The peepul tree or the Ficus religiosa, to give it is scientific name, is not just native to India, but an intrinsic part of culture. It was under this tree that Savitri is said to have negotiated Satyavan’s life with Yama, the God of Death. Millenia later, women in India still worship the tree to pray for their spouses' long life. In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna refers to this tree saying, I am the peepul among the trees, the Narada amongst the sages – essentially the best of the best among each classification. The Buddha is supposed to have received enlightenment under it. For hundreds of years, weary travellers sought shade and refuge under it. For even longer, the tree has been the ecosystem for a variety of birds and small animals. While its virtues as a natural, spiritual, and material ecosystem are many, it exhibits another facet that is quite fascinating. Nothing grows under a peepul tree, or under those of its relative, the banyan tree. And, this is because the gigantic presence of the tree cuts out all sunlight from reaching the ground and kills all life forms that need sunlight and chlorophyll to live. It prevents new forms of green shoots; it prevents life from gaining root.
In organisations, too, you have gigantic peepuls – people so brilliant and overwhelming that they decimate the next line of leadership, and the next, and the next – till nothing grows under. As organisations grow more mission-driven, the expectation of a larger-than-life leader who propels them to a greater path becomes more necessary -- a glue that holds diverse parts of the organisation together, following a greater goal. But there are times that this can go the other way. A Harvard Business Review article, When Charismatic Leadership Goes Too Far, talks about the five phases that transform a leadership, as it moves from the positive glue that holds the organisation together, to the force that tears the organisation apart. The first is “the subtle sense on the part of followers that the leader does not want to be questioned”; the second phase, is that supporters self-censor, and not ask questions that may improve a course of action; the third phase is – without hearing any dissent, the leader becomes over-confident. Buoyed on by a chorus of those who say yes, they begin to think they are infallible, despite evidence to the contrary. The fourth stage becomes one where the followers stop having ideas, as no idea but that of the leader’s matters. And, finally, you see complete demoralisation of the organisation, with the best leaving to seek other opportunities.
Which brings us to the woes of the Grand Old Party of India, the Indian National Congress. The problem with the Indian National Congress in the post-Indira Gandhi era is that the peepul-like behaviour of a larger-than-life charismatic leader, in all aspects of the party, has decimated the party of leadership at every level. It bounces between Phases Four and Five, described above, on the scale of descent. The ‘yes’ culture has become so pervasive that from the booth-level upwards, the ambition needed to fight and win elections, the edge needed, has been blunted by a chorus of yeses. And in organisations, too, you have gigantic peepuls – people so brilliant and overwhelming that they decimate the next line of leadership, and the next, and the next – till nothing grows under .
Ambitious leaders who did not want to be ‘yes people’ have moved on to start their own parties – be it Mamata Banerjee who moved out to start the TMC, or Sharad Pawar who moved out to start the Nationalist Congress party (NCP), both found themselves boxed in by the culture of acquiescence. More recently, you saw Priyanka Chaturvedi and Jyotiraditya Scindia seek better pastures. We also saw the rebellion by Sachin Pilot before he was cajoled back to the fold; and finally, it was the letter by 23 Congress leaders on what the party needs to do to break out of the quicksand it seems to be stuck in. The letter called for the revitalisation of the party on multiple levels, starting with party elections to fill posts. One the face of it, a completely normal request.
The proposal was met with high drama, offers of resignation by Sonia Gandhi, contrition on the part of some who signed the letter, and tears. The net outcome is that it is business as usual in the Congress Party, helmed by Sonia Gandhi and her merry bunch of loyalists. In the end, the ‘dissenters’ have been sidelined and a loud, clear public warning has gone out to anyone who will have a different point of view in the future.
The solution to the organisational crisis that the Congress is facing, is to break out of the echo chamber that tells the leader how wonderful they are, and listen to diverse voices within the Congress. The party needs to understand that to regenerate and become relevant, it needs to restructure and reform. And, that can only happen if there are diverse ideas and views that are allowed within the party that help us restructure. Sonia Gandhi would do well to recognise this.