Friday, February 27, 2015

An Open Letter to Indian PM Narendra Modi

Dear Narendra,

I’m addressing you with your first name even though you are the Prime Minister of India. This I’m doing after taking a cue from you during Barack’s recent visit to India (Barack, as you very well know, is the President of the United States of America, also known by the quaint acronym POTUS, especially, I’m told, by the legions of security personnel who protect him from known unknowns, unknown knowns or whatever…you get it, right?).

I hope you now have some breathing space from your jet-setting schedule and from entertaining world-renowned guests to tea at expansive lawns, amid the sharing of stories of courage and hardship from your childhood and youth. You, like your bespoke tailoring suit, rock, man! I know this because you yourself have told everyone loud and clear at multiple forums.

And even though you have tried to share your Mann ki Baat (matter from the heart) on state-sponsored radio, something tells me you are hiding a lot deep down your 56-inch chest.
In all possibility, this hiding may be causing you undue pain, pain that is hidden from this cruel world that only knows to laugh at, ridicule and criticize politicians rather than show any empathy.

The other day, I overheard a bunch of wealthy businessmen chuckling at your discomfort. One of them remarked, “Bechara Modi! (Poor Modi) He must be sick and tired of one or the other of the Sangh Parivar making some religiously loaded or divisive comment every now and then. If this goes on, his economic agenda will be derailed sooner than Kejriwal can change his mind!”

As of writing this post, Kejriwal hasn’t but Rahul Gandhi, the scion of India’s long-ruling Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, is probably thinking of changing his mind about something critical in his life—perhaps because he couldn’t change the sinking fortunes of the Congress party in the last general election.

But then I digress, so let’s come back to you…

You apparently set in motion a Modi wave that swept through the poor country that India is. The millions of jobless youth, tens of thousands of entrepreneurs whose businesses were suffering because of UPA-II’s scams and indecisions (and the handful of mega-industrialists who had billions riding on that wave), among countless other voters, brought you and your party to power.

It’s possible that the pain in your chest is a manifestation of all the unfulfilled election promises. And it doesn’t help that your poll prospects from the rest of India (after Delhi) wherever elections are due are seen to be declining.

I know you have tried hard to package old Congress wine of policy schemes and structures into swankier new bottles but, unfortunately, many people want results, not hangovers.

Every now and then, there are comments from one business tycoon or the other, including some international credit rating agency, that the prