Politics can be poison for projects


September 2020
Politics can be poison for projects

Yes, politics can turn out to be extremely value-destroying for projects, but at the same time, politics is a reality, and the intense involvement of all kind of politics in projects cannot be wished away, as much as we may dislike it. Projects and politics are strange (and uncomfortable) bedfellows, and they will continue to co-exist and cohabit for times to come. We the project managers have to learn to grapple with this problem.

So far we have been talking about various aspects of bookish and traditional project management practices, and here is now a very sensitive, but crucial subject without which project management will fall flat. And that is, in simple words, politics in projects. I do not think they include a chapter on politics, in any of the project management handbooks, and in that sense, this is somewhat like "what they do not teach you in business schools!" May be, we avoid this topic completely because we want to steer clear of politicians and controversies.

Politics comes in different colours and hues, there is politics of international bodies like WTO, World Bank etc., Politics of the Country, Politics of the Province, Politics of the Municipality, and complex inter-play between these forces, driven by electoral, parochial or ideological interests, and these mostly impact public projects, PPP projects and other projects in the government sector. Sadly, I have often seen projects getting opposed or drastically changed for completely negative reasons like preventing the rival party from garnering credits (and therefore votes) by completing a public project.

On the other hand, we always have strong internal politics in our own organisations which can make things difficult for the project manager to perform, even in private sector projects. Things are always more lucid and lively as soon as examples are taken up for discussion. Hyderabad Metro is a urban transportation project of national importance, already reeling under huge time and cost overruns, and currently estimated to cost Rs 16,000 crore. As soon as the new Telengana State was formed, and TRS Party came to power, the new government has asked for underground alignment near heritage structures, and if this gets through, there will be further time and cost overruns, pushing the project towards the brink of unviability. The comment made by government spokesperson was quite telling - "it is the prerogative of the state government to direct any changes to any projects awarded to the businesses to uphold the public interest". Very true, but public interest cannot be furthered by continual changes to scope of a project and making thins costlier for the citizens - there can never be any end to such changes.

What is plaguing the East West Metro Line in Kolkata? This line is of vital importance to Calcuttans, a long awaited second line to the oldest metro system in the country. Apparently, work is stuck because of a change (from the original alignment) suggested by the state government, and the whole issue has become sub-judice. We forget, that the people of Kolkata are waiting eagerly for the line to start, and do not give a damn if the alignment is 200m this way or that way, as long as the trains start running - and this is the overriding public interest. On the national scene, I can cite the example of the project mooted during the time of Atal Bihari Vajpayee to link the rivers of the country, which was highly ambitious, but feasible, and would have had a salutary impact on floods, irrigation and water resource management of India. But due to reasons unknown, this project was not pushed by the subsequent government, and the people of the country were so far deprived of the interesting potential benefits from this project. If the government in the State and that in Centre has different and opposing political parties in power, we have many times seen non-cooperation and sometimes downright opposition to projects proposed by the state government, and these can come in the shape of various stumbling blocks like environmental approval, financing issues, mining leases, etc.

What about private sector projects? Live examples will be a little difficult to come by, because unlike public projects, these are rarely subjected to public or media scrutiny. But we know from experience that "internal politics" of an organisation sometimes plays havoc with project schedules and outcomes. People within an organisation continuously position themselves for power, status and authority, and the factional forces unleashed by these people cause extensive collateral damages, by way of project delays and disruptions. Project managers are normally people with relatively lesser status and power, cannot effectively avert these damages.

What comes out as the bottom line from these discussions, is that throughout the life cycle of a project, (be they public or private) analysing and managing the expectations of diverse group of stakeholders, internal and external, is very important. Project managers will have to learn how to influence opinions, form alliances, manage conflicts and bargain/negotiate, and thus, overall, strike balance between most stakeholders in order to keep the project going without major stumbles and disruptions.

While the poor project manager continues to struggle with political forces internal and external, perhaps it is too much for us to expect a visionary leadership in our political leaders which rises above petty political considerations and supports all projects, which are good for the nation, irrespective of geographical, or ideological or electoral concerns, focusing only on public good. Perhaps, for us, despondently speaking, projects like "Sethusamudram Channel" (which was to cut shipping costs to/fro the western coast), will continue to be far less important than religious fervour and bigotry of a few fundamentalist groups and their votes. All the best to India and its projects.

- SUMIT BANERJEE

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