Thursday, April 29, 2010

Making India Work

I am in India, as reported, and in the middle of my usual cycle of passion and depression, accentuated by an odd migraine and excitement in discovering various possibilities. It is hot, in both senses of the word, and we are in that opportune, supreme moment, Kairos in Greek, Mahakshan in Sanskrit, where we shall script India's future - either to greatness or to abyss.

I am conscious that it is easy to get carried away in India. A country's future is not the property prices in Powai, which has gone up by 40% year on year, or the BSE Sensex, which seems to be soaring again to that 20,000 mark, making a lot of paper millionaires across the country at this time. Despite the excitement of the English language press, which is intent on selling the India story 24x7 to whoever cares, this is still a very poor country, with intractable problems. Full of possibilities, though, as I keep mentioning in this blog, but so far, we have failed to imagine and failed to act.

I am reading a brilliant book, from which I borrowed the title of this post. Making India Work, by William Nanda Bissel [who is also the MD of Fabindia, one of India's leading branded retail store chain for handicrafts] takes issues with the lack of imagination that plagued independent India, and the web of privileges and power that we have built and the consumption-centric solution that is being peddled as the end-all today. A few minutes earlier I was watching on TV India's Finance Minister, Mr. Pranab Mukherjee, who seemed to be fixated on the growth rate, like the others in English Language media, and seemed to have a target [like us, poor salesmen] of 9% to achieve. That 9%, simply because China has made it fashionable and we want to be seen in their company, means nothing to most people, who are struggling to make ends meet, does not seem to bother Pranab-babu. Mr Bissel makes a point with his criticism of big centralized government, which seemed to have made opaque and distant from its common citizens, creating a privileged class, who, if they had an option, would have left the others behind and taken the country with them to join the United States of America.


Mr Bissel has recommended a three pronged solution to make India work: Fair Markets, Appropriate Scale [of government] and transparency [at all levels]. None of them exist at this time, but admittedly India is making progress. One can argue that this progress is too little too late, and if we continue like this, we are sure to miss the window of opportunity presented to us at this right demographic moment. On the other hand, one could argue, and this is the feel I get right now, that we are moving towards a tipping point, when these slow progresses accumulate enough strength to change everything, and unlock the potential of a young, vigorous, energetic country.

Three reasons I say so:

One, because the consensus among the privileged, which allowed India to be governed by a small group of people primarily based out of big cities, are breaking down. The challenger middle class is visible everywhere, the immigrant from small town has now started claiming their place in the boardrooms, and the cosy alliance at the top are all but shaken. It is visible everywhere, from India's national cricket team to Bollywood movies, to Engineering College campuses and IT companies' recruitment roasters, there is a clear momentum for the change of guard. I did use the statistic that only 15% of India's 2.8 million graduates that pass out every year are employable by a multinational company, but if you think about it: That's a good thing. The 85% who does not know English and may have never lived and worked in a city is graduating. While I am all about upskilling them to a level as good as others, but they have already taken the first step. These are the people who will demand a democratization of opportunity and ultimately bring about the changes we need.

Two, the democracy is working. Yes, India has a fairly limited democracy because the state is too big, too powerful and too distant - but yet, democracy is creating the churn that we need, even in terms of challenging what we accepted as the immutable form of the state. Indeed, it is tainted, accountability is lacking, but that has more to do with the administrative form we are running than the democratic system of politics. To be honest, I think India's polity is now confronting its governance. Way to go, I say, that is a challenge the Babus can not possibly beat off. Democracy should, ultimately, democratize India.

Three, an idea of India is finally emerging. It is beyond the liberal post-independence conception of the paternalistic state, and the Hindu nationalist Bharatmata; it is the modern, self-confident India, which wants to offer an alternate model of development and politics and engage with the world. This India is not afraid to be friends with the United States, talk freely about climate change and to attempt to tackle it regardless of whether the rich countries are giving it a handout or not, the India which is not ready to buy the Western Business Models a la carte but offer its own frameworks to the world. This new idea of India, if the consensus on the street is any indicator, is going beyond the Gen X 'me first' thinking; this is a new, secure, ambitious India. The vision of the new India is inclusive growth, which is beyond the glitz and glamour of Bollywood and IPL, and encapsulated in the ambitions of Tata Motors, Infosys, Rahul Gandhi and the likes.

As you can see, I am a believer: Unabashedly so. This is not about a sense of national superiority, but about bringing out freedom, for a vast majority of people who, till this point, have been wronged. This freedom 'movement' can become one of the greatest events in history, and yet again provide a model for hope, freedom and aspiration for all across the world.


Saturday, April 24, 2010

IPL & An Encounter of a Special Kind

I am in India, doing my last business trip for my current employers. I am always very proud about the work I do, and hence, always wanted to be a good leaver: Leaving things in order as far as possible.

India, as usual, is always enjoyable, and compellingly different from my rather bland life in Britain. Here, I experience none of the solitude that, strangely, bores me these days. Here, it is almost the other world, full of people, ringing phones, friendly strangers, business contacts who become friends, people who know people who know people I know - a constant stream of events, noises and the feeling of being in the middle. Every time I come to India, I feel like staying back.

Interestingly, the current national obsession of India is the Indian Premier League, a football-like version of Cricket, packed with cheerleaders, glitz and glamour. Conveniently packed into 20-overs, 3-hour variety, along with a sprinkling of celebrity businessmen and actresses, IPL is a bold, and failed, attempt, aka English Premier League, to commercialize cricket. The matches happen on TV prime time, and teams are tied to major Indian cities - Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore, Kolkata, Chandigarh, Hyderabad and Jaipur, with Pune and Kochi to be added soon.

To be honest, the branding of IPL has been picture perfect. It has drawn millions to Cricket fields, created fan followings and affiliations where there was none, and drawn cricketers from all over the world to come and play in India. Young Indians, and Indians are predominantly young, started following IPL more than the world cup of Cricket. As I arrived in Mumbai today, I have received three invitations tomorrow evening to watch the IPL final, where the Mumbai team will take on the Chennai team. Unfortunately, none of the invitations are to watch the match in the stadium, where the going rate for tickets have reached £300 apiece; my invitation is to watch the match, with a crowd of committed, no, fanatical, Mumbai fans to be sure, in local movie theatres, which have put their usual fares on hold for the occasion.

I am from Kolkata, but this would be safe for me. Like all Indians in my generation, I remain a huge fan of Sachin Tendulkar, who is a Mumbai icon and will captain the team. I have to avoid making any sympathetic noises for Mahendra Singh Dhoni, who comes from the Eastern city of Ranchi and is the Captain of India and improbably, Chennai. Plainly, I have to keep regional affiliations aside, and adjust to new city-based constructs that modern Indian glitterati have put together.

