Sunday, June 19, 2016

What do we really know about Priyanka Gandhi ?

Click here to read original article in +DailyO India Today 

Hope Priyanka campaigns outside Amethi, Rae Bareli.
– Ghulam Nabi Azad, India Today

The clamour for Priyanka Gandhi to come to the forefront is gaining traction. “Priyanka lao, Congress bachao” — has been the refrain among Congress workers in Uttar Pradesh for quite some time now.

Of late, many well-wishers of the Congress in the media have also joined the chorus or been co-opted to endorsing the prescription. Therefore, Azad’s statement is no surprise and is part of a carefully crafted “soft launch” strategy to use a marketing parlance. Yet, it is loaded with presumptions. Let us examine.

It is believed Priyanks made Rahul agree to that disastrous interview with Arnab Goswami.
Very little is known about Priyanka Gandhi, not just to the general public, but also to large sections of Congressmen and leaders — beyond her stunning looks, charming smile, elegant cotton saris and hair-style that reminds people of her grandmother. The rest are largely impressions gathered from snippets on TV and occasional crisp sound bites — mostly while campaigning for her mother or brother in the family constituencies of Amethi and Rae Bareli.

Beyond this, her rare extended interaction with the press and public was in an interview with a high-profile news anchor some years back, which not many would have watched given the paltry viewership of English news channels in India. I remember it for two revelations. First, that she owes her excellent Hindi to Mrs Teji Bachchan — mother of Amitabh Bachchan. It was, perhaps, the only acknowledgement in many years by any Gandhi about the contribution of the Bachchans to their family. Second, her remark about why she takes her children along on constituency tours. This, for me, was a clear indication that she wants her children to also join the family political enterprise.

Everything else is largely speculation, calibrated leaks or carefully planted seeds. For example, it is said that she is a great cook and the evidence cited is the samosas and idlis she serves to the staff in her political secretariat (that could well have been made by her kitchen help or easily ordered in from Sukh Sagar).

Not much is known about her political acumen — except that she is a key member of the Gandhi family council.

It is generally believed she was the one who made Rahul Gandhi agree to that disastrous interview with Arnab Goswami on Times Now — which, by popular consensus, was the last nail in the coffin of Congress campaign for 2014 elections. If that is correct, one cannot give her high scores for political judgment and media strategy.

Also read: Prashant Kishor can’t make Congress win UP. Rahul Gandhi won’t
There are other rumours, or shall we say gossip — about her temper, mood swings and arrogance — but few dare speak of them above hushed tones.

Though it is said that, there is nothing “private” about public personalities, it would not be proper to talk about her personal life. But since she has given no definitive indication of her aversion to entering politics — it is not unfair for us to expect her to clarify her position on various allegations against the family.

Here, one is making a distinction advisedly between “family” (sasuraal) and “paternal family” (maaika) as is the custom of this country. Like she asserts with a great deal of justifiable pride, “Main Rajiv Gandhi ki beti hoon” — one would have liked to hear her say: “Robert Vadra mera pati hain” (not “Main Robert Vadra ki patni hoon” or “Main is ghar ki bahu hoon”,feminists take note) — as per Indian tradition, which the Gandhi family avers by. While Sonia Gandhi takes every opportunity to remind us she is the “daughter-in-law” of the Gandhis, we have not heard Priyanka make any such claims about being a “Vadra bahu”.

So far, there is not much of empirical evidence available on her political fungibility, except that she displays streaks of Indira Gandhi — that can be good or bad, depending on which traits one is alluding to. If by any chance, she has traces of the Emergency avatar of her grandmother, or the 1984 riots image of her father, then there is enough reason for the country to worry.

Therefore, for the present, it has got to be a pure leap of faith for Congressmen, Congress supporters, Gandhi family retainers and fan clubs alike — banking entirely on her dynastic credentials and charisma.
Originally published at +DailyO India Today 

Monday, June 13, 2016

In the age of Social Media companies cannot be ham-handed in handling employee exits

Much before ‘happy exits’ had become fashionable in the corporate world, HUL had learnt the trick to keep its ex’s happy and involved.

