Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Dimensions of India Experience: Diversity

Diversity is the most obvious dimension of the Indian experience, yet it is the most sublime. Yes, India indeed looks like an endless fancy dress party, a bewildering combination of languages, dresses and appearances. Yet, everyone also keeps telling you about a sense of 'unity in diversity' all the time. That expression comes from Vincent Smith, a British historian who wanted to understand the broad concept of India, in European terms.

Since then, the theme of any study of India was to see this 'unity' in all diversity, making a rather tortured effort to root all elements of diversity into an universal Indianness. These attempts are so common that the apparent diversity has become sublime, at least in the interpretative literature, and in the name of political correctness, the sublime unity seems to have become all pervasive.

It does not have to be so confusing though, at least if we accept that India is not a nation in the European sense. That should not offend anyone: Conceptually, India is more of an ancient civilization than a modern nation. At the outset, India represents a diverse unity, an implicit social contract between diverse elements to come and stay together.

However, before we get to deeper understanding of how that could possibly work, let us think about the idea of India. The name, India, is a formulation in the context of an Euro-centric world. India was the land east or South of Indus, a giant river which would have resembled the sea in the difficulty of crossing in the ancient time. It was a geographical entity, somewhat moulded into one by equally insurmountable mountains in the North and East, and oceans further down South and West. This land, which was diverse and inhabited by indigenous tribes, had been given another identity, Bharat, and a civilizational identity emerged around that. This would have encompassed a way of looking at the world, shaped by its geography and the dynamic of coexistence, not unlike the members of a diverse family trying to live together in a walled family house. This coexistence, accommodation, adjustment, finding middle ground, are the essential element of a Bharatiya, Indian identity.

The Indian identity, thus formed, evolved, but essentially stayed the same. The invaders came primarily from the West, by land and by sea. Those who could surpass the geographical boundaries of India, found it extremely easy to conquer, because of its diversity, and extremely difficult to leave, because of its accommodation. India absorbed them. As one observer noted, as the invading army moved in, India did not fight it, but enveloped it. That may just be a poetic vision, and somewhat undermines the blood and cruelty of such invasions, but with the advantage of time, rings true. With every invasion, the Indian identity became more diverse, but essentially remained the same, the social contract extended to another newcomer in the family.

I said this before, the modern Indian identity developed in phases. The ancient times gave the land a civilizational, spiritual identity, and its essential federating social contract; the middle ages, the Hindu, Pathan and Mughal kings, gave it a political and military identity, and achieved its geographic unification [somewhat similar to what Ming and Qing kings attained in China]. The British rulers imposed their system of colonial expropriation and created a country, and gave it a modern economic identity. And, finally, the Indian nationalists, primarily led by Gandhi, imagined the modern nation of India, equated the geography, politics and economics with the diversity and dynamics of its people.

But, India is more than a nation. Nations, a modern conception, are essentially exclusionary conceptions. You are either part of it or you are not. Surely, it is an useful conception. It is often argued, by modern historians, that the invaders found it so easy to conquer India because India did not have a national identity [though they overlook that national identities did not exist in human consciousness till about modern times]. But at the same time, nationalism is essentially at odds with the inclusive social contract that held India together. Nationalism may be a convenient label to understand the political confederation of India, but it is no part of the India experience.

So, this is my thesis: The diversity that we experience in India, and talk about all the time, isn't just different expressions of the same Indianness; the differences are deeper, and, rich and potent enough to become individual national identities by themselves. The Indianness is essentially a deep social contract, coming out of somewhat desperate situation of being crammed in a family house with disagreeable relatives, but which has evolved into a conscious culture of adjustment, responsibility and accommodation. It does not matter how diverse things around us are anymore; we expect diversity and learnt to live with it.

Finally, diversity is essential - rejecting it will repudiate the essential, inclusive social contract that built Bharat. It is key to the cultural and religious identity of India, it makes the country irreversibly democratic, and it allows the country to live with the dualisms of modern India. And, in essence, the India experience looks like a great diverse family, reflected in the mini-fragments of the domestic experiences of each Indian, and narrated with great complexity in its great epics.

Summing up, Rudyard Kipling saw a little piece of England everywhere an English soldier is buried. That's a classical territorial vision befitting the premier poet of the most successful colonial nation of the time. India never conquered any territory, except in thought and spirit. So a similar Indian claim is difficult to make. But here is one which may match Kipling in audacity: If you are able to approach others who are different, and with humility, appreciate the goodness of humanity in everyone, it is most likely that you are an Indian at heart.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Dimensions of India Experience: Domesticity

Domesticity is Family Orientation - Indians are indeed one of the world's most family oriented people. Though what family means varies from one place to another, and arguably, male chauvinism comes in the way of this being a beautiful thing, family comes first in India. First, as in ahead of self or the community or the nation; something that India observers saw both as an obstacle and a help for India to grow as a modern nation.

Most Indians one would meet are intensely proud of their families. The family is large and includes uncles of uncles, as long as they are successful. Modern India is a country of being somebody, and any lineage that may help that quest is gratefully acknowledged. However, on a more benign level, Indians are also deeply committed to their immediate families - parents and brothers and sisters and cousins count as immediate family - and their universe is defined by the interplay of these relationships. One can say, you would not know an Indian unless you have met his/her family.

One can argue that it is possibly true anywhere. But, in India, family is not just a formative experience, but an inalienable part of the identity. With many implications: A job offer needs to meet the approval of the family, as should a choice of a bride. I often meet people who enquire, with wide-eyed wonder, whether arranged marriages are still common in India: their tone gives away that they consider it an equivalent of Sati, a pre-modern practise of buring the widow on the husband's pyre. I would not tell them that Indian executives often ask their parents whether or not to take a job offer, or regularly consult Gurus about whether to get into a particular business. Somewhere in the European mind, the arranged marriage as a practise has a direct linkage with honour killings; an impression reinforced by recent incidents in London and elsewhere. In context, it is difficult to explain why an arranged marriage, at least in most cases, may seem perfectly natural and even somewhat romantic, to an Indian middle class couple and may contain no violence or discord.

I must warn here that I am not oblivious that arranged marriages can go horribly wrong, and they do.Some argue that it is discriminatory, and many times, the bride does not have an equal say. However, this is no defence of arranged marriage as a practise: The point I am making here is that they don't seem as abnormal in context of Indian family orientation as they would seem to someone without the same.

Moreover, those, who are horrified by the existence of practise of arranged marriage, would find it hard to reconcile to the now usual practise of multi-national employers to engage employees' families - and that means the parents more than spouses - in pre-hire exercises. To an Indian, there is nothing unusual; I did turn down a job, at the very beginning of my career, because my family disapproved of it. Given that I was just out of university and this was about teaching computers in an exclusive girls' college, I obviously wanted the job; but, in the end, still deferred to my family's wishes and 'better judgement', and chose the boring career of a network administrator instead. .

One of the key contrasts in India from its East Asian neighbours, and particularly China, is the 'individualism' in India's culture. In fact, Count Okakura, the Japanese intellectual who viisualized an Asian union in the early part of Twentieth century, saw China, a great communitarian civilization, side by side with India, with its individualistic tradition, forming the core of Asia. Even the Indian 'individualism' shows up on Hofstede's scale, in comparison with more collective cultures of East Asia. One would, therefore, find it hard to reconcile with the primacy of the family in India.

India's individualism, largely, comes from its religious-cultural tradition of Hindu moral relativism, the belief that God resides inside every living being and what we do is somewhat part of the larger script of destiny. This does not take away Individual responsibility though: Indian tradition holds that human life is an interplay of efforts and destiny, and one does not happen without the other. Such belief systems have been sublimely passed on through the generations and even the advent of modernity only adapted, not changed, this world view. This essential ingredient of Indian thinking - God is in me - makes Indians individualistic at a personal level.

That, however, does not make them individualistic in the Western sense. Note the interplay of destiny, which persists beyond the individual effort. The deep Asian bonds also suggests that one needs to belong to his/her place in the scheme of things [which may explain why Hofstede discovered high Power Distance], and family, as witnessed in the great Indian epics, provides the ideal context of marrying the individual identity with the pre-set roles in the context of the wider world. To illustrate the point further, one should recommend a comparative reading of Indian epics in contrast to the Greek ones: While the European epics demonstrate the concepts of Romantic love and individual valour, the Indian ones are set in the context of family and roles inside it. The contrast that could be noted in the ancient epics will still be seen in the conception of Indian individualism in the modern day.

