Here is what I wrote on March 9, 2009 in a post entitled “Middle India needs to come Together”:
Politicians and therefore the governments they form divide India into two distinct fragments. On one of them, governments and politicians lavish an amazing amount of attention, with the interest rising as the elections draw nearer. They feed this India to feed themselves. This is the India they are immersed in because it benefits them. This is an India they interfere with because it gives them their power. This is the India whose value lies in the votes that it offers. This is Meddle India – an India that the people in power love to meddle with, an India that cannot survive on its own, an India that is constantly on dole from one government scheme or another. This is an India that even after 60 years of our own government is kept poor because it keeps the politicians rich. This is an India that 60 years after the British left is still ruled.
Then, there is the other India. This is an India that our government and politicians broadly ignore. This is an India that doesn’t vote based on promises – because there are none. (In fact, this is an India that barely votes.) This is an India whose voice is not heard because it doesn’t talk. This is an India that can be found in the cities, but is lost because it has no leadership. This is an India that has dreams, but finds obstacles put at every step. This is the India we live in. This is Middle India – an India that can be the engine for growth but is denied power, an India that can be the workhorse for the world but is denied proper education, an India that can be the entrepreneurial capital of the world but is denied connectivity. This is an India that was born free, but is still held captive by a government that knows no better. This is an India that 60 years after the British left is still seeking not to be ruled but be led.
Every five years, there comes an opportunity for both Indias to speak up. Meddle India casts its vote based on transactional arrangements (free rice, free TV, and now free cash) because that has been the norm. Middle India either doesn’t cast its vote or is forced to choose the lesser of the evils at the ballot box, knowing fully well that it is an exercise in futility.
…Middle India can make a difference. We are 400 million of us. We may not have one voice, but we have a common dream – of an India with more economic freedom, of an India with more personal freedom, of an India where education matters, of an India where good governance is the norm rather than the exception. This time, our continued silence will not help us. We need to come together and make a choice that takes us forward and makes our dreams come true.
Here is what I wrote a year ago shortly after the results were announced:
The bright side of it is that the country will have a stable Congress-led UPA government for the next five years. I just hope that there is a positive development and good governance agenda that is pursued quickly because there are many unfinished things that we need to get done in India across various sectors.
…Every crisis presents an opportunity – and that is how the BJP must look at the national vote. Even though it may have only have lost a small number of seats and not lost much voteshare on a national basis, the results are way below what the expectations were. And as such, it requires a rethink at multiple levels to rebuild the party and regain the confidence of the nation.
A year later, all I can say is that both the government and the Opposition are still “work-in-progress.”
The hard and soft foundations will not only eliminate poverty but actually propel India to become a truly important participant in the global scene. To bring that about, India needs foresighted, intelligent, and dedicated leaders.
This kind political leadership exists in India. Such leaders are born once in a lifetime. India is fortunate to have a few such leaders. But they are not where they need to be.
Just to be clear: this leadership is not about photo-ops, but about getting things done. It is about working against the odds and delivering results. India has had many such leaders – but somehow they have been lost in the maze of cut-throat politics.
That is what Middle India’s change agents need to change. We need to ensure that these leaders can get to the top. We need to give them an environment for them to succeed. This is where the passionate few need to come together.
Continued next week.
Let us first think about the change India needs.
India needs political leadership of the likes of Abraham Lincoln and Lee Kuan Yew. From that leadership will flow policy changes that we need as a country. The hard and soft foundations of a nation has to be engineered. The soft foundation encompasses national interest, the elimination of corruption, the elimination of artificially created divisions of castes and communities (which are today being used as ‘vote banks’), the creation of a truly modern education system, real economic, personal and political freedom, efficient markets, and so on.
The hard foundation is about infrastructure that will ensure the urbanisation of India: modern high-speed nationwide rail network, sufficient power generation capacity to meet the needs of an industrializing economy, ubiquitous affordable broadband access, efficient ports and airports, etc.
Middle class India can be safely assumed to not be agents of change. But as history has shown repeatedly, change usually comes from a few. In the words of Margaret Mead, “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Middle class India has many more people than the few required for change. These are the people who are frustrated with the state of affairs, and are willing to do something about it. They genuinely want to see a successful India, an India that they and their descendants would be proud of.
But these few feel disheartened. They feel isolated and alone. The task appears to be too immense compared to their numbers. They are forced to accept that the change they want is beyond their reach. They accept the unpalatable reality much like the poor accept poverty because constantly fighting to get out of poverty and failing is worse.
With a clear direction, the right leadership and a deeper understanding of the change that is needed, a small group of us can indeed change the country’s future.
In any country, the only segment of the population that can bring about radical change is the middle class. The people at the top of the heap are too invested in the status quo and too comfortable where they are to risk upsetting the great deal they have by trying to change things. They correctly do not want to fix something that they don’t believe is broken.
