The Right Fight – Part 3

I had plenty of time to think over many of these points with Atanu during my US trip. Being away from the action, one could take a different perspective. The problem is much deeper than we think.

It starts with freedom. Not the freedom we think we won during the regime change of 1947. Not the freedom which is now redefined as ‘not being in Tihar jail.’ The freedom we are talking about here is personal freedom. In India, we have no idea what it is and therefore do not even realise it is worth fighting for. We think we are free. In reality, we have a government that so deeply penetrates the world around us that our freedom is a mirage. 1947 = Freedom is what is ingrained into us.

The great revolutions of history (American, British/Industrial, French) have all centred around the notion of freedom. Our Indian revolution ended with a skin colour change. And the result – a country that still counts hundreds of millions amongst its poor – is there for us to see. But even that is changing. We are building enough cocoons and gated communities that we will not have to see the poor. For this select set, India has arrived and is an IT superpower on its way to becoming an economic superpower.

India’s lack of freedom is at the heart of India’s lack of development and central to the issue of corruption.

Continued tomorrow.

The Right Fight – Part 2

Let’s take a brief look around us in India. Of course, this is a crib sheet, but stay with me. There is an important point coming up. Try and figure that out.

The government controls all radio news broadcasts. The prices of petrol and diesel are still set by the government. Education continues to have end-to-end government  Control. Make a trip abroad and try getting an iPad back to India through customs without paying duty or a bribe – no Lok Pal bill to the rescue there. The potholes on the streets continue to be there. The government controls which movies we are allowed to watch. Air-India continues to be given a blank cheque so it can fly our Maharajas. The public sector telecom provider, BSNL, is well on its path to emulating Air-India. Many of our public sector banks keep giving loans to favored parties and conveniently take write-offs a few years later.

When cities are going vertical worldwide, our Floor Space Index limit is set unreasonably low . NREGA has put India on an inflation treadmill, but the talking-heads blame it on external factors. Right to Food is all set to join the growing list of unaffordable entitlements:  Right to employment and Right to Education. The real cash-for-votes schemes are in front of us, but we cannot see them. We have a prime minister who falsely takes credit for liberalizing the economy in 1991. Inflation is rampant, threatening to slow economic growth but the blame, according to the government, lives somewhere else – the US, Europe, the world, perhaps the stars – anywhere and anything but misgovernance.

We the people are content that the resolution of a few scams is that some scapegoats have been identified and put behind bars; it does not appear to matter that those who are the real prime movers behind all those scams continue to loot the public. New malls and tv shows are the opiate of the masses.

So the fight appears to be over. Who won?

Continued tomorrow.

The Right Fight – Part 1

I was away in the US when the Anna Hazare movement was at its peak, so I missed the on-ground excitement. Seeing Middle India come out in numbers would have been a good sight. A fight to the finish for what is seen as a right cause against a corrupt, bumbling government always makes good story. Of course, the point to note is that a fast never killed the First Gandhi, and a fast will not kill the clone.

So, let’s play this out. The government gives people a Lok Pal Bill with lots of clauses they like, and the people are thrilled that their street fight has yielded results. The seemingly unwinnable battle against the Ravan of corruption has been won. The media has loved this because of the spurt in TRPs. Everyone is happy. Maybe, the Congress is a bit sad because their image has taken a beating, but public memory is quite short and the next elections are a long time away. And of course, they can now claim to be the party that give the Lok Pal Bill to the masses.

In the background, the politicians and bureaucrats can continue with their business as usual, now that this distracting interlude is over. After all, the control they have on the economy has not changed, which is the key to making money. With Middle India is euphoric about the win and now seemingly content that India is well on  its way to being free of corruption, the  magic formula of Monopoly + Discretion – Accountability = Corruption can now be given it’s due attention.

The Fight is over. Who won?

Continued tomorrow.

Blog Past: Boosting Mobile Data

From a post I wrote a year ago:

As voice becomes a commodity on mobile networks, the action is shifting to mobile data services. In this context, India’s user base is only second to China. This availability of a domestic market can help India become a large market for mobile data networks as networks become faster (3G and 4G), and as devices become cheaper and better. Since mobiles and data services are a global phenomenon, Indian companies can also emerge as global leaders by leveraging technology platforms, content and services they create for the large domestic market. India thus has a unique opportunity to create an industry in the next decade that can replicate the success of IT services in the past two decades.