I have argued previously that Indian domesticity is somewhat favourable to Indian democracy, because it comes in the way of forming powerful community identities. Now, this is also a particularly Hindu thing, because some of the other communities, like Sikhs, have evolved a stronger sense of community around their religious practises. But, it should also be noted that Sikhs have clashed with the notions of an Indian state more than any other community in India.

I am not suggesting that the community competes with family; it does not. However, the family as an unit of existence somewhat overlaps with the community identity. This is more acute in the cities, and the family/ community duality further accentuates the two Indias - the rural/urban divide that one notices everywhere in India.

So, that's the second dimension of Indian experience - the Indian family - which everyone carries around all the time. It is just usual to talk about family in India - someone may just open a conversation asking about family in India. I would say this is equivalent to British weather talk, and just as inoffensive. Without this domesticity, the Indian experience is incomplete; this is also weaved into all the other dimensions of the India experience.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Imagining The Global University

The education leaders from across the world congregated in London to discuss the future of internationalization of education on Thursday, as The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

We seem to be entering an era of consensus on globalization of higher education. This by itself denotes progress to the next, pervasive stage of globalization, where work, skills and ideas will be globally shared. This may have implications beyond the obvious: Higher education is intrinsically related to the ethos of a nation state [think Oxbridge and Britain, Ivy League and America and France and its Ecoles] and globalization of higher education will need more than offering a set of degrees in different campuses; this may need a fundamental rethinking of how education is delivered and what it is for.

The conference attendees seem to agree on the importance of globalizing education. Globalizing pull and push in Education will shape the post-recession world, and more, it will be critical to preserve the consensus around the current economic system and keep it going. Universities, despite being places of learning and research, are usually deeply political, where leaders are prone to remain within their respective silos and dated thinking. However, there seems to be an early indication that they are now ready to take on the responsibilities of leading globalization and play their rightful part finally.

That is not going to be easy. Despite the time-honoured tradition of studying abroad, and the recent expansion of activities and formation of global league-tables, the whole business of university life remains intensely local. NYU can possibly claim that the Abu Dhabi campus is a second door to the same university, but the underlying power structure of the organization can never allow it to be so; NYU can not be NYU without the NY part of it.

Besides, identification with the nation states has served the universities well, particularly in Europe. The state funding model, despite criticisms, has served the universities well and is not going to go away. Besides, in countries like Britain, if there is one redeeming feature in the overcrowded underfunded universities, it is their strong bonding with business and the government; one can say that these are their primary constituents. In contrast, in Asia, universities are primarily serving the students to help them make a career - a different paradigm altogether - and it may not be easy for an university to make the cross-border transition.

One would wholeheartedly agree with the central tenet coming out of the conference - it is easy to globalize badly. We all know many examples of that. I would argue that international campuses are not a true indicator of globalization; many international campuses suffer from the lack of investment funding, and offer uneven quality of teaching and research because they fail to integrate with the host country environments. On the other hand, the indicators of good globalization - a truly globalized undergraduate curricula, international students and teaching staff - are also easy to agree with. This is not about taking one university and transposing it to another country; the job is about building a global university from ground up, inside the existing campuses.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Dimensions of India Experience: Democracy

To attempt a framework to disentangle the India experience, which is defined by the endless dialectic, I created a 5-D framework for the benefit of my correspondents: Democracy, Domesticity, Diversity, Divinity and Duality. 

Indeed, I played with the letter D to make it more memorable. For example, Religiosity would have been more apt in place of Divinity, and Family-orientation may have been better suited than Domesticity. But,  in India one thing can pass off for the other, and I thought my 5-D framework is quite usable, and not very off the mark.

I shall start with Democracy, and I am not trying to adopt a self-congratulatory tone. In fact, I shall agree with Sudhir and Katrina Kakkar when they write, 'Indians are World's most undemocratic people'. They say that because in India, everyone wants to be somebody, and scramble for social prominence, they do it by defining an ever narrower frame of reference and by shifting the parameters endlessly. This can be hilarious at times, and tragic at other instances. In Hofstede's scale, India combines a high level of Power Distance with a significant Individualist orientation - that's not what will define a Democratic Mindset.

Yet, India is a Democracy, a large, chaotic yet functioning one. One can wonder how it managed to be so. Someone told me India is a democracy because no two people can agree on anything: That indeed was meant to be a joke, but the truth, however cynical, is unmissable. This seems a genuine representation of what it seems to be from outside. Indian democracy seems to be an endless talking shop, where nothing seems to be agreed upon. Tarun Khanna contrasts China, where progress happens because of the Government, with India, where progress happens inspite of it.

So, while most people agree that India ought to remain a democracy, whatever its deficiencies, they maintain it is an accident or a social quirk that it has become one. But, I shall argue that India could not have been anything other than a democracy. This is largely because the way modern India was shaped, and because of the other four dimensions of the India experience that I already mentioned.

Let me explain this point. About 30 years before India gained its independence, Gandhi transformed the country by bringing in the excluded classes, the farmers, the untouchables, the workers, into the political process. Undoubtedly, there were other leaders too, Rajendra Prasad emerged from Bihar leading the farmers, Ambedkar provided an icon the untouchables can rally around, but it was Mahatma who was the instigator in chief. He is the one who threw open the gates and asked everyone to participate. But, he did it without hatred, or by instigating divisions. He transcended the caste and class, which he could have resorted to quite easily. He preached non-violence as the method, which, at the bottom of it, stands on the assumption of humanity even in your oppressors, and excludes no one in the process.  

This, done over three decades, changed the political dynamic of modern India. India's freedom struggle was not a class war, or a tribe or section of the population rising up in arms, as we would see in many African societies, but a slow, inclusive, political process, which creates an Indian identity in steps and makes it deeply democratic. 

There is no place for a what-if analysis in history, but contrast this with the process of creation of Pakistan. The political process of creation of Pakistan was much more exclusionary, a political class that won the country. I shall argue this is why it is so difficult for democracy to take root in Pakistan.

In fact, it is possible to take this conjecture further and see why Pakistan finally broke up. One can see the obvious reasons - geographic distance and cultural diversity - why East Pakistan walked out of the Federation and created Bangladesh. But, the dispute was primarily on account of acceptance of the results of a democratic election. One can point out, with reservations, that the political process of independence was much more inclusive in the East Pakistan than the West of Pakistan, and the secession was more on the issue of democratic governance than culture or language. [I am aware that Bangladesh has spent more than a decade under Military dictatorships, and democratic elections proved a tricky affair. But, I would say the democratic process in Bangladesh is irreversible, and at least the major party, Awami League, is committed to democracy despite its other shortcomings]

Returning to India, Mahatma's inclusiveness, backed by his commitment to non-violence, created the fabric of modern India. Many observers miss this bit when looking at India. India, I shall say, was created by geography [its relative isolation by mountains on the north and oceans on the south], given a spiritual identity in the ancient times, a political unity by the Mughals and an economic identity by the British, but in all these forms, India was a fractured country which excluded most of its populace from opportunity and political process. Modern India, as visualized by Gandhi and his contemporaries, brought, for the first time, everyone to the party. And, by doing so, it became irreversibly democratic.

Last year, when India had a general election, Western media was full of wonder, of the chaos, of confusion but also of commitment to democratic principles. But this is only a continuation of a process which was ingrained in Indian psyche since the first General Election in India, held in 1950, which was an act of boldness and imagination. It was seen logical and natural following on from Gandhian inclusiveness, but most people, foreign observers and Indian elite alike, considered it an act of insanity at the time. Remember, democracy was still not fashionable, and the democracy export industry had not yet been started up. Many historians believed that Nehru, the chief evangelist of such democratic election, got the idea from British and American democracies; no doubt he did. He was deeply respectful of the Western liberal traditions and free speech. But, one must realize that Nehru was so unwaveringly democratic because he was a committed student of Gandhian nationalism, and he observed first hand, and understood the significance of, the magic of inclusiveness and how that transformed the entire political process.

That practise, which was put in place by Gandhi's ideals, Nehru's faith and efficient execution by many superbly competent administrators, starting with Sukumar Sen, India's first Chief Election Commissioner, transformed India for ever. Fareed Zakaria says that constitutionalism and rule of law should precede democratic voting. India got the sequence just right - a rule of law [under the British rule, the framework was established despite the inherent prejudice of the system] and a modern constitution before the voting took place - and even better, because it created an inclusive political platform where everyone can participate. In fact, the whole concept of Indianness [particularly the modern one, which came into being after the subtraction of Pakistan] was based on this inclusive, democratic self.

