Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Emami Gurukul

Book Review: Business the Emami Way

Article first published +BusinessToday Click here 

As a child one heard of an allegorical tale of a village barber. He used to carry out minor surgeries for the villagers. Then came along a crafty quack who said to the barber: "You are so naturally gifted; now if only you had a formal training you could become a top surgeon." The simple barber swallowed the bait and asked the quack to teach him. And that was the end of his practice. Each time he picked up the implements he got scared at the thought of what could go wrong. He could no longer trust his intuition and native skills; the burden of medical theory paralysed his craft. Reading Business The Emami Way reminds me of that fictional barber - for reasons I shall come to in a bit.

R.S. Agarwal and R.S. Goenka are the stuff legends are made of. They are phenomenal entrepreneurs who started small by moonlighting while still working for one of the largest industrial groups. From there, they went on to build an empire taking on formidable FMCG multinational giants. They did with FMCG personal care products what Karsanbhai Patel of Nirma achieved with detergents; then gradually expanded into other FMCG categories like edible oils and retail pharmacy chains. To deploy the surplus of the low capital intensity consumer products business, Emami made lateral forays through joint ventures into healthcare and real estate. Nirma had, on the other hand, ploughed back its cash for upstream industries like Soda Ash and Linear Alkyl Benzene. It may not be sheer coincidence that both Nirma and Emami will soon be battling it out in the cement markets of Eastern India.

What could have been an enthralling saga of their fascinating journey from bean counters to business tycoons - gleaning management and life lessons along the way - has been marred by adopting a guru-shishya dialogue format. The "gyan" that is dispensed may sound to an evolved reader rather elementary, often laced with cliches and time-worn quotes like "Time and tide waits for no one". On how to conduct effective meetings, it is advised that "secretaries of the top bosses should collect all related facts and information for the department or departments and present it before the bosses". To check interruptions, it is suggested the boss hang a 'Do Not Disturb' sign outside his office. But if friends drop in announced, one needs to make time for them (so as not to appear "downright impolite"), but "do not go overboard".

Discourse about market segmentation, socio-economic classification and attitudinal difference between rural and urban consumers are in the same simplistic vein. But, all of it is grounded in strong earthy wisdom, cutting the chase - which is something professional managers and fledgling entrepreneurs can imbibe from the Agarwal-Goenka Gurukul.

The most interesting part of the book lies in "a leaf from my life's book" at the end of each chapter, which by itself could have been a rich read if chronicled in some more detail and depth. There was, perhaps, no need to laboriously plod through management theories like teaching human anatomy to the barber.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Tragedy at Uri

Keep the cheap shots — stand behind the government at this hour of crisis

Photo Courtesy +India Today 

Article first published in +Medium Click here

There are hardly any words to describe how heinous and reprehensible were the #UriAttacks. Surely, it could not have been the act of just any terrorist group without the active support of the establishment across the border — be it the #Pakistani Army and/or the ISI.

The tragedy for the families of the military personnel, who died in the attack can never be appreciated by civilians like us. It is a huge burden on the collective conscience of the nation that so many of our valiant soldiers have to lay down their lives fighting a war — that appears at least in the short run — to be a ‘no win’ battle.

Even without being a defence strategy expert — one can conjecture the attack was a ‘tit-for-tat’ move at India raising the ante on #Balochistan and isolate #Pakistan in recent engagements of the Prime Minister at a number of international fora.

Contrary to what our wrestlers and jingoists may have to say — everyone knows war is not an option between two nuclear powers — especially with one of them being a borderline rogue state.
We also have a flock of “doves” — advocating “political solution” without spelling out what that could be. Under the circumstances — the only option is trying to increase the “costs” for the other side. In that — India is at a handicap. That is because — unlike our neighbours — we do not have “non-state” actors like the Taliban and fanatical religious groups working for us. Covert intelligence operations cannot match the determination of suicidal Zihadis.

But, as a lay citizen, one wonders what can be done to minimise the damages on our side. Uri and before this Pathankot gives the impression of gaps in our defences and lapses in intelligence. Some reports seem to indicate that much more can be done to protect our forces and establishments in the border areas with better hardware and physical deterrents. That is the least we owe to our brave-hearts .

