Saturday, September 29, 2012

O vs. O : Fed up of Mamata and missing Kurien

How do we get what we want?

Well Mamata Banerjee very clearly believes it is by opposing what she does not want. I am opposed to FDI, I am opposed to fuel price increases, I am opposed to the Tata Nano factory, I am opposed to the decisions my own minister takes in the railway ministry, I am opposed to paying back the Rs 2 lakh crore (yes) debt of the West Bengal government, I am opposed to people making cartoons of me, I am opposed to people asking me direct questions on TV. I am opposed. Period. She once claimed a  doctoral  degree from one non-existant East Georgia University in the US. Time magazine thinks she is amongst 100 most influential people in the world.

Dr JP Narayan, a (real) doctor turned politician, thinks it is by organizing. He believes the ability to organize things well is what distinguishes successful societies form pathetic ones. His fledgling Lok Satta Party in Andhra Pradesh organized a simple awareness program in which citizens carry calibrated containers purchased fuel from petrol pumps to demonstrate the difference between what you were paying for and were actually getting; it reportedly led to a visible change in behavior and governance of petrol pump stations in the state. His contribution to making RTI happen is widely acknowledged, as is the 2 lakh acre irrigation project he oversaw as a collector; the Kukatpally constituency he represents has actually seen street lights, reorganization of sewage lines, and construction of toilets in high density areas. In 1980 JP Narayan had topped the IAS.

In this weekend's Mint newspaper, N Rajadhyaksha says Indians value protest over action. Thats true; we see it all around. The rare Kurien (a lifetime building cooperatives),  Bhabha (fathered India's atomic program), or Sreedharan (shocked us with the Delhi Metro) go mostly unnoticed, whereas the nauseating din of the Mamatas and Mulayams rules the airwaves everyday. However, a more revealing comment is the one by Subroto Bagchi (founded Mind Tree) who goes beyond stating the obvious and says "Indians do not want to engineer success, they want to inherit it". It's a matter of right. It's a culture of entitlement. But why?

There are many reasons of course, but I think its roots are in the caste system and everything the caused it and followed. There is an inherent FIXED-NESS in the caste system. You cannot change your caste in this life-time. Try washing, rubbing, scorching, or jumping off  a cliff - it wont come off. Its something you inherited. You cannot do anything about it. But now that we are a democratic nation, you can oppose it. You can protest. You can throw a fit, get upset, stage demonstrations, shake a moral finger, refuse to eat, and stop everybody else from going about their business. It's certainly more "active" that just silently tolerating oppression, but how productive is it is another matter. It has no notion of constructing an alternate reality. Let loose it becomes a form of illness over time, or what psychologist Martin Seligman famously called learned helplessness i.e. "the condition of a human or animal that has learned to behave helplessly, failing to respond even though there are opportunities for it to help itself". A chief minister of one of India's largest states certainly has some opportunity of self-help.

Belief that things can actually change, is a prerequisite to productive activity. Otherwise why work. My colleagues and I are trying to change the quality of teaching in schools across India. Most people agree its quite a difficult task, some consider it downright crazy. A scholarly friend of mind (Anil Paranjpe) once told me that one of things that shaped my belief that something as crazy as this was possible, was the fact that I spent my 20s in Russia. I had never thought of that. He said I had witnessed such enormous change in such a short period of time in the Russia of the 90s, that I had unwittingly extrapolated it to other aspects of life. There may be some truth in this. However, I also think experiencing constructive action first-hand is the sufficiency condition. For me my initial years at P&G in Mumbai did that; I saw stuff happening, brands (Ariel!) being launched, new factories being built, people being hired and trained, projects being executed, and great role-models around. Learning how to organize. Not everybody is as fortunate. Yes, it was "just soap", but it made the difference.

Young people must develop a sense of right and wrong. Of course. They should develop to courage to stand up against what is wrong. No doubt. However, they must be taught early in life how to organize - if things are to actually change around them. India's freedom movement was fortunate to have the courageous stalwarts-of-protest like Gandhi, and in a sense Jinnah too. We saw what that achieved. But we were just as fortunate to have organizers like Nehru and Patel, who perhaps do not get as much credit in this post-1992 world. Gandhi did have a utopian vision for organizing India, but many thought that was not really practical, and anyway what finally actually happened was quite different. And yes Nehru made Himalayan and egoistical blunders; however, he is the one who executed a vision for a modern progressive India. His was the era that nurtured the Kuriens, Bhabhas, MS Swaminathans, and Vikram Sarabhais. The young need role models who get things done; not those who throw tantrums.

A hundred years from now the deafening silence of Kurien's cows and Sreedharan's rails, will be louder than Mamata's shrill cacophony. You can choose which O you want to bet on.


  1. To some extent, yes, Indians believe in the 'culture of inheritance', but the ability to organize is deeply rooted in the socio-economic and cultural context. On Bengal and its people, in particular, crying the loudest in the name of protest, my hypothesis is that, this stems from them being used to conditions of plenty. The lands of Bengal were at one time the most bounteous in terms of natural resources, making its people complacent and even lazy! They had ample time to develop their intellect and indulge in cultural pursuits, but little will/desire to organize. Over time, as the resources grew scarce, in relation to the people living off them, their voices of protest became the most strident, but sadly this was unaccompanied by any desire to 'organize' or 'self-help'.

  2. 1. How do you assume that Mamata Bannerjee doesn't know how to organize? At the age of 26 (same age as you in Russia), she successfully organized an election campaign and defeated the Left doyen Somnath Chatterjee (1984 Lok Sabha elections). There is also a large degree of organizational skill required to setup your own political party, sustain it against such an established, vicious system such as the Left, and bring it down.

    2. Correct the 200 lakh crore figure for Bengal debt- its 2 Lakh crores and none of it can be blamed on Mamata- in fact it needs to be blamed on the Left. Mamata has been trying to "organize" her finances and develop the state, but how can she do it when the interest expenditure on the debt is more than the entire State budget?

    3. One could also argue that by opposing the current set of so-called reforms, (apart from sacrificing power when she didn't have to- how many people are like that btw), she is in a way setting the stage for a different idea on how to organize, a different model of how to effectively develop India.

    After all, a politician duties cannot only be judged by effective implementation of programs, but also about representing the views of his/her's constituency well.

    4. As for the false claims about education aspect- lets not forget our Dearly beloved Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi-both of whom had filed false affidavits about their education history.