Sunday, November 30, 2008

Mumbai: Why are we getting it wrong again?

The usual and the expected have happened. India is cutting off air and rail links with Pakistan, and suspending the peace process effectively. Pakistan is threatening to shift 100,000 men to the borders with India, from the Afghan borders where they are currently stationed.

So, terrorists have won.

That's exactly what they came for, didn't they? They wanted International Media coverage and they got it. They wanted India and Pakistan face off each other yet again and release the pressure on Afghan border - they are going to get it. They wanted India to threaten Pakistan again, and millions of decent Pakistanis to feel threatened by India and betrayed by America - which is going to happen. They wanted to weaken the Pakistani state, which is going to happen. They will possibly even be successful, in the next few days, in triggering off a riot and undermine the Indian state even further.

This operation will be hailed as a great success in the annals of terrorism and many more operations like this will be planned now.

Someone was talking to me yesterday that Indians want IOP - India Occupied Pakistan. That is the extent of delusion that the novo-rich, confident Indian middle class lives with. In this day and age, you don't occupy another country. Much less a nuclear capable country. Much less a country like India, which has its own problems to solve, can afford it. I asked him whether he is ready to pay a 50% income tax to cover the costs of waging such a war. He said - India's problems lie with people like me, the NRIs, who do not understand the pain.

Yes, I am third party, but I understand the pain. I sat in front of TV sets for three days. I have lost a friend too, in this battle. I do think it is war - war on India, war on civilized behaviour. But I don't think that this can be stopped by grandstanding, politicking, by pointing fingers, by losing sense. The only way we can save ourselves, and our future generations, by being imaginative now.

Let me ask: what is the point in mobilizing armies on the Pakistan border? Who bears the cost? What will it achieve? Do we reasonably believe that we shall go into a war? Can we go into a war? Why do we have to show nuclear brinkmanship once again, proving to the world clearly that we are not responsible with our power and realistic about our ability?

I read the The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid, and it tells you the story what will happen. Nothing. Pakistan will bleed financially at this time, and its people will be even more impoverished. Its civilian government will be even more discredited. And, then, either we shall see another military coup which will bring in an authoritarian regime, or, worse, we shall see a popular revolt, leading to anarchy and chaos, as we saw in the last days of the Musharraf regime. Does this help anyone? Would this make Indians in Mumbai feel secure? I doubt.

I strongly believe that Pakistan is a failed state, one that is completely outside the control of its government. True, the terrorists may have called Pakistan, but they surely did not call its Prime Minister. True, may be ISI is involved - but they will only get what they want if we resume hostilities now. Our only choice is a measured response, for once, and acceptance of the offer the Government of Pakistan has made on this one. India can now seek assistance from Scotland Yard and even the CIA, and the Israelis, because this was an international event. This may help us long term - even this may help us capture Dawood Ibrahim and make him walk the gallows - and secure our cities.

For me, I don't want to see troops mobilized on the border. I want to see more police on the streets, more investment in intelligence gathering, more efforts to curb corruption. I want to see Mafia being routed out of Mumbai. I want to see better maritime security. I want to see investments in urban schools and job creation, that helps people out of poverty and despair. More than anything, I want to see a leader who treats us as intelligent people and talks to us as one.

Bollywood learnt this lesson some time back. There used to be dumb formula movies, with same story, similar songs, because 'Indian public did not want anything else'. But once some directors started making movies outside the formula, with innovative story and sometimes, without a song, and those films became widely successful, the stereotype broke down. In fact, formula movies are out of fashion these days - Indian public has proved themselves to be intelligent and matured.

When would our politicians learn this?

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Mumbai: The New War on Terror

Finally, we hope, the seize in Mumbai is over. 250 people, and counting, died, and more than 300 were injured, some critically. Two NSG commandos, fourteen police officers, scores of known faces among them. The entire city is recovering from shock and disbelief - the schools, colleges, offices were closed for two days, and now opening. The stock market opened yesterday, but the attendance was minimal, a rumour of firing nearby almost closed it down around mid-day. I would have said, the city is limping back to normalcy - but someone reminded me that the city will never be normal again.

Surely, questions will be asked and investigations will be launched. The government has to show that it is acting. The opposition will have to show that they know as much and are capable to govern, if power comes their way. Rhetoric will fly. Some issues will flare up; some issues will retreat from headlines. [One notable casualty of this crisis : Raj Thackaray and his MNS - we never felt more 'Indian' like now, and 'Maharastra for Maharastrians' will be out of fashion now] But, one thing is certain : India's war on terror has to start.

What is important at this stage is not to repeat the mistakes of the past. The 'Blame Pakistan' strategy is past its sale-by date. The Indian politicians feel comfortable heaping blame on Pakistan, as if that absolves them of their responsibility of guarding us. If Pakistan is such a natural, believable threat, then we should have posted NSG on the Gateway of India. We knew hotels were targets when the Marriott in Pakistan was blown up. So, there is no comfort in thinking that if Pakistan is involved, the politicians are not at fault.

Now, Pakistan. Let's accept that it is a failed state. The government there controls the government offices, and possibly the army barracks, but not much else. They have no idea what's happening in the country. We may cajole them and get the ISI chief to fly to India [though he won't come] but this is all grandstanding - nothing of substance.

What we need is substantive action. We need imagination now, not the stale drama that plays out every time these things happen. The fact is that we have to build our own security, by stamping out our mafia [who would have helped such attacks logistically], by taking serious and continuous action against corruption in our society, and by raising citizen awareness and allowing citizen watch on terrorism. Sending troops to stand on the Pakistani border with guns blazing will not solve our problem; we have been there before and it did not solve anything.

I think India's security can not be guaranteed till we continue to live in the region of failed states. We always gloss over the fact that almost all our neighbours - Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Myanmar, Afghanistan - face significant challenges to their state. India can not succeed continuously and sustainably if the people in these states do not share the prosperity and hope. India has done little in the past: in fact, it has rather done its bit in destabilizing some of these countries. Like sending troops to the border, and making Pakistani government, however crooked, spend resources on keeping its troops mobilized, and therefore, its people poor.

Let's face it. We can not wipe out Pakistan from the face of the earth, whatever we say. That thinking is dated - those things don't happen anymore. Nuclear weapons are no solution - not just that Pakistan has them too, if we nuke Islamabad, Delhi is gone; if we nuke Karachi, we may as well stop bothering about Mumbai.

So, we have to live with it. And, if we want to be able to talk to a Prime Minister in Pakistan to solve our problems, we have to let that Prime Minister govern. We won't do ourselves a favour by undermining the government in Pakistan, though that's the easiest thing to do. Making demands like ISI chief come to Pakistan helps no one; the Government in Pakistan looks weak, and that helps another ambitious Army General to mount a coup someday.

What we can not do is to repeat Bush mistakes. Terrorism today isn't any more a State affair. Even if a section of ISI supported this attack, we will not be able to stop them by bombing Pakistan. This is a new, post-Bush war on terror, which has to be fought on three fronts: Internal Security, Citizen Partnership and Shared Prosperity.

