Sunday, January 18, 2009

A weekend of awards

Suddenly Omar Abdullah has become the poster boy of Corporate India. He has certainly got “star appeal” and India Inc, as it has come to be fashionably called, seem to have made this great ‘post-Obamatic’ discovery of “younger politicians” as potential agents of change (keeping the butter warm and soft, ready for application on another scion in waiting – should the contingency arise after the forthcoming general elections, à la circa 1984 - if you understand what I mean!!). Otherwise, it is difficult to explain the choice of this third generation Kashmiri “lion” cub as the Chief Guest for an award function of a respected Business Weekly, in Mumbai last Friday (which I had to attend on a call of duty). His only tenuous link with the city, we were told, was that, he went to college at Sydenham and his “corporate” credentials come from his having been a trainee at ITC and a Manager at the Oberois (who then ran a property in Srinagar, by the Dal Lake)before he took his plunge into the family business of Kashmir politics.

The corporate brass turned out in full strength – including a few odd numbers like a leading Urologist, who probably holds some little secrets of their inside tracts. And, strangely young Omar arrived not just with his wife (which would be understandable) but also his father in tow – like protective mothers of young starlets, who accompany their nubile daughters on out-of-town shoots, presumably to keep predators at bay or to ensure that they are not short-changed on pay and perks.

the Pandit and the Sheikh

Personally, I was never enamoured of the Abdullahs. I find them a bit like the Koirala family of Nepal – on whom successive Governments in Delhi (I am advisedly refraining from saying: the ‘Indian Government’) have over-invested in the past 60 years. Until very recently, New Delhi always thought that the Koiralas were our ‘best bet’ – and continued to back them covertly and overtly through the years. But, everytime the Koiralas came to power - Delhi became a distant friend and they found virtue in other neighbourly and regional ties – be it across the Himalyas to the North or a bit further beyond the western borders of India. The Indian establishment tried to retro-justify this ‘lack of reciprocation’ as compulsions of local politics – only to repeat the folly again in future.

Politics on the Golf Course

The long saga of the Nehru-Gandhi family’s fraternal foibles with the old Sheikh is well known. And, one still remembers the National Conference’s minor flirtation with the BJP and NDA. The ascent of the motor-biking Farooq was greeted with as much enthusiasm as we now see over his son – only to realize in no time that, he is a better partner on the Golf Course than in the political mine-fields of Kashmir. Therefore, I am a bit skeptical about this euphoria over the anointment of Omar as the heir of the ‘riyasat’ and was not in the least surprised, when he declared at the same august gathering ( in the course of an otherwise very impressive speech) - “Pakistan is not an enemy of India …but there are elements within Pakistan ( comprising about 99.9% of the population, I would reckon) who do not want normal bi-literal relations with India”.

The Corporate ‘Dada Saheb Phalke’

If the choice of Omar Abdullah as the G-o-H was intriguing, the selection of Bikki (P.R.S.) Oberoi as the “Businessman of the Year” was equally baffling. I wouldn’t have had a problem if he was awarded a “Dada Saheb Phalke” equivalent award of the Corporate world for his “Lifetime Achievements”. But what was his special achievement in the last year to merit this recognition ? I couldn't simply get it. From the various laudatory speeches, one almost got the feeling that he was being honoured for the 26/11 attack on his flagship property – which, by their own public admission, was the favourite haunt and watering hole of many of jury members (some, infact, had their offices and homes right next to it and, so, had witnessed first-hand the events of those 3 fateful days). By the same token Ratan Tata should be nominated for Bharat Ratna for the onslaught withstood by The Taj.

But, the real entertainment of the evening was 6 top businessmen coming on stage to offer their prescription on how to tackle terrorism. It was hard to believe that, people of their stature with extraordinarily sharp minds could come up with such puerile analysis of and even more banal suggestions. I thought, 6th grade students would have done better if they were asked to write an essay on the subject. The first – an young steel baron – talked of how industrial development was the only way to solve the terrorist problem and offered to fly down with some of his business cronies to suggest ways of industrializing the state. (In his speech – Omar was quick to point out that, he hadn’t come to invite people to set up industries in Kashmir – as his state couldn’t offer the infrastructure and skilled manpower required for it. He would, instead, like them to provide vocational training that would help Kashmiris find jobs in main-land India. A sure conduit for Pakistan to export terrorists from across the border and infiltrate our industries – some security experts might argue!!)

