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India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Statue of Unity in Kevadia (File) Image Credit: PTI

Is there an Indian model of leadership? If so, how is it different from the Western model? Furthermore, can such a model be successfully taught, promoted, and utilised worldwide, not just in India? Such questions have exercised us for a long time without clear-cut answers.

Management schools in India and elsewhere, trying to conceptualise Indian ideas of leadership, have also a long way to go before any recognisable and widely acceptable paradigms emerge. Without the latter, however, the pedagogic utility of cultural and civilisational difference can only be limited to theoretical speculations or general discussions.

More than previous regimes in India, it is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s BJP-led government which has taken up this question seriously. In September 2020, Modi launched “Mission KarmaYogi,” or to cite its official name, the National Program for Civil Services Capacity Building (NPCSCB).

The Union Cabinet approved the programme, with a modest budget of Rs10.86 crore spread over 5 years devoted to enhancing the skills and augmenting the capacities of Indian civil servants.

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Rather than the budget, what is significant is the institutional framework of NPCSCB, which includes the Prime Minister’s Public Human Resources (HR) Council, the Capacity Building Commission, a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) for owning and operating the digital assets and the technological platform for online training, and a Coordination Unit headed by the Cabinet Secretary. Without question, it is a high-powered set-up, empowered to produce results.

As a prelude of this ambitious programme, a new combined civil services training programme was started on 31 October 2019 from Kevadia, where the world’s tallest statute, Statue of Unity, is located.

It is made in the likeness of “Sardar" Vallabhbhai Patel, India’s first Home Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, who is the “father” of the post-Independence Indian Administrative Service.

Serving the nation

The venue was meant to inspire officer cadets of India’s “iron frame” to serve the country. Called ‘Aarambh’ (which means commencement), the common foundation course had over 450 officer probationers in attendance, with the Prime Minister himself opening the course and addressing them.

At the behest of the current Director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration (LBSNAA), Dr Sanjeev Chopra, I was fortunate to be among the invitees and experts.

Again, at a recent brainstorming meeting in which I was privileged to participate, the seriousness of intent of the government in fostering a new kind of culturally rooted and service-oriented leadership was amply evident.

In fact, an Indian leadership institute, not confined only to government servants, but cutting across all walks of life and productive areas of society was thought to be the need of the hour. It was felt that only an integrated and visionary model of leadership would serve the transformation and aspirational needs of a growing economy and resurgent civilisation such as India.

However, what was once again amply clear is that without deep thinking and research on Indian models of leadership little real progress would be possible on this front.

The many drawbacks if not defects of the current system, which emphasises careers rather than creativity, rules rather than roles, security rather than service, silo-confinement rather than silo-breaking cooperation, were obvious.

Passing exams, then leading a somewhat comfortable life — which is the present predominant culture of the services — must also be interrogated and altered. But how? What motivational and administrative measures might be taken to create a breakthrough? There are no definite answers to these questions.

Knowledge down the ages

Some years ago in discussions on Indian leadership, I came across an interesting distinction between the Yogi and the Conquistador. The latter excels in invasion, occupation, domination, and conquest. The former, on the other hand, tries to acquire self-mastery and then uses his wisdom to serve society.

The contrast goes way back to the encounter between Alexander the Great and the Indian sage cited in Plutarch’s Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans (CE 45). In fact, Kalanus, the Yogi, came to be so-called by the Greeks because he greeted everyone with ‘Kalyan Bhav,’ constantly blessing them and wishing them well.

According to another writer of great antiquity, Arrian (VII. I. 5 — iii.), Yogi Dandamuni taught Alexander by stamping the ground without saying a word.

When asked the meaning, an interpreter explained, ‘O King Alexander, each man possesses as much of the earth as what we have stepped on; but you, being a man like the rest of us, except that you wickedly disturb the peace of the world, have come so far from home to plague yourself and everyone else, and yet before long when you die you will possess just so much of the earth as will suffice to make a grave to cover your bones.’ The prophecy seems to have come true because Alexander died soon after, at the tender age of 33.

In the 20th century, it was Arthur Koestler who offered a way to understand the difference in Western and Indian leadership models in The Yogi and the Commissar (1945). He ranged the Commissar at the material, scientific end of the leadership spectrum, while the Yogi is at the other spiritual and metaphysical end.

But, as I have tried to demonstrate in my book, Swami Vivekananda (HarperCollins, 2020), the real model of Indian leadership comes from combining and integrating these two ends, the material and the spiritual, the scientific and the mystical, to transform society and the world.