Internal Security is possibly the easiest to talk about. We have heard a lot of talk of agency coordination. That has to happen. One has to realize that the Home Ministry is not exactly a retirement home, and someone with more dynamism and imagination than Shivraj Patil has to handle that. It is time, possibly, to create a Homeland Security ministry. While that will add to bureaucratic costs, we need to give real power to them. I repeat - corruption in our society is the biggest security risk, and this needs to be tackled. The Homeland security and the NSG also needs to take on the mafia; Chota Shakil and Arun Gawli run their empires miles away from the scenes of these terror attacks, and that can not be tolerated anymore.

Citizen participation is more important than just internal security measures, but this is possibly more difficult to do in India. Citizens in India are not valued as adults; the legacy of the state capitalism days perhaps. Again, a reference to what I have seen living in London: It is the citizens' awareness and their participation in the community that keeps it clean, safe and secure. Here, citizens' opinions are valued and their rights are sacrosanct. If they feel threatened, the police and their MPs may as well stand by them. I am tired of hearing the argument that there are so many people in India that we can't do this. That is dictatorial bullshit - democracies can not function if you think you have too many voters and therefore, can not listen to each of them. Citizens' participation could be our biggest shield against the acts of terror. We should start by valuing citizens' rights - not just their rights to life, but also to a secure environment, to work, to education, to fair process. The terror attacks of this week has possibly told the elite of the society that they are not as safe as they thought they are. They now need to understand their war on terror has to start with taking the man on street on their side, and building a defence mechanism together.

Third, and this should be our Foreign and Finance ministry's job: We must lift this region of failed states and build a region of Shared Prosperity. We must help Sri Lanka stamp out its terrorists. We must help the government in Nepal to bring prosperity to that poor country. We must help Bangladesh to build a stable democracy after the elections. We must look at Myanmar critically, and beyond our immediate needs of energy, and see whether we are siding with the right guys [most probably not: we got this wrong in Nepal earlier, and that did not help]. More than most, we must work with the government of Pakistan and help them secure themselves and their country.

At times like this, it is easy to lose reason to rage, and do something silly. The worst mistake we can commit will be to start a riot, victimising those same citizens of ours who we must get on our side if we have to build a secure country. The second worst mistake will be to start a political game with Pakistan - we get nothing out of that. I hear the rumour that the peace process with Pakistan may be suspended; that would possibly the worst mistake we can commit.

Terrorists, even if they came by boat from another country, can not harm us if we are resolute, strong and united. Our war on terror, therefore, must start at home. Terror can not be stamped out by waging war; it must be stamped out by giving a strong answer internally, at the grassroots level. Let our politicians not hijack this war one more time.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Mumbai: Indifference is no longer an option

A comment on my earlier post:

Hi Supriyo, Your comments are profound and insightful. But they are a third party comment. Ask me = a Mumbaiite to the core what I feel when I see the fire in Taj, the people running scared. It hurts - something inside me has died. My beloved city is being brutalised again. It has been used by various people to push their agendas - we all saw Raj Thackeray doing this for the last three - four weeks. And now it is the terrorists. Everyone seems to be discussing about what has happened - what are we going to do to stop this from happening again? Are we just going to fill blogs or are we going to get on to the streets and demand that our politicians do something about what has happened. We seem to be always ready to march on the streets for religious ceremonies, weddings, protests etc. Are we ready to march for our safety and our security? OR are we going to continue to cower in our houses or worse, pretend it never happened and carry on?

We heard Sobha De talking on NDTV - asking the politicians to stay away, calling Manmohan Singh's speech robotic and uninspiring, and requesting LK Advani and Manmohan Singh not to come to Mumbai and distract the security forces. She said it is time for a citizens' movement, and pointedly, "No we shall not stay calm, no we shall not take this and go away".

Similar sentiment was voiced by Suhel Sheth, who was speaking on Times and a friend reported to me that he was displaying similar sort of anger, especially at Shivraj Patil, who was clueless and shaken, and was telling journalists, at the time when the massacre was going on, that he would send the details tomorrow morning [I saw Shivraj Patil on TV].

There are several questions that need to be answered in the coming days, but two things are abundantly clear right now. One, our leaders do not value our lives. Two, indifference is no longer an option.

As we understand now, terrorists went into hotels, railway stations, hospitals and indiscriminately opened fire. Yes, police understood the graveness of the situation and many brave officers gave their life trying to save people [though I shall still suspect that they were less than prepared - otherwise why would we lose the Anti-Terrorism Chief, and the car of a top encounter specialist will be hijacked and he would be killed?]. Later that night, the Chief Minister of Maharastra was told the press in a relaxed manner that there were 'possibly' 20 to 25 terrorists who have come to the city. That may be his style, but Vilasrao Desmukh's body language told us - he is not concerned. He thinks it is somebody else's problem. He thought the boat theory will save him - it will look like war and he can go scot-free. Shivraj Patil, on the other hand, was shaking - not in anger, but possibly in fear - just like an employee will do when things have gone wrong and he knows he will be fired. But he showed little concern, little alertness, little sympathy. When the Taj [the hotel] was burning, he was telling the journalists to go home and he 'would send details next morning'. It did not seem to matter that very moment, people were being indiscriminately shot inside the Oberoi restaurants.

Next morning, we heard Sonia Gandhi reading a prepared statement in her rusty Hindi, talking about concerns which did not reflect in her voice. Later, Manmohan Singh spoke in English - and delivered an unemotional, uninspiring speech, and said nothing factual or of substance. LK Advani spoke in Delhi, with Jaswant Singh standing by him [as if to remind us what their government did in a similar crisis - negotiated with the terrorists and released prisoners - which may have set up today's crisis in the first place], and he blamed the government and the usual suspects. The only notable things in all these speeches were (a) total absence of anger; (b) total absence of any facts; (c) complete lack of confidence.

It did not seem to matter people are dying. I have noticed that in India. When I came to England initially, I laughed at headlines - 'Biggest Train Crash. 10 Dead' - thinking that we are used to numbers thirty times that. However, I had to learn - over time - that when you value lives of fellow citizens, 1 is a big enough number to make heads roll. This is what we don't do. Somewhat in our minds, 125 isn't a big enough number. We don't count the injured.

I am sure there is a better way of thinking than that. I saw one Bengali gentleman on TV, who was boarding the train at CST to go to Kolkata, when his mother was shot dead by the terrorists. I thought about my own mother's death - an event which I haven't still come to terms with. 125 dead are 125 times that irreparable damage, that unbearable pain. Do we realize that?

A school friend, who I have not seen for years, but connected up recently on a Social Networking site, is inside Trident and no one has heard from him for more than 36 hours now. He is as important to me personally as any other celebrity or politician, who could be there. Those 200 unaccounted-for people are 200 times the trauma of the kidnap of Mehbuba Mufti, the daughter of a home minister who was kidnapped in Kashmir back in the 1990s and were safely released later [and went on to become the Chief Minister of the state herself]. Do we realize this? Do our leaders care? The question is - do they care about us?

It sometimes feels that we are just a number, 1, as the leaders have learnt to count us as votes and stopped treating us as people.

Therefore, INDIFFERENCE IS NO LONGER AN OPTION. We have been indifferent when bombs went off in Mumbai in 1993. We have been indifferent when bombs keep going off in Delhi, Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Lucknow, Surat. We sat at home and kept the sensex cheerful when the Mumbai trains were hit. We were lauded as brave, stoical, indifferent.

