Monday, March 30, 2009

India: Up, Close and Personal - Managing People

Managing in India is changing, partly because India is changing, but also because of the recession. The big change, of course, is that the power has shifted away from the employees to the employers. The party, which continued for a decade and resulted in some steepest rises in the white collar salary anywhere in the world, is finally over. While this may sound like a good thing to small entrepreneurs and business managers, the current situation is definitely hurting and creating new management challenges that must be dealt with.

I have seen the recession from close quarters in Britain. However, I think Indian labour markets are a bit different, not just because we don't have social security but because professional lifestyle is relatively new in India. Job loss is traumatic in any society, but it is far more traumatic when there is an element of humiliation involved and the people around you - family and friends - fail to stand by you. A big proportion of India's service sector labour force comes from families which traditionally earned their living in government service and have no way of appreciating and ascertaining the uncertainties and traumas of modern professional life. Many of India's young workforce is first generation professionals, and while they have enjoyed spectacular success much beyond what their parents could ever dream of, this contraction will extract a steep price in terms of their self esteem and how they are viewed in the society.

This is where the new management challenges will emerge from. At this time, Indians are extremely loyal to the big companies, and often define their identities in terms of their employers, their grade and their pay package. While travelling in India, I was surprised to note how many Indian executives openly discuss their grade - 'I am M1 and the lady down the lane is M3A' - seemingly oblivious of the fact that these numerals mean nothing to the audience. While the recession will make the power shift to the employers, there will be an underlying erosion of this loyalty. The ability, and therefore the intent, of defining oneself in terms of one's employer or grade or pay packet ['My CTC is 15 lakhs, and they offered 18'] will diminish. This, in turn, will actually erode the powers managers hold on their reportees.

I do hope that this will actually lead to the creation of a flatter workplace. India is a high power distance culture, where the seniors and superiors and reporting managers enjoy quite a bit of leverage on their reportees. This is evident in any work place you visit, and indeed outside the work place too. It is not unusual to notice a manager 'demanding' work outside the contracted work hours or making out of the way 'requests'. the reportees will often comply, partly because they are used to this and do not mind, but also because the manager holds life-and-death control over their selves. The manager can get you fired, a software engineer told me, even if you have done your work perfectly and diligently. The appraisal is subjective and often gives a lot of weightage on the words of the reporting manager, I gathered.

It is easy to see why. The hierarchy runs on a system of patronage, and to build a hierarchical system, each level must respect the 'patch' of the level below. You tread into the area of the manager reporting to you and you justify being overruled by your supervisor, by the same token. The morality is important, particularly to the middle class Indians, and the Hindu psyche of rebirth and accumulation of good work seem to run deep in the workplace. And, therefore, senior managers keep collecting moral brownie points by not interfering what not so senior managers do with their subordinates and keep the system going. [I must add here that there is another way of looking at this. The Indian business culture has borrowed quite a bit from the British, including the principle - 'do not embarrass'.]

What I am saying, however, is that this recession is likely to upset this cosy arrangement forever. There will be more people out on the street, and given the huge unexplored economic opportunity, more entrepreneurial efforts than ever. There will be an erosion of respect for company life, and a general acceptance, after a lot of pain, that no job is for life. There will be more focus on lifelong learning [I recalled someone once refused a plum technical position because he 'did not want to study when [his] son comes back from school'] and a lot more focus on oneself, as opposed to the borrowed identities that people live with now. This will be an opportunity for SMEs to hire good people, but they have to adjust themselves to this new reality of the independent workers. They have to stop playing the game that they long played - pretending to be big and assuming that people want only a little - and engage in this new management paradigm sincerely.

Recessions are wonderful times to create new champions. The game is being played right now.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

India: Up Close and Personal - In Mumbai

I am back in Mumbai after some time. The city captivates me. Very different from any other city in India, Mumbai is India's entrepreneurial core - having been structured as such for over two centuries. This is a merchant's city - one truly enchanted by the allure of money. The message that this city gives me is about hard work and thinking big, and I love it.

I have always said I love Kolkata and would want to go back and live there some day. And, this is completely sincere. Kolkata is an amazing city - so comfortable, so oldworldly charming and so personal. I walk on the roads of Kolkata for hours, as I have done for years, and still be amazed by the charm, smell and sound of the roads. If it sounds terribly romantic to anyone, that's what Kolkata is - romantic. A relic of an era past, not much of use, but of tremendous value.

But, at the same time, it is frustrating to work in Kolkata. People don't work there. All the romanticism, all the emotions, come in the way. I recently asked a group in Kolkata what a good job means to them. The responses, when aggregated, did not say anything about the content of work. It was always about perquisites - an AC office, an AC car, a separate cabin etc. Someone told me that Bengalis can not do business because they are too fixated to the style and vanity of work. It showed up again and again whichever way I look.

By contrast, Mumbai is hard working and practical. Life here is rather unforgiving. Travelling from one part of the city to another is gruesome. The food and amenities crazily expensive. The infrastructure is out of date. The weather, hot and humid, takes its toll. But, it is a city in love with money and the material things in life.

Of course, Mumbai has its great cultural core. It has great theatre, art and publishing houses. But its distinguishing feature is of course the bollywood studios and lore, enormous bungalows of film stars and whispers about who is dating whom. It is the city which got the glamour label for Indian culture and monetized it.

As I go around Mumbai and meet my numerous friends, I still smell the opportunity. The stench of death by recession, so strong in Dubai and London, is hardly perceptible here. Rather, people are talking about new ideas, solving problems and changing lives. There is that sublime excitement in the air, though this is the heart of India's financial services and the sensex has fallen from 20,000 level to 8,000 level over last 12 months.

The latest craze seems to be education, along with the old favourite technology. But education is a comfortable first, in terms of where the money should go in. The business schools are opening at a furious pace; and every executive striking on their own are talking about one education venture or the other.

Sometimes, it is hard to be the No. 1 city. When things change, it is easy to be hit first and recover last. Undeniably, that could have been the case of Mumbai - with its terror attacks and various corruption related issues. But it seems that mumbaikars wont let that happen - they have resolved, and demonstrated, the will to keep their city special, a model for India's inclusive democracy. Besides, as things stand today, this city may spawn a number of entrepreneurial, new business initiatives in the near future.

Monday, March 23, 2009

India : Up Close and Personal - The Opportunity

My travel in India continues. I spoke about the disappointment about the Indian reaction to returnees yesterday, but did not speak about the opportunity, though I initially set out to do so.

The opportunity is indeed the key why one should look at India - as the country to return to, as the country to start a business in. It is complicated and competitive, but India still has enormous underserved markets. My rough estimates - about 90% of India's population is still untouched by all the major commercial innovations made in last 20 years. It is not that all of them are poor; besides, the poor are also being lifted out of poverty gradually.

While it is still so, Indians are getting equated in terms of aspirations with the west. Television is spreading, and though it still has a long way to go to become an object of personal possession, some communities share television sets and satellite channels are coming in. Mobile phone has reached distant corners and diverse communities. Newspaper circulation, almost uniquely in the world, is growing. Education is growing too, though it is nowhere near where it should be in a modern democracy. Besides these drivers, most Indians are below 35 years of age, and more people are being added to the mix every year. Going by this combination, it is possibly the most exciting consumer market in the world.

This is what makes one hopeful about India lifting out of recession quite quickly. True, the recession has hit India hard and particularly the service industries are almost frozen. But, India has a diverse economy and an underserved markets. A large population means that there will be sustained demand. I think the current freeze is more about panic than an actual market problem in India, and soon everyone will wake up to the missed opportunities.

