Some reminiscences,some experiences

He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it,because he surely wasn't.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Obama's USP: The 'trust' factor

I just finished reading two books. Both are written by Bob Woodward and describe the decision making process followed by Obama administration to make critical policy decisions. The first book, ‘Obama’s Wars’ describes how Obama arrived at the decision to send additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. The second book, ‘The Price of Power’ describes the failed negotiations that accompanied the debt ceiling debate in 2011 between the White House and Republicans.

While the decision making process in itself is fascinating, what I found really interesting was the way Obama handled the two situations. At one point during the debt ceiling negotiations with John Boehner, the speaker of the House, Obama tells Boehner that he has immense confidence in his ability to connect with the American people. John was astounded at Obama’s confidence. When Obama finally went on to win the re-election, this notion that he possessed a special bond with the American people was re- confirmed. It was evident that even though his record in the first term was patchy and the economy still weak, enough people were willing to give him another chance.

Ever since, I have been wondering about what about Obama’s personality makes him trust worthy. It is difficult to establish trust with people. People are fickle by nature; they have different interests and motivations. There are different reasons who they trust people. It also depends on your relationship with the person – there are different reasons why one trust a friend vs say a boss or a politician. This is the personality trait that is especially fundamental to a leader. The role of a leader is to not only to develop a vision but also to align and inspire people. If people don’t trust their leader, then they won’t believe in his or her words and would always second guess his or her intent. So the question is how do you establish that trust?

A successful leader is the one who is able to tailor his message in a way that appeals to a majority of people. For instance, while choosing between politicians during elections, most people would vote based on whom they trust more instead of who they think has better policies. Good policies matter but most people don’t have the skills that are required to distinguish between good and bad policy. So even though people might rationalize their choice on the back of good policies, the question that they are answering in their mind is simply this: Who do I trust more?
Obama was able to establish trust among people through his extraordinary life story that made him relate to different segments of people. To some he was a symbol of post racial unity, to others he symbolized middle class aspirations but to most he was the embodiment of the American dream – a dream that says that it does not matter who you are or where you are born or what is your racial profile or how much money your parents earn; if you are willing to work hard, if you are willing to dream and if you have the belief that things would be better in future vs in the past, there is no limit to what you can achieve. There are many who expound this dream but there are only few who live it. Barack Obama definitely lived this dream in his lifetime.

Even though it is difficult to gain trust, once people trust someone, they find it difficult to revert back. Unless there is evidence that points to a character flaw in a leader, people generally stick with their choice. That helps explain why Obama was able to win the re-election despite, by most accounts, fairly ordinary policy performance in his first term. People were disappointed by the policy outcomes but they did not doubt Obama’s intent. They knew he worked hard and tried his best, not unlike them, who spent their entire life working hard but could not achieve the rewards that they would have liked or expected from the effort. The overwhelming narrative was that Obama like them had the right intent but faced significant obstacles e.g., the Republicans that prevented him from achieving his goals.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Why a proper understanding of past is important?

The past is ever with us and all that we are and that we have comes from the past. We are its products and we live immersed in it. Not to understand it and feel it as something living within us is not to understand the present. To combine it with the present and extend it to the future ,to break from it where it cannot be so united, to make of all this the pulsating and vibrating material for thought and action - that is life.

Nehru, Discovery of India

Saturday, September 05, 2009

The dream is gone – souring of an ideal?

Up until now, I had refrained myself from commenting on the episode relating to Jaswant Singh’s expulsion as I was trying to brush up my history so that I could make an independent assessment of the partition issue. Clearly BJP was in no such mood. The swiftness and ruthlessness with which BJP expelled a senior party functionary like Jaswant, has created ripples all over the country.
The immediate reason why I was stirred into expressing my viewpoint was actually a phone conversation I had with my mother recently. Now my mother is in no way politically very aware or conversant, but still she had this observation to make on the above episode, “ Did you hear about BJP sacking Jaswant? He seemed to be a nice guy, in the same mould as Vajpayee. I don’t know if what he did was right or wrong, but it does seem a bit humiliating to expel a person, who was such an active BJP member and in party for 30 years, at such a short notice. Day by day, BJP seems to be sinking deeper into the abyss.”

