in his political rallies always spoke about the local context. He painted the picture of development with colours borrowed from the people & their region. 3D holograms of Modi speeches, pre-recorded phone messages, direct tweets to folllowers – every technology was used to help Modi & Co. form a connect with the public. Narendra Modi tweeted about local icons, regional festivals, local mishaps, everything that could make local people feel he was within reach. Modi gave tweet-friendly sound bytes, used evocative phrases & embodied both aura & accessibility. The sequence, choice & timing of all that he communicated was co-ordinated, coherent & very effective.
This intense outreach ensured that there was a tangible experience of a Modi wave that every voter could be made to experience & then help spread by word-of-mouth & social media.
These four pivotal actions – Building upon Core Foundation, Safeguarding Party Morale, Reframing election mandate, Intensifying Voter outreach – fed into, reinforced & built upon each other for massive success.
Modi’s track record, the core foundation; enabled him to acquire a groundswell of party support. He built on its promise by sharing the vision with party cadres & boosting morale. This consolidated position gave him the boldness to campaign as the future PM. The ground-work done by extremely committed party cadre made the message percolate through the masses. Feedback on voter outreach would have made an audacious Modi go for the reframing. After ensuring party wellbeing, the reframing was announced, which in turn made party morale sky rocket. This in turn, would have made party cadre work even more diligently for voter outreach. Voter outreach relentlessly expanded upon the Gujarat story – the core foundation,the one that made it all possible. A reinforcing feedback loop was assiduously built from the ground up.
As leaders & organizations, key lessons stand out.
What is our core foundation for building the future? How can we build & sustain it? Something that lifts our vision, makes us aspire higher, and also has practical value in getting there. An individual can answer this question for himself or herself. And so can any organization.
How can we navigate leadership power-plays without endangering organizational well-being? Most leaders & decision-makers are caught up in their own ego-bubbles. They believe that what is good for them is good for their organization. Very few are able to refrain from decisive actions that concoct short-term gains but do long-term harm, not apparent due to the time-delay in the harm being manifest.
How can we reframe our key challenge to cut through the complexity? We are drowning in data & starved for insight. All that ever matters is to grasp the essence of what we are dealing with & take action towards a purpose. We need to explore what really matters to every stakeholder, strip away all the inessentials, & clear the path for insight & action. This requires a lot of patience, discipline & mindful application. More often, we hurry to make things simple so they can be dealt with. Simplicity as an end in itself rarely works.
How can we influence our core stakeholders? A core message that reaches out to the stakeholders where they are. That touches upon what they value & hold dear. Does the message stick? It does if what you offer is the need of the time. And you are able to powerfully get that message across. To be able to create that alignment & sustain it is a never-ending journey.