Article first published in Click here

The catch line of Hindustan Lever (I am advisedly making a distinction with the new Hindustan Unilever or HUL– old Leverites would understand why) at campus recruitments used to be “We don’t have jobs to offer, only careers”. 

The joke within the company was “HLL is a company you worked not for the salary but to die for or retire”. Salaries in those days were a pittance when compared to foreign banks and even other MNCs – the alternative destination for young MBAs. But, HLL’s superannuation benefits were the best in industry. And, in the odd unfortunate instance, when some manager passed away in harness, the company went the extra-mile to look after the bereaved family.

Just like modern marriages – professional bonds had to necessarily become flexible and open ended with changing times. So, from the 90s onwards – it was no longer “till retirement or ‘death do us part’”.

First exodus from Levers happened when Pepsi Co entered India. One lady headhunter who had earned the sobriquet of ‘man-eater’ – made not just a fortune but also her career out of those prized catches. Still such was the level of corporate chauvinism at HLL – those who quit were seen as prodigal sons of the family, who were lured by lucre.

Cynical bosses quipped disparagingly – “it is not Lehar Pepsi but Lever Pepsi”.  Similarly, Whirlpool India was snidely called Leverpool.

This was also the time there was a change of guard at the top at Levers. Correlation was automatically drawn between the new leadership and the unrest below. A business fortnightly was quick to pick up the story with a cover on ‘Lever Leavers’. Some of the people interviewed were understandably not kind to the company. They cribbed about the slow velocity of professional growth – still stuck on the old formula of people moving in ‘batches’. However, significantly what this media coverage brought home was the need for ‘happy parting’ – just as it is fashionable to say in relationships nowadays ‘Divorce – and remain friends forever’.

Cynical bosses quipped disparagingly – “it is not Lehar Pepsi but Lever Pepsi”. Similarly, Whirlpool India was snidely called Leverpool.

Till that time, in most staid old corporates official ‘farewells’ were reserved only for retiring employees or those who moved on transfers. Resignation was viewed almost as an act of treachery. It was deemed politically incorrect to have ‘send-off’ parties for those leaving the company. Sometimes, a few close co-workers would go out for a ‘parting drink’. Not any longer. Companies now sponsor farewells for employees who quit – celebrating their next ‘big-break’ - even when they are joining competition.

Organisations have realised – every separation need not be bitter. In fact – most separations these days are like divorce by mutual consent. With organisations shrinking, becoming flatter and the pyramid narrowing more sharply at the top – attrition is no longer a bad word, even in the old brick and mortar companies. Firms now have to willingly let go people, while many more – reading the writing on the wall – move on before it is too late.

In the Indian context this is a transitional phase – as companies move from a paternalistic culture to an adult-to-adult relationship mode. For those who have grown up in a benign environment – this sudden shift in gear to an emotion neutral pace can be unsettling. Separation blues are, therefore, natural. Withdrawal symptoms set in easily. Mature organisations have learnt to deal with the process intelligently and, if one may add, caringly.

The potential of damage by a disgruntled ex-employee is immense. Some old-style management and HR practitioners with an industrial relations mindset underestimate the risks of being trapped in the old belief that no individual can take on the might of a giant organisation.

Not every unhappy former executive will take a company to court. But, in an age of social media ‘knowledge workers’ are as empowered as consumers. Besides, there are innumerable ways a hurt or jilted ex-employee can get even with his former employers – even while remaining below the radar, so to speak.

In ‘marketing’ they say, for every consumer complaint – there are a hundred dissatisfied customers who are too lazy to speak up. But, today one tweet or Facebook post can cause an avalanche of protests and many companies have learnt at a cost. In the case of people – one resignation of a star executive can create a wave of exodus. Word gets around in no time. Bitter partings leave behind a stink that also affects remaining employees – who wait their turn for similar step-fatherly treatment.

Growing companies can scantly afford such bad PR is this day and age of ‘war for talent’. Employer Brand – once destroyed – take years to rebuild. Therefore, smart HR leaders realise – taking old analogy of camels in an Arab’s tent – if you must let a camel go, better leave the creature happy and ‘toilet trained’.