But, we are no soldiers, just ordinary human beings, trying to live a life. Being indifferent is being foolish. Being stoical is failing to do our duty to our fellow citizen who has to die. Being brave, no, this is no way of being brave - by crouching down at the safety of our home and expecting this will go away. By not doing anything, we fail everyday our duty to our children, our parents, ourselves. We let politicians run business-as-usual, we let them send us home with the promise of accountability tomorrow morning.

I was reading a book called Groundswell. Something about citizen power, aided by the power of Internet. This book has nothing to do with politics, it is all about business strategies. However, let me say that we live in Groundswell age. We live in the time when states and institutions are becoming increasingly irrelevant and powerless. Ironically, this is what terrorists proved so brazenly. The only problem is that forces for good has not still been organized at the grassroots level. Obviously, it has always been like that - forces of evil are always more innovative, always more enterprising. But, someday, the forces for good get their wake-up call. I hope today is such a day.

I shall not start the Facebook group - a Million for Mumbai - which should sign up a million people who pledge not to let this happen again. Let me answer WHY before I answer HOW. Why won't I start the group? Because, as the commentator said rightly, I am third party. I am not a Mumbaikar. I am sympathetic, but I can't solve the problem. I hope a Mumbaikar will pick up this idea and start this group, and I shall join.

So, now, how - how does these million people never let this happen again? Several suggestions popping up in my head, which I shall spit out:

(1) By never accommodating corruption: by never demanding bribes or giving one, and reporting every case of bribery to appropriate places as well as writing about every such incident on Facebook, blogs, everywhere on the Internet. Giving details of the officer involved, names, places, as much detail as possible. Remember, terrorists could come to Mumbai and launch this attack is because someone somewhere took a bribe, compromised us and did not do their job. They came here because we tolerated the mafia in Mumbai for too long, too much. Time to turn the tables - and let this start with stamping out the corruption.

(2) By never voting for a candidate who consorts with Mafia: That leaves us not much choice, but let us vote for unknown candidates on the ballot. This will create a havoc, and may end up getting wrong people up. But we need to wreck the status quo, disturb the apple cart. We should not vote for Congress, Shiv Sena, NCP, MNS, BJP, CPIM and all the assorted jokers - unless they put up a candidate with a clean background and a clear public service record. We are betraying our country if we compromise now, and do anything else.

(3) By adopting one project each [or in a group, a larger project] which does not cost us more than 2 hours a week and Rs. 400 a month, but allow us to reach out to one impoverished family in Mumbai slums and work with them to make their lives better: We need all citizens to give a hand if we have to keep the bad guys out. We need everyone who cares for this country. But we are leaving behind too many people, who are not well off, who do not speak English and who do not use Internet or Facebook. So, we shall never be successful. But we can spare two hours and Rs. 400/- [one meal outside will cost us that] and work with a family to make their lives better. We can educate them, help them with medicine, sanitation whatever. Most of all, we can give them hope. Many of us can get a job for the youth of the family, an education for the young, a hospital bed for the sick and help the mothers. There are dangers on the road : we may sound arrogant when we try to help [who are we to help?] or rob the recipient their self-esteem. We should do neither: we should do this because we want our country to be safe and successful, and we can not do that unless everyone gives a hand. We should do this as a duty, with all befitting humility, and we should do this NOW.

I know this is easier to do than this sounds - the family is possibly right in front of our eyes, working in our houses or vending something on the street. All we have to do is to reach out and have a conversation - do you know the name of the street boy who tried to sell you a mosquito killer on the bus stop - and ask about his/her background, family, education, aspirations. I know we need many more ideas, but a million mumbaikars are capable of world-beating ideas. What is needed is a start.

I can go on and on. I can suggest a Facebook Party [I mean a political party] but that's not groundswell. You never beat the institution by being one. You beat the institution by challenging its very core, by addressing its failing without becoming an institution yourself. Not by fighting it, but by making it irrelevant.

As I write those words, I realized Groundswell is not that new, and a canny politician has actually used that same strategy before. With some success. I am talking about Mahatma Gandhi - and this is going to be our second, and final, struggle for independence.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Attack on Mumbai

I feel angry. I can not sleep. The TV still shows the pictures of Taj Mahal Hotel burning, bodies lying on street, blood stains and sounds of gunshot. I felt like this during the Belsan seize, when innocent school children were held hostage. Filled with a WHY in my mind. A terrible dawn, this - the terrible dawn Faiz Ahmed Faiz saw on 15th August 1947. Our country is imploding from a seize within.

The day will go down as India's 9/11. The day the fear made a comeback. Terrorists came on boat, and seized, without much resistance, some of our treasured landmark. Held our biggest city hostage. Killed the guests to our country. And, some of our best police officers. And, innocent citizens.

And, all these terrorists were our citizens. Most probably.

All they wanted to do is to play on our fear. Their aim : stoke our idiocy, and start another riot. They tried to strike us down, when the nation is wreathing under the global recession, sustained inflation and all that. They used our weakness - corruption. They played on our biggest problem - religious division.

The media went into a frenzy. Of course, what else will keep people glued to TV all night in this TRP-poor world? They dished out amazing insensitivity, hounding out people visibly shaken and just rescued with meaningless questioning, as if lengthening the conversation will earn them promotions.

The politicians were amazingly ineffective. They had no idea what was happening. They did not share information. They did not show leadership. They did display that they are in control. They said : We don't know what's happening, so stay calm. They said : We would tell you tomorrow what's happening today. We were left free to guess. Police did not make a statement. Rumours filled the city. And, so we are heading into the most dangerous morning in the post-independence India - all we need is a wild rumour to start a riot now.

The police and the Army were brave. They were possibly asked to be silent. But many officers gave their life. Very senior officers. One wonders why though - especially why the Anti-Terrorism Chief had to die. He was clearly a high-value target. Why could we not protect him? Another question that will need clear answers tomorrow.

Is this the end of it? Not really. Yes, we shall kill off the remaining terrorists, or capture them. But we shall live in fear. A template has been established, of holding our cities hostage. It has been so easy. Our corrupt, disinterested society is so porous, so callously exposed. Every Indian city is a target - easy targets. What we will now do is talk about draconian laws and political posturing about which political party is more patriotic. We shall continue to alienate, continue to tolerate and continue to accommodate. All these lives will go wasted. All this education will be forgotten.

Next time, a civil servant asks for a bribe, charge him with terrorism. Next time, a politician vents communal hatred, charge him with treason. Next time, someone tells you to accept things as it is, tell him to remember Mumbai.

We are all Mumbaikars today - silenced in pain, stunned in defeat, but united in the resolve.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Attack on Mumbai

I am watching the TV - the terrorist attack on Mumbai is being telecast live. This is going to be a long and cruel night. It seems that terrorists have taken over certain spots in Mumbai - VT station, a cafe in Colaba, and some of key hotels downtown. There seems to be encounters going on in different locations in South Mumbai. The reports are also saying that groups of young men, armed with grenades, explosives and assault rifles, have come into hotels and asked for British and American nationals and taken them away. There is a lot of confusion on the streets, and TV channels are broadcasting whatever they can.

One noticeable thing is that there is a complete communication breakdown. The police did not make any substantial statement - no facts are being shared or communicated. I can see, right at this time, the Home Minister of India, Shivraj Patil, is making a statement. The statement sounds unsure and he is vainly trying to reassure people to stay calm, not to draw conclusions and wait till tomorrow morning for facts. There is a clear lack of understanding of people's requirement for news and facts on this day of 24x7 news - we don't want to wait till tomorrow morning to know what happened. It must be difficult to divulge facts while the things are happening are tough, but there must be a way to disseminate facts in an orderly manner. Besides, a police statement is always reassuring than politicians making useless statements, because that goes on to show how they are controlling the situation.