An interesting case in point is the launch of a new passenger car yesterday. Tata Nano, the famed Rs. 100,000 car, got launched despite the various roadblocks. It is indeed a hell of a time to launch a new car, when the worldwide production is falling. But the Tatas are looking at non-consuming market, and even if the markets are down, they are looking at a potential market size of 300 million people, or 60 million families, and even a very low demand will keep their factory running at full capacity for a number of years.

Of course, many businesses fail in India and most international companies do. But this has nothing to do with the opportunity. It is rather about the approach, and the arrogance that most companies come to table with. India is a completely different market dynamics which need to be understood and respected, but most Western companies [in particular] are too much in love with themselves to make an honest effort. In that way, the recession is indeed a good thing - it will tell the wheat from the chaff and we shall be left with the best products, services and companies in the end.

And, India indeed has its share of problems. To me, India is like a very powerful automobile, but without the tyres and the fuel. If I try to rationalize the imagery, I am obviously talking about the big engine of demand and the underserved markets, and the crumbling infrastructure - low capacity roads, frequent black outs, overcrowded railway stations and airports, underequipped hospitals and schools - as the missing tyres. As for fuel, I think India faces a serious manpower crunch despite its huge population, as the Indian education system has failed the country and could not produce the millions of high quality graduates that the country needed to move forward.

This is a significant problem. We have suffered, for many years, from Macaulay Syndrome. By this, I mean the brilliant plan that Charles Babington Macaulay conceived for Indian education in 1835 - to create an elite class of people, educated in English, who will be separate from the rest of the population and serve the English masters. Independent India followed the same plan, making significant investments in making the education system more elitist and creating two classes of people. Whereas the general education system was allowed to rot, we prided ourselves by building world class institutions. The problem is when India is coming to party today, those institutions produce too few graduates to keep us going. We are running out of fuel every now and then.

In a way, indeed, this is an opportunity. Indian education infrastructure has to grow manifold, and this is possibly the most exciting business in India today. I know that there has been more 1800 applications for accreditation for business schools submitted in last 12 months and I am sure there will be many more in the coming days. However, education in India is stiflingly bureaucratic and yet lack oversight. We have stopped innovation by putting in controls, but allowed a select few to profit out of the system, creating a sort of education mafia in every state. Interestingly, recession and the attendant surge in education business will create competition and possibly force a correction: However, in cases like education, correction by market forces is too painful and results in a lot of wasted lives.

However, in summary, India remains an excellent opportunity, by any measure. But, in India, one has to go beyond the obvious for this opportunity. We will need to take a quantum leap, in our attitudes and commitments, to realize its full potential, but hopefully, the hard times will make us readier. It surely seems that this recession will be a blessing in disguise for India, and help it emerge as a more powerful and dynamic nation.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

India : Up, Close and Personal

I am back in India for a few days. This is going to be my last trip for a while - not planning to come back again before end-May - and I am going around the country this time. I am covering at least six cities - Kolkata, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Pune, Mumbai and Delhi - and meeting as many people as I can. I am now committed to spread the channel of Direct English, and hopefully I shall now make some major inroads this time around. So, the object of my visit is to review all that we have done so far, reconsider all the assumptions we have made, and see how we can now play the game by the market rules.

In a way, also, this visit of mine is the prelude to my eventual return, as I try to judge the mood and assess the opportunity in India. Interestingly, I have already seen that there is a quite a bit of resentment towards the returnees, the thousands of people who are now returning from the west and taking up jobs in India. While I was celebrating the import of competitiveness, enterprise and innovation into India on this blog, quite a few people thought the opposite - they saw this returning crowd as opportunity seeking prospectors, who left India when times were good and now trying to come back and take the jobs when times are bad.

As I came across such criticisms and be alarmed to some extent, there is indeed some truth in this stance. Especially where the resentment is targeted at the returnees demanding/ expecting special treatment, as there should be no reason to offer a higher salary to someone just because s/he lived in America for a while unless that specific attribute adds value to the ability to do the job in question. But, I must mention at the same breath, in most cases the global exposure does add value to the jobs that these people will do. No one is expecting them to take over government jobs - even though some of the government roles will do well with some perspective and save money for the exchequer by not having to send executives abroad on familiarisation visits - and most jobs today are global in scope and multicultural in content.

However, what is particularly annoying is that the resenting professionals, in more than occasion, stated that they have stayed back in India for the love of their country. Agreed, this may actually be true for some people, but I shall doubt that patriotism is actually so pervasive among Indian middle classes. Many people stayed back because of family reasons, or the life in India for them was comfortable enough not to seek an opportunity abroad. To pass that as patriotism is surely not right, as one can be equally patriotic wherever in the world s/he lives. [Remember Kipling - who saw England everywhere in the world wherever an English soldier was buried] Most people who claimed to have stayed back in India for patriotic reasons evaded taxes whenever they could, participated little in community life and never looked beyond their windows and saw a slum. To resent the returnees on account that they are less patriotic looked shamefully hypocritical to me.

Well, I am sure I am biased on this one, but the resentment towards returnees caught me by complete surprise. I am not sure whether this can actually be the same in any other society - people are returning now to every country from wherever they were working - and whether this will be socially acceptable to voice these resentments so openly in any other place. I think this is the bit about India - the privileged are so used to privileges and so uncomfortable with any sort of competition - that keeps us where we are. But more importantly, there is another trait here, which makes it even more interesting to watch. We are so unused to failure! The perception that these returnees have failed - this is a completely wrong perception because many of them could rot in where they were but instead chose to take the plunge - is making us close the door. If we perceived that these people are actually coming back with pots of money and connections, which they usually are, we would have the first to be at the airport with a garland.

Obviously, I think the reverse brain drain will happen: the engineers, the software coders, the marketers and the teachers will return. I shall join the ranks, at some point of time, because I also love my family as much as anyone else, and would love to have the comforts of living at home. I am hoping that by then, we shall get used to the idea of return - someone could actually leave Europe and come and live in India by choice!

For a long time, we have been an wounded and insecure country. It is time that we now start thinking like a big and prosperous country and embrace these people, who have much to offer, with confidence.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What Linkedin Means To Me

I joined Linkedin several years ago. I sent out some invitations to a few people I knew, turning down the option of adding everyone on my address book. If they were on my address book, why add them here again - that was my thinking. This whole thing was about connecting with long lost friends, so I searched the names of past colleagues and contacts. I did not go far, and after about three years of using the service, I had about twenty odd contacts, all of whom I was in touch anyway through other means, and actually never bothered to check the site at all.

In the meantime, there were other sites which competed for my attention. There were the chat rooms to start with. But then there was hi5, which was more for ladies I did not really know; Orkut, more for family; and Facebook, which I must admit was the most engaging. I did use [and still do] Facebook quite a bit and found many people I lost contact with, and there were quite a few friends who used the chat facility in Facebook, which was very neat. I never grew very fond of Orkut, though a number of friends in India extensively used it. May be, I was looking for a platform to exchange ideas and talk opportunities, and Orkut or Hi5 was never the right tools to do it.

I have, like many others, tried Ryze and mostly British Ecademy. I always had basic memberships and never spent a dime on any of the memberships. This was not about my seriousness in networking; I never thought it is right to pay to network. I was more out to make friends, share ideas, discuss things, may be get or give a job referral. I thought paying money to do all this will not be right. Besides, the ethos of Orkut and Facebook affected my thinking too.

However, I found the basic membership on Ryze and Ecademy very limiting. The most irritating feature of Ryze was that someone indicating that they want to Network with you, and you not being able to see who that is. The site expects you to pay for that privilege, and this is as frustrating s it could get.