I am not trying to be critical of IPL. This is as American cricket can get, and as they say in Wall Street, is the way to go. Besides, this is only a logical path that a game like Cricket could follow from its genteel roots - to adjust to the fastness of modern life, to the 24x7 glamour that TV obviates and to create new identities and affiliations for millions of young Indians who, if their wish could be granted, would want their cities extracted from the old state-based identities and given independence. This is the way modern India is going to be, or so they say.

However, I am unable to avoid the controversies surrounding the tournament, which has taken over the news channels. All the elements of muck in modern Indian life is present here: Money laundering, match fixing, bribes, abuse of privileges [commercial flights diverted or cancelled on the orders of Minister's daughter], and scandals [with the king of scams, Sharad Pawar, arguably India's richest man, being involved]. There is a fall guy, Lalit Modi, but we have seen this before. India's is a leaking system, with corrupt guys right at the top, and therefore, we seem to have cycles of corruption - a flood of unaccounted money entering one sector or other, and stealing money from unsuspecting crowds: Remember Harshad Mehta, the great Computer Training scam with Wintech and Zap just before the dotcom bust, and now, this. The failure seems systemic, and comes with all the symptoms of the great Indian disease.

The great Indian disease, indeed, as exemplified by the undignified exit of Shashi Tharoor from the cabinet, alleged, extraordinarily, of securing an extraordinary payout for his friend, Dubai-based Sunanda Pushkar, who seemed to have a good deal-making career, but no other claim to fame other than her closeness to Mr Tharoor. I have been an admirer of Mr Tharoor's writings for a long time, wished improbably that he becomes the Secretary General of the United Nations, and was heartened by his inclusion in the Cabinet. I defended, going out of my way, his frequent faux pas with Twitter, blaming it instead on the Indian lack of understanding of English language and subtle humour. But, what an extraordinary lack of judgement from a man of Mr Tharoor's calibre: the fact that he even got involved in what appeared to be murky from the word go, and then allowed someone close [widely believed to be his girlfriend] to have a stake in a company which he 'mentored', shows that either power got better of Mr Tharoor's senses, or he was never exposed to such close scrutiny, possibly both. The Indianness of the disease is here: The powerful and the articulate almost seem to think that they can get away with anything, and Mr Tharoor, by being a cross between a tragic hero and foolish villain, appeared to be the poster boy of such arrogance.

If this is all too depressing, I do know India is more than these scams and sleaze. One way of looking at this is that India will tolerate this, survive this and go on as it is. The other is whatever you find in India, you will find the opposite. Inevitably: I found mine in Goa, where I was to make a sales pitch, for one last time, in a franchise conference of an up and coming IT training company. As I walked in to the conference late last evening, just in time to join them for their franchise awards and to get a pre-presentation sense of the people and the environment, I was forewarned. I found the music too loud, Bhangra movements completely beyond my abilities and the primary medium to be Hindi, a language I understand, but shamefully, can not speak. I also found myself a bit too cut-off, more comfortable making presentations to corporate audiences talking technology than a table-thumping crowd of small-town entrepreneurs.

Predictably, my presentation this morning was little understood, and I had to abandon my carefully prepared Powerpoint because they were a bit of out of context. I could elicit no reactions to my attempts of humour, and could not make up anything which could cheer the audience up. I dared not mention that I can't speak Hindi, nor I could try the language for the fear of unintentionally picking up a wrong word. Instead, I had to fall back on stories: My provincial roots, vernacular school, not being able to speak English until late in life, various cultural faux pas that I encountered and still continue to commit. But I had to abandon other stories I planned to tell, like how Korean Air fixed the problem of communication using English language, or that Zulus have 39 words for the colour green. I ended the presentation almost because I had to nothing else to say, taking a lonely question from one person in the audience who seemed to have been talking in English all the time anyway. However, what surprised me is the amount of clapping I got in the end, even from those who slept through the session, and the spontaneous warmth and hospitality from all thereafter. I did not think I made much sense, but someone consoled me saying that while what I said was not understood, they felt that I understood what their problems were.

The other maxim about India here: It surprises you all the time. I left humbled, my arrogance of being articulate in English completely washed clean, and shame of not being able to match my hosts in their generosity affirmed emphatically. If anything more was needed, I sat in admiration as the crowd discussed their numbers and committed their next year's numbers: a 100% growth, surely, was predicted with confidence. These young entrepreneurs, coming from small towns, uncorrupted by all the mega-metro illusions, who earn money not by backhanding but by honest efforts round the clock, untouched by the false sense of sophistication and identity-lessness that I carry around, had no time to worry about global recession. They expected none of the government patronage which, as I know well, keep many uncompetitive organizations going in countries like the UK; they were truly their own masters and completely comfortable with that.

My way back to Mumbai, I could not but feel my shame and my happiness together, my arrogance vapourized, but my frustration and doubts gone with it. IPL and the scandals did not seem to matter anymore. My special encounter with the confidence, dynamism and work ethic of small town India was sorely needed; not just to lift my spirit from three years of dead-end work, but also to believe again: However much the rich and the corrupt try to hijack the concept of India and turn it into a convoluted construct in their own shapelessness, the real India is only just getting ready to come to the party.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Initial Thoughts on an 'International' BBA programme

In continuation of the earlier conversation about setting up truly Global universities, I return to the subject of creating a truly global bachelors programme as the fundamental building block of such an effort.

I know when talking about such initiatives, the conversation usually starts and ends with global research initiatives and building excellence at that level. However, it is difficult to build research excellence without a fundamental change in the way education is perceived, and unless a level of excellence is available in the student pool. Besides, while it can be assumed that it is easier to achieve excellence in tutoring and research leadership, because of the global movement of talent and the fashionable trend of reverse migration, an excellent student pool and a level of commitment to research excellence is usually the precondition for attracting good tutors and research guides.

Now, I shall argue that none of this actually possible without creating a good, internationally orientated and professionally relevant bachelors' programme. Without this, research excellence becomes a hanging garden; it may achieve some relevance in the context of prevailing academic orthodoxy, but by being disconnected from the host country, it loses its sustainability.

For example, let me talk about what I think a good 'international' Bachelor of Business Administration programme will look like. To start with, this programme should ideally combine the academic programme with hands-on work, usually in customer facing roles. It is important for the learners to gain experience of the everyday life of business more than learning theories in the classroom. However, in such a format, while this may become immensely relevant, one runs the risk of creating too narrow a perspective, by exposing the student to a limited types of scenarios and a limited range of cultures. Besides, practical exposure to work life may also develop its own range of orthodoxy: Such as a way of thinking imbibed through the professional practises of a particular trade, like that of the salesmen or the accountant. So, this must be balanced by two further elements - a global exposure and development of reflective abilities of a student so that the immediate experience can be contextualised.