Those at the bottom of the heap, the unwashed huddled masses, are too busy keeping body and soul together. All their energies are focused on getting two meals a day.
That leaves only the middle class.
The middle class in India has been historically disinclined to help bring about change. That’s one of the reasons why it took so long for India to rid of a few thousand Britishers ruling the country. It was not some great revolutionary action that made the British to leave. They left because they had finished with looting the country and it was time for them to leave. (However, that is not what we were taught in school.)
The final three books give us inputs on the “how” – how to make ideas sticky, how to bring about change, and how to leverage the power of social networks.
- Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath: In the coming battle of ideas, how do we ensure our ideas win? The book’s SUCCES formula shows us the way. From the book’s description: “Made to Stick is a book that will transform the way you communicate ideas. It’s a fast-paced tour of success stories (and failures)-the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who drank a glass of bacteria to prove a point about stomach ulcers; the charities who make use of “the Mother Teresa Effect”; the elementary-school teacher whose simulation actually prevented racial prejudice. Provocative, eye-opening, and often surprisingly funny, Made to Stick shows us the vital principles of winning ideas-and tells us how we can apply these rules to making our own messages stick.”
- Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath: The second book by the Heath brothers is about how to bring about change – which is what we will have to do going ahead. From the review in Publisher’s Weekly: “Change is not inherently frightening, but our ability to alter our habits can be complicated by the disjunction between our rational and irrational minds: the self that wants to be swimsuit-season ready and the self that acquiesces to another slice of cake anyway. The trick is to find the balance between our powerful drives and our reason. The authors’ lessons are backed up by anecdotes that deal with such things as new methods used to reform abusive parents, the revitalization of a dying South Dakota town, and the rebranding of megastore Target. Through these lively examples, the Heaths speak energetically and encouragingly on how to modify our behaviors and businesses. This clever discussion is an entertaining and educational must-read for executives and for ordinary citizens looking to get out of a rut.”
- Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler: We are connected with many others in many different ways. If we are going to bring about change in the next few years, we will have to use our social networks to diffuse ideas and drive action. This books gives many examples of how it can be done. From the book’s description: “In CONNECTED, the authors explain why emotions are contagious, how health behaviors spread, why the rich get richer, even how we find and choose our partners. Intriguing and entertaining, CONNECTED overturns the notion of the individual and provides a revolutionary paradigm-that social networks influence our ideas, emotions, health, relationships, behavior, politics, and much more. It will change the way we think about every aspect of our lives.
There are many other books. But armed with this starting library, we will have the motivation and the approach to start working towards bringing about political and policy change in India – by 2014.
A note from nearly a decade ago on a software stack for SMEs:
Whole Solution: What the SME needs is a whole solution. The SME software stack takes just that approach by offering a complete package of the applications needed, thus minimising the number of vendors that the SME needs to interact with.
Smart Integration: One of the critical success factors (besides price) is the ability to integrate data across the various silos, such that an SME needs to enter data only once. This is the integration that is offered (very expensively) by the enterprise software packages of companies like SAP and Oracle. Integration is the key building block for the “real-time enterprise”, which is what SMEs should aspire to be.
Intelligent Cloning: SMEs do not need the complete feature set that is available in the high-end enterprise applications that are available today. What is needed during development is the ability to intelligent pick and choose the subset of features that are going to be most important for SMEs. This not only speeds up the development process but also eliminates the “feature overkill” bane of many packages.
The next three books from the past give insights into grassroot organisation, and understanding how crowds and groups work.
- Rules for Radicals by Saul Alinsky: This book from the 1970s is a primer on how to organize at the grassroots level. Even though the book was written in the US, many of the ideas are what we can apply in the Indian context. From the book’s opening paragraph: “What follows is for those who want to change the world from what it is to what they believe it should be. The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away.”
- The Crowd by Gustave le bon: Published nearly a hundred years ago, the lessons from the book still ring true. From its description: “One of the greatest and most influential books of social psychology ever written, brilliantly instructive on the general characteristics and mental unity of a crowd, its sentiments and morality, ideas, reasoning power, imagination, opinions and much more. A must-read volume not only for students of history, sociology, law and psychology, but for every politician, statesman, investor, and marketing manager.”
- The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups by Mancur Olson: This books discusses the theory of groups (which will be central to what we will discuss later). From the book’s description: “This book develops an original theory of group and organizational behavior that cuts across disciplinary lines and illustrates the theory with empirical and historical studies of particular organizations. Applying economic analysis to the subjects of the political scientist, sociologist, and economist, Mr. Olson examines the extent to which the individuals that share a common interest find it in their individual interest to bear the costs of the organizational effort.”
Continued next week.