Besides this founding legacy, India could not have been anything but democratic because of the other four ingredients of Indianness - Domesticity, Diversity, Divinity and Duality. While I intend to explore each one of them in separate posts subsequently, I would touch upon the democratic aspect of each one of these dimensions.

Let's start with Domesticity, which I shall define as the extreme Indian attachment to one's own family. The family comes first in India, before all other identities. This creates problems in different areas, but this undermines the development of tribal feelings, as in Africa to Afghanistan. Even the linguistic identities do not become all-encompassing because of the primacy of the family. This, strangely, makes India a more individualist society than the other comparable Asian societies. This allows India to be more democratic, by extension.

Diversity has a more obvious effect. India is maddeningly diverse, a melee of different social groups, languages, economic classes, geographic regions. Each one of these identities are strong identities, but as an Indian, therefore, it is easier to grasp the multiplicity of identity. As Amartya Sen points out in his brilliantly argued Identity and Violence, most of our problems occur when we let one identity take over our complete self, ahead of all other identities that we may have. Most poignant example of this can be found when a Muslim born and educated in Britain allows himself to be completely identified as a Jihadist, and kisses his daughter good-bye before committing an act of terror which is bound to kill civilians of different origins and persuasions. As an Indian, it is easier to see for me that we are actually a bundle of identities all the time, and while we allow primacy of one identity over others at times, we know that it is a mistake trying to define us just through one identity. One may see this ability to handle multiple identities as a pre-condition to modernity, and a necessary enabler for democratic thinking.

I shall say Divinity is an essential aspect of Indian thought, knowing fully well that all Indians are not Hindus. However, this is a cultural thing in India, possibly coming out of Hindu religious consciousness, but now embedded in all religions practised in India. The essential aspect of this Divinity is to believe that God resides inside human beings, which allows a bit of moral relativism. The majority of Hindus conduct their lives with this faith that the God is inside them, which gives us a sense of power and in some, a sense of responsibility. This possibly connects very well when a poor, uneducated farmer is given a vote. Despite all the power distance, that act of choice essentially ignites the empowered, enabled self inside. The fact that you can decide what will happen in the world isn't necessarily an alien thought for an Indian.

However, most of these 'idealized' dimensions need a bit of test of reality, and that comes with the Duality aspect. India, despite its variations, is two countries: one English speaking, and the other Asiatic. One is  a monochrome, Western society; the other, a rainbow society, with diverse language and culture, is true to its ancient origins and unchanging faith. The India we usually see is the continuous dialectic of these two selves, sometimes evident within one person, but more commonly in full play inside extended families. The apparent chaos of India comes out of this deep duality: of modern/ancient, secular/religious, material/spiritual, short term/long term existence side-by-side. While we shall return to this later, this duality enables the democratic instinct - of individual choice in conversation with tolerance and patience for those who differ.

In summary, India is an essentially democratic society. Based on the arguments above, one may even say it is one of the most democratic in the world. Not just the largest, but deep and abiding; because democracy is such an essential aspect of Indianness. It is irreversible too, despite all the alarmist thinking that Indian democracy may fall apart under the weight of Hindu supremacist political ideology. So, any exercise in understanding India should start with an understanding its democratic instinct, in the context of its historical origins.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

India: An Experience

I am Indian, but I don't know India. That's an honest admission. I could have added - it is not possible to know India. It is so huge and diverse. The diversity is everywhere: India is the ultimate tower of babel, a modern day wonder of unification of languages, castes, religions and nationalities.

But, then, I should not say it is not possible to know India, because there are some unifying principles. Vincent Smith, an Englishman who wrote a popular history of India, saw 'Unity in Diversity'. Others believed that you can always see India the way you want to see it. Yet others saw an ancient land, with eternal continuity, which is stirred by modernness but not yet greatly transformed.

Whatever it is, it is complex. It is a rich mix of all varieties imaginable. It is a diverse geography, climate and people. The most common question I face is 'how is the weather in India?', to which I usually answer - it depends - leaving the enquirer perplexed. When the businessmen talk excitedly about the 'multiplier' effect India will bring to their businesses, like just the middle class of the size of the population of Europe, I usually remind them that the moment they set foot in India, it will be an infinite exercise in division, not multiplication. When asked about desperate poverty, I point to the fact that some of the world's richest men are resident Indians; and when asked about the affluent middle class consumption, I end up pointing at the huge underclass who scrape by with next to nothing every day.

May be, what I do is wrong: I paint a picture that India can not be understood.

But, then, that's not true: India can be understood. It is actually an easy country to understand. Here is the key, if I may suggest: Don't try to fit India in your stereotypes. Don't be a know-all, and approach India with a set of theories in mind. Don't start with preset shapes which India must be moulded into. And, India will come to you. It will come to you the way you want it. If you wanted to discover the rich spiritual treasures and eternal peace, it will uncover its soul to you. If you wanted to see dynamic entrepreneurial class, etching out great business and scientific successes, it will show its brains to you. And, if you wanted to discover that welcoming neverland, ancient and unstirred, you will reach its heart.

Here is a rider, though. Whatever you find, you will find the opposite. You may say that India foxes you all the time; it does. It almost seems like the country is an endless fancy dress party, not just in its literal sense. It seems that everyone is intent on disproving you all the time. If you wanted to hate, they impose love. It you wanted to respect, they throw arrogance. If you wanted to go away, they invite. If you wanted to stay forever, they make it unwelcoming. If you thought it is dirty, they show purity. If you thought this is sacred, you discover pungency. It is that endless dialectic, active experience that makes India so interesting.

Sometimes, indeed, people ask what India is. Is this a country, an idea or a culture? I know it seems a stupid question, but it does not feel strange once you have stepped outside the Mumbai airport [or any other Indian airport]. The moment the contrast between the modern terminal building and smartly dressed airline staff, and the melee outside, the chaos and the traffic, becomes apparent, the question starts. It persists all the time thereafter. As people try their best to explain India to you, you notice that everyone has a different opinion.

All Indians don't even agree on the geographical boundaries of the country. Some don't accept that it even exists, except for a political convenience. Others feel that it defines the essential grain of their existence - they are Indians first - wherever they are. You wonder whether India is sum of all these micro-stories, or it is the source which is reflected in all these crystallized moments. You get the hint of an answer - it depends - it can be an idea, culture or a country, depending on who you are speaking to.

Sometimes, what sums up India is the expression: It depends. Everything depends on everything else in India, and everything moves in a puzzlingly circular way all the time. Or, may be, it does not move at all. At the end of each and every journey, one invariably ends up what one started with. If you started with love, you end up with more love. Similarly, hate ends in hate, pride in pride, oneness in oneness and confusion in confusion. India seems like an ocean that moves all the time, but takes nothing and gives back whatever you throw at it.

At the root of it, therefore, India is more an experience than just a country. A country is a geographic entity that does not expand, or at least, does not expand without causing great misery. But India expands all the time. It is an idea, indeed, but an evolving one - and diverse too. No two person's idea of India is the same. India is an idea reflected in the broken mirror pieces of many million hearts. And, India is a deep cultural expression, which is about continuity with openness, and of absorption without change. But, again, as reflected lights do, this culture seems different every time you look, making the sense of continuity so puzzling, so challenging.

So, in the end, India is an experience. It is greater than the country, more diverse than just the idea and more dynamic than what is understood to be its culture. You and I create our Indias all the time. It is both the source and the sum of all our collective reflections. It is an ongoing, evolving process that we plunge into, and it can define, and can be defined by, everything that we bring to table. This is the India I wish to write about: Not just the facts or micro-stories, but the perceptions, beliefs and ways of seeing, which makes India so interesting and so worthwhile to study.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Greenspan's Theorem

Alan Greenspan has recently written a 48 page paper for the Brookings Institution explaining why the Asset Bubble and subsequent collapse happened, reports The Economist. Greenspan's argument rests on one central point - that with the end of Cold War and reforms in China [and in India], hundreds of millions of workers were absorbed in the global economy; 'as the GDP growth in emerging economies soared, their consumption could not keep up with income, and savings rose. The rise in desired global savings relative to desired investment caused a global decline in long term rates, which became delinked from the short term rates that the central banks control.' [A draft of the paper, The Crisis, can be found here]

As The Economist article points out, this is broadly similar to the theory of Global Savings Glut, as espoused by Ben Bernanke. There seems to be a consensus among American Central bankers that the global decline of long term rates resulted in a speculative bubble in assets in the developed economies, and the resulting euphoria undermined the general caution and evaded the regulatory radar for increased risk.

