Sunday, May 31, 2009

South Asia : The Chasm Inside

If one is to sum up the affairs of South Asia so far this year, it will read like this:

(A) Pakistan resumed its civil war, after attempting to reach, and then aborting, a peace deal in the Swat valley. Currently, Pakistani Armed Forces are engaged in a civil war and they claim that the extremists are pushing back, at least from the main towns.

(B) Sri Lanka claimed victory in its two decade long civil war, after the LTTE Chief, Prabhakaran's body was recovered. This victory, however, comes at a great cost - the final phase of the battle saw brutal tactics employed by both sides. Cornered LTTE used Tamil civilians as a human shield, and the Sri Lankan government, emboldened by the silence of all major powers, bombarded the civilian positions without any humanitarian considerations. Peace holds, for now, though thousands of Tamils live in refugee camps, and despite the military victory, the society remains deeply divided.

(C) Bangladesh put down a bloody mutiny earlier this year, which, the government claimed, were engineered by anti-national elements.

(D) The fragile truce in Nepal looks threatened, with the Maoist Prime Minister, Prachanda, resigning over his differences with the President. Prachanda wanted to induct his maoist people's army in the regular military, to which the Army Chief objected. With his backdoor attempt to take over the state foiled, Prachanda stepped down, preparing for a resumption of the civil war.

(E) The Indian Maoist movement continued to spread, despite the economic development of the country and the general sense of optimism helped by an emphatic election victory by the Congress. Vast tracts of the country, starting from the Nepalese border but running down deep inside Indian heartland, remains under Maoist threat. Though there were some recent successes of security forces, the insurgency continues for now.

So, overall, not a pretty picture - and this is where 1.5 billion people, roughly one-fourth of world's population, lives. This is also one of the world's most dangerous places, with two nuclear powers and large armies and arms caches in every country. Ironically, this is also the springwell of hope among the global economic gloom - a place with vast resources and young and intelligent population.

The point is, of course, that South Asia remains the most divided place on earth by some measure. The credit must go to the British Colonial Administrators, who wished it to remain that way. However, sixty years on, it is time that we aportion blame to the Regional Leaders as well, and the lack of vision and leadership in the region remains lamentable.

Indeed, the lion's share of the blame will go to successive Indian governments, who somehow failed to see South Asia in their scheme of things for the world, and primarily saw this as a backyard granted to them by natural right. With the exception of Rajiv Gandhi, who seemed to have a strategy for engagement in South Asia, all other leaders either forgot about it or took it for granted. Rajiv's vision of South Asia, though bold in its conception, failed to materialize due to poor execution and domestic political mechinations, and ended in his tragic death.

Looking back, Rajiv seems to have been ahead of his time on this one, as in many other areas. South Asia, with its tortured legacy of revenge and tribal strife, is a difficult place to bond together. Besides, many countries in the region view India suspiciously and their domestic political considerations make them object to the notion of South Asia itself, which they see as Indian fiefdom. [In fact, I know that my Bangladeshi friends object to the term 'Indian subcontinent' and only reluctantly accept 'South Asia' as a regional label.]

However, as one can see from the list above, the troubles are coming to a cresendo and hope and hopelessness is in an endless face-off in this region. More than any other area of the world, South Asia is poised to contribute significantly in building the post-recession world. Its divisive nature, the bottomless poverty of its civilians, its mindless engagement in arms race and military build-up, its rather poor governance standards and lack of social cohesion are sure to hurt that prospect. There is indeed great hope pinned down on the incoming Indian administration, which must show intent and urgency in engaging with South Asia and resurrecting Rajiv's vision. One would only hope that various other governments will also master the necessary political courage to join the initiative.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Amitabh Bachchan Turns Down Australian Ph D

The news reads like this - Amitabh Bachchan has turned down a Ph D degree from Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, on the wake of racist attacks on Indian students in Australia.

In a statement on his blog, Mr. Bachchan said :

"I have been witnessing, with great dismay and shock, the recent violent attacks on Indian students in Australia, on the electronic media the entire day. I mean no disrespect to the institution that honours me, but under the present circumstances, where citizens of my own country are subjected to such acts of inhuman horror, my conscience does not permit me to accept this decoration from a country that perpetrates such indignity to my fellow countrymen."

This is indeed a grand gesture, sure to get some media attention. But in my view, a rather meaningless, and possibly a dangerous one. Obviously, the racist attacks are obnoxious, and need to be nipped in the bud by Australian authorities. However, this should not elicit, at least at this stage when such attacks are acts by violent individuals and we have no evidence of any administration support or encouragement, such grandstanding. In my opinion, Mr. Bachchan did precisely the wrong thing by turning the Ph D down.

Let me explain. The Honorary Ph D conferred upon Mr. Bachchan was meant to be a mark of inter-cultural bonding, which must not have happened without the active participation of the Indian diaspora in Australia. World over, as the economic gloom prompts a culture of unreason and chauvinism, various Asian Diasporas in different countries need to bond together more than ever, more within themselves and with the host country. Mr. Bachchan going over to Brisbane and accepting an honorary Ph D, alongside talking about his long and illustrious career in mass entertainment, would have shone the limelight on Indian cinema, modern India and the Indian diaspora in Australia. By turning down the Ph D, Mr. Bachchan will please the audience at home, but put the Indians in Australia at the edge of the culture divide.

Also, Mr. Bachchan is no ordinary man, and his act is sure to have some resonance in India. This will create greater awareness of problems in Australia - which is welcome - but discourage Indian students and professionals to look at Australia as a possible location for study, work and investment. Besides, by refusing a degree from an University, Mr. Bachchan paints all Australians as one, a serious mistake, and treats the miscreants as representatives of the country. This is indeed the wrong view he should preach - every country has their share of thugs and we must be responsible in our emotions not to view the countries through the prism of their miscreants.

This time, as in the past, Mr. Bachchan, an iconic figure in Indian cinema, proved himself to be rather naive in the social affairs. I recall his 'I slept with a revolver under my pillow' in the aftermath of Mumbai 26/11, and his rather indiscreet thumbs up to the spoof passed under the name of Lord Macaulay. But then, he is who he is - a matinee idol and role model in India. While he indeed is entitled to his private opinion, one would hope that he realize what effect he has on other people, and that he will behave in a more discerning and responsible manner in the days to come.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Elephant in the Neighbourhood: India in New South Asia

Over the last week, the shape of the new Indian administration has become clearer. It did emerge that the leadership of the Congress party is ready to do some fresh thinking, and they are fully using their mandate to take some strong decisions which were long overdue. Unlike the recent fresh faced administrations in the United States, Bangladesh or Pakistan, the new Indian administration does not start with a burden of a huge expectation. So far, they have used this to an advantage and delivered, or at least appeared to be delivering, more than what was expected, booting out the incompetent and the corrupt, reigning in undisciplined allies, projecting a national agenda over regional populism, and instilling a sense of new initiative and direction.

