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The waves

As the Wind Blows

Location: Chennai, Tamilnadu, India

26 December 2003

It is transition time folks!

......In India Inc.

Even as the news of Ranbaxy’s Brar relinquishing his post as CEO hit the headlines and even before the story got to the desks of biz magazines for detailed dissection, Cognizant has followed suit with more transition news. Kumar Mahadeva has quit as CEO of Cognizant. The mantle goes to LakshmiNarayanan.

I presume Magazine reporters have to do overtime to cover the double transition stories of the fortnight.

The trend is clear. Head honchos of large companies / conglomerates prefer to pass the baton while they are still very much in their prime. They prefer to take the back seat – but not back seat driving I hope. Rattan Tata did it a few years ago and so did Infosys Narayanamurthy. And 5 years ago, when family business was still in vogue, where power shifted hands within the family, Eicher Motors’ Vikram Lal chose an outsider – a professional - to lead the leading tractor company.

Succession Planning apparently is the current flavour of India Inc – as everywhere else. Some East Asian countries do it in politics also when the elders step down to give place for the younger generation. Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew did it years ago and his successor Goh Chok Tong would soon be following the tradition soon and has already announced the successor. Mahathir of Malaysia recently stepped down, having occupied the head honcho post for more than three decades.

But our political leaders buck the trend. Once in power, they stay “fevicoled” to the seat, till people’s mandate or “party’s high Command” pulls them down to the ground.

21 December 2003

Anita’s woes with MTNL prompted me to republish this piece I wrote years ago for ET’s Diaspora page. In those days ET was not ‘online’. Hence this MS word copy from my archives.

Disclaimer: The piece was written during mid nineties, when the reform process was just catching up. The ad campaign “ India Shining” by Govt of India had another 8 years to arrive on the scene. And things like $ 100 billion forex kitty were only a dream then.

“I was more than a little disturbed when my nephew from California demanded “ one solid reason” why he should return to India. I was sad he lost faith in India.
But when I thought about it, I recalled all my own unpleasant experiences on my various trips to my home country.

"Things have changed in post-liberalized India", many of my friends said in my host country abroad. I was looking forward to come back. Boosting my optimism was periodic announcements by the gov. about one or the other reform. I thought, "At last,India was catching up with the rest of the world.".

But my “coming back” was an eye opener!

If renting out an apartment was an ordeal by itself (landlords prefer “company lease” – no “private party”please! ), getting the utilities services like phone, gas etc were worse.

With all my papers in place, and presuming connections would be quick in the new, liberalized India, I landed up at the nearest gas agency, dreaming a cup of freshly brewed “Madras Coffee”, for the next morning. The nonchalant clerk at the counter glanced up at me from his newspaper only after my ‘fifth “excuse me”. He put aside his newspaper and gave a fleeting glance on my papers. And the next moment he returned them to me,

“ No. It can’t be done today.”

I was crestfallen. “ Why not?” I asked, utterly disappointed at the prospect of facing another day without gas.

“ The papers are no longer valid. It is more than two years since you surrendered your connection last.”

“What do I do now?” I controlled the temptation to writhe his neck.

“ Take these papers to the company’s main office, get a certificate and a stamp to establish the authenticity of these papers.”

Well, at least he was gracious with this piece of information. Thankful for small mercies in life, I stood at the tail of a long queue at the consumer cell of that oil company at its “main office” the next day. When there were two or three persons at the queue, the person at the counter closed the counter. “ Lunch time”.

Realization number 1: Liberalization or no liberalization, the official machinery of whole India comes to a standstill for two hours everyday for the most important ceremony of the day called “Lunch break”.

The rest of the queue waited patiently. So did I for a cool 2 hours.

When the counter clerk returned, we all looked at her face anxiously. She was nothing short of goddess for us at that moment. After all, she has to stamp our respective papers. But no, she wasn’t ready yet. She began searching her drawers and purse seriously. Before she left forlunch, she had Rs. 500. It was missing now. Apparently, she has misplaced it somewhere. Now, her search put the whole queue out of gear. One man had the “audacity” to murmur. Unfortunaely she heard him and ‘barked’ in response. “What do you know about my problems? I toil here from morning till evening. And now my hard earned money is gone. How do you expect me to work?” Meanwhile, the queue was lengthening and time was dripping by.

At last to the reprieve of all, she found her money – tucked somewhere in a bunch of papers. And by the time I got my papers stamped, it was past five. And the gas agency was closed. So I had no other option but to wait for another day.

So the next morning – minus my cuppa of freshly brewed ‘Madras Coffee” I left for the gas agency. I was sure I had all the papers intact. He can’t send me away today. I shoved them into the counter. He gave them another quick glance and uttered one word, “ Ration card.”

Realisation Number 2: The ration card is a very very important personal document. You need to explain for hours why you don’t possess one – since you were out of the country for a long time. After much persuasion the officer grudgingly accepts your passport as a bonafide document.

But this time I had my old ration card and I proudly flaunted it in front of him. He saw that and returned. “ You have to go to the corporation and change the address. It is not your present address.” unfortunately both my ration card and the passport had the address of my previous residences in the city.