To make this happen, there is need to encourage the creation of off-deck mobile data ecosystem. There are three pre-requisites that need to happen to drive this ecosystem:

  • a guarantee of Net Neutrality, so that operators cannot arbitrarily block services they believe compete with them
  • remove the WLL and spectrum charges of 13-15% that are levied for VAS, so that the cost of mobile data comes down
  • the operator’s billing platform to be available as a service for a fee of 10% or so for micropayments, a la Docomo’s i-mode in Japan

Taken together, they can drive innovation like what has been in Japan and some other countries.  The first two will open up the creation of new services, and the third will give service providers a way to monetise by making available a micropayments infrastructure leveraging the cash balance that mobile users in India already have.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • Why Software is eating the world: by Marc Andreessen. “Six decades into the computer revolution, four decades since the invention of the microprocessor, and two decades into the rise of the modern Internet, all of the technology required to transform industries through software finally works and can be widely delivered at global scale.”
  • How to fix Math Education: from NY Times. “A math curriculum that focused on real-life problems would still expose students to the abstract tools of mathematics, especially the manipulation of unknown quantities…Imagine replacing the sequence of algebra, geometry and calculus with a sequence of finance, data and basic engineering.”
  • Scientific American special issue on Cities: “This issuecelebrates the city as a solution to the problems of our age. We have tried to present it in the true urban spirit: best ideas forward.
  • The Three-ring Anti-corruption Circus in in Town: by Atanu Dey. ” So how do one explain India’s poverty and corruption? Is on the cause and the other the consequence? Which came first? Or is there another hidden variable which is the cause of these two? It is my belief that the hidden variable is India’s lack of freedom.”
  • Two Arvind Panagariya articles: Unsteady at the top and On a historic parallel.


India’s Tourism Opportunity

Having travelled to both Bali and Binsar in July, I am convinced that there is a much untapped tourism opportunity within India.

India gets about 18 million foreign tourists each year, according to Wikipedia. China gets three times as many. With better infrastructure and promotion, India’s numbers can easily match that of China.

For example, it is easier for me to get to Bali in Indonesia than to get to Binsar in Uttarakhand. This needs to change. We need to upgrade domestic infrastructure – better roads, more airports, faster trains. This needs to be combined with a bigger promotional push. More than half the people I mention Binsar toi haven’t heard about it – and neither had I till a couple months ago. India has many places of great natural beauty – which feature among some of best known secrets!

Tourism as a services industry can be thus not just a big forex generator but also a big employer, as Arun  Maira wrote in the ET recently.

O Scale Indian Train Models

I was wondering if anyone has suggestions on how to get miniature O Scale models of Indian engines and trains.

Abhishek and I are quite fascinated with the Lionel models that we have seen in the US. What we want to do is to build a collection of Indian trains. So far, Abhishek has been playing with the Thomas wooden tracks, but I guess its time for him to graduate!

Any idea on where to find such models?

Thanks in advance.

A Book as a Context to Think

I have experienced this so many times. A book that I am reading helps me think through a conundrum I have been contemplating and creates the space for coming up with interesting ideas and solutions. The book doesn’t even have to be directly linked to the topic – what it does is forces deep thought, and then the associations in the mind create something that wasn’t there before.

That is one of the reasons I love to read. Just the act of sitting for an extended period of undisturbed time with a book is guaranteed to push the mind in many different directions – some intended by the author, some unintended by the reader!

I don’t necessarily read every book immediately after I buy it. I let it stay around, and then some day, I will pick it up – and the book opens up its treasure chest of ideas. It is a wonderful feeling.

The Sea

I live in a building which faces the sea – the Arabian Sea. It has been so for the past 37 years. But there is a big gap between seeing the sea, and walking close to it. Mumbai doesn’t have too many places where one can actually enjoy the closeness of the sea. As a result, over time, the sea has become like a painting on the wall that I have stopped noticing. Which is a sad thing.

Mumbai could have done so much with the sea. But other than building on and around it, we have not really made it part of our lives some other cities like Hong Kong have. For one, we could have built nice promenades like Shanghai has done. But in Mumbai, the sea remains quite distant – an optical artefact.

