Saturday, March 28, 2015

Bihar Examination Mass Cheating Scandal - Root Cause is Underdevelopment of the State

Before you curse those caught cheating in the state’s matriculation examination, delve into the cause of the malaise.

Even as the Bihar government continues to crackdown on the cheats involved in the copying scandal during matriculation examination by arresting more than 300 across the state and realising penalty of Rs 4.16 lakh, I begin with an anecdote. I was on a work trip to Patna when a stockist of our company from Darbhanga happened to drop by at the office. On enquiring what brought him there, he told me he had come to enrol his 8-year old son at a boarding school. I went on to offer him some unsolicited advice — as is the wont of Bengalis — asking him why he was not looking at a well-known school in Varanasi belonging to the same group of institutions (Krishnamurti Foundation, Rajghat, a sister school of Rishi Valley) where my daughter had studied.
He flummoxed me by saying, “Wahan toh admission already mil chuka hai; lekin woh school sahi ‘competitive’ nahin hai… is (Patna) school se zyada IAS nikalte hain” (My son has got admission in that school already, but it is not that ‘competitive’; this one produces more IAS officer). On being asked why he was so keen that his son became an IAS, he frankly said, “Bahut izzat hai, kamai hai aur power bhi hai… aur,” he said after a little pause, somewhat coyly, “IAS ladke ka liye dahez bhi accha milta hai” (the job earns one social respect, a lot of income, power and… gets you a good amount of dowry when he is married off). I was stumped.
That is not to mean all those climbing the walls of the school were trying to help potential IAS, IFS or IPS officers. But they and their families do betray a collective societal aspiration. In a state that is economically backwards with no industry worth its name, the two primary options for employment remain kheti (farming) and naukri (jobs). As Prime Minister Narendra Modi perceptively points out, with increasingly diminishing land-holdings in villages, it is not viable to accommodate all children in the family farm. So, some are sent out in search of alternative employment. The uneducated migrate to other prosperous cities like Mumbai, Delhi and Kolkata. And, for those who stay back, and have an educational qualification, a sarkari naukri (government sector job) appears to be a low hanging fruit — either ‘purchasable’ or obtainable with some sifarish (recommendation of an influential person).
The meritorious (not just those coming from affluent families) head out for higher education outside, many getting into IITs, top engineering and medical colleges, and others gunning for MBA, going abroad or joining ‘Mission UPSC’ — from Delhi’s Hindu College Hostel or one of the many barsatis and tenements around IIT and the Munirka neighbourhood of Delhi. But, for the great many who stay back, a government job remains the only ray of hope.
This is not a phenomenon limited to Bihar alone. This is true for other BIMARU states like Madhya Pradesh (where there was the infamous employment scam, Vyapam) or West Bengal that witnesses stampede to collect application forms for government School Teachers’ Examination and that have thriving tutorial centres to prepare students for lower level government jobs. Madhya Pradesh may be relatively better off with greater industrialisation and private job creation; West Bengal has seen a massive exodus of young people both educated and ‘non-literate’ though the situation may not be as acute as in Bihar.
Put all this against the background of the poor quality of education in government schools, with truant teachers and unhygienic mid-day meals. What is the level of special assistance provided to the slow learners or students with learning disabilities like dyslexia and dyscalculia? Back-ended incentive like cash rewards for every girl-child passing the matriculation examination can, unless supported by an efficient primary and secondary education system, only aggravate the problem.
All this is not a convoluted argument to justify mass-cheating, the shameful incident that came to light last week. There is, of course, culpability of the students and parents. There is also a responsibility of the state of not providing for invigilation and security at the exam centres. Surely this is not a one-time phenomenon caught so graphically on camera this time. It must have been going on for years. But there is also a need to look beyond the symptoms. One can’t raise the bar without building the capability to cross it. Otherwise, those put under test will, in desperation, use unfair means to cross the seemingly insurmountable hurdle.
The answer, unfortunately, can’t be instantly given. Value systems won’t change overnight, especially if it requires a major social transformation. The long-term solution is economic development of Bihar, for which industry, infrastructure and wealth-generation activities have to come along with improved governance.Nitish Kumar had come to power with the promise of “Surakshit Bihar” (safe Bihar) and “Vikas” (development). Sadly, he has now strayed from that path and set the clock back by at least a decade.
To restart the wheels of progress, he has to swallow some of his ego and prejudices. He did that partly by tying up with old political Lalu, but for a misguided intent and with a wrong person. Nitish Kumar must eschew caste politics, establish law and order and curb corruption with the sincerity and determination he had displayed in his earlier two terms as chief minister.
Another positive step would be not to act a spoilsport on the Land Acquisition Bill, which, if anything, is required to kick-start growth in states like Bihar. Not as he has been asking for — more central dole to dig deeper holes of MGNREGA, jeopardising the future of a self-sufficient and progressive Bihar.
Article first published in Swarajya Magazine (Click here to read)