That was the last straw. I controlled the temptation to scream. I pleaded with him how it was difficult to go all the way to another office and chase another set of papers to get my address renewed in the ration card. I requested him to accept my rent receipt as proof of my residence. At last with great fuss he agreed.

Ah, at last some sign of “liberalization”!!

But he wanted photocopies – in triplicate – of all the documents. No problem sir. Done.

“So when will I get my gas?”

Kal jarur milega”. And the gas arrived finally next day evening – after 15 phone reminders from a public booth. I was yet to get a phone connection.

So, next was to get my phone connection. I had an old connection, which needed to be transferred from Madras to Delhi. Again confident that all my papers were in order, I set off to MTNL. First a visit to the consumer cell. Then I was directed to the concerned clerk who was dealing my papers. Another chase and wait near his table, till he finished his rounds of tea and chitchat. No one knew the procedure. So I was happily sent on a merry go round of tables chasing my papers for various signatures from various officials. But on one point they were all very crystal clear and were unanimous in verdict. “ Transfer Karbna hai? Badi mushkil hai na?”

Somehow, after days of chasing I landed at the “right” counter. The person waded through the maze of registers to track down my file. She finally declared – and was very sure – that my file had not yet arrived from Madras. It was over an year since we applied for the transfer!!. But strangely I had taken a proof from Madras that the file had actually been sent to Delhi! ‘May be a postal delay, she explained very “helpfully” and bang closed the register – dust hitting my face.

Disappointed in not being able to get a phone connection even after vigorous chase of tables in MTNL office, I approached an acquaintance in another section. There I was told that my file had already arrived and was dispatched to the concerned area officer. ( that the area officer was sitting two tables behind is immaterial. The file has to got through the “specific” dispatch channel only !! Talk about communication gap in an organization meant for communication !!

Postscript added on 21st December 2003:

For nearly 4 months I was waiting for BSNL to announce their Direct Internet Access Scheme ( DIAS) for our exchange. I preferred BSNL because it was a lot cheaper than the competitors. And every time when I contacted the Divisional Engineer, he was always very polite and very forthcoming with all the information I needed. Had the courtesy also to call me up and give me the current status in our excahnge. And one fine day he informed that I can now get my DIAS by giving my registration form at the centralized office. I went at 11 am. to that office. Got the form from the counter, filled and gave it along with a copy of my latest telephone bill. But I had not taken the draft for Rs. 2000. The clerk said "we can accept cash only up to Rs. 1999, madam. You may have to come back tomorrow with the draft". But I didn’t want to go away without finishing my job. After a few minutes of consultation with her seniors, she relented. And by 12 noon, I was out with a DIAS connection!

P.S 2: Well, did you ask how is the service?? Oh! That is another story !!!! not exactly as positive as getting the connection :-) Stay tuned to this page, for reading my share of woes with BSNL :-)

18 December 2003

Of all Saddam Hussain’s capture stories, Rasheeda Bhagat’s opinion piece in Business Line reflects my views.

Dictators are there everywhere and not all countries are democracies. Big Apple doesn’t go up in arms in every nook and corner of the world where there are innocent people suffering in the hands of tyrants. Why then Iraq?

Oil, Oil and Oil may be the real motive behind the façade of saving the people of Iraq and also the world from a tyrant. But at the end of the day, it is the people of Iraq who are paying the price, Rasheeda comments:

“The people are facing severe shortages of food and oil in a country blessed with both in plenty. Their sick continue to be deprived of decent health-care facilities, their number of unemployed is rising , their homes are still raided, their roads are blocked by coalition forces' armoured trucks, and their lives remain miserable.”

What if Saddam is telling the Truth that he didn’t have WMD? Or what if he turns around and admits that yes; he had plans to manufacture WMD? Then the Iraq war will have its legitimacy established. But will the people of Iraq be happy ever after? Will they enjoy freedom and prosperity under a puppet rule? Is Afghanisthan prospering? Questions for which answers are remain to be seen.
Rasheeda asks,
“Opponents of the attack against Iraq and the entire business of regime-change kept asking the one question that had no answer: How did the Saddam Hussein regime hold out a threat to the US or any of the coalition partners?
While al Qaeda links had been established to the 9/11 and other terror attacks, and Osama bin Laden was still at large, why was it necessary to go after Iraq? Well, the simple answer to these questions is Iraq's oil wealth and its strategic geographic location — bang in the centre of West Asia , and with neighbours like a recalcitrant Iran and a powerful Turkey.
Mr Hussein might have come to power in Iraq in 1979 in the first place with American blessings. But over the years he had turned increasingly defiant and there was no way he would have played along to benefit big American conglomerates' oil interests or the superpower's political interests.
With his removal and the installation of a puppet regime, there were limitless possibilities for the lone superpower in the world to grow even more powerful.
But, then, unfortunately for Messrs Bush and Blair, democracies have their nuisance value and people in a "free country" tend to ask too many questions.
Worse, they revel in taking out protest marches and, much worse, speak their mind in popularity ratings. And when an election is in the offing, a continuing stream of negative ratings tends to take its toll on the prospects of a presidential candidate.”