There are very practical problems of a student studying a bachelor's programme to international workplaces. They may not have the threshold skills, and they may never be able to obtain the necessary permissions. However, much can be achieved through travel itself, as well as working in the development sector. Doing social work is invaluable for anyone's moral development, and exposure to such work help develop a perspective more valuable than learning to present inside a windowless room. This will be the way to develop a student's ability to contextualize the learning, as indeed any practical experience that may be gained within the narrow confines of the business.

Now, I shall also argue that such social development work, done in one's own country or even internationally, is much easier to do within the timetable of a bachelor's programme than the time-pressed Master's programmes. Besides, the expectations are far more flexible and the agendas and paradigms are much more fluid at this stage: In summary, the opportunity to shape lives and viewpoints are much more open.

There are more things that can be done with such a programme. It is possible to eliminate the classroom altogether, and instead offer a wide range of subjects through online lectures and interactive coursework, which will allow a truly global class to form. This will also break the linkage between education and expensive real estate, which often distorts the economics of education and makes it a rich men's plaything. I am not talking about eliminating the tutor at all; I am rather in favour of assigning tutors as life coaches and mentors who will take the students through the complexities of self-guided study, coursework, assessments and hands on work, insisting on conscious, reflective practise all the time.

I know there are challenges on the way. Language is one of them, because I would not want to succumb to typical anglophone assumption that everyone needs to, and wants to, learn English and English ways of life [which one?]. So, I would see language classes, exposure to good books and movies, being an integral part of such a curriculum too. An international mindset, which starts with the assumption that people are different and they will always remain that way, is a reliable starting point of creating an 'international' programme as we set out to do.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Mangement As A Practise

Henry Mintzberg says Management is not a science, but it is a practise, in his new book, Managing. Recently, Strategy+Business interviewed him on this and other issues, which can be accessed here. This is a significant departure from the current managerial wisdom, which seems to assume that we know exactly what makes people tick, and use extensive modelling to predict and manage human behaviour. Mintzberg's timing is excellent, this comes at the back of the biggest economic crisis in recent history, a crisis which exposed how little we know about people's behaviour and how models and theories are not exactly good guides to reality.

Instead, if we follow Professor Mintzberg's prescription, we can make Managing a more involved, interesting business. However, before that, one possibly needs to answer a more fundamental question - why manage? It seems like a no-brainer, but people will actually have different answers to that question. Some manage because they have a job to do - they say they have to pay their bills. Others manage because they have to make money, only that - they would rather play Golf instead if they did not have to use other people's energies to keep their enterprises going. However, management is a human social activity, as much as anything else, and if inspiring and connecting with other people does not appeal to you, the task of management is only going to be a drag.

In the interview, Professor Mintzberg also points to the artificial differentiation between management and leadership. Leadership without management will be incoherent, and Management without leadership, uninspiring. The current disconnect between the two possibly comes from the fundamental misalignment of the purpose of management, indeed the purpose of business in the first place.

Businesses are social organizations, set up for the purpose of generating a reward for the entrepreneurs, which combine people's efforts, raw materials and opportunities, to solve social problems. Unless a business does any of these - generate a reward, combine resources and solve social problems - it will be unprofitable, uncompetitive and unsustainable, respectively. And, in today's marketplace, where global resources and opportunities create a confluence like never before, businesses have nowhere to hide if they fail on either of these counts.

If we are looking at the practise of management beyond the trivialities of seeing it as a job and naivete's like doing it to make money, we know it is about making a group of diverse individuals work towards a common set of goals, and making optimum use of resources without losing sight of the core job of a business - solving social problems. That way, management is leadership, and one can not really peel away the function of navigation from the person on the wheels easily.

Besides, coming back to the original point made by Mintzberg - management as a practise - our knowledge of what our objectives should be, how to marshal our resources and what external factors will influence our journey, are very limited. Hence, trying to hide behind statistical models and dated theories, particularly those devised in the context of a different culture, is rather useless, and likely to become value-destroying. As he points out, successful managers [and leaders] make it up as they go - and most cases, their experiences become grounding of future theories. But, if we truly analyze management excellence, it will possibly come down to conscious practise, backed by reflection and feedback, and a high level of commitment.

However, my own experiences of managerial life is that there is very little space for reflection. While there are structured tools - reviews, appraisals, brainstorming sessions - in order to enable precisely this, management today is dominated by the 'scientific' dogma, apart from the very unscientific egoism that comes in the way because of the human involvement in the tasks. So, while the theories tend to define the world of business in cold economic terms, the practise of management remains a deeply imperfect, largely political process, where reflection, unless it is imbibed as a value system, is impossible to do. This is possibly precisely the space where corporate coaches to do so well, allowing an impersonal, analytical, reflective perspective to practising managers; but more has to be done, and such reflection needs to become mainstream, routine activity, featuring near the top of a manager's agenda and priorities.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

New Masters of Management

The Economist [April 15th, European Print Edition] produced a Special Report titled 'The New Masters of Management', on the subject of innovation and new management paradigm coming out of emerging economies.

Most of the staff is well known. We have read about this in the writings of Nirmalya Kumar, Tarun Khanna and C K Prahalad.

The emerging economy companies approach M&A, as Dr Kumar has pointed out, with not so much cost savings in mind as they want to acquire brand, know-how and market access. This makes M&As like the acquisition of Corus by Tatas, of Axon by HCL, of Volvo by Geely, fundamentally different from the other M&A activities carried out by Western companies mainly on account of synergy and cost savings [of Cadbury by Kraft, for example].

Dr Prahalad has written extensively about the Bottom of the Pyramid approach, where companies innovate to bring products and services to consumers who live in rural areas and have very low income in dollar terms. The low income is made up by their numbers. Such innovation is called Frugal or Reverse Innovation, The Economist reports. The report cites innovations by Dr Devi Shetty who applied assembly line techniques to open heart surgeries; but there are numerous other examples, such as Grameen Bank's rural PCO scheme, the application of assembly line techniques to IOL surgery by Aravind Eye Hospital, the making of Tata Nano, world's cheapest car, the revolution in agricultural trading brought about by ITC's e-Choupal etc.

The Economist article, however, makes an important point. This attempts to present such business models and approaches as the emerging paradigm in management, which the Western companies should examine and learn from. It is too easy to dismiss these models out of hand as peculiar or primitive, depending on who you ask. However, it is important to understand that the current business models as pursued by successful companies in Europe and America is actually based on assumptions that debt-fuelled consumption of world's richest 1 billion people can continue forever. The recent recession is a clear reminder than things have to change, and will change.

