Sunday, January 31, 2010

Day 27/28: The Beginnings

As I write this, I can't stop measuring how far I have come with regard to my new year agenda. Last day of January, a month wheezed past already, means that I am already done with a third of my 100 day plan period, which is supposed to change my life. Besides, one-twelfth of the year, if I must be reminded, is already over.

Reflecting back, I have reasons to be happy. I have achieved a big leap - a freedom from my sense of guilt, the overwhelming sense of responsibility that I felt at my work to get things done. Two reasons: First, I realized that what I am now putting together is the only sensible way to run the business, given the commitment levels of the investors. Second, I also noticed that I am being manipulated for my self-imposed sense of responsibility, a state of affairs I should not tolerate for much longer.

Besides, I felt a sense of commitment to my customers, individuals those who invested money on my bidding. One could possibly argue that it was a commercial decision on their part, but all sales is also personal, and I think salesmen will do better to assume some responsibility of what they do and say. I do think I am responsible, at least partially, to see that my customers achieve their desired objective, or at least do my bit to facilitate that objective. This list is now reasonably short and manageable, and except one partner, I think I have given everyone enough ways to set their business models right. The one which is still struggling has ethical issues - he uses his smartness rather wrongly and believes that he can control everything with his connections with political mafia, an oft-repeated mistake in India. And, by taking that path, he is increasingly freeing me up from my sense of responsibility, which is a good thing.

Apart from structuring my work, I am also made some progresses in structuring my life. After many false starts, it seems that the corporate consulting business that I thought of starting is finally good to go. I am trying to put together many diverse elements into one business - sales and induction training for BFSI sector, leadership training, business communications training, and training content development - and business modelling will be of great significance in getting this business going properly. For me, this business is a marriage between the current opportunities brought in by various partners and my ideas of creating a world class corporate training company within the context of the current business I run.

Because the plan for this new business is so closely aligned to what I have done earlier, and because it is so closely influenced by my own thinking, I had to stand back and think through the issues that I faced in running the business operations in India, and the reasons why the achievements were far less than what I aspired for. I did go through the usual arguments that some of my colleagues throw at me - wrong people, high cost, contracts difficult to enforce etc - and concluded the obvious, that none of this is actually true.

Instead, here is my list of things where we went wrong:

First, insufficient planning. I have seen this many SMEs that they don't plan at all. They actually have a disregard for planning, and believe in here-and-now business decisions. I have had conversations where my request for making a longer term plan was met with incredulity, and I was advised to focus on the next deal. I would guess this works in some businesses and in some situations, but this is definitely counterproductive in a complex business like training and especially if one is venturing out in a distant territory.

Second, the lack of planning invariably meant lack of commitment. I have come to realize how important burning the ships are when you start a business. One can not start a business and keep thinking whether this is the right business to do. You do the thinking beforehand, not while you are in the business. While you are in business, the only acceptable attitude is that you will do the business come what may. In fact, that is the basis of any successful endeavour. Unfortunately, the lack of planning does not help create that commitment.

Third, I was told that the two above factors did not matter because I was given the independence to do things as I like, and as long as I planned and I was committed, it did not matter. But, it did - because a business of scale, as training business in India needs to be, needs more than individual commitment. It needs a corporate commitment, money, technology, everything else. None of this is easy if a lone man is given freedom - as much freedom to eat his breakfast if he is paying for it - to run a business without money. This is possibly another SME disease, a disproportionate emphasis on individual enterprise and dis-ingenuity at the cost of the planning and proper infrastructural commitment. I am sure it works some of the time, and I have great regards for those entrepreneurs who pull things off against all odds. However, I think it was wrong to assume that this works all the time in all the places, and especially in the context of a complex business which makes money only at a scale of operation, this was suicidal.

I have been through this analysis earlier, and I did it now. The significance of this exercise is not just to point out the usual handicaps of a foreign company doing business in India [and, therefore, I did not highlight the factors like the lack of market understanding and consistent stereotyping etc], but to seek out the common factors that even an Indian company, including the one I set up, may face. The essential lessons are obviously that of intelligent planning, giving the business the required scale of operation to be successful, and mixing the need of individual creativity and enterprise with the common tools of management, like structures, responsibilities and processes.

Besides, I think, there is an overwhelming need of professionalism in businesses like this. And, frankly, I know that professionalism starts from the top. You can't expect your employees to be professional and committed if you are not professional and committed yourself. That's one of the basic functions of leadership which so many people fail to perform. I have seen managers who take it as their privilege to not to come in time to office, while expecting all staff members to turn up. I have seen senior managers behaving badly, while expecting the employees to maintain courtesy while dealing with customers and suppliers. I would think any such behaviour is a violation of a psychological contract an employer has with the employees, and the impact of such inconsistencies are as bad as the situations where employers do not think paying salaries is their responsibility, but expect the employees to work wholeheartedly.

Besides, I have a problem with the usual definition of professionalism. I would guess there is an inherent expectation that man as a professional person should be different from man as a person, and there should be two sets of behavioural patterns, one applicable in private life and the other in professional life. It is almost as if I as a Director of a company is somewhat superior to I as myself, and overriding personal values, like responsibility, commitment and consistency etc, do not have any place in the world of business and work. I am not sure whether one can really live watertight lives as a professional person and as a person, and I would believe that it would get much easier to do good work if we start shifting away from such dichotomy. Why not make a simple pledge to become a better person overall, respect others all the time, be empathic, be firm on principles, be disciplined, in all spheres of life. I would not believe someone can be hardworking at work while being lazy in their own lives, respectful at home while being abusive in office, vice versa. I remember one of my mentors from NIIT days always started her interviews asking about the candidate's typical day, an attempt to judge their private person first: This is possibly the most sensible interviewing style I have seen. With all the experience I have gathered, I have now started believing deeply in Chester Bernard's observation: You pay an employee for certain types of work they perform, but it is the whole person who comes to work.

So, I have some work at hand. To build a business from ground up, which is not trivial. Besides, I can only do this properly when I have left the current assignment completely, which will happen only around the end of March. But I know that I can't make any mistakes this time - I must build a professional business based on enduring values. My first pledge is that I must get a clear sign-off on some basic principles from all the employees and partners that I am going to hire - an absolutely non-negotiable commitment to professional behaviour, clear commitment to follow the laws of the land, no bribing, things like these. I have already been told that these are utopian principles and business may not be successful if I follow such things. However, as I said, I do not see the difference between one's business life and life in general that clearly, and believe that the business I run must adequately reflect the principles I should govern my life with.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Should Congress go alone in West Bengal?

West Bengal Assembly Polls are due next year. This may become a watershed poll, the first one after Jyoti Basu's death, and one that may push CPIM out of power after more than 33 years. In fact, it seems that all of India is waiting to see that happen. There is an expectation in West Bengal building up, because after years of misrule and stagnation, Bengal's moment may just come to join the party in India.

But this is still not certain, if newspaper stories have to be believed. There seems to be an ongoing tussle between the temperamental Trinamool Congress chief, Mamta Banerjee, and the Congress party. Ms Banerjee seems to believe that she is doing a favour by aligning with congress, when the truth is the other way round. And, while Ms Banerjee has been a political survivor in her career, no one can credit her with political astuteness. So, the odds are that she will cross the threshold and the TNC-Congress alliance will not last till the election. This will almost certainly mean that the CPIM will return to power for another term.

It is also a very real possibility given that recent cosyness of the Congress Party with CPIM, and the reported assurance from CPIM General Secretary Sitaram Yechury that CPIM will support the government at the centre if Ms Banerjee decides to pull her support. With 24 seats at the Parliament, the left has a slight edge over TNC's 20, and that should keep the current government in power.

The question is whether Congress will take the bet?