To change the course of India, we have to first inform and educate ourselves. I have put together a Reading List. These are books I came across in the past year, and they help in different ways – from learning an accurate – or at the least a less biased- history of India (the one they never teach us in history books in schools) to organising ourselves to understanding how the psychology of crowds work to learning about how to make ideas sticky and change people’s thinking.
The first three books provide insights into Indian and American history.
- A New History of India by Francois Gautier: A very different (and more honest) take on India’s history. From the book’s description: “We see more and more today that Indian History has to be rewritten according to the latest linguistic and archaeological discoveries, if Indian children are to understand who they are and where they come from. We know now that not only the history of India’s beginnings were written by European colonizers, with an intention to downsize, downgrade and postdate Indian civilization, but that unfortunately, generation after generation of Indian historians, for their own selfish purposes, endorsed and perpetuated these wrong theories, such as the Aryan invasion, which divided India like nothing else, pitting South against North, Aryan against Dravidian, Untouchables against Brahmins. Hence this book, which we hope will lay the foundations for the next generation of Indian historians.”
- India: The Emerging Giant by Arvind Panagariya: This book traces the economic history of India since Independence through the policies of the various governments. This understanding will help us hold our past leaders accountable for diminishing the Indian star. From the book’s description: “Why did the early promise of the Indian economy not materialize and what led to its eventual turnaround? What policy initiatives have been undertaken in the last twenty years and how do they relate to the upward shift in the growth rate? What must be done to push the growth rate to double-digit levels? To answer these crucial questions, Arvind Panagariya offers a brilliant analysis of India’s economy over the last fifty years–from the promising start in the 1950s, to the near debacle of the 1970s (when India came to be regarded as a “basket case”), to the phenomenal about face of the last two decades. The author illuminates the ways that government policies have promoted economic growth (or, in the case of Indira Gandhi’s policies, economic stagnation), and offers insightful discussions of such key topics as poverty and inequality, tax reform, telecommunications (perhaps the single most important success story), agriculture and transportation, and the government’s role in health, education, and sanitation.”
- Upstream: The Ascendance of American Conservatism by Alfred Regnery: This track traces the rise of the Right in the US through the second half of the 20th century providing us with learnings on what we need to do in India. A quote from Paul Johnson about the book: “The rise of conservatism in the United States over the past half-century has been one of the most important political developments of the age — not only for America, but for the world. Much has been written about it, most of it under-researched and inaccurate. Alfred S. Regnery has now performed the invaluable task of writing a first-class and fully documented history of the movement. He describes its political and intellectual origins, its inventors, its leaders, its high and low points, and its achievements. He has a lot to say about the books and journals, the columnists and media commentators who drove it forward, and not least about the wealthy people and the foundations that supplied the financial means. In all, this is a valuable addition to our understanding of modern politics.”
We in Middle India don’t care. As long as we get the money we need, we use that to create insulation around us from the perpetually planned poverty that lies around. All that ails the nation can be made to vanish in the cocoon we have created around ourselves. The feeling is, “We have an honest PM, a woman President, a sacrificing Mother India, an economy starting to grow at 8% again, what more can we ask for?”
Our children, thankfully, will not be as callous. They will hold our feet to the fire. And one day, we will have to answer that question, “You saw what was happening. Did you do something about it?”
I have decided to do something about this. I am ready with an answer when Abhishek asks me that question. The answer is “Yes, I did the best I could.” I hope you too will be able to give the same answer. Because if we do, then millions of us can indeed change the future of India to be something more wholesome and better than what has been the past.
Then came the Election results on May 16, 2009. I spent the day with a group from the Friends of BJP at my home. As the results were announced on TV, it became clear what had happened. The BJP had been beaten by a resurgent Congress. It was a harsh verdict for the BJP.
The next few months were even harsher for BJP sympathisers. As the party leadership imploded, so also disappeared any semblance of opposition to the Congress. But still there was a feeling that the country could now look forward to a progressive government and positive governance for the next five years.
A year later, that idea lies in shambles. Even though the BJP perhaps is in only a marginally better situation than it was a few months ago, the current state the Congress-led UPA government is something no one could have scripted or predicted. Non-performing ministers, scandals and scams coming out of every closet, internal and external security threats rising, central institutions being completely misused – it is a state of affairs that Indians should find disgusting and repulsive.
But we don’t. Like ostriches, we in Middle India have buried our heads in the sand. We don’t care.
I wrote these passages during the first half of 2009. They capture the essence of my thinking. You may not all agree with the choice of the party I decided to support, but what is inescapable is the need for each of us to get involved and take sides.