Besides, there is this question of inclusive development. Increasingly, the statelessness of the challengers of the global system, like Al Queda, point to the necessity of developing an inclusive model; we can forget all about Somalia by installing a government which takes our hand-out and obey our orders, but still the poverty stricken Somalis can disrupt our lives significantly, driving our yachts off the Red Sea, and driving up fuel prices in our neighbourhood gas stations. But there is almost no way, within the economic system, that we can do it. Besides, the environmental impact of bringing 5 billion people to party, giving them a modern lifestyle, will be unsustainable. Unless, of course, we turn to 'frugal' innovation.

It is also interesting to note the comments made on The Economist website. Most of the readers did not take it kindly that the article highlights emerging country innovation and somehow imply that this is the way to go. While the importance of such innovation and business models are commonly accepted in the Western media and business literature [see Businessweek here], Western executives are usually dismissive. Especially, they don't get India, where the lack of infrastructure and chaotic ways of doing things [as opposed to shiny infrastructure and businesslike ways in China] appear too daunting.

The business houses, usually diversified conglomerates owned by families, seem to them too primitive, and often they lack the sophisticated management practises of capital market driven Western public companies. But, as The Economist reports, such diversified conglomerates operate to overcome the limitations of the capital markets, as well as to deal with two important challenges - brand building and market access, and talent acquisition and retention. One can also argue that family ownership of such large businesses allow these companies to take a longer term view than Western public companies, which may work as a competitive advantage.

Celebration of emerging market innovativeness should no way imply that these companies are going to take over the world real soon. For example, family owned conglomerates, despite their advantages, often stifle innovation and entrepreneuralism. In my own experience, I know life is hard for small businesses in India. That has to change, for the country to move to the next level of innovation and progress. Infrastructure, in most countries including India, remains a huge challenge, as many readers pointed out on The Economist website. As the report itself points out, India [along with Brazil and China] remains a hard place to do business for an outsider, ranking 133rd in a list of 183 countries by the World Bank. And, most importantly, the businesses in emerging countries are growing faster than the human infrastructure, education, talent mobility and social security, creating serious bottlenecks and social misalignment which may, in turn, come back to haunt businesses.

In summary, then, while important challenges remain, emerging country companies are leading the way in disruptive innovation, which will go a long way in bringing modern lifestyle to the world's 5 billion people living in these countries. Such innovation, while may be of little relevance to developed world companies as long as they confine themselves in their local markets, will be critical in the global agenda going forward. Since stagnation is not an option, such business models need to be studied and should be incorporated in the mainstream management literature. These are no longer novelties, but precursors of the world to come.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Watching The Election Debate

Last night, I did spend all those 90 minutes watching Gordon Brown, Nick Clegg and David Cameron doing an American style debate on TV. I must admit that I do not admire any of these men much, and I in fact thought such debate is inappropriate because the United Kingdom has a parliamentary system and all this was too presidential. But, since this is an event of interest, and may have an impact over the future of this country, I thought it worthwhile to watch and make a mental note of the strategies that the leaders were pursuing.

Here is what I thought:

Gordon Brown

His big plus is that he sounded in control, knowing his staff and having clear answers. He sounded convincing. He wanted to project competence, and he somehow managed to do it. Though this is no surprise - all questions were carefully screened, answers prepared and the chosen questions were non-confrontational - but it is still the 'being in control' thing matters. Brown's performance did not give the impression that the country is out of control and on a downward spiral, which it is, and on this count, he did better than expected.

I think Brown's big mistake was that he sounded too political. At this time of scepticism, competence is not enough. He failed to project labour as a team - for example, on the question of immigration, he could have projected Alan Johnson as a Home Secretary who tightened up the system unprecedentedly - and talked too many times about 'I' deciding on everything. And, in his eagerness to steal some of Lib Dem votes, talked about Nick Clegg agreeing with him on too many things. Worse, in some cases, he stole Lib Dem ideas and said Lib Dems agree with him on those - not something which this country averse with politicians is going to take in well.

Brown's body language was composed, he drank least amount of water and despite his physical difficulties, managed to project ability and composure. He wanted to and sounded Presidential; a calculation his advisers must have made about the country wanting someone safe and competent. He was a bit uncomfortable when talking about Afghanistan, he made a few slips there, but was overall on the point.

David Cameron

David Cameron, on the other hand, sounded flighty and stiff. He started drinking water all too soon. He was ill at ease on most questions, and almost always tried to change the subject. His big problem is that he has no team, and the other two leaders, perhaps by agreement, did not want to expose that weakness. But he could not make up his mind what he wanted to do, and fared the worst among the three.

The other big problem with Cameron is that he fails to understand the country is not a company, or a family. This is a different time than Margaret Thatcher's, when people were tired of government control over everything. Today, we feel the reverse - we believe government is too loose. So, talking about government waste and bureaucracy are going to evoke a much weaker sentiment. The deficit is bad, indeed; but if Cameron fails to explain why he thinks deficit is bad, and how this may bankrupt Britain, he is unlikely to get the votes that he is wishing for. Instead, he will sound too cosy to the bankers, and that is not a good thing at this time.

Lastly, Cameron appeared to be less of a people's man than a practitioner of spin. If he needed to talk to the person who asked the question, he should have noted where that person is sitting; instead of losing the person in the crowd all the time. Nick Clegg did much better noting the names, and acknowledging the obvious difficulty of spotting the person while being in the limelight. Gordon Brown did not even try to be that personal.

Nick Clegg

I would think he did the best in debate terms, but he failed to disperse his 'lightweight' problem. He compounded that mistake by going straight after the Trident programme. That bit was antithetical to his otherwise sterling performance, where he failed to explain that he is only talking about the scale of the programme and not Britain's nuclear deterrent itself. David Cameron and Gordon Brown stole a few important points ahead of him on that issue. While Nick Clegg could not have done anything else, given his party's anti-nuke stance, the issue, which he only raised, showed that he is not ready to rule.

His body language was perhaps the best among the three leaders, and his communication was clearer. His job was easy too - his party was never in power and gets none of the blame. He had some good ideas, and he could have done better that some of those were being stolen by Labour or the Conservatives. His economic calculations have more meat, and his team is perhaps more capable - he could have done well talking about Vince Cable and others, and show that his crew is different from the other two Presidential parties.

I know this is only one of the three debates, but there are certain questions and answers which I think Brown missed the point completely.

For example:

David Cameron said that migration never exceeded 76,000 a year whereas during Labour's term, it was never lower than 140,000. Brown could have said - It is globalization, stupid!

Clegg and Cameron had talked about Ministry of Defence having a lot of people in communications. Isn't that because the nature of Britain's engagement, and the nature of war itself, has changed?

In short, this shows Brown is no Berbatov, too many misses.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

On Career Decisions

At the time of writing, I am in the middle of an amateur reassessment of all the things I have done in my life so far. In fact, I am forced to do this, I actually did not have a choice. Those who read my blog know that I agnonised over my current job, and that I 'resigned' about 18 months back and agreed to stay on till a sustainable business model could be constructed. This was a difficult 18 months, but at this time, the shape of a different, sustainable, business model has started to emerge. I chose this time to step down, in line with what I promised to myself at the beginning of 2010, and start my life afresh.

