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A HR Mindset for the Indian Political System

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Adi Dhar - HR Consulting

06-Jul-2021

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As companies do for their employees, so too should political parties introduce an index or rating scale to score their key talent – perhaps a 9-point rating on their KRAs. KRAs and goals set should be SMART – specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely.

Organizational HR to Indian politics is a tricky extrapolation. Traditional HR has been more an internal, human capacity improvement function, to enable organisations to perform their external tasks and cope with concomitant challenges while politics is about winning elections. Modern HR is increasingly designed to give employees an Organization that wins – perhaps it can offer the political system with a few cue’s to improve itself and be more consumer focused.

Recruitment and Selection

While noting the clear distinction between a government and a nation’s political parties, the purpose of a political party is to come into government and eventually fill key roles within. A starting point, therefore, might be to look at key government roles and question if some of those roles require more technocratic eligibility criteria.

If someone were to ask you - “What qualifications do you need to be the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India?” – What might you guess? The candidate should have a strong background in Finance, perhaps cleared their CA exams but surely some experience with numbers along with Economics? As it happens, there is no fixed eligibility criterion; our current RBI governor has a Bachelor of Arts and a Master’s in History. This role has had a history of IAS officers, most of whom have been great, but many experts have started to increasingly suggest the appointment of “specialists” rather than “generalists”.

Separately, our constitution does not highlight any proper provisions regarding qualifications that are needed to stand for national and state elections. So, while you need to be at least a 10th standard pass to apply for a clerical job in the government, there's no such educational stipulation to become a minister (about only 40% of ministers are educated up to school only). We witness heated arguments in parliament, scams and corruption, and unstructured progress, decade after decade.

One school of thought is to clearly define relevant, sector-specific, eligibility criteria to perform a government role and to then recruit and select accordingly. The qualifications should include college graduation with an acceptable percentage of marks, relevant work experience and a clear background check of any criminal records.

In 1991, the India economy was crippled with high fiscal deficit and depleted forex reserves. Manmohan Singh, who has a Master’s degree in Economics and a doctorate from Oxford, was perfect for the role of Finance Minister and was able to introduce the Budget of 1991 which saved the country from near bankruptcy; things could have been quite different today if we had someone less qualified at the helm.

A second approach would be to argue that educational qualifications don’t always correlate to efficacy. Some of the best CEOs don’t have an MBA.  In this approach, political parties should then have internal development and orientation programs to groom their cadres for future government roles so they can build their capacity to make discerning judgements when they come into office.

Performance Appraisal and Unconscious Bias

Conservatives tend to blindly support every single move the Modi administration makes while liberals fly into a rage if he uses a fork instead of a spoon. The political climate is that of selective outrage; we ignore the bad and focus on the good (and vice versa for the opposition), as long as it fits our narrative.

In HR, we call the bias of focusing on just the positives the “Halo Effect” and focusing on just the negatives the “Horns” effect.

In our performance appraisal cycles, we categorize performance into “Key Strengths” and “Areas of Development” with fair and adequate attention being given to both as required.

As companies do for their employees, so too should parties introduce an index or rating scale to score their key talent – perhaps a 9-point rating on their KRAs. KRAs and goals set should be SMART – specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely.

A well-defined performance system holds the right people accountable for the right things at the right time. There is a large selection of tools from the managerial stack available, so parties can select the ones that work best in their context. Surely that must already be happening?

Building Leadership Bench Strength and the Pipeline

India is young. Its leaders not as much 65% of India’s population are below 35 with an average age of less than 29. However, if we are to look at the composition of our elected MPs, experience is prioritized over youth and rightly so. The comparisons to other countries with significantly younger leadership don’t work in our context. New Zealand might have a 37-year-old PM but its population is also 1/4th of Mumbai. In a country like China or India, to head a state or country you would ideally need to have spent two terms as MLA, two terms as MP, a stint as junior minister of a department and then as cabinet minister in increasingly important portfolios; experience that is tough to pull off before age 50. In the same vein, it is possible to have a really young leader run a start-up but that wouldn’t work for monoliths with diversified operations like L&T, Citibank, GE or Hitachi.

The issue arises with passing the baton over to qualified and enthusiastic successors. Our history is ripe with examples of talent who weren’t given expanded opportunities to perform.

