Thursday, July 26, 2018

India's Aspiration for a Functional System

I must narrate an incident of 1989 when a group of us from Jawahar Lal Nehru University, New Delhi, with active interest in political and civil society activism, had gone to meet the then Prime Minister of India. We were assured by the organisers of this visit that we could convey our perspective on any issue to the Prime Minister and ask any question from him and we would receive an answer. When we reached 7 RCR (Now Lok Kalyan Marg), we found huge crowds, with many singing paeans in honour of the Prime Minister while waiting for an audience. As young JNU students, with some of us being barely out our teens, we had our own perspectives about the prevailing state of affairs in the country. We felt these were not reflected by the ambience at the lawns of Prime Minister’s official residence. Nevertheless, most people had come with some form of petition or representation to address some grievance, reinforcing our belief that our systems didn’t work without pressure or persuasion or intervention from the top.

When our turn came to meet Prime Minister late Shri Gandhi, I politely but firmly queried : “Mr Prime Minister Sir, do you know that every day so many instances of gross injustice keep on happening in this country? What do you do to address these?” He graciously answered with a degree of indulgence towards his young audience: “Whenever such instances come to my notice, I intervene and see that justice is done”. I showed audacity and impatience to add a rejoinder: “But sir, how many instances can gain attention of Prime Minister and how many people can reach Prime Minister of India? Why can’t we have a system where a peon does what he or she is supposed to do, an officer does his or her work and Ministers do their own duty? Why do we need interventions?”

What followed was a little pause and then a longish observation, ignoring even repeated reminders by the concerned staff that Prime Minister was getting late. We had the perspective of the most powerful man in the country on deficiencies of the system and challenges of governance. It contained sincere exhortation to young people to join politics. I vividly remember some of his words:  “good people, young people must join politics…… Fence sitters have no business condemning the system…. If intelligent and honest people don’t come in the playing arena, others will hijack it…. I and my team are trying our best but this is not sufficient …. it is not easy…”  All of us were touched by his honesty and sincerity and rather felt sympathetic towards him. Our suspicions and apprehensions against the highest political authority had substantially reduced, if not removed. Inspired by his exhortation, many of us joined politics but barring one or two, who are now active politicians, rest were soon disillusioned and eventually moved to different professions.

Three long decades have passed since then and many things have improved substantially but an average Indian's aspiration for an efficient and functional governance system remains unfulfilled.  I am sure the questions posed by young people three decades back must be resonating in the minds of even the youth of current generation. There is no doubt that Indian democracy is a shining example of its kind for peaceful transfer of political power but we are nowhere close to our collective economic and social potential as a nation. Political change in itself is inadequate unless structures of governance are transformed to deliver to their optimal capacity or may be stretch and enhance their very capacity itself. We all know that India and China were identical in terms of economic and military strength until early 1980s. Today, Chinese economy is five times bigger than India and their military prowess and defence capabilities is inferior only to the United States. We may console ourselves by citing reasonable progress that we have attained or a few enclaves of excellence that we have built. There is little doubt that the culture of excellence is needed in all spheres including politics, civil service, corporate world, civil society groups, academic and research institutions etc. It is possible and all that we need is the courage and audacity to think in this direction. We certainly need leaders in all spheres and at every level to pursue what could be a national vision.

Success of Indian democracy is critical not only for the fate of 1.3 billion Indians but also for determining the eventual fate of democracy itself as a mode of governance. If a multi-cultural India succeeds with a democratic model of governance to address legitimate aspirations of its people, the globalised world can tide over parochial populism else we are certainly in for a bigger challenge in not so distant a future. We live in an integrated and interdependent world. Poor physical and cognitive capacity of our population, their deficient skills and weaker institutions make us vulnerable in far too many ways. Even gaps in trade and technology can turn out to be lethal tools of predation . We do not have the luxury to progress at our own leisurely pace and console ourselves over tactical improvements.   