This is a time both for profound sadness and relief for me. I hated the job, but loved what I was doing. I saw a purpose in my work - that of changing lives of many people across the world by opening the doors of the world to them. And, I must add, quoting one of our business partners, by transforming lives, in the context of the Philippines, making teachers out of those who would be maids. But a job is more than just the work - it is the social setting and frameworks of expectation within which the work is carried out. In this case, there was a fundamental disalignment of the promise of the work and the context of expectations, which was largely set not by the ground realities of the business we were in, but by the legacy thinking of the organization which sponsored it.

So, deep down, a relief, that I am out of it. I found the cultures ultimately irreconciliable. The disalignment was not just with the greater purpose of the business, but also with the diverse and dynamic nature of the strategy required in this case. This was a great learning experience on some obvious aspects of the business - like the merit of the idea alone can not guarantee its success, or even realization - quite obvious only after the deja vu moment.

In my mind, I am relieved that I shall leave it in a good shape, at least with the promise of an alternate business model and involving people who can take the business forward, sustainably. The experiences of last three years demanded a lot of self-assurance to stay firm on my own objectives, and not give in to used-car salesmanship which was demanded and admittedly, needed. My emotions are mixed on this question: Should I have done what was needed to get the job done? Would everything have sorted itself out once I did what was needed, even if that clashed with my own sense of ethics? After all, it is just my own sense of ethics, rather than anything illegal.

These questions are important because they determine what I do next. I am, of course, doing this change in an unusual way. I have set the date of departure - 30th April - first, and then figuring out what to do. This sure is risky in this economic climate, but the only way I could have done preserving my own self-respect. But this blank slate is also helpful, as it allows me to imagine almost anything: starting fresh with a hands-on job and making a real difference, a corporate position managing significant operations in a professional way this time, an entrepreneurship opportunity which gives me real independence without meddling from anyone, and even a career in journalism, living in permanent poverty but spending my life attempting to change the world.

I am sure most of us face such moments in our lives. Some, like me, face these choices again and again; some others make up their minds early in life and stay the course. I would argue both the approaches work, because life is full of opportunities and we can do whatever we have resolved ourselves to do. However, sometimes, we assume options to be limited than they actually are. I have made that mistake before - the writerly life would not have featured as an option in my thinking usually - and this time around, I want to approach the issue with as open a mind as possible.

Of course, the options are not mutually exclusive. I can still be a part time writer while being a corporate executive during the day, and that may be quite a good way to approach a career transition. It is the usual way of approaching a transition when one is uncertain, but more so because, as one of my friends pointed out, poverty isn't liberating. There can be a debate on this point, indeed: My romantic conception of poor journalist indeed come from Karl Marx's life, who lived a life in squalor but still managed to discover an unique world view. However, one could possibly see that he resented it himself, and his conception of communist era featured a world where people will be free from the compulsions of poverty and will be able to 'pursue their interests'.

I don't mean that poverty is a certain outcome of a writerly life; it may not be. It is not even exclusively connected to a creative career; life of an entrepreneur, unless one is starting from a position of money, can be quite daunting too. Also, this position of money can be quite relative, one can have enough money to start a shop, but neither interests nor skills to own or run such a business; but the same amount of money may not be enough to start a software business. There are, of course, the most trusted sources of angel funding, friends and family, and this leads to the phenomenon of 'you can become who you know'. The rather modern phenomenon of exceptionally wealthy individuals and their investments have also helped many entrepreneurs to jump in, though, as I have come to realize, dumb money, large investments which come without an understanding of the business and purely in pursuit of profit, should be avoided like a plague. Even an exceptional idea can be killed before birth by a disconnected investor, and there are just too many examples at all levels in support of this observation.

On the other hand, corporate careers are a different beast, and they are not for everyone. Most young people I meet obviously want to be managers. My usual advice to them is to think through the decision, because I have been a manager and I have done hands on work, and I have enjoyed the latter far more than the former, and earned as much money. Henry Mintzberg talks about a two dimensional scale of personal traits, setting the Will to Manage and Zest for Business on two sides. Roughly, Will to Manage is about getting into details, handling people and personalities, something which one of my supervisors used to call 'being the agony aunt'; on the other hand, Zest for Business covers the abilities to see the opportunities, will to pursue it and being able to arrange resources or skills to get things done. As any two dimensional scale, the combination of these two factors produce four possible alternate career paths [I present a slightly adapted version below]:

Low Zest for Business, High Will to Manage -> Consider Public or Social Sector

Low Zest for Business, Low Will to Manage -> Do Research, Writing, Pursue Academic or Creative Career

High Zest for Business, Low Will to Manage -> Do deals or Run your own 'boutique' business.

High Zest for Business, High Will to Manage -> Consider a Corporate Career.

The model proved quite useful to me and I know where I belong: I am certainly the High ZoB, Low WoM category. So, I am destined to do well in small businesses, or doing deals; but I shall possibly not do well in running large teams or managing business units which require attention to details.

So, this is what I am going to settle for, ultimately, the career of a small business owner or a consultant, where I want to be very very good at something. I know that will give me a lot of pleasure, enough money and enough 'growth' even if I decide to work for someone. I shall write about this in future, but even growth inside a company may come from more ways than one can imagine; just moving up vertically and taking the chair of one's own manager is not the only way to grow. As Edgar Schein points out in his excellent book on Career Dynamics, one can grow horizontally [by moving into different functions and getting exposure] and also by moving to the centre [being part of the core group, being in the know]. And, obviously, one can do both of this without taking the trouble to take on a complex managerial role, which, if it does not fit the individual expectations out of his career, can in turn limit his potential to succeed.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Career Advice from An Unusual Source - Me

I generally don't get asked for career advice. This is because I did not have much of a career in the traditional sense, the big company jobs and all that. But, then, there are questions I do get asked - like why I never pursued a career in the accepted sense of the word - and I usually avoid the question [and depending on who is asking, quote Robert Frost: 'I took the road less travelled by and that made all the difference.']

But, personal eccentricities aside, there is a reason behind doing what I did. It was about where I came from and where I wanted to go. For a starter, I came through the vernacular education system in India, not learning to speak English even when I was through with college. My family, traditional and straight-laced, visualized me in some sort of a Government job, and as I moved through my classes and did progressively worse than what they expected, they started mentally relegating me to a lower and lower rank. They can't be blamed visualizing me as a government clerk: My continued struggle with mathematics left them no illusions that I can be an Engineer, and, my aversion to blood, after watching a messy street accident from close by when I was very young, ruled out the other safe career, medicine. In 1980's India, when computers were only for supergeeks and management for senior civil servants, I had given my parents a real worry being good at almost nothing.