The old HLL had the practice of calling its former directors to share the annual performance of the company, to keep them posted of latest developments and seek their counsel. It was routine practice for directors travelling to other cities – to call retired managers and ex-colleagues for drinks and dinner.

One of the first imperatives in working out separation packages – is not to count the small change and be gracious (if not generous) to a fault. Bureaucratic delays – are a major cause of disenchantment. Some organisations – turn cold towards employees no sooner they put in the papers, putting them on a merry-go-round ride of archaic policies and procedures. Unless someone is being fired on disciplinary ground or integrity issues it is advisable to make him/her feel like a member of the family setting out into the larger world and wish them luck. It is always a good feeling – if the employee walks out with a cheque in hand and smile on the face.

Exit interviews count a lot and should not be an exercise of going through the motions. Lot of angst can be dissipated over an empathetic chat – not just one to tick the boxes.

One has seen bosses – who dodge EIs fearing a spill out of their dirty secrets. Good learning organisations treat this as an opportunity to gather genuine feedback – that employees may otherwise be shy of sharing when on the rolls. A dinner or a drink with boss’ boss or the CEO in case of senior executives – followed by a token personalised gift of appreciation – works wonders.

But, progressive corporates don’t stop at that. They make a conscious effort to stay connected with former colleagues creating an alumni association of sorts. Annual get-togethers and invitation to special occasions like new facilities inaugurations and major product launches – help maintain an active positive relationship. Social Media has made this much easier with WhatsApp Groups and Facebook pages creating a fraternity of former colleagues. Very often the HR community subtly inspire these initiatives.

Much before all this became fashionable – even in the pre Internet days – the old HLL had the practice of calling its former directors to share the annual performance of the company, to keep them posted of latest developments and seek their counsel. It was routine practice for directors travelling to other cities – to call retired managers and ex-colleagues for drinks and dinner. These gestures went a long way to keep the fraternal links alive.

Have seen organisations whose former employees turn into their biggest critics. If current incumbents go to seek business from any of them – they are most likely to be disappointed. A good test would be wangling an invite to their homes and see which brands they use now. One can be almost certain they are not of their old company – such is the level of subliminal animosity.

At the other extreme – there are more than a 100 ex-Lever’s managers holding CXO positions across industries. They are, perhaps, the best brand ambassadors of the company – who keep it still at the top of the charts at campuses despite many new flavours – banks, IT, dotcoms, PE firm, International consultancy firms and now start-ups – coming and going each season.

That’s what differentiates an institution from a company.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

From Panchsheel to 'High Five'

Modi in US

Prime Minister Narendra Modi (C) shakes hands with members of Congress after addressing a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol June 8, 2016 in Washington, DC. PIC/AFP. (photo courtesy ABP News)

Article first published in +ABP NEWS Click here

Is it just we Indians that lose all sense of objectivity — while judging the performance of our leaders abroad? Or does it happen only when Narendra Modi speaks to an international audience? With him — critiques and supporters — tend to ignore substance and content to focus on form, accent, pronunciation, attire and historical gaffes.

Surely Americans made fun of Bushisms, disagreed and criticized his policies — but none disrespected “The President”. The same was true for Sarkozy, perhaps. And, I am willing to bet though his “democratic” detractors may ridicule Donald Trump — should he be elected POTUS their attitude will change overnight.

I recall at an event in New Delhi in which Robert Giuliani was speaking. A British delegate from Hong Kong asked a question referring to Bush as “Rambo”. Oh boy, one had to see to believe how Giuliani tore him apart to shreds. That’s what I call national pride.

The real point to note after a speech — in my view  -is neither form nor even content — but impact. This is where Modi scores above many other world leaders of the day. I am even willing to grant that — Americans are trained and programmed to clap, cheer and rise for standing ovations. Therefore, it doesn’t really matter whether they stood up 60+ times for #Modi and only 33 times for Man Mohan Singh. What really matters is how much of Modi’s speech has registered and resonated with them — what jarred, perhaps — and what was the overall perception and ultimate takeaway.