Next few months will affirm how much of this will hold the momentum and make a difference. For the moment, however, it seems okay to enjoy a sense of new urgency. We have already seen that in Finance, where, if rumours are true, the government is set to roll back FBT, a highly unpopular and grossly unjust tax on salaried people. Reforms of subsidies, labour laws and public sector units are surely on the agenda. So is a complete overall of the financial services sector regulations and how much the government would want to control the media. Education - currently plagued by half-baked legislation and a mostly corrupt and unreasonable regulator - will also receive its due attention, and things going right, India should experience a mini-revolution in education opportunities. Telecom and Aviation will also see their own sectoral revolution, as will the urban infrastructure in India. The question, however, is whether this fresh thinking and initiative will also get passed on to the foreign policy, and even if it does, will this mean a new engagement in the South Asian region.

The omens are good so far. S M Krishna is a capable man, who comes with a pair of fresh eyes and an agile mind. India's neighbourhood is fast becoming a strategic threat, with the Chinese influence going rapidly mostly at the back of India's indifference, and there is some acknowledgement of the problem now. There are burning issues, Pakistan's war against the extremists, Nepal's political conundrum, Sri Lanka's Tamil Refugees, Aung San Suu Kyi's trial, which will focus India's, and the world's, attention on the neighbourhood. However, such attention is fleeting and usually followed by knee-jerk reactions, and sustained policy initiative failed to materialise in the past.

Also, one must realize that the Indian voters have not only voted for unity and stability in the government, but also for progress and responsibility. Everyone wants to see India play a bigger role in the International community. The problem, however, is that a country will not be invited to the global top table unless they are able to demonstrate their influence and responsibility in their own neighbourhood first.

In fact, this was always India's problem. We sought to assume a sort of moral leadership right from the word go, but was never counted among the world's finest powers. Our sizable military, nuclear capability and success in space could not guarantee that the world's nations will turn to us for assistance or advice. This is primarily because we failed to play our role in the neighbourhood, and particularly because we have been locked in to a fratricidal conflict with Pakistan for so many years.

However, twenty years since the cold war ended, we need to come out of the cold war era thinking - a view of national security based on military hardware available - and get on with a new view based on security through integration. Indeed, this is a two way road and it is difficult to engage with countries which are still adopting the hostile, zero sum approach to world affairs. But, India has two strategic advantages to play with, the ones it has long neglected.

First, its market. Everyone wants a share of Indian market, and Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan and Pakistani companies are no less interested to do so than the Americans and the British. This is a significant leverage, and one that can help build a stable relationship between the countries. The intra-South Asian trade today has more barriers, restrictions and tariffs than anywhere else in the world. India needs to put economy at the heart of its local diplomacy, be serious about the South Asian Free Trade Zone and work with various countries to give them a chunk of India's prosperity. This will win over even the most belligerent. The tricky part is that as the largest country in the region, the onus is on India to start the process.

Second, India is a diverse country and its constituent states can play no less a part in diplomacy. India has almost never leveraged the strong contacts between Punjab and Gujrat and Pakistan, West Bengal and Bangladesh and Bihar and Nepal. Yes, except for the intervention in East Pakistan in 1971, and the stoking of Tamil Nationalism in Sri Lanka, these relationships have almost always been forgotten. These need to be brought to the centre-stage now.

So, here are my top of the mind suggestions for SMK as he assumes office:

1. He should start with a visit to the capitals of our neighbouring countries. This should include the usual ones where we share a land or maritime border - Islamabad, Male, Colombo, Dhaka, Yangon, Thimpu and Kathmandu [and of course, Beijing] - but also the other two important states which play an important role in the region, Afghanistan and Iran. This will signal a new focus and initiative.

2. To take this even further, we should have a full time Ministry of South Asian affairs, with a capable man like Sashi Tharoor or Salman Khursheed in charge. The objective of this ministry will be to rejuvenate SAARC, set up a free trade zone and enable people to people exchanges.

3. We must allow South Asian businesses special treatment if they want to trade with or invest in India. The special ministry must work round the clock to make this happen as soon as possible. This should be the first step in establishing a free trade zone in this area, which should be achieved within the next five years or so.

4. Our Chief Ministers of states which has significant cross-border connections, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Bihar, must be made to reach out across the border, establishing relationships, encouraging trade and investment, and offering people to people exchange, at work and for study. They must be enabled to do so by the foreign ministry.

5. India must leverage its pre-eminent position as a Democracy and create a Democracy fund to support democratic institutions in neighbouring countries. This may, at the current time, mean more than sending some intellectuals past their sell-by date to Pakistan. This means actively supporting the campaign for democracy in India, both through government policy and by creating awareness in the country and creating a base for Burmese freedom fighters as we did for Tibet.

6. In some cases, we must also take a more active role in reconstruction. We are already doing a quite a bit in Afghanistan. In Sri Lanka and Pakistan, such efforts will be needed. We should offer our assistance without any strings attached. We should help Nepal build a modern military and Bhutan and Maldives to defend themselves better against mercenary attacks.

I see India's future in Asia, and more in near Asia. Only when we do our bit in the region, we can then stand up and claim to be counted in the world.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Back in India

I am back in India after a considerably long time - 7 weeks! Considering that I travelled almost 129 days in last six months, seven weeks at home was a really long time. I was enjoying the wonderfully summer, and almost getting back to normal - all appliances in my house was back functioning, I was picking up the post the day it is delivered, reading the current magazines, driving the car - I probably have not lived like that since June 2007!

As if I was becoming too happy! My nightmare indeed started the moment I landed in the Kolkata airport. I almost concluded that Emirates Airlines will soon lose its edge with the rest of Dubai, and even toyed with the idea of flying Jet Airways between Heathrow and Mumbai this time. But then the relative ease of getting to Gatwick won the day and I decided to give Emirates a try. I was proved wrong - the flight was unbelievably busy - and right, because it did seem that Emirates is losing its touch.

The Emirates flights between Dubai and Kolkata are always a bit of nightmare. Somehow, Dubai to Gatwick is a completely different experience. But step into the Kolkata flight and you encounter an uncomfortable seat, rude staff and significantly different environment overall. I would think Emirates makes compromises to keep their prices low between Dubai and Kolkata, but even for a value-conscious client like me, the level of compromise is unacceptable. Possibly, the rude and difficult passengers drive the cabin crew mad, but I guess they need assessment and training on patience, good behaviour and tolerance. The point is that the crew has no business being rude, even if they are dealing with someone who can not read or write. I do find the cabin crew in this particular flight patronizing, to all passengers indeed.

But my nightmare started when my bag failed to arrive. Indeed, this is quite usual, and happened to me before. And, I find Emirates quite good with baggage - they eventually find it and do deliver. [I shall prove to be right - they have found my bag and I am told that it is on its way to my home now] However, my general irritation accumulated during the flight reached an absolute breaking point when I realized the bag isn't coming - a small disaster considering I had important paperwork and I was to catch a flight to Hyderabad before the bag can possibly be delivered - and was told that I should not mind because 'Sourav Ganguly's bag is also missing'. Yes, the former India Cricket Captain [and the biggest celebrity draw in Kolkata] was there in the same flight and his bag did not come either! But that was no consolation for me, I was absolutely frenetic realizing that some of the presentations and contracts I prepared was in my bag, and I was mad at the fumbling lady at the missing baggage desk who made this consoling suggestion.

