Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • Advantage of Youth in Innovation: by Bill Gurley. “Without the blinders of past experience, you don’t know what not to try, and therefore, you are willing to attempt things that experienced executives will not consider.”
  • Y Combinator Demo Day: A review by TechCrunch. “Out of the 39 companies presenting on the record today, 15 are mobile-first by my count.”
  • The real significance of the new iPad: By Michael Mace. “As a systems vendor, Apple innovates in both hardware and software, so you have to look at both areas to understand the full iPad offering.”
  • Step to the Center: by David Brooks. “…Centralize the goals, but decentralize the means people take to get there.”
  • India Today Conclave 2012

Reversing India’s Darkening Outlook – Part 5

Third, we the people of Urban Middle India have to come together in a way that has never happened before. We have the technologies to make it happen – mobile and social networks. We have the reason to make it happen – our future, along with that of our children. We have a leader who can bring about real change in Narendra Modi. If we don’t do it now, when will we?

India needs to outgrow its love for the Congress and the Gandhi-Nehru family. The BJP itself has not covered itself in glory as a compelling national alternative. But in Modi, there is a person who can lead and deliver the India we envision. And for that, if one has to support the BJP as the alternative, so be it. The next election has to be a wave election – because we want a leader whom we believe can truly transform India. And we have a give him a mandate that will allow him to govern. Change has to start with us. Our vote, our volunteerism, our support is what can create the India of our dreams.

Reversing India’s Darkening Outlook – Part 4

 

I have written in the past about the need for a single party to get to 275 seats in the Lok Sabha in the next election so we can get to the business of governance without being constrained by regional satraps wanting their say in every policy. I don’t think I went far enough in outlining what it will take to transform India’s policy future.

First, we need a massive wave of anti-Congressism. People in India need to realise that the real enemy of economic growth is the current Congress. It is their policies through the decades under the dynasty that have kept India poor. This doesn’t seem obvious to many voters since they still keep voting for the Congress in large numbers.

Second, we need to put our faith in a leader who has demonstrated leadership and delivered results in the past decade. That leader is Narendra Modi. Gujarat’s model of governance and development needs to be replicated at a national level if India has to get out of this trap of sub-standard performance.

In this context, it is worth reading what William Antholis of the Brookings Institute wrote recently about Modi after a meeting:

In person, Modi comes across as an effective administrator, a proud Indian nationalist, and a committed if not zealous Hindu. He also is a policy maven—introverted, precise, and even passionate about the most technical of subjects. On almost all of these issues, his Gujarat is pushing, not following, New Delhi and India.

…he is a talented and effective political leader, and will continue pushing New Delhi and not following. He has successfully tackled some of India’s toughest problems, but also has touched its most sensitive nerves. He is wrestling with major global challenges, with all the complexities that implies for a man with strong nationalist convictions. One thing is certain— he will continue to be a force in Indian politics.”

Reversing India’s Darkening Outlook – Part 3

On the political side, the Fronts are multiplying. Sensing weakness in both the Congress and the BJP, the regional parties are trying their hand at talking about various alternative formations for the next elections. One of them, the Samajwadi Party, has already sounded the bugle for mid-term elections. It almost seems like 1995-6 all over again. Everyone thinks they can become India’s next Prime Minister, even if it is for a day.

At the heart of the dreams of power lies the belief that the best way to come to power is by keeping Indians poor. As Tavleen Singh wrote in Indian Express on Sunday:

I have concluded that the real reason why poverty has not disappeared is because our political leaders do not want it to disappear. If there were no poor people left in India, where would their voters come from? As they saw from the sort of people who joined Anna Hazare’s protest movement last year, the middle classes ask too many questions. And, they complain too much.

There are hundreds of thousands of villages in India where electricity remains elusive, erratic or unavailable. This causes immeasurable harm to agriculture but because the average Indian farmer is too poor to protest, he accepts his lot silently. But, let the lights go out in a middle class Delhi colony for more than a couple of hours and women hurling abuse and brickbats appear in the streets. Let the water stop running in their taps and they can get even nastier.