In the above context, the current political discourse in the country sounds fairly disappointing. It appears more like a psychological and verbal war among rival camps through every possible means to capture power. Governance and plight of either the people or the country, or even the very civilisation, seems reduced to a much lower priority. Indian democracy has covered a journey of 7 long decades of freedom.  it is time we move from sub-optimal leaking institutions to a framework of governance that can optimise our potential as a nation by transforming both our economic output and social cohesion to bolster the quality and level of  our overall national security.

In absence of high performing institutions that can deliver on promises of governance, all our good intents and great values sound hollow. People in the world’s biggest democracy and the most advanced ancient civilisation do not have to rely on mercy or discretion or even good conscience  of the incumbents in authority to enjoy their right to life, liberty and existence with dignity. At the same time, we do have an obligation to the entire developing world who look up to India as one of their own. We certainly need a more appealing vision and goals of governance  as a nation for our entire civilisation

       We hope peoples’ representatives across all divides can rise above their differences to pool in at least part of their energies to focus on governance challenges facing the country. Politicians need not and must not be burdened with responsibility of pushing and kicking a dysfunctional or non-performing system for their constituents. Democracy also carries no entitlement to manipulate institutions for political profiteering or even building permanent political constituencies. It is only a limited a contractual obligation of governance that  peoples' representatives are required to fulfil. In our context, priorities require pursuit of robust and efficient systems that can work in routine matters on its own and that too with a speed. Merely replicating and borrowing ideas and practices would not help even if these do contribute to building a better perspective. We have our unique challenges of governance and so are our social and otherwise realities. We need ideas and institutions that work best in our context. We certainly need a broader and bigger debate  on this subject.  We can move forward only through a sustainable partnership among all segments of society and polity.  

PS: This is part of the previous post only which has been split and edited  following feedback from some readers. 

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

" Hug", Politics and Governance Challenges in 21st Century India

The recent no-confidence motion in Indian parliament shall be remembered more for the Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s hug of the Prime Minister than the quality of debate on the motion. The exchanges between the between the government and the opposition appeared relatively sober in the context of sustained acrimony that has characterised their relations in the parliament in recent past. These had virtually crippled the legislative output of Indian democracy. The recent session must help restore popular faith in the ability of our parliament to conduct business smoothly, when required, or felt necessary by our legislators.  However, abject defeat of the motion in a completely one-sided voting, left people wondering about the rationale behind such a move at this juncture. The time invested on such a motion could have been used for something more productive towards governance of the country, had the two sides shared mutual trust. 

There would be conflicting perception on appropriateness of the hug by the Congress President of the Indian Prime Minister. Hug is a way of showing affection to friends or people we care for but the etiquette and protocol require us to have permission, or at least concurrence, of the person whom we hug. Imposing a hug amounts to invasion of private space of  those who are hugged and, hence, it is strictly avoidable. Here the person in question is none other than the Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy. To impartial observers, Congress President’s gesture to urge the Prime Minister to stand up, even in course of a parliamentary debate, may be interpreted as discourteous, if not disrespectful, to the highest executive office of the country.

The gesture, despite all its sincerity, has given an opportunity to detractors of the Congress to allege that the Gandhi dynast is used to treating even the highest political office in the country with a degree of disdain. Earlier, his action of tearing down a paper, notwithstanding its emotional sincerity, during Dr Manmohan Singh era did not go down well with impartial observers. His gesture to hug Prime Minister could have appeared sincere, had he politely requested the latter. Even if the Prime Minister rejected such request, Congress President would have been a gainer. Imposing a hug on executive head of the country in such manner has invited a charge of a patronising arrogance. His subsequent wink, whether intentional or unintentional, simply destroyed the credibility or sincerity of the gesture. Response from the Prime Minister of the world’s biggest democracy too could have been a little generous. After all, the political aggressor, who attempted to use the “hug” as a combative weapon, was not his equal.

