India needs War Cabinets

Published on June 5-12, 2020

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When we look back at how India handled the coronavirus, the decisions to repeatedly extend the lockdown after April 14 will rank among the worst in Independent India – right up there with the choice of a Constitution that mirrored the 1935 Government of India Act, under-investment in school education in the 1950s, the central planning and socialism turn, the licence-quota-permit raj, nationalisation of banks and insurance in the late 1960s, Emergency, the elimination of property rights as a fundamental right in the 1970s, the lost opportunities at opening up the economy fully after the 1991 crisis, and demonetisation in 2016.

The first lockdown on March 28 was important because there was a need to get the health infrastructure ready to cope with the increase in cases. By early April, it was clear that while the virus will lead to a spike in deaths, it was not as fatal as it was initially assumed. We are now in Lockdown 5.0, euphemistically called Unlock India 1. The successive lockdowns after that were driven because the politicians and bureaucrats who were making the decisions quarantined from the real world, experts and common sense.

For the record, I wrote about the need to unlock India in early April:

Let me start by saying that every life is important. As family members and citizens, we are duty-bound to take care of our near and dear ones, and others around us by following rules. Yet, despite all this, 9 million Indians die every year. That is about 24,000 daily, and 1,000 every hour. Let’s say that again – 1,000 Indians across the country die every HOUR. Some die of natural causes, others in accidents, and so on. We do not and protect every one of those deaths. We do take care – we have home care, medicines, hospitals, seat belts, helmets, and so on. And yet, the reality is 1,000 Indians die every HOUR.

What research has shown so far is that Coronavirus can be fatal for about 5% of those infected. It is especially dangerous for those over 65 years of age and having pre-existing medical conditions. The virus also spreads rapidly – it has a reproduction factor of 3-4, meaning that one infected person can infect 3-4 others, leading to exponential growth in infections. Many of those infected may not even show any symptoms – they are asymptomatic. A small percentage will need medical care, and an even smaller percentage will require hospitalisation.

To put this in context, the impact of the virus will lead to an increase in deaths over the next year in India. Even at the upper end of estimates, this is still expected to be much lower than the 1.5 million deaths each year from cardiac arrest. One more disease, some more deaths. We could lose a near or dear one also. We will be angry if they could not be saved.

The question to ask is: given the high rate of infection and spread (which will probably be hard to stop given that we may see multiple waves), and low fatality rate – can Indians afford to sit scared at home for the next many months and avoid all contact with each other when there is no guarantee that the virus itself will disappear even as medical science makes the best efforts? If so, why don’t we sit at home to avoid possible deaths on train tracks and on the road? Can we really afford to harm our own future in the way we are going about it right now? Even as we try and save lives from the virus, what about the lives, livelihoods and futures we are destroying because of the economic pandemic? Are we making the cure worse than the disease?

That was written on April 6 – almost two months ago. Even now, the political leadership in India at all levels has not fully grasped the gravity of the healthcare crisis and the economic devastation that lies ahead.

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The stark economic reality is now staring at us – high unemployment, migrants facing misery and poverty, many businesses facing extinction. Economic webs and supply chains are like glass – once broken, they cannot be put together again. And yet, India kept persisting with lockdown after lockdown.

This is what Ruchir Sharma wrote in the New York Times a few days ago: “By mid-April, many rich countries had started to debate reopening their economies, and protests were breaking out against lockdowns in several major U.S. states. In India, there was little public debate, much less protest. The hardest hit, the poor and unemployed, seem to accept their misery as fate, no doubt unaware of evidence showing the more stringent the lockdown, the more severe the economic damage. Some estimates suggest that India’s economy could contract by nearly 6 percent this year, making this the worst downturn in the country’s post-independence history.”

Only a few states got their act together on the health infrastructure – which has been an area of huge underinvestment by every Indian government over the past 70+ years. And on top of that, we have dislocated livelihoods and dismembered enterprises. As a friend put it to me, this is “murder by policy.”

Now, we are finally starting to say that we need to ‘learn to live’ with the virus. But the fear that has been instilled will take a long time to go. No political leader is willing to say publicly that the virus is not as fatal as was made out to be, and we need to take basic precautions and fully open India for business. Yes, we will see a spike in deaths – but that happens every time there is an outbreak of a disease. The vaccine is not coming anytime soon. The faster we resume normal life, the better it is for all of us – especially the most poor and vulnerable, for whom poverty, hunger and starvation will be much more harmful than the virus itself.