It is unfortunate that politicians and critics of the present government are trying to score points at this hour of crisis. Some are quoting (the letters — missing the ‘spirit’ of those comments) Narendra Modi’s indictment of the previous government for its failure to act against cross border terrorism. Snide digs are being made about the Prime Minister’s stop-over in Lahore last year. One senile and unemployed Congressi-Royalty even recalled the IC 814 Kandahar episode as the genesis of the current situation.

Temperatures are soaring in TV studios. Media is adding heat with alleged “leaks” from within the system. But, surely no one expects the government to carry out air-strikes in enemy territory or even drone attacks.

The only way forward is to systemically and concertedly isolate Pakistan on the international stage and build up pressure on the global biggies to bring them to the book. On that — the Narendra Modi team has done much more — within a short span of 2 years — than any other government (including Vajpayee’s) in the past. It is time people recognised that and stand firmly and unitedly behind the PM rather than having cheap pot-shots at him.

#Uri #Pakistan #UriAttacks #NarendraModi #Kashmir #Baramulla

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Birthday Blues

Article first published in +Medium Click here

When young, Birthdays are occasions for having fun. As one grows older — they become days of reflection. Whether that is a sign of age or maturity is difficult to say — but most certainly there are intimations of mortality at play in the sub-conscious. Perhaps, it is the same realisation of days being numbered that once again make people look forward to birthday celebrations as more years go by. But, even then there must be those undercurrents of reflections and reminiscences.

I am probably at the cusp of such a transition — because I found myself more in the zone of looking back at the year that has gone by than really thinking of what lies ahead. Partly, it may be because — the last one year has been one of the most rewarding and enriching for me in many ways (not just materially — though bit of that too, to be honest). Most importantly, I experienced personal growth — which makes me feel that I am in a better place in life today than a year ago.

This triggered two trains of thought. Rewinding slowly the last 20–25 years (may be called the prime period of my life) — I was remembering some of the miserable periods that I have gone through. In retrospect — it seemed amazing that I could get past those turbulent phases without losing total equanimity. At the same time — it was instructive to ponder upon when the ride was smoother, what helped — circumstances or effort ? Tried gleaning some lessons both from the rough and raisin patches, which I felt like sharing more as a mark of gratitude and tribute to those from whom I imbibed them overtly or subliminally. I will not mention any names. They are people living or long gone, some characters from fiction, lives of people read in books — biographies of the great or memoirs of people who have achieved or seen a lot in life but had feet of clay.

  • Turning inward — In the ultimate analysis we all have to dive deep within ourselves to find answers and strength. It is imperative to create what is now fashionably called  “me time” — so as not to lose touch with one’s inner self. Each one has their own way of doing this — through internal or external means. Some achieve it through — reading, meditation, prayer. Others through activities — be it sport, workout, listening to music. Visiting temples, listening to spiritual discourses or devotional music may be another way. But, it is important to check that the activity itself doesn’t take over the purpose becoming an end in itself rather than a means to finding something more meaningful. Self-nourishment is not just a prescription for sustenance but also a tonic for self-renewal;

  • Self-awareness: How little attention we pay to ourselves — be it our health, thoughts or emotional states. We become aware only after — we are hit by unpleasant outcome — be it illness, anger outbursts, negative thoughts. Successful people are supposed to be high on self-awareness. I have lost out a lot in life — both personally and professionally — for not being conscious of my own feelings and sensations (emotional and physical) as they arose before going out of hand or 'losing it' as they say. “Mindfulness” is the fashionable term these days — thanks to the Cambodian Buddhist Monk — Thich Nhat Hanh. But, it is a concept that has been there in all religions since the beginning of time — yet so difficult to practice. Far from having mastered it even to the first degree — I have found that simply being aware does help to deal with the feelings and emotional responses. Wish I had discovered this much, much earlier.

  • Confront the feelings and Seek Help: A natural extension of self-awareness is confronting the issues. Just like we do not hesitate to see a doctor for physical ailments — problems of the mind should not be left unattended either. Over time — I am a great believer in therapy (psycho) and, won’t hesitate to say, I have personally benefitted from it. It not only helps to improve the quality of our own lives but also those around us. If therapy has to be accompanied by medication — so be it. Shying away from treatment can be foolish. I know of many a tragedy among friends and family which could have been averted by timely professional (health-care) intervention.