Greenspan admits that this has caused arguably the worst economic contraction in human history. Though the contraction in economic activity was greater in the depression of the 1930s, there is no parallel to the failure of the private credit markets this time around. So, in effect, the 'bail outs' by the state is the only thing keeping us going for the moment, but unless the usual financial mechanism recovers soon enough, we are in for a cataclysmic change in the way we live or behave.

The Economist and other commentators see these statements as attempts to deflect blame by Central Bankers, and tries to establish that there is more to the asset bubble than the decline of the long term rates. This, by itself, is certainly true; the decline of long term rates can not fully explain why unreasonable risks will be taken by the bankers by handing the money out to people who can not afford it for houses which were not worth their price. But, the Greenspan Theorem is worth pondering upon, particularly to consider whether we are talking about a systemic failure of what we know as the capitalist system.

To start with, it is a bit ironic that Alan Greenspan, the high priest of monetarism and a devoted disciple of Ayn Rand, is talking about global economic trends that made the monetary policy in America, which is world's banker by the last count, ineffective. The assumption was that as long as you keep the supply of money in control and the short term interest rates in alignment with demand/supply of capital, the economy, driven by the entrepreneurial energy of private individuals, would take care of itself. This is not what seems to have happened, by his own admission. To restate his case, the economic management using the conventional tools failed because the surplus value generated by the expansion of productive activities could not be fully consumed or invested, therefore pushing down the cost of borrowing long term capital, and created a crisis. Surprisingly, this looks like a Marxian theorem.

Yes, remember, Karl Marx, who dabbled in economics, rather amateurishly, primarily because he was so concerned about the plight of the poor families, including his own. He rallied against the injustices of the system which rewards the owner of the capital disproportionately, and lets the real producers, the workers, survive on crumbs. In his brilliant poetic vision, he dreamt about a world where the resources of the world are distributed more equitably, and everyone can live a productive, meaningful life. If one thinks about Marx himself, who lived in poverty, defaulting on rent, scavenging on food, hopelessly dependent on handouts from his friend, Engels, but preferring to work on his books rather than do menial work, suddenly his theories take an intensely personal spin. And, while wishing away this poverty, hopelessness, destitution, Marx had this insight - if the surpluses are allocated to the owners of capital in a disproportionate way, one day they would run out of options to consume or employ that surplus productively, leading to a worldwide glut of capital, leading to a crisis which will destroy the 'capitalist consensus', an understanding to not to rock the boat which keeps the system running.

Marx was of course a flawed person. He underestimated the resilience of the capitalist system, proclaiming excitedly the end of the world every time there was a stock market crash. He was confrontational and at times, pedantic, and relentless in pursuing all those who disagreed with him. He remained true to his credential as a philosopher, created a band of loyal followers but failed to create a broad consensus around his ideas. After his death, the movement that took his ideas, inherited many of his personal flaws of short term excitement and intolerance of different points of views, and eventually crumbled under the weight of its own failings.

However, despite all the failings, and the permanent and valid association of Marx's name with the communist movement, it is important to recognize Marx as an important critic of capitalist economics, and one of its most humane and insightful commentators. I do believe that the solution to the current crisis needs to be found in the distribution of wealth and resources rather than in fiscal tools as favoured by the governments. Once we accept the Greenspan theorem, we see the paradox we face: an abundance of capital leading to destructive bubbles side by side with life-sucking poverty in other parts of the world. The current solution, which can be summarized as a way of funnelling excess developing country savings into investment into public expenditure in developed economies, assumes a long term continuation of world as it is. This may not happen. The developing world may simply refuse to hand in its savings, and a conflict may arise to destabilize the capitalist consensus. That will seriously threaten the whole monetary system as we know it. Imagine the collapse of dollar if you can, we are talking about that.

It may sound Utopian, but its a sin losing faith on human inventiveness: So, one can reasonably talk about a solution outside the conventional wisdom. Something like finding out a more equitable distribution of proceeds, without necessarily involving an army of bureaucrats and government edicts. This may start with just one person - who starts recognizing his life's worth outside the conventional benchmarks of luxury, and sees his/her success in terms of being unremarkable. Or, humble is the other word. Yes, this will involve changing what we believe, but we may have to do that sooner or later.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Does India Need Foreign Education Providers?

For all the talk on foreign universities in India, everyone seems to have taken for granted that India needs them. One would wonder why this is so obvious. India is not a small country like Dubai, and India's problems are different and not to be solved by creating a few glamour universities. Also, India has very little public support for education expenses and most people may not be able to afford the fees of even a middle-tier university anyway.

I have talked about the Foreign University bill to be a part of the overall reform business, and tried to describe the politics of reform. The idea seems to be that this is a tester, an easy one because of the positive public perception, which the central government would want to push through. The bill will set precedent and realign the policy agenda, and this will be followed up by deep impact reforms of a national schooling and qualifications system.

However, on the business of foreign universities themselves, the government may not have a very high expectation at this time. As I mentioned, a top tier university may not want to invest in a campus in India, because it makes no sense, unless there is a significant financial incentive laid out. But, the financial incentive will be difficult to justify, given that India would still need to invest in its basic education infrastructure. [These points are eloquently presented by Dr Rahul Choudaha here] Unless, of course, the Indian public believes that such incentive should actually be provided, because India needs these top schools.

Which is very likely to happen. India's economic and political developments have been skewed in favour of the urban middle class. This issue sits on the top of their agenda - what is better to be able to study at Harvard-in-Hisar - and they have the political clout to push through such incentive programmes. There is no guarantee that this will sway the top schools, because, as Rahul points out, they have already burnt their fingers in the gulf. But, in the context, it is indeed very relevant to examine closely whether such an incentive will be worth the effort, and by extension, whether this fuss about the Foreign Education Providers' Bill is justified.

In fact, if we look beyond the reforming impact of the bill on the overall education agenda, there is very little to justify the need for such a bill. The preferred route for good universities to establish themselves in India would be through collaboration with local institutions, and a model already exists in that space. A number of top schools are already collaborating with Indian universities through research, student and faculty exchange and dual-degree programmes. For example, IIM Lucknow and McGill offers a joint programme, and IIM-Bangalore is part of a collaborative global executive programme with INSEAD, Lancaster University and McGill. I know Queens University in Belfast has entered into a collaboration, covering student exchange among other things, with the University of Delhi. And, this is not just top-tier schools and public universities; a number of private business schools, among them IIPM, have a number of collaboration partners among lesser known institutes in Europe, America and Australia. It is hard to see why these schools should take the risky and complicated option of setting up their own campuses, even if they are given incentives.

And, from the perspective of the Indian student, they don't need to. The collaborative format offers the best option for a student to align his/her local qualifications to global skills. Besides, such collaboration opens up Indian academia to the global possibilities and impacts their overall offerings, thus passing on the benefits, arguably over a period of time, to students in other, non-collaboration streams as well.

Also, from a different perspective, what India needs is not a set of elite institutions, because India already has a fair share of them and those who can pay the bills, can also travel abroad; where infusion of fresh ideas is really needed is how to reform the High School/ Vocational College system, which has failed to take off so far. One can blame this on Indian disregard for physical work, but that is only a spatial view, and it can be argued that we constructed the theory to under-prioritize those segments of the education system.

In fact, though it sounds antithetical, vocational training system is possibly where India needs foreign education providers to come in. I do mean vocational training as in plumbing, construction, healthcare, hospitality etc. The Indian system has not evolved due to neglect, and on the other hand, such professional training as in Britain [which I know closely] helped a number of people to find paying jobs and stable lives. There is a well-refined system in existence, which will need to be adapted to Indian realities no doubt, but there is a gaping hole in the Indian system which can be effectively plugged by the foreign providers.

I can see a number of reasons why the vocational training providers should be interested in the Indian market. Though low margin, the Indian market at this end is supposedly limitless. The Indian job market, at this end, is short of skilled labour, and a significant premium can be earned by those who have the necessary professionalism and expertise to do the job. However, the state is in full retreat from this sector, selling off its Industrial Training Institutes or allowing these to fall in disrepair. The preferred method in many states is a voucher-system of funding vocational training, which should be just fine with the vocational training providers. Besides, the training providers can earn a significant premium from the employment market as well, if an effective employment linked programme could be established.

Indeed, this is not easy and partnership will still be the preferred method of market entry for vocational training providers. There are significant challenges, most significantly the linguistic variations of India which will come in the way, which will necessitate effective local partnership. But, partnership in this sector will involve import of curricula and competency frameworks, something that will get easier with the current bill.