Over next few months, an interesting political game will be played out. On one hand, there is this very real possibility of pushing the left out of power in West Bengal after such a long time. But if this does not happen, the Congress government at the centre may become vulnerable, because Ms Banerjee will almost certainly pull the support and go over to BJP, and the UPA/ Congress government will become dependent on Left's support yet again. The leftists are not dependable allies, which they have already shown, and they will interfere in every government business and stall things. The current momentum of reform programmes will almost certainly disappear, and the government will live in constant fear of blackmail by the left which it did last time.

So, for Congress, it is a difficult decision to make. It is almost a balance between West Bengal vs India, and Blackmail by left and Blackmail by Mamta kind of a situation. One would possibly think that the course of action should be obvious - keep the government at the centre and let the West Bengal go to Mamta; because Mamta's blackmail isn't disruptive as long as her Party's corruption and craziness is tolerated. However, the Left's blackmail is extremely disruptive, and it is best to see them completely erased out of Indian politics by waiting a few more years of chaos initiated by Mamta.

However, I shall still think the decision is difficult because while the short term implications are so obvious, the long term implications are not. For example, the greatest threat to ongoing Congress rule in India does not any longer come from the democratic Left parties, but from Regionalism and Extreme Left movement. The democratic left in India is a spent force now, a thing of the past, almost a pressure group with vested interests than a political movement with any agenda. If the Congress makes a choice for Mamta, she will almost certainly win. A TNC rule in West Bengal then will almost certainly become a mob raj, where she will spare no effort to 'eliminate' the left threat, and unleash a reign of violence. Those who lived in West Bengal knows that TNC has all the mafia now, and a TNC rule will mean no less than a return to the political mayhem that West Bengal endured during the early 70s.

But this is more than an ethical problem arising out of such a possibility. To remain in power, TNC will then almost certainly take a Regionalist stand, and try to eliminate the Congress influence from the state altogether. The regionalism in Bengal runs deep, and it will be fertile ground of regional posturing after so many years of misrule and underdevelopment. In fact, I shall suspect, Mamta Banerjee will spare no efforts to portray Congress leaders, particularly the Gandhis, as distant imperious oppressors, as she keeps doing some of the time.

Besides, one has to realize that Ms Banerjee is aligned deeply with the extreme Left, who consider the democratic left raj as their biggest problem and consider, in more ways than one, Ms Banerjee as their poodle. She proved directionless and completely off-agenda in dealing with industrialization issue because she was manipulated in that position by extreme left parties. And, this is indeed going to continue.

So, in summary, Congress faces a long term strategic choice. They know that the democratic left has been humbled and they are facing an existential threat at this time. They may, to be optimistic, less disruptive this time. Besides, by allowing the Left government in West Bengal to continue, the Congress may help the moderates in the CPIM for the moment, and this, in turn, may lead to more sensible policy choices by the party.

Besides, from the long term perspective, letting Trinamool win will write off West Bengal Congress for next few decades yet again. However, the new Young Congress resonates well with Bengali youth, who are no less aspirational than anyone else. Leaving CPIM in power may just help pave the way for an eventual Congress rule in West Bengal in a few years time.

So, it is long term versus short term choice. The Congress had many long term choices recently, particularly in the UP, which has led to the resurgence of the party. It is time that the Party does it again and decides to go alone in West Bengal.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Day 26: Planning for India

I have been in India for almost two weeks now. This visit has turned out differently from any of the other times, as a clear agenda emerged during the course of the visit which set up my plans for my eventual return to India. This was always on the cards, agreed. But it was always difficult to see, and to reconcile various objectives that competed for my time overall was proving difficult. However, this time, various interactions during this visit gave me rather obvious pathways to achieve both of my objectives - to find a permanent solution to the business I run and to map my next few years into a different role and reality.

On those two counts, the visit has gone well so far. I have made some significant progresses on both counts. There were usual surprises, and my optimism was defied. Besides, more than once, the limitations of my own proposals were laid bare in front of my eyes, and I had very little to defend. In my opinion, I did put up a fairly brave front, but, as I know from my heart, this India is very different from the one I know from my childhood and other people know from BBC, and the imperious standpoints of some of the businesses I represent do not go down well with the Indian aspirations and estimates of self worth.

As I said, it did help that I reconciled to the fundamental limitations of the business model I am trying to promote, though I am still convinced about the underlying value proposition for such a business. In summary, I would still want to build a world class English Language training chain which makes available world class English language training at an affordable price to Indian consumers and help transform their lives. I am convinced that this is going to make good business, and this isn't a charitable enterprise I am talking about. The big problem I have so far faced is one of imagination. I have come to suspect that many British businesses have a fairly limited view of the world, and despite the talk, they are completely unable to imagine business models that will work in India.

And, in my opinion, this leads to the failure of British businesses to make significant progresses here. I have heard from senior officials at UKTI that they find India 'daunting'. I have met businessmen who felt 'lost' and decided that they would not be able to do business in India. I have been told that it is difficult to do business in India because people are dishonest, a remark I took exception to and reminded the person concerned that as I would not attempt to judge the entire Irish society from what Iris Robinson did, one should not draw conclusions about India from the behaviour of few individuals that one met.

I think the key problem that British businesses in question face is one of commitment. They just simply can not make up their mind what they want to do, and are, therefore, unable to make the necessary commitments and investments required to be successful in the Indian market. In the particular case I am involved, it is more a question of the approach to the business itself as much as it is a market question. Training as trading does not work; it is a different business, which needs to be set up in line with its own unique dynamic. However, I have seen the companies making the mistake of doing too little, being extremely impatient and having a very limited planning horizon - all sure recipes for a resounding failure in a market like India.

I think the fact that I am making some progress this time is because I have accepted these as facts and now seeking out local businessmen who can take the business forward in India. After having worked for more than three years establishing a training model for English Language in India, it made no sense for me to walk out. And, I have now stuck a formula which will allow me to grow this business - while giving a modest return to my own employers - and achieve the scale and objectives that I originally set out for.

This will also demand one commitment from me: Return to India. I am more or less setting myself up to return to India and live in Mumbai, at least for a period of a couple of years, later this year. I am planning to divide my time on a few projects while I am in Mumbai, because I think this is the best way to get the maximum from myself. First, I am planning to set up a world class leadership training company, which will service the Indian corporate houses to help their executives achieve an understanding of the emerging realities of the workplace and develop a new set of skills required to adopt. Second, I shall develop this business of English Language training and create the model which will allow us, finally, to take a world class training programme to the remote areas in India, at an affordable cost. Third, I shall pursue my various research interests at the same time, and would want to build up a small company which will offer go-to-market advice for Indian and Asian markets.

My planned date of return is somewhat around July, and I am planning to set up shop in Pune. I have somehow bought William Dalrymple's metaphor that India is driven by South and West India while it is being dragged back by the East and the North. Though I know that the realities are changing, and soon, Bihar may become the growth story in India to everyone's surprise, I am quite impressed by Pune as a city and know that my India experience needs the necessary diversity of working out of as many different Indian cities as I can.

I am fully aware of the impacts of cross-border migration, having attempted this twice earlier in my life. And, this time, the decision to come back to India is not just emotional, though such a dimension will invariably remain. However, this time, it is the hard, economic opportunity, backed by my sense of optimism about the future of India and the sense of urgency about addressing the human infrastructure issues that will facilitate this development, is pushing me to take the plunge. I am now fully committed to make this transition and beyond the weighing-of-options point.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Obama's New Deal

President Obama had to muster all his oratorical skills to deliver this year’s State of the Union address, just as Americans started blaming him for their plight. He had a lot at stake. He was under pressure, this being another election year, from his own party and those who voted for him. He had to answer his critics – those who are thinking that he is trying to do too much and those who are thinking he is doing too little – and show the country that he is still in control and setting the agenda. It was, in all, a difficult speech, he had to strike a balance at every step, and he had to answer the critics and naysayers while calling for an end to ‘an election every day’ and unnecessarily divisive politics.