The present episode is painful because it marks the disintegration of an ideal and a dream. I can still recall my childhood years when I used to be inspired by BJP in general and Vajpayee in particular. In an age when I could only see problems but was unable to understand their reasons or solutions, BJP seemed to me the only source of hope. It was indeed a party with a difference, a party that had, amongst its ranks, the best thinkers in business; incorruptible people who neither compromised on principles nor on integrity. These were the people who were united on the basis of a definite ideology and vision for the country, people who could compromise on power but not on principles. They were also united in their sense of abhorrence for the appeasing and dynastic politics followed by the Congress after independence. Most didn’t qualify for an automatic entry into the realms of politics on the basis of surname or connections but had been shaped and molded in the crucible of public life to reach their present position. People like Vajpayee and Advani had spent their entire life in opposition in service to their ideology and honor.
Since as far as I remember, BJP has always been guided by the Hindutva ideology but in those days BJP was also a symbol of change and progress. That was the reason why middle class people, despite no strong right wing Hindu nationalist convictions, were still its supporters. It was a party that appealed to reason and promised to steer India towards the path that could help her attain its full potential. The reason why Atalji was able to inspire confidence in people was primarily because of his inclusive and accommodating personality. If BJP is in shambles today, it is not because it has been deserted by its core set of voters (i.e people who believe that BJP has the sole right on Hindu conscience) but because of the loss of faith in moderates like my mother who are unwilling and uncomfortable to be associated with a party that also has Gujarat riots to its name and a Varun Gandhi in its ranks.
No party can think of being a national party by having an exclusive agenda, and that is especially so in a diverse country like India. Though it seems ironic to some people, the guiding philosophy of Hindutva has its origins in a desire to unite India (or atleast the majority of it) under a single flag that could help eliminate the divisions that have so plagued our progress over the past thousands of years. Proponents of Hindutva believe that the reason why Indian civilization has floundered for the last 1500 years (esp after India’s rich civilizational history) and has become repeated prey of conquests is because of the moral corruptness and divisions within its majority community i.e. the Hindus. They think that by invoking the past pride and focusing on symbols of common culture i.e. Mahabharata and Ramayana, they would be able to eliminate the differences of caste, language and region that have hampered our progress for so long.
But, alas, rarely do outcomes mirror the intentions. It is interesting what nationalists like Gandhiji and Nehru felt when asked to comment on the above belief. Gandhiji believed that the problem with Hindu nationalism as opposed to Indian nationalism is that it can very soon become associated with the majoritarianism thus leading to adverse unintended consequences difficult to control. It is a tribute to Gandhiji’s understanding and intellect that the events of last 20 years that have unleashed such strong emotions and sent tremors along the delicate religious fault lines of India seem to correspond to his original observations.
Of course the rational of promoting unity in a fractured country can never be questioned. Time and again, India’s nationalists have tried to foster unity so as to remove the various ills that still afflict Indian society. So here we are not arguing about intent but essentially the tactics that need to be followed to bring about this unity. In different ages, the nationalists and philosophers have used different tactics to invoke strong fraternal emotions. Guru Gobind’s efforts to create a new race that could stand the excesses of Aurangzeb is an example, so is the awakening of Indian nationalism that led to Indian independence. So the question is, not as to whether such a unity is desirable or not but as to what tactic should be used to create this unity? Unfortunately I do not have an answer to this but one thing is certain that India of 2009 is not the same as India of 1991. The issues are different; the mindset of people has changed. The opening up of India has exposed a large number of citizens to the practices followed in the more prosperous countries of the world. For the first time since independence, Indian youth can now look and plan for the future rather than be bound by the past. All around, we see people looking for new solutions and accepting new ideas. People are just no longer excited or satisfied by the oft-repeated explanations of the politicians that attribute their present woes to some age-old disputes and grievances that have no real relevance in today’s world. They are willing to set aside the old traditions if the result is greater wealth and standard of living. If the divisions in 1991 were along the religious and regional lines, the divisions in future promise to be along economic lines. If states and regions were banded together after independence on the basis of language and culture, in future a new grouping based on the economic similarities will take place. No matter what religion a call center employee has, the day-to-day issues and problems he faces are the same. Politics cannot be divorced from realities. Sadly, it doesn’t seem that the BJP has yet registered the significance of this change in aspirations and beliefs that is coming about by the rise of India’s middle class, that it has in part helped precipitate, and is thus refusing to change tracks.
Here I would also like to highlight the role that media has in ensuring accountability. It is no secret that the media in our country is mostly run by liberal, centric people most of whom have been a part of establishment since long, It is rather disgusting to see how often the personal biases of those reporting come into play during television debates and discussions. Why is it that there is no constructive debate held on the reasons behind the so-called Hindu nationalism? Why did a nobody like Varun Gandhi occupy so much primetime whereas the views of the people (who helped him win election by on of the biggest margins) not shown? In today’s 24x7 news reporting environment, the role of media in forming opinion cannot be under emphasized. The kind of investigative journalism that led to the revelations like Watergate and Bofors seems to have all but gone. Increasingly the media is playing the role of being a spokesperson of the establishment and is forgetting its role of being the conscience keeper of society. Herein lies a challenge also for the BJP. If they think that the existing news channels are not doing enough justice to their point of view, then they should try to come up with their own channels of communication They should tell the youth why they think their philosophy holds credence in today’s world, on how will it benefit them and if they can’t satisfy them then there is a need to press for change. They need to engage with the masses and provide clarity as to their goals and expose the weakness of the ruling coalition. But for all that, they need to reflect first on their weaknesses and accept the problems. Some amount of dissidence and soul searching is obviously required coz ‘if you keep on doing what you have always done, you will keep on getting the same results as you have always got’. Sadly the events of the past few weeks don’t reflect very highly on the caliber of their present crop of leaders.
We should be concerned about BJP’s problems because India needs two strong national parties that could usher in an era of bipolar politics and lend stability to an otherwise fractured political landscape. We need to give our people an option while voting so that the party in power can be reigned in and the abuse of power is kept in check. For almost 50 years we didn’t have any viable option other than Congress, and the result is there for everyone to see. Only a reasonable fear of being voted out of office can provide an incentive for the government to perform its functions honestly and sincerely. Only if an option is present for an individual to dissent or disagree can there be democracy and accountability in the system. Only by being made responsible for one’s actions rather than antecedents can we hope to shake out from this slumber of thousands of years and fulfill the aspirations of our people.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Sharm-e-Sheikh -- a new dawn or costly mistake?

