Kohli, Modi and the costs of authoritarian leadership

Virat Kohli flings his bat away after being dismissed in the semi-final of the 2019 World Cup. Never before has a single personality so lorded over the Indian cricketing establishment, yet Kohli, as captain, has not been able to win a global title. Aijaz Rahi / AP Photo
15 October, 2021

On 16 September, via his social-media accounts followed by millions, Virat Kohli announced that he will be quitting the captaincy of the Indian men’s Twenty20 cricket team, ostensibly to manage his “immense workload.” Three days later, Kohli revealed that he would also step down as captain of the Royal Challengers Bangalore at the conclusion of this year’s Indian Premier League season. RCB were eliminated in the tournament playoffs in mid October, leaving Kohli without an IPL title in his eight years as captain of a franchise with a raucous, devoted fanbase and a roster regularly featuring some of the format’s biggest stars. As the game slipped away from RCB and his frustration mounted, Kohli initiated an unseemly confrontation with umpire Virender Sharma, apparently inflamed by the official’s calls. It was a disgraceful sight to witness from the captain of the national team, a position that makes Kohli the primary ambassador of the game in the country. But it was also predictable, entirely in line with how Kohli has conducted himself throughout his career.

Kohli’s final assignment as the Twenty20 captain of the national team will be the forthcoming Twenty20 World Cup, to be hosted in Oman and the United Arab Emirates. If India’s participation there does not end with victory, it would mean yet another global tournament without success under Kohli’s tutelage, and would surely mark the end of his captaincy in white-ball cricket and quite possibly in all formats of the game. With the end looming, this seems an apposite moment to take stock of the Kohli era, to consider what it tells us about Indian cricket and, more broadly, about a certain modality of leadership that has come to dominate our time.

The nature of Kohli’s reign has been truly unprecedented. Never before in the annals of Indian cricket did a single personality so lord over the entire establishment, unchecked by any countervailing forces. This was particularly true while the Board of Control for Cricket in India was placed under a Supreme Court-mandated Committee of Administrators, from the beginning of 2017 to the autumn of 2019. During his brief spell on the CoA, the historian Ramachandra Guha was led to conclude that the “board’s officials worshipped [Kohli] even more than the Indian cabinet worships Narendra Modi.”

The comparison was not exaggerated. Like Modi in the arena of national politics, Kohli has styled himself as an Übermensch, guiding and shaping events by the sheer force of his will. His leadership style, in its lack of consultative deliberation, impulsive decision-making and predictably below-par outcomes, is strikingly reminiscent of the politician he most admires. (Modi was the guest of honour at Kohli’s wedding reception in December 2017.)