But, anyway, that was as inauspicious a start as I could get to my tour of India. This will be followed up by a day today when a meeting will be arranged at 11am, and I shall fly in to Hyderabad early morning to attend it, only to be kept waiting for the whole day. Every time I called to enquire, I was told that the people I am supposed to meet are on the way but being delayed by traffic congestion! I stopped calling after 4pm, and left office without leaving a message at 7pm, and currently, at 9:30 in the evening, wondering whether they have reached by now.

That's India, surely. Our Operations Manager kindly reminded me that, and said that I can not expect to finish things quickly here. It will happen - and I should be patient. Surely, I am as Indian as anyone else, but I made a mental note to think, and write, about the Indian views of time sometime soon. I know every traveller will have some stories to tell here, but I am not really looking for a sympathiser. But I am tempted to make the generalization that some part of it must be a culture thing rather than a person thing, and that indeed needs a closer examination.

I am also stricken by the heat - India is having an usually hot summer. I am rather naive to believe that I still have the energy and the ability of a twenty year old, and this made me commit a cardinal sin - walking in the sun with a heavy backpack on my back - which eventually ended in a heatstroke and temporary incapacity. While most people were fairly helpful and couple of them helped me to find a place to sit and later, some water, I managed to lose my mobile phone in the midst of all that chaos. I am not sure whether I dropped it somewhere or someone picked it up from my bag, but since it was inside my backpack, the latter seems to be a stronger possibility.

And, if the reality check is not complete, I received a call from the person who made me wait all day Saturday apologising for the inconvenience and setting up another appointment on Wednesday. Of course, my expectations were low and I was not unduly surprised when they failed to turn up on Wednesday also. They obviously called on Thursday morning to say that they will come on Friday - and didn't. Given that this is a fairly large business group and we are talking about their Chief Executive here, I am slightly surprised, but not losing my pants on this and getting used to the patience that one must have to do business in India.

I am going back tomorrow to England, and I have set myself a watershed date of 2ND June, when my lifestyle and the way I conduct myself must change. This close encounter with India is certainly very helpful, and though I have not been able to enjoy most of it this time, I am sure this will allow me enough perspective to plan my future.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Looking at Cross Culture Training

I am currently working on putting together a business plan for a Cross-cultural training practise.

Initially, we offered such training for our clients in Hyderabad covering the symbols and rituals of Western culture. And that was alright - that's exactly what the clients want in India. This is a critical requirement particularly in the outsourcing space, where the agents, usually an Indian graduate, sometimes with an advanced degree, need to taught to interact of the clients, usually an European or a North American organization. A big slice of this training focuses on language, how to talk like an American, for example, and some part of it goes to the manners and rituals of American life. The continuous stream of requests that we got convinced me that there is an opportunity to create a specialist Cross Culture training practise, either as a separate business or as a separate division within an existing training business.

However, I am also convinced, by watching what is being delivered at these training sessions from a close proximity [not just training that we did, but what the others did, too] is that there is a huge gap in expectations and outcome. The agents often fail to grasp the 'culture' aspect of the culture and go back to work with a sense of mannerisms and rituals. This gives them a false confidence, which does its trick if the agent was inherently capable of learning a new way of life through interactions and to conceal his/her shortcomings effectively and intelligently, but indeed, it does not give them an effective framework being one step ahead of the customer and does nothing to make them 'adapt' the client's culture, which is often the expectation.

Further, once you go down the scale to smaller companies, who usually follow the practises of the larger companies but would want to have a shorter, cheaper training period, the training fails completely because it is essentially focused on transactions without context. In those crammed sessions where the agents are taught to behave like Americans, it was all about acting like Americans without understanding why. In some cases, I have heard, such acting almost leads to personality disorders - note that we are talking about mostly teenagers here - and those stories reported severe problems that these kids face adjusting back to their usual day-to-day life.

The point of culture training should not be mimicking an alien culture, but to deal with it comfortably. Well, yes, I know this thing about acting American and trying to sound like one is from Chicago, but I think that's stupidity. First, there is a huge chance that you will be found out. Second, you are being dishonest to start with, which will make you either defensive or arrogant for rest of the conversation, neither good in achieving the sale or customer satisfaction that you are looking for. I would think an agent trained to behave as a global Indian, who is comfortable with who s/he is, will do much better than someone trying to mimic and hide.

So, if we go beyond this acting American view, what shall we try to achieve? I think the key point is meeting behavioural expectations - being courteous, prompt and formal, in case of American clients for example. This starts with being able to anticipate those expectations, without necessarily stereotyping people. Besides, this must be accompanied by an understanding of the principle of difference - that different people see things differently and that is okay - which will indeed make anticipating and meeting those behavioural expectations easier. One must remember while Indians are better in English than some other nationalities, Indians are on a different end of the scale in most dimensions of culture [from Anglo-Americans]. Besides, India is currently in the middle of an Education revolution and currently the Indian workplace is dominated by people from smaller towns. The point about them is that they are steeped in the local/ Indian culture. Their exposure to difference is comparatively less than someone growing up in Mumbai, and hence, their need for an understanding of this principle of difference, greater.

I have also understood another important aspect of the 'culture' training market in India. Everyone wants a foreign, read White, trainer. The companies do think that the culture training can not be done in any other way. Partly, I would agree. I am sure an American is more qualified than anyone else to talk about the 'American' way of life. However, there are two clear problems with this approach. One, not all white Americans can consciously talk about the American way of life. Well, I mean they can surely talk about what they do, as a part of a casual conversation, and teach people transactions, but they may not have engaged in this consciously or with a reverse culture training on their part. So, such training eventually degenerates into teaching people a better - American - way of doing things. This leads to the opposite result of what any training should achieve - an exposition of weaknesses and undermining the learners' confidence - rather than equipping the person with necessary skills and confidence. Two, the starting point of culture training should start with the acceptance of difference as good and inevitable, and this should start from re-examining the underlying assumptions of one's own culture. Once we examine these assumptions, we know that our wisdom is not as final as we think, they are after all dependent on certain assumptions we have made about life. And then we start seeing logic in different set of assumptions, which may be deeply rooted in history or physical circumstances. An enquiry into culture which does not start with one's own will invariably make people draw wrong conceptions - they will see culture as a dress not as a way of life - and therefore lead them away from what culture training is all about.

I am obviously not in a position to undermine the customer preferences and currently trying to work with some experts who can take meaningful sessions for Senior executives. However, I shall engage people with significant maturity and with prior exposure to other cultures. But, the eventual goal of the business/ practise will be to create learning content and programmes which can reach out to graduates in the small cities and new hires. I am at the stage of conception right now and exploring multiple pathways now. I wish to launch this by September, after I come out of my current obligations, and I shall keep posting about my progress in these pages.

