State of the Nation – Part 4

We need to understand that change in India can only happen through the ballot box. We cannot think of overthrowing governments  through  coups like some of our neighbours have done in the past. We cannot have military intervention. We have only one instrument in our hands – our vote. That vote has been so far exercised without adequate thought or understanding of its power.  That is what needs to change.

Two elements need to be combined to change India’s political and policy future. The first is the need for awareness – people need to understand that we are on the wrong track. Some of this has started to seep into public consciousness, but the reasons and solutions are not clear. What is needed are neighbourhood “networks and conversations” to educate people. We don’t necessarily need mass media to support us – and they are unlikely to, since the government remains the richest advertiser.

The second element is to aggregate citizens together into votebanks. This is the idea of United Voters of India, proposed by Atanu Dey. Parties have their diehard supporters – we don’t need to bother about them. What we need to focus on are the ones in the centre (undecided) and those on the margins (less convinced supporters of specific political parties). This is the segment that can swing the election.

Continued tomorrow.

State of the Nation – Part 3

So, it is a difficult situation we find ourselves in. There are still many who care about the future, and who do not want British Raj 2.0 to continue. Change is always brought about by a few – an ordinary few who are willing to go to extraordinary lengths to do something they believe in.

25 years ago, India went through a similar sort of change on the same issue – corruption. VP Singh resigned from the Rajiv Gandhi government, launched a crusade on the single issue of corruption, got together the anti-Congress, left and right forces, and went on to become PM by 1989. The same Congress led by Rajiv Gandhi who in 1984 had got over 400 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha ended up with less than 200 in 1989.

Of course, corruption did not end with the election of 1989. If anything, it has become more brazen and multiplied in magnitude. The corrupt have also got smarter. Even as we talk about Swiss bank accounts, it will be most surprising if we find a single name in there from the people we know and who rank amongst the most corrupt. Only the naïve can expect that we will actually be able to corner to taint the corrupt.

Continued tomorrow.

State of the Nation – Part 2

I, like many others, believe that our economic policies are flawed. It is quite amazing how much damage these policies can do. For example, as Niranjan Rajadhyaksha explained in an article in Mint recently, NREGA has put Indian on an inflation treadmill. And the coming Food Security Bill is going to make the situation even worse. No one in the government seems to have an idea about what to do with inflation other than keep raising interest rates.

This situation is not new. We have been singularly unfortunate in our choice of leadership and the resulting economic policies since Independence. With most governments focused on extraction and exploitation of the economy and an electoral system which needs votes, it becomes quite clear that the maximum votes are with the poor. So, policies have generally been directed on short-term measures to give the poor some handouts so they vote and stay poor.

Talk to people in the know and they will tell you about the tens of thousands of crores amassed by our top politicians. Not surprisingly, that greed is insatiable. Politics intersects with many sectors of the economy given the deep government controls that still exist – and each control is an opportunity to extract rent and loot the economy.

For the most part, Middle India has not bothered. It doesn’t vote in large numbers, and it helps quite helpless in doing anything. And so, it is business as usual for those in the power ecosystem.

Continued tomorrow.

State of the Nation – Part 1

It is an interesting time to be in India and follow the political games that are being played out. The sentiment that is now on the increase is ABC – Anything But Congress. Luckily for the Congress, national elections are not due for another three years. At the same time, while this should have helped the BJP, the primary opposition party, the reality is that there doesn’t seem to be any sort of wave in its favour. We are in what I can only think of as a “None of the Above” situation.

With this background, it becomes easier to put in perspective what is happening. Since the BJP hasn’t been able to capitalise on the ABC environment, this has only emboldened the Congress because in India, the default vote for the most part stays with the Congress. As a result, instead of us getting into a positive feedback loop of improving governance, we are now in a negative spiral with complete lack of leadership and absolute silence.

2014 is still a long way out. Fasting for specific objectives seems to be in vogue, even though the efforts only result in failure. Corruption for the most part continues unabated. Decision-making has ground to a halt. The economy is running on auto-pilot. And in this, the 20th year of liberalisation of the Indian economy, commentators have started talking of going back to the 1970s with the populist policies.

That this is not the way a country should be governed is quite clear. What is not so clear is how we get ourselves out of this situation.

Continued tomorrow.