Clearly, his greatest worry is the economy. Justifiably so, especially as the employment figures look dismal. Even when business outlook has started looking up and other economic indicators are also on the way to recovery, there are fears that America is looking at a jobless recovery of sorts. BBC reporters talked about the dire situation with regard to jobs some parts in America, where one in four people are jobless. This concern pushed aside all the other issues from the agenda, the President did not mention terrorism in the first hour of his seventy-five minute speech and only spent a brief spell on healthcare reforms, supposedly the core of the legacy he wants to leave behind.

So, he needed to offer a New Deal, and he did. He justified the tax on banks, and pointedly connected the money recovered from the Wall Street banks to what he would give to the community banks, in order to energise local economies and small businesses. This is timely, given the reality that the inner city economies are the ones that need this support most. Besides, this is also an admission of fear of the jobless recovery, and the fact that he may be presiding over an economy, which looks up without bringing the desired political bounce.

There are many good ideas in the speech. The tax breaks for capital gains on small business investment is one of them. Tax breaks for businesses that have hired people or raised the wage look idealistic, but will possibly go down well. The acknowledgement of the role that small businesses play in economic recovery – they are the most effective tool of distribution of wealth while creating economic momentum known to us – is welcome and will hopefully serve as a call to action to governments in the developing world, which seem to get the equation completely wrong. All of Obama’s measures today assume the centrality of small businesses, something which Margaret Thatcher instinctively understood in Britain, and offer an alternative template for economic policy-making, and may even become the centrepiece of his legacy.

There are other not-so-good ideas, including the idea of using taxation mechanism to stop ‘shipping jobs abroad’. In a rather clear policy pronouncement, which is really follow up on his earlier comments, President Obama wanted to make a villain out of the companies which may employ people abroad and punish them with two sticks – withdrawal of any tax breaks they may be having and passing on those tax advantages to their competitors and other companies who may not have an offshore operation.

While the President made it sound it like common sense, one would suspect that the reality is less clear. For example, while it was made to sound like one of the attempts to reward small businesses at the expense of big businesses, the concept may be at odds with another of President Obama’s aspirations – to push American exports abroad. Let us set aside the straightforward paradigm of small factories employing local workers and big banks setting up call centres in China and India and firing their workers, and instead think of many real situations today where Google will have a research centre in a Chinese town because it may find the most talented workers there, or a manufacturing firm will use Indian designers to design their latest product because the expertise is available; the situations where the American firms must participate in a process called GLOBALIZATION which they themselves have taught the world and demanded that markets and investment opportunities should be made available to them. President Obama can not have the cake and eat it too; in this rather flatsome world, globalization does not only mean a Carte Blanche for American companies to be able to demand a level playing field in foreign markets; it means creating some of them in America too.

So, this bit is the President’s Election of the Day bit, though, wearisomely, it seems that he is serious. His New Deal is not that new at all; it is protectionist politics packaged as enthusiasm for American Small Business.

And, in summary, this is where he may come up short. His packages may appear past its sell by date, because of the fundamental misconception of fairness and justice so inherent in an America-centric view of the world. Besides, I would say that President Obama’s conception of American power is also possibly dated, because, despite its vast military arsenal, in a world that can be destroyed wholesomely, America is less powerful than the sum of its bombs. One can not protect and build with its power to destroy. America, if it wanted to build an interconnected world with shared prosperity, needs to lead by example. That is possibly the only way to fix the malaise that afflicts America of today. A higher dosage of dated thinking, along with a sprinkling of measures from Roosevelt’s time, may not be enough to save the day.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Jyoti Basu: The Last Gentleman

Writing an obituary for Jyoti Basu is as difficult a writing task as any I could have attempted. This is because he had a universal presence in my political consciousness. This presence was for real – he was the Chief Minister of the state I lived in for quarter of a century. I grew up seeing him as the Chief Minister, and he did not retire until after I left home and started living abroad. In a way, I have never known any other Chief Minister of West Bengal.

Besides, there is another, emotional, dimension to that presence. He was the last of a generation of people who presented a linkage to our pre-independence past, those who shaped the ideas in modern India and carried it to the present day. In his imperious, Bengali babu style, Jyoti Basu was an unlikely communist. Though he created and led, with others, the pre-eminent Left party in India, he was Nehruvian, in his thinking, in his approach, in his ideas about Modern India.

He will be sorely missed. He is possibly one person who merged the Communist ideological fervour with the modern Indian mainstream. In fact, he may have undermined the revolutionary communist movement in India more than any other communist leader in the country, and by doing so, helped carve an independent and unique course for the left movement in India. Whether that helped the cause of the Socialist movement is another perspective; but, it is undeniable that Jyoti Basu represented the last of the generation, which created the Modern India as we see it today.

Much has been said about his impact on West Bengal. I have come across some very uncharitable commentaries about him among the Bengali NRI circles, where he is loathed, nearly universally. That may also be true for the wider circle of Bengali babus, where he is seen as the one who undermined his own. He is usually blamed for all sorts of things, including the stagnation in Bengali life and the loss of competitive edge over other states in contemporary India. He also has the unparalleled distinction of being accused of elitism by the elitist, and of undermining the state’s education and healthcare systems to the advantage of private businesses at the same time.

In retrospect, however, it may seem that he actually saved the Bengali middle class, at least for a while. Interestingly, Bengal remains one of the last states where upper castes still hold the sway, and if you are an upper caste urban Hindu, you can still win votes in a predominantly rural, predominantly Muslim or scheduled caste constituency. As was true for, recently and paradoxically, for the likes of Satabdi Roy, who contested with an opposition ticket. Jyoti Basu’s reign kept Bengal outside the caste and religious politics that dominated much of the other Indian states, or at least subverted the argument in favour of a democratic, party-based, political identity.

Interestingly, it is possible to see both sides of the same achievement. By reshuffling the priorities of caste, Jyoti Basu created in Bengal a democratic model which Nehru would have approved, but one which created a coalition of upper caste, urban and privileged Hindus, who ruled the state for last half decade by extending their influence at village level through its control of political consciousness, aided by a system of sharing of privileges. This defied the gravitational force of the affirmative action movement that dominated the rest of the country, with mixed consequences. One can argue that this helped West Bengal to remain true to its progressive identity, and emerge as a state more democratic than some other states in this regard. On the other hand, pursuit of the status quo reined the agenda, and lack of social movements added to the Bengali inertia to create an unparalleled level of stagnation once the power configuration was reconstituted with the Left Front’s accession to power in 1977.

His contribution to the India’s federal politics is subtler and will require a more nuanced analysis. The talk today centers around what seemed to be his big moment in 1996, when he was offered the Prime Ministership by the United Front leaders, but which he turned down in deference to his party’s decision not to participate in the government. He never accepted the political wisdom of this decision, called it a ‘Historical Blunder’ in a later interview, and implied that the left’s shunning of responsibility at the national level paved the way for an eventual BJP rule, and arguably, the shameful communal riots like the one in Gujrat. However, in a sense, he had his own historical blunder back in the late eighties, when he and other communist leaders teamed up with the BJP in the first place to unseat Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress government.

After those rather brief experiments at the national stage during the period of United Front experiment, he retreated to the state politics fulsomely, leaving the matters of national policy to his younger colleagues and the matters of national governance to a Centre-Left coalition led by Congress. He almost made peace with his own historical blunder, and that of his party’s, by taking a stance during another potentially damaging political decision made by the Party Politburo over the Indo-US nuclear issue. Though he never spoke against the party in public, those who are aware of the Bengali sensibilities knew full well that the decision by the then Communist Speaker of the Parliament, Somnath Chatterjee, to refuse to resign from his post had been a symbolic display of dissent by the Party Patriarch himself.

So, what will be Jyoti Basu’s legacy? In a way, it seems, being the last of the men from a different generation, he would end up taking his legacy with him. In my mind, the historical parallel can be seen with Churchill, who was often referred to as the Last Lion, who lived to see his generation wither away in nostalgia. Churchill deeply influenced the world which came after him – I would argue that all of Cold War was primarily Churchill’s invention which he sold to the Americans to prevent a wholesale collapse of Britain – but he lived his life representing an age and a reality which was past its time. So did Jyoti Basu, our everlasting First Gentleman of Bengal who was the last of a Gentleman’s generation, who was already out of his time and context with what was happening around us.

