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Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Never say retire

Three useful little phrases for India’s leaders who don’t know when to quit — ‘best before’,‘use before’,and ‘expiry date’

Written by Peter Ronald DeSouza | Published: July 1, 2013 3:07:37 am

Three useful little phrases for India’s leaders who don’t know when to quit — ‘best before’,‘use before’,and ‘expiry date’

The markings on packaged food and medicines,which specify a date by which the product must be consumed,have a message for those of us concerned about public institutions. These may be governance institutions,civil society organisations,knowledge producing institutions and sports bodies. The keywords “best before”,“use before”,and “expiry date”,which have been mandated by the Food and Drug Administration to be on every food packet and medicine,are there because of the singular concern with public safety. It is the elements of this public safety that we have to think about.

The three words,although they convey the same intent of a terminal date after which the product is not to be consumed,have subtle differences in message that we need to decode. The first,“best before”,clearly has a positive tone and suggests that the benefits of the product,its potency,would be best enjoyed before the terminal date. If the product is a food,then its freshness,minerals,vitamins,and nutritional value,would have maximum benefits before the specified date. After that it would be stale,depleted in nutritional content,and maybe even foul tasting.

The same analysis remains true for public institutions. The “best before” message applies to leaders of such institutions as well,since after some time,they too begin to get stale and lose their dynamism and inventiveness. The early years of a leader are marked by an energy that looks at challenges and instead sees opportunities,that inspires and encourages subordinates,that sees the institution as a platform for achieving new aspirations and that strategises innovative ways to achieve these aspirations. In the later years,in contrast,inertia sets in. The institutional philosophy undergoes a change as possessiveness of office begins to cloud the vital distinction between the self and the institution. A culture of fake consensus replaces the culture of debate and discussion that had marked its early years. People are scared to dissent,since the institution now has ceased to be a joint endeavour and has instead become a personal project. The eyes of the leader are blind to errors of judgement and nobody has the courage to point this out. The vitamins are missing. Alex Ferguson saw this eventuality at Manchester United and left before his terminal date. Sachin Tendulkar has not seen it and nobody in the BCCI is willing to tell him that his “best before” date has passed.

It is this possibility,of entering a period with negative consequences for the institution,which the second keyword “use before” signifies. It means that only when the product is used before the specified date will the promised benefits follow. The positive tone that was there in “best before” is missing in “use before”,which has a more matter-of-fact cadence. One reads in it a hint of not just the product becoming ineffective after the specified date but perhaps also of the product displaying signs of an emergent toxicity. When Ratan Tata took on the oligarchs of the Tata Empire,and when he specified a retirement date for all heads of group companies,he was recognising these elements of both “best before” and “use before”. Some years ago one assumed that N.R. Narayana Murthy stood for the same message,but when he recently portrayed Infosys as his other child,because of which he was willing to renounce his earlier pledge and return to help it in its troubled phase,one knew that possessiveness had replaced impersonality,that self had become equal to,if not higher than,the institution. And the board had become complicit in this change of institutional philosophy. By succumbing to the gains of the immediate term and postponing the hard decisions of the long term,when every leader must go,the board had taken the soft option. As is most often the case.

This malady of a complicit board afflicts most Indian institutions,not just those in the corporate world but also in the academy and in civil society. Interestingly,if there is one thing that both the US and China agree on,as a foundational principle of the state,it is a fixed term for leaders: two terms amounting to eight years for the US president and 10 years for the Chinese president and prime minister. The heavens may fall,but this rule will not be violated,however dynamic the leader may be. This is based on the recognition that a fixed term,of sufficient duration,is enough to get the best from anyone,after which the decline sets in. It is also based on the equally important acknowledgement that nobody is indispensable and that there is adequate talent out there in society that can fill the vacant office. Hence,for the good of the larger society and for the good of the particular institution,succession must be institutionalised by specifying a fixed term and by setting out procedures where successors can be groomed and transfer of power can be seamless. The Chinese have converted this into an art form in just three decades.

In India,while we specify fixed terms for the CJI,CAG,COAS,CVC,CEC and VCs,we do not do so for our NGOs and civil society organisations and private knowledge institutions. Rajni Kothari signalled this at the CSDS when he accepted only a fixed term as director of the institution he founded. A healthy institutional tradition grew from this decision. We need a public debate on fixed terms for public institutions. We need to know when it is time to go. Viv Richards gave us a clue in a recent interview. He said that when he was fielding and he missed a catch because he did not see the ball coming,something that would not have happened in his better years,he knew it was time to go. Heads of institutions should think about the message of “best before” and “use before”. It will be good for our public institutions and our public culture.

The third keyword,“expiry date”,takes our reflections on public institutions a little further. It conveys a warning. While the first two are on food packets,the third,significantly,is on medicines. Since all active ingredients decompose when exposed to sun and light,after which they metamorphose into some other product,the medicine,after its expiry date,should not be consumed since in addition to it having lost its potency,it could also be harmful. This is true of leaders of public institutions as well after their expiry date. They become toxic. They begin to undermine the good they did in their earlier years. And since succession plans are not in place,and since a culture of silence and sycophancy has emerged,there is nobody to tell the emperor that he has no clothes. This reminds me of the story of Joe Frazier,the world heavyweight boxing champ,who,after his career in boxing was over,formed a music band and took

to singing. The report in the papers commenting on this new development stated,“Joe Frazier cannot sing,but who is going to tell him”. Perhaps the Food and Drug Administration!

The writer is director,Indian Institute of Advanced Study,Shimla. Views are personal

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