What Narendra Modi can learn from Virat Kohli on being a better leader

Virat Kohli and Anushka Sharma inviting Prime Minister Narendra Modi for their reception in Delhi
Virat Kohli and Anushka Sharma inviting Prime Minister Narendra Modi for their reception in Delhi | Virat Kohli's Facebook page

This isn’t a prescription for improved governance, but is a brief recipe for more effective political leadership from Narendra Modi. 

What can Virat Kohli, captain of the national cricket team and, therefore, India’s most important leader, teach Narendra Modi, the country’s second-most consequential chieftain? It’s a question worth asking as we watch the PM flounder economically (wishy-washy budget/almost no job-creation), lose steam politically (electoral setbacks in Rajasthan), and seem unusually impotent diplomatically (with the crisis in neighboring Maldives)?

I offer five areas in which Modi would do well to emulate Kohli. As with all such exercises, mine is likely to provoke a certain amount of thought (in those capable of it) and rage (in those incapable of thought). It isn’t a prescription for improved governance, of course, but is, instead, a brief recipe for more effective political leadership from Modi and demonstrably more managerial humanity.

Do things, don’t just talk.

India, a land of legendary windbags, hungers always for something concrete. It wants its leaders to deliver tangible improvement and change. With a few exceptions, Modi’s output since he was elected to office has consisted of homilies, slogans and hot air.

Some of it is unobjectionable: Who doesn’t want a cleaner Bharat, or a less filthy Ganges? Who doesn’t want foreigners to Make in India? But we deserve more than to bear witness to politicians who pose for the cameras with brooms in hand, pushing feebly at designer garbage. Or to hear gung-ho assurances that investment will come.

Virat Kohli doesn’t just boast, he delivers. He leads from the front in the most concrete way that his game offers, by scoring runs by the bushel and putting the fear of defeat into his opponents. His is the Cult of Achievement. Modi’s, so far, is the Cult of the Catch-phrase.

Be gracious to opponents

Kohli isn’t always the nicest man on the field of play. But he is a chivalrous combatant, always acknowledging an opponent’s excellence and being courtly and fraternal off the field of play.

When Phil Hughes, the Australian batsman, died from head-injuries sustained while batting, Kohli went out of his way to express his condolences. Australia was touched to its core. At the last One-Day International in Johannesburg, one had only to see Kohli’s admiring expression when a South African carted an Indian spinner for six to know that the man respects those against whom he battles. He shakes hands, pats backs, and is generous with his praise in post-match press conferences.

Modi, by contrast, has never said a nice word about a practicing politician who wasn’t from his own party. His is a Manichaean way: those against him are despicable by definition. His sour-humoured reaction to opposition MP Renuka Chowdhury’s recent laughter in the Rajya Sabha was the behaviour of a man without chivalry.

Talk to the press

There hasn’t been a prime minister in the history of India who has held journalists in as much contempt as Modi. His interactions with the media are scripted and rare, confined almost entirely to lapdog-journalists who pose the most fawning questions.

Modi, here, could learn from Kohli, who engages frankly with the media, is as unafraid of an unscripted question as he is of a bouncer from Mitchell Starc, and gives journalists the dignity of honest interaction.

When Kohli speaks to the media, we get insights into the game. And we exercise our right to hold a leader up to scrutiny. “Why did you leave Rahane out of your team? “Why did you accuse Steve Smith of cheating?” No question is ducked, and none is taboo. With Modi, a man who has the fate of India in his hands, no question is permissible, and almost everything taboo.

Remember you’re in a team sport

Cricket is a team game, but so is governance. Kohli is the consummate leader of a band (of brothers), the first among equals, but also the first to rush to a youngster and hug him if he takes a catch.

A captain is nothing without his team, and yet Modi, captain of the Indian cabinet, governs almost as if his team doesn’t exist. He has sidelined the able Sushma Swaraj, and stocked his cabinet with astonishing mediocrities, none of whom offers even the slightest political competition to the prime minister.