No details on casualties yet, but it is clearly very high and a number of foreigners will be among them. There are at least three senior police officials have been killed - reportedly Vijay Salaskar, the famed encounter specialist, Hemant Karkare, the ATS chief and a very respected official, an Additional Police Commissioner - all in direct encounter. We are looking into more than 100 people dead, and many more injured - and still counting. We know that there are a number of CEOs and Senior Officials are sitting inside the Tajmahal Hotel, where an encounter is going on and grenades have just gone off on the Taj rooftop.

The pain feels very real, and close to heart. It seems I can't sleep today - at least till the terrorists have been seized and hostages freed. This seems like I am on seize myself - people caught up in this for no fault of their's. For all the fault of American governments, this is mindless violence, against women, children, innocents. For some reason, I have never felt this strongly about terrorism. I have watched 9-11 on TV and I was very much on London on 7/7, when I used the tube another part of the town when the bombs went off. I have seen on TV news of bombs going off in Bangalore, Ahmedabad, Mumbai trains - all that.

I don't know why, but possibly because of my recent travels to Mumbai, the feeling of familiarity, the friends that I have acquired, all that. May be this is why I was so engrossed in the movie - A Wednesday - recently. The terror felt real, and so pointless. I now know - in my heart - why this is so cowardly - picking up population centres indiscriminately and killing people without responsibility or reason.

One thing this tells us though. We must stamp out these incidents. Of course, there is this broader goal of attacking the causes of terrorism, but that is a patronizing discussion at times like this. But I am convinced, incidences like this tells us, all Indians, that we must stamp out corruption. In countries like ours, such incidences can happen because someone somewhere did not do their job, turned a blind eye, let things go undetected. Corruption lets us become casual, put our guards down and let these things happen. We must, collectively, take a stance to stamp out corruption in every part of our life. It is no longer an issue of morality; this is something we must to do to ensure the safety of ourselves, our children and countless others who have done nothing to deserve this.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Managing the Mediocre

HR's brave new frontier is, of course, Talent Management. As Tom Peters puts it [as no one but Tom Peter can put it] - look at a business like a football team or an Orchestra, hire top talent and let them play. This whole thing about Talent is music to all ears, hire the best, retain the best and reward the best - and you get the job done.

I believe in it. Yes, of course, the reasoning is obvious, and proof all too evident. There may be debate on what the top talent is - Tom Peters talks about someone who is a nonconformist, who 'would have screwed up something when they were twenty' - and how best to get them. But it is undeniable that being able to hire the best people puts the organization on a positive feedback loop, and improves performance beyond ordinary measures.

However, the question is how to hire these people. They are not always available, looking for jobs. They are usually motivated by money, opportunity or by something more intangible - like making a difference - but small businesses, especially, find it very hard to find [given their limited resources] these people. And, even if you can find them, it is harder to entice them, unless you have a Steve Jobs and a company like Apple, and invite someone to change the world.

It is not that I am arguing for the Second Best. But focusing on top talent is often a Fortune 500 management trap for small companies. Besides, one has not yet figured out what the top talent looks like. Many people will go by past careers and credentials, often compounding errors of past judgement, further. The recruitment systems must be geared towards hiring the top talent, no doubt. The question is how wise is it to create a management system focused on great people.

As we all know, top talent is not available in plenty. It is their scarcity that makes them top talent in the first place. In a workplace, it is usually a 10:70:20 distribution, with 10% top talent, 70% mediocre and 20% laggards. We know what to do with the top 10%. There are some debates on what you do with the bottom 20%, but the general capitalist consensus is that they belong to the realm of social welfare. But, it is the middle 70% which poses the greatest management challenge.

Which, it should not be. After all, Management as a discipline was made for this middle 70%; only later a greater focus on the top 10% was added. The key problem is, of course, the nature of work has changed. In a manufacturing environment, the productivity difference between the top-notch and the mediocre, while significant, did not make or break a company. But, in a customer-facing mission-sensitive service environment, it often does. What a big difference a great chef makes? Or a great salesman? The problem is that our management theories for the mediocre are often on the shaky ground.

What it does, of course, is that it pushes more and more people out of that middle 70% to the bottom 20%. Unfortunately, the focus on talent accentuates the problem. The companies, almost intentionally, build a system so that if you are not able to move to the top 10%, you start your unstoppable glide towards the bottom 20%, and exit. And, when you add the fact that it isn't easy to hire top 10% material, and SMEs will only get them once in a while, the organization starts looking like a huge pipe with an open bottom.

So, unless you have godsend proposition and a pile of cash that no one can refuse, it is time to look at how you manage the mediocre and move people up. For the uninitiated, the simple answer is training, but hardly that's the answer, as not everyone responds to training equally. And, this middle majority has different training and communication needs than the top 10%, or from the bottom 20% for that matter. The key is a strategy for mediocre management, or if that's offensive, majority management; or if that sounds political, just plain simple humane management, with a long term view of HR, and an approach to value-add to people and coach them to greater level of achievement will do.

I saw organizations spending an absurd sum of money on Business Process excellence training. Like Six Sigma, for example. The problem is that these training programmes happen at too abstract a level, and often does not connect to the middle-level data entry clerk who keeps misplacing her notebook all the time. She is at an error level significantly higher than six sigma - no issues, most people are - but what she needs a bit of handholding and help, and should not have to stare at the bottom of the pipe straightaway.

Standards, especially government monitored, does not help at all. I have seen organizations in the UK who display the Investors In People tag, which they achieve by throwing money at employee training and getaways, but they are as insensitive to people and their aspirations as they can be. Standards can not shift with the needs of the business, and business environment [it will be interesting to note if they have made any changes to IIP requirements in the context of ongoing credit crunch], and they introduce a bias in policy, which businesses should be able to do without.

I think the key here is patience and simple good management. Sort of paternalistic entrepreneur, who leads the team and are concerned about everyone's well-being - that sort of management. This allows the stars to shine, while taking care of the emotive needs of the middle majority. In old days, such entrepreneurial involvement would have acted as a stern gatekeeper for talents and an involved coach for the laggards. Today, with hands off management and purely financial view of business in most SMEs, the focus on only top talents often makes it lose-lose game.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Philosophy of Gated Community


The ultimate middle class urban Indian dream is to be able to live in a Gated Community. Yes, like the one above - which has nice playgrounds and swimming pools and 24x7 security and all modern luxuries of life. One can not avoid the city, its potholes, its terrible people, its hustle and bustle, the traffic, the pollution and the noise. And, hence, the ultimate dream is to be able to live completely oblivious of this, inside a community of like-minded high-earners, who are educated and suave, who send their children to expensive schools and attend the right parties, and share a similar mindset.

Gated communities, hence, have sprang up all over India and found eager buyers. Sumit, a friend and one who bought a two bed flat in a Calcutta property, explained:

More than one reason, really. First, there is no law and order outside - the first thing you will have to pay is a tola to local musclemen if you want to live anywhere else. You are at least immune from that here. Besides, the facilities are very good inside - one can literally live a life without ever setting foot outside - and I shall also feel safe if my children stays in and plays in the local park, with these kids here. Since we have moved in, we have made friends too - people with similar background - mostly from IT Companies here, who share similar mindset and lifestyle. So, we feel very comfortable here.

