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Former US president Harry S. Truman kept a sign saying “the buck stops here" on his desk in the Oval Office. This phrase implies that, in an ultimate sense, the individual designated as leader is answerable, especially for failure.

However, another influential school of thought pioneered by thinkers like James O’Toole, professor at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business, posits that “leadership is as much an institutional, as it is an individual trait" and that “leadership could be thought of as a team sport (or, at least, as ‘doubles’)". Think of the famous duos of the business world, HP’s William R. Hewlett and David Packard, Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger, and Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer. In India, one can cite the examples of V. Kurien and Kishore Jhala of the Gujarat Cooperative Milk Marketing Federation (Amul), or the founding team of Infosys.

In the field of politics, the success of the Congress in the freedom struggle came from the moral authority and mass appeal of Mahatma Gandhi, the charisma of Jawaharlal Nehru, and the organizational strength of Vallabhbhai Patel. In our own time, the best example of shared leadership is that of the Bharatiya Janata Party, where the extraordinary magnetism of Narendra Modi and the equally extraordinary organizational skills of Amit Shah have created an unbeatable electoral juggernaut.

Despite a plethora of examples, people tend to ignore the phenomenon of co-leaders because of the differentiated roles assigned to leaders—CEO, president, COO and the like, and the differing levels of visibility of members of the leadership team. But shared leadership is imperative when the challenges an organization faces are so complex that they require a set of skills too broad to be possessed by any one individual.

Critics of the BJP have made much of the fact that it is a two-man army. They fail to realize that the real problem is that the Congress is a one-man show. While leadership is at least a game of doubles, if not a team sport, the Congress decided to put up one man against the Modi-Shah duo. This is an important reason for its humiliation.

The pitfalls of the organizational structure of the Congress can be well illustrated by its inability to effectively stitch up alliances. Rahul Gandhi may have sought to compensate for his outsized role in the organizational structure by “giving away" control to a motley group of local leaders from the “goodness of his heart". But, given that these leaders did not have clearly defined roles, they ended up competing with each other. The Delhi disaster is a prime example, but the drift in a state like Maharashtra is also an instance of this phenomenon. Further, a leader without a clearly defined second rung tends to become a bottleneck in the process of decision making. His lieutenants complain about lack of access while the real problem is the top leader’s lack of bandwidth.

Even today, Rahul Gandhi is the second largest vote catcher in India. Installing a working president in his place will be a hypocritical act, given that power will continue to reside with him. It will also be seen as a cowardly abandonment of the field of battle. Instead, the Congress should aim to create a cadre of co-leaders, 3-4 in number, of whom more than half should come from outside the Gandhi family. The “CXOs" should divide responsibilities for political strategy, organizational development, and crafting and communicating the message of the Congress. The head of political strategy should be responsible for managing power centres, creating alliances and ensuring good governance in Congress-ruled states. The head of organizational development should be answerable for increasing membership, building capabilities and promoting a culture of performance. But, perhaps, the most important is the role of the head of communications.

At this stage, the Congress needs to create a counter-narrative to the “nationalism" of the BJP. I believe the way to do this is to dive deep into the founding principles of our republic as embodied in the Constitution, and resuscitate the core principles that are at variance with the stated positions of the BJP and—more importantly—the ground-level politics as practised by the party. It is my view that such principles exist, and that the violation of these compromises the foundational ethos of our nation. The Congress must also go beyond the freedom struggle to repossess the narrative of India’s economic liberalization. After initiating research programmes on these issues through the many organizations it controls, such as the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, it must spread the message to every nook and corner through study groups of the kind used by cadre-based parties.

Of course, there are as many examples of the failure of shared leadership as there are examples of success. Rahul Gandhi must aim to select people who are not afraid to speak their mind. Since the work ahead will be long and laborious, he must favour youth over old age. The present juncture provides a golden opportunity to blast away the deadwood that is crippling the party.

The good news is that a pool of young leaders does exist within the Congress. The real problem in the operationalization of the proposed strategy is that the present organizational structure may be exactly the way the first family of the Congress wants it. Indeed, the Gandhis have a long history of throttling dissent and promoting courtiers. Hopefully, this defeat will alert them to the reality that power that’s hoarded tends to vanish altogether.

Rohit Prasad is professor at MDI, Gurgaon. Game Sutra is a fortnightly column based on game theory.

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