Most people must have read about the recent storm initiated in the foreign policy sphere by the joint statement issued at Sharm-e- Sheikh between the leaders of India and Pakistan. From all the hysteria surrounding the framing of the document and apparent surrender of moral high ground by India, one could easily conclude the signing of memorandum as akin to selling of national interest. “Manmohan has gone to the Pakistani camp”, pronounced a senior leader of BJP on the floor of Parliament. For once politicians and the usually highly efficient diplomats, manning India’s foreign interests, have been left surprised and bemused at this apparent slip.

I also have a perspective on the issue and would like to share few thoughts that my humble knowledge and understanding can permit me to make. Most theorists consider a country’s foreign policy to be an extension of its domestic policy and an instrument that can be used by it to further its own national interests. Foreign policy is also mostly the result of a long-standing relationship of give and take with another country. Most countries are hence locked in fairly consistent and stable foreign policy positions, with the duty of diplomats being to maintain this status quo and make sure that nothing out of ordinary is done to challenge the existing world order. The best diplomats are termed as diligent, efficient, and articulate but vision and leadership are not really the pre-requisites for good diplomacy. Leaders on the other hand think on the different plane. The most powerful and ambitious of leaders are concerned about their position in history and are weighed in by the expectations that the position of PM or a President bestows upon them. They are more akin to making split second and emotional decisions. Most of them would believe in the concept of black-swan (occurrences that are not expected by people to happen in normal circumstances) promoted by Taleb and would see themselves as the catalysts for such events. It is the business of leaders to initiate and change the course of events based on their vision. For if you keep on doing what you have always been doing, you will keep on getting the same outcome as always.

For far too long India has had leaders with a very narrow and short-term vision. Most decisions are taken with the upcoming election or parliament session in mind. Rather than leading, most politicians have just been indulging in politicking by getting involved in narrow, sectarian and regional issues. They refuse to address the major problems facing India for fear of repercussions from the ignorant and easily excitable electorate. And what’s a bigger problem than our relations with Pakistan at this point of time? Haven’t we been told umpteen times that it is the politicians who are the biggest stumbling blocks to peace between the two countries? Most people know and understand that war is not a solution to India’s problems with Pakistan. As Vajpayee said in one of his poignant moods when the war cry was at its peak following the attack on Indian parliament, “You can decide over when you start a war. But once started, when it will end, how it will end, nobody knows. That is a call leaders have to take,” The loss suffered by the family members of a dead son, husband or father, the utter waste of resources that a war entails, the everlasting hatred that it precipitates are all established negative effects of war that no-one can ignore. Most people who still harp about war have either not read enough history, have something to gain politically or economically by the business of war or are sitting in a foreign country safe and untouched by the after effects of war. Statesmen understand this but politicians don’t. If we agree then that war is not an option, then what is the alternative?