Freedom of speech and expression has been the biggest strength of democracy over the past few centuries. Model democracies of the world have ridden over it to evolve towards high quality of governance, economic prosperity, social harmony and advancement of knowledge. Here, a sincere freedom of speech and expression must be differentiated from filibustering or verbal warfare to psychologically pulverise political opponents.  Clarity of vision and unanimity of goals are critical but sincerity of purpose and mutual respect are probably more important. Political culture in Indian democracy certainly requires serious transformation for a move in this direction where such freedom can be constructively exploited for betterment of governance. Oppressive hierarchical structures of political parties and insecurities of people in position of authority have reduced the space for political dissent and criticism, which is otherwise the barometer to measure the health of a democracy.  In a culture of distrust, criticisms become instruments of assault, often inviting a suitable and yet subtle retribution.

Criticism of Government policies and actions in democracy have always been tools for maintaining checks and balances as well as obtaining feedback for course correction. Without space for criticism, it would be difficult to preserve integrity and transparency of governance procedures. Criticism of authority has been part of Indian social values and ethos much before India adopted the Western model of political democracy. Our mythological story of Sage Bhrigu once criticizing all the Gods over their performance and duty to the world and even condemning Lord Vishnu by feigning anger is a testimony to it. He described Lord Vishnu as God of the Gods because the master of the universe remained unperturbed over criticism and yet responded politely to even unjust criticism of the sage. Long tradition of our social democracy and culture of criticism of authority is amply reflected in the following couplet by our saint poet “Kabir”,  whom even former Prime Minister Shri Vajpayee  had once quoted in course of a parliamentary debate:

“ Nindak niyare raakhiye, aangan kuti chhawaye, bin sabun pina bina, nirmal karat subhav….” (Keep a critic close to yourself and take care of him, he shall ensure purity of your thoughts).  

Ironically, democracies seem to be increasingly experiencing freedom of speech and expression taking shape of weapons of attack, often inviting bigger counter-attacks. People in power have been responding to criticisms by measures to deflect and even disintegrate credibility of both criticisms and even critics. The biggest problem of democracy in India and beyond is poor governance and dysfunctional institutions. We all criticise deficient capacity of Indian state to implement programmes and policies but sincere bi-partisan debates to enhance institutional strength in this direction have been missing from our political discourse.  Sincere intents require serious  efforts, which are difficult to detect.  Most of our administrative structures lack inbuilt capacity and incentives for high quality output with consistency and speed. There are several inspiring examples of individual initiative, grit and determination to deliver public services even against all odds, and at times even at a personal cost. A large representative democracy and its society can derive pride from the same but cannot rely entirely on such exceptions. Hindrances against high quality public services are many but genuine incentives are very few. 

         India has been a shinning example of inclusive democracy and beacon of hope for the entire developing world. A failure to emerge as a prosperous and harmonious society with strong national security architecture, and ability to positively influence course of events at a much wider scale in next few years,  would amount to betrayal of hopes of founding fathers of our nation, as well as martyrs who have sacrificed their lives to secure and preserve our freedom.  Our failure shall also shatter hopes of those sections of humanity who believe in democracy and harmony among people across cultural and racial divides.  However, we can realise our latent potentials and succeed in our objectives by building strong institutions that can deliver efficient governance and not by public spectacles or entertaining skills of our politicians. Efficiency and dynamism in governance alone can boost our credibility and capacity to lead and set an example. 

(Remaining component of this write-up  has been split and published on 26th July under a different caption) 

Sunday, July 22, 2018



July 22, 2018

Eyebrows were raised when US Press Secretary Sarah Sanders disclosed last week that President Trump had directed White House to extend an invitation to his Russian counterpart, President Putin, to visit Washington later this year. Close on the heels of Summit in Helsinki, such news was bound to gain a lot of media attention, particularly after a little controversy concerning the alleged Russian meddling in US Presidential polls. While there would be several geopolitical implications of such ongoing summit between the two leaders and many experts may have different interpretations of the dynamics of the entire exercise, in terms of “leadership”, there is no doubt that it must be one of the boldest gambits. If these summits build a momentum of their own and do succeed in building a friendly relation between the two countries over the next few decades or even thawing their strained bilateral relations, there would be a directional shift in global politics.