Wishing An Indian Cabinet

The currently popular pastime in India is picking a cabinet - rather wishing a cabinet - to lead various important functions of the Government for next five years. Like everyone else in the country, I did play this too. My wishes are on the basis of assumed competence and knowledge. Alas, the cabinet in India is usually not picked on that basis - the legislature and the executive are closely linked in India, and besides, some allies are keen on extracting a pound of flesh. Besides, I would not know all the ministerial positions and all the MPs, so this is indeed an useless exercise. But then, I am sure I am entitled to play this game, like everyone else.

My choices here:

The Prime Minister: Dr. Manmohan Singh. He has proved himself to be an able administrator, a man of principles, and a competent leader.

Deputy Prime Minister: Needs to bring back the position. Pranab Mukherjee. Played this role for most of the time anyway. Manmohan Singh needs a political man to cover him sometime and Mr. Mukherjee's political savvy is incomparable.

Finance : Can we get Montek Singh please? He is Monmohan's protege, a high profile reform minded man. He has the confidence of the Prime Minister and the international community. The portfolio assumes extra importance in the middle of a global recession, and the need for a Liberalization 2.0 in India.

Education: Not a pork-barrel portfolio in India, so usually given out to lesser men. But I guess it is time to bring it back in the agenda and get someone to move it. Someone with fresh eyes, and the urge to make a difference. Do we have a better choice than Rahul Gandhi here? And, also, can we rename the Ministry back to Education - Human Resources is so last century and so mechanical! Well, if one does not like Human Resources, we can call it the Ministry of Talent Development - how about that?

Foreign Affairs: Salman Khurshid is a senior politician, suave man and has the necessary experience. With a resurgent UP Congress, his fortunes may finally turn. It will be good to see him as our Foreign Minister.

Overseas Indian Affairs: Shashi Tharoor. He understands the issues and can reach out to the Overseas Indians everywhere. He enjoys a high level of respect from foreign ministries world over, which will be an asset.

Home: We sure need a man who is decisive and fair. P Chidambaram may not like the portfolio, but he seemed to be doing well here. He should stay. I am sure he will also opt in once he realizes that there is no place for him in Finance.

Railways: There is talk about Mamta Banerjee, and possibly she will get it. But, I think her hands are full trying to get to the CM's seat in West Bengal and she does not like Delhi anyway. I also think that we have very good candidates elsewhere. If it has to go to TC, then why not give it Sudip Bandopadhyay, who is an old hand in politics. But then my personal pick will actually be Jairam Ramesh, who has fresh ideas and can try out changing the public sector behemoth.

Commerce & Industry: Kamal Nath is becoming a permanent feature, but he has some unfinished task. Let him stay. However, it is time for him to get an assistant, who could be a possible successor. Shall we say Sachin Pilot?

Information Technology: Here is my favourite. Can we keep Dayanidhi Maran please? He was doing very well before he got entangled in the family feud.

Law: Something seriously needs to change here. If there was one place where the last government failed, it is in Legal Affairs. Can we get someone competent? Would Kapil Sibal be ready to take this on?

Water Resources: I am thinking of a joint responsibility between H D Kumaraswamy and M K Azhagiri. Then they can sort it out between themselves. But this is serious staff, and we must sort this out. Let's try Mr. Pawar, who would want a ministry for himself and that certainly should not be Sports.

Sports: I am sure M S Gill is competent, but it is a long time since he played anything. Can we get someone more interested and a reformer. Would this be too 'light' for Mr. Scindhia? But this is a glamour ministry, and he can make a real difference by staging a great Commonwealth Games, getting Olympics to India in 2020 and by shutting down IPL and restoring the game his father loved.

Information: If we can't get Jairam Ramesh in Railways, can we get him here? He is media-savvy as we all know, and this administration has to make decisions about globalizing Indian media, about allowing greater foreign ownership in Indian media businesses and scaling down the censorship levels that still exists. We need a reformer, someone who understands that in this world of social media, government control is useless and counter-productive. Someone with a vision and understanding of 21st century. Mr. Ramesh may not be a Gandhi family favourite, but he possesses all these attributes.

Rural Development: Let's give Mamta her favourite portfolio. That is, just in case CPIM recovers in time for 2011, she needs a job to do. On a more serious note, she will actually do well to understand the issues involved. I am not sure she does now.

Urban Development: Again, an area of big challenge in the next 5 to 10 years. Indian cities are crumbling. We need urgent infrastructure upgrade, serious investment and even new cities. My choice will be a man like Sandeep Dixit, assuming that he can talk to his mother more often and learn from the wonderful job she is doing from close quarters.

Minority Affairs: Assuming that Salman Khurshid has now qualified himself for a major job rather than the minor roles he is used to, we can try Farooq Abdullah here. Like Mamta, this will be an internship though, and hopefully, Dr. Abdullah will learn something about muslims in India in the end.

Agriculture: The other option to Mr. Pawar is Mr. Deve Gowda. Let's call this the Minister who could be PM, but will never be. But you need someone who has to do the dirty job of explaining to rich farmers why their subsidies will be taken away. This man better be a political heavyweight.

Health: Shall we say that who we do not want? Mr. Ramadoss. Not another five years of ego trips please, when people are dying. I would think the government needs to push forward with the plans to make Health Care universal, in NHS fashion, and this will need some vision and drive. How about people like Milind Deora [whose father will probably remain the Petroleum Minister]?

Power: There will be a revolution in the power industry and we need a man with vision and understanding. Naveen Jindal will be my pick.

Others who should stay: I think Praful Patel in Civil Aviation and Murli Deora in Petroleum have done a good job and should stay on.

I know who I have left out. Lalu Prasad and Arjun Singh to start with. However, I was making an wish list here, not who I see in my nightmare. Besides, the nightmare is never far away - PC in Finance, Shivraj Patil at Home, Pawar in Sports - these are all real possibilities. However, for the moment, I am optimistic - about better sense prevailing and about India in the coming years.

The Question Of Burma

While I am in the midst of many other things, I feel duty bound to write about Burma/Myanmar. This is common knowledge that there is a trial on, and Aung San Suu Kyi, the 63 year old leader of Burmese democratic movement, is being tried for violating the terms of her house arrest. Her crime: An overzealous American well-wisher swam across the lake to enter her house, without her prior knowledge, of course. He was told to leave, but the American, who tried to do this before and was stopped by the military authorities, pleaded exhaustion and was allowed to stay. So, the general kindness, allowing someone who took enormous trouble to reach her, will get Suu Kyi into jail again.

This is outrageous. The trial is, the charge is. But more than that, it is outrageous to see how little we can do, and we shall do. I said the trial is common knowledge, but I know it is not. Most people in India, Burma's immediate neighbour, do not care. There is indeed a strong public opinion in the States and in Britain, but they can do little. In fact, the non-governmental support for the democracy movement is useful, but often counterproductive - as this particular incident will show. Our governments somehow treat Burma as an extension of China and stay away from their troubles.

I think we are obliged to protest. The lion's share of the blame of letting such a brutal regime to continue goes to Burma's neighbours, with the possible exception of Thailand. For some unknown reason, Burma is still part of ASEAN and Burmese leaders still enjoy the protection and hospitality in the ASEAN forums. Besides this, China has a vested interest in Burma and it keeps propping up the Burmese regime for the sake of their military bases and for their oil. And, I think the worst offender of them all is India, which not only shrugged away its responsibility as a democratic country, but effectively helped the Burmese regime in the name of oil interests.

