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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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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.