Friday, March 27, 2015

How to help an Elephant Make a U-Turn

Book Review

How to help an Elephant Make A U-turn – a new approach to leadership and transformational change, G.K. Jayaram, Maven / Rupa, 258 pages

Dear Jaya,

I am taking the liberty of calling you by your first name – since in the ‘’author’s note’’ you invited the reader to ‘talk to you’ (over a mellow drink, at that) rather than simply ‘read’ the book.  Actually – that’s a novel (pun intended) way to have a lesson on leadership and I quite like your style.

I picked you up (no pun intended there) at the Higginbotham’s in Chennai Airport during a long layover between flights.  Over the years I have become a bit wary of books on leadership – with practically every other superannuated executive turning into a leadership coach and writing a book. Much of what they write –  to twist one of your quotes – works neither in practice nor in theory.  But, the green jacket held my attention and what caught my eye were the words “Transformational Change”.  Flipping the pages I found myself being seduced by another term “transcendental leadership’’. So, is this guy talking of personal transformation as a key to change and leadership? – I asked myself and there you got me hooked.

I was fascinated by the concept of RORE – ‘revolution of rising expectation’. What could be more relevant for a country of young people like ours waiting to break free in the world. It is truly an empowered generation with a mind of their own, who believe in their abilities and think they are not less than equal to anyone – what you call PROBE ( Promise in and Belief of Equality). The challenge, therefore, is as much for the business or corporate leader  - as it is for the societal and political leadership – in how to harness this energy, transcend the past as also the immediate and practical (pragmatic) to create transformational change.

I am glad that you have taken the concept beyond the narrow and limited framework of corporate organisation to society at large – because the issues facing leaders dealing with a young restless professionals who see sky as the limit or the small town graduate coming from an humble homes  - no longer recognise any sense of ‘’entitlement” and want to reach the top solely on merit and by dint of their hard work.

Today’s leaders must recognise this tectonic shift (to use a cliché) in attitude and aspirations – otherwise they risk losing talent in organisations just as the old world politicians will find themselves hopelessly disconnected from the ‘gen-next’ voters.
Frankly – I don’t care much for the testimonials and interviews you have laced the book with. To be blunt – they came across to me as your ‘’Infy’’ Groupies or the Bangalore Club cronies – who intrude into our quiet chat at the Bar. Over-laden with the quotes and excerpts from other leadership and management classics the so called “Leader-Speak”  were a distraction. But, I thought it was a great idea to bring in contemporary examples of the Anna movement and the infamous fall of the Indian ‘poster-boy’ of corporate America to bring home the importance of integrity, intensity and imagination in your  3 + 5 Model of Transcendental Leadership.

It’s easy to understand – why Narayana Murthy calls you the “quintessential, friend, philosopher and guide”. I can relate to you as one – virtually – even not having met you in person.



PS: Hope you have gifted an autographed copy to the Prime Minister. The subject would be right up his street. And, even young Arvind Kejriwal – could do with one so that he can “transcend’’  the past mistakes of his own and that of his former mentor  – that you so graphically describe in the book – and move on to a higher order of transformational leadership.

Article first published in Business Today issue April 12, 2015

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Is the Modi-Shah juggernaut losing steam?

Let’s start closer to (my) home –Kolkata.

Since Amit Shah’s Burdwan Rally on January  20th there is visible slow down in BJP’s aggression in West Bengal.  The announcement of big names crossing over from Trinamool and Congress to BJP has  been put on indefinite hold.  Even accepting – the government in Delhi has no control over the affairs of the CBI – the investigation seems to have cooled off a little with the release of one MP and the “non-arrest” of  Mukul Roy. It is quite likely that Madan Mitra, the other minister in custody, will also be soon out on bail – taking the heat off Mamata Banerjee.  The BJP has also been studiously cautious in associating with Roy or responding to his overtures.