Unlike Churchill, however, Jyoti Basu’s legacy will primarily be felt with the absence of a legacy. In the national stage, the Communist Party is already paying for its strategic blunder of not aligning with the Centre-Left coalition, and as a consequence, they are veering towards the left in search of an identity. However, they may find a void on the left, as democracies invariably centralize ideologies, and may seek their place in the context of caste-based identity politics in India. This will eventually undermine their constructs in West Bengal, and eventually the secular make-up the party’s founding brother strove to achieve. The democratic left will possibly wither away in a generation, dissolving themselves in a band of Greens, Socialists and Permanent Revolutionaries [not in the Trotskyite sense, but in the storm-in-the-teacup sense].
And, in that void, the picture of the Old Comrade will still remain omnipresent, like that in my childhood memories.

Day 17: A Week Missed

I am writing after a week. I had no Internet access in between, which is a bit strange, but overall, not bad. I enjoyed a certain sense of calm, lack of noise, while I was online. I tried my best to restore connection, but I am in Mumbai and my residential address in India happens to be in Kolkata, and no one will give me an Internet connection. Not even pre-paid, I am told, unless I prepay for a full one year. I balked at the Rs. 18,000/- price tag, which will actually buy me a nifty HP Netbook. On top of this, I have checked into a not-so-good hotel, one of those which wants to create a premium image by charging premium but offer shady services. So, queries about wifi access in the room raised a few eyebrows and suggestive looks at the reception. I am now reduced to surfing from an one off computer in the lobby, reminiscent of the early days of my business travelling, but feels good in a certain way.

I am enjoying India, though I haven't got much done in the last few days. I have seen this in India - it almost takes a week for things to fall in place. I think my first set of serious meetings will happen tomorrow, and all I am doing is prework to that. But, I am hoping that this is a visit that I sort things out for the business I was running and attain a business model which is sustainable. I am close to attaining that by all accounts, though I have come to hate the fact that I am always at a very weak negotiating position in these things. I have this feeling that I am almost handing over a very good idea for nothing, just because I have no money to get this going. In summary, the overwhelming feeling is I am wasting myself, helping others to create an winning business model without any reward for myself or the company I work for, just because I have failed to garner enough commitment from our end behind the business as a whole.

Driven by this sense of regret, I am currently focused on doing the minimum, something that I give away free but will be valuable enough for the partner to take and run, earning me a reprieve from my self-assumed responsibilities of getting the business going. However, I know that this will fail - as I have publicly said before - if the partners don't commit themselves to create value continuously. And, one has to probably learn, particularly in British businesses, that creating value is not about assuming an imperial superiority that anything British will sell at a premium, but assuming a more humble attitude and learn from the customer. I have noted that this is missing altogether, so far, in the transactions I have done. I can only hope that one would wake up once the business gets going, this time with a strong Indian partner leading it, and demanding the value to be created. It will be after I am gone: So be it.

During this visit, I have also understood the reasons behind a fundamental dichotomy I face in my life. Whenever I keep thinking about coming back to India, I wonder what I shall do next. I think about various ideas, starting a business of my own, getting into a writing career, etc. All of these seem great ideas while I am in Britain, but the moment I set foot in India, they seem to become unrealistic ideas. During the current visit, I chose to discuss my ideas with a few people I met and realized the obvious: If I come back to India, I may need to settle in a corporate or professional career, because the space for those kinds of work are really limited. Small businesses are not valued in India, as one of my contacts put it, because the community mostly scrape by with breaking the law. That may or may not be true, but it is undeniable that barring a few pockets like Gujrat and Maharastra, the society in general do not value, and do not support, entrepreneurship in India. So, if I am going to come back, my best route is look for a job in a company which values internal initiatives and has an open culture, and try to make a difference from inside the company life rather than being in the outside.
This resolution helps me to understand why some of my colleagues sometimes appear so dispirited when I talk about them starting off their businesses. They know that they will be looked down upon socially, the act of entrepreneurship will be seen as a failure to make it in the corporate life. They will face obstacles at every stage, no bank loans, no government funding, no easy loan options for housing or even a car. Besides, they will face an extremely competitive market, which is easy to underestimate if one is coming from abroad, where anything may need a significant capital investment to go anywhere. It isn't easy to live the life of a small entrepreneur in India.
And, surely, this is a regional thing in a way. It is far more difficult to pursue the entrepreneurship route in Kolkata or Hyderabad, than in Mumbai or Ahmedabad. But being an outsider in all those very entrepreneurial cities, my path back to India may be through an employment opportunity than anything else. This helps to clarify my thinking, and despite my aversion to a job after my recent experience, it seems that I should start searching for a serious and professional employer back in India. I indeed have to see what I bring to table in context of an employment. My experiences are too varied and my thinking is a bit too unconventional for any employer to like me. But, then, I can contribute quite a bit - because some of the new age skills, like storytelling, integrative thinking, comes rather naturally to me. In case I do come back to India and seek to restart my career, I may end up sticking to training, education, e-learning sort of industry or work, so that my international experience remains valid and helpful. This isn't blue sky thinking anymore: I am serious and may start search quite soon.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Day 11: Ready to Go

I travel tomorrow, so the whole day today was focused on the work of wrapping up things, closing off bits that I haven't done earlier and scrambling to make some real progress. Increasingly, my work is about making peace in international culture wars, and I spent hours today explaining to my colleagues why certain things are different in different cultures and why it still may be okay.

The two key questions I keep facing is why do Indians behave so differently from Europeans, and why is it so difficult to do business in India. The first question I accept as valid, though rather obvious: Because Indians are different people. It is clearly wrong to expect them to behave as Europeans do; in fact, it is naive to have that expectation in the first place. Besides, I feel there is an underlying value judgement - 'I can take a German for his word, but not an Indian' - which keeps popping up. I don't agree: If you understand what the Indian is saying, he will turn out to be a man of his words too. The underlying assumption, I would guess, is that Indians must pay a high premium for anything coming from Europe, and accept wisdom because an European businessman said so. This is the presumption I spend a lot of time contradicting, and pointing out that those days of automatic superiority are gone, and businesses will do better being realistic and being able to see that Indians indeed know how to do business.

That leads to the second question, an assertion I completely disagree with. I know there are league tables of ease of doing business, and India ranks somewhere towards the bottom of pile. But that's not the point: The difficulty of doing business, in the context of the conversation, isn't about the rules and regulations, which is being reformed, but about being able to turn a profit. I do not think building a successful business in India is any more difficult than building one in America, or in Japan, or in the UK. I am often told about a number of UK businesses which have tried and failed, but I know some of them, and I know that this failure came from the pre-assumption of the imperial legacy, and the expectation that Indians are rather dumb people who can taken for a ride. Businesses failed to plan for India, failed to understand the country and respect the culture, and failed to do the basic things that make a business successful. Hence, they failed: No surprises there. The surprise is that they blamed the market rather than themselves, and their own incapability to think. But, then, here is a Golden Rule: Next time you hear an entrepreneur blame a market, you know you haven't got a business there.

But, anyway, leaving out those spoilers, I am getting my life back on track. Hard work, indeed, and watching my last year's work coming undone in a few weeks is also a bit heart-wrecking. But, at the hindsight, that was not much work: That was more talk of work, and more hope than concrete progress. When I am in a mood as I am now, I quite like destruction of this sort, and I know unless I am stripped of all my dreaming, I can't start working on real things. With the Online College project off the table, and being in a bit of void about meaningful things to do in England, I am being a bit depressed, but also enjoying the freshness of a clean slate. I just know one thing: I would not want to be doing what I do now at the end of this 100-day period. This is giving me the urgency and purpose that I need, in abundance.