All that must change now. I am sure India's, and the world's, interests lie in a democratic, free Burma. Not because Burma has oil. In fact, oil was the scourge of progress and freedom in many countries, with powerful nations making unacceptable compromises just because a regime will give them access to their oil. This has been the tragedy for last hundred years, and we got human progress in a loop and are unable to escape the tyranny trap.

The modern foreign policy thinking, mostly inherited from the European policymakers of the 18Th and 19Th century, are based on National Self Interest and Quest of Material Resources. However, if one cared to notice, both of these need to change. We have moved far from the mercantilists and slowly the nation states are dying, and communities in the supra-national formations [like the EU] will take its place. Material resources are still important, but the war of ideas is indeed hotting up. With the spread of people participation in the state across the world, it is becoming more and more important to win the battle of ideas than the battle for material resources.

And, the Burmese problem, seen in the prism of this different reality, appear so different from what it is today, trapped in the sphere of influence thinking and relegated to the Chinese one. It is important to be able to create a supra-national formation in Asia just like Europe - a region of free trade, movement and democracy. This has to happen if we have to avoid war and destruction, and the growth of fundamentalism and terrorism, which threatens the whole civilization. Such a formation can not be dreamt up with South-east Asia's biggest nation being unfree, poor and disconnected from the world. The example we set today, by standing by and letting the tyrants sentence the leader of democratic movement, will work against this Asian dream.

Besides, this will surely make all of us lose the battle of ideas. If we care about democracy and security, we need to go into war. This is as much a just cause of intervention as there ever was in Iraq. I would not say Afghanistan, but I am tempted to - events like this allow terrorists to think that they can get away - by hiding behind some international set-up and sphere of influence chess. It will eventually come to that, a face-off of ideas, and Burma will be as strategically important as any other country.

So, yes, time for action in Burma. I think every country in the region should do all it can to get the Generals out. It must end and it must end soon. And, I don't think we should not leave it just to our government, but we must organize ourselves and press on with this - in every country, wherever we are.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Private Notes: Finding A Direction

I am all set to travel this week after almost six weeks, if we discount the travels to Ireland. This is also going to be one of my last trips to India in my current job. I am hoping to conclude a deal to sell our centre in Hyderabad and if that happens, though I have initially committed to stay on till end August, I may want to prepone that date and leave earlier. May be by 31st July! That will make me happy.

The point is I am not enjoying what I am doing any more. Hence, this day-to-day business is hard to keep up with. This has happened for quite some time now - I have told my colleagues about my decision to leave back in November and serving an almost one year long notice period - and progressively it is becoming difficult for me to keep my focus. More difficult is to sell at this time, knowing in my head that I shall not be around when these sales come to fruition. It is not about the commission because I actually don't get anything upfront, but also the involvement - business franchise sale is a very involved sale and often the franchise sells on my personal credential than anything else.

I shall indeed keep this note private, but recording my thoughts at this moment are indeed very interesting. I did play with the idea of continuing with the job, but I am sure this would not work out. There is a deep cultural chasm that we are unable to bridge and besides, given the speculative nature of most of the investments of the main promoter, I don't see much of a synergy between what I want to achieve and what he is setting out to do. I am more matured now than in 1999, and something in me tells me that this isn't going to work out.

Why I am in a hurry to leave is that I have a clear feeling that I am wasting time. I came to Britain to learn and to expand my horizon. But neither is happening now, and I am wasting my time and effort in a speculative enterprise in the middle of a bad recession. I am going nowhere as I am doing what I used to do 10 years back, and my work will be largely unappreciated unless this generates fast money, something that can be attained only by skulduggery and deceit. And, yes, indeed, I am not staking myself here because I am no longer convinced about the business concept.

The question that I am asking myself at this time whether I am being dishonest by staying on. I mean, I am taking the salary but not giving 100%, and besides, my ideas - the key contribution I make to any job - now needs to be channelled to what I am planning to do next, not what I am doing now. However, considering that I am enduring a lot of trouble myself, this extension of stay is more because I wish to fulfill my end of the bargain than anything else. I actually severely disadvantage myself by delaying the job search in a rapidly deteriorating market, but I guess this is part of my behaving responsibly, whatever others may think.

I am being asked what I do next, and now, I have arrived at an answer, more or less. I have briefly considered a job offer from a software company, but I do think jobs are very limiting and I may not want to be in another job again. I am exploring independent career options and entrepreneurship, though it is rather risky environment to do so.

I am seriously considering devoting another year to study marketing and technology. I am considering full time study, indeed - because this will allow me to focus on what I have to do. I know it is a bit late in life, and yes, a bit crazy, but I have always done crazy things and survived so far. I do think as long as I am realistic and have a plan in my head, being crazy is not so bad after all.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Spare A Thought for West Bengal

The election dust is all settled. There is indeed no final settlement in politics, and today's victors and vanquished can change positions almost overnight. But while everything is transitory, there is one enduring truth, politics is cruel on people and parties who refuse to learn.

And we shall see. The results of this election lead to continuity, in governance and in political equation overall. Except in one state, that is. Indeed, West Bengal just experienced a mini-revolution. After 32 years of Left Front rule, this is suddenly the first time when the opposition has done better than the ruling left front.

No one expected this. In fact, the Left Front expected a better show from opposition - there was a palpable voter fatigue - but they were benchmarking the opposition performance 1984 - 16 out of 42 seats. This result, 26 out of 42 seats, reducing the communists to an insignificant 24 seats in the parliament [which is the all India tally of the left parties], was unforeseen.

This is already creating a flutter. Yes, even the boring, unemotional communist leadership is shaken. Besides, this is being seen as the Semi-final of the power struggle in West Bengal. The state elections are due in two years, in 2011. [The opposition being in power in Delhi may also look at various pretexts to dismiss the state government before that and force an early election] The media is already abuzz with speculation of impending fall of the communist rule in Bengal. Even the leftists are confounded - there is talk of a public sentiment against them and everyone for the moment trying to gauge what went so wrong. And, it is proving to be difficult to pin down what really went wrong - and several theories, on the left and the right, are floating around.

The dominant theory is, of course, that the industrialization in Bengal has backfired. The people have voted against the land acquisition in Singur, Nandigram and elsewhere. Mamta Banerjee campaigned successfully against these projects, rolling back the proposed projects and scaring investors away from the state. The most convenient theory is this is what has worked for Mamta now.

The other factors that indeed worked is the alignment of Congress with Mamta Banerjee, thus making a potent force against the left coalition, and avoiding cross-voting like last time when Mamta was aligned with BJP. Some people will also say that this is a vindication of Mamta Banerjee's long struggle against the communist rule and they would surely demand an early election forced by a premature dismissal of the State government in any pretext.