  • Re-engineering the self — Life is not just about self-improvement. While there is no end for self-improvement — after a while it not only starts yielding diminishing returns but also becomes boring. Ultimately, most of us are not in the race for Olympic Gold Medals or Wimbledon Championship — in our chosen calling in life. Those who make it to the top — high fives and best wishes to them. For the rest of us — it is ok to fall short and yet possible to live happily. But, we can’t push ourselves to a dead end and withdraw from life — which would turn us into losers. Therefore, as we go along it is important to re-engineer ourselves even if in small doses. If at 60 — we remain the same as when we were 40 one has wrong somewhere and need course correction. I have always admired people who have been able to reinvent themselves over the years. The most remarkable among them have managed to do it more than 2 or 3 times — and they are simply awesome.

  • Invest in yourself: Typically — not sure if it is an Indian middle-class mindset — we feel guilty of investing in ourselves, not just in terms of money but also committing time. We have been conditioned to think that anything we do outside or work-space or home-front — we are short-changing either our employers or the family. I think Westerners do it much better. Picking up a new skill — be it a sport, language, hobby or craft — can be not just a liberating experience but also an self-empowering one. I did take up a course recently — my first in 30 years after leaving college — and I do feel a sense of internal rejuvenation already. When one thinks about it — it was just a matter of forcing myself to find time for it;

  • Relationships: Friendship and Socialising are at a discount in my book. In my view, it spreads our emotions too thin and make us superficial. However, it is important to cultivate a few strong meaningful relationships. Never mind even if they are just a few. And, it is ok if those do not last forever — as both should have the freedom to move on, which is a part of growth. Often, relationships are confused with attachment and dependence. Those are limiting factors and ultimately lead to claustrophobia and suffocation. Space is essential for souls to grow. Ultimately, relationships are more about the soul than the mind or body. It is important to realise, and more importantly, to accept that.

  • Keep a journal : A journal serves many purposes. It is therapeutic and cathartic. Cleanses the muck from the mind as well as distills experience. Also serves as a Ledger for counting our blessings and keep a gratitude tally.
Finally, it is indeed all about me. But, without the “me” the rest does not exist. So, we need to sort out ourselves first before we think of helping others or changing the world.

There is a thin line of difference between being selfish and mean. This I call — the art of being benignly selfish.

Thanks for being there.

Delhi's real threat is not Dengue-Chikungunya but Kejriwal and AAP

Photo Courtesy: +ABPLIVE 

Article first published in +ABPLIVE Click here

In India, it is not news until it happens in the national capital. They say in the last two decades more people have died of malaria in West Bengal than the great famine of 1943. However, little has been written on it.

Similarly, one does not see too many statistics on the number of dengue and chikungunya deaths across the country. But, one death in Delhi and boom – the national media jumps upon it like the country is on fire. This is not to in anyway to discount the tragedy or the seriousness of the health scare that looms over the National Capital Region.

Arvind Kejriwal understands this better than most politicians and he has successfully manipulated it to his best advantage since the days of the Anna movement. He realised that an anashan in Jantar Mantar or Ram Lila Ground can get him a thousand times more mileage than a flop-show in a 100 acre Mumbai Maidan.

As a result, Kejriwal has managed to get disproportionate amount of airtime on television and column centimetres in print media, thanks to lazy journalism, than many more accomplished Chief Ministers and seasoned national leaders of long standing. No wonder he fancies himself as the virtual shadow Prime Minister with a licence to comment on anything and everything under the sun – including foreign affairs.

There are two issues at stake here, both affecting the residents of Delhi. First, of course, is the threat of a virtual epidemic which needs to be tackled on war footing. The second is the larger debate about governance in Delhi.

No matter what Kejriwal’s views may be about the powers and responsibilities of the Centre for the civic administration of Delhi, the Union Health Ministry cannot be rushing SOS teams to tackle local health issues of every State.

But, in its enthusiasm to trade blame with AAP, the BJP has missed a huge opportunity to retrieve the moral high ground from under Kejriwal’s hospital bed. It was like the BJP spokespersons trying to shoot mosquitoes in the air when it were the drains that needed cleaning up.