It’s in the above context that the accord at Sharm-e-Sheikh should be seen. There is no doubt that Manmohan Singh is a man guided by his intellect and vision for modern India. He has never been a politician and doesn’t have any short term political rents to disburse. His decision making process is guided not by narrow, political outcomes but by an eye on future and a dominant place for India in world affairs. By adopting policies that could extract a price in present but would pay dividends to our future generations, he is trying to fulfill this vision. No one knows if the initiative will succeed or not or if the terrorist attacks will stop. But one thing is certain; no future scenario can be envisioned without a sustainable peace between India and Pakistan. We cannot sustain this endless pursuit of one-upmanship, weapons and deceit. Lets imagine for once that our PM thinks in the same vein as mentioned above and in addition, for the first time, received a concrete evidence that our neighbor is sincerely trying to address this issue and has turned a corner, then it would be most logical for him, being a statesman, to go more than half the distance in ensuring that peace is given another chance in the region. And that is why I think Manmohan Singh’s latest initiative deserves support.

No issue gets resolved by silence, instead silence breeds mutual distrust, suspicion and leaves the door open for third party exploitation. We might not be able to solve this problem today or this year or even in next 5 years but at least it is a step in the right direction. And unfortunately, after 60 years of conflict, we can’t afford to stay astray anymore. Ignoring the problem and wishing it away is not the solution. One needs to keep trying. For India, it’s even more important as its ambition is bigger. It cannot emerge as a world power without first countering distractions within its own backyard. Today, the single biggest reason why South Asia is suspected and disregarded as an investment destination is because of the higher discount rates that are necessitated by the prospect of war and terrorism attack in the region. In an era, when our country has been unshackled from the economic chains and has started competing in global economy, we cannot afford to be limited by the age-old perceptions with respect to this most difficult of problems. It is only by letting go the past prejudices and understanding the ground realities that we can think about a peaceful future together.

Furthermore as the PM mentioned in his speech, talking together doesn’t mean that we ignore our neighbor’s insincere and false actions, instead it gives us a greater ability to express our displeasure and ensure that our neighour is held responsible for its actions. For anyone who doesn’t believe in this argument should just answer this simple question. Who is more difficult to dupe or backstab - a person with whom you have no relationship or the one with whom you have one?

Finally, we must understand that there is always a great asymmetry in the information privy to the PM as compared to a normal citizen. And this asymmetry is further heightened in matters of national security. We can only judge a leader’s actions on the basis of outcomes or in this case, past outcomes. It is for this reason as well that the person, who gave us economic reforms and staked his government on the seemingly innocuous looking but potentially beneficial in the long run nuclear deal, needs to be given the benefit of doubt.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Whose sense of morality?

I spent the last week at home as I had fallen sick with viral and came home to recover fully. While at home, I got hooked to the latest TV series courting trouble, Sach ka Saamna. Just looking at the format and the questions asked, one has to admit that the widespread protests that it has attracted were expected. As mentioned by many of the commentators, even the most liberal among us cannot deny that the show promotes voyeurism of the worst kind and is an absolute delight if you want to have a peek into the life of your next door neighbor.

Most of my informed readers would know that the issue was discussed in Parliament and protest lodged by many MPs who demanded a debate on the appropriateness of telecasting the show. The ministry was prompt in its criticism and summoned the producer of the show to register its displeasure. While all this was happening and the news channels were busy debating a yet another trespass into that oft quoted but seldom-understood ‘freedom of speech’ right, another news report flashed out. This news was about the alleged lynching of a young boy in a village in Haryana who was thrashed and killed apparently at the pronouncement of the village panchayat. The mistake of the boy was to fall in love and marry a girl from the same gotra; following which the panchayat took matters upon itselves and decided to punish the boy so as to bring the honor of the village back. The same MPs when asked to comment on the above lynching advised young people to show respect and refrain from going against the traditions of the society. There was no remorse at the killing, no pledge to bring the guilty to book, no assurance to prevent such killings in future. The media also covered this news story but just as a sidenote to the more important discussion on Mumbai high tide and Sach ka Saamna. There was no special programs, no panel debates and no indignant reporters calling for bringing the guilty to book on the issue.

Today again there was a news item on another honor killing, this time in Punjab. Such are the indignities’ that our Bharat has to face each and every day.