I was introduced to Ecademy in a professional seminar in my local Chartered Institute of Marketing [CIM] chapter. The idea sounded neat, though not new. However, again, the costs looked unreasonable. I must admit that this is one time I flirted the idea of actually paying up, but was discouraged by how much it actually costs. Besides, I conferred with a friend who used the site more regularly and was a paying member. It was not very productive for him to maintain the membership - he was trying to sell enterprise services and most of the contacts he was coming up with were SME - and I did not see any value for me either joining up.

But then, something changed in life. I must admit that there is a certain fatigue which is catching up with me now. So much travel must be responsible for the physical tiredness. My life is in a complete disarray, because I am hardly living in any one place for more than two or three days at a stretch. And, however much I try, the hard times do not allow me to stop and take a break and organize my life a bit. Besides, I am, down in my genes, long term - many a time I shall rather not do a deal if I don't think it is sustainable long term. This is often a cause of conflict, as many others will not take the trouble of weighing in the risks and responsibilities that cash on the table necessarily brings. And, all of this together have started telling me that I need a change.

Which, essentially, meant that I should go out and look for a job. But then I did not want to leave my job tomorrow. I felt responsible and wanted to sort out what we are doing, and leave a business in good shape. So, I needed a bit of time - six to nine months was more like it - to sort everything out, put in place a sustainable strategy and a new set of people, partner and products.

Besides, the question of job search is more complicated than just being a long term issue. It is also about where I shall be and what I shall do. I thought I have a lot of choices at this time. I am flexible about the location, first of all. I have spent five years in London, and I would love to spend a few years now in a different city, possibly in a different country. I have done international business development for last few years, but I also have a love for technology, a degree in marketing and exposure to e-learning. Also, I have always been a closet entrepreneur and too independent to spend my life trying to fit into corporate bureaucracy; but then I did not save enough so far to launch my entrepreneurial career, and my chances of raising capital in this market was as slim as ever. I almost needed someone to sit down with me and tell me what I should do next.

This is almost the same time that I understood the potential of Linkedin. I joined a group discussing e-Learning issues and became friends with a few people. Better still, we started exchanging our reading lists and I got a few people visiting this blog. I got some advise which I needed, and eventually we connected up. I realized that Linkedin is not just about finding lost contacts; it is a place to make friends. It is far more relaxed in terms of people contacting each other without paying. It is also far more lively in terms of groups and discussions, compared to some of the other business networking sites. Yes, of course, there are paid facilities and services, but they are smartly put in the context, so that you can choose to pay when you need it, and most people, including me, actually never need to pay.

So, I spend most of my non-working time on Linkedin these days. I found what I needed, a community of friends who are all accomplished and helpful, who can give me valuable ideas and leads about what I should do next and where I should live. Some of them will even go that extra mile to facilitate what I wish to do. This is community as coach, and it is so much more valuable than just one person telling me what to do. This is a completely new way of looking for a job - not like calling up a recruiter and feeling depressed when they treat you like an object, but being in the company of friends where someday you turn up to say, I am looking for something new and do you know any opportunity which I can fit into.

So, I love Linkedin. Yes, indeed - over all the other things. That's where most of my time goes now a days. I don't spend money on Linkedin - did not feel the need - but I am now up to 1200 contacts from all over the world and loving it. I have helped other people find opportunities, connected up with interesting people, found business opportunities and friends. It is time that I see you there too.

Are We At The Bottom?

For all my pessimism and preaching on the recession, I am obligated to say that suddenly the Wall Street is looking good again. I have made it a habit to watch CNBC Closing Bell throughout this last one year - whenever I am home in England - not because I am an investor, but because I wanted to have a feel of what's going on. Yesterday, I thought that zing was back - stocks going up, companies meeting [much lowered] expectation and commodities inching up. We are in such a sad state - when was oil reaching $49 a barrel good news - that any positive signals count. And, there is indeed a slight positive signal coming out of Wall Street.

The signal is that we are near the bottom. We are not out of the woods yet, there is a huge housekeeping work left to be done at the banks and other financial institutions. But, this time, it seems pessimism has beaten the market realities and the recession shock made us cut back so harshly that production is way below down the supplies. This has had a significant negative effect on the inventories and we shall soon be at a time when the upward cycle has to begin again.

CNBC is, of course, no God. Jon Stewart, on his Daily Show, was right - 'If only I'd listened to CNBC, I'd have $1 million today - provided I had started with $100 million'. However, it is indeed correct a stock market and commodities recovery leads a general economic recovery by 6 to 9 months, and after one year of this turmoil, we may be reaching the bottom.

I am aware this is optimistic. Because we have not seen the worst of the banking crisis yet. A combination of greed on the bankers' part and flawed policy on administrations', there is no full disclosure yet on what the banks are holding. So, any recovery or the hope of it can get torpedoed by another bank coming out now. Everyone seems to be thinking - like me - that we are near the bottom, almost there, and the gamble is if you can survive a few more months with the skeletons in your closet, you may survive. That is sort of a Fritzl syndrome - yes I am talking about the incestuous Austrian monster - who thought he would be able to pass his time with that hideous crime in his closet.

Besides, the other big risk perhaps come from the Euro zone, where a number of national economies are at risk and they can together bring the Euro down with them. Besides, the stimulus thinking in Europe was not as large or as bold as those in United States and Britain, and for all its flaws, Keynesian multiplier may have saved these economies for now and will leave Europe in the larch still.

My initial thinking, an year back, was that this is going to be a shallow recession. If we are at the bottom, and we start our upward journey now, it will indeed prove to be one. However, I also thought this one is going to be an unfinished recession, like the Great War of 1914 - 1919, and the effects of this will fully play out in a more brutal, deeper recession some years later. This will be because we shall not attempt root and branch reform if this recession was a shallow one. The thinking will move from monetarism to Keynesian policy, but we shall not acknowledge and accept the fundamental flaws of capitalism. So, we shall be back here again - don't know in how many years - and we shall have to face a much broader, deeper and more cruel recession.

That will be, I thought, capitalism's final winter.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Corporate Training in India: Opportunities and Roadblocks

I have been working on Corporate Training market in India for a while, though it is strictly not in the scope of the business that we do. Our primary offering is English Language training, and I am often reminded that the language of business in India is English - hence, anyone with a decent job should have an understanding of English anyway. In essence, the message is that there is no market for English Language training in the corporate market in India and I should basically stay off the turf. Right?

Resoundingly wrong, but that is not what I wanted to write about here. We are making inroads into corporate English Language training market. It was not easy explaining to training managers why their employees need English training, though there were these enlightened souls who patiently heard us out. However, what we have done so far is a different subject, as this is work in progress and sort of a privileged information inside the company. However, what I can put in public domain is what we learned about corporate training market in India as a whole.

Indian corporate training market is large and lucrative, as this is one of the fastest growing economies in the world with a huge skill gap which is hindering its forward march. The strategies to handle this are already being discussed - one can make a good start by reading this bunch of articles in HBR - and upskilling the workforce is one of the common sense strategies that one would pursue.

However, an interesting point is made about the nature of India's talent gap and it bears some significance here. India, in comparison to China, suffers from a gap in the mid- to entry-level talent, rather than senior management. India already has an entrepreneurial culture and that vision thing, it is the discipline of execution at the front level which often lets Indian companies down. Accordingly, Indian corporate training market is also skewed towards training mid- to entry-level employees.

This is not to say that there are not many opportunities in Senior Management training in India. There is, and this is also the most attractive segment in money terms. But this is where most competition is - the international franchises here compete with the Indian Management schools for market share in this segment. The catch, however, is that most of the training available in this segment is exactly the same as it is available in the West, and there is very little localization and contextualization done. This leads to a big problem by itself. As it is, India is a divided society, and there is a chasm between the well-heeled, who will primarily move into senior management, and the common men and women, who will fill the mid- to entry-level positions. This chasm is further accentuated by propagation of Western Business thinking in Senior Management training, making the Senior Managers think further and further away from the people s/he is designated to manage.