We need to shift the focus to jobs and incomes, to rebuilding India from the looming impact of the Third World War that was started by the pandemic but made worse by government actions. We need to stop the round-the-clock coverage of cases, tests and deaths on national and social media. This has magnified the fear that was initially instilled in the people by the politicians. We need to un-fear the people and unlock the nation.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee is famously said to have asked after a presentation was made to him about the various reforms that India needed to do to get on a 10% growth path – “Magar yeh karega kaun?” (But, who will do it?) This is the same question we need to ask as we now face the daunting task of bringing India back on track after a terrible sequence of decisions by political leaders at every level.

This is where I would like to propose something different for the “karega kaun” problem: the need for war cabinets at every level of government.

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What is a war cabinet? Here is a definition from Wikipedia: “A war cabinet is a committee formed by a government in a time of war. It is usually a subset of the full executive cabinet of ministers. It is also quite common for a war cabinet to have senior military officers and opposition politicians as members.”

The most famous war cabinet was the one created by Churchill during World War 2. From Wikipedia again: “The Churchill war ministry was the United Kingdom’s coalition government for most of the Second World War from 10 May 1940 to 23 May 1945. It was led by Winston Churchill, who was appointed Prime Minister by King George VI following the resignation of Neville Chamberlain in the aftermath of the Norway Debate. At the outset, Churchill formed a five-man War Cabinet which included Chamberlain as Lord President of the Council, Clement Attlee as Lord Privy Seal and later as Deputy Prime Minister, Viscount Halifax as Foreign Secretary and Arthur Greenwood as a minister without portfolio. Although the original war cabinet was limited to five members, in practice they were augmented by the service chiefs and ministers who attended the majority of meetings.”

The Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison set up a war cabinet as early as March 15 to tackle the impact from the coronavirus. From The Saturday Paper (March 21): “The newly convened wartime-style national cabinet – with Morrison, the state premiers and the territory chief ministers – met for the second time in four days. The group includes five Labor members and four Liberals… The national cabinet now meets by teleconference every Friday, and more often as required… “Whatever we do, we’ve got to do for at least six months,” Morrison said. “Six months.””

At this time when India faces two (and perhaps a third) crises, India needs to put together war cabinets at all levels – and not just with people from across political parties, but staffed with experts. The healthcare crisis will persist for the next few years – India will need a huge augmentation in hospital beds and medical care at every level. The economic crisis will set India back many years. The government response has been woefully inadequate. And a third crisis may be emerging – the Chinese incursions into Indian territory in Ladakh.

Each of these crises requires expertise to tackle. Politicians and bureaucrats in India have been found wanting even during peacetime. The situation we now face is unprecedented and war-like – the concomitant interplay between the medical and the economic, between lives and livelihoods, between fear and hope. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary decisions – and these will not be made by Indian politicians and bureaucrats whose decision-making has been singularly flawed for the most part since Independence.

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Governance needs vision, will and expertise. Politicians are good at winning elections because they are able to gauge the pulse of the people and offer promises to a minority (termed as the “selectorate” by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita) that is good enough in a first-past-the-post system. But that does not prepare the winning leaders for good governance. That ends up in the hands of the bureaucrats. All one has to do is to watch “Yes, Minister” and “Yes, Prime Minister” to know how the bureaucrats play the stalling game.

In the US, the elected President comes with thousands of new staff – many sourced from think tanks and the private sector. They bring in a fresh outlook and new ideas. Many come with experience from having built and run large organisations. In India, we have no such luck. We have career politicians – many of them second- and third-generation. The only way they know how to get things done is by either fear or favour.

The politician-bureaucrat jugalbandi is ill-suited for this moment in time. What India needs is transformational leadership – and that needs new talent, which in turn requires trust.

Trust is a very important attribute for management. If I don’t trust others, I will not delegate and will constantly second-guess the intentions of those working with or for me. The result becomes extreme centralisation. Those around me will soon understand this – and therefore hesitate to volunteer their own opinion, and eventually I will end up being surrounded by yes-men. Those with independent opinions will either keep their counsel to themselves or quit.

We see this form of extreme centralisation in governments at all levels in India. Strong leaders win elections, but they do not necessarily trust others. In politics, trust is not important to rise to the top. But governance necessarily needs trust. Else one ends up with single-person autocracies (or dictatorships) with everyone else simply endorsing decisions made by the Supreme Leader.

That may work fine when things are going fine, but falls apart when crises happen. It is at those times when the leaders have to reach out to the best minds and heed their counsel. The pandemic has created just such a crisis in India. If the past two months are any indication, we have a serious vacuum in good decision-making across most governments in India. India needs the trust-talent-transformation chain. That is why there is a need for a “war cabinet” – a team formed by the best experts so decision-making can be done right through the war we are all living through and for making the big changes that India so desperately needs in the near future.