However, Leena, a sociologist friend, who does not live in one of those communities, but have chosen to live in her parent's home in downtown Mumbai, sees this as a symbol of seize mentality of the urban Middle class. She passionately argues:

Urban middle class fails to identify with their city, completely. They feel they have been upended by the immense migration that has taken place from the poorer states and the villages, and resulted in chaos and dirt and poverty in the Indian cities. With rising income, they have started expecting a certain lifestyle, and they have come to realize they can't get this in their city. Nowhere to run away, they are turning themselves into these gated communities; somewhat in denial, they live in constant fears of being robbed, murdered or kidnapped in the big bad city outside, and try to live as much of their life as possible, inside.

I somewhat agree - the gated communities are more defined by the gate itself than the community. And, I am sure this will become more and more common - as the income inequality increases, the urban well-to-do will withdraw more and more inside the gate. It definitely makes good business sense for Realtors to build these communities. However, the question is - whether this is sustainable.

Apparently not. First, because one can not live life completely inside. Schools, Work, relatives, family all lie outside the gated community; so does the cheap domestic labour, the key luxury of rich lifestyle in India. Living inside the gated community invariably expands the class thinking, and disconnects the person concerned from the realities of life even more. And, imagine the children - when they grow up inside gated communities and elite schools - they will not be ready for what they see outside at all.

Second, because most of the gated communities, because of the high land prices in the cities and complex building permission process, are built on land acquired - purchased or otherwise - from the less privileged. So, all these communities not only came up to provide a heavenly abode for the middle and upper classes; they often signify the dispossession of the others. Hence, they are often connected to resentment and located as a disconnected island in a sea of crime. Recently, a senior bureaucrat told me the story of Gurgaon, a new city which came up displacing a few villages near New Delhi. The locals sold their land and saw their land prices go up by infinite proportions, and then new factories and offices and gated communities going up at an astonishing pace. They did not complain - they possibly had nothing to complain - but when a city is built on so many people's woes, it forever lives with the resentment. Gurgaon became one of the most crime-infested cities in India, and possibly, in the world.

But gated communities tell another story about India's 'upper' middle class. This is the class of bureaucrats, senior executives, well-to-do professionals, who have chosen to live outside their cities of origin, mostly. This is the class of empowered people, who are the most articulate section of our society, who reads and writes English and gives interviews in TVs and Newspapers and write books and articles about modern India. However, increasingly, they have gotten into this seize - trying to run away from the cities overwhelmed by poverty and sheer populace. They are dreaming up a New India inside these gated communities, and hailing the building of more such gated communities as progress.

Indian independence was all about turning over the British cities, their bastions of order, to the unruly, uneducated villagers from India, who won us freedom. The new Indian middle class, which models itself after the British, or as a royalty somewhere in between, wants to create their own bastions of order - a community unconnected from India, as foreign, as subjugated, as unsustainable.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

A Note on Future

Today there was snow in the morning, followed by some afternoon rain and a bitter cold breeze afterwards. It was too daunting to venture out, and besides I did not intend to go out to the mall because I did not have anything to buy. I have noticed, indeed, such days when I am out and about without the need to buy something, I end up buying things which are completely unnecessary. So, I stayed home to keep myself away from such wastefulness.

My mood isn't all too sunny, so this caution was well-timed. I have this feeling which is midway between despondent and totally desperate, and I guess it is not getting any better. The news channels are full of gloomy news, and everyone you talk to is down too. British economy seemed to have taken the hit - and it seems, will continue to take hits in the coming days - from this recession. As expected, the United States look far more resilient than Britain, though I am sure it is not exactly at the best of its economic health right now.

Compared on that scale, India looks much better. I did notice that the property prices in Mumbai are wobbly, and there are job losses in the tech sector. I, in fact, know people who have lost their jobs recently, for no fault of theirs. The corporate training market has noticeably slowed down too. But, despite all of that, one can feel the real demand in the market - for things of all sorts, even property - and while this adjustment has to play out in India, I do think the fundamentals are solid here and we shall return to years of growth and expansion shortly.

I may be naive, but my confidence come from the enormity of demand in India. The property prices in many cities have barely budged. I think Mumbai was a bit overpriced, but I do think markets will quickly adjust there too. I am told that the prices will continue to go down, but was advised that the best time to buy will be in four to six months from now. Which, in turn, tells me the bottom - and if that's so, that will still be a shallow recession. True, the stock markets have come down from 20,000 index points to 8,500 index points in a few short months, but I actually met a few happy traders who felt that they can afford blue-chip stocks now that the FII speculators have all left. And, if this is the bottom - Rupee has moved up to 50 a dollar but stayed there after RBI intervened and spent $5 billion to stabilize it - this is still going to be bearable. Compared against Russia's loss of $112 billion in a comparable exercise, India will then escape relatively unscathed, and will not possibly need an external bail-out. Besides, the reduced crude oil prices will help us, and so will any investment from the NRIs, who snap up cut-price properties and stocks at this time.

I am also optimistic about India's job market. The demand is low at this time, but usually economic downturns help offshoring activities more. The current situation will also help soften the wages a bit, as well as make people stay in their jobs longer. That will actually help the industry - attrition has been the wrecker-in-chief so far. Besides, such adjustments will push some employees down the value chain - from Captives to third-party entities, from third-party entities to SME BPOs - which will actually be good for the employees concerned, as they will be forced to spend some time and up-skill themselves. This forced sorting out will help restore the balance between wages and productivity, something that was forgotten in the rush years. This will be painful when considered at an individual level, but will be good overall for the industry and will even pay-off for the individuals over a longer term.

The problem is, of course, it will not be as smooth as I make it sound. While the economic and practical logic will demand, and force, going down the value chain, people will not be able to adjust to this practicality easily. Those who will, will survive and do well. But there are far too many people in India who are sewed to the status and privilege of their jobs, and will find it extremely distressing to lose those privileges. I have already heard people say - I can't take a lower position now after all these years - and know that this has all the making of an individual tragedy. At times like this, the trick is to be flexible, and adjust. Failure to adjust and living in denial are the worst sins one can commit at this time. It is all about having confidence in oneself and embracing things as they come - always looking out for an opportunity - rather than staying put, something that middle level executives in India are not very adept in doing.

Besides, there are social aspects too, which will come into play. I have noticed that Indians in general have very little understanding of a recession. While disasters, floods and famines, have been a regular phenomena in India [floods continue to be so], the urban Babu-s have not seen a full-blown recession ever. This makes us, as a nation, remarkably insensitive about failure. Our families and communities have no understanding what a failure means, and provide little support to individuals to emerge from one. I have heard Indian employers comment that they never hire staff who had an experience in a failed business; it is considered inauspicious. Consequently, the fear of failure runs deep in the Indian psyche. The current market adjustments, hopefully, will challenge this thinking and make failure common, and over time, acceptable.

I do think this will be the greatest gift that this current recession will give us: our acceptance of failure as a part of life. Urban Indians have been so fearful of failure that they have invariably opted for sub-optimum careers, in government, railways, PSUs, BPOs etc. They lived a content and safe life, but often did not realize their potential or chased their dreams. This recession will force a rethinking, and let the cat out of the bag - so don't be surprised if this leads to an entrepreneurial revolution in India in the days to come.