On the other hand, the offerings at the entry/mid level corporate training remains highly disorganized and unstructured. I had the opportunity of reviewing several materials offered to entry level employees on leadership, communication and culture. I do think that the companies offering them did little work preparing these materials, and the trainer delivering them had little qualification to conduct the training. This is the open-to-all bit for corporate training in India. Often, an entrepreneurial trainer from a large company will set up a venture herself and get started with her former employer and other companies in the same sector. There is indeed nothing wrong about it, and most training ventures in the West are also similar - one person entities who are mainly spin offs from large corporations - but since the industry is matured, one has to go through a bit more rigour to achieve that state than in India. In India at this time, this whole freelance training business is still in its initial stages, where demand outstrips supply and hence, almost anyone with a couple of years of experience of training gets into the game.

I must not sound that I have anything against this entrepreneuralism. India needs more of this, not less. But, there needs to be a bit of standard setting for the industry, accepted certifications, trade associations whatever. The American ASTD is somewhat popular here, but that does not really solve the problem. They are an American body with the usual hangups and what is needed is a standardization for India. I know I am talking about more bureaucracy which may stifle innovation somewhat, but industry bodies are somewhat in setting a bar. And, we definitely need such a thing.

Because, poor quality training gets us poor quality skills, which is worse than no skills. The problem is not with the person who does not know, it is indeed with the person who does not know he does not know. And, it is almost impossible to retrain people once he believes that he already knows the subject.

Part of the problem is also attributable to Indian view of education. Somewhat peculiarly, the outcome far outweighs the process and the need to learn. This is our colonial training, well embedded into our post-colonial structure. This comes from schools and colleges, where the degree or diploma is more important than whether the learning is enjoyable or worthwhile. In training too, you get to meet the bright guys who always want a certificate. And, once you got a certificate, no matter whether he learnt things or not, he is certified.

I, in fact, think the recession actually will provide a solution rather than aggravating the problem. Training has dropped out of the corporate agenda now, but will come back with a vengeance in the next 6 to 12 months, when, suddenly, the business performance starts getting hit by the lack of skills. What actually is happening in India is a correction now - industries are shifting focus and fine tuning their people strategies - and soon we shall all be ready to hit the restart button. The training fraternity will go through a bit of natural selection at this time and in the end, when markets find its legs, only the smartest will be left standing. It will be a painful but a necessary process, and in the end, we shall get a far more matured training industry in India.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Question of National Flag

I must say a friend started this and he is not even Indian. I know Farhan for many years now, and know that he is a visionary and a patriot. He is Bangladeshi to the core, and believes in Bangladesh. He, and Daniel, a German national who lives in Bangladesh as a Brand and Communications Consultant, launched a movement named Amar Potaka []. It is a simple movement - it encourages people to display their national flags everywhere, on cars, office tables and windows. But it is a brave movement, something that is right for the time, this cynical moment when people don't believe in countries anymore. Truly, a national flag is a lovely symbol, it allows us to go beyond ourselves and connect to the greater identity of our nations and community.

The website says Daniel did this in Germany before World Cup 2006 and he got the idea to Farhan. I am sure Farhan sees this symbolism going far beyond football. Germany, and Europe, has a long history of national identities. The societies here are almost post-nationalist, and they have actually experienced the horrors of extreme nationalism. These days, European countries are keen on building a continental identity and keeps their national rivalries safely in the realm of sport [except English football fans, who often take it too far]. However, in a 'new' country like Bangladesh, nationalism can be redeeming, a positive force which can overpower the factionalism and divide inside the society. Particularly so for Bangladesh - a country created based on a linguistic identity, which has been fighting a ghost war between its religious and linguistic [and therefore secular] identities since its inception. The recent mutiny is proof enough that the bloody conflict is still on. This is where the Bangladeshi flag comes with all its redeeming symbolism, right before its independence day of 26th March [when it started with another mutiny, a BDR, then East Pakistan Rifles, Major, Zia-ur-Rahman announcing the independence on radio]. Farhan and Daniel got the message right on time!

This brings me to India, inevitably. India is a new nation, and we are surely in denial of this fact. We take the nationhood in India for granted. We say that we have always been like this, so why do we need a flag or anything else to remind us who we are. If any historian ever suggested [wrongly] that India is a British creation, we have been up in arms. But we always pointed the wrong way - we have never once said that India as a modern nation was created by the men and women of our constituent assembly in 1950 - we have always said that India was like this since the Vedas, since Ashoka connected us, Akbar ruled us and Aurengzeb dominated us. But that is historical mysticism, not realistic nation building strategy that we must pursue.

Yes, we are an old civilization, but a new nation - and we have never admitted or tried to understand the difference. And, this incomprehension, more than any other reason, is behind our stumble to create an unified nation. I do know that we have an unique idealism, a poor country which offered universal suffrage from day one of the republic, a secular country with so many religions and language, a very special model of nationhood, a complete model, among the nations of the world. A country long subdued, exploited and divided, but united by an idea. I find this concept stirring and uplifting. But, we remain in denial of our own dreams and deeds, and continuously invoke the past out of our centuries old insecurities.

And, therefore, we do not have national symbols. I mean, of course, we have them written in Government offices, but how many people know or see them seriously. The dramatic moment of Slumdog Millionaire comes when Jamal did not know 'Satyameb Jayate' and had to fall back on the audience. But then this is our own making. Let's talk about Indian flag then, the concept Farhan ignited in me and I thought why people don't fly, wear, carry Indian flag all the time. Easy answer - there was an executive code prohibiting the flying of Indian flag by common people which the government has only just rescinded. Only just, as recently as 2002, and only when an American educated industrialist, Naveen Jindal [now MP], decided to go to court for his right to fly the Indian flag on his factory premises. He had to, almost unbelievably, fight for his right to fly his country's flag in own country, for six long years! I shall surely recommend everyone to read Naveen Jindal's story elegantly presented by Ramesh Menon on Rediff.

Naveen Jindal has won the case, but the greater question remains. Is the biggest failure of modern India lies in creating a state, with all its attendant symbols, for a small class of people? I think so, and I think this comes from the hangover from the colonial times. Despite all the glories of Britannia, the British rulers only ruled parts of India, its major cities, and left the vast countryside, the real country, to a coalition of landlords. This country, as the tales of the time recount, went on uninhibited, in its own pace, by the lives of the city men. This was that India of the old, which remained unconnected and almost free from colonial dominion.

Gandhi's genius was to discover this India and spread the political message here. Gandhi did not just fight the British with Indian nationalists, he fought the coalition of city Babus with their British rulers with the strength of the common man of this village India. We rode to freedom on the back of this brilliant strategy. Seen in this light, India's idea was all but natural - its secularism, its democracy - it came from this win of the universal against the privileged, of the commoner against the Babus.

But this, I suspect, was too much and therefore, we stole our own freedom. We locked up the new national symbols in government offices and told the masses to go live life as usual. As if nothing happened, we brought those landlords back in and gave them a new franchise, in another name. And, we said, nothing changed - we go back to Ashok's time right now [when there were no Muslims or Christians]. This is why our national symbols, the whole concept of the new Indian nation, is so neglected, so forgotten.

However, I think we are at an inflection point, where this strategy has failed. The democracy is too much to handle, and Ashok, if he was to face a public vote and offered comparable level of public service [both of which are equally unlikely], would have been voted out of office. We are at a point - after Gujrat Riots, Mumbai 26/11, our internal chasm, numerous scandals, mass poverty, recession of 2009 - that we must get back our nationhood. We must redeem ourselves as a modern nation now. And, for that, I think we need to free up our national symbols and identify with them.