True Rajiv Gandhi also created an impression. So, would have Nehru and Indira Gandhi in the context of their times. But, a few crucial differences have emerged since then. First, the world order has changed since the end of the cold war. Just as nature abhors vacuum — a menacingly rising China is fast filling up space given away in the disintegration of the Soviet Union. But, even more significant is the rise of terror (largely Islamic) across the world. On all these scores India’s strategic importance for the US has exponentially increased.

In this revised equation — India is, arguably, the only viable entity to offer some degree of foil to China in South Asia. All other countries in the region — not just Pakistan but Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Myanmar would only be too willing play footsie (and, more) with China. On fighting terror — the trustworthiness of these countries — especially — Pakistan is even more suspect.
Of course, for the US — Pakistan is not wholly dispensable. If not anything — it has huge potential of damage. So despite bluffing them on Osama and acting as double agents for Taliban — the US can’t afford to dump them altogether. But, certainly Pakistan cannot hope to remain the favourite Asian nephew of the Americans.

One can justifiably argue that, any other Indian Prime Minister in Modi’s place would have also caught on to this reality and recalibrated foreign policy accordingly. But, herein lies the importance of body language and confidence.

Modi’s success lies in seizing the moment and hitting the message home. No one would have the illusion that India can claim a status of an ‘equal’ with America. But, it can certainly expect to be regarded as the “first among equals” — when it comes to America’s Asia game plan. Here Modi has played his cards eminently well and through a series of smart moves become from a “persona non-grata” to a good-friend of Barrack  – even exchanging high fives in private — if some reports are to be believed.

A long way really from  -the pious platitudes of Panchsheel, Non-Alignment and the “good-friends” spiel.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

Mamata Banerjee’s new term: Poriborton has to start from within

To make her place permanent in the hearts of Bengalis—the Didi for all times to come—‘poriborton’, like charity must begin from within

Article first published in +Mint  Click here to read

At his first rally in Kolkata—in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha election, Narendra Modi called for Dada (Pranab Mukherjee) in Rashtrapati Bhavan, Didi (Mamata Banerjee) in West Bengal and (Narendra) Bhai in Delhi. Two years down the line, on the second anniversary of the Modi government, that formulation has indeed fallen into place. And significantly, in a Congress-mukt (Congress-free) form—since Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress opted for an Ekla Chalo Re (Go-it-alone) act in the recent state assembly election.

Whether one subscribes to the theories of tacit deals in Delhi or not, the equations on the ground have subtly changed. With the odd coupling of the Left and the Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) 10% vote share has become a critical variable that Banerjee can no longer ignore. Whether it was media hype or wishful thinking that created an illusion of a late surge for the Left-Congress ‘Jot’, (alliance) it has left even the old faithful dejected about the future of any anti-TMC configuration in the state. It is entirely conceivable, a chunk of this section may well switch to BJP in 2019. Therefore, no matter how much of shadow boxing and verbal fencing Trinamool and BJP might indulge in public—one can safely expect to see more of “issue-based” support in Parliament—starting with the passing of the GST Bill among other pending legislation that had grounded NDA’s reforms agenda. All this should augur well for the state too —as Modi-Shah cannot afford to ignore the MP count of West Bengal in doing their arithmetic for 2019.

Mamata Banerjee is too sharp a politician to miss her tryst with history. Like Narendra Modi’s claims of a Vibrant Gujarat, she knows a ‘Resurgent Biswa Bangla’ can be her ticket to a Congress-mukt anti-BJP national league. Hence, she has little option but to make Unnayan (development) her equivalent of the bullet train. Bengal has decidedly changed from Red to Green—but, she knows, without visible economic progress, it could easily turn to saffron in the next three to five years.

A week is too short a time to make any prediction. But, some developments of the last seven days have left people jittery with premonitions of an encore of the last five years. Though her first interaction with the media after the results was measured and moderate, the signals thereafter, do not reflect the same maturity. To start with, she upturned the changes made by the Election Commission in the police commissariat, bringing back her favourite officer—perhaps, as a message to the bureaucracy that the boss is back. There was not even a hint of apology either for the pre-poll violence or the scams that were caught on camera. In fact, she went a step further to declare West Bengal as a “corruption free state”. As if to cock a snook at her opponents and detractors—she has many of the accused caught in sting operation—like Firad Hakim of Kolkata’s “mini-Pakistan” fame—back in the cabinet. One has also not seen any discernible attempt to check post-poll attacks on perceived ‘traitors’—with the customary trading of charges between opposing camps.