It is because poor people rarely indulge in this sort of bad behaviour that our politicians love them and do their best to ensure that they remain poor forever.

And so it goes on. India stays poor because of flawed economic policies that keep the ‘pro-poor’ politicians in power.

Reversing India’s Darkening Outlook – Part 2

The Economist, in its latest issue, featured India’s fading optimism on its cover. It wrote:

This dispiriting scene is in turn mainly caused by two political problems. The gradual fragmenting of voters’ allegiances has made India’s parliamentary arithmetic excruciatingly tight. The Congress party, which has ruled the country since 2004, depends on fickle and populist coalition partners. Congress itself is in a mess. The elderly ministers who run the country serve at the behest of Sonia Gandhi, the hereditary chief; an attempt to promote her son Rahul as the next dynast has gone badly. The government has not passed a big reform for years and seems preoccupied by holding a ragged coalition together until national elections in 2014.

The second kind of political problem has to do with limited ambition. The recent budget saw tweaks to tax rates, debt quotas and duties, all implausibly heralded as big steps. Struggling to pass reforms such as a new nationwide goods and services tax, and unwilling to tackle state monopolies and vested interests in industries like energy, even reforming politicians now settle for yanking a few rusty levers of the bureaucratic machine. Administrative improvisation is being taken as a substitute for genuine reforms that open up the economy.

So, what happens now? Are we doomed to a darkening future?

Reversing India’s Darkening Outlook – Part 1

The misplaced optimism that India would pursue a path of economic growth, good governance and development after the 2009 elections has evaporated. It is now clear that we are not just heading in the opposite direction, but doing so rapidly. Politics is, once again, hurting India’s economic and aspirational future.

Just in the past couple weeks, we have seen a theatre of the absurd. The Railway Budget increased passenger fares after many years. This was actually welcomed by most people who want to see a safe and efficient Railways. Mamata Banerjee disagreed, and so we had a rollback. The Union Budget amends an Act retrospectively since – hold your breath – 1962, so it can go after corporates and taxes. The CAG draft report talks of a coal scam that is incredible in its magnitude. Growth, once projected to be at 10%, has now dropped to 6.1%.

When the country needs leadership most, we are getting a vacuum. When the country needs reforms most, we are getting more state control, more freebies and more subsidies. When the country needs forward-looking decisions, we are getting disasters of our own making.

Is this the bright future that we had anticipated?

Blog Past: India needs Leadership and Vision

I wrote this a year ago:

I was reading a book on India’s economic history when I started thinking about why we took the wrong policy turns we did repeatedly since Independence. My answer: it comes down to the leader at the top and his/her vision. Which, if you think about it, is not very different from what happens in the corporate world also.

A leader has great influence over the economic policy of a country. The mental models of the leader determine the direction of policy. If India has had flawed economic policy through the years, then in stands to reason that the mental models of our leaders were flawed. Also, given the position they were in, it is only a rare leader who is willing to learn and change by listening to others. Most of those around the leader are not forthcoming with dissent. As a result, what the leader thinks generally holds sway.

Look at India through the eyes of its leaders of the Nehru-Gandhi family, since they have ruled India for most of the time since Independence. Nehru had a dislike for being in anyway dependent on anything foreign, even terming it economic imperialism. Instead of integrating India into the world via trade, he cut India off through his policy of import substitution industrialisation. Indira Gandhi had a socialist bent of mind – with a focus on redistribution and equity. The outcome was all the anti-poverty programmes and various measures to ensure forced redistribution of wealth (high taxes, licence controls on big industry). Rajiv Gandhi did have some good ideas, but did not have the full understanding of the need for opening up the economy.Quite obviously, his mother was his biggest influence.

Sonia Gandhi (MMS is quite irrelevant) too has been influenced by her mother-in-law since there have been no other visible influences on her. So, we see the modern method of redistribution – take money from the middle-class and hand it over to the poor. Farms loans, NREGA, and a myriad other social sector schemes with one thing in common – handouts. What makes us think her son (or daughter) will be any different? Is this the India of tomorrow we want?

