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A Tale Of Unlikely Politicians

By Indrajit Gupta
April 04, 2024 16:25 IST
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Many ethical, competent corporate leaders aspire to join public life today. However, the transition to politics is far from easy, observes Indrajit Gupta.

IMAGE: Uttarakhand Chief Minister Pushkar Singh Dham, right, welcomes former Congress leader Manish Khanduri, left, as he joins the Bharatiya Janata Party in Dehradun, March 9, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

On February 9, when Santrupt Misra announced he was formally joining the Biju Janata Dal as its national spokesperson, there was intense speculation that the Aditya Birla group veteran may be nominated to the Rajya Sabha.

That eventually proved to be untrue. But now, there is a distinct possibility that the party may field him as a candidate for the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

With the elections barely weeks away, a final decision could be imminent.

In the Pauri Garhwal Lok Sabha constituency, Manish Khanduri has his hands full, campaigning for a new local Bharatiya Janata Party candidate there.

Even till some weeks ago, Mr Khanduri seemed all set to bag a Congress ticket from the same constituency, until he resigned for personal reasons and decided to hitch his bandwagon with the BJP.

He did not ask for a party ticket from the BJP. None was offered either, except perhaps for an organisational role in the party in Delhi in the future.


IMAGE: Santrupt Misra, former HR head of the Aditya Birla Group, joined the BJD. Photograph: Kind courtesy Santrupt Misra/X

The news of Mr Khanduri's resignation from the Congress was greeted with a deep sense of disappointment among our journalist community, particularly among those of us who had worked closely with him, including starting our careers at Business Standard in the early nineties.

Dr Misra and Mr Khanduri's political journeys can't obviously be compared. Dr Misra is a stalwart from the corporate world with an outstanding track record of transformation.

Mr Khanduri, on the other hand, took the plunge into politics in 2019, after a successful career -- first as a business journalist and later, armed with a MBA degree from Kellogg, as a senior business executive in global media companies like CNN and Meta.

So what's the upshot? Shortly after he announced his transition, Dr Misra faced a whole barrage of questions from peers in the corporate world.

They wanted to know what it would take to shift to public life. That's not surprising, given that corporate life can appear shallow and unfulfilling after a certain point.

There is a perceived thrill in making a bigger impact at a national level.

So what's holding back people? Most middle class Indians tend to carry a dim view of politics.

I keep hearing the refrain that India needs more upright, ethical corporate leaders to join politics in order to have a better chance of cleansing itself of corruption and fostering a resurgent future.

Of course, it is another matter that most people would prefer that someone else take the risk of jumping into public life, rather than doing it themselves.

A few though have the intent and are serious, but walking away from the status, the position and money is seldom easy.

IMAGE: Dhami, right, and BJP Uttarakhand President Mahendra Bhatt, left, flank Manish Khanduri, centre, after he joined the party in Dehradun. Photograph: ANI Photo

Both Mr Khanduri and Dr Misra had a family background in politics when they were young.

Mr Khanduri campaigned for his father Major General B C Khanduri, who served as a minister in the Vajpayee government, and had a squeaky clean reputation of building the Golden Quadrilateral project. He also served as a BJP chief minister of Uttarakhand.

Dr Misra's family, too, was deeply involved in public life. His father's elder brother was a leading trade unionist, affiliated to the Communist Party of India.

He himself fought union elections as a young student. His decision to join the BJD was delayed by more than a decade, when his corporate commitments did not allow him to make the leap, once in 2013 and again in 2019.

Mr Khanduri hoped to use his father's goodwill to build his political base. But in 2019, he lost the Lok Sabha elections on a Congress ticket. That didn't deter him. And he doggedly continued his on-ground work and also helming a key communications role during Rahul Gandhi's Bharat Jodo Yatra, walking on foot for almost the entire stretch.

As the 2024 Lok Sabha elections drew near, Mr Khanduri knew there was no way he could win the seat.

The BJP is virtually invincible, backed by a formidable, disciplined cadre.

What's more, while he was campaigning for the Bharat Jodo Yatra, the local Congress leadership in the state was doing everything they could to undercut him. That was the nature of the beast.

So he asked for a middle level role at the party apparatus in Delhi that would give him a modicum of respect, even if he lost for the second time.

While it was promised, there was no real headway. Completely frustrated, he eventually put in his papers on March 8.

He now has his task cut out to build his reputation in a new environment.

Unlike the Congress, the good news is that the BJP is willing to bring in fresh faces and deal ruthlessly with non-performing incumbents.

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik during the inauguration of multiple development projects in Chandikhole, Odisha. Photograph: ANI Photo

The BJD, on the other hand, isn't a monolithic party. Naveen Patnaik has been able to shape its culture through his own humble leadership style and prioritised development, ahead of merely focusing on winning elections.

In his initial few weeks, Dr Misra has used his business skills to completely revamp the party's digital identity and website in a matter of weeks.

The team was tasked with reviewing the best political party websites across the world, engaging with BJD parliamentarians and other stakeholders and delivering in a time-bound manner.

While his role is open-ended, the party has wisely used him for selective, high-value engagements.

Of course, for any transition, there is a process of letting in -- and letting go. Dr Misra says he is aware that he will deal with a diverse set of stakeholders, far more varied than his corporate stint.

Besides, he needs to give up his obsession with schedules and calendarising work, and learn to deal with ambiguity and uncertainty.

He's built a group of advisors who keep him grounded and prevent him from making any debilitating mistakes.

Disclaimer: These are Indrajit Gupta's personal views.

Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/

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