Although the TMC MP’s have been belligerent in Parliament, BJP’s response to their shenanigans  have been somewhat muted with at least one instance of Modi trying to reach out to the Trinamool MPs during his reply to the debate on the President’s Address in Rajya Sabha.  The Mamata – Modi meeting that followed – despite the stiff body-language  caught on camera – was also significant. It’s possible that –  strategy has been recalibrated keeping in mind the challenges of the Budget Session – with several key legislations on the anvil.  But, it also can’t be ruled out that the moderation is also an outcome of a more realistic assessment of BJP’s immediate prospects in West Bengal after the recent Lok-Sabha and Assembly By-polls  (further corroborated by Opinion Polls for the forthcoming Kolkata Municipality Elections – where BJP is finding it difficult to even mobilise candidates). Now one hears PM  Modi may be visiting Kolkata soon to follow through on his meeting with Mamata Banerjee in Delhi.

In next door Bihar – one observes a similar slackening of tempo. First, the Manjhi experiment went horribly wrong. Although the Nitish – Lalu flirtation has fallen just short of consummation – it has brought both of them back to the centre-stage commanding greater share of voice and TRP.  At the same time – BJP leaders like Sushil Modi seem to have gone into hibernation. Other than an occasional sound-byte from  Shahnawaz Hussain  (Ravi Shankar Prasad usually speaks on  other issues – in any case his mass base in the state is questionable), Rajiv Rudy or Giriraj Singh – rest of BJP stalwarts from Bihar are deafeningly silent and happy to listen to Sharad Yadav holding forth on the relative physical attributes of women on  either side of the Vindhyas.

While it is undeniable that the Delhi rout was a major jolt for  Modi-Shah leadership – mercifully AAP’s own internecine war has shifted the focus from it and hopefully the initial embarrassment in Jammu and Kashmir has been – at least for the time being  – contained.  The news from old BJP ruled states like Chattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh are not much to write home about – with both Raman Singh and Shivraj Singh Chouhan under the shadow of scams (PDS and Recruitment) in their respective states.  The newly formed ministries in Jharkhand and Maharshtra are still settling down with their own set of challenges.  With Naveen Patnaik still going strong  Odisha remains largely out of bound for BJP at the moment.

It is conceivable that Modi-Shah have tactically decided to save the powder for another day while fighting more important battles in Parliament.  But, the overwhelming impression is their juggernaut has been stalled on its track.  While Modi can definitely chose his battles in a 5 year race – to win the war he would need to get the economy moving quickly.

PS: Since the article was published - the Government managed to get the crucial Coal and Mining Reforms Bills passed in the Rajya Sabha with the support of most major political parties - except Congress, the Left (CPIM + CPI) with the JDU and RJD staging a walk-out. However, the fate of the Land Acquisition Bill still hangs in balance.

Article first published in Swarajya Magazine (click here for original link)

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Red Queens and Silver Haired Peacocks - Colourful World of Corporate Espionage