Blog Past: Mirror World

I wrote this a couple years ago:

 During the elections, I was struck by the lack of databases and real-world linkages. Such tools could be great assets for both campaigning and direct marketing. I think of this as a “mirror world”– a virtual replica of the real world along multiple dimensions:

  • start with maps
  • add a layer of establishments (buildings, schools, retail outlets, roads, etc.)
  • overlay this with the voter database that one can get from the Election Commissio. The voter database has names of people, their addresses, gender and age.
  • add the actual voting numbers based on the data published from the EC post-election (can also incorporate historical data to get trends; need to take into account the delimitation)
  • integrate the socio-demographic and development data that is available from census, various government sites (and collated by independent companies)
  • finally, buy contacts lists of people with information of their digital identity (email IDs, mobile numbers)
  • this database can then be continuously updated based on user interactions, thus enhancing people profiles

The work to be done needs to be done at 3 levels:

  • data acquisition
  • software development for ingesting the data
  • creating analytics tools on the data for decision-making

Such a database would be a very powerful marketing tool. For example, a new multiplex can now reach out to people within a 5 kilometre radius via email or SMS (provided people are not registered on the Do Not Call registry). There are many such applications that I can think of.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • The Leader’s Checklist: A new book by Michael Useem, “presents a collection of 15 principles that can help leaders navigate successfully through even the most difficult circumstances.” A Knowledge@Wharton interview.
  • Apple could buy the mobile industry: A short piece on asymco but with a remarkable insight on how the industry has been transformed by Apple and Android. “The more remarkable thing is that as market values of phone vendors continue to decline, Apple’s cash will continue to grow dramatically. Indeed, a time may soon come when Apple’s cash will be worth more than the entire phone industry.”
  • Return to rent-seeking: An edit in Mint. “India needs economic reforms as never before. They are unlikely anytime soon.”
  • Interview with US historian David McCullough: in WSJ. Much of what he says applies to India also. He says “textbooks have become “so politically correct as to be comic.”
  • R Chandrashekhar Interview: He is India’s Secretary, Department of Telecom & Department of Information Technology, Ministry of Communication & Information Technology. “Mobile is the only medium which can reach out to 850 million people.”

Rang De Basanti

One of the evenings recently, I ended up watching “Rang De Basanti” on TV. I had watched it after it was released, but watching the movie in the current political context of corruption and middle class frustration with the political class created a new setting. While the solution advocated at the end is not the right one, the points made by the movie are worth thinking through.

In the past few weeks, even the most loyal supporters of the government have been exasperated by the silence and inaction. When I talk to people in the know, they mention the complete paralysis of policy making in the government. This has to change.

The challenges we face on multiple fronts are immense, but without the vision and will to tackle them, we can end up digging ourselves into a hole. If ever there was a time that an Indian politician needed to seize this moment in time and rise as a leader, this is it.

Why I am not more active on Twitter and Facebook

A friend recently asked me why the only I do on Twitter and Facebook is repost by blog posts. Why didn’t I do more? Why wasn’t I more active?

There are three reasons. First, I like to write slightly longer posts. Second, I like to take my time thinking through what I write. Third, given the nature of my work, I like uninterrupted periods of time. Let me explain all the points.

Twitter’s 140-char limit and real-time interaction has terrific advantages. But for me, I like my reactions to be a bit more measured. The blog, for me, gives me the time and space to write how I feel. Like I have said below, I write the blog to help myself think better. If others benefit from it, that is great. For me, writing has always been something which has made me more attentive and thoughtful. The blog gives me the room I need to clarify my own thought processes in a way Twitter cannot.

Also, in today’s world, where there is a near constant spate of interruptions, we are not getting enough chunky amounts of thinking time.  Thinking is very critical for what I need to do – both in NetCore and for the political ideas. That needs less interruption and more continuous stretches of time. Email and SMS anyways beckon regularly. I don’t want to, at least for now, add tweets and Facebook status updates and news feeds to that list.

Manney’s Bookshop in Pune

Every once in a while, I come across a bookshop that is made for a book lover. Strand Bookshop in Mumbai is one such shop. I wrote recently about Manohar’s in Delhi for India books. Another such shop is Manney’s in Pune. (Disclosure: Manney’s owner’s daughter is married to my cousin.)

There is no better pleasure than browsing through such a bookshop and discovering books that one would never easily find on an online store. Standing there amidst the shelves, picking up a book that makes one’s heart leap, thumbing through it, reading a para or two, and then deciding on whether to buy or not — this is what a click can never replicate.

A book shop like this is a labour of love – for it is built by selection of a person who knows both customers and books. There is no better way to spend an hour or two on a lazy afternoon than in a shop made by and for book lovers.