What India needs is a real leader who lives, breathes and understands development. A leader with vision who can see the future and make things come alive. Until that happens, we are not going to get out of the morass. If anything, we are digging a deeper hole and reaching a point of no return. The only two leaders who did something good were the ones who did not have the legacy of the past and the family – PV Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • The Real Leadership Lessons of Steve Jobs: by Walter Issacson in HBR. ” Making an enduring company, he said, was both far harder and more important than making a great product. How did he do it?”
  • Is Google facing the beginning of the end?by Rob Enderle. “The annals of tech history are littered with one-time high-fliers that have either dropped off the map or limped away. Is Google the next Sun or Yahoo?”
  • Why Bilinguals are smarter: from NY Times. “It can have a profound effect on your brain, improving cognitive skills not related to language and even shielding against dementia in old age.”
  • India’s economy losing its magic: from The Economist. “Politics is preventing India from fulfilling its vast economic potential.”
  • On Narendra Modi: Time  (cover story) and Brookings.

Business Planning

The last few weeks in March and the first few in April are when plans get made for the next financial year. Targets get set, new ideas are brought forth, reviews are done. Even though business is a continuum, the March-April switching is a good time to reset things. Thats what has also been happening with us at Netcore.

Ideally, the planning process should begin somewhat earlier in Feb, but it rarely happens in my experience. Everyone is too busy focusing on hitting numbers for the final quarter in the year to think too far ahead for the next year! By mid-March, most of the quarter is cast in stone, and then attention can turn to the next year.

An annual plan is a good exercise. Even as the numbers are distilled to quarters and weeks, an annual target is important to keep the long view and big picture in mind.

Club Penguin for Kids

Abhishek and his cousins (ages 7-10 years) have been spending an incredible amount of time on Club Penguin. It is an online virtual world for kids. I have also had to gift them paid memberships ahead of their April birthdays.

A lot of discussion revolves around penguins, puffles and the like! Its a very nicely done environment. The kids have also learnt to use some of the ‘cheat sheets’ around the web, and make their way like pros around.

Last year this time, it was beyblades. This time around, an online virtual world. Progress?

Restaurant Reco: Tuskers at Sofitel

Tuskers is an unusual name for a vegetarian restaurant in Sofitel in BKC. Equally unusual is to find an only-veg restaurant at an international hotel chain in India.

I had a business dinner there recently, and the food was outstanding. The Jain food was also very well done.

So, if you are looking for a good lunch or dinner place at BKC, look no further than Tuskers!

 

Movie Reco: Kahaani

I saw Kahaani recently. Very well crafted suspense thriller. Good to see Bollywood make movies of a different genre.

Vidya Balan carries the movie on her shoulders. Kolkatta has been shot beautifully.

There as a full house when I saw it on the second weekend. That says a lot about the pull effect of the movie.

Blog Past: Digital India

I wrote this a year ago:

Technology and Government: Fast-tracking Democracy

IT Infrastructure to redefine Citizen-State Relationship

Creating “Digital India” is about using Information Technology to:

  • Disseminate information
  • Deliver services more effectively to citizens in the State
  • Encourage feedback from citizens and provide a channel for them to talk back

Information Technology enables transformation at various levels:

  • Governance made “user friendly” and transparent
  • Involve citizens in working synergistically with the government
  • Make citizens active stakeholders in the development of the state

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas: by Paul Graham. “Any one of them could make you a billionaire. That might sound like an attractive prospect, and yet when I describe these ideas you may notice you find yourself shrinking away from them.”
  • Online Newspapers: from The Economist. “To survive online, newspapers are seeking a worldwide audience.”
  • The Newsonomics of ARPU, Counting Revenue per Visitor: by Ken Doctor. “It’s a great benchmarking metric, long used by telcos and in the cable TV industry, and one being increasingly used, though not publicly, in the digital news industry.”
  • Indian eCommerce: by Shyam Kamadolli. “Where we are today is that both investors and entrepreneurs have become more aware of the challenges than they were 6 months ago.”
  • India’s Exploding Digital Economy: by Jeffrey Rayport. “The idea that India — with its scale, its energy, its consumers — could become a digital laboratory and growth engine for the world struck me as both likely and inspiring.”