America’s main worry today has been the rising economic and political clout of China. The United States cannot afford to fritter away its energies on conflicts and rivalries that can otherwise be tackled with little extra effort or a victory in these shall make no big difference. If President Trump succeeds in winning over Russia or even containing the threat from Russia, it would be one of the most remarkable accomplishments of his time. I was recently interacting with a UK based observer of US foreign policy and he opined that the best strategy would be 'to look forward without getting bogged down by the past. Even if there are heavy baggage and serious misgivings and distrust in the West’s relations with Russia, the adversarial relationship does not suit at least the American interests at this juncture.’ He described that what President Trump is trying amounts to ‘winning over Russia without defeating it.’ If we win over our adversaries or neutralise even potential foes, we reduce the threat to ourselves, which automatically enhances our strength.   


We assess the quality of leadership of any great leader not by one or two moves but by the overall impact that they can leave. I recall early last year, many people were concerned at a somewhat disruptive approach of the leadership of Head of the Government of the world’s most powerful nation. One of the former Directors of IIM, who is probably one of the most eminent global experts from India on leadership, remarked in course of a casual chat that “in the past half a century, the world had not witnessed such an acute crisis of leadership in virtually most fields.” He wondered whether the systems had ‘saturated so much that it struggled to throw up high-quality leaders.’

Leadership is a crucial ingredient for the success of democracy and its ability to produce good quality leaders shall determine its eventual fate. So, who is a good leader?


Good Leaders are Easy to Identify

Good leaders are easy to identify but difficult to describe. In fact, ‘who is a good leader’ or ‘what makes a leader good’, maybe fairly contested ideas. Every leader is not endowed with the same level of skills or strengths. There is a large spectrum, varying from average to great or exceptional, on which we can classify leaders. Average leaders may succeed in certain circumstances and remain ineffective in the rest, good leaders succeed in most circumstances and even against several odds and great leaders need a very wide variety of skills and an exceptional push of both luck and support of associates to succeed and leave a mark. Great leaders leave a legacy that inspires people much after they are gone. They set their benchmarks of excellence which are difficult to match or emulate. They are path-breakers in the sense that they venture into newer areas and attempt things that are different.


The word leader or leadership has probably been overused in our times. We usually consider those individuals as leaders who occupy the highest rungs in political, professional or social hierarchies. These include institutions, organisation or communities or even nations or simply those individuals who command wider acceptability. However, the real test of leadership lies not in occupying a position at the top of acceptability among but in the quality of difference that they make to their surroundings and even beyond. Good leaders make a more positive quality of difference or change, bringing people across divides and differences together, infusing greater synergy and harmony, even while opposing entrenched vested interests.


Good leaders transform the quality of output of their people - both individually and collectively. They show a sense of purpose and direction that is both appealing and viable. They succeed despite hindrances. They inspire others through their acts, deeds and performance. They infuse a sense of higher self-worth among those whom they lead. The biggest success of leaders would be their ability to win over even their enemies.

Mahatma Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr, Napoleon Bonaparte, John Davison Rockefeller, Albert Einstein etc are some of the greatest leaders in different fields that the world has produced in recent centuries. None of them was perfect and they all had their share of flaws but their actions and beliefs did help change the world for better in some form for the entire humanity.


However, one story from Indian history that is attributed to ancient Indian King Samudra Gupta is worth narrating even though its details are inapplicable in the contemporary context. Legend says that Samudra Gupta was third among the four prince brothers who were contenders for the responsibility of the Gupta empire that flourished in an era, which is considered the golden phase in the history of Indian sub-continent. His father Emperor Chandra Gupta I, who himself was one of the greatest emperors in the history of mankind, was keen to appoint the most worthy among the four princes as his successor who could protect the vast empire. All the four princes had to undergo a series of tests including a sword-fight. They fared almost equally in all the tests except sword fight, making it difficult to distinguish one from the other. About Samudra Gupta, the story says that the nimble-footed royal prince not only fought the duel against a formidable opponent with utmost skills and dexterity but when the latter lost both balance and sword, failing to react to a sharp attack from the prince, and fell, the prince promptly threw his sword and knelt to lift his opponent and embraced him apologetically. The sword fight was for winning and not killing the opponent. Emperor Chandra Gupta-I and his associates chose Samudra Gupta on the plea that he would protect the empire better as he could control his emotions and handle his opponents without anger and vengeance, despite being powerful. An emperor had to earn the respect of both his associates and opponents and convert even enemies into friends. It was more important to win rather than kill and destroy the opponent- a sentiment that scripted exceptional prosperity and harmony of ancient India.