I hope that changes in the times to come. Mumbai’s history is closely tied to the sea, and it would be good to have the sea interwine our future.

Water Woes

A few days ago, I heard a new phrase to describe the world’s three biggest challenges: FEW Problems, to refer to Food, Energy and Water. I loved the FEW monicker. And the W part hit home when I was talking to a friend in the suburbs of Mumbai.

He is living in a new building (constructed about two years ago). Everything is good about it – except they get very little water from the municipal corporation. The result is that they have to get water via water tankers for the bathrooms, and get Bisleri big water bottles for the drinking water. When I probed further, he said that the corporation seems to have an unstated policy of providing a limited supply of water to new buildings.

That I found quite shocking. If a building has been given permission to get constructed, why make life difficult for its residents? Maybe, we need a national Right To Water Act!

Blog Past: Pretty Good Principles

From the first of a series written a year ago:

India, like every successful entity, must have a set of principles at its core from which all governance and policies are derived. These principles should be understood by its citizens and therefore must be

  • Comprehensive
  • Comprehensible
  • Minimal

These principles are an expression of fundamental and foundational values which are acceptable to a large number of people who have different secondary value systems. We call them “Pretty Good Principles,” or PGP for short. They are:

  • Minimal Government
  • Individual Rights
  • The Relationship Between the Individual and the Government

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • Top 10 Gadgets we can’t wait for this year: by Dylan Love.
  • 10 Big Projects to transform India: on Rediff/Business Standard. (via Vijay)
  • India Today Mood of the Nation survey: “Congress comatose with stinkflation”
  • Not a Happy Birthday: by Tavleen Singh. “The reason why political leaders are called leaders is because they are elected to lead countries. They do not have the right once they accept public office to hide in back rooms and shy away from the responsibilities of public discourse.”
  •  Scratch cards as marketing tool: from Business Standard, on Netcore’s 90ml cards. “90ml is a scratch card which can be bundled as a relationship card, product replica card, visiting card and even packaged with any product. The 90ml engagement process also includes Multimedia Messages (MMS) and voice based communication, along with vanilla SMS.”

43 to 44: Part 5

The past year has seen me make four short trips to the US. The single most important reason has been Atanu. The “think time” that we spend together helps me in working through the roadmap going forward. The only thing then left now is to make the time to ensure I can now start implementing all the things that we have been discussing. That will be the most important thing I do in the coming year.

As an entrepreneur, I have done many different things over a career spanning twenty years. It is a mixed record. I now have to use much of that entrepreneurial thinking in the “blue ocean” political landscape as we seek to build out the elements that lay out an alternate agenda and future before the Indian people.

This will require getting millions of people in India to change their minds. That will not be easy. And that is why I am excited. It is a hard problem, but one that is not intractable. Only when people’s minds change will India’s political and policy future change.

So, it is on to a new year, and a new chapter. I do not know how long this book is. What I do know is that, in the spirit of a true explorer, I am ready for the “mountains beyond mountains.”

43 to 44: Part 4

On the personal front, I have been watching Abhishek grow more and more independent. He is now six years and just entered first standard. He was very excited at the prospect of having plenty of  younger kids in the school; that thought itself made him feel big!

In Abhishek’s life, in the time we get together, I do what he wants me to do. Interests have varied through the year. Beyblades gave way to Cricket Attax cards which are slowly giving way to trains (again). We now spend mornings studying the Indian Railways timetables. I have a O scale train set I had bought four years ago which we will finally open this Diwali.

As a father, all I can do is to help Abhishek create memories and experiences. His world is already so very different from the one I grew up in – as is always the case from one generation to generation. More than anything, we need to help the next generation learn to learn in different contexts.

For me, the one additional goal is to create a better India for Abhishek and his generation.

Continued tomorrow.

43 to 44: Part 3

Looking at things from a wider lens, the last year has been a year where India has lost a lot of faith in its political leadership. Scams, decisions not taken along with some extremely stupid decisions, corruption, inflation – it has all added up to a difficult year. And the most recent fall in the financial markets has only added to the gloom.

One of my learnings in the past year has been that leadership matters. Our Prime Minister is just not cut out for the job. He shouldn’t have been there but for the word of a Lady. Leading and running India needs skills of a different level.  Decisions made (or not made) can impact hundreds of millions of people. When survival becomes paramount, development and governance take a backseat. That has been the tragedy of India through most of its Independent years.