Please note that I write this as a man who wants Modi to succeed, to bring to India the reforms and growth that we crave. But he cannot do it all by himself. Do we see Kohli open the batting and bowling, and attempt, also, to keep wicket? No: He shares the burden. So why does Modi bigfoot into every task, field in every position?

Remember to have some fun

When Kohli plays cricket, you see a man who expresses his joie de vivre, his jubilation, and, yes, his pain. He smiles and laughs and claps, and exhorts his boys to higher things. With Modi, we get none of this humanity.

Instead, we get modulated menace, an unchanging tone of voice that signals a distaste for variety and a dislike of dissent. When he intones the Hindi word mitron—friends—at the start of a speech, the effect can be chilling. He’s addressing you as a friend, to be sure, but also putting you on notice, telling you that you’re an acolyte, a subordinate. It’s a joyless appeal from an ascetic man—a man who neither gives, nor expects, any tenderness.

Tunku Varadarajan is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.

9 COMMENTS

  1. Is the author so naïve as to think that running the country and captaining a cricket team are one and the same? Has Kohli faced the kind of vitriolic attacks that PM has faced? The response to Renuka Chaudhry was the right one.. those who live by the sword shall die by the same. What will she do if BJP members start laughing loudly each time she is called to speak?

  2. Mr.Tunku Varadarajan,
    I do not care to enlighten Modi. Now it is beyond care!
    But I disagree with your listing of Kohli’s’ Virtues”! Be gracious to opponents, Remember you’re in a team sport, And
    Talk to the Press -and how?. If you think these are Kohli’s virtues. you are no better than Modibhakts!
    You used to write more reasonable essays!

  3. This person has really gone mad I feel. It’s like telling that a lion should learn how to hunt from a jackal. He doesn’t seem to have the basic common sense that governance is not like a cricket field. Pls ask this idiot to take treatment in a mental hospital.

  4. 1st point: He does things. His ministry is very capable and till now results are mostly positive. There can be plusses and minuses but overall, we stand to benefit.
    2nd point: He has been quite gracious to his opponents. Except the ‘gandhi parivar’, of course. I have listened his almost all his parliament speeches and he does praises capable and apt leaders from opposition.
    3nd point: He has his own way of dealing with the press. Press is always hungry for his words and he tries his best to avoid them. Which is good. You can get his regular updates from his twitter handle or Doordarshan.
    4th point: This is equivalent to the reason given in point 1. I think the current team is one among the best.
    5th point: His oratory skills are second to none. He’s compassionate not only to indians but also across world. I don’t think we had better relationship with most of the parts of world. And he does enjoy the confidence of many countries.

  5. What nonsense ! PM Modi has praised Shashi Tharoor on numerous occasions, is he from Modi`s party ? If The print continues to let authors like this write in their forum , they will soon lose credibility like NDTV.

  6. Kohli’s peers in Australia, England, and SA think of him as the most vitriolic captain with a chip on his shoulder – Maybe Kohli should be the PM instead of Chaiwallah to do good to billion plus citizens !

  7. Nice piece Varadarajan. There’s no harm in learning from ‘juniors’ if it is going to benefit you. He could even learn from Bumrah to bowl a consistent line, whether at home or abroad!

  8. Future ideas for the venerable Virati, Tunku: 1. What should truck drivers learn from Kohli’s beautiful poetic on field exclamations. 2. What should Australians learn from Kohli about winning World Cup semifinals. 3. What should Pakistan learn from Kohli about winning Champions Trophy finals. 4. What should Tunku learn from Kohli about number crunching (declaring 2-1 defeat scoreline as victory) and teach at Stanford. 5. What should Modi learn from Virat about respecting women – the one he’s married to and others. 6. What both Kohli and Modi should not learn from each other – not losing abroad. 7. What both don’t need to learn from each other – making life miserable for seniors like Advani, Kumble if you don’t like them. 8. What both Kohli & Modi have mastered – fooling utterly random men like Tunku. 9. What Kohli & Modi have both not managed –fooling anyone with any semblance of thinking faculties.

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