Almost nothing that mattered, that is. I could do a few things though. I could organize cultural events and make disparate people work together. I could write a bit and put an amateur magazine together. I had a favourite subject, History, and I was fascinated by the books I read. I even had a career ambition: To follow my hero, Robinson Crusoe, whose exploits I read in translation, in a shipwreck and live in a remote island with a man Friday. However, all these made me appear more useless for any career, and soon, my book reading, event organizing habits were severely censored.

I must admit I had other faults too. I was too shy, too shabby and did not know the concept of courage. I almost never questioned. I adored my parents and were ashamed that I was disappointing them. My only flashes of brilliance in exams came when I had this terrible feelings that I was letting them down. Since some of these good performances came during big external examinations, this caused more trouble for me. For example, I landed up a decent result in Maths and Science subjects in my school-leaving exams, convincing my father that there is still hope for me: I was told to take up four science subjects in the Intermediate level and eventually went on to study Economics. In summary, my lack of courage led me to lead a miserable life married to mathematics for more than seventeen years [I eventually did a Masters in Economics].

But, then, I always knew where I wanted to go. I saw the remote island shores in my dreams. After Robinson Crusoe, I fell in love with Liza and was full of admiration of Alan Quatermain. If anyone bothered to ask, I would have said my career goal shifted to trekking down African Safari. Alas, people stopped asking me by then and started telling me what to do.

However, that goal remained with me. I had to come to it in a roundabout way, after spending the middle years chasing girls, earning money and dispensing responsibilities. But, even when I was a just-about-respectable middle manager in a decent company [whose logo and calling cards were admired in the marriage market, an important benchmark], my supervisor was shocked and dismayed when I told her, responding to her dutiful queries about my plans of career progression, that I would be happy to be posted to one of the company's remote operations in a country no one wanted to go to. I guess what cheesed her off even more that the form she was filling up with my answers did not have place names, only grades, ranks and designations.

Enough of this: I just needed to tell the story to explain that I also followed a career plan, though of an unusual kind. The reasons are simple - not just my goals were unusual, I never even prepared for it. For example, I never made a serious enough attempt to learn a different 'world' language. [For me, learning English in the adult age was a big enough struggle] I had not been trained for International Business, only the Political Economy of a left wing variety. In fact, I owe whatever I could achieve to technology, particularly to Internet, because that is the tool I used to engineer my career 'accident'. Whatever happens next, my debts will remain.

So, in context, what career advice do I give to people who ask? I must start by saying that I have no regrets. Regrets don't work in career. They stall things, rather than moving forward. And, anyone can take a wrong turn, make a wrong move. As long as one is not weighed down by what happened in the past [while being able to reflect on it and learn lessons], one can move forward. No matter what that person's age or achievement is, one can still move forward.

The next advise - develop the ability to reflect upon where you are coming from and where you want to go. It is alright if you don't know either of these, but with a continuous process of reflection, you will get there. Writing this blog was an wonderful exercise for me to reflect upon my own life and to understand my own fears, hopes, insecurities and potentials. The ability to reflect makes living a conscious process, which puts you in charge.

Next, I would say one needs to discover two things - Passion and Profession - in planning for career. If the two can be same, it works brilliantly. But, even if they are not the same, one needs to have them well defined. Both can exist side by side, and we have enough time to manage both. But then, a rider: a job is neither of those. If I have to try a crass definition, Passion is something that you will love spending time doing, and Profession is what you think you are good at. It is not easy to identify either of them. This is because we usually try to conform - I loved to write but never thought of it much, because no one wanted to give it any credence. But that was my passion [it still is] and with effort, I could have made a profession out of it. The conscious process that I just described, of reflection, helps you - step by step - to know what you really like.

Also, it is easy to confuse profession with qualifications. This is my next advice - avoid the qualification trap. I suffered much and lost money and time pursuing paper degrees which no one cares for. Knowledge matters, and your own abilities matter. So, don't go chasing degrees mindlessly. Start doing what you like and gain confidence. For example, if you want to write, just write. There are dozens of great books and good advice on the Internet which will get you started. Don't spend years on picking up a degree on Creative Writing.

Last advice: Remember that we live in a world of disintermediation. It does not feel like now, but the bureaucratic jobs will go. It is great that I did not take my parents advice and become a clerk: That profession will not survive for too long. In the end, what will matter is what you can do yourself. To survive, you must be able to do something yourself: Cut Hair, Teach, Write, Build A Website, Fix TVs, whatever. It can sure work at higher levels too - like doing Econometric models - but something you must know how to do, hands on. Days of being just a manager are numbered: Don't spend your lifetime trying to be one.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Emergence of the Global University

The modern universities were instrumental in building the modern nation state. Think Oxbridge and Britain, the Ivy League and the United States or the Ecoles and Modern France, and one gets the idea. The modern secular universities effectively took over learning from the Church, and promoted scientific research and nation-based citizenships instead. So, the universities and national identities remain tied by some sort of intellectual umbilical chord to this day.

But that may all be changing. We are currently experiencing one of the severest economic crisis since the Second World War. Once in a lifetime recessions such as this, with the social pains it brings, act as inflection points for civilization, and brings new ideas and concepts on its wake. This recession is no exception. In years immediately preceding the recession, despite the great progress of technologies of globalisation, the human civilization was going the opposite direction intellectually: the reaffirmation of nation-state thinking under the cloak of the theories of ‘clash of civilizations’. However, the crisis suddenly exposed the limitations of nation-state thinking in the face of global integration of technology and transaction – why else should the British taxpayers worry about Greek pensions and Latino homeowners in California – and brought in a new consensus around globalisation.

Admittedly, the debate isn’t completely settled yet. We can go either way from here. Last time, we were in such a crisis, the reactions of big economies were to close the door on emerging powers and bring in an even bigger crisis – the Second World War. This time around, we should be wiser. It is apparent that the old way of G7 consuming and everyone else producing will not work; even the interim solution of expanding the elite club to G20 is not the long-term answer. The only way, perhaps, to continue living the way we do is to create a sustainable structure of sharing prosperity, something the nation-state based thinking has so far fallen short of. So, we need a new wave of globalisation: if Globalisation 1.0 was about globalisation of capital and investment, we need to move towards Globalisation 2.0, which should be about globalisation of skills and opportunities.

And, if this has to happen, the universities, at once the twin brother and midwife of the nation-state thinking, have to bring it along.