I too had my dalliance with corporate "lobbying" – but obviously not a good one as I can’t tell you anything about the views of senior ministers on adultery and extra-marital affairs or juicy bits on real affairs between corporate mata-haris and journalists.
Sometimes our collective public innocence can be touching. The recent hullabaloo over the discovery of a "corporate espionage" racket in important ministries and consequent arrests has this sense of déjà vu. Corporate lobbyists have existed probably since the inception of business and should not have come as a surprise to anyone. That big businesses have elaborate networks of contacts and sources to access sensitive government documents by means foul or fair is elementary knowledge even for a cub reporter.
In a command and control economy, still to outgrow the hangover of Licence Raj - business fortunes have been made either through influencing government policy in their favour or using prior knowledge of impending changes for windfall gains. It is all par for the course in a world where business and politics feed off each other. In the '90s – there were apocryphal stories about the famous liaison office of a large conglomerate in the commercial wing of a five-star hotel in central Delhi where the first drafts of government notifications were reportedly prepared. This spawned a virtual industry – euphemistically called "public advocacy" or business intelligence consultants – with Radiia bees and silvered haired peacocks at one end and rogue hacks like Saikia on the other – not to mention a chain of touts, pimps, brokers and wheeler dealers in-between.  
So the news isn’t about the existence of "corporate espionage" but why the new government chose to come down heavily upon them – making it a point to leak news of raids and arrests – implicating both small and big fishes. One can think of a few reasons:
1.) The government wished to drive the fear of God among a compromised bureaucracy and corporate houses whose business models rested on commercial intrigues.
2.) It wished to send out a message of transparency and fair-play to international investors – who may have been shying away from India due to negative publicity  about corruption.
3.) Correct its image about being excessively pro-business and impressions of indulging in "crony-capitalism".
4.) To spite specific businessmen towards whom the current dispensation are not well disposed.
It could be all or some of the above reasons.  At the same time – it needn’t be any of them too. For example – if the government’s intention was to pick on one or two particular players – why did they have to cast the net so far and wide. Similarly – it would be naive to believe all foreign investors shy away simply at the thought of corruption. What businessmen want is speed and predictability. Even MNCs are used to operating in environments far more corrupt than India. Again in an age when examination papers are leaked over Whatsapp – spies don’t need to rely on peons and photocopiers to steal documents.
Modi is too seasoned a politician not to recognise the symbiotic relation between business and government. But, he also realises it is potential Frankenstein that needs to be kept in a cage. To my mind – therefore – this is Modi’s way to create "space" for himself and his team to govern – breaking from the stranglehold of bureaucrats-business nexus. The message he wishes to send out is – I am the boss and play by my own script, you can’t dictate the agenda to me. This is also borne out from disparate list of companies caught in the investigation net. He has also, advisedly one feels,  kept business honchos at a distance by not appointing any of them to high office – as rumoured from time to time. If the grapevine has to be believed – he even ticked off one of his ministers for displaying backslapping bonhomie with his "Bombay Club" pals in early days of the government.
Having said that – "advocacy" per se is not a bad word. Many of us would look to make an honest living out of it. It provides the platform for exchange of ideas and opens up channels of communication between business and government that if practised responsible within an ethical construct works to the advantage of both. Abroad lobbying is both legitimate and institutionalised – with very explicit terms of engagement and ethics. India needs to develop such a culture of transparency and trust. For this enlightened business leaders have to show the way and industry bodies must also play a pro-active role rising above their present penchant for event management.  Otherwise Coalgate and Spectrum scams will soon be back on the scene.

Article first published in the @DailyO_ (click here to read the original piece)