How about building an India Society in every community in our country? Those who meet every Sunday and talk about everything Indian. We can do another day if Sunday sounds too Christian. But this will wash away our chasm, of different communities and religions, and allow us to think of our identity as Indians. What about wearing a little flag on our shirts? What about displaying it in our offices? What about a fashion trend of wearing national colours [would that break the law]? What about loving our country for what it is, and dream together what it can be?

Daniel in Germany did this for the pride of football. Farhan in Bangladesh did it for the sake of his fractured nation. Naveen Jindal tried to regain the stolen property back to us. Can we do our bit now - just be a bit proud for our country and start all over again!

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Notes on The Recession

We are technically an year into the economic crisis, with no end in sight. There have been big 'stimulus' on both sides of the Atlantic, and in the rest of the world, but the demand is still failing to pick up. There have been questions raised about stimulus all the time, and now more so, as the queue is forming for government money in all countries. Corporate America rather spectacularly and brazenly giving away the money they receive to stay afloat as bonuses to senior executives, further undermining the credibility of the bailout process. Besides, increasingly, the Obama administration is turning xenophobic and protectionist, to appease its voting crowd, and sending out precisely the wrong message for the time to the rest of the world.

It was almost amusing, but for the human pain, to watch monetarism's demise. This recession is the nail in the coffin of the flawed thinking of Reaganomics/ Thatcherism. The policy that the economy can be controlled simply by monetary measures, and the individual economic agents are the best judge and guardians of greater common good has been proved resoundingly wrong. The philosophy itself was, however, a reaction to the failure of the post-war Keynesian to control inflation and provide a stable society. So, the current wholesale back-to-Keynes philosophy, with Gordon Brown preaching this to the world with great British pride, is sort of a natural reaction, but would it ultimately provide a solution.

The premises are simple: every $1 spent by the government should generate $1.50 of economic activity, or demand. The famed multiplier should rescue us from the current quagmire, when no one seems to want to buy anything. So, the hope is that we shall quickly go back to the times we saw post 2001, when American consumers were spending and the Chinese were producing, and everyone was merry. So will Britain, with its legions of Real Estate speculators and bond traders, and the city of London will soon recover its charm.

There are, of course, those who believe that it will not be that easy. They argue that American consumers can not pull the world anymore, and the Chinese and the Indians must start to spend as well. Which is to say that the global demand must be more broadbased, with more people participating in the consumption.

So far, the stimulus were national stimulus - spent on national economies. Americans had most money and creditworthiness, so they were spending the maximum. But they are already seeing the limits they can go up to, and that without a lift-off of global demand, they are not going to get the results they desire. So this Bangalore Engineer who has now put off his marriage and plans to buy a car by a year because of the recession in America needs to be told that America depends on his marriage and car purchase to recover. Funny how things work!

Gordon Brown recently hosted G20 leaders to tell them to do more - to spend more money on their economy to get the demand back on track. Not everyone is convinced - Angela Markel sounded like a CEO when she said she needs to see the bailout packages working first - and it may be a very bad idea for some of the countries like India, which is already deep into debt, to try to spend its way out of trouble.

This is why we need some new thinking. This back to Keynes is a knee-jerk failure of imagination, trying to limit ourselves to tried-and-tested [and proven to fail] methods rather than asking ourselves questions why it happened. For example, the failure in demand has a clear link to the rise in inequality, the exclusion of a large section of the population, in America and globally, from the prosperity. This is also because of the divergence of the 'financial' world from the 'real' world - as always happens when a cycle of civilization comes to an end and myths overpower the reality - and the belief that the mathematical models and Wall Street Journal can decipher and dictate human behaviour across the world.

However, if history is any guide, at times like this, history is forgotten. We know protectionism makes a bad situation worse, but we go back there. We create a more unequal society by trying to prop up fat cats and robbing the taxpayers. We create a greater financial bubble by borrowing beyond our means, at the national level, and becoming sub-prime countries ourselves. And, finally, when all else fails, we pick up a fight - an war somewhere - and blame aliens for our woes. I thought this recession will be short-lived and shallow, but will result in a greater calamity in a few years; however, as things stand now, we are quickly going down and there will not be much left to save unless some bold and imaginative actions are not taken very very soon.

Hail Obama!

The most outrageous thing of last week, according to Fareed Zakaria GPS, is the provision on the recent bail-out legislation that all the institutions receiving US government money will not hire anyone who is not an American citizen. Which means that all the nations top banks, auto companies and what increasingly looks like General Electric, will not be allowed to hire any foreign born students or graduates. Accordingly, Bank of America rescinded its job offers made to foreign graduates in American Universities and more such moves will surely follow. Smart move to get jobs back for Americans, but is it?

The money that's been given out is American government money, earned from taxes on companies and individuals. When taxing, the IRS does not discriminate much for the foreign-born, and hence, foreign-born workers are making their contributions to keep these American institutions alive. Besides, it is not just what the government earns in taxes. The American government is hugely in deficit, which means that it is being lent money by governments all around the world to conduct its business. These governments send their money to America [or more correctly, buy American debt by deferring payments for goods and services they are due to paid for] because of their faith in American competitiveness, that the American industry has the necessary brainpower to innovate through the crisis and come back good.

Besides, the American government also benefits from the collective faith on a system of thinking called 'Globalization', much touted as the surest way out of poverty and misery by the American government and its funded institutions. Globalization effectively means that less restriction on the movements on inputs for production - capital and labour - and that on finished goods, will reduce inefficiencies and allow us to attain best value as consumers worldwide.

However, this measure, clearly aimed at cheering up the domestic, voting audience goes against the principle of global trade and openness, as well as will undermine the American competitiveness in the immediate term. The thinking in the American policy establishment seems to be that the foreign governments will continue to lend money to America and not ask for its money back, as America is too big to fail, and if it fails, it will drag everyone down with it.

But this is indeed a flawed line of thought. Yes, it holds true at this time and there are no alternative currency or economy competing with American bonds at this time. However, as we have seen before, the general weakening of the economy and excessive borrowing comes first, and the inability to recover from such downturn leads to general erosion of confidence in the economy and hence the debts the country holds. America is suffering from all the symptoms of such decline, save the world's faith in its inventiveness and competitiveness.

But President Obama, fresh from his historic victory and still celebrating the public adulation, has started taking the faith for granted. He has started with a seize mentality, which is natural in such times but one would hope that leaders know the way out, and currently panicking outright, as the crisis does not seem to go away. Suddenly, he is looking like the little Adolf, who needed a crowd to blame for the market's misdeeds, and he has picked up the immigrant workers.

However, these are the smartest guys from around the world, who go on to America to study and work. They have made, for generations, what American industry, science and technology are. President Obama, ironically given his background, is saying - that's it and no more - and closing the door. This will only hurt American competitiveness and help other countries - countries with forward thinking governments - to play the catch up.

So Hail Obama! then, and we shall get ready for the new world.

Pakistan Imploding

The news from Pakistan always keep getting worse. And, it is always comment worthy, because this is indeed the most dangerous country in the world, right in the the middle of Asia, with the necessary size, clout and military capability to be counted at the top table, and yet one of the political backbenchers, a dangerously unstable country which can be compared with some of the delinquent African nations.

The recent news is that the government has put almost the entire set of opposition leaders in house arrest, in view of a sit-in demonstration that will happen tomorrow. This must be a terrible mistake. You don't put leaders in house arrest in a democracy - just for saying you are doing something wrong. And if you do, you have no democracy, so someone will now walk in and take your job.