I have an alternative theory to offer, and I shall say it now. I do think the voter fatigue and the Congress-Mamta coalition have all worked, but only marginally. After all, CPIM has been in power for 32 years, and we tired of them quite a while back. Besides, the party Mamta leads is only an offshoot of Congress, so such alignment may not necessarily have brought new voters in the fold.

I am also not sure people in West Bengal voted against industrialization and progress. That will make them unique in the whole country. I am not sure whether we are really looking back when the rest of the country is looking forward. The demographics are similar in Bengal and there is no reason to believe that people are less aspirational here, and therefore, their voting behaviour is completely different.

Besides, Mamta Banerjee has not done herself any favours recently as a leader. She pursued an opportunistic strategy, trying out the alignment with BJP and becoming BJP's Rail Minister, and after an indifferent stint, leaving NDA without a proper severance. She allied with Congress at a time when she had no other choices. I am not sure the voters in West Bengal, who are politically matured, are looking forward to see Mamta Banerjee as their Chief Minister.

On the contrary, I do believe that the vote in West Bengal is indeed in line with the rest of India, for progress and continuity. After all, West Bengal is also a big beneficiary of the recent progress, even though it may not measure up against some of the Western and Southern states. Collectively, I would think people of West Bengal wants to catch the bus and move forward, and their voting behaviour reflected the same.

So, why vote against the left when they are 'industrializing' Bengal? Well, because they are actually not industrializing, they are posturing. Tatas left West Bengal not because Mamta was agitating, but because the Government did not do enough to resolve the issues. Nandigram erupted because of the arrogance that the government displayed in handling the issues. And, overall, very little have happened in Bengal despite the noise. I have written this before, and will say it now - the industrialization of West Bengal is showtime industrialization, lot on paper but nothing on the ground. I did talk about the government's failure to encourage the entrepreneurship in the state. All the West Bengal government wanted to do is to prove that they are in the game by allotting free land for a car manufacturing project, several years after Tamil Nadu has taken the lead in Car Manufacturing in the country [West Bengal and Tamil Nadu used to have leadership position in Automobile manufacturing in the early years of Independent India]. The government started talking about software and outsourcing several years after almost all the states have done. Industrialization in West Bengal was more a Rip Van Winkle affair than an example of leadership and foresight.

Besides this, there was the question of sincerity. The CPIM continued to stifle the local businesses while they talked about industrialization. While the state 'opened' up, I was curious to see my favourite restaurants on Park Street closing down because of labour disputes. The government talked about work culture by exempting the software service companies from state wide General Strikes sponsored by the government itself. They talked about industry, but the state became power deficient - and the party tried to blackmail and then pull down the Congress government when it showed the boldness of moving forward with the Indo-US nuclear deal.

This last episode was of particular significance to the voters of West Bengal. I must admit that most Bengalis cherish the idea of seeing a Bengali Prime Minister or President one day. While Pranab Mukherjee failed to attain the position despite being close, Somnath Chatterjee, a CPIM veteran, was given the post of the speaker because the left parties extended crucial support to Manmohan Singh government in its initial years. During the nuclear deal, the party leadership, say Prakash Karat, dictated Mr. Chatterjee to step down, which the latter rightly refused saying that the Speaker's position was apolitical and he should remain in the job as long as the House does not impeach him. Mr. Chatterjee is a highly respected Parliamentarian, having been a Loksabha member for almost three decades, and being a Constitutional expert, his reasoning was indeed faultless.

In the events that followed, Mr. Chatterjee was expelled from the party though he continued as the Speaker. This event did two things: First, it made the debate about nuclear power a subject of discussion in West Bengal, and exposed the ambivalence and hypocracy of the Left position on industrialization; Second, it made the state leadership look powerless, as they stood by and watched one of their more senior colleague being denied the respect he indeed deserved.

In summary, I think the voters in Bengal voted for hope and progress, and voted against the duplicity of the CPIM leadership and the arrogance of Mr. Karat. CPIM unfortunately is not a party of accountability and transparency, which is a baggage these days. In the age of 24x7 media, Internet and a young voting population, their vocabulary of 'analysis', 'collective decisions' and 'reflection' are obsolete. Their MPs appearing on TV Talk shows since the election appeared like sacrificial goats, who knows nothing, says nothing, rather than gurgling out the few lines taught to them in advance. Listening to them and their analysis, it indeed becomes clear that they have run out of ideas and the West Bengal electorate has punished them for being so dull.

So, yes, I see the change coming to West Bengal and I am impatient about it. But I am also aware that this may not happen, if the opposition reads the situation differently, which they can easily do, and lose their way. So, my unsolicited suggestions to the opposition to end the left rule:

First, do not make the mistake of dismissing the government and forcing the President's Rule on Bengal. The voters will hate being denied their democratic rights and will throw out anyone who tries that.

Second, do not turn away from the industrialization agenda. That's exactly what the left will do - take a leftward lurch. The next election will be hope versus hopelessness; stay on the side of hope.

Third, project a Chief Minister other than Mamta Banerjee. If the voters are tired of CPIM, they are tired of her too. There are a number of very capable politicians in West Bengal, bring them out of the bag. Remember what Jyoti Basu achieved by putting Budhdhadev Bhattacharyya at the helm. A Mamta-raj will energise the CPM grassroots; stay out of that.

And, finally, participate in this new Government in Delhi and show some performance. There are many capable politicians in this new set of MPs and I am sure they should participate actively in the government and show the people that they are honest and they are able to work better than the leftists.

So, in summary, show some statesmanship! If there is one lesson from this election, Indian public has the necessary political savvy to see through their candidates. So, let the Trinamool+ alliance earn the right to power before they are given the power.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Watershed Moment

India's electorate continues to spring surprises. A largely illiterate, prejudiced electorate - what do they know of governance and democracy one would think - defies the political pundits and vote maturely and with great judgement. I am so delighted to be proved wrong regarding my fear that this election will have disastrous consequences and I hope my delight will be shared by many across the country. We did think that the terrorists attacks on Mumbai and Varun Gandhi's antics will create an wave of hatred in India towards minority communities and carry the election. We thought Prakash Karat's private revenge will play spoilsport. We also thought that the royalists in Congress will jump in with Rahul Gandhi's candidature and undermine the strong record of competence of Manmohan Singh. Everyone predicted that this will be a fractured mandate and the real game will be played after the election, and various end-of-shelf-life politicians propositioned and postured to emerge as compromise candidates for the top job hoping that the election will be inconclusive. In summary, there were many who wanted to steal this election, with false promises, invoking false fears and for a false future.

The wonderful thing about democracy is that people prove that they are smarter than one would usually think. No point talking about illiteracy: even if one can not read, one knows what's good for her. No point trying to sway people by fear - the private moment inside the polling booth is wonderfully liberating and brings the best judgement out of all of us. We have seen this in Pakistan, Bangladesh and elsewhere - while the elite may rationalize whether a largely illiterate electorate know anything about democracy, when people vote, they display tremendous wisdom and maturity.