This is the politics that needs to change. We need to create a demand for capable leaders. Companies and countries need the right leadership to thrive. There are a few such leaders in India. Our goal has to be to give them an opportunity to lead the nation. We cannot have India bequeathed by a single family  from one generation to the next.

Continued tomorrow.

43 to 44: Part 2

As I look back at the past year, I can see it from two different angles – from the Netcore lens, and from the India lens.

In Netcore, our enterprise business has grown well. Our focus has been on “profitable growth.” Ensuring continued profitability helps simplify decision-making and requires continuous adaptation in changing markets. It is not about growth at any cost, as we are seeing some competitors do in this market.

The OneIndia portals too have shown healthy increases – in traffic and more importantly, in monetisation. As the Internet grows, so will the importance and use of languages other than English. We are now planning the next phase of expansion in OneIndia.

What did not work was the MyToday direct-to-consumer portal for mobile VAS content that we had set up a year ago. Collecting small amounts of money independent of the operators is an extremely hard problem to solve. Perhaps, we were too early. Maybe the model itself is flawed. We need to make a call soon on what we do going forward in this space.

Continued tomorrow.

43 to 44: Part 1

Today, I turn 44. And after 7 years, I am once again travelling internationally on my birthday. This trip is not as much about work as it is about thinking through how I am going to bring about the political and policy change in India that I have written about.

This August 15 comes at a time when I am in transition. Over the past few months, I have been delegating more in Netcore and increasing slowly the time spent on the other activities, which are largely on the political side. Not direct politics, but more on the peripheral side, as a supporting player.

Going ahead, I need to start a new innings – a second life, as it were. As an entrepreneur and change agent in the political sphere, working to build what I think of as the third pillar of the Indian Right. BJP and RSS are two powerful pillars, but there needs to be a complement to get centre-right policies and transform India.

Continued tomorrow.

Blog Past: 42 to 43

From the first of my annual series written a year ago:

Once every year, I turn the mirror inward to look at my life -on my birthday. It is that time of the year once again.

The dominant theme for the past year was about NetCore, the company I run. I spent the better part of the year focused on the business – more than I have in the past many years. Part of the reason was that there was nothing else to do – the political side of things via Friends of BJP took a backseat given what was happening within the BJP during the first part of the past year. In addition, as we expanded the consumer side of what we do in NetCore, it required a lot more attention from me.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • Freeing up the sales force for selling: from McKinsey Quarterly. “Most sales reps spend less than half of their time actually selling. Here’s how companies can reshape sales operations to allow them to focus on their real job.”
  • India’s Health Problems: from WSJ. “India’s infant-mortality rate—50 deaths per 1,000 births—is worse than Brazil’s and China’s. India’s poorer neighbor, Bangladesh, also does better.”
  • Indian States Comparator: from The Economist. “If Uttar Pradesh were to declare independence, it would be the world’s fifth most populous country (as the map below shows, it has about the same number of residents as Brazil). Yet its economy would only be the size of Qatar, a tiny oil-rich state of fewer than 2m people. That makes it poor on a per person basis.”
  • It’s all in the economy: by MJ Akbar in India Today. “[BJP President] Nitin Gadkari’s principal task over the next year will be to put together a viable economic policy for the party which the voter can assess, measure and then identify with.”
  • What happened to Obama? by Drew Westen. “The stories our leaders tell us matter, probably almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be; to the worldviews they hold and to the values they hold sacred.”

Binsar Vacation – Part 5

Bali and Binsar capped off a summer of plenty of travel. Pune, Surat, Anand, Nageshwar, Bali, Binsar, Nainital. It was a packed June-July for us.

As I write this a few days later, I cannot but help think of the beauty in India, and how little we know of it. If only we can improve the information about and accessibility to destinations like Binsar, tourism can be a huge revenue generator for us. Indians now want to travel, and for the most part, it is still much easier to travel to Bangkok, Singapore or Bali than it is to travel within the country.

The other thing I loved was vacationing with my parents. It brought back lots of memories from childhood, especially the trip we had made to Kashmir and the frequent ones to Mount Abu. When I went to IIT, these stopped. Now, with Abhishek growing, we have decided to do these trips annually within India.