The question is, who. The government is banking on the fact that the Army is weakened and discredited after so many years of Musharraf. But one would not want to bank on it - there is a very ambitious army chief and very discontent general staff - and the situation in the country will sway people away from corrupt democracy to an autocratic but cleaner army rule any day.

If this government falls, sadly, that will be the end of democracy in Pakistan. It will be hard to restore this at least in a generation. The next thing that will be on the cards will be an occupation, by Americans perhaps. Because if the democracy fails, this will now turn into a failed state, something the Americans must contain in order to keep world peace. Already, there were talks about a MacArthur solution for Pakistan. I wrote about it in this blog and commented that this is unfeasible. But, it almost seems that we are moving towards that, almost inevitably.

The reason Pakistan is so unstable is because America is not winning the war in Afghanistan, and possibly can not win. No one has ever won Afghanistan, and Americans should have realized this. Sometimes, military power undermine political common sense and that's exactly what happened in Afghanistan. By uprooting its terror network, Americans have globalized the problem.

I am sure whatever happened since 2001 point to a big terrorist win. The plan must have been exactly this, where Americans are pulled out of their country and sent chasing ghosts all over the world. Americans are increasingly looking like later Romans, powerful but exhausted, committing the same mistakes as the earlier empires and frittering away their power as a result. One must remember that Rome was defeated by Barbarians; it will be sad if it comes to that eventually.

India has a lot to lose if Pakistan implodes. We shall not remain untouched and our hard earned prosperity will be wasted away. We will be a button away from annihilation when a madman takes over Pakistan. And, besides, we shall remain a society at war as long as Pakistan remains so unstable.

Lot of people in the West fear China; but they should be afraid of Pakistan instead. China has a lot to lose, it is an important partner in world economy, a major player. Pakistan has very little to lose and we keep pushing it to the wall more and more. They may act as a proxy to anyone - China, Iran, North Korea and even Osama Bin Laden - and they have the power to create serious trouble.

The quicker we wake up to this fact, the better. Where is Obama's Pakistan policy, by the way? He is looking the wrong way as long as he is focusing on Afghanistan. He can not solve Afghanistan before fixing Pakistan - it has to be the other way round.

In the end, I do feel Pakistan was never a viable state. It was supposed to be 'Muslim India' but its raison d'etre was stolen when India became a secular country and conferred upon its Muslim citizens no less acceptance than the Hindus. Since the day, Pakistan has failed to discover a way to identify itself. I shall be politically incorrect but I shall still say this - I think the only permanent solution to the 'Pakistan problem' is its reunification with India. No annexation, just reunification - in equal terms. Agreed, India has to change itself and become a more plural and welcoming society. However, that is the only way the world peace and prosperity in the region can be maintained.

Reverse Migration: India's Chance

Recession, uncertainties and difficulties in the immigration process and emerging opportunities in India combined, have created a flow of reverse migration from the United States to India. There is a trickle added to this from the UK, and the dam has burst in Dubai. So, suddenly, Indian cities are full of returnees, with a bit of cash, trying to start a new life all over again.

Though I may soon join them, I knew about the trend reading an essay in Businessweek. The obvious conclusion was that America is no longer the only land of opportunity. Also, the same research, done at Duke University, shows that the people who are returning home to China and India are highly educated, about 35, economically successful and many of them actually are Permanent Residents or Citizens; implying that while immigration difficulties may play a part, this is not the only reason people want to go back.

As this study point out, the better 'quality of life' is the most cited reason for this reverse migration. The charm of staying near one's own family is undeniable. In my own experience, which I have written about previously, the comfort of staying home offers a perfect foil to the stresses and tensions of modern work life, and become particularly appealing when the future looks hazy and the work environment becomes uncertain.

Besides, 'opportunity' is another reason. Vivek Wadhwa, in the essay cited above, points out that while the returnees may be earning less in absolute terms in India and China, that money can buy them more - leading to a better life than back in the United States. This is the concept of Purchasing Power Parity in action. Though prices have risen in India, because labour is still cheap and plentiful, the PPP multiplier hangs on at the figure of 5.5, which essentially means that $1 can buy $5.5 worth in India. This implies that if someone earns $1,000 a month, his lifestyle could be comparable to someone earning $5,500 in America, though this is not necessarily true, as some of the things in his consumption basket, at that level of salary, would be as dear - like the housing or the fuel for the car etc. However, adjusting for those, it will still feel like $4,000 a month or so - a pretty neat lifestyle for someone starting a career.

Considering that most of these returnees are around 35 years of age, the big charm of India is being close to the family particularly when one has one or two young children. Child care is prohibitively expensive in the West, and being close to families will allow most returnees an alternative to full day child care or staying at home. While creches are prospering in India, the grandma, with a driver, often drops the kids off and picks them up again. That makes life a whole lot better for the returning couple.

Besides, I also think schools are better in India than in UK and USA. I am leaving out elite schools - this comparison is between mid-tier schools in these countries and really good schools in India. The Indian education system is improving at the school level, though it remains a disaster [barring a few world class institutions] at the tertiary level. This is actually a common trend one notices all over the world. Once a society becomes prosperous, the focus on science and technology education goes away, and pupils, more often than not, want to focus on softer things - art and music, for example. I must state I have nothing against Art and Music, and I would have loved to have an opportunity when I was at school, but I do think the rigour of education is missing in many Western schools and a good school in India can provide that to children. The ideal configuration for someone studying today is to finish school in India and come to the West for college or research, and many of these returnees will have that in mind.

There is another factor which will prompt me to go back some day. I don't feel welcome in Britain. America may be different, and since I have never visited America, I can not comment. But I know in Britain, there is this implicit xenophobia, and immigrants are all painted in the same brush and seen as terrorists, beggars and barbarians. There is racism, non-whites are not preferred and South Asian looks make a lot of people very uncomfortable. While I earn an above-average salary and therefore pay top rate of tax, it is not uncommon to see someone on tele, who is on benefits himself, complaining about parking spaces in the council parking site because of all the immigrants. There was this TV debate I have seen where representatives of major parties were complaining about the stress on the National Health Service [NHS] because of the immigrants, though they shut up when a labour minister, who happened to be the daughter of a Jamaican nurse who came to work in the NHS in 1950s, reminded them that there will be no NHS without the migrant doctors and nurses.

The benefits of immigration in a society like Britain is plain to see - it gives the residents the lifestyle they have taken for granted for so many years. The last immigrant leaving Britain may as well need to turn off the lights here. Immigration in America is slightly different though: there, immigrants take the lead in innovation and enterprise, along with some brilliant American graduates, and that makes them the most advanced country in the world. And, from whatever I gather, public mood and the populist president has suddenly turned against the immigrants.

Consider what President Obama is saying. He is proposing a significant cut in H1Bs. He is saying it makes absolutely no sense to import nurses and he will throw money at training nurses at home. All politically correct, but historically wrong statements! America is what it is today because it benefited immensely from the European migration in the first half of twentieth century. To maintain its lead, it needs to attract the talents from all over the world and encourage such migration. It actually needs a National Talent Management office. However, they want to shut the doors now and try to be more like China in the late Nineteenth century - good luck to them! For the nurses, it is foolishness, because the President can not fight all the battles together and he has to give money to the banks first if he has to get anywhere in the next three years and win the reelection; and if he delays the money for nurse education for three years and do not allow overseas nurses to come to America, he will anyway lose his reelection and jeopardise a lot of lives on the way.