Don't get me wrong. I am not celebrating for the Congress/ UPA win. But, yes, I fell in love with the idea of India yet again. Someone told me that thinking about India sitting in London is like thinking about North Sea, but I know that we, all of us who stay in a different country, carry a little India around us all the time, in our heart, in our households and in our thoughts. I am celebrating that wonderfully liberating idea of Modern India, a vast chaotic mass of people who just displayed great decency, maturity and judgement when we left it on them.

I did not sleep much last night and turned into NDTV early in the morning. Wanted to see whether we actually descended into chaos as everyone predicted. By the afternoon, I know we have not. Our union is intact and our resilience as a democracy is in full display again.

We are in the middle of final results now and the analysts are busy. But, here are some initial thoughts on what we see coming out:

First, the BJP - lost their way, yet again. I do think they have never understood the multicultural nature of India. They are in an elitist quicksand, and display strategic misjudgement all the time. I don't think anyone in India outside BJP party offices thought of L K Advani as a strong leader. Was he strong when we watched over the demolition of Babri Masjid? Was he strong when he was the Home Minister and a hijacked plane landed in Amritsar? Was he strong when terrorists reached the outer circle of Parliament under his watch? It was a strange effort to sell a fiction to the electorate, but they found very few buyers. I am sure even the effort of projecting Dr. Manmohan Singh as weak has backfired on them. This is the Prime Minister who staked his seat to stand for something, the US deal here but then who stands for anything in politics, and risked his government. I can see that Congress and its allies have won almost all the major metropolitan seats in India, including Mumbai. I am sure BJP failed to capture the imagination and appeared clueless for the most part.

Second, the Indian electorate is aspirational today, not fearful. Regardless of the global recession, Indians believe in India and now looking out to the future. BJP tried to sell fear and the left, hopelessness. On the other hand, Congress, mostly because it is the incumbent government, spoke of hope and progress. This must have stuck a chord in the largely young, largely aspirational electorate. Again, a trend not unlike the one we saw in Bangladesh, another country with a large number of young voters, this vote is a mandate to move forward.

Third, it is interesting to watch the results from some of the sitting state governments. The hope and progress is more pronounced in the agenda than ever. Apart from Andhra Pradesh, where a largely corrupt incumbent government has been saved by the lack of leadership in the opposition and a division of voters by star factor, everywhere else, it worked out as a mandate on state governments. But, while incumbency factor is usually treated as a baggage, not so in a young, hopeful country like India. Bihar, where Nitish Kumar wins a resounding victory; Orissa, where Navin Pattanaik went out of BJP fold and came back with an impressive victory; Delhi where Sheila Dixit continues to stun people; Gujrat where Narendra Modi won hands down on the development agenda; Madhya Pradesh, where Shivraj Singh Chauhan maintains his leadership and Jharkhand, where the BJP government comes back with a strong result, are witnesses to this march of hope. And, on the same vein, the electorate has punished hopelessness, in West Bengal and Kerala, and in Uttar Pradesh, where the search for new ideas have gotten desperate.

In the end, we can now look forward to five years of stability, and not be blackmailed by political operators who would run an agency for the Chinese or try to sell Taj Mahal. The incoming government has its own problems to solve. Corruption and cronyism are endemic in Congress and the new mandate should embolden people like Dr Manmohan Singh, the only Prime Minister to be elected back after a full five year term in office, and the people like Rahul Gandhi, whose earnestness is believable, to push for a reform inside the party. But, then, the people of India deserves it, and now that it is clear that the people are actually cleverer than their politicians, all parties are advised to become more sensible.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Withering of The Alternative Front

We are more or less 12 hours away from the results of the Indian election. The exit polls are out now, and there is a huge swirl of speculation around at this time. I am trying to follow NDTV, though they are now mostly showing footage of 2004 because there is actually nothing to be shown. This wait is most agonising, especially because this is a watershed election and the results will have a long standing impact on our country.

This is also the perfect time to indulge in a little speculation. In a private blog like this, there is no fear of being off the mark - in fact, that indeed is the point about this freedom. So far, the exit poll data and all the commentators are pointing to one obvious thing, which we indeed knew much before all this had started - that the Third Front, a so called opportunistic amalgamation of self-important parties led by the communists will wither away even before the results are announced.

So far, various parties, who allied with the communists, have already held several rounds of discussion with centrist Congress and right-wing BJP. From the noises they are making, it obviously seems clear that they do not see any chances of their pre-poll dream, of creating a non-Congress, non-BJP government. Add to that the possibility that the communist parties themselves will see a severe erosion of their seats, and one gets to see the end of the road for left influence on Indian politics [leaving out, indeed, the role played by various revolutionary parties, which is actually growing in influence].

This is indeed worth discussing, because the communists did much better than expected in 2004 elections, sweeping the elections in West Bengal and Kerala, and also picking up odd seats in other states. Indeed, 2004 marked the pinnacle of achievement of left parliamentary politics in India, and the left parties became kingmakers and their support were crucial to the formation of the government. The fact that they did not join the government itself was a matter of their choice; they could have easily joined and picked up important ministries. Such was their influence that they got the speaker's seat in the parliament, traditionally a preserve for the ruling party. They played their hand to the fullest extent, manipulating the government policy in every step and 'blackmailing' the cabinet.

It almost seems that they overplayed their hand and vastly overestimated the patience of their core voters in West Bengal and Kerala. The government in Kerala was plagued by infighting between the Chief Minister and the Party Leader from before the election and the central committee failed to discipline either of them effectively. The West Bengal administration, in power for 30 odd years, suffered from lack of leadership and ideas, and though the squabbling was not as obvious as in Kerala, one could sense the administration trying to pursue several paths at once. Beside that, the hypocrisy, the hallmark of parliamentary left politics in India, have become clear in West Bengal, the government started on an industrialization drive and acquired land from peasants whereas the same party was agitating against the same practise elsewhere in India. The state of West Bengal, a politically conscious state suffering from lack of development for many years, needed new direction and leadership; what they got is some stale packaging of Stalinist industrialization and showtime politicking.

However, the waning of real left influence started when Prakash Karat, the doctrinaire General Secretary of CPIM, staked his party against the Indo-US nuclear deal which the Congress government was pursuing for many years. In what eventually became a test of character and leadership, and transformed the image of the usually docile Manmohan Singh, the administration called his bluff and stood their ground. The speaker, a veteran left politician, defied the party command and refused to step down and vote against the government. And, to make matters worse, despite some parliamentary theatrics from a clueless BJP, the government won the trust vote handily and reduced the left leadership to a laughing stock.

Almost as a matter of revenge, then, Mr. Karat tried to put a third front together. The idea of non-Congress, non-BJP coalition is not new. In fact, such a formation is full of possibility in the context of current, fractured politics of India. The idea was originally floated by left leadership and some of the leading regional politicians like N T Rama Rao in the late 80s, and under the stewardship of Jyoti Basu and Harkishen Singh Surjit, two CPIM leaders and Mr. Karat's supposed mentors, the Third Front did become a potent force by the middle 90s. This seemed a good year to bring the Third Front back from the dead indeed; this is a bad year in the middle of a global recession, terrorist attacks and weak and divisive BJP leadership. But then, as it is becoming evident now, the execution was botched from the word go, and I would expect this whole experiment to completely unravel by the time I shall wake up tomorrow.