This reminded me of an apocryphal anecdote that used to do its round in my old company. A project team had gone to Srinagar – at the behest of the GoI – in the early 80s to explore the possibility of setting up a Detergent Packing plant in the Valley. On asking about the security situation – it seems a government official told them nonchalantly (he was joking - I’m sure) – ‘what’s your problem? You are a multi-national – so your plant will either belong to Hindustan Lever or will go to Lever Bros Pakistan”.

Tackling terror with paranoia and wazwan

The second was a top banker – who provided a brilliant 3P formula for tackling terror: Pillars, Paranoia and Pakistan. First – he said we need to strengthen the ‘pillars’ of society (very original !!), then we need to create enough “paranoia” and finally tackle Pakistan. Tauba, Tauba !!. ( For a moment – when he mentioned 3Ps – I thought he was referring to the Pakistan Peoples Party).

Then came the flamboyant liquor baron turned air-line tycoon and part time politician (who, incidentally – as I gathered from an impeccable source - had just returned from a ‘self-financed’ junket to Srinagar and Gulmarg – gorging on the fabulous ‘Wazwans’ - to celebrate the accession. Some say, he is angling for a rajya Sabha ticket from the state). Speaking with his familiar élan, he didn’t miss the opportunity to plug his airline and spent some time discussing the problem he has in docking his yacht at the Gateway – from which he surmised that the terrorists couldn’t have landed there without the complicity of the locals. He also shared his worry on the very ‘real’ possibility of one of his airliners being hijacked or blown-up. Both fair points – but not particularly luminescent in my limited view.

But that’s all that I could take. I decided to make a quiet exit (seated on one of the last rows being the habitual back-bencher that I always was). While walking out - I reflected that it’s not the business of corporate honchos to hold discourses on terrorism, just as politicians should desist from lecturing on Corporate Governance.

Part II: 'Scams' accha hai

Yesterday was the mother of all corporate awards – the ET(Economic Times) Excellence Awards (which was originally scheduled for October 28th – at The Trident) for which the Prime Minister had flown down. Needless to say that, anybody who is somebody in the corporate galaxy was there. Obviously, I was not one among them. Have been to some of the earlier ET Awards by default - and found them to be exceedingly boring affairs (like most corporate award functions usually are) despite getting the 'glam-quotient' up with the likes of Katrina Kaif to making star appearances (don't forget VJ's clout in Bollywood and the Glamour world) as Corporate 'item numbers'. In this mornings newspaper I read, the PM spoke at length on Corporate Governance apropos Satyam and Corporate India listened in "rapt attention". I'm sure he must have made some very pertinent observations and recommendations (not for nothing Raju Narisetti - former Editor of MINT and now Managing Ed of Washington Post - had written that he would make an excellent 'op-ed writer). But, Singh is not the most inspirational orator even at his best - so I wondered how many in the audience were actually listening.

It was a wonderful gesture - though, on the part of ET to honour The Taj staff - Karambir, Kang, Hemant Oberoi , Raymond Bickson and Mahavir Rathore (the Head of Security) for the 26/11. On behalf of The Oberois, I believe, the award was received by - who else ? - P R S Oberoi himself. But, it was quintessential ET to claim that, Oberoi had specially flown down from Delhi only for the awards !!

Instead, I went for a very different kind of award function in the suburbs billed as the ‘Product of the Year (POY)” Awards. It was more of lively, 'high-voltage' entertainment and the awards were almost incidental. POY works broadly on these lines. They run some kind of a market research (totally “independent” and “not rigged”, Charu – who heads POY in India, assures me) for the Brands that register and on topping the category they are awarded the “Product of the Year” certificate – which the company can use on the payment of a “fee”. (Click here to read the concept) I asked Charu - "isn’t it a 'scam'?". A ‘scam’ it may be – she threw it back at me with her signature laughter - but a “scam that works”. It seems that, empirical evidence has shown, on an average the winners witness a 10 per cent to 15 per cent upwards increase in sales. “Come for the awards”, she told me, “I promise it will be fun”. And, fun it was for sure.

While driving back home I concluded that, 'scams' are far more interesting than the real awards.