There is increasing consensus around the Globalisation of universities, both in the Academic circles and policy-making levels. In the last few weeks, the Indian cabinet, one of the most conservative in the developing world regarding the state control of curriculum and academic accreditation, recommended a bill to the country’s parliament allowing foreign education providers to set up campuses on Indian soil and award degrees which are not locally accredited. Not by coincidence, around 1200 delegates from universities around the world gathered in London in a British Council sponsored conference Going Global, which, over two days in March, discussed the emerging model of the Global university.

The outcome of the conference, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports, is to imagine a new ‘Global Research University’, which goes beyond the limited model as perceived in the Indian bill, current experiments with global campuses in Malaysia, Hong Kong or Abu Dhabi, and even the ‘Multiversity’ model imagined by Clerk Kerr, the then President of the University of California, who saw the modern university as a confederation of multiple constituencies. Challenges persist, but the academic community is currently trying to go beyond the tried-and-tested model, let’s say, of NYU, which sees its Abu Dhabi campus as the ‘Second Revolving Door’ to the campus as in New York, and move towards an unifying model for global research efforts encompassing graduates and academic community from around the world.

It is fair to guess that in building this, technologies of globalisation will come in full play. It will also not to be out of place to hope that the globalisation of universities and knowledge, more than anything else, will help us avoid the ‘nation-state trap’ and create a fairer, more integrated and sustainable, model of globalisation.

Friday, April 09, 2010

The Dimensions of India Experience: Duality

Duality, as in Dualism, is an essential part of the India experience. I said before, whatever you find in India, you will also find the opposite. It is the coexistence that both of opposing, chaotic and diverse world views is the only thing that is truly Indian. India is not an EITHER-OR country, it is mostly an AND country.

This is not to say there are no conflicts in India; those tales are just too well known. But the idea that opposites can coexist, non-violently, is an important idea which remained at the core of the idea of India. I have talked about this again and again while talking about democracy and diversity, but the dualism, coexistence, is quite central to Indian cultural ideas as well.

But duality is different from diversity, which we already discussed. India's huge diversity brings the idea of reconciliation to the fore all the time, but it is still not the variations of caste, class, religion and language which makes you see two Indias at the same time. Rather, it is the tension of the modern versus ancient, an ideological divide at the heart of modern India, which represents the two parallel visions of India, both equally true and none complete by itself, that brings out the duality in the Indian experience.

India had seen many invasion, but all invaders, as an observer mentioned, got enveloped by India. Aryans came from the West (possibly) with their ideas of a single God and finally accepted the animic belief of the native Indians, and ascribed godliness to many elements of nature; the combined religion became the institutional Hinduism as we know it now. The Pathans came in the Middle years and settled in India, gifting it a new variation in its culture, architecture, philosophy and science. Then, it was the turn of the Mongols, who, with the name Mughal, ruled India for three centuries, and brought a political identity of the land; they never left too and became as Indian as anyone else. In history's latest episode, it was the turn of the British, to dominate and colonize India, and to create an unifying economic entity. The British, uniquely, left India about 60 years back, and left their ideas behind too. India, as of this moment, displays this duality, therefore, where certain parts of India have absorbed the English language and are open to the Western ideas, whereas the other parts are much untouched and still unchanged.

The modern Indian history can be seen as the dialectical encounter of these two. A number of observers moaned this divide: Arundhati Roy saw one India leaving in a bus leaving the other India behind. That is a common post-colonial experience in many countries, and Latin America, in its maturity, displays many fissures such a divide create in the society, ultimately undermining the democratic rule and economic stability. However, one can argue that India may be able to take a different route, and is possibly on the road already, because of its usual success with duality. Besides, one can also argue this duality is a transitory phase, and as it happened before, India will be able to absorb and shape modernity in its own image in the decades to come.

It is on this last idea I would wish to spend time on. One can argue that even the Muslim interregnum in India did not end well, and ended up creating a separate nation of Pakistan. So, the story of integration is a myth. This is a valid argument, considering that the proponents of Pakistan have argued on the basis of a 'two nation' theory, and our own believers of hinduvta have accepted such a theory by reflex, arguing Hindus were the original residents of India. Hence, it is worthwhile to stop a moment to discuss the creation of Pakistan in the context of the duality that we see in India today.

Pakistan was a political creation. It is a thoroughly colonial construct, no less than Israel. Its roots are less in the irreconcilable conflicts in India, than within an obsolete sphere-of-influence world view which the late colonial British administrators bestowed on the world. Once they reconciled to the fact that it will be impossible for Britain to hold on to its colonial assets in India in the aftermath of the war, not least because the sublime Anglo-American competition for world influence and access to markets, the British administrators were desperate to cling on to Indian north-west, uniquely strategic whose importance is being felt today. That point of time, though, the considerations were not Islamic fundamentalism in Central Asia or Middle East; the main considerations were to contain the Communist Russia, and keep strategic bases near the Persian Oil reserves [Persia, Iran, was world's largest oil producing country then]. The idea of Pakistan came out of an obscure Cambridge student, therefore, and only during Lord Linlithgow's regime, the Muslim League under Jinnah were encouraged to push forward with the demand[and all other League leaders who sounded slightly divergent from Pakistan demand, like Sikander Hyat Khan or Fazlul Haq, were ignored]. Thus, it was colonial policy creating a political divide, and pushing it forward, rather than the other way round, as it was made to look like. That way, Jinnah was History's greatest poodle, a man consumed in his own ambitions and insecurities, someone, despite his sharp mind and intellect, lost a personal battle to a man much less charismatic, and to extract his revenge and to quell his ego, caused untold miseries and death for millions of people.

This is an instructive story for India. Of course, Jinnah was not alone in this. Congress leaders, with the exception of Gandhi, failed to see the design and accepted quick handover of a partitioned country. They facilitated Lord Mountbatten, who was anyway eager to complete the job and return to London as soon as he can to facilitate the marriage between his nephew, Prince Phillip, and the future queen of England, Elizabeth Windsor. In their eagerness, they overlooked the disconnect that the scheme of partition, a dinner table plan made by the political class, had from the thoughts and ideas of the people of India. In the end, the partition created an artificial country, and expectedly, the political class of Pakistan were never in control over the country they created.

On the other hand, India changed little. Most muslims in India continued to live as they were, oblivious of the two nation theory. If the two nation theory is even remembered today, it lives on in the minds of neo-Nazi Hindus like Narendra Modi. Though he is sure to be ready to destroy the concept of India and ascend into Jinnah's throne for being the second greatest poodle of colonialism in history, unfortunately, the old colonial thinking is in full retreat at this time. What to do with Pakistan is the biggest question that haunts Western capitals today; it is their own Frankenstein and something that is set to consume its own masters at the time of writing.

So, in essence, the creation of Pakistan is not a negation of Indian idea of duality, it actually is an artificial policy proved unsustainable over time. And, so are all the political reflexes in India on Hinduvta lines, which propound the theory of one India. It is against the grain of Indian personality; it will never succeed.