Where are the AAP volunteers who symbolically swept Delhi clean with “jhadus”, the BJP should have asked while hitting the streets with their own workers and RSS swayamsevaks to get MCD and NDMC do their job. That would have earned the BJP gratitude from the people of Delhi and exposed Kejriwal, not just in Delhi but also in Punjab and other States where he is contemplating an entry by AAP.

That Kejriwal is a shirker should have been known to any politically aware observer since he threw in the towel in AAP’s first term in Delhi. This impression was further reinforced when he chose to become a Chief Minister without portfolio.

He has spent his time blaming the Prime Minister and fighting with the LG when not travelling around the country to build a national image for himself as PM-in-Waiting or taking off for Vipasanna and naturopathy retreats. He did all this under the indulgent eyes of the media which for some inexplicable reason has developed a huge soft corner for him.

On his part Kejriwal has assiduously cultivated the media at large and some so-called five-star journalists in particular. Many media worthies have been favoured with coveted positions in educational and other institutions of the Delhi administration and there are rumours about one former editor becoming AAP’s Chief Ministerial face in a coastal State. Therefore, it came as a shocker when Kejriwal tweeted gutter muck at arguably one of the most formidable journalists of our times, Shekhar Gupta, and got into an unseemly spat with a TV anchor.

In the past Kejriwal has not always followed decorum or political etiquette in public life. He has hurled abuses at the Prime Minister. But in using a word like “Dalal” he has gone well beyond his own past record. At one level it reveals Kejriwal’s opinion about journalists, even very senior ones. Whether this has been formed by his own experience and how many “Dalals” masquerading as media doyens he has encountered or done business with, one cannot comment. But, it does smack of there being more to the implosion than can be seen on TV screens.

Here too Kejriwal is singled out for kid-glove treatment by his friends and admirers in the fourth estate. Imagine what the reactions would have been if another Chief Minister had made such a comment. Hell would have broken loose and would not have subsided until the person, however, high and mighty, apologised or expressed regret. The silence of the fraternity is intriguing, to say the least.

There are jokes doing the rounds on Whatsapp about how Kejriwal beat Pinocchio in a lying contest. Kejriwal seems to be on the path to disprove Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote, “You can’t fool all people all the time”.

One can understand if Narendra Modi is giving Kejriwal a long rope to hang himself. But, why is the media soft on him is not only “mushkil” to explain but almost “namumkin” to fathom.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Decoding Didi 2.0

Mamata Banerjee has hit a ‘sweet spot’ in her political career, but maintaining the momentum will be a challenge

Photo Courtesy: HBL and PTI

Article first published in @thehindubusinessline.com (Click here)

A young female foreign tourist with a backpack in Kolkata’s Maidan area incredulously watches an approaching tramcar. Next moment she is transported in a trance inside the tram — finding herself tangoing with Shah Rukh Khan with Tagore’s “Chini go, chini tomarey — ogo bideshini...” (I recognise you my lady from an alien land) playing in the background. As Shah Rukh drops her in a silhouette movement on his arm — a motley bunch of passengers in the tram clap and cheer them.

It is a commercial being shot for Tourism Bengal’s campaign — ‘The Sweetest Part of India’. But, seeing the rushes Didi is not impressed. She thinks there is too little of Sharukh in the film. Turning to the secretary, she chides him — “Meye ta ke kaat hotey dekhe tumee nijey o kaat hoye geley” (seeing the girl drop — your jaw dropped too) and orders the ad agency to go back to Mumbai and shoot some additional footage.

One cannot vouch for the veracity of this account. Possibly one of those many apocryphal stories. But it sounds quintessentially Mamata Banerjee. It is her grass-root sensibilities talking. Even if Sharukh is doing the commercial for free — the production company is charging a bomb and she wants value for money. As a consummate communicator she knows what the audience wants but now also understanding the importance of slick packaging.

In another talked about instance, the CM landed at a newly refurbished Government Tourist Lodge in the Dooars forests of North Bengal. Though she liked the changes carried out, the tariff bothered her, which she thought was too steep for the regular Bengali tourist. She at once called the chief of Tourism Corporation from her mobile and asked him to reconsider the rates — who dropped it pronto by a thousand rupees. Mamata knows the Bengalis love for travel and she also understands their budget constraints. More importantly she is clear — it is this socio economic segment, rather than the affluent urban elite, who form her second largest constituency after the rural poor.