If I get a few more days like today, this will happen. Today was one of those rare productive days, when I could really focus my energies and get things done. I guess what I need to achieve is the ability to repeat such things every day, without a break. I know this already, and currently basking under this real good feeling of achieving a lot of things in the span of last 12 hours. I cherish this feeling - I want this back every evening.

I must admit that the rather dispiriting discussion this morning about Indians really helped me. It made me deeply angry, I must admit, but also told me to change some of my work practises - let's say, not to be nice and call a spade a spade when needed - and show, yes, them. Hopefully, this feeling also help to keep myself focused on the job.

So, here I go. Flight at 1:30 in the afternoon - my usual route, Dubai and all. I am desperate to make things work in India, and I think I have a very good chance to do it now. Hopefully, this will all work out and I shall be able to achieve what I have set myself up for. But, it will be hard work, and I shall keep recording how I get along.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Day 10: Immigration & Other Important Matters

I am ten days into my planned period of transformation and I see some benefits already of having such a transformational goal. To be honest, how I conduct my life hasn't changed much. I have done better in the last few days, despite the fresh snow that arrived today. But, though the details have not changed, I think I got a sense of purpose - and it does help that I keep reminding myself about it every time I write this blog - and the days, though slow, are not being wasted in that sense.

The snow did affect my plans for the day significantly. I changed my plans and called off my engagements in Birmingham, partly because of an almost flu sort of a feeling and the daunting prospect of going out in the cold and snow. The judgement proved correct: The fever arrived and the snow stopped the rail transport from and to our station altogether by the mid-day. So, the day was quickly reduced into writing mails and contracts, planning and reading news.

What I read today is full of surprises. Let me start with one end. David Cameron is all set to become the Prime Minister in next few months, or may be not. It is a bit of a see-saw in British politics now, and the only thing that is keeping the deeply divided and generally clueless Tories together is the promise of winning an election. [Funnily, what is dividing the equally clueless and completely out-of-touch labour party is the prospect of losing the election.] I saw David Cameron is making a bold promise to the electorate to cut immigration by 70% if he comes to power. I am sure he will find it a convenient promise to meet: Now that Britain is in a recession and people are actually leaving the country, he will possibly point at the number of net migration and prove to the world that he is a man of his words.

I am actually sad that immigration dominates public discourse in Britain in such a perverse way. All three parties are united on this one issue, that immigration is bad and must be curbed. Gordon Brown talks about 'British Jobs for British Workers'. David Cameron is obviously the poodle of extreme right on this issue, and he keeps painting the immigrants as those lazy gits who live on benefits and generally undermine the glorious culture of Britain. The Lib-Dems are possibly less vocal about immigration, but then the corrupting effect of democratic politics is also pulling them into the tabloid dictated public thinking: I was rather dismayed to see a Lib-Dem MP complaining on TV that council parking spaces are running out because of immigrants.

The problem is that most of this is untrue. Yes, there was a wave of immigration in 2004, when Britain allowed people from new EU countries to come to Britain and work without visa controls. But that is past now and currently many people who came then are going back home. The non-EU immigration to Britain remained largely driven by economic migration, which remains a rather small number in the scheme of things, and the public fear that non-EU economic migration will push the British population over 70 million [from the current 60 mil] is utter nonsense.

Besides, most immigrants, quite obviously, are of an economically productive age group. Britain needs the demographic push, as its population ages. Besides, on an universal level, I can't remember a country which was ever impoverished by economic migration. In fact, I can cite a number of countries which benefited from it, particularly America, where great progress was powered by great minds migrating out of Europe in the first half of last century, and from China and India in the last thirty years. I know the European societies are fragile, old, class based societies and they want to keep it that way. But where is the leadership, the ability to tell the truth and be able to a chart a realistic path, either from the Government or the opposition.

In fact, staying on the migration issue, there were a few interesting things happening over last few days, which needs to be mentioned here. A Muslim lawyer based in London wanted to stage a protest march through Wootton Bassett, an Wiltshire town where young people have a tradition of joining the British Army, and as a consequence, the town has taken a disproportionately high number of casualties in recent British military misadventures. Mr. Anjem Chowdhury, the London Lawyer who speaks with a perfectly anglicized accent, heads an organization called Islam4UK, and wanted to march through the town with coffins, signifying the human tragedies in Afghanistan. The tabloid press indeed found it offensive and an insult to the dead heroes, and the Government, living in the mortal fear of the tabloid press, ended up banning Islam4UK.

I must admit that my exposure to this affair is through daily news. What I understood to be the point Islam4UK was trying to make is that there are deaths on both sides, and in death, everyone seems to be equal. In a roundabout way, the choice of Wootton Bassett was not about insulting the town and more about showing deference, perhaps, to the town and highlighting the meaninglessness of death. This made perfect sense to me, and I am still unable to understand the offence it caused. Are the ministers saying that the dead in Afghanistan, many of whom are admittedly civilians, are not equal to the dead in Britain? And is that because the dead are Asiatic? I am also troubled by the fact that the Government ministers chose to ban Islam4UK, though it seems that the only thing the organization has done is planned a protest march.

The problem is that this shows more about the current state of society in England than anything else. I somehow see a seize mentality - in both these affairs - that is dominating the public discourse. I noted some other bits of news with a bit of irony: That a Sikh man, a first generation immigrant, was stabbed to death in East London as he had the courage to chase a few muggers, and Mukul Assaduzzman, a Bangladeshi Taxi driver in New York returned thousands of dollars of cash left in his cab and refused to accept a penny as reward because he is a devout Muslim and thought he was only doing the right thing. [Read the story here] Yet, migrants will be painted as the dishonest, lazy people living on benefits by popular imagination, and if someone is Muslim and therefore a teetotaler, he would be seen as undermining the great British tradition of binge drinking and rowdiness. We indeed live in a very strange world.

I shall summarize now: When a society tries to close its door and tries to define itself by its past, it starts its own irreversible decline. And, here is an wish, following on from that observation, for India: Let us be open and welcoming to diverse and travellers of the world, because the future will define us.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Day 9: First Steps

This week is running much better than the last, so far. Things are getting resolved in a way. Matters are coming to a head. People are saying No. So far, in two days, I had two people telling me that they don't want to go ahead with projects we discussed last year. A straight, unambiguous No, which leaves a lot of past work undone, but invaluable in moving life forward. The New Year has finally began.

This evening, sitting in my usual Tuesday workshop at the UCL, I realized another thing that needs to change in my life. So far, I have been playing a part imposed upon me. In our discussions about learning as transformation, the Course Leader touched upon and I discovered the deep significance how learning can be liberating and help me achieve what I want.

In fact, I am in a bit of an introspective mood right now. I know there is no point living the life as I am doing now, a sort of a mid-air existence: I can't fly and I can't fall. This is what gets reflected in my search, which suddenly seems to be more about my cowardice than about my courage. I simply did not have the courage to commit myself single-mindedly to my goals, and hence, searched around all my life to find an alternative way to achieve that.

I can say that I was led into this road by prescriptions handed out to me early in my life. I can say that all this was shaped by social expectations I grew up with. But that says nothing about my own initiative, my effort to defy the gravitational pull of the existence I was destined to default into. I take pride in being unconventional, risk taking; but it may as well be construed as an effort to escape, rather than transform, my destiny.

This is why learning plays a role. It goes deep, beyond the technical necessities of such an exercise, and helps me unlock my mind and think my life through. Growing up in a patriarchal suburban family, I always had problems with authority. I was driven by free will, quite stubbornly so, and always hated when I was told what to do. And, as one would imagine, in my growing up years in India, I was always told what to do, for everything.