So, in summary, India may need foreign education providers, but in a different form and in a different area than what is being perceived now. In all, this bill has some positive impact - it will surely make Indian education sector interesting to watch and transform its usual bureaucratic core sooner than later.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Politics of Foreign Education Providers Bill in India

The Foreign Education Providers bill has been approved by Indian Cabinet recently and will now be presented to the Parliament. Though it faces some stiff challenges in the Parliament, as two main opposition blocks, who do not seem to agree on anything else, are united in their opposition to the bill, the Indian media is already presenting this as a done deal. There is public support for the bill, partly because of the media support and partly because the government has sold this well. One can reasonably hope that such public sentiments will mellow down the opposition to the bill eventually, and the opposition parties will make sure that while they make the right noises of disapproval, they don't end up wrecking the initiative.

It is interesting that the bill has been commonly referred to as Foreign Universities bill. The selling pitch of the government has been that this bill will bring top universities in the world to India, and will save the country a lot of foreign exchange which Indian students end up spending by travelling to study abroad. The market has been rife with stories of Harvard, Yale, Cambridge and other top institutions of the world lobbying up to open campuses in India. The real estate developers added to this story-making in good measure, and promoted their various greenfield sites with promises of soon-to-be-opened campus of a top school. The middle class parents in Indian cities have been enthusiastically talking about the new initiative with approval and started dreaming about sending their children to Cambridge-in-Bangalore. The widespread sentiment is that the higher education landscape in India will change completely as a consequence of this bill.

This is most likely to happen, though in different ways than currently imagined. Those hoping for top universities in the world lining up to open campuses in India are most likely to be disappointed. There are a number of reasons why this may not happen. First, the top schools are usually very careful about expansion, especially cross-border, because they are so conscious about their 'brand'. It is unlikely that they will jump into India the moment the doors open. Besides, it is not going to be cheap. The Indian real estate prices are prohibitively high, and a campus will not come cheap. The foreign education providers, particularly the publicly funded ones, are not exactly in an expansionist phase right now, with their endowments shrinking and future funding outlook appearing uncertain. And, finally, the top schools are top schools, they get Indian students come to them anyway. So, the changes that this bill will bring are not about Harvard and Yale opening campuses, but a different dynamic towards deregulation and increasing choices in the Indian education itself.

It is easy to see where the Indian government is heading with its education policy if one considers this particular bill not in isolation, but in the perspective of all the reform programmes taken together.

First, this bill, among other measures, is an express signal that the Indian government recognizes that there has been a rapid deterioration of Indian higher education in the last two decades, primarily because of the government's inability to commit adequate public investment to back the educational aspirations of Indian Middle Class, and a complete abdication of responsibility in favour of private investors in certain states. This is being acknowledged as a crisis now: The growing Indian industry has started feeling the shortage of skilled workers, and at the same time, the mushrooming private colleges and universities are failing to deliver anything worthwhile to their thousands of students, leading to an army of 'educated' unemployed. This has led to a fundamental rethink of the government's earlier stance - privatize and regulate - to the new position - facilitate and deregulate.

Now, it seems that the government wants to act as a partner and stakeholder in the education process while, at the same time, removing the layers of bureaucracy and unnecessary regulation. The current Education minister has already made some progress. He has taken on vested interests with gusto and allowed corruption probes to proceed against top functionaries of All India Council of Technical Education [AICTE], which was the centre of corruption in educational licensing by common knowledge. The government has cancelled licenses of a number of colleges, some owned or blessed by powerful politicians, and talked about a fresh approach towards consideration of new institutions. The Foreign Education Providers Bill, seen in this context, is another attempt by the Government to bring a fresh approach in the mix, allow a choice of curricula and research programmes for Indian students, and carry forward the reform agenda.

The bill can also be viewed as another attempt by the Union Government to take over the education agenda from the hands of the state governments, which largely ran the affairs so far. Education is supposed to be an area of joint legislation in India, primarily due to the diverse nature of the country and the necessity to integrate local languages and sensibilities in education. This has always been a hotly debated issue. At one hand, commentators argued that such diversity must be preserved; on the other, a powerful group, led originally by Nehru, India's first Prime Minister, believed that efforts must be made to develop a common education framework. From time to time, efforts were made to develop or impose a common agenda; it has always been controversial and beaten back. The last great effort was made by Rajiv Gandhi, who wanted to use his greater than usual majority in the parliament to develop a set of model schools. However, his timing was wrong - despite the better than ever performance by Congress, this was the time when regionalism was in ascendancy - and such proposals never went anywhere beyond its first proof-of-concept schools. In that context, the central government is on better grounds this time; the regional leaders stand discredited and Indians, across the country, are aspiring for a strong united leadership after two decades of fragmentation and mismanagement.

From that perspective, Foreign Education Providers Bill is a sort of tester, a pilot effort by the government to gauge the depth of opposition from the states. Even though the Education Minister affirmed that the state's rights will not be undermined, it will be - no foreign education provider will ever want to operate within the current system where a state committee, headed by a retired judge, tells them how much they can charge for their courses, and they have to offer at least 75% of seats to the candidates who come through a state selection system. Inevitably, once the government allows the foreign providers to come in, there will be a competition from the states to get these institutions, and concessions will be made; Kapil Sibal could have said - the states will eventually undermine their rights themselves.

The current opposition in the Parliament is primarily coming from this consideration. Take, for example, the Left parties, led by CPIM. They have already made a name for themselves as a naysayer, and in most cases, they say No because they don't know what they stand for. In this case, they are saying no and citing further stratification of Indian students, that rich will be able to afford these foreign courses whereas the poor will be left to rot; precisely the wrong reasons to give. The reasoning that India is a poor country and therefore everyone should receive bad education will not fly, particularly not in this day and age when aspirational middle class dominate the agenda. Their real reasons though is the fear of being undermined at the state level, particularly in West Bengal, which is educationally backward and will become further so once the foreign investment comes in education.

The other reason for their opposition is somewhat similar to the reasons given by BJP, the main opposition party. BJP, like the leftists, use education as a political strategy, imbibing students with ideology-laden education and enrol them into various sister organizations as they go through the college. They will have a far lesser clout on curricula and delivery once the education licensing slips out of state's control, which will happen once foreign providers start coming in.

So, in summary, the Foreign Education Providers Bill has the potential to change the political landscape of Indian Education. There are many dangers too. The whole thing can surely go horribly wrong if this becomes lessaiz faire for various dubious interests [does anyone remember Zap or Wintech, which raided the Indian franchise market in 2001, mopped up millions of dollars and disappeared?], among them the empire of Dawood Ibrahim based in the gulf, which may be looking at the opportunity with great interest.

The government has to realize their job actually begins, and does not end, with the passing of the bill. They must have a game plan then to offer incentives to foreign education providers to come to India and set up shop. Giving special incentives like tax-free status and cheap land to top schools may not be out of order, as is offering priority sector status to those who invest in areas who need them most, north-east anyone?, and in bringing new subjects and disciplines. For example, I would argue in favour of allowing special status to vocational training providers, an area of great need in India, and allowing them to offer various internationally bench-marked qualifications in India. In summary, the bill is just the beginning; it will be interesting to watch what happens next in policy and politics of education in India.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Readings & Thoughts - This Week: March 20th

It is only fitting that I end the week reading the eloquently written Why Britain Is Feeling Bleak in TIME. Catherine Mayer captures the mood correctly: A stumbling pound, a rickety recovery, an uncertain future. The institutions stand undermined, Met Police, House of Commons, No. 10 Downing Street, the NHS, in case of Britain [the Church does not matter much here]. The leadership options are uninspiring, and the whole prospect of election, due possibly on May the 6th, looks like a waste of time. Gordon Brown's claim of solidity, solidity as in spending public money to prop up failing banks and bankrupting everyone in the process, is pitted against David Cameron's funk, the fashionable style of saying everything correct without meaning it. We can only hope that Mr. Brown will someday learn to listen and Mr Cameron will learn to say things he really means.

In the middle of all this, I applied for my British passport. It sure contradicts my feel that the economic recovery will be led by Asia - I see many examples every day - and even the European business ideas, which dominated the world for such a long time, are in the middle of a grand retreat. I feel the doom-and-gloom in Britain every bit as much as anyone else; I get energised when I get to Asia on business trips and discuss the immense possibilities. But, as my actions demonstrate, I have not given up on Britain.