The new avatar

So, what is different about Mamata Banerjee 2.0? First, she has read the victory as an unequivocal positive mandate for herself (unlike in the first term — when it was largely a backlash against the Left). She nipped the potential anti-incumbency factor of local Trinamool satraps by declaring herself as the virtual candidate in all 282 constituencies — making it a “Mamata Vs. the Rest” election. Her strategy was paid off by the phenomenal win. The message was clear: people still trust her and she cannot let them down.

This is reflected in the self-assured confidence she displays. Much of the old volatility is missing. Though there is the customary criticism of the opposition and centre — it is sans venom and vitriol. There is the willingness for pragmatic cooperation as seen during the GST voting. Scores are settled with adversaries (like a media baron) through silent signalling. Limits are being set for party strongmen — reminding them no one is indispensable.

Second, she also sees the second-term as an endorsement and shot in the arm for her larger national ambitions. The days of being a regional ally in a larger coalition are behind for her. She is not the one to remain ensconced in Kolkata as Didi to her “Maa, Maati, Manush” leaving Delhi to the big boys of the cow-belt in lieu of a few meaty portfolios for her party in the Union Cabinet like a DMK, RJD or SP. Now, she is ready to play for bigger stakes. As some of her close associates have already indicated – “do not rule out” her being a serious contender for the top job.

However, for making that audacious bid — she needs to establish at least two strong credentials. First, is a track record of good governance and development — a la Modi’s “Gujarat model”. The second, would be a presence — however token — beyond West Bengal. For both, she has less than three years in hand.

Instant redress

Bureaucrats close to Mamata Banerjee claim — the work done in the last five years, especially in the villages, is underestimated. Banerjee thinks that has been the main plank of her victory and it is the administration – rather than the politicians – who ensured delivery. Therefore, this time round she has increased her reliance on bureaucrats over politicians. Much talked about in government circles are her Saturday “classes” at her Kalighat residence — where she is known to often read the riot act to errant party members.

Taking a leaf from the book of neighbour Nitish Kumar — she travels to the districts with secretaries in tow. Issues raised by local constituents are assigned to concerned departments — who are held accountable for execution of projects. Decision is instant. Officers are enjoying the new empowerment.

Banerjee realises – quick wins will come from services. Hence, the emphases on sectors like tourism. But, she also knows people would like to see new industries on the ground. Attracting industrialists to come from outside and inviting FDI may be fashionable but not going to be easy. Many expect her to “bite the bullet” on land acquisition in her second term but, doubt if she will risk it before 2019.

Besides, land alone will not solve the problem of industrialisation. The introduction of GST may further whittle the incentive for setting up manufacturing base in Bengal. On software, Bengal has missed the bus long ago. Possibly, the Kerala model could also well work for Bengal — where the economy thrives on repatriated earnings and service industries like education, healthcare and tourism.

Add to that tea, food processing, handicrafts and fish (both sea and inland pisciculture) and one could have a winning formula. With investment in education — West Bengal can become a major exporter of skilled and knowledge workers. Health-care can attract medical tourists. These are areas where local entrepreneurs may also be more amenable to putting their money.

Ramping up tourism

It may be argued that some of these are already happening. Sadly, today West Bengal is a source of low-skilled manpower — among them a large number are just transiting population moving from across the border. Young Bengalis go to other states for higher education in engineering and medicine — then settle in new employment hubs like Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune and Gurgaon. Older Bengalis flock to Chennai and Vellore for Medical treatment.

In tourism statistics Bengal claims to get higher number of Foreign Tourists than Kerala. But it is not difficult to guess where they come from. Domestic tourist numbers are high, too, but even they are largely intra-State budget travellers and pilgrims.

High-end tourism too will need investment and infrastructure. But, there are some low-hanging fruits — Sunderbans, Dooars and the Hills. Well marketed with a proper tourism policy and quality assurance process — Sharukh’s tango just may work.

Whether Bengal is the Sweetest Part of India or not Mamata has certainly hit a ‘sweet spot’ in her political career and she knows it. Renaming the state from West Bengal to Bangla is a declaration of her ascent.