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Here is an excerpt from Pawel Motyl’s book, “Labyrinth: The Art of Decision-Making”:

The traditional approach to decision-making rested on a simple assumption that both the quality and the accuracy of decisions were based on the competence and experience of the decision-maker in tandem with the quality and completeness of the information at their disposal. That approach was highly effective for many years. If a decision was made by a professional acting in good faith and drawing on information from trusted sources, the decision was pretty likely to be the correct one. All you had to do was develop good systems for gathering and analyzing data and entrust key decisions to the most competent personnel to be guaranteed relative peace of mind. Recent years, though, have turned the situation on its head. During the crisis, it was precisely those people who were most experienced, with the greatest successes behind them, relying on tried and tested, reliable sources of information who made the most dramatically awful decisions.

As Motyl puts it: “Great leaders are distinguished by their awareness that greatness is no guarantee of infallibility.”

Motyl goes on to outline the four roles of a leader in decision-making. While these are in a corporate setting, they apply equally well to leaders in government.

  • Visionary and strategist. As a leader, you decide in what direction the entire organization will go, and you ultimately choose the strategy. Be led by solid data and logic, and don’t allow yourself to be seduced by past successes and a sense of invincibility…Authentic leaders constantly question the status quo, even if they created it.
  • Agent of change. You are responsible for shaping reality. If you are able to carry out the first task of a leader, and you set out a bold vision, taking strategic decisions for the organization, make sure the system is going in the same direction.
  • Architect of organizational culture. As a leader, you are the driving force behind the organizational culture, and your actions have an enormous influence on the attitudes and behavior of others. Encourage others to make decisions that support your vision.
  • Creator of the decision-making infrastructure. Remember that in the new normal, “loneliness at the top” is both outdated and ineffective. You need allies, as you won’t be able to analyze the gigantic amount of information and impulses flowing from the exponentially unraveling world of the new normal without help. Build courageous, competent teams whose members understand and support the vision and values you want to promote.

India’s political leaders at all levels of government are faced with a situation they were not trained for. This is the first war they are living through. They need to rise to great heights if they are to fulfil the expectations that people have of them. They cannot do it alone or through conventional leadership. They each need to create a war cabinet that will help guide them and the nation through these turbulent times.

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Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Leadership: Lessons from the Presidents for Turbulent Times” chronicles the lives, times and decisions of four American Presidents (Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson) – each of who lives through great challenges during their tenures. In the words of Goodwin:

[In the White House], at their formidable best, when guided by a sense of moral purpose, they were able to channel their ambitions and summon their talents to enlarge the opportunities and lives of others. Specific stories of how they led will explore the riddle: Do leaders shape the times or do the times summon their leaders?

“If there is not the war,” Theodore Roosevelt mused, “you don’t get the great general; if there is not a great occasion, you don’t get the great statesman; if Lincoln had lived in times of peace, no one would have known his name now.” Roosevelt’s debatable notions voice opinions heard from the beginning of our country. “It is not in the still calm of life, or the repose of a pacific station, that great characters are formed,” Abigail Adams wrote to her son John Quincy Adams in the midst of the American Revolution, suggesting that “the habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties. Great necessities call out great virtues.”

The four leaders presented in this book confronted “great necessities.” All took office at moments of uncertainty and dislocation in extremis. Abraham Lincoln entered the presidency at the gravest moment of dissolution in American history. Franklin Roosevelt encountered a decisive crisis of confidence in our country’s economic survival and the viability of democracy itself. Though neither Theodore Roosevelt nor Lyndon Johnson faced a national crisis on the scale of secession or devastating economic depression, they both assumed office as a result of an assassination, a violent rupture of the democratic mode of succession at a time when seismic tremors had begun to rattle the social order.

While the nature of the era a leader chances to occupy profoundly influences the nature of the leadership opportunity, the leader must be ready when that opportunity presents itself. One leader’s skills, strengths, and style may be suited for the times; those of another, less so.

…Four case studies…reveal these vastly different men in action during defining events of their times and presidencies. These four extended examples show how their leadership fit the historical moment as a key fits a lock. No key is exactly the same; each has a different line of ridges and notches along its blade. While there is neither a master key to leadership nor a common lock of historical circumstance, we can detect a certain family resemblance of leadership traits as we trace the alignment of leadership capacity within its historical context.

All our leaders in India occupy their positions at the hour of the country’s greatest crises in the past 70+ years. They need to summon that same courage, confidence and wisdom to lead India to prosperity. India’s politicians have been singularly responsible for our lack of prosperity. This is a moment when they can together redeem their ilk and put the nation on a path of glory. But for that, they will need to rise above ego, mistrust and small-minded thinking. It is a journey they cannot do alone. Like Frodo Baggins in “The Lord of the Rings”, each of them needs to create a “Fellowship” – their own war cabinets.