If you read the above para clearly, you would have noticed a clear difference in the response given to both news items (Sach ka Saamna and lynching of youth) by the TV channels and the MPs. At least the MPs are consistent in their parochial viewpoint. But it is the so called liberal representatives of our society who really irritate me with their narrow minded, ignorant and insensitive stance on issues that reiterate the vast gulf that still exists between India and Bharat. My question to the TV channels is this. Do they not realize the vast difference in the sense of morality between India and Bharat? Why don’t we have debate on the question of honor killings? Is right to expression more important than right to live? Do they not understand the various compulsions arising out of the traditional fabric of Indian society or do they just not care when they expect shows like Sach ka Saamna to be screened without obstruction while youth are being killed in the name of honor killing just 100 kms away?

The earlier we Indians acknowledge that the people in India’s hinterland are not just a market that needs to be exploited but also citizens of our country, albeit ones who have a different viewpoint to life, the earlier we would be able to address this vast gulf that separates the two.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Idea of India

I continue with my discovery of India’s post independence history and must confess that am pretty amazed at our country’s role in the greatest social, economic and political experiment ever undertaken in human history. In this experiment, India is the Petri dish where people of different hues, caste, religion, and language were mixed in abject economic conditions; glued together by the lofty ideals of freedom, equality, democracy and secularism. 60 years hence, the experiment continues. India’s democratic experiment can be considered as the third most important one in the history of world civilizations- after the French and the American; and it might still prove to be the most important of all.

Before progressing further it is important to understand the situation of India at the time of her independence. In 1947, India had all the pre-conditions that make the democratic system unviable. Experts and critics were almost unanimous in their assessment that it is not a question of ‘if’ but ‘when’ the Indian union would break, thereby plunging the country in chaos. One can also question whether such a thing as one ‘India’ has ever existed. India can be essentially considered a union of people who though bound together by shared civilizational history and an exploited colonial past are severely divided along religion, region, language and caste lines. Nationalist leaders like Gandhi, Nehru etc united the entire country in its struggle against the British but the India that emerged at independence was still a divided lot; now that the nationalistic sense of purpose had gone, it was feared that parochialism and regional aspiration would drown any attempt at presenting a united front to the innumerable problems facing the country.

Naturally there were questions asked then, as they are now, on the benefits of a huge state forged by forcibly banding together a Punjabi and a Keralite who have no perceived ties of language, customs, religion or some cases even skin color. Rather than having to constantly firefight (to douse the separatist flames), why not separate out the country into smaller, more homogenous states? The only rationale behind the existence of India (in its present form), in the absence of cultural, linguistic or theocratic homogeneity, seemed to be economic.

Most countries freshly independent after years of foreign domination face an urgent task of revamping their economies but India became independent with not only its economy in tatters but also its social and territorial integrity in question. Partition added fuel to fire and made sure that the demands for a separate Hindu nation, opposed to the Muslim one, gained ground. India’s nationalist leaders, though, had other things in mind. What followed was an establishment of the Indian republic that was based on the guiding principles of parliamentary democracy and equality.  Since then a lot has been said about the constraints that a democracy places in providing fast economic development to its people. Empirical evidence supports the theory that democracy does not seem to be the optimal system for a state with conditions like one in independent India. As country after poor country plunged into the throes of dictatorship, there were calls for India to adopt a more functional even though less liberal system. A poor, hungry person values food more than freedom – it was espoused. The miracle of the East Asian economy reaffirmed this viewpoint further.

So did our founding leaders indeed make a mistake in opting for democracy? Can people of different faiths and ways of life not stay together? Does India require a strong leader like Indira who could concentrate and centralize power thereby making sure that narrow and regional interests do not overwhelm the national ones? Is bread more important than freedom? Is globalization better or self-reliance?

The reason why India is so important to the world history is because it is at the centre of most important debates taking place in world today. A lot of people are observing the happenings in our country to understand the solution to above questions. It is in this context that the past few years of enormous economic growth in India should be seen. India’s success would validate the oft-repeated rhetoric that freedom and democracy can go hand in hand with economic prosperity (the assertion that has till now proved an idle one for the developing and poor countries). How India manages to balance and fulfill the aspirations of its divided and at times warring people is going to determine if these ideas will still hold credence for the billions of impoverished people around the world. India’s failure, on the other hand, would be a boon to all those who believe that the clash of civilizations is unavoidable and centralization of power plus homogeneity in society are the pre-requisites to economic prosperity.  The Soviet model, with its promise of social and economic justice to all, inspired generations of revolutionaries around the world. India’s rise has generated the same optimism for scholars and poor people alike. It is now important that we understand our position in the world history and make sure that we do our best to fulfill our ‘tryst with destiny’.

Friday, July 03, 2009

'Liberty of thought and action is the only condition of life, of growth and well-being. Where it does not exist, the man, the race, the nation must go.' - Swami Vivekananda