Coming back to the question of Modern versus Ancient contest in India, it feels much like two nations. The ideological divide between the two sides is no less severe, and the possibility of this dividing the country no less remote than the events leading to the creation of Pakistan. But, if recent experiences are any guide, this divide is in retreat and India is winning. India, not its modern or ancient self, but the whole India, which absorbs everything and leave nothing. The key to this duality was in English language, but it seems India is absorbing that: Not just English language is being absorbed in Indian languages, Indian cultural strands are emerging based on English subculture. It takes time, but modernity and Indianness is on a reconciliation path.

So, I shall be an optimist and wait for the emergence of the modern India. It will not be modern as we know it; all English, all urban, all sleek and glory. It will be Indian, Hinglish, Benglish, Teglish; it will be more communitarian than individualistic, more Asian than anything we imagine, more chaotic than we dream of. But, it will still be that unique progressive civilization, based on the idea of tolerance and coexistence, of human dignity regardless of achievement or wealth, of dedication of knowledge and ideas rather than to luxury and consumption. This may sound Utopian and out of place in today's world, but as we move forward and enter into a world where our intellects will be our greatest asset and the scarcity of natural resources will force us to stop our wastefulness, India may be able to offer an alternative civilization model.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

The Dimensions of India Experience: Divinity

My initial guilt about using the word Divinity is now gone. Initially, this was word play, I meant religiosity, but to keep up with my 5 Ds, chose this word, which is actually quite different in meaning. But more I dwelt on India, the word sounded more and more appropriate. Sorry Kerala, India seemed to be the God's own land.

That was flippant, indeed. But, more flippant will be not to believe in God, if you happen to be in India. A British friend told me that she came to believe in God when she saw the traffic in Mumbai. I am now used to the signature British sarcasm, but there are more reasons than just chaos which brings you close to God in India.

God is omnipresent in India. You will always find a shrine, small or big, beautifully maintained or just makeshift, in India. You will watch thousands of people touching their head and muttering a silent prayer as they pass by even a roadside stone which, by chance, looks like an idol. Most Indians, 80% of them, are Hindus, and Hindus are pagan premieres of the world. Hindus have a god for everything. Every river, mountain, sea have a soul and a divine spirit. India gives a crowded feel of divinity, like nowhere else in the World.

I live in Britain, but truth be told, I never felt Pavan [the air god] in English air. But I never fail to smell his presence in heavily polluted air of Kolkata. I am reminded by his presence of his great warrior son, Bhima, one of the five hero brothers of Mahabharata. My thought passes on then to Bhima's elder brother, Yudhistira, who was the son of Dharma, the god of Justice. I feel Dharma is a strange God, as he is another incarnation of Yama, who is the Master of Death, and as an Indian, I understand the connection of death and justice instantly. My mind wafts on to the beautiful story in Mahabharata where Dharma subjected Yudhistira, his own son, to a rather cruel exercise of not being able to quench his thirst till he answered all the questions that Dharma will throw at him. In the end, Yudhistira proved that his heart is in the right place and be able to drink the water. But, water is also the domain of Varuna, who is the rain god. But then the river that flows past my native Kolkata, Ganges, is a goddess by herself, and therefore it always feels pure despite all the dirt floating around.

But, omnipresence of God is so natural to any Indian: the belief is that the God lives inside every human being. Some philosophers have taken that further and made each of us an unique expression of godliness. True, this is the ultimate relativist morality: if I am God, I can do everything, right; but this is also deeply humanist and see the human beings as the source of moral standards.

I know it is wrong to confuse India with Hinduism, but in one way, those two words came from the same source. Hinduism - by its origin - means the religion of the Indians. But, then, an institutionalised form of the religion emerged and took the name; in its present form, it is quite different from being the universal religion of a diverse land. But, that's a tragedy. In India, institutional religion diverged greatly from the original idea of a private conversation with God, and the attempts to impose organized Hinduism on Indians isn't going to do very well.

But this sense of private religion, the mixing of gods and natural world, and living with the omnipresent God, are fundamental Indian beliefs, carried on, to a large extent, by practitioners across the institutional religious divide. The majesticity of nature - whether in Himalayas or in Kerala - reimposes that faith again and again. And, all this, binds Indians together in a continuous view of life, not just the Hindu belief in reincarnation but a near universal view of eternal life around us, and gives us a sense of time rather unique among cultures.

Despite the chaos, India goes on unperturbed. In the midst of all the excitement, it dwells on eternity. The Indian eye searches around for continuity, the Indian mind for the synchronicity. Everything balances in India, nothing is ever lost. Because everything is divine, remember; everything has a soul and a life of its own. No wonder an Indian scientist, Jagdish Chandra Basu, proved that trees are living organisms; he seemed to have known that already.

So, the Indian experience is about feeling the divine, not inside the shrines, but all around you, in everyone you meet and all the time.

Britain's Choice

One month to go for the elections in Britain, and the newspapers united have written off Gordon Brown. The verdict is unanimous: He is too grey, too serious and too unsexy to lead us for next five years. They are saying - spare the horrors, please - the whole newspaper industry will fold if they have to live with Brown for another term.

David Cameron, in more than one sense, will be better. Because he looks better, to start with. Besides, he says a lot, without giving out much, which bodes well for newspapers, which can then analyze and fill the columns. He may be a touch less interesting than Nick Clegg, and may not have the Lib-Dem leader's army of lovers, but he is more plausible.

The public seems to agree. Enough of labour rule, had we not? Brown can't escape the blame for everything that is wrong in our lives, including the fact that most footballers cheat on their wives and most new chart toppers are atrocious. He is clueless about what happens next in our lives, never mind that not even we know. He seems perfect for a whipping boy, for all our failures.

In short, we have a choice: On one hand, we have a serious, know-it-all man, who seems so last century; on the other, we have someone with a vacuous pomposity which attempts to give the impression of understanding without meaning. Yes, that's sort of next century, and next generation. Unfortunately, we are falling in between.

We can take a cue from our cousins. They chose George Bush when faced with a similar choice. Between the unintelligible and the uninteresting, the unintelligible is better; because we should always know that we don't understand much anyway. We are babies, after all. We need soothing, not teaching. But, uninteresting in this TV age is no-no. We don't want old Premiers any more.

We fear the future; we have to. It looks very difficult. We haven't seen the last of this recession. The world looks dangerous. There are wars on, and at the last count, we are still losing, or, winning at a great cost. Whoever we choose, will have decisions to make. But, we must believe in a superhero, who makes great decisions when presented with clear choices; never mind that we don't have any clear choices in our lives anymore. So, fear, lack of control in our own lives, let us prompt to choose entertainment for politics, and vice versa.

We should vote for Cameron.

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

- Theodore Roosevelt

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

- T S Eliot

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