Shashi Tharoor, in spite of his substantial experience with the UN, internal affairs and academia, has been serving as Member of Lok Sabha from Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala, since 2009 and hasn’t yet been elevated. Milind Deora was one of the youngest members of the 15th Lok Sabha who became MP at the age of 27; he remained a member of Lok Sabha from South Mumbai. Sachin Pilot, the well-known Wharton MBA who became the youngest Member of Parliament at 26, was once hailed as the future of Indian politics. Almost two decades later, he is running out of steam with his coup d'état attempts to dislodge veteran Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan, a position for which many considered him as the obvious change of the guard.

One explanation is that just as some companies are family-owned businesses (Walmart, Berkshire Hathway, Tata, Ford, the list is endless), so too are many of our parties. Here, by design, there is extra caution given to the appointment of outsiders for senior positions. In a family type set-up, it is natural for heirs to be successors. If you are born in the manor, you get an elevator to the top.

Good companies take succession planning very seriously. Carefully selecting and then developing their future pipeline is vital in maintaining their long-term health. IBM, Apple, Nike and Coke are notorious for the leadership grooming they give their HiPos.

Consultants

HR bring in vendors and consultants to handle a range of organizational needs on Diversity and Inclusion, L&D sessions, Executive Hiring and Wellness and Benefits. Background checks are often outsourced.

In the same vein, parties should continue to increasingly leverage experts as their appetite for services grows.

In a 2020 report titled ‘India’s Turning Point’, McKinsey have advised that India privatize 30 or so of the largest state-owned enterprises to potentially double their productivity, suggesting sector-specific growth policies to attract investment in manufacturing, agriculture, real estate, healthcare and retail. They’ve suggested techniques to create flexible labour markets with better benefits and safety for workers. They are currently helping Andhra Pradesh design a new capital city in Amaravati.

In the year leading up to the pandemic, Niti Aayog (India’s planning commission and public policy think tank) spent ~15 crores on 6 consultants, including BCG and PwC, to suggest policy interventions.

As we have “celebrity consultant personalities” in the corporate sector, so too should independent Political Consultants increasingly start to flourish. In the last few years, Prashant Kishor has emerged as a household name. He’s worked with the INC, BJP and DMK; most recently advising TMC’s dominating victory in West Bengal. The grapevine suggests some of his campaigns charge between 300 to 500 crores.

Culture and Alignment of Goals

We have a million people as rich as the richest people in the world and a billion people as poor as the poorest people in the world. In essence, we are managing one Manhattan and one Africa both located in the same geography. And geography is a conversation in itself. As Indian historian, Ramachandra Guha says, "It is difficult to even encompass this country in the mind – the great Himalaya, the wide Indo-Gangetic plain burnt by the sun and savaged by the fierce monsoon rains, the green flooded delta of the east, the great cities like Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. It does not, often, seem like one country.” We have 4 castes, over 6 religions and 22 languages.

How do we define a culture that encompasses all this and create one aligned vision?

For organizations, one factor for success is to create a strong culture based on a collectively shared set of beliefs of people across their various divisions, be it Tech, Legal or Operations.

HR is more than just paying salaries and training. It is multi-dimensional, and through policies and structure, HR creates and maintains culture, which involves the inter-dependencies between the employee and organization, while addressing a myriad of issues such as ethics, information, awareness, motivation and behaviour. The art of managing culture certainly holds merit in the context of politics.

Market Benchmarking

Most HR teams perform benchmarking on market salaries, campus offers, wellness offerings and other topics.  

Many of our tools, processes and ways of working are becoming obsolete at an unprecedented rate and require an ongoing analysis of what’s new in the market. L&D, for example, has switched to an almost completely digital model across the industry post Covid-19.

As we do in our companies, a nation must consistently apply ongoing comparisons to other advanced nations to understand new issues, their potential implications and practices that can be implemented.

These areas must include economic globalization and integration, new technologies, structural adjustment and privatization, sustainable development and emerging new work systems.

This does not advocate/disadvocate any political party, person or ideology

References:

The Financial Times, McKinsey & Company, DailyO, The Economic Times, India After Gandhi by Ramachandra Guha, BloombergQuint.