Catherine Mayer's article touches this point in passing, and despite a number of disappointing developments that may give an impression in the contrary, the two things that made the British society resilient even in the face of decline are tolerance and humour. Those values still linger. England in particular remains one of the world's oldest democracies in the modern sense and one of the most liberal, secular societies. I cherish the life here, not for the material comfort, but for the freedom and good sense that normally prevails in all conversations. I think Britain remains a great place to learn about the world, and to form, if it is still needed, a world view.

I have read a few interesting books this week, which I must also mention here. The first was a simple history of Templars, called The Templars by Piers Paul Read. The subject is fascinating, not just in the historical context, but also in understanding the development of a membership organization and the dynamics of its decline. There were many asides: I was fascinated by Richard Plantagent's plans to make Jerusalem a common place of worship for Muslims and Christians, and somehow he appeared more modern than Binyamin Netanyahu; Frederick II's secularism and understanding of Islam, as well as the commitment of Louis the IXth and his sacrifices, made up a fascinating historical narrative. But, my interests were particularly drawn by Phillip La Bel, the French king who destroyed the Templars. Philip's actions obviously had deep and long-ranging consequences: the undermining of the papacy with the destruction of its military order, the economic balance shifting to the state, not to mention the plots and sub-plots about Templar treasures, which sparked the modern blockbusters like the Da Vinci Code.

The other book I read is completely different in style and content, but fascinating on all counts. This is a short monograph called Exit, Voice and Loyalty, by Albert O Hirschman, which is path-breaking and famous by its own right, but I must admit stumbling upon it in the Barbican Library. With my crowded schedule, it almost seemed absurd that I could manage to read a work of theoretical economics, but this book is brilliantly written and address very relevant issues of our day. The concept revolves around the existence of sub-optimal performance, which is a no-no in economic theory but very real in practise, and the reactions of the buyers, who can either exit [leave, shift to a competitor, or stop consuming altogether] or voice [complaint, return, organize demonstrations]. Hirschman explores the impact of Exit and Voice, compare them and contrast the conditions where one or other may occur, and finally expounding a theory of loyalty in the context of the organization's reactions to exit or voice. The treatise is relevant not just to business problems of retention and satisfaction of customers, but also to greater social problems, like the one in Britain, where the voters are now eschewing their usual Voice option [vote in democratic context] and opting for Exit [migration, not voting etc] instead.

The third book on my reading list this week was an equally improbable How The Irish Became White, Noel Ignatiev's masterly history of Irish Americans, who took no time to transition from the ranks of the oppressed to the oppressor. The central theme of the book - the white race is a socially constructed category - is of enormous interest to me, an immigrant myself. The book chronicles the journey of the Irish, who are 'blacks in Europe', from the low social strata in America to the ranks of the privileged class, who will eventually fight against the abolition of slavery. I have previously read and was deeply influenced by Paulo Freire's The Pedagogy of The Oppressed, and this book was an illustration of Freire's concepts in real life.

Finally, if I have to sum up this week, I shall talk about the deep crises of institutional authority that was experienced all over the Western World. It was not just the secular authority of the House of Commons or of Congress on the other side of the pond. The allegations of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church was uncovered in Germany and Netherlands, and the cover-up allegations reached the person of the Pope, triggering speculations about the resignation of the Pope, something that has not happened, formally, since Gregory XII's resignation in 1415. The events over the week showed that the Catholic Church remained in denial of its responsibility despite the worldwide outrage. The apologies issued by Pope today for the abuses in the Irish church sets out no penalty or create no system of accountability. This is likely to destroy the moral authority of Catholic Church altogether, even in the parts of the world where it is seen as a liberating force. The next book on my reading list is God Is Back, John Micklethwaite's enquiry into the global rise of religion; coincidental, but how very relevant at the time when the Catholic Church is falling apart.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The New Entrepreneur

I wrote a note about Modern Entrepreneurs [you can read it here] before, wherein I talked about the disconnect I felt between the ideal of entrepreneurship - creation of new possibilities against the odds - and the usual practise - speculative opportunism driven by superficial knowledge and unlimited greed. There are glorious exceptions, indeed. Besides, the entrepreneurial practise has always had an element of opportunity-taking and many successful entrepreneurs built their careers just on being at the right place at the right time. Identifying and running with opportunities lie in the very essence of entrepreneurship.

However, my enquiry was part of a larger effort to understand modern capitalism, with the objective to understand how the post-recession world may shape up. That way, my previous posts about the Morality of Profit, Memoirs of a Recession and the Practise of Modern Management can be seen as a continuation of the same theme. But, as some of my correspondents point out, I displayed a certain ambivalence to the idea of entrepreneurship: On one hand, I am enamoured with this idealized, almost romantic vision of the entrepreneur as a hero, one who took the road less travelled by and created opportunities for others; and, on the other, I talked about my practical experience about the greed, the superficiality, the opportunism and the sheer manipulation of the system, which landed all of us in such a deep trouble. It is time, they wrote, that I set the record straight.

I must admit that I am guilty as charged. My version of entrepreneurship is as romanticized as the Hollywood version of the lonely gunman. I watched the Pale Rider a zillion times, though I know, in practise, the 'Preacher' may not be a nice man to know. However, I also believe that in certain areas of life, and particularly in the context of social ideas, dualism may be a far more practical way of conceptualizing things than the iron rules of dialectic. In many cases, it is not an either-or, good or bad, setting, but rather a bit of both; so is the case of entrepreneurship. The entrepreneur is an unlikely hero of our age, who is motivated by personal gain and greed, one who measures success purely in selfish terms, yet is seen as a saviour of sorts, someone who sees opportunities and brings them to life, thus addressing problems hitherto unresolved.

Besides, if the shallowness and lack of ethics of the modern entrepreneur shocks us, we should look at the past records of entrepreneurs which is none too glorious. Upton Sinclair captured the world of entrepreneurs in Jungle and Oil!, and this is not very different from the world we see in Dubai and London today. Indeed, the social norms changed over the years, and modern life has become surprisingly single-dimensional, where monetary and material success have become the single indicator of worth in a person's life. This has propelled the act of 'wealth creation' into prominence, and the wealth creators have become the key movers and shakers in our world. They have far more consequential in today's world than they ever was.

Further, what changed with the increased social prominence is the social expectation from the entrepreneur. As an important social functionary, the entrepreneur has overtaken the 'Company Man', the private bureaucrat of the post-war era, in terms of social acceptance and desirability as friends and bridegrooms. The quiet backroom boy has suddenly arrived, and being asked to save the world. Seen from this angle, one would suspect that the current disconnect between the ideal and practise does not stem from the practise being deviant; it primarily arises from the construction of a new ideal, built around the social expectations of the entrepreneur as a modern hero.

Every age has its own conception of virtues and identification of hero. The ideas, typically, build up over time, but societies usually reach end of an era through a tipping point of a crisis, and suddenly make old ideals redundant or undesirable. For example, while the literature was abuzz with the conceptions of a democratic statesman well since the days of Disraeli and Gladstone, Hitler appeared immensely more preferable as a national leader than the likes of Edvard Benes in pre-war Europe. So did Churchill, whose blood-and-bombast style, at the time, hid his weaknesses, that he was out of touch and irreconcilable elitist in a world of withering class demarcations and political correctness. However, by the end of the war, the conception of a national leader had changed significantly. So emerged Clem Atlee and his comrades in arms, the little decent men, those went on to form one of the most imaginative and consequential administrations Britain has ever had. The social expectations of leadership had changed by then; these men who excelled in the changed world did so by conforming to those expectation, and not by clinging onto the outdated models of humbug.

I cite the example because I think we are at crossroads here. The company man is in decline, because the large organizations have shed too much and become too virtual to bring about meaningful change in the face of this great crisis. When we eventually emerge out of this recession, we shall emerge as a transformed entrepreneurial society, where responsible and credible entrepreneurship will lead the way to progress. The new breed of entrepreneurs will be very different from the current bunch of speculators in a sheepskin; they will be men of compassion, involvement and possibility. Their excellence will lie not in recycling money into more money, but in something more fundamental - assembling resources to solve real world problems. They will be like post-war statesmen, who discovered a new decency in the world of dying chivalry, a new method of communication in a world of new and revolutionary medium, and a new levels of integrity in the face of deep and persistent scrutiny. It will be a brave new world of entrepreneurship, much closer home to my romanticism and built upon the ashes of my despair.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Management: An Alternative View

Let's start straight: What is management? Here is my take: It is a pseudo-science designed to preserve power relationships in the new, industrial society. That will not pass me any exam, but that is what I learnt during my twenty-odd years in commercial running around.