So, I feel tempted to write a premature obituary to the idea of the Prakash Karat Front. It is worth thinking why people moved away from them, and I can think of several reasons:

1. The Third Front looked churlish from the word go. It was an opportunistic amalgamation of candidates with Prime Ministerial ambitions. It had H D Deve Gowda, whose astrologer told him that he would be the PM again; Bahin Mayawati, who tried to position herself as the Dalit voice despite her splendid records of corruption and vast wealth; Chandrababu Naidu, who deserves his place in the political Madam Tussuad's but no longer at the ballots; and Jayalalitha, who kept talking to all parties to find the biggest bargains. It displayed the political bankruptcy of left politics in India and the cluelessness of its leadership.

2. In the middle of a difficult time, people look for strong, decisive leadership. Manmohan Singh displayed his character by not giving in to left blackmail during the US deal debate. Besides, he obviously have the CV to prove competence and political experience. Despite a bumbling Advani and a terrible ideology, BJP leaders could demonstrate a singular identity and decisiveness regarding the problems of terrorism. The left had no answers to either terrorism or the economic problem; so they were not even counted in the debate.

3. The left had earned a reputation of pointless politicking. They shied away from taking the Prime Minister's office when an offer was made to them in mid-90s. This was indeed the 'Himalayan blunder', as the possible candidate that time, Jyoti Basu, called it later. The theoreticians like Mr. Karat argued that time the constitution of the communist party does not allow it to participate in the government. He somehow held onto that line of thinking in 2004 and desisted from participating in the government, proving that they actually have no idea about governance and uncomfortable about responsibility. Obviously, they did not deserve to be voted for when the country is looking for a responsible, accountable government.

4. By not being able to understand the views of its electorate in the middle of the nuclear debate, and by suspending the high profile speaker from the party, Mr. Karat reaffirmed the Stalinist credential of the left leadership - unresponsive and without any ideas of its own. It worked against itself in West Bengal, where it talked about industrialization but failed to offer any ideas about resolving the recurrent shortage of power; and, at the same time, advocated voting against the government for a deal designed to solve India's nuclear pariah status primarily to expand the capacity of nuclear power generation.

Despite my disillusionment with the left politics in India, as evident in this post, I write this with great distress. I did think that Third Front has a role to play in India. India, essentially a diverse country, needed a sensible political alternative which stood for greater federalism and power for constituent states. That was the founding idea of the third front anyway. The two big national parties, Congress, traditionally dominated by a monarchical first family and BJP, a Hindu-chauvinist formation at odds with the idea of modern India, offer only fairly limited ideological alternatives for the future. Without a federalist third front, the future seems divided between parochial state parties and the god-worshipping monoliths far removed from people - not a healthy predisposition for the Union of India! In that sense, this election may prove watershed, barring the unlikely possibility that this will shake up the left parties, lead to an ouster of Mr. Karat and his cronies, change the autocratic functioning and bring back some accountability and principle back again and lead to a new set ideas and leadership. Going by the history, however, that remains a very distant possibility indeed.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Question of Caste: How Caste Affects Work and Consumption in India

In my previous post about caste in India, I made a reference to Rama Bijapurkar's We Are Like That Only, a book about Indian consumers and devising strategies for Indian market place. In this book, Ms. Bijapurkar made a comment that caste is not important in business and consumption behaviour in India. My point was that this commonly held view is wrong and that the Urban India is in denial of the problems of casteism. I saw Ms. Bijapurkar's comment as representative.

However, I do think my comments on the contrary need elaboration. I said caste is important, but did not explain which way. Some readers wrote to me stating that while Caste is an issue, it may not be of significance in the urban markets, which the multinationals are primarily concerned with. I think even this view is wrong, and that caste has an enduring and deep significance in Indian culture and our behaviour. This post is a quick comment to justify why I think so.

Let's face facts. Today's India's workforce is mostly young, and the share of people under their 30s is ever rising. The Indian cities are growing fast, with a continuous stream of people migrating from villages to seek a better life. The country, for the first time in its long history, is actually achieving the state of the melting pot. However, while the Western influence is indeed spreading fast, and one can clearly witness this in pubs, festivals, women's clothing and recreational habits, it is wrong to assume that the old India, the one with traditions and history, has suddenly gone out of the window. On the contrary, to follow Edward Luce's observation - India always wins - the western practises are being 'indianized', which one sees in the beautiful floral tops of women, the tikka sandwich at Subway, the hinglish language, the very Indian chicken rolls, the dating ads posted by parents of the girl, contracts with shree written on top of the page and the puja which must invariably precede the inauguration of a new business facility.

In the same vein, caste refuses to go away and must be reckoned with in the modern Indian business. Try asking a Brahman boy to wash his own dishes and you will know. Narayana Murthy observes that the Brahminical tradition creates a bias against physical work - truly, because the caste system creates a hierarchy of work, thinking at the top, physical work at the bottom - and therefore, everyone wants to be a manager. Obviously, if you have to start a business in India, it is important to know that no one may want to be a salesman, no one may want to actually do the physical work of calls etc. Yes, indeed, a desk job, even it earns less, is often preferred by Indian graduates.

Caste also plays a role in intra-office relationships, though I have not heard of discrimination cases so far. But there could be, because I have heard people say that they prefer people from certain caste backgrounds over others. Besides, caste in India is not just four straightforward divisions, but many nuanced smaller groups inside them. I can not exactly tell how many, but people do have caste stereotypes and they behave accordingly. For example, when I started the current business in Andhra Pradesh, lots of people asked me if I am a 'Chowdhury'. I answered in affirmative, indeed I am one, but was then told by a helpful colleague that it is the wrong answer. I was told I am a Brahmin Chaudhuri, but the question means whether I belong to Chowdhury caste, which is the business caste known for its shrewd business sense. I don't still know whether that was meant to be a compliment, but I surely know that people who asked me that question, mainly suppliers who were negotiating business deals with me, were trying to apply caste stereotypes.

Besides, I would think caste has powerful correlations with consumption patterns. I am sure marriages, family obligations vary with caste to some extent. These still remain important in Indian family life. I shall also make a purely conjectural statement, without any statistical proof here: a lower caste person in India is likely to be more mobile than a privileged person [that's kind of obvious and applies to other cultures as well]. The higher castes in India takes a lot of things in life for granted, and their consumption patterns will vary in this context. Today, because of reservations, while the public education system may have achieved a certain balance in terms of caste distribution of students, the private education system remains dominated by higher castes and I suspect many of these institutions are run with a certain level of prejudice, though it may not be blindingly obvious. Ms. Bijapurkar makes a point that consumption relates to social class than caste, though the correlation between caste and class is significant in India.

I am not saying is that doing business in India is like dealing with tribalism. [I think it is more complicated] But a business strategy for India without the basic understanding of caste landscape may actually be off the mark. The businesses should understand the implications of castes in the context of their target market and their preferred locations before setting out to do business in India. Failing to do so will surely increase the risk of cultural faux pas and may hinder the prospect of business in India altogether.

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