Several centuries later, Mahatma Gandhi repeatedly asserted that he had no enemies and advised his followers to “hate the sin and not the sinner.” President Lincoln showed remarkable courage to not only forgive his political opponents but risk his career and even his life to secure liberty and dignity for “slaves”. Mandela forgave his tormentors and oppressors who had subjected him to enormous physical and psychological torture and outraged even his dignity. As the greatest corporate leader and accumulator of wealth in his lifetime in the entire recorded human history, John Davison Rockefeller eventually scripted a new chapter of philanthropy that has inspired many of his ilks much after his death to inspire the "Giving" pledge by corporate leaders led by Bill Gates and Warren Buffet. As an intellectual leader and great genius, Eisenstein led the most simple and austere life and showed remarkable humility, but yet his accomplishments changed the world for better.


Can such people be considered good leaders? They may be materially successful individuals but irrespective of the political, military or financial success or clout they may wield, they can never earn respect and trust, which is the hallmark of good leaders. Leaders build bonds, promote powerful ideas and establish processes that positively impact most, if not all, around them. Various means of direct and subtle communications adopted by leaders are extremely crucial for this purpose.


Observations of great leaders, who have obtained exceptional results in different contexts, suggest that they have often possessed different attributes, and at times used contradictory techniques to achieve their goals. At the same time, most of them had certain common qualities like vision, courage, ability to energise their teams, and most importantly integrity of character and purpose. Hence, it would be fair to say that while there can be no fixed formula or prescription for good leadership but essential attributes of a good leader transcend time and context. Effectiveness of various tools, techniques or approaches of leadership varies with context and sub-context but the key principles remain timeless.


Tuesday, July 10, 2018


Last week I attended a panel discussion captioned The Battle for India’s Future: Democracy, Growth and Inequality” at Chatham House, London.   Mr Gareth Price, who was chairing the session, was kind and generous not only to include me in the select list of audience but also permitted me to make longish observations.

Rise of high number of billionaires, 131 in 2018 as per Wikipedia, in India is a testimony of success of market economy in the country over the past two and half decades. It does demonstrate entrepreneurial and leadership prowess of the Indian corporate sector, which should evoke a sense of pride among most Indians.  However, when we stumble upon a data that nearly 40% of Indian children are suffering from malnutrition, stunted growth and impaired cognitive skills, our joy turns into worry.  Inequalities have risen all over the world but these have probably been the starkest in India. In a 2.4 trillion dollar economy, which is roughly one-fifth of the size of China and 12% of that of America, with per capita GDP being one of the lowest in the world, we account for the third highest number of billionaires. One of the panellist in the discussion pointed out that no other economy of our size ever had as many billionaires.   These figures cause concern in the context of sustained allegations of rise in crony capitalism in India in recent years and perception of subversion of financial institutions, where episodes like Nirav Modi and Mallya could just be tip of a larger iceberg.

This is certainly not to deny exceptional achievements of several corporate leaders of the country. I would like to believe that Indian economy has been doing extremely well and it is on course to double its size in next 7 to 10 years to improve the plight of entire population. Our growth story should be capable of shoring up the fortunes of even rest of the world. However, wider perception is that we are still nowhere close to our potential given our size and inherent strengths. It was only until three and half decades backs that the Indian and the Chinese economies were of same size. Five times gap certainly tells a tale of relatively weaker institutions in a competitive global order. It is certainly time to explore greater efficiency and innovation. 