However, the point of this post is not America, but India - which has once in a century opportunity of returning migrants, and must take advantage of this to become a great nation. These people, educated and entrepreneurial, can turn the economy and bring a new dynamism into it. The country, however, must facilitate this. Lots of people are talking about better roads, schools and hospitals to keep them happy; but that is not the point. These professionals are capable and enterprising enough to build their own roads, schools and hospitals soon. India has to provide them with an environment which allows entrepreneurship and innovation; not the corrupt official who would want to make a quick buck out of an American Babu, not arcane tax codes, not the same legal system where you need to fight your grandson's battles and not the indifferent, criminal political class that extract a disproportionate rent from the economy. But then, I am an optimist. Having met some of these professionals myself, I know that they have boundless energy, enterprise and a love for their country; I hope that they will take all of it in their stride and clear all of it, including politics. I think India is at its inflection point - and we shall see a truly new India, emerging in a few years time.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Democratic Mindset

In our age, the only way to be politically correct is to be democratic. This is a post-70s affair - those days, still, some people had alternative ideologies in mind. Those alternate ideas are dead and gone, long discredited, and it seems that we have only one system which can make people happy, free and live longer.

So, we have this huge export industry of democracy, and democracy's warriors, which the American security establishment has lately become. The democracy's businessmen, the bond traders, the media barons and the Hollywood types, are feted everywhere. The consensus is deafening and dumbing. It is indeed awkward to ask now - whether democracy is the right system for every society.

It indeed should be. Collective wisdom is better than individual autocracy. In societies where democratic elections have been few and far between, the popular vote has demonstrated the extra-ordinary political savvy of the usually disinterested masses. Democracy has proved to be an excellently muddled system to keep any popular unrest from bursting over and disturbing status quo.

However, there are many societies which are not yet democratic. Economic progress, despite the mythology, can not be equated with democratic progress. And, it is also plain to see that some societies have done better with democracy than the others.

India and Pakistan are indeed a case in point. With so much shared history, India had an almost consistent democratic history, whereas Pakistan could hardly be ruled by democratic leaders. In fact, Pakistan has done very badly under the democratic system, which has stalled progress and created unrest, whereas all its years of relative well-being came under military autocracy.

So, therefore, it is an important question to answer - is democracy the right system for every society? Can it be imposed/ imported [like the Bush Administration wanting a democratic middle east]? Does that bode well for the human race?

I have read with interest Fareed Zakaria's The Future of Freedom. Zakaria argues that imposing a democratic system on a society does not guarantee freedom or progress. Rather, a society must go through its process of political evolution, necessarily arriving at constitutionalism and rule of law first before moving into democratic governance.

I think he has a point and the failure of democracy to take hold in different countries across the world certainly point to this. However, I do think some societies are ready for democracy than others, and certain conditions facilitate democratic transition more than others. In facilitating democratic transition, one is better off taking a nuanced approach than a broad brush. So far, this is not in evidence in our policy-making.

For example, consider this whole body of literature about the culture of honour. Sociologists and Historians have talked about how our past affect the way we think. Especially, how farming societies, especially rice farming cultures, pass on a more long term, patient mindset than the hunter-gatherer societies. Democracy, which is slow and deliberative, is possibly better fit to societies which has a rice farming culture, or which is dominated by the section of the society which has a rice farming culture.

What I am saying in effect is that India is democratic because the residents of the Gangetic plain dominate the country. However, Pakistan, dominated by wheat-farming punjabis and hunter-gatherer Westerners, was always ill at ease with such a nuanced system. This is just my hypothesis, but I would think a hunter-gatherer society like Afghanistan will find it quite challenging to adopt democracy, because they may lack the 'democratic mindset'.

However, I dont mean to be fatalistic and say that it is impossible to turn a society like Pakistan or Afghanistan and establish a democratic tradition. However, this will need a strategy. While the cultural roots can not be substituted, I think there are ways one can influence the political culture of the country. Fareed Zakaria's prescription of pushing for Constitutionalism and Rule of Law is indeed the starting point. But I can add two more things, which will help create a democratic mindset and facilitate a successful transition.

First is to see the relative position of women in society. I am stereotyping, but there is a huge body of literature how women think and act differently than men. It is just the way things are - women are far more nuanced than men by nature and historically more patient and accommodating. Allowing women to participate in the political life subdues the culture of honour, and brings back discussion as a method of resolving disputes. I think it is no accident that the societies which grant a better social position to women find it easier to make a democratic transition than those which do not.

Second, it is possible to correlate the patterns of media consumption to democratic mindset in a society. Usually, the broadcast media - one way and celebrity-centric - works against the democratic mindset. By broadcast media, one means both newspapers and TV, where the news is compiled and edited by a small bunch of technocrats. Contrast this with the digital culture of interactive media, all these citizen journalism, video blogging etc. They are hugely disruptive for the authoritarian culture - I found it amusing that someone actually recorded the whole conversation Bangladesh's Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, had with the army on the wake of the BDR mutiny and posted it on YouTube - and an essential element of creating democratic mindset.

So, here is Export of Democracy 101 - send money for setting up girls' schools, women's colleges and seed funds for women entrepreneurs; facilitate high bandwidth Internet connection for the country in question and provide grants for research to develop local script on the Internet. Sending of the troops will not make it to the list, unfortunately. Democracy is a choice only free men can make; it isn't something an occupier can hand down.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

In Search of the Flea

The Elephant and The Flea, when I read the book some years back, left a deep impression. Then, I was trying to live off the elephant; life of a manager in a large company in India, carrying out plans and orders of managers senior to me. I must admit that I did not dislike it that much: It was fine, as I was paid well and well recognized. I was, in fact, sort of a bluish eyed boy, often recognized, often rewarded. There were disappointments, of course; when the salary increase did not match my expectations, or I missed out on an Excellence Award, or when I was not sent for a conference. But these were not life-shattering.

The good thing was the business card. Everyone knew the company I worked for. It was in the stock market - it was one of the index companies for a while - so everyone knew we are large and doing well. When I handed out my card, I watched with interest how the eyes of the beholder went about it - first to the logo, then to the word 'manager' and then to my face - I was instantly someone! It gave me a lot of pleasure.

But one thing surely bored me. The KPIs. Or, Key Performance Indicators. I am a Gemini, I shouted inside me. Why tie me down when I can see the possibilities and create them? One full year on assuring student satisfaction in two thousand square feet centre and making sure the license partners pay their dues on time? All very worthy causes, indeed, but I almost marked down my days on the calendar and waited for the end of month payout, when all the trouble made sense as my depleting bank balance leaped back to where it was the previous month-end and I could go back home with a takeaway dinner.

I was on a passenger mode. Sitting in a train watching stations to go by, and waiting for my station to come, so that I can get off and be relieved. I had read the script - marriage, children, mortgage, holidays, retirement, death - as everyone in my family, in my locality, in my state, in my country, read. It was a simple script, rather liberating, one did not have to take too much trouble to live up to it. But it was boring. I took a few books to read on the train, just to pass time. But it was a rather long journey and crime thrillers became boring after a while. My hopes of playing detective or rescuing a stunning beauty soon evaporated, as I developed a paunch and became myopic. But then I landed up with Charles Handy.

It meant nothing, indeed. Handy said he woke up on 50th birthday morning and decided to get off the elephant and live a flea's life, an independent agent. He said that's the way world will become, new careers will be more of those of independent contractors than of bonded executives. The projection made sense, but there was little value in transitioning from one to other. I reasoned - you become a contractor if you can't become an executive. Further down the book, when he described the joys of the independent life, I told myself - I am not finished with the elephant: not so successful that I can throw away all of what I have, all of what I was going forward to.

My station, that is. A happy life. Own house with a garden perhaps. A bit of me time. One holiday a year, when I can switch off my mobile phone and my mind. A weekend gateway sometimes. My wife, happy and not complaining, perhaps too busy to watch Desperate Housewives. My son in school - it must be good school so that he can get on to same train when his time comes. I could not simply give up all these for becoming a flea, just for feeling free every morning, making my own cup of coffee and drawing up my own agenda, to-do list, instead of being handed down one.