Friday, March 06, 2015

Non-aggression is a "Non-Option" for Modi Government in Parliament

There is a great deal of sadistic joy being derived by politicians, media pundits and social media “liberalati” on the apparent “setback” suffered by the government – after an united opposition forced an amendment to the motion of thanks for the President’s Address. Media reaction ranged from “embarrassment” to “government left red-faced”. The Trinamool Congress rejoiced at their pyrrhic victory – by an unprecedented act of convergence with arch-rival CPI(M) - their Parliamentary party leader, Derek O’Brien, calling it “the Rajya Sabha’s equivalent of a vote of No Confidence”. Many a commentator has already written the epitaph of the Land Acquisition, Insurance and other bills in the parliamentary pipeline saying Modi’s arrogance is going to cost BJP dearly.
It is unlikely that the PM Modi hadn’t bargained for any reaction– after what was by any standards a provocative speech. If he left the House immediately on completion of his speech – without waiting for any questions or rejoinders – it must have been a pre-mediated move and not guided solely by considerations of parliamentary protocol. While the absence of BJP MPs from the house was singularly unpardonable – they being around would not have made much difference as the NDA is hopelessly short of numbers in the Rajya Sabha.
It is debatable if better “floor management” could have saved the day. Some feel the BSP, SP and BJD may have been persuaded not to go against the government at least on this occasion - but expecting the Congress and CPI(M) to have yielded after the vitriol that was poured over them in both houses (in the Rajya Sabha and the Lok Sabha ) was wishful thinking.
Narendra Modi’s combative mood was evident from his swipes as “Zamana badal gaya hain, sunna padega ji” – not to mention, his going for the jugular on MNREGA in the Lok Sabha - which was undoubtedly targeted squarely at Sonia Gandhi sitting across the aisle. And, oh boy – did the message hit home? One had to only watch Madam’s expression on TV to know. Therefore, if he chose to be aggressive it must have been advisedly so. This might hold some clue on what could the government’s strategy in the days ahead is going to be as it braces up to negotiate some vital pieces of legislation on which rests not just BJP’s economic reforms agenda – but also, as the Prime Minister so lucidly explained , many of the welfare and developmental initiatives linked to them.
In an earlier article even this author had argued that Modi should – perhaps – have adopted a more “inclusive” or reconciliatory approach in governance carrying the opposition with him to the extent possible. That he has chosen not to do so - can’t be due to his ego and authoritarian temperament alone. Whether one likes him or not, there is no underestimating Modi’s political acumen – as he himself chided the opposition in Parliament. If he thought – offering the olive branch to the Opposition was the solution, he would have done so long back. It’d be simplistic to suggest he has been blinded by power not to see the obvious.
Erudite political analysts have criticised the “modern day Alexander” streak in Modi – with Amit Shah being his proverbial “Ashwamedh” – suggesting this is creating deep insecurity not only among BJP’s opponents but also its allies. It is also being argued – after Jharkhand, Kashmir and, now, most recently the Delhi rout – this strategy has run its course and can only yield diminishing returns, if not become outright counter-productive, going forward. Therefore – if Modi has decided to play on the front-foot it must only be after careful consideration. Even before the elections – Modi had figured out he had to go it alone all the way. None of the left of centre parties would risk jeopardising their traditional vote-bank (dilute their labels of “secular” or “friends of the poor and farmers’’ – as opposed to industrialists) for the fear of total extinction. Little has changed even after the elections. Those – who had to switch sides, have done so lock, stock and barrel (though one is yet to see any real exodus yet). For others it’s too early to give up their core “positioning”, which they are only trying to consolidate it by strange mating rituals driven by strong Darwinian instincts of self-preservation, as it were. And, to expect the Congress to play a “bi-partisan” role – under their current self-centred leadership – would be dreaming of Ram Rajya indeed.
Another learning for Modi government has been - alliances have been formed through hard-negotiations by subtle show of strength and occasional brinkmanship. They have to be held in place also by exercising the “upper-hand” at all times. Slightest signs of faltering or weakness – and partners like the Shiv Sena immediately start flexing muscles demanding a fresh pound of flesh. Allies will play ball only as long as BJP is in the driver’s seat. For that Modi-Shah’s expansionist forays have to continue relentlessly.
Though the merits of a strategy can only be judged in hindsight – and therein lie the test of a leader – for the moment “non – confrontational” parliamentary politics is not an option for Modi government. If civilised discourses and genteel persuasion were the solution – then Arun Jaitley’s cerebral speeches and dinner diplomacy would have won the day. But, here we are dealing with mauled tigers – which won’t be tamed just by applying poultice on their wounds. Sure, backroom negotiations will happen. But, they will have to be with real carrots and sticks on the table – and not soft cajoling and coaxing - over litti-chokha (in any case Bengali “fish-fry” is a no-no for vegetarian Modi).
But, in the final analysis, Modi is the prime minister today by virtue of an overwhelming popular mandate. Ultimately he will have to carry the message back to the people. In this, he is fighting a lonely battle. It is ironical that Modi’s biggest gift – communication - is also proving to be his Achilles Heel. Modi’s only cheerleaders are his band of hand-picked loyal ministers - mostly the young lot. By choice, he has marginalised the old guard. The RSS and its nominees in Parliament have little stake in Modi’s reformist agenda. There will always be that uneasy tension with the old regional satraps – like Raman Singh and Shivraj Chouhan. Seniors like Rajnath, Sushma and Gadkari – who share a mutual wariness with Modi - would play it safe and won’t stick their necks out for Modi. To that extent, he suffers from the same handicap as the UPA, which was often called a government of “technocrats and bureaucrats”. This leaves only Modi alone to control the narrative – with little help that he can get from Arun Jaitley and Amit Shah. He did it successfully – during his run up to the Lok Sabha - managing his entire campaign out of a war-room in Gandhinagar with a crack team (and, probably, an international Communication Consultant – as many allege). But, he can’t remain the lone crusader when he is the PM, as the position itself puts major constraints on him like we saw during the Delhi elections.
At present Modi has the entire Opposition, NGOs, media left-lib intellectuals and some sections of businessmen rallying to derail him. So far, Modi has managed to successfully neutralise (even if for the time being) the international lobby. He could isolate another vital link in the chain by co-opting the media - who – feeling left out as jilted lovers – would be too willing to queue up and offer their hand – if only Modi whispers “Barkis is willing”. It may not honeymoon on a bed of roses thereafter – but life can certainly be a bit less stressful.

Article first published in @DailyO_ (click here to read)