If that sounds a bit too uncharitable, consider sitting through any business strategy planning session. You will surely be impressed by the pomp and the seriousness these sessions are conducted with, the charts and graphs, and the elaborate models that get discussed and presented. For all the statistical sophistry, the whole thing is actually bunk though. Managers will laugh at their own efforts during the lunch time. All about beers and bullet points, the exercise is all about the story hanging together in a series of interconnected slides, rather than any serious analysis of the future. And, why so? Elementary, because future can not be analysed.

I am not trying to belittle the statistical models that we have grown so accustomed with, but they stand belittled anyway in today's day and age. The blame should come to us. They were models - imaginary what-if analysis based on scenarios. We took them for gospel truth. All because we needed to invent the 'science' of management, indeed.

And, what is the pretence for? As I say, it is about making sure that people remain in their places. The biggest disconnect I had with the management 'science' over the years is this: the philosophy that you define the role and then hire the person. That's basic, you would say, how can this be anything otherwise. However, this business of imagining a role and fitting a real person into it seemed unreal to me. In the first place, you will never find a fit. Besides, it never seemed a good idea to me to trim the person of possibilities and try to fit her into a role straitjacket. If anything, it seemed counter-intuitive.

Chester Bernard observed while we pay the person for some skills, it is the whole person who comes to work. And, then, management is about stripping the person of her wholeness, and fitting this person in the box allocated in a fancy org-chart drawn up in a remote window-less boardroom. In fact, I realized management is all about org-chart in some cultures - look into the website of any Bangladeshi organization, public or private, and you will come across a rather detailed organization chart - and this stripping of people of their possibilities is what management as a science is supposed to do.

This fits in nicely with the objectives of management. The common sense objective of a business to make profit; in fact, the only plausible objective, as I have been told by my more enlightened colleagues. This means that the whole game is about making a lot of people toil to generate surplus, and therefore leisurely life, for a few. It is about the providers of money ruling over the lives of people, and to do so gently, by creating an illusion of scientific truth and making the used feel good about it. The entire tapestry of modern life, the allure of ownership of a 'leasehold' flat, the equal monthly instalments which let people consume their whole lives away, the myth of retirement savings, the elaborate recycling schemes of stocks and bonds, the promotion of luxurious life through movies and soaps, all centred around a nine-to-eternity job on a tiny desk of a windowless office, is based on stripping people of all their possibilities and grooming them for the roles they are meant to be in.

There are alternatives to the bleak, optionless world that I portray here. The window of freedom and possibility is entrepreneurship, one would say. That's a role-breaker, the creator of possibilities, something that spawns out new opportunities. But, entrepreneurship is mere freedom for the individual concerned, it is yet to become a doctrine of freedom. Paulo Freire taught us that the oppressed mimic the way of the oppressor, and thus become oppressors themselves, once they get some power. The same happens to entrepreneur: They buy into management best practises, the same ones they were so fed up with that they left, and heap those prejudices on other people. To perpetuate this, we build a culture based on entrepreneur as a superman, who indeed deserves special treatment; we welcome him to the club, and tell him not to rock the boat.

So, in all, management is an elaborate system of make-believe science, designed to perpetuate the system of oppression and de-humanization that our societies are based on. It is based on the idea that business is a money-making machine, not a social organization designed to solve social problems. It treats people as cogs, role-holders and resources, and not as people. It strips people of possibilities, and reduce the act of business as a mere transaction, rather than of involvement in a wider social dynamic.

However much I wish to believe that we live in knowledge societies and things have changed, reality tells me a different story. I can feel that our current system is in its last gasps, and the possibilities of freedom around the corner, facilitated more by the greatest existential crisis of capitalism than by good sense. I meet people who are questioning the wisdom handed down to them, but they do so quietly, in the corners. I hear the whispers of change undermining the high-pitch promotion of management as gospel truth. However, so far, the steel grip of industrial era management thinking has hardly been loosened. Obviously, a conscious effort is being made to co-opt the new ideas of corporate responsibility and open collaboration in the dated concepts of role thinking and hierarchical management.

One can take an optimistic view and see that such thinking will eventually come unstuck. This is because we are at a tipping point, a time of fundamental change. This recession has shaken our society to the core, and despite huge public investments, it is refusing to go away. Despite all our sophistication in management, we seem to be heading for another great depression. The drowning cry of TV evangelists that everything will be alright real soon, and one can already see the 'green shoots of life', is the delusion of the old management; more real are the warnings that we are never going to get out of the mess unless a fundamental rethink about how we manage our lives are attempted.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

On Sunday Posts

Sunday is the day which God spent on - reflecting. It is unusual for the God to rest, because he knew no fatigue. It is impossible for him to sleep, because then who will watch over the world. And, it is inconceivable for him to be lazy, because he is the creator and creation as a process, never stops. But, still, he took a break, as he must, and if I arrogate myself to presume God's intent, he was the world's first reflective practitioner, the first one to realize the need to pause and think, before he went back to work again.

My Sunday Posts were about emulating the practise of reflection, of my life, the world around me and various exciting and interesting people I come across during the course of the week, my joys and sorrows, and, yes, possibilities. I have long since broken the habit of confining my writing to Sundays, turning to it instead whenever I needed a release. Writing as an act of creation, as well as of soliloquy, allowed me to maintain my balance in the middle of a raging recession, difficulties and disappointments of my private life. Besides, writing kept a record as if my thoughts mattered, but at the least bore witness of my engagement with the world and my earnest desire to be involved, to make a difference.

I started writing the blog at an interesting point in my life. That time, I arrived in Britain as a migrant, but without a job. I had great hopes that the various things that I did in life and the various things I knew will make me a hot candidate for a top job. Few months in the country, however, I realized that I have read far too many books about globalization and the skill requirements of local businesses are indeed very local. For example, it did not matter if I learnt to deal with complex customers with different cultural backgrounds; it mattered whether I can make a phone call with proper public school accent. The fantasy world of globalization, where businesses sail out to remote countries overseas because they can, and hence, the most critical skills in the workplace is the ability to deal with the unknown, is still a fantasy, all businesses remain intensely local. My education in this International Business 101 course was hands on, through living in constant misery and doubt about myself, eating into my savings, and finally working in an warehouse shifting materials and counting days to salvation. This is the time when I signed up for blog writing. I thought writing is the only skill that I had which could be used to get me a job, a decent one, though my English was patchy and my vocabulary quite limited, a legacy of my background in vernacular schools in provincial India.

If I say writing liberates, I am talking from experience. It did liberate me. I did not write the posts to refine my craft, but primarily to overcome the writers' block and then to keep a record. I wrote with minimal editing, using a stream-of-consciousness sort of style, engaging, most of the time, in a conversation with myself. But, it still liberated me. The continuous conversation gave me not just the reflective space, it allowed me to reaffirm my life goals, step by step, with myself. It was a place to go back to, when I am down and everything around me seemed promiseless. It was the place of musings, to debate endlessly whether I should return back to India, to vent my anger at the greed and misdemeanour, variably of bankers and politicians, and occasionally, to reaffirm my faith and reach out for friendship.

The initial phases of Sunday Posts were a jumble of posts, privately published, which I later chose to remove when I opened it for public access, a decision I regretted later. But the last four years were no less of a wandering, as I tried to impose some thematic discipline, but could never stick to it successfully. It was always a trade-off between leaving a dated post online and not writing at all while I deal with another train of thought, or to appear all over the place, but living and conversational. I chose to adopt the second format, writing about everything, including my own life and woes at the workplace, in the hope that this will serve the triple purpose of reflection, record and writing practise quite effectively.

Anthony Giddens points out to the reflexive constitution of modern social activity, and that is no less true in an individual's life. Journal keeping such as this helps enormously to construct a system of ideas and ways of looking, and this has helped me answer questions, either self-initiated or those I was forced to face. I struggled, most of the time, with the concept of an ideal life: the choice of a life of a modern man, who reaches for material success based on techno-professional excellence in one area of life; and, alternately, a sort of renaissance life, deeply concerned with aggregate well-being, who is concerned with a broad range of disciplines but focused on certain key values keeping it all together. This is not an easy choice. Modern life offers many rewards to those focused in the pursuit, those who know what they are doing: In fact, this is the very essence of competence. However, such focus is difficult to achieve when one gets exposed to the joys and the possibilities of a travelling life, and also get involved in lives of others and feel enraged by the apparent unfairness of the world we live in. As I built my thoughts and plans through reflection, I swung between the desire to live a 'successful' by committing myself wholeheartedly to a profession, for which I variably chose Marketing and Learning and Development; and at other times, I talked about giving myself up for a purpose, of making the world a better place through creation of consciousness regarding the social processes and spreading of education. I talked about the possibilities and pitfalls of both; the appeal of the profession and the nobility of the purpose, as well as my lessons in the idea of success and how it is perceived.