But, then, I left home. There is a terrible thing about travel and recession - they push you to ask questions, to pull the chain and stop the train. That's exactly what happened to me. Suddenly, life went on a full circle. The station printed on my ticket became smudged, made no sense. I was in a different country, and however much I shouted my previous companies name and printed it on bold letters on my CV, no one paid any heed. I suddenly faced the world all by myself.

Soon enough, I found my elephants. I was too afraid not to do it. After all, I had a rent and an EMI to pay. I needed the pay cheque. This time, of course, some one told me that I can actually earn more by being myself than being a Director. That stopped me for a moment - after all, money was important - but then I realized the truth. I have no myself. I have never been anything other than a business card all my life. Since I left college. I always wanted to have some good-looking logo on myself. And, that magic word - manager - on my card. I so truly admire the way people look at those and look at myself. Things may have moved from business card days to Linkedin days, but it is still the same - who would want to connect with me if I am not the director of a mid-sized UK company?

But, as I said before, recessions are wonderful times to ask questions. That almost makes you guilt-free. The elephant in mud, that's the thing about recession. For all its pain, its a celebration of creative destruction. It is freedom from EMI thinking, because even clinging to the elephant does not guarantee that your bank balance will leap back to where it was last month-end. Fancy designations on the card seems meaningless - as the kid down the block knows that CEOs get fired too. Bank Managers don't care about your pay slip anymore - they do not have any money to give - and all bets are suddenly off, all trappings are gone.

I have played this game of illusion of security. Too long for my life, I turned down opportunities for my KPIs. For too long, I traded the business card for myself. But I am almost 40 - ten years younger than Handy, but much less accomplished and hence much more hungry - and I have reached my inflection point now.

Recession is a great excuse. One would think the opposite: If you leave a job in recession, don't you think it will look like you were fired? But, there is no shame in getting fired even, because everyone is getting fired anyway; it is indeed so liberating to be wanting to be fired, to be freed. It makes you feel, yes, the unbearable lightness of being, the adventure of daily commute by train, the thirst for your own coffee and the intense charm of your own to-do list.

I know I want to be a flea.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Northern Ireland: Yet Again

I am back in Northern Ireland for a visit to our Head Office. This is something that I do quite often, in fact whenever I am back in the UK for a few days.

I must admit I love the place. The empty roads and the beautiful countryside, all green and elegant, I have never seen a more beautiful place than this. I remember coming here with a colleague fresh from India, who was literally scared because we did not see a soul as we drove for miles. Even as we passed through town centres, there was no one to be seen, even on a workday afternoon. That was scary for him, the contrast with Hyderabad could not be more obvious.

Conversely, when someone travelling from NI asked me what India would be like, I had to tell her that they may see a lot many more people, all the time. The population of the whole of Northern Ireland is just 1.5 million, and contrast that with Hyderabad’s almost 6 million, and my conclusions seem obvious.

However, this time, I am coming here at a very uncertain time. On Saturday, two soldiers in the British Army Barrack near the airport in Belfast were shot dead. Monday night, a policeman was called out by a 999 call and killed by sniper fire. A group, which calls itself the Real IRA, and opposes the peace process between the republicans and the unionists, has claimed responsibility for these attacks.

The logic of such action is undecipherable. The peace process appears to be going well, with a power sharing deal in place in Stormont, the Northern Irish assembly. The firebrand republican leaders of the past, Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, seem to be making progress with their unionist counterparts, Reverend Ian Paisley and the First Minister Peter Robinson. It almost seems that Northern Ireland will now be able to move forward beyond its history of violence and become a permanently peaceful place.

For the Northern Irish economy, this is also a terrible time. The economy recovered significantly over last decade on the back of the peace process. Jobs peaked and so did construction and investments. Many islanders, who left the country to pursue careers and business elsewhere, returned, starting off new business enterprises and injecting a new dynamism in the economy. New investments came in from all over the world – I was pleasantly surprised to see an HCL [yes, the Indian HCL] Call Centre in Armagh – and the economy was operating in full employment, bringing prosperity to most people.

However, the downturn has already stolen all the benefits of the last decade. The construction trade has been decimated in the last 12 months. House prices have fallen by almost 30%, and the houses are not just getting sold anymore. The flow of credit has come to a complete halt, as the Northern Irish banks are struggling to keep themselves afloat. Employment has taken the hit and the emigration has started again. The hard earned reputation as a tourist and investment destination is hanging on the balance and the mood on the street is apprehensive and unsure.

This is a terrible time to start the violence, all over again. The common theory is that this must be a very small section of the society, may be even a lone sniper. But a series of incidents like this will bring the memories flooding back. Besides, one can reasonably suspect how sincere the parties in the peace process really are: It often looked to me that Reverend Paisley is only reluctantly making a compromise. It will not take them long to backtrack and go back to paramilitary days. This is indeed what the men behind masks want – go back to past. But what makes them do it?

It is indeed an interesting question. For actions like this, private madness can be ruled out. Soldiers and Police were attacked and no one has been arrested yet. In both cases, an ambush was set up. So, there was a plan and a cover, almost impossible for a private individual to arrange. Small section of the society is still a section, and therefore, it must be driven by a common agenda. The problem is that it is hard to define such a common agenda, at least in the conventional terms.

The stated claim of Real IRA is that they want British troops out of Irish soil. But, the British troops are already out – they are not on the street anymore. The garrison they attacked mainly consist of Engineers. In fact, the way to keep British troops out is to give up violence, not to resume it.

Besides, wall writings have appeared in Northern Ireland against the ‘Sell out’, an apparent reference to Peace Process. However, Sinn Fein is very much an equal partner in the government and centuries long process of discrimination against the Catholics has been effectively reversed in the last decade. The Irish government is as much a part of the peace process as anyone else, and even the American benefactors of the IRA have now concluded that it is too dangerous to support any terror organization, whatever the cause, these days.

However, there is another way to look at this unrest. I am afraid this is the pessimist angle, but I have seen this playing out in other post-conflict societies. Governments, in the post-conflict phase, usually create a benefactor class – across the traditional divide – by bestowing them social advantages and economic facilities. This leads to a split deeper inside the society. This is more a privileged/ less privileged divide than the catholic/protestant divide. I would suspect this is exactly what is happening in Northern Ireland. In fact, the First Minister, Peter Robinson, alluded to this [without meaning it, of course]. He said – the political class will win. Read privileged for political class in Northern Ireland, and you will get the picture.

Expectedly, this is happening as the prosperity vanishes and economic realities bite, as the unemployed are out on the street again. The unrest, now small, can quickly spread, as the middle classes, out of their mortgage dreams and struggling to pay their Credit Card bills, join the aggrieved. In such a situation, the strategies, carefully constructed to handle the traditional divide, will fail to contain grievances and combat unrest.

In Northern Ireland, most of the prosperity is based on a false economy. 51% of the workforce works for the government. The businesses get large handouts and support packages through government agencies. Most of the economic life of Northern Ireland revolves around government grants and subsidies, almost like a socialist country. It is easy to see if you are not connected here, you will lose out, and hence, why the less privileged can nurse a deep sense of resentment against the ‘political class’. Besides, this is the time when the resources of the government are fast sinking and increasingly, the circle of privilege is becoming smaller.

At times like this, the situation can spin out of control fairly quickly. I think the British government is in denial, as always – they are blaming a small section of the society and keeping their eyes closed. Such denial and a lack of strategy, and therefore, an inability to adjust to the reality of new divide, is common among governments facing such post-conflict violence. The British government has never won any prizes on imaginativeness, but at this time, a failure to imagine can turn out to be catastrophic for Northern Ireland.

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