Assembly Elections – Part 10

What the BJP needs to propose to its allies and potential partners is a two-pronged electoral model where BJP contests seats in urban areas in states even where the alliance partner is strong. For the alliance partner to agree to such a proposal, there must be a visible national wave for the BJP so that the partner also benefits across the state.

This will open up new opportunities for the BJP in states like TN, AP and WB with potential partners like AIADMK, TDP and TMC. In these states, the BJP could add 30-40 additional seats.

Such a dual relationship would create a stronger lock between the BJP and its alliance partner as is there in Punjab.

Admittedly, this idea may be far-fetched. But the time has come to think hard about out-of-the-box solutions to India’s political and policy challenge. All our futures are at stake.

Assembly Elections – Part 9

Besides the obvious elements that the BJP needs (mass leader and an aspirational agenda, to start with), I think that the BJP also needs to craft a new political model keeping in mind the federal structure of India.

The existing approach that the BJP has will probably limit it to a maximum of 200 seats in the best case scenario. (BJP’s previous best at the national level is 182 seats.) Even a national wave for the BJP is unlikely to propel the BJP close to 272 because it is almost non-existent in four key states in India.

A figure of 200 still leaves it 72 seats short of a majority, and it will then entail taking support of 4-5 parties (including allies). That by itself may not help with governance given that key ministries will be given out, and any ally could put a stop to any decision it doesn’t agree with. (Case in point: TMC in UPA 2.)

So, is it possible to create a new construct in India’s political sphere that can get the BJP past 272 on its own?

Assembly Elections – Part 8

India’s political future, thus, has four possibilities after the next elections:

  • A Congress- or BJP-led majority government: this is the ideal scenario
  • A Congress-or BJP-led minority government: the stability of this government will be dependent on the quantum of support needed from the smaller parties
  • A Third Front government: this will be inherently unstable given that it is likely to cobble together 10-15 parties, with no clear anchor
  • A Third Front government supported from inside or outside by the Congress or BJP: such a government will be at the mercy of its big ally, who could choose to withdraw support at any time. Also, given that many of the smaller parties compete with one or both of the national parties, it could be difficult  to put such a formation in place

Given the anti-Congress sentiment that is prevalent, the BJP is perhaps best placed to start thinking how it could create a government at the centre in the next elections – with a majority of its own.

Assembly Elections – Part 7

Regional parties rule many states in India already. Each one has the potential to win 20-30 seats in a national election. Since many of them do not have a footprint in more than one state, in theory, they could all come together and try and cobble a government after the next elections if the Congress and BJP aggregate falls to less than 272 (the half-way mark).

That is easier said than done. The inherent differences and leadership aspirations will probably make it very difficult for any sort of stable government to emerge. Once again, policy-making and governance will suffer.

Of course, the alternative is that one of the Congress or BJP gets a majority on its own. That seems highly unlikely as of now. But two years is a long time in politics.

Assembly Elections – Part 6

As one looks ahead, India’s political and policy future does not look bright. On the policy side, government interference in business is increasing. The ban on cotton exports is one example of where the government is needlessly meddling with the markets. With a budget coming later this week, socialistic handouts are expected to increase under the names of NREGA and Food Security Bill. Religion-based quotas also do not seem to be far away. With a desperate and weakened  Congress, sanity in decision-making may take second place to protecting and prolonging the dynastic legacy.

The BJP also has failed to emerge as a national alternative. Without a mass national leader, without a clearly defined differentiated agenda and without recognisable local faces, it is not winning over the anti-Congress votes. These votes are instead going to a clutch of regional parties where they exist.

These trends mean that India could be back in the 1996-1998 era wherein the Third Front experiments held sway.