Banerjee’s biggest challenge is the lack of intellectual bandwidth in her team. There is no point in denying that the Bengal cadre of bureaucracy is shallow on talent. The brighter officers of Bengali origin—who have either moved to the Centre or belong to other state cadres are loathe to come back to Kolkata—just as many private sector professionals thriving in the greener pastures in Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru. Therefore, Mamata is handicapped by not having at her disposal a bunch of savvy officers like Narendra Modi had in Gujarat or a Nitish Kumar has been able to hand-pick from the formidable Bihar bench in the IAS. Among her ministerial colleagues—other than Amit Mitra, who has maintained a low profile compared to his Ficci days—Banerjee does not have the equivalent of Modi’s ‘Navaratna’—to implement her vision. There are a few with proven track record in administration—like Subrata Mukherjee—but their role has been restricted so far.

In her second term—Mamata Banerjee cannot rely just on her earthy, commonsense wisdom. She needs experts to advise her, for which she has to give up micro-management and give them space and freedom to operate. What Bengal needs are some quick wins. Land acquisition—though one can say with reasonable certainty Banerjee will crack it in this term—and industry will not happen overnight. Besides, investors do not put money on the ground till they develop confidence in the long-term outlook (think Bihar, where industrialization has still not taken off despite this being Nitish Kumar’s third term).

The solution, therefore, is the service industry. But even that will require breakthrough thinking and a radical change in work culture. Bengal has already missed the bus of the generic IT outsourcing boom, where Bengaluru, Gurgaon and Chennai have secured huge leads. Trying to enter late into the party will make it at best a distant also-ran. The way to go would be to build specialized competencies around select industries like food processing and floriculture in which the state has a natural advantage and provide a good complementary fit for service ancillaries.

But, salvation may lie in returning to the traditional Bengali knowledge-based competencies in education, medicine (healthcare), scientific research, cinema and aesthetics (design). Bengal is the only state that spans the Himalayas to the sea—with stretches of river, forests and archaeological treasures like Bishnupur and Murshidabad in between. With proper infrastructure, it can easily repeat Kerala’s tourism act. Smartly marketed, the Sunderbans can any day give the backwaters a run for its money.

For a start, Banerjee may be able to woo back talent from the diaspora with her sisterly (didi) charm, which could be much more productive than forays to Singapore, London and the US for the elusive and illusory foreign direct investment.

In September, Banerjee will be travelling to Rome to attend the canonization of Mother Teresa. There is one lesson, perhaps, she can take from the late Albanian nun soon to be anointed saint. To make her place permanent in the hearts of Bengalis—the Didi for all times to come—poriborton, like charity must begin from within.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Political Dynasties are here to stay

Political Dynasties: India's Destiny

Article first published in +ABPLIVE click here to read

On the way to the Calcutta airport – one saw huge billboards with solus pictures of Mamata Banerjee’s cherubic nephew Abhishekh – hailing him as “Man of the Match”. It was a special day – when the city’s “Red Road” – Calcutta’s equivalent of the Rajpath – was wrapped in blue carpet for the grand “oath-taking” ceremony of Banerjee’s “Ma, Maati, Manush” (people’s) Sarkar. Ironically, as the billboards announced, it also became the formal “coming-out” day of a new political dynasty.

Dynasties are not new in Indian politics or, indeed – as has been written at length to justify them – the world over. The favourite examples cited are, of course, the Kennedy and Bush families. Parallels are often also drawn with Bollywood clans like the Kapoors, just as the large business families of Birlas, Jains and the Ambanis. Various socio-psychological explanations are offered ranging from our feudal history to Darwinian principles of evolutionary anthropology. Probably, all the hypotheses are correct in parts. But, there is an essential difference about third-world political dynasties.