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India’s politicians and bureaucrats represent the institution of government of the nation. It is very instructive to know what Lee Kuan Yew said about them. I have excerpted these quotes from the book “Lee Kuan Yew: The Grand Master’s Insights on China, the United States, and the World.” Lee Kuan Yew said this many decades ago – and yet, the words ring so true even now.

India has wasted decades in state planning and controls that have bogged it down in bureaucracy and corruption. A decentralized system would have allowed more centers like Bangalore and Bombay to grow and prosper…The caste system has been the enemy of meritocracy…India is a nation of unfulfilled greatness. Its potential has lain fallow, underused.

There are limitations in the Indian constitutional system and the Indian political system that prevent it from going at high speed…Whatever the political leadership may want to do, it must go through a very complex system at the center, and then even a more complex system in the various states…Indians will go at a tempo which is decided by their constitution, by their ethnic mix, by their voting patterns, and the resulting coalition governments, which makes for very difficult decision-making.

The average Indian civil servant still sees himself primarily as a regulator and not as a facilitator. The average Indian bureaucrat has not yet accepted that it is not a sin to make profits and become rich. The average Indian bureaucrat has little trust in India’s business community. They view Indian business people as money-grabbing opportunists who do not have the welfare of the country at heart, and all the more so if they are foreign.

More from Lee Kuan Yew on leadership and societal transformation:

Civilizations emerge because human societies in a given condition respond to the challenge. Where the challenge is just about right…the human being flourishes.

There are three basic essentials for [the] successful transformation of any society. First, a determined leadership…two, an administration which is efficient; and three, social discipline.

It is a very tough job, especially in political leadership. Being a CEO or the general of an army is different. You do not have to persuade people who can say “boo” to you to get them on your side. When campaigning, no one has to listen to you at all. And when the campaign is over, people have to believe that you have got something for them that you can do that will make them cast their vote for you. It requires a totally different set of skills. Those skills can only be developed if you have a natural urge, a natural interest in people, in wanting to do something for them, which they can sense and feel. If you have not got that and you just want to be a great leader, try some other profession.

I have spent 40 years trying to select people for big jobs…I have gone through many systems, spoken to many CEOs…I decided that Shell had the best system of them all, and the government switched from 40 attributes to three, which they called “helicopter qualities”…What are they? Powers of analysis; logical grasp of the facts; concentration on the basic points, extracting the principles. You score high marks in mathematics, you have got it. But that is not enough…They must have a sense of reality of what is possible. But if you are just realistic, you become pedestrian, plebeian, you will fail. Therefore, you must be able to soar above the reality and say, “This is also possible”—a sense of imagination.

How many in India’s present political leadership and bureaucracy fit what Lee Kuan Yew has outlined? Yet, they are the ones we have got. And that is why it is important for us to get in the best talent from the outside – people who can imagine and create a new India. These are the war cabinets India needs – at every level.

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How can India’s political leaders go about creating their war cabinets? To start with, they need to be humble and set aside their ego. These are not qualities that get a person to the top of the political ladder. And yet, the war-like crisis that the nation faces calls for humility. Only when the leaders are willing to accept that they (or their surrounding bureaucrats) do not have the answers will they open their minds to inputs from the outside. Only when the leaders are willing to start trusting people from the outside will they be able to attract the best talent. Only when they are willing to listen and give freedom to this new team will our nation transform.

The alternative is too depressing to even contemplate. The healthcare and economic crises will get compounded by government actions which worsen the problem – as we have seen in the past two months. Indians will be set back many years in their slow walk forward to prosperity. Indian businesses (especially the small and medium enterprises) will take many years to recover – if they can survive.

Here is a 10-point war cabinet plan for India’s political leaders to take India forward:

  1. Create two primary missions – for healthcare and the economy
  2. Identify a leader for each of these missions – a leader who is not a politician or a present or past bureaucrat
  3. Give freedom to the leaders to build their teams
  4. Meet with the team every few days initially so there is a complete alignment in objectives
  5. Have a daily 15-minute review with the leaders – the equivalent of a ‘stand-up meeting’
  6. Ask the teams to deliver an action plan within 30 days – not difficult because the good ideas are already out there
  7. Create a mechanism inside government to ensure execution of these plans – without bureaucratic roadblocks
  8. Create public dashboards to ensure transparency on outcomes
  9. Speak to the people weekly to keep them updated on the thinking and actions taken
  10. Keep the team in place for the next two years

India needs a new beginning. Business as usual will not work in the wake of the devastation caused by the virus. Creating war cabinets is a way to convert the crisis into an opportunity, and put Indians on an irreversible path to prosperity.

Additional Reading (from the past two months):