So, overall, I feel positive, despite the bad news all over the TV channels. I know India needs this hard knock, but it will emerge stronger than before. I don't necessarily see the end of US dominance here - that economy is far more resilient, innovative and dynamic for being written off in one global crisis - but I am hopeful about India. This is the first time the Creative Destruction of capitalism has been unleashed in India. Without doubt, this will raise efficiencies, expand capacities and inspire enterprise, as it always does when it begins.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Preparing for 2009

I am hoping, despite various commitments on the calendar, that I shall stay home for the next six weeks to Christmas. In fact, I am dreaming about a week's leave around Christmas and may even take a short trip outside London. Indeed, I need all the time to recharge and resurrect myself - I have spent 2008 trying too hard. It is almost time for me to recount what happened, and what hasn't happened, and prepare fresh for the oncoming year.

2008 was a rather terrible year for me. Not as bad as 2006 - when I come to think - when I lost my mother and faced serious setbacks in my personal life; 2008 started as a promising year, building on the hard won gains of 2007, but did not deliver on the promises. Of course, 2008 was a ruinous year for many people, across the world. A credit crisis broke, and many people are significantly worse off today than they were at the beginning of the year. So, I can't complain, in fact, I should consider myself somewhat lucky by that measure. But, on the scale of my life-map, this will be a low year, and I know I have to work very hard next year to get even.

The credit crunch have affected me in some ways, but the fault is primarily mine. I had taken my eye off the ball. I forgot what I have set out to do. In 2006, in the midst of terrible personal crisis, I walked a steadying walk every morning - from London Bridge station to my office on the Old Street - telling myself that I must make the best of the day. It worked; I did achieve what I needed to achieve, and steered through the crisis, even managed to get extra bits out of my life. But the excitement, and the dislocation, of continuous international travel in 2008 let me lose that focus. I know now that I hardly followed any agenda - personal or professional - and frequently failed to get things done within the time lines I set for them. I missed deadlines and lost view of my own objectives. Quite simply, 2008 was a timepass - something I can ill-afford at this stage of my life.

I have always said that I wished to retire when I am 42. I am serious about that goal. Retirement for me is not yachts or sea-side homes; nor is it staying home and running errands. Retirement, as I understood it, is about doing my own thing - a freedom from carrying around somebody else's agenda and living off a salary. I thought entrepreneurship will be my way out, only to realize that I may not be leaving myself enough time to play this out. However, there are ways - in my definition, entrepreneurship can also be a form of retirement, as long as it involves something I really love to do. But more so will be intellectual work and travel - teaching perhaps, though friends tell me that I shall make a terrible teacher. Writing is more like it - all my blog-writing may perhaps mutate into something more purposeful. I could possibly also help other entrepreneurs - I have always had an offbeat way of looking at businesses and hopefully post-recession, some people would like to hear what I think - and become a consultant. But whatever it is, the point is - I did not progress much towards those goals throughout 2008.

Which is a shame, indeed. This time, last year, I had my plans laid out. Yes, I did not see credit crunch coming. But I saw the writing on the wall - or I should have seen it if I looked. I knew I had to progress towards an academic/ consulting/ writing career. I should have worked more rigorously towards earning the skills, the credentials and the connections to make this happen. Instead, now, I am sitting here with a wasted year, largely because I was so vain, and did not focus on the key priorities I had.

My key priority, obviously, is to sort out skills, credentials and connections for an eventual independent career. I have been working towards the residency in Britain, and I am almost there - unless the British government moves the goalposts again. I do think this is important, because being in Britain, gives me access to ideas and opportunities, which I shall never have if I go back to India - particularly to Calcutta. I must make the best use of time that I spend in Britain, and also pick up skills and ideas as fast as I can. As I said, I always had this on my agenda, but lost sight of it in the exhaustion of continuous travel.

Besides, I have also tangled up my personal life far too much. I have not been responsible, and odd journeys and work stress has taken a significant toll on me. Health aside, which seemed to have deteriorated, I do think that I would not want a repeat of 2008 in my life, however exciting it may have been while it lasted.

So, I know my work for 2009 is cut out, and needs to start now. The challenges are many fold - I must adjust my lifestyle and get health issues sorted out. I must also streamline my professional commitment and allocate priority to practical than on vain and heroic things that I keep on committing to. I must sort out my finances, which has suffered because I traded practical considerations of an employment for a virtual, non-material hallow of entrepreneurship. My skill development efforts have been halted mid-track and must be resumed without any delay. [I am on break from my MA, but will have to return to school early January] I have spent quite a bit of time reforming the unreformable, convincing the suspecting and educating the faithless. In 2009, I must return to basics and do my own work.

In the end, one last thing : 2008 was not as bad a year as I make it look like. My travels gave me invaluable insights of various regions I have been to. Some friends I made will be for life, I reckon. Some things I learnt will be of immense value as I go forward. I am a more confident man after all. So, I would say - 2008 isn't really a wasted year, just underachieved. And, I know the agenda I must set now - I need to learn at least one new thing every day - so that 2009 does not give me the same feeling.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The 'Modern' Entrepreneur

I have structured my career wrongly so far. I have worked hard, trying to learn skills and understand how businesses work, and wanted to save up a bit of capital in the process. All I wanted to become is an entrepreneur, independent, high-achiever. But, as I know now, my imagination of 'entrepreneur' was wrong. Or, it is, at the least, dated. In these boom-bust age of hypercapitalism, the entrepreneur needs to be a modern entrepreneur, one that runs with different rules than those in the book. Here is my take of the Modern Entrepreneur.
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The 'modern entrepreneur' is usually young, energetic and high living. He is modern because most of his ideas and actions are determined by pop capitalism [aka Richard Branson] and he has, most probably, come of age in the new millennium. He is an economic agent, and he value-adds through opportunity-mining. He appreciates nothing but money, sees no sin in luxury, and usually hands out an odd donation to do his part for the world. He is generous in person, economic in his thinking and claims that he reinvented the world. He is the new God, the new prophet and the new bible, rolled in one.

He is someone ready for, made of and created by our time!

His banks gives him the money and covers all his risks. His employees toil hard, and are expected to earn their own salaries, otherwise they don't get one. His businesses only offer 'quality'; he understands this to be a logo on the main door. His customers are expected to love the brand and pay not what it is worth, but as much they can afford to pay. His government gives him tax cuts so that he can earn even more.

All he needs to bring to party is HIMSELF.

He, of course, spends his hours at the gym and reads his management digests. He keeps good company, and knows about the latest scandal and the latest opportunity in town. He has sharp ears, sweet mouth and closed eyes. He is brain-dead to Einstein in 60 seconds, and the opposite in 1. He is usually an MBA, better still, a drop-out, so he knows the names of the books but did not have to read them. He is spiritual, but he thinks it is some kind of retirement saving. He is ethical, but ethics is somewhat like a good movie, to be saved for the weekends, that is.

Responsibility is a word he does not like - and written to Cambridge recently appealing the deletion of the word from the dictionary.

He is the Master of the Universe. Tom Wolfe wrote about him, so did Arvind Adiga. He wins Bookers and Pulitzers regularly. He is The Lord, of lives and ideas, of moments, thoughts and troubles, of countless other mortals, who are not up in the information ladder. He hires guns in Moscow, lobbyists in Washington, pimps in Brussels, party officials in Beijing and politicians in Delhi. He can not fail.