I write all these because I have reached a point of inflection yet again. Two-thirds into my hundred day project, I have no option but to turn up my courage and choose. And, I chose the purpose over profession, so to say, and have commenced my journey since. It is of course not cut and dry, and one can possibly live an in-between life for a while. I have chosen to study leadership, in the context of organizational dynamics, and suddenly discovering the field full of transformational possibilities. I see leaders as the catalysts who can bring about deep social change, but the whole discipline of leadership studies constrained by managerial thinking, which is a pseudo-science designed to preserve the existing power relationships. I shall keep writing about my explorations in leadership, in the context of our emerging social structures and possibilities, and hopefully this will bring together the various things that I wish to achieve in life.

Friday, March 12, 2010

The Age Curve: Shifted

The term Generation Y was introduced to my life when someone, reading some of my writings, wrote back to me that I am old and Gen X, and do not understand the new, Indian Generation Y at all. I am of course guilty as charged - I do find today's college-going young adults a world removed from my own time - and therefore, promptly accepted the labelling on the basis of the face value.

Further exposition to the concept allowed me to accept this as a fair claim - that people born after 1980s was exposed to a different world of opportunities and affluence in India than my generation, those born in late-60s and 70s, and also grew up with a different value set. I went to Senior School in early 80s, and I recall most of my friends in my school days had parents who worked for the government - I went to an average, inner city, vernacular-medium school - and everyone had a fairly straightforward view of life. Our rebellion extended up to smoking cigarettes, our girls made us sweat for holding hands, and when they showed 1970's Bollywood blockbusters on our monochrome TV, a sort of an unofficial national holiday would have been declared. This is as different as it can be from the life at the Senior School twenty years later. By now, we have arrived in the world of multi-channel TV, Internet chat, professional parents, personal mobile phones, flings and affairs, Holly-Bollywood and Coalition government.

And, it is not just the things around us. I remember when I held hand with a girl first time, we both naturally assumed that we shall marry each other. If anyone asked me my plans for life, I could recite, with absolute certainty, what would happen: the names of the civil service exams I would appear in, the kind of job I should get, the periodical table of promotions, and with a little effort, even how much pension I should be able to get. In twenty years, all that has changed. The more aspiring nowadays read Career Magazines; doing own business is no longer a sign of wrongheadedness. Indeed, it is okay to experiment - know before you leap - in relationships, and except landlords, everyone seems to have caught on with live-in relationships by college time.

The generational shift is indeed very real.

Before you say it is all too obvious, I have to say that's half the point though. The other half is that our generational labelling, and hence, expectations, isn't. We imported the Gen X/ Gen Y labelling straight from America, and heaped the role expectations onto various age groups. This is one of the conceptual imports of our English Language media, which had lasting effect and the terms entered the popular lexicon. I am, however, arguing that the case isn't as straightforward as it would appear to be, and we may need to rejig our conceptions of the Age Curve to fit the ground realities of modern India.

To illustrate this point, I must quickly recap the Generational Thinking and how it affects business or social strategy in America. I am taking this summary out of Ken Gronbach's highly readable 'The Age Curve', which presented these details with ease and made a persuasive point about factoring in such demographics in business thinking. The generations in America is broken up in five different generations, each comprising of people born in roughly twenty year periods: The GI Generation (1905 - 25), the Silent Generation (1925 - 45), The War Babies/ Baby Boomers (1945 - 65), Generation X (1965 - 85) and finally Generation Y (1985 - 2010). The fact that generations in reality do not fit into such neat boxes is well-understood, but since American history was marked by at least five era-defining events, The Great War [1914-18], The Great Depression [1929 -34], The World War II [1939 -45], Vietnam [1963-75] and the advent of personal computers [1970s onwards], those boxes still fit somehow. There are of course other social and political events that affected the demographics as well: For example, Rowe vs Wade and legalization of abortion meant 45 million aborted births and a Generation X SMALLER in size compared to the Baby Boomers; Or Affirmative Action, which moved millions of Afro-American families into professions and created a whole new generation, mostly Gen Xers so far, who are far more affluent and educated than their parents were ever have been. Besides, there was a significant impact of immigration in population, starting with the Irish and other European migrants during the GI generation, who stopped coming on the wake of the Great War and because of the depression, the waves of Asian migration after the war and through the boom years, and later the Latino boom, all of which changed the mix and generational preferences.

The practical understanding of this Generational understanding can be profitably applied in business and in policy-making. For example, Gronbach's formula is to ask whether your 'ideal' consumer is still ten years away from 'peaking' in their consumption cycle. For example, if I am selling SUVs for Hockey Moms [and I can imagine Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side, eyes closed, and not Sarah Palin], I should be aware that the Hockey Mom generation is now past its Peak consumption time and the one's who rule the roost are professional , environmentally conscious Generation X women who [used to] drive Toyota Prius. It is a complete different sensibility; after all, I should know this because I was 'taught' by my Gen X American friend that while an SUV produces a ton of carbon every 1300 or so miles, a plane produces as much in 2000 miles and a Hybrid, like Prius, in 6000 miles. This is a generational shift. The point is that no SUV will sell anymore; the point is that they will less than they used to, and Hybrids will sell more. I would also recall a recent essay in New Yorker about Toyota Prius; where the author thought it is neat, but 'too silent'. That taste for noise is a Baby Boomer sensibility; not something a Generation Y may prefer, because their ear is permanently attached to a earplug and an iPod, and the silence/noise conundrum is largely irrelevant as they start buying their first cars.

The same goes in Politics. Suddenly, the western political arena is full of smooth, telegenic professional men. [Gordon Brown looks an anomaly, and he, and the labour party, is already paying for it] It is not just the medium; it is the sensibility too. The buzzword today is 'professional', which denotes a combination of work ethic, education and smarts, and pragmatism. But, looking at Barack Obama's plight post-election, one would guess that Generation X is already passing the baton over to Generation Y. The new generation, due to the confusion in values they grew up with, have a different perception of all these words. It is too early to predict whether this means Carey Mulligan will be voted in as PM, or we shall turn back to the trusted instincts of grandfatherly Prime Minister, and bring Gordon Brown back from the dead. But, as Generation Y steps in, the smooth, the Tony Blair, David Cameron or David Milibands of the world, who built a career on sounding correct but hypocritical and non-committal all the time, may face a bit of a testing time.

However, the point I would like to make is that this whole Generational formula applies to the West. It may stir some souls in India, but it is foolhardy to apply the Generation Y label on those born in India after the 80s, who have experienced liberalization and expansion of opportunities while in school [and whose preferences I tried to describe above], and expect them to behave as such. The underlying assumption that India has caught up may not even fly, because these young Indians are not in the game of catching up; they will tell you that they want to set the standards. So, if I suffered from a bit of a generational freeze, so did parts of our media, and I am rather happy to see that as more Gen Y comes to work, such generational labelling is already on the back foot.

This is not to say that Generational studies have no significance in India. Far from it: India is, as Nandan Nilkeni explains, at a point where it is enjoying a huge demographic dividend, and it must take the advantage with proper policy interventions. However, Indian history is different from Americas, and even the population cycles are different. The ones called Indian Generation X - the ones like me born between 1965 and 1985 - is actually doing what baby-boomers did to America, pulling the country along. This is a large generation - in fact, I would suspect that this is larger than the following generation when birth control became more pervasive and economic uncertainties started creeping in - and this is one which is taking over the power in corporations, politics and social life now. [Rahul Gandhi's generation] I keep talking about India being adolescent and brash - this generation is - and they are just taking over from their fathers who sort of made up a silent generation in India and spent a lifetime in government's shadows.

My objection with that Indian Gen Y formulation is therefore two-fold. I shall say, one, do not undermine India's Generation X, they are the boomers for us; and two, generational patterns can not be exported and made to fit a different country. Our Gen Y is not America's Gen Y. Our Gen Y, if I have to keep calling it for the want of a better name, may want to be like America's GI generation, the ones who created [not consumed] and propelled America ahead of the pack in the world. The ones who brought the enterprise and toil to build Americas factories, schools and public libraries.

I believe in the future as a progressing dot; imagined affinities with Americans by way of a generational labelling does not really impress me.

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