I felt offended, hurt and eventually sad as an Indian, when one of the panellists observed that Indian democracy was driven by power games revolving around caste identities and the state was incapable of defending even individual right to life and liberty. She cited a specific case study of  Western Utttar Pradesh where an influential village leader, exercising de-facto powers of his  “Sarpanch” (Elected Village Chief) wife, was able to brush aside even a murder of a woman in complicity with local police. Panellist mentioned that several of the dubious financial dealings of this man did have a positive impact on quality of lives of people in that remote village but a crime as heinous as murder of a woman going unpunished, with apathy of authorities, was shocking to human sensibilities. This is certainly not the story of 21st century India that one would like to hear.

All the four panellists chosen by Chatham House had fairly good exposure to India and they had closely watched various dimensions of advances in India’s society, economy, politics and geo-strategy. Their analysis of various policy initiatives and outcomes threw mixed images on how India was performing on major indicators. Most, however, concluded that Indian authorities and Indian media were able to spell out big vision and big talks but India's institutional ability to deliver on ground was quite deficient, if not  crippled. Despite the high priority attached by the Government on geo-strategy and national security issues, tardy progress on Chabahar port, was cited as Indian state’s constraints on implementation. Soon the discussion drifted to who would win the next parliamentary election scheduled in 2019.

I believe that the panel discussion did paint a fairly realistic image of what was happening in India. However, it felt more like a summary of media  clippings, without any deep insight on why things were evolving in this direction or what could be possible way forward. Sadly, the same approach has been visible even in most of discourses on politics and governance even in Indian media. People condemn and criticise issues and developments but one comes across very little in-depth discussion on underlying causes behind major issues or possible solutions, or even ways of finding these solutions. May be this is too complicated and hence most consider it avoidable.

Since this discussion was not held under Chatham House rules, I can quote that I did express my reservations on observations of the panel.  I maintained that ‘the issues that they had pointed out were at best symptoms of a larger problem and not the problem itself.’  I believe that Indian society is not as atrocious as the story of the husband of lady village Sarpanch makes it sound. It is nearly a century back when Prem Chand wrote “Panch Parmeshwar”, outlining a tale of Indian villagers upholding truth and fairness in that era even in face of personal emotions. India has come a long way since then. It is also true that some of the dysfunctional state institutions and poor implementations are impacting entire society and undermining credibility of Indian democracy. Despite dysfunctional governance and undesirable social changes, we do come across stories of individual excellence and commitment in many of the state institutions.

However, a country of India’s size in the modern era has to graduate from relying on individual excellence to pursuit of consistent and dependable institutional excellence. It is time that we explored reforms not only in State policies but also in some of our key institutions and structures that implement these policies. As of now, there is very little space and incentive for individual excellence and initiative in most of these institutions. Hence, the output is mostly deficient and inconsistent, except in cases when these policies are being monitored or pushed from the very top. Most of the promotions in Government, which are major incentives other than some lucrative postings,  are based on seniority rather than a combination of performance and leadership attributes. It is possible that the police officer, mentioned in the case of murder of village woman, may have taken stronger initiative to nab the culprits, had there been incentives for high quality output and inbuilt safeguards against extraneous pressure. This certainly is no defence for lack of action but active measures need to be put in place for high quality and consistent institutional output.

          On my emphasis on need for improvement in regulatory and enabling capacity of Indian State, I received a shocker from one of the Indian panellists. He remarked that the ‘prevailing system had worked very well for politicians and they were unlikely to reform it because they would be threatened by a transparent and efficient state.’ He went on to conclude that India did not need any reforms in this sector and it could still grow. One of the co-panellists objected immediately stating that people of India deserved a functional and efficient state as much any other people. State had far too many responsibilities that needed to be performed with integrity and professionalism. Soon the popular mood, especially among members of Indian diaspora who had come to attend the discussion, became unambiguously in favour of reforms in the Indian state. There is little doubt that mere reforms in policies would not be able to push India on course to optimize its huge potentials. There is need for serious and sustained reforms in governance structures of India, which we shall discuss with specific details soon.


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