He said his alphabet starts with the letter O - the word Opportunity - and the rest follows.

He made money when it became fashionable for the governments to sell off their assets at a cut price. He again made money when it became fashionable for the governments to 'bail out' those same companies that bought those assets. He is a scavenger for public funds, claiming every penny that he can, and creating some to reward himself. He is a true revolutionary, funding coups and assassinations in poor foreign countries as a business opportunity. He is big and small, foolish and wise, many and one - but always the same.

He is the modern avatar - he corrects to comply, he corrupts to convince, he invests to manipulate and he spends to earn.

TV predicts the end of him among the current economic crisis, but what do they know! He revels in boom-and-bust, he is the master of the crisis and rescue, bail-ins and bail-outs. One would suspect the rumours of his demise are one of his business strategies, a communication principle he learnt in last month's seminar or an idea he picked up from last weekend's movie, something that sets the stage for renewal and return. In his need-to-know world of on-demand ethics and other people's responsibility, such crises help him to unleash creative destruction and destructive creation, with little headache.

Amen.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

FASHION: The Movie

I went to watch Priyanka Chopra in FASHION, but was impressed by the movie itself instead. It's a Madhur Bhandarkar movie, and I learnt [I am not exactly top of things bollywood] that he made his name making movies depicting real life situations. I have seen PAGE 3 in bits and pieces, and it was okay - it was a bit simplistic but had a message. FASHION too was a bit simplistic on that scale, but impressive in its execution.

Like so many other bollywood movies, FASHION really does not have a story. The young Meghna Mathur of Chandigarh defies her parents and comes to Mumbai to be 'a supermodel'. After lots of catchy lines, a sequence of improbable good luck and a string of impressive costumes, Meghna falls a victim of her own success, steps over the line when she makes public her affairs with her married benefactor, and is soon dumped, back to Chandigarh. There is a follow-up story, indeed, of her second coming and struggles, where her parents now support her and gives her the strength, and she finds lots of generous and forgiving friends allowing her to get back into the profession.

Not much of a story, really. But you can still play with this, if you had interesting characters. I am not sure if I am alone on this one, I find the bollywood movies a bit crowded. There are far too many characters, doing bits, but no one really making it special. Same here - many wasted opportunities in FASHION too. Meghna's generous and forgiving friends behave unexplainably - they are not real in their generosity or not human in their forgiveness. And, simply, there are far too many of them.
The other noticeable thing is that there is no villain here. I did not expect a film without a villain. A subject like fashion, and the film's A censor rating, usually indicated lots of kinkiness, but there was none. The fall guy are unusually logical, generous and forgiving. There is an odd arrogant monkey of a designer, but he stands out to be an exception. The fallen model, who Meghna belittled and then befriended, is unusually tolerant and adorable, despite her lifestyle issues. So, perfect characters all around - in a story of success - the movie was too sweet to be real.

But then, if one forgets that this one is supposed to be a feature film, then it is easy to see the documentary value of the film. Many shots, off stage and in parties, are real life, as is many 'character' roles, like Kittu Gidwani's in the modelling agency. This is a well researched film, as is evident, though the director could not stop advertising the fact and appeared in the film himself, on the pretext of doing research. Earlier in this blog, I wrote admiringly about FASHION BABYLON - that was primarily for the documentary value of the story. This one adds the model's side of the perspective.
The execution is good, as I have already mentioned. Costumes well designed, cast well chosen and sets grandly executed. One has started expecting these things by default from Bollywood, and the movie does not disappoint.

However, this 'realism' tells a story about India and its public. The current age is mad about success. Historically, failure sold better than success. But India is in that sweety syrupy age right now when failure is glossed over, not admired any more. The sheer good luck that builds success is treated as the default norm of life. So, FASHION will sell. But, the question one needs to ask: Will it last?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

BPO in India

I am back in Dubai again, and writing this post sitting at the lounge. This has almost become a routine, long absences from writing and then a resumption on my way back, or on transit, always at this airport lounge. By the last calculation, I have taken 42 Emirates flights this year, coming back to this lounge, therefore, 21 times in the past 11 months. This is indeed too frequent for my liking, but I increasingly like the writing practise I get at this airport.

I have chosen to read CHINDIA - a Businessweek collection on China and India, and the new marketplace in general. Interesting read, full of usual optimism and the usual warnings. Some new insights were revealing - for example, how the Chinese consumption pattern today is different from the consumption pattern of India. Though we don't see it, this book is cautiously optimistic about India, and goes on to postulate that India may have a better long term potential than China, primarily because of its large and growing working age population. The biggest challenge of India, as it was laid out, is integrating this population in the cycle of prosperity.

One gets the sense of loss on the Indian streets these days - the global recession has come to India, for the first time in history. The exuberance one noticed six months back is all but gone, Sensex has halved and clearly the property prices in Mumbai and other major cities have started falling. One also gets to hear about job losses, though it is not uncommon to see companies continuing to hire side by side. However, I noticed a certain softness in the wages recently, and dare I say, an uncertainty among the entrepreneurs starting new ventures. So, this integration in the cycle of prosperity may already be suffering a bit, and the Indian government must show a strong sense of purpose to get the country back on track together.

Also interesting was to read excerpts of Nandan Nilkeni's upcoming book on India - Imagining India - on the Times of India. Mr. Nilkeni is already the most-quoted Indian executive on the subject of new India, I found Tom Friedman and Edward Luce often turning to his words to depict the success and hope in India. Mr. Nilkeni has now decided to write about India himself, and reportedly received the biggest sum of money as advance ever paid to an Indian non-fiction writer.

That aside, he does not disappoint. If I can judge from the excerpts, this is well written and densely argued - talking about the idea and the possibility of India. Mr. Nilkeni, fittingly focuses on the issue of education, which is going to be critical if India has to maintain its lead in the service sector and move up the value chain. Mr. Nilkeni calls himself unelectable, but makes the argument fitting of a public intellectual. Days are not far when we should see a Prime Minister emerge talking about 'Education. Education. Education.' Well - will that really happen?

I have also recently read an interesting new book called Business Process Outsourcing. A short 200 page booklet published by SAGE, this is written by industry professionals and give a very good introduction to the industry, its opportunities and challenges, various sectors, roles, processes and invaluably some data. Though badly edited, and in line with the usual exuberance of Indian executives, has a 'million' written everywhere there is a number [often wrongly], this was an interesting read for me. I have seen this industry from the sidelines, and this gave a fairly well-rounded view, though I was forced to discount most of its numbers and 'research'. One point that jumped out though - party may be over for Indian BPOs, as the tax breaks come to an end in 2009 and India faces a severe manpower crunch. Not enough has been done to augment the labour force. The usual short-term business pressures in the sector did not allow strategic diversification and long term people development. This is going to bite the sector soon.