Jan 29, 2009: I am one of us. Till some time ago, I assumed that my contribution to the 2009 elections and the future of India would be my one vote. But, somewhere along the line, things changed. Maybe it was 26/11 and seeing some of us out on the streets demanding action. Maybe it was seeing Obama become President, and see politics really change in America, bottom-up. Whatever it was, I have woken up to the fact that we have to do more – much more – if we are going to rewrite our future and rebuild our India into the glorious country that it once was….We are India’s educated civil society. If we cannot act individually and as a team, then we forfeit the right to complain. Democracy comes with responsibilities and duties. It also comes with a generation having to make some sacrifices so the Tomorrow for our children can be better than our Today…. We have to become the Voice of India. For 60 years, we have been led. And for many of those years, led down a wrong path. The time has now come for us to Lead.
May 14, 2009: If there is one feeling that I am left with it, it is that India needs more like us to become engaged at different levels in the political process. It requires a tremendous commitment from us to help bring change in India. We cannot remain disengaged. And we have to engage with one of the national parties to help bring about this change. India deserves better. And we have a duty to make that future happen.
Another post from the writings during last year’s election season:
I really wish many more of us would take these kinds of opportunities — to bring about change, one needs to first understand how things function. Some commented on my post yesterday that I should be supporting a new political party. Consider the realities of Indian politics — there have been only two new national parties that have really emerged in the past 30 years (BJP and BSP). Change in India cannot wait for another generation. We have to work with one of the two national parties, and bring our mindset and skills to help them do things better.
These elections offer a great opportunity to do an ‘internship.’ Indian elections will be over by early May, so its only a couple more months that are left. I am sure both the Congress and the BJP can do with all the help people like us can provide. We may have our issues with both parties, but they remain the only real options for India at this point of time. So, if you can do it, take the first step. Leave ego at the door, and go to work with an attitude to learn. We will end up with a better understanding of what makes India run. And that is what will help us bring about the change India needs — not in a generation, but between two elections.
For the first fifteen years after my return from the US, I was busy in my companies. There were times when I considered what a person like me could do to make India great. Somewhere along the line, I started writing. But that was about it. India needed to be transformed and I thought that the answer to everything was technology.
In Jan 2009, a quirky set of circumstances led to me to meet a senior person from the BJP. I spoke to him about the lack of ‘disruptive thinking’ in the party. Coming just after the tragic incident of 26/11 in Mumbai and Obama’s election in the US, I was frustrated by what I was seeing in the country. Elections were near, and there was an opportunity to change India’s future.
Out of that one accidental meeting arose a group – the Friends of BJP – with the objective of getting Middle India politically engaged. Elections were just around the corner. In February-March of 2009, it appeared that the BJP had an opportunity to win and perhaps put India on a different track from the Congress. For the few of us who worked through those months before the elections, travelling across India trying to get more people engaged to think about the country, it was a mission of Change. We were a start-up, heedless of the impossibility of the mission.
Continued on Monday.
In Jan 2009, as the economy slowed, my company was not doing that great. I had started the process of making some changes within the company, but they would take time to play out. I was not disheartened – the life of an entrepreneur is about long periods of struggles punctuated with some moments of delightful successes.
Even though I had a privileged education, my upbringing was as modest as one could imagine in the India of the 1970s. My early days were spent in Chinchpokli in Mumbai in a 100 sq ft room, shared by my parents, along with my father’s four siblings and mother. Travel was in buses with my mother – where every 5 paise saved was valuable. My father worked hard through multiple ventures as an entrepreneur and tasted success in some of them. By the time I was 7, we had moved to Nepean Sea Road, and I joined St. Xavier’s High School.
I mention this because we so often forget our past. (As a collective, we have indeed forgotten our national past.) It is only from the crucible of our experiences that we can mold the future. I am a product of Middle-class India, of parents who worked hard to ensure good education for my sister and me, and then gave us the freedom to chart our own course. Luck obviously plays a role in what we become, but its foundation is built on Hard Work.
Till Jan 2009, I was only peripherally interested in politics, just like many other educated Indians. I was an entrepreneur first and a citizen of India later. I would read newspapers, watch TV news once in a while, discuss politics and politicians in drawing room conversations, and move on with life. My view of Indian history was filled with the greatness of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the rest of them. Names like Swami Vivekananda and Sri Aurobindo were only of passing interest.
I have had a privileged education – being one of the few to get into IIT-Bombay. Then, I went to Columbia University. I had promised my father that I would do what he did in the 1960s. After 4 years in the US, I was among the handful to return to India in 1992. Working in India for another company was out of the question as the only path I wanted to follow was that of an entrepreneur.
After many failed efforts, I finally made it big with the launch of India’s first Internet portals. The hard work paid off when IndiaWorld was bought by Sify in one of the biggest Internet deals in Asia. I was then all of 32 years. After much thought, I went back to being an entrepreneur trying to create things that hadn’t been done before. The path since then was been a mix of a few ups and a lot of downs. But the important thing is I chose that path.