The Kennedys and Bushes were inheritors of a legacy. Their family reputation and clout give them a head start in the political arena. But, thereafter – they had to all fend for themselves. The same is true for actors, cricketers or people in other professions like doctors or lawyers. They get breaks or early mover advantage, but can survive in a cruel competitive world only if they have the mettle. History is replete with instances where the sons and daughters of famous parents failed to make it good because they did not possess the requisite talent. But, in politics the overriding factor that is often glossed over lies in economics.

I recall in the late nineties – the son of a former ailing politician gave up his million-dollar salary job in a top US investment bank and returned to India – ostensibly to be with his father in his last days. A noble act by any standard I thought in my naiveté – until a bureaucrat friend decided to educate me. The money he would have earned as a banker in his entire lifetime – would not even be a speck in the fortune his father had accumulated as a politician. If he was not around all the unaccounted wealth kept with ‘benami’ holders would vaporize in no time along with the secret numbers of Swiss bank accounts. That explains how the arty son of an iconic leader from an eastern state gave up the high life abroad reluctantly returned home to keep alive the party formed by his father. Similarly – the homemaker daughter of one of the richest politician in the country being drafted back to India as the heiress in waiting.

In contrast, think of the sons and grandsons of another Prime Minister – Lal Bahadur Shastri – whose sons and grandsons despite being qualified and talented did not make beyond the “also ran” in their respective parties – as they had only the grandfather’s surname to fall back upon. Examples abound of ‘netas’ who died prematurely without anointing a political heir. Their fortunes vanished in no time with the family reduced to near penury. Conversely, we have others – who were, probably, better organized in managing their finances – whose son or daughter seamlessly moved into their father’s shoes at once staking claim to their legacy in the form of a berth in the ministry (in some cases even for the Chief Minister’s chair) notwithstanding their lack of political experience and standing in the party. Three recent examples that immediately come to mind are coincidentally all from Maharashtra – though the phenomenon is by no means restricted to that “great” state alone.

Amassing a war chest has become an imperative for political survival. Down South a Lok Sabha incumbent is believed to spend anything between Rupees ten to thirty crores in each election. The bill can be a bit lower in states on the other side of the Vindhyas – but still must be a substantial sum. Then there is the on-going cost of nurturing a constituency. But, for a “neta” it is not a matter of just one constituency. To be a force to reckon with in the system he needs to have a bunch of MLAs and MPs in his/her kitty. For regional leaders the stakes are much higher – with the flock threatening to walk over the fence every other day.

However, to “own” a party requires serious money. By today’s standards the cost of fighting a state election run into several thousand crores – as we saw during the recent Tamil Nadu polls –when the two main parties were engaged in an obscene war of distributing freebies to the voters. Such extravagance may not have caught on as yet in the less affluent states like West Bengal, Assam or Odisha – but even there to simply mobilise ground support cost the parties a few hundred crores. While the cost of coming to and staying in power is high – the money required to stay afloat when out of power is no less. Unless those relegated to the opposition are able to maintain viable presence on the ground – they will in no time become irrelevant losing cadres as well as grass-root organisation. Organising a modest rally for a visiting national leader run not just into lakhs but crores.

The humongous resources required not just coming to power but also to stay in power and survive during years of exile makes any suggestion of “state-funding” of elections an impractical non-starter. Even if the Parliament and Election Commission were to come up with a formula for underwriting campaign cost – it will at best be pocket change for candidates. It may not be wrong to say – the rules changed in the early seventies during Indira Gandhi’s tenure, which ushered in the era of “privatization” of political parties. Abolition of privy purse brought many royals into politics – who soon realized that their corpus of inherited wealth would not last them beyond a couple of seasons and were quick to learn the game. This explains the conundrum of why the rich and blue-blooded also indulge in corruption – something that flummoxes innocent commoners.

The rise in sub-nationalism has led to the creation of strong regional parties practicing identity politics. As that happens – dynasty becomes imperative because without an official inheritor the parties will disintegrate and the family fortunes vanish without trace.

Therein hangs the tale of sons, daughters, sons-in-law and the odd nephew in Indian politics. Till there are radical reforms of the electoral system (not just state funding) the Dynasties are here to stay and their numbers will grow over time.