I also had an opportunity to attend an informal meeting of the entrepreneurs running Graphic Design businesses in Bangladesh, a nascent sector. One could see the frustration with manpower clearly there - there were talks about creating a curriculum to create professionals and also to follow certain norms about hiring. Indian BPO experience may actually be instructive for these entrepreneurs. Next time I am in Dhaka, therefore, I am going to carry copies of the SAGE booklet I just mentioned.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

India's Favourite Australian - a Farewell

Cricket is a great game because it always delivers the unexpected. Just as it did, a few minutes earlier, when Sourav Ganguly, playing his last innings, was foxed first ball by Jason Krejza, the rookie Australian off-spinner. A duck in the end - Sourav was so incredulous that he did not take down his pads after he went back to Pavilion. The crowd, which cheered him in, stood up for him on his way back, sportingly, and greeted him as a hero as they always did.

It has indeed been a long journey for Sourav, one of the most colourful cricketers in our generation. He came in with public doubts about his temperament. He performed, and forced himself in the team, in the face of a consistent whispering campaign in the media. I do remember watching his whole first innings in Test Match cricket, at the Lord's, where he scored a balanced, well-composed century. Another century in following test, as well as a few wickets through his part-time bowling, sealed his place in the team soon thereafter.

In those tests, he proved himself to be a competent cricketer, worthy of a place in the Indian team. However, he proved a few more things too. First, to quote Rahul Dravid, 'On the off-side, first there is God and then there is Sourav' - his exception skills in executing a range of shots square of the wicket on the off-side. Second, his fighting temperament, not many cricketers make a comeback after being left out of the team for 4 years. He looked destined to leave his mark on the Indian cricket.

And, he would indeed leave his mark. His game gave India its character and its ambition. An exquisite stroke-maker, he proved himself to be a fighter in the Stan McCabe mode, and developed an on-your-face aggression which contrasted the dour image of Indian cricketers of previous generations. He turned out to be an exceptional leader, unerringly meritocratic and unstoppably ambitious. He can reasonably be credited with rising above regional factionalism, which dogs Indian cricket incessantly, and which no previous Indian captain [with a possible exception of Tiger Pataudi] could successfully negotiate with. He continued to dazzle with his batting - more than 7000 test runs and 11000 ODI runs provides abundant proof - and built one of the best batting partnerships of all time with Sacin Tendulkar.

Whisperers never left him though. I recall how unfairly he was dropped in an one-day series in Toronto, his place going to an erratic Vinod Kambli, who hailed, unsurprisingly, from the home team of the-then Manager of the team, Sandip Patil. Sourav got his place back eventually, and put on an unsurpassable all-round performance against Pakistan. We were used to losing to Pakistan wherever we played them - Sourav turned the tide almost single-handed.

At the cost of diversion, I must say that this was an important facet of Sourav's game. I have seen too many losses against Pakistan, where Indian team looked wanting in determination. We snatched defeat from the jaws of victory - and unexpectedly, Salim Malik, Manjoor Elahi, Aquib Javed and their colleagues defeated us. Sourav's game was to return the favours - first by all-round performances and later in his career, by inspiring others to do the same. All my life, I would recall the joy of watching Rajesh Chauhan, our off-spinner not known for his batting, scoring a six last ball to win a game against Pakistan, almost a fitting reply to Javed Miandad's famous six-on-the-last-ball win against India.

If Sourav's cricket against Pakistan showed his character, his game against Australia showed his strategic brilliance. He was at the helm when a brilliant Indian team, led by Laxman and Dravid and Harbhajan, stopped the winning streak of Steve Waugh's team and performed a small miracle by winning a test, and eventually the series, after following on. He stood tall as a leader, and played some of his best innings, against the Aussies. Under Sourav, Indian team became the only challenger to the world-beating Aussies, the only one who could beat them, stare them down.

Yes, as I was saying, whisperers never left him though. He became the bad boy of Indian cricket - subject to bans, fines and suspensions - because he contested, questioned and never given up. Cricket is the modern Gladiator sport, a huge money-spinner, where Cricketers are obliged to be dour, obedient, a his-masters-voice of sorts. Sourav stood out, or should I say, stuck out, as he was always his own man and always fought for what he believed in.

So, when the whisperers got better - through a coup-d'etat at the board, with an equally fierce coach in charge - he not only lost his captaincy, but his place in the team. This was coming when he just scored a century after a bad year and the team is winning. But, the board and the administrators wanted obedience and Sourav was unfit for purpose. He was too much of a character, too independent.

And, this last bit Sourav would always be remembered for. The way he came back from banishment, the way he fought his way back yet again, and again, and finally today, retired on his own terms.

There are many speculation in the media whether Sourav should be asked to stay back. But everyone knows this is futile. Sourav is going at the right time. Back of his mind, he believes in the Australian maxim - Go when people ask why you are going.

I saw a banner going up today which reminded even the Great Don scored a duck in his innings. So, did many others, indeed. But here is a point - Sourav was an Australian at heart - combative, focused, committed. It is fitting that he was compared with the greatest Australian cricketer of all time at least once in his career.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Obama's Day

I lived through a bit of personal history again. I recalled that I was in Dhaka on September 11th, 2001. Returning from office that afternoon, we watched with shock and awe the twin towers coming down, with a feeling of despair, uncertainty and fear. I knew the world will change, and it did. That moment is still vividly captured in my memory.

So will be this morning. At the cost of being late for meetings this morning and missing out on seeing a very dear friend, I watched, with hope and expectation this time, the election results coming from America. I held on till the time John McCain walked on the stage and gave a very dignified, gracious and courageous concession speech. I am again in Dhaka, by the way, and I knew that the post-9/11 veil of fear will now be lifted. America, almost unbelievably, has a President in Barack Obama. The world will never be the same again.

Why do I rejoice? Because this is a win for freedom, possibility and hope. John McCain was a very good candidate, one that could transform America and lead the world with courage. He would have won almost any presidential election, but this one. Like many gifted men before him, this was not a race he could win. He was competing with history, he was fighting with hope. He fought a brave fight, but he was on the wrong end of time. I felt sad to feel that this is possibly the last we see of John McCain, a tireless reformer and a great icon of whatever is good with America, but he was representing the past, the cliched equations and discredited theories, as disconnected with the modern, global world we live in as it can be. Someone on TV was saying Obama win will start a new millennium in America. Indeed, it will.

Obama's win is a long way off from the Slavery and the Freedom Riders. This is a day of hope - this is the day Martin Luther dreamt for. The African-Americans are celebrating as if they have won their freedom today. But this is indeed a victory for America - the land of possibility that it is and which McCain referred to in his concession speech - it sets another great example for world's democracies to follow. Democracy, everywhere, is beset today by class, caste, tribes, and has effectively been turned into a tyranny of the majority. This brings all glass ceilings down, makes everything possible, gives a new lease of life to democracy as a method. Many countries, India among them, will take the lesson and transform their democracies into meritocracies. Countries like Bangladesh will take the lessons from Obama-McCain contest and learn how you can both be Americans first and political rivals later. America has certainly gained its moral leadership back.

Will this change our lives? Most certainly. Our lives have already changed. Possibilities have opened, examples have been made. Someone was predicting that the recession will be over within 10 days of President Obama taking office; this could very well be, as the recession is a more psychological factor than anything else. Besides, Obama has so far demonstrated competence and projected himself to be fiscally conservative, signals the market needs to get credit flowing again. But, more than that, Obama will represent an America engaged with the world, a global power with global responsibilities, not the bully it has lately become. Obama will stand as proof of a multi-cultural, cosmopolitan America, one which can look into future with confidence and engage with the world.

The post 9-11 period is finally, truly, over.

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How To Live

"Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

- T S Eliot

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