And she ends her piece with this: “Meanwhile, in a delightful spoof on Mr Hussein's capture, titled "Jessica Lynch Captures Saddam: Ex-dictator Demands Back Pay From Baker," Greg Palast (well-known columnist and author of the bestseller The Best Democracy Money Can Buy) has this comment to make: "While lauding the capture of Mr Hussein, experts caution that the War on Terror is far from over, noting that Osama bin Laden, James Baker (former US Secretary of State and Mr Hussein's erstwhile friend) and George W. Bush remain at large."

Well, did I hear you say, ‘tongue-in-cheek’?

05 December 2003

It is elementary Dr. Watson. It is the economy after all…

If there is one thing I’m happy about the recent assembly election results, it is that once again – yes once again; because notwithstanding the politicians hope to take them for a ride on all sorts of never-to-be fulfilled promises, voters in Indian democracy are still clever. Their verdict often has been – ‘deliver or quit’. – occasionallay they may give a second chance or go on sympathy wave – but by and large the voters message has been based on proof of performance. I’m particularly happy about Sheila Dixit coming back in Delhi. No; I don’t have any party based opinion. My opinion is based on the individuals as I understand them from media reports. In Sheila’s case my opinions are based also on my meetings with her on a couple of occasions – one for an interview and the other, watching her in a social gathering. I like her more as an efficient and smart individual. An absolute no-nonsense person but she also has a heart. Quite tech savvy and makes an effort to understand the concerns of the opponents/critics. Above all what amazes me is her enthusiasm. At 63 plus, ( hee..hee.. the fact that she is also an Arien is immaterial here ;- ) )she is full of life and enthu. Be it her brisk walks or enjoying life including watching a movie in theatre along with close friends – she is game; and has a very positve approach to life. And I’ve similar admirations for her party’s rival Atalji. Another very positive person – nothwithstanding his pause punctuated speeches and slow movements. I’m sure BJP won its massive mandate in three states absolutely for the charm Atalji holds and of course the other main reason is the performance of the NDA on the national front. Economy can’t be better – forex kitty is swelling, and almost all other economic indices forecast a good growth – close to 7 percent they say ? ! ? ! – generally the electorate has no major reason to complain on the national front. Perhaps the sentiment reflected on the state level. On the contrary, Dig Vijay Singh of MP, was applauded for reforms in education and other areas last time. But this time, they say people in MP are unhappy that he didn’t build roads and provide power. So they pulled him out of power. Whichever way you see it, the message is clear; Deliver or Quit. So, the so called anti -incumbancy factor actually doesn’t hold water ? may be we should watch over some more election results before writing the epilogue of anti-incumbancy factor ;- )

03 December 2003

The Elephant and The Flea - in Business World, 8th Dec. 2003. - I think the net edition is not yet available. I'll give the link once I find it there. Meanwhile try a print version.

That was an interesting piece on ‘fleas’.

Fleas ?

Oh well, fleas, according to ‘ Charles Handy, author of Flea Manifesto a book which, 22 years ago, forecast the ‘arrival’ of entrepreneurship on modern corporate world, are the ones who have the courage to take a big risk to quit the safe cocoons of corporate ‘service’ and start a venture on their own. Today his other book, The Elephant and The Flea ‘ is equally creating waves. Elephants, according to Handy are big corporates and fleas are the ones who made that big jump out of them.

Latha Jishnu of business world has interviewed him. While I liked the ‘tongue-in-cheek’ way she has presented his wife Elizabeth, the main story is worth reflecting about.

“ A flea’s life is tough. You need a saleable skill, you also need to market it, or get someone else to handle that part. You would also need to reinvent yourself several times over. It’s also a future of uncertainty and fear. ”

And Latha goes on quoting from the book, “ It’s risky being a flea. You can’t always be sure of new contracts, new assignments. You have to accept that there will be less money. ” cautions Handy.’

Well said Handy. ( sort of flea myself ( ?!? ! ), don’t I know that all that he observed is truth and nothing but truth ? :-) )

However, there is a flip side. While it is fine to celebrate flea concept, Handy also warns about the perils of a selfish society. ( Hats off to that optimism which suggests that only the future, not the modern society is selfish :-) )

Latha sums up Handy’s views, “ Handy is acutely aware that the independent life is prone to selfishness and is a “ recipe for a very privatized society.” Because fleas do not belong to any formal community and lead a life without belonging properly to anything, a world overrun by independent fleas and small enterprises can become an amoral world.

We cannot forget that fleas ultimately are parasites.”

Latha’s last observation needs to be analysed. I don’t think the analogy suits to the kind of entrepreneurship that created business empires from our own TATA - Birlas and Wipros – Reliances to global giants like Fords and GEs.

P.S. btw, please restrain yourself from referring to a paragraph above where I refer myself as a 'sort of flea'. I honestly didn't dream of classifying myself with the names I've mentioned in the last paragraph - the dream is fantastic though :-)