Bandra Terminus Road

I wrote about this last year, but I just cannot help writing about it again. It is unbelievable that a major railhead like Bandra in Mumbai can have such pathetic access by road. The terminus has been around for many years, and little seems to have changed. Come the rains, whatever little of the road is there is also covered with potholes and puddles. Isn’t anyone even bothered?

It has been just a couple weeks of rain, and already many of the roads are in a pathetic situation. It is the same story every year. Hundreds of crores will again be ‘spent’ fixing the roads after the monsoon. So much for our anti-corruption battle, when the outcomes are right under our wheels every kilometre we drive.

In the case of Bandra Terminus, it is quite unbelievable that we created such a critical component of infrastructure without even bothering about proper integration with the rest of the city. And the silence of passengers makes us all complicit in the tragedy that unfolds.

Ragging

A few days, I got a message on Facebook from an old IIT friend – who as it turned out was one of my first raggers! As we were reliving old memories, the topic of discussion turned to ragging. I know that today ragging is seen as something of an evil, but in those days (1984, in my case), it was something that helped me open up in ways nothing else would have.

When I went to IIT, I was one of the typical “mama’s boys” having grown up in a sheltered environment. My first evening at the hostel ensured that life in IIT would be very different! It ended at 3 am, with me cooking Maggi Noodles for one of the seniors. That first day made it very clear that my reserved personality would do me no good, and possibly get me into more trouble. I had to open up in a way that I had not previously done. Being a topper made no difference – everyone was.

Ragging lasted about a month — every evening there was a new group of seniors to be entertained. That was how I made friends – not just with them, but also fellow freshies, as we shared our ragging stories. It made me much more outgoing than I could ever have become. For me, Ragging is something which helped the transformation from a boy to a man.

Blog Past: Summer Vacations

From a post a year ago:

Since Abhishek started school a year ago, our vacations now have to sync up with his, which effectively mans the IB/IGCSE calendar. So, we have the unusal situation of having June and July as the vacation months for him, even as all his cousins have finished theirs and are back in school!

When I was growing up, summer vacations for me meant visits to my grandparents home in Pune, or the occasional visits to Rajasthan. As a family, I do remember us going once to Kashmir – taking Jammu Tavi from Mumbai on what was then one of the longest train journeys in India slicing through many Indian states. The second vacation that I remember was an SOTC European tour in 1981 (as a 14-year-old).

There is a lot of India that I haven’t seen. I hope we can do that during Abhishek’s growing-up years.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • IBM CEO Interview: Sam Palmasino speaks to Forbes. “We picked three major shifts and came up with the road maps–first the 2010 road map, now the 2015 road map. The three shifts are 1) global economies rebalancing, 2) the post-PC era driving infrastructure technologies like cloud and analytics, and 3) a changing client that puts a value on integration.”
  • A Great Graduation Speech For Engineers And Entrepreneurs: by Krista Marks (via Brade Feld). You hear people say, failure builds character, or fail early fail often. This is not only wrong – it is dangerous.”
  • Why are reforms so difficult? A research paper by Alessandra Bonfiglioli and  Gino Gancia. (via Rajeev). “This column notes that many governments fear electoral defeat if they enforce unpopular policies. But it also argues the risk of punishment in the polls is the lowest in times of crisis.”
  • India on an inflation treadmill: by Niranjan Rajadhyaksha.”The only long-term solution to the current tangle is to promote policies that shift the supply curve to the right.” Also see NY Times article: “As India’s Growth Slows, Leaders Face Political Headwinds.”
  • Revolt of the Outlander: by Swapan Dasgupta. “Anna Hazare and Ramdev appeal to two distinct social classes.” (via Amit).

Surat-Anand Trip – Part 5

A few closing thoughts.Through the road and train journeys, I could not help think that I should do a driving tour of India sometime in the next year. One needs to get out of the metro (and South Mumbai) cocoon. Maybe, a small group can be put together to drive, discuss and debate. A good time for such a tour would be in Oct-Nov this year when Atanu is in India.

Parts of rural India still seem to be frozen in time. Just 15-20 kms from towns and the world once again changes – perhaps more sharply than that from metros to towns. That India needs to be revitalised – there are kids there who need education and opportunities. I still don’t think we are doing that good a job in India on either of these fronts. That needs to change.

