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Lessons in leadership: What Narendra Modi could learn from Sher Shah Suri

The anniversaries of Modi’s 2014 victory and Sher Shah Suri’s defeat of Humayun hold an opportunity to compare the two rulers.

On May 16, 2014, Narendra Modi secured the prime ministership of India, having led his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, and its allies to a comfortable majority in the Lok Sabha. On May 17, 1540, Sher Shah Suri won a decisive victory against the Mughal emperor Humayun in the battle of Kannauj. The parallels between the lives of the two leaders are striking. Like Modi, Sher Shah was brought up in a small Indian town and ran away from home in his teens following a family dispute. He found mentors who appreciated his talent and ambition, and furthered his career. He ruled a large province where he reorganised the administration. He outmanoeuvred better positioned peers to become leader of his clan. He was middle-aged by the time he faced his most important battle. His young adversary, born into one of Asia’s most renowned dynasties, was good-natured and well-meaning, but a little clueless and prone to indolence. He handed this opponent a comprehensive drubbing to ascend the throne of Delhi.

The similarities between the two leaders throw into sharp relief the divergences in their respective accomplishments. The Suri dynasty was the shortest-lived of the Delhi Sultanates, with Sher Shah himself dying a mere five years after his Kannauj triumph, killed by an accidental mine explosion during a siege. But he made those five years count the way few rulers anywhere in the world have done, instituting momentous reforms that for centuries changed the way India was governed.

In his first public comments after his 2014 win, Narendra Modi said he needed 10 years to transform India. His followers have been parroting that line ever since. The 10 year figure is a smoke screen. If one speaks of India’s journey to becoming a developed nation, a decade is nowhere close to sufficient. It will take us 20 years at a compounded annual GDP growth rate of 8% merely to equal China’s current per capita income level, and we have not touched that 8% rate even once under Modi’s government. On the other hand, if one focuses on course corrections and bold initiatives that set the foundations for long-term prosperity, two or three years with a parliamentary majority are sufficient to provide proofs of concept.

The much-derided United Progressive Alliance administration initiated in its first year a comprehensive work for pay scheme, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, and the Right to Information Act, a radical law that did more for government transparency than anything adopted since India became a republic. Modi’s biggest accomplishment thus far has been overseeing the passage of the One Hundred and First Amendment to India’s Constitution, which introduced a national Goods and Services Tax. He deserves credit for it, though it is a muddled law with too many tax brackets, was conceived by the United Progressive Alliance, and was held up by BJP opposition led by Modi in his former role as Gujarat’s chief minister. When we think of legislation conceived by Modi, we find nothing in the pipeline remotely as ground-breaking as the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Right to Information Act.

Farmers and land reforms

Sher Shah was one of the few Indian monarchs to care about farmers. He had every plot of farmland in his kingdom measured precisely and graded by quality. Farmers were given a title deed, known as a patta, a term still officially used in India for such documents. In return, they acceded to the qabuliyat, which stipulated the annual payment due to the state. This was 33% of the assessed output in the majority of regions, and 25% in others, far lower than the swingeing 50% expropriated by Allaudin Khilji and the East India Company (some scholars hold 25% was the standard rate). While few farmers could read the patta and qabuliyat, Sher Shah had the documents written in local languages to make the task a little easier. He established a bureaucracy that extended from muqaddams and patwaris in each village to district and state-level officials and finally four central ministers working directly under him.

Narendra Modi came to power with the intention of overhauling the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act (LARR) of 2013, which governs the way farmland can be bought for infrastructural and industrial projects. Critics of the Act consider it lopsided, favouring landowners over those seeking to set up industries. I believe the law ought to apply only when the government purchases land compulsorily for public works or on behalf of private industry for systemically crucial initiatives. For other deals, the attitude should be, “It is your land, you can do with it what you want.” Such an approach would enhance property rights in India. Ambitious undertakings, however, tend to require some compulsory purchase, and delays in land acquisition have created a serious drag on India’s economic growth.

Modi sought to hasten industrialisation by removing barriers to compulsory acquisition outlined in LARR. He wanted to weaken property rights instead of strengthening them. Unsurprisingly, farmers’ groups weren’t thrilled by the idea, and he abandoned it in the face of objections from within the BJP and Sangh Parivar. Since then, he has restricted himself to curtailing property rights sneakily.

Currency system and demonetisation

Sher Shah’s second monumental achievement was to create a new system of currency. He introduced a silver rupiya of standardised weight that retained its basic form into the 20th century. His mints also produced gold mohurs and copper paisas exchangeable with rupiyas in a fixed ratio. Many of these coins bear the Devanagari legend “Sri Sersahi” alongside Arabic renditions of his name. His new trimetallic currency spurred trade and helped farmers who previously had been required to make up for debased coins by paying extra.

Narendra Modi also attempted currency reform, variously described as a demonetisation, a banknote ban and a note swap. It did not go well. I have described it in a column published in April as “a crazy idea dismissed by serious economists and advocated only by batty fringe groups”. The note swap, which is the lone original idea Modi has had in the past four years, exposed the terrible poverty of imagination at the heart of his developmental agenda.

Narendra Modi attempted currency reform in the form of demonetisation – but it did not go well. (Credit: AFP)
Narendra Modi attempted currency reform in the form of demonetisation – but it did not go well. (Credit: AFP)

Rah-e-Azam and bullet train

His signature infrastructural innovation, the bullet train route between Bombay and Ahmedabad, also testifies to the same lack of inspiration. It will have none of the impact of Sher Shah’s best-known infrastructural project, the Rah-e-Azam, or Great Road, a link running from Chittagong to Kabul. He had trees planted on both sides of the road and caravanserais built at regular intervals offering shelter and nourishment to travellers, traders and their animals. Muslims and Hindus alike found food and accommodation tailored to their requirements and taboos.

The Mughal emperor Akbar recognised Sher Shah’s genius even while ensuring his chronicler Abul Fazl heaped scorn on the man who had defeated his father. Akbar built a sophisticated political theory on Sher Shah’s ecumenical, multicultural administration, adopted and refined his land revenue and currency systems, and extended the Rah-e-Azam. The British, who continued with a number of Mughal practices, made further enhancements to the highway they called the Grand Trunk Road, which was, in the words of Rudyard Kipling, “a wonderful spectacle. It runs straight, bearing without crowding India’s traffic for fifteen hundred miles – such a river of life as nowhere else exists in the world”.

Always a good planner, Sher Shah built his own mausoleum in his home town Sasaram, a noble tomb standing in a square, artificial lake. Today, half of Sasaram’s sewage pours untreated into that lake. Locals say they used the lake’s water for cooking in the past but cannot even use it for bathing any more. That’s a hint of the crisis India faces. The river of life threatens to flood at any moment, barely held back by advances in the supply of amenities.

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The past four years have by no means been bad for India. By historical standards, a growth rate of around 7% coupled with reasonable inflation, manageable deficits and incremental reforms is a healthy course. The flipside is a worrying paucity of jobs, criminal underinvestment in education and public health, dreadful urban pollution, and the persistent fear that we are one global crisis away from a downward spiral. Arun Shourie, noting that Narendra Modi was continuing along the path set by previous administrations at more or less the same pace, famously defined the present government as “Congress plus a cow”. Given the level of communal hate stirred up by the ruling party, I would modify the equation to, “BJP equals the Congress plus cow and trishul”. One’s attitude to Modi depends entirely on how much one loves cows and trishuls. He has dashed hopes that he would bring fresh ideas to government and mark a paradigm shift in India’s development. He will probably get his 10 years, but we understand already that he is no Sher Shah Suri.

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