I have hated that since then, and have been trying to run away from such plight all the time. But I was running to wring places - from one job to another - which had, alternately, nastier and nicer people telling me what to do. I have spent some years working in mid-sized companies, which prided themselves about their industrial era processes, and always tried to fit me into one of their boxes. And, invariably, I grew tired of being fitted around and after a while, I left for another, newer box. The funny thing is, while at the hindsight, the futility of it seems obvious, it is never so straight-cut while you are at it.

However, I am on my Karl Marx moment now: enough explanations, the point, however, is to change it. So, what should I do? I know the usual mind-numbing excuses are all popping up: After all, I have to keep paying my bills. But, that surely is an excuse or a statement of no-confidence in my own ability to pull things off.

So, if I overcome the fear, how would my life look from now on? I think this is the way it will go:

From now till March, or may be till the end of these 100 days, I shall focus on organizing my life. I have left so many loose ends as I was rushing madly behind my project for last three years. I am starting to run into the debts I incurred during travelling and my finances need urgent sorting out. So do my learning projects, where I have a lot to catch up on, and my books in general. So, this 100 days are really meaningful - I should close my eyes and just focus on getting my life back on the rails.

Beyond March, I want to pursue my interests. Yes, this means living without a job, in a bad market, but I am hoping that I shall be able to create a portfolio of work to be able to pull myself through. Initially, I was thinking of creating the Open College; however, for the moment, I am scaling back my ambitions and trying to start on a small learning technology and content creation outfit. This is within my means, and I think growing from small roots is the way to go.

Yes, there is a significant chance of failure and I am mindful of this. However, I am at a tipping point and it does not help me to sit back and fear. I shall go ahead and fail if I must. But I should not try to return to the comfortable existence of a meaningless job. If I have to work, I shall create something worthwhile - a project which makes real difference to a great number of people. Or, go into teaching and writing full time, which seem to appeal to me. At this time, I know what I don't want to do: Sit around and waste my life just because I did not know what to do with it.

Day 8: Defining Fundamentals

Having lived a week trying to change my life - that's the essence of the 100 day exercises - I realized that there is something missing. Yes, I have created the resolutions - which ranges from expanding knowledge to reducing weight - but I have missed out on defining the fundamentals. This is a bit of a strange realization coming to me looking at the rather blank achievement sheet for last week, if anything life has got worse, and searching hard what I missed.

Such reflection and conscious engagement are indeed the key benefits of trying to get myself in such a mode - a 100 day project. I have defined, though loosely, how my life should look like at the end of this period. However, what I possibly missed is that there are certain benefits of the journey as well as of reaching the destination, and unless one starts enjoying the journey, focusing too hard on what happens in the end does not help much.

Last week was an example on a micro-scale. There are certain things I achieved and more I did not. When I looked at where I am at the end of 7 days of effort, it certainly seemed that I am worse off, further away from the end-goals than I was in the beginning. I needed to stop and ask the questions now, and see if this whole effort to mark off these 100 days as a special project does help at all. Also important is to see what I need to solve - yes I need to get out of the whole and restore the sense of meaning and happiness in my life, but whether such sense and feeling are purely dependent on reaching a certain level of body weight or reading a certain number of books on a given subject proved more difficult to resolve.

To cut it short: The answer is negative. While I remain enamoured by the efforts like a 100-day effort to change my life, I think I was always making the mistake of ignoring the goals during the journey and focusing on the end objectives too hard. For example, I thought I would stabilize the business I run today and make work meaningful and fun at the end of the period, but I did not force myself into defining what I do tomorrow. 100 days were still too far, too fuzzy, to achieve any objective if I did not care to think what I do today, tomorrow and day after.

So this is what I am setting out to do now: A personal definition of how I should live my life. I have already noted that I am terrible in keeping commitments. I keep missing deadlines which I have committed myself. My internal justification for this is that I am overwhelmed by the amount and complexity of work, which indeed I am. Besides, I am at a low point of motivation, which probably is rather apparent from this blog, and have the consistent feeling that what I do does not count as important to anyone anywhere, including myself. But, I know what those are: Excuses. Yes, I am stuck in a job which I don't enjoy and an environment which I don't want to be part of, but then I am where I am, and it is best to do what I am supposed to do.

Because if I don't, I violate my own rule of Decency. That's supposed to be an iron rule of behaviour. I have learnt it from my grandfather, who was a fairly successful man by his own right, but forced himself to behave with decency and dignity all his life. I remember watching him when there was a rumour of a tax raid in our office and our house. Usually, the tax raids in India were designed to scare and humiliate people, and business people used to be mortified when such raids happened. I was young then, and did not understand the implications of such raid. But the anonymous caller on phone, who warned us of the tax raid, sounded ominous and everyone around me was deeply disturbed. But I remember my grandfather completely unperturbed, not just because he always paid his taxes, but he refused to talk to the caller because he was anonymous. For him, that was indecent; and he would not do anything, including receiving possible information about the date and time of such raid so that he can be ready with his accountant and papers, because the caller did not name himself. He just did not take the phone call, or did anything at all. Eventually he was proved right: The raid never materialized.

However, living through business transactions on a day to day basis, I have realized decency is no longer an important aspect of behaviour. To me, the opposite of decency, which is the current golden rule of corporate behaviour, is immoderate self-interest. Yes, as exemplified by Gordon Gekko and the bankers of our time. It does not obviously matter whether this is about small or big businesses. Last year, I interacted with a Kolkata businessman, who, while being a member of all the right clubs, turned out to be a complete charlatan; he shortchanged not just me, but also a few junior client account executives, who were working for only a small salary. I was probably too naive dealing with him and did not realize he is just a social climber, trying to get himself the air of an UK business at my expense. On the bigger scale, it is worth reading the story of Ronald Perelman, the current owner of Revlon, a billionaire who is currently engaged in suing his disabled ex-Father-in-Law for property. I shall say Perelman's behaviour is only representative of the time. In fact, I would argue that the whole ethos of modern business is built on such narrow self-interest at all levels [of course, I knew some of them before and wrote about this in my post about The Modern Entrepreneur].

However, while I may want business success, I am better off following my grandfather's path of iron decency, respect and hard work, rather than the current corporate raider model which is so popular. And, it may be my illusion, but I remain convinced that I can still be successful while being decent and respectful to everyone at all times. This is one fundamental value I shall incorporate in my endeavours over this 100 day period, and yes, beyond.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Day 7: Lessons from a Failure

I did finally move forward today, despite the weather. Ironically, the motivation was an extremely frustrating event, a rather foolish and pointless posturing which laid bare to me the silliness many of the Western businesses are run with. To me, contracts were a devise to support business activities; however, in most cases, contracts precede the common sense rationale of the business, or at least, made to be so. So, currently, I am up against a demonstration of Shylockian business practise - not for the first time but the sheer mindlessness of the current one is staggering - and this managed to spoil my weekend, and helped spur me on.

So, next week, I must make some real progress. I got some start, cleared some long pending issues and the mini-crisis helped me focus my mind on what I must do. I have made a number of mistakes over last three years, most of them pertaining to communication style and some of them due to the way I organize myself, and I have come a full circle when these mistakes have started coming back to bite me. Indeed, sitting at this time, life sure appears a bit bleak, a near disaster, and an undoing of everything that I stood for seems destined.

But, then, I am not exactly someone who will give up and go away. That was never my style. Or, may be, I have abandoned that style if I ever was a quitter. I have learnt that it does not help to quit, though one must be realistic. In recent past, I have felt my sentiments about holding the fort is somewhat quixotic, but I did not want to quit unless pushed.

Even if circumstances are against me, and the whole world conspires against what I want to achieve. This is probably one thing I needed to learn, that walking away isn't an option. It is not about any secured salary at the end of the month or any comfort; it is about not feeling bad to myself but there is one project I left in a mess.

Especially when one sees clear potential and even knows the pathways to resolve the problems, which I surely do. I think there is a deep disconnect on what I know and how some of my business associates want to achieve the goals; there is indeed a significant difference in values too. However, as I keep trying, I know these differences are not insurmountable, and while it requires patience, all of the problems can be resolved and success will be achieved. I may sound a bit crazily optimistic in the middle of the circumstances, but that's what I am, characteristically.

So, a failure to focus my mind and I must go on and change everything in the next three weeks. I have now got a word from one of my associates that he is unable to back me in a business that we have been working together on, sort of. While this would have been earth-shattering for me if it came at any other time, coming in the middle of such depressing time, it felt just okay. In fact, I could not but appreciate his candour, and knew instantly that I shall work with him if an opportunity arise in the future.

For the moment, however, this double disaster affects my plans significantly. My Open College project may take a hit, and may not happen this year. I have to recalibrate my plans beyond March, given that the contract related negotiations may force me to give more time to stabilize the current business. However, in my current form, all this is inspiring me to make a fresh start.

For a start, I have decided to take the plunge and start a business in Kolkata. This will be a small Content production facility, which I am planning to develop with an old friend and business associate. The plan is to produce industry specific training content - and I shall set up a marketing operation in the UK to get into new areas of content production. I shall draw upon the experiences of my brother in doing this, but I am now really committed to this - I think this can be a big business and finally allow me to go back to Kolkata and settle there. My idea is to get the operations going latest by March and make this my key business interest.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Day 6: Considerations for an (almost) fallen hero

Saturday always gives some space for reflection. In fact, Saturdays are always much better than Sundays, because Sundays are too close to Mondays and usual cycle of life. This is how I think about it: Sundays are industrial, the physical rest a man must be given, sort of a subsistence break. Saturdays are a modern creation, a service economy or network age reality, when people are given a thinking break. Needless to say, I enjoy Saturday, every Saturday, even if it is like today, with heavy snow, 20 mph wind and grey clouds all over.

This is one of the many oddities I have as a person. I may call my blog Sunday Post, but I actually worship Saturday. I want to stay home and be an Indian, but I stay abroad and applying for a British passport. I love to stay with my family and be surrounded with my brothers, sister, wife, son, every one else, but what I end up doing is being a traveller. I am not exactly a Linda Goodman fan, but someone told me that she has a good explanation why I am like this: I am a Gemini, and by definition, two people at the same time.

I quite like the idea of being two people at the same time. I know the experiments of Dr Jekyll did not end well, but what an interesting idea! I recently read a suggestion that one should be allowed to change their name and identity at 21, and found that idea has legs too. But, then, philosophically, I am further down the left of Robert Louis Stevenson; I subscribe to the view that privacy is history and what we should have is transparency, just as Sheldon Teitelbaum argued in the WIRED magazine. No need to have two or more different identities when you are allowed to be yourself, and being honest and transparent isn't held against you. I believe we are moving fast into that age, when I don't have to hide behind Linda Goodman to explain why I like so many contradictory things. It's just me, I can say, yes, a touch mad, but a dreamer and very human.

You can guess why I write this blog. Because I believe in being human, because I believe in a transparent existence, when everyone is a potential friend and no one is an enemy. Where, past, by becoming transparent, becomes irrelevant, and the only thing interesting remains the future. This blog, whatever it feels like, is not about the past. I may stop, reflect and record, but there it lies in irrelevance, so that I can live for future. Again, that's nothing of being a Gemini, and brittle therefore; that's human, that's me.

I also discovered another oddity today. I started liking Gordon Brown, who I previously detested. He is probably the most friendless man in Britain today. He seems like a completely out of date, out of touch sitting duck, in the middle of a deep recession the responsibility for which he has invited upon himself, stuck inside a party of purposeless bureaucrats who can neither revolt nor obey. He is off-colour, says all the wrong things, and looks serious; and he is up against photogenic David Cameron who says just the right things and looks as superficial as girls would like. Even the good thing about him - he has substance - is turning against him, as Labour Party seems to be suffering from collective substance abuse.

But, then, suddenly, when the world has turned against him and his own cabinet and his party have deserted him, I tend to feel an iota of strange respect - for this very lonely person who seems to be from a different decade and a different model of leadership, with values we long deserted and feelings that do not matter anymore. Gordon Brown may be the last person left in Britain who believes in heroism, that concept of doing the right thing, though that has now turned into a television cliche. He is a touch imperial, an oddball, someone who probably takes comfort from the fact that Churchill had finally got his place in British history despite having all those problems. It is no comfort, because Churchill was presented an opportunity to re-live his political life by the strange turns of history, whereas Brown, quixotic in his stance, is leading his charge in a very unheroic age. It is this moment of exposure, when he is stripped of his pomp and posture, endears him to me.

It seems I am destined to become the only person in the British Isles who will vote for the man. But, so be it - I feel so empowered by liking him. May be this vote will be a choice between British grit and American-style telegenic politicking, and I would think my heart is in the right place.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Day 5: A Week Unfinished

Finally, Friday, and a sort of a conclusion of the week. It does not feel over though. If anything, it feels like a freeze, not just the physical kind. It is as if life has suddenly stopped, mid-air! The kind of weightlessness people may feel when being accelerated through the air to fall with a bang on the ground, I am feeling now.

Part of that weightlessness thing is related to the fact that I finally applied for naturalization. It was a fairly long journey over last six years, when a lot has changed in my life. It took me quite a while to come to terms with the idea of giving up my Indian citizenship and settle for the pragmatism of applying for a British passport while the doors are still open. It was difficult, but as I said earlier, I almost came to accept that passport is just paper, not identity.

But, on the same day I made the application, there was an announcement made by the Prime Minister in Pravasi Bharatiya Divas that NRIs will be able to vote in 2014 elections, raising my hope that India may allow dual citizenship. I have noted, to my disappointment, India and the Indians treat the Indian diaspora with distrust. I have in fact read [somewhere I don't recall of my head] the differences between how China treats the Chinese expats and how India treats theirs, though there are many highly successful Indian and Chinese who live outside their home country. The big expansion of Chinese 'soft power' was primarily achieved because the Chinese diaspora was far more integrated with China than India ever cared to attempt. There may be historical reasons: The Chinese diaspora was a source of investment and inspiration for freedom among Chinese, while the expatriate Indians were seen as careerist individuals least bothered for their country. I would not say that the feelings are completely untrue, but I think Indians can do better in looking at the world with less fear and more ambition than they ever did in the past.

I keep coming back to this, but I shall mention this again. I watched the debate, in 2008, in India's parliament about the Indo-US nuclear energy agreement. During that debate, Rahul Gandhi made a good speech, even tempered, balanced and weaved around stories. However, during the speech, he made an important point, which remains relevant outside the immediate context of the nuclear power debate. He said: India needs to shade its past fears and start thinking like a big country. Those fears, if you reflect on India's behaviour on the international stage, are all too apparent: A nation constantly seeking reaffirmation of its own greatness, touchy about anyone saying anything, and in constant fear of being undermined. We don't want to sign NPT, we don't want to sign Landmine bans, we don't want to curb our carbon emissions. We are always looking at the rear view mirror and expecting others to set examples for us by doing it first. We simply don't want to set examples. But, we also want the world to recognize us in the context of our past glory, we want a permanent seat in UN Security Council, we don't want to be clubbed with Pakistan all the time. In all, we keep behaving as an adolescent nation, eager to be counted among big boys, but don't want the responsibility. Rahul Gandhi was saying that it was time to grow up and fear less and act with more confidence.

I think the same insecurities play on our mind when we look at the NRIs. We want their money, so the government is doing their best to ease up the process of investment in India, but don't want them back. I noted with dismay how reverse migration to India, which peaked last year during the downturn, was received with brickbats, and how the returnees were being treated as 'traitors' to their motherland and were mocked because they had to come back. Remember, many of these people were citizens of other countries already, and their reasons to go back to India was pure economic opportunity. However, we decided to show as much chauvinism as foreigners, particularly Australians, show towards us these days.

In context, I watched the disturbing clip of a Tamilnadu policeman being hacked to death by a gang while ministerial convoys passed them by but failed to stop and the ministers stating that it was not their responsibility to intervene. I keep wondering why we feel so offended when other nations throw racist insults to us Indians while we treat our own citizens so badly in our own country, but the answer is possibly obvious. We imagine India as a middle class nation, and our deeply embedded caste prejudices allow us to exclude all but the middle class [and the civil servants and the maharajas] from our definition of India altogether.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Day 4: Mid-week Blues

I have had a fairly indifferent week so far. Sandwiched between a long holiday and a long trip forthcoming, it is the tension of waiting and wasting that got me. I have been nibbling away at work, desperate to make a fresh start but dispirited to get the momentum. I have possibly dragged on certain commitments for far too long and wasted time in hope that things will get better. Now that I am almost at the threshold, my spirit is leaving me - sort of mythical spirit leaving the protagonist at the right time. May be, I was reading too many novels lately: All of this is a severe mid-week blue that I must get over with.

The snow did not help. I quite like the snow, and would have welcomed it during holidays. But this has arrived at precisely the wrong time, when it is time to get moving. I have noticed that while snow is all but expected in a northern European country like Britain, it is actually anything but, as everything keeps shutting down. The railway first: For whatever great benefits privatization has brought [one does not know, except that fares have to go up every new year without any reason], the rail service invariably contract to a 'reduced service' with the first hint of snow. Roads become impassable, and unwalkable too. And, everyone starts talking about the 'awful weather' and start calling in sick.

As one can guess, I am actually quite bitter about losing my first week of a very important, career changing year to the vagaries of nature. Almost all my appointments got cancelled or postponed, and my plans are already quite haywire. I have slipped twice and got myself on painkillers since. So, overall, not a great start.

News today was dominated by two different kinds of political crisis in two parts of United Kingdom. The one in Westminster, a rather foolish public attempt by Messrs Hoon and Hewitt, which tried to go far without going too far, to ask labour MPs whether they think they should have a secret ballot on Gordon Brown because his leadership is sure to lead them to defeat in the next election. The problem is: they did not say that they think Gordon Brown should go. They did not say anything in particular. They just indulged in a bit of a half-hearted mini-revolt that the Blairites have been engaged into over the past two years. Even more pathetic was the support Brown received from his cabinet, particularly David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary. He offered a do-nothing support to the Prime Minister, but could not even bear to mention him by name. The whole sordid affair showed where the labour party has reached - that out-of-touch, purely political state where they are unable to revolt or support, indeed, do anything at all.

The other affair involved, with uncanny coincidence, a 'Mrs Robinson', this time Mrs Iris Robinson, an MP and the wife of Peter Robinson, the loyalist First Minister of Northern Ireland. Iris Robinson, now 62, had a two year long affair with a 19 year old young person and took money from prominent developers in the area to fund her lover's restaurant, though she did not forget to take £5000 for herself as well. Peter Robinson, a protege of Reverend Ian Paisley and a hard nosed protestant loyalist, claimed that he did nothing wrong, though he knew about this whole affair for some time, but did not take any action, other than privately telling his wife to return the money. He failed to act, he failed to inform and he failed to resign, failing three times his obligations as an elected official, a holder of public office and a citizen [in anyone cares]. Coming at the heels of the expenses scandal at Westminster, this reaffirmed that the British political class is completely out of touch and corrupt to the core.

Such corruption can indeed undermine the credibility of democracy as a political system. I shall stop short of saying that democracy invariably leads to such corruption. But it is hard to see whether a democratic system necessarily limits corruption, though one may argue that it stops big corruption and corrupts the political class as a whole. However, whether this is better than one man having most of the proceeds of corruption, like the strong men of Africa, is debatable.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Day 3: A Plan and A Priority

Totally under snow. It keeps snowing more, completely submerging my car and everything around me. I started with, but gave up by the mid-day, any hope of going to see my Chartered Accountant and Mentor-in-Chief, who is also supposed to sign off my naturalization application vouching that I am who I say I am. Given that this will need to be submitted by Friday the 8th, this gives me tomorrow and if the weather does not improve, which is unlikely, I am in for a bit of trouble. I can't postpone the appointment as I must stay in Britain for five working days after the application, and I have got my tickets to fly precisely on the fifth day. I don't feel nervous, this is how my life has been most of the time; in fact, if anything, I feel usual.

I am slowly getting back to the 100-day plan and how critical this really is. Glass-half-empty is not really my style, but if I really want to draw sympathy, here is how it looks like: At the end of this 100-day period, I shall have no job, I already have no savings and plan to spend quite a bit over next 6 weeks, and have, at this time at least, nothing beyond a romantic notion of what I want to do next. Pretty scary, given that the economic situation is fairly unlikely to improve. But then, I am not a pessimist, and I quite love living life on the edge. I must also state that the only thing I have in abundance is the ability to dream even in the middle of a disaster, or near disaster, because I have seen that my dreams mostly rescue me from actual car crashes [that's a metaphor, if you didn't get it, I don't dream while driving]. So, if anything, I feel this is usual and I shall turn a corner within the next 100 days and make a fresh start.

I have been asked before whether I know what I want to do, and I never had a good answer. I think one of the priorities of the next few days is to seek that answer and get a plan around that. I more or less know what I don't want to do. Among other things, that includes living the life of a deputy, living in an existence without having any real power to do things. That rules out most of the 'corporate' options that I have, though it will still allow me to function as a CEO of a small company. This is the second thing: I have realized I do very well when I am managing a small team, rather than a big and dispersed one. This is possibly because I am too much of a dreamer, and want other people to 'get me'. This does not happen in a bigger organization, and as I am increasingly finding out, with the big-organization types. There are many of those people indeed, particularly in Indian corporate hierarchy. I recently came across a person who started his company and made himself the VP of something, possibly sales. He just could not make himself the CEO or the Owner; he just felt exposed. I have now realized my inability to connect with this kind of people.

So, corporate career is completely out, and the only thing I can possibly do is to run a small consultancy of people who are committed and passionate about the work. I know what I am passionate about: Freeing people from the slavery that is inside them and bringing out the leaders. Yes, of course, there are other things. Let me try to present this: Each of us have a slave inside, which is a slave of habit, expectations, social norms. Now, some people can tame the slave and be themselves, but all too often, as Paulo Freire would have observed, the oppressed, when freed, becomes the oppressor. They, when freed from their inner slavery, propagate slavery for others, and perpetuate the concept of slavery in their work and life. Well, I may not be expressing it very well, but I have now seen so many people who escaped the social design, but only helped perpetuate the social design on others: They just joined the other side of the table. I think what I would wish to work for is to perpetuate freedom, enablement. I keep hearing this refrain that leaders invariably needs followers. I disagree: It is wrong to think that to become a leader, you must create followership. In this new world of network society, as against the hierarchical society of the old, leaders are those who live in the company of leaders. So, leaders create leaders, they free people, not subjugate them. This is what I wish to work for: the concept of network leadership.

I think this isn't new. Leadership is intensely personal, though it is not externally understood that way. However, we need such leadership in every walk of our lives : Not just in business, but in public life, in not-for-profit, in arts and creative fields. I am increasingly convinced that I want to work towards setting up a boutique training and consulting organization exploring ways how we can get better leaders ready for the emergent network society. I don't know whether I am talking about a for-profit idea. But, surely, it is worth exploring in whichever form possible, and if a network of leaders can be developed, the societies who host them will only benefit, and businesses who nurture them, will grow. So, it is indeed worth every penny to spend my life working on it.

So, that's future for me. Over next few days, I shall explore how the different bits that I am working on - my current work, my open college, my studies, my writing - can all be integrated around this single theme. Someone commented, looking at my CV, that my life looks like a search: He said he can not figure what I am searching for. I think it is about a purpose, which makes lives better and fairer. I think I got mine: It is about stringing every thing else, and every day, together in that frame of purpose.

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How To Live

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

- Theodore Roosevelt

Last Words

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

- T S Eliot

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