Finally, we need faster trains. More like high-speed trains. Mumbai-Surat should be done in less than 90 minutes, with another hour getting one to Ahmedabad. Our railway network needs a massive upgrade. Even as we build more roads, we need to learn form China and invest in a massive network of trains that can do 200-400 kms in an hour.

Surat-Anand Trip – Part 4

The two days of travel made me think that we need to travel more in India. I am already looking forward to our Binsar vacation in the Kumaon hills of Uttarakhand. I haven’t travelled widely enough in India – most of my childhood vacations alternated between Pune and Rajasthan. With Abhishek now growing and his memories becoming persistent, we hope to do more such travel within India.The India outside the metros is so different. The pace of life is so different. Traffic comprises mostly of two-wheelers and three-wheelers. Commute times are short. Consumption of English newspapers and channels is very limited. The local languages matters most. The local songs and folk music has a different rhythm and lilt to it. People seem to have so much time for each other.

Driving sense on the highways has improved but it is still not good enough. On the positive side, trucks do shift lanes to the left. On the flip side, plenty of vehicles going slower than the traffic still end up in the right lane and have to be honked out to the left!

Surat-Anand Trip – Part 3

In Anand, we visited two Amul factories, thanks to a friend at Gujarat Co-operative Milk Marketing (GCMMF). It was amazing to see the huge integrated equipment which process the milk and convert it to butter and milk powder, among other products. Working on computers all my life has limited exposure to the mighty machines that make stuff we consume in our daily lives. The Amul story, brought to life in a 20-minute video, is in some ways the story of India.The second visit was to the chocolate factory. Seeing first had how cocoa beans get converted into the stuff we so enjoy was quite an experience. We saw all the various processes closely, and ended with the kids and adults joyously chomping down the chocolates!

As Abhishek walked around, I was almost reminded of the story, “Curious George and the Chocolate Factory.” He could relate to what has happening and was almost tempted to replicate some of George’s antics. (George is a curious monkey.)

Surat-Anand Trip – Part 2

We took the kids  (Abhishek and his cousin) to Anand to visit Amul for our obligatory one-day outing. Amul was one of my first customers during the IndiaWorld days, and from there started a relationship that has stayed through for fifteen years.

Anand is about 225 kms from Surat. It took us about three-and-half hours to cover that distance by road. The twin drives were quite different – going early morning on near empty roads and returning late night on truck-filled ones.

Driving on the 6-lane NH8 and then the 4-lane NE1 expressway is as good as it gets in India. The signage is excellent. Flyovers have been built on NH8 on most intersections ensuring that one can maintain a speed of about 60-80 kms for the most part. On the expressway, 100 kms seemed to be the norm.

We took a small deteour giving on the Golden Bridge across the Narmada at Bharuch since there is ongoing repair work on the main bridge. The 130-year-old bridge brought back memories from our drive to Rajasthan more than 30 years ago. For some reason, the Bharuch bridge has always stayed in my memories!

Surat-Anand Trip – Part 1

Last weekend, I made a short visit to Surat, with a 1-day trip to Anand. The family was already in Surat. With Abhishek’s vacation now underway, we are back to our short here-and-there trips.

I have been visiting Surat for more than 15 years. Surat is about 260 kms from Mumbai. It takes about three-and-half hours by Shatadbi. I came back by Flying Rani which took about four hours and 40 minutes to cover the distance.

In the past few years, there has been at least one trip each year. Surat has grown dramatically over the years. The infrastructure in terms of roads is keeping pace. Every time I go there, I see some new flyovers, which are more like elevated roads given how long some of them are.

There are three places we visited on the day I was there: ISCON mall, an amusement park opposite that and of course, Pizza Hut, which is one of the few all-veg joints they have in the country.

Surat is one of India’s better managed cities. Let us hope it stays that way.

Blog Past: It’s Up To Us Now

The last part of my series from a year ago:

What we need to start doing is to stand up and be counted. Stand up and say, Yes, I am willing to do by bit to help change India’s political and policy climate by 2014. And then, look around. You will be amazed by how many people you will see standing. Today, we sit and think – and so do many others. And so, we don’t see anyone else.

Middle India is waiting for real leadership. We can either continue on the dismal path that India’s past leaders have set India upon, or we can create a different path that leads India to its true destiny. It will not be an easy path – it is a road that will have many twists and turn, and obstacles at every turn. We have do take this new path if for nothing else but to be able to look our children in the eye and say, “Yes, my dear, we did what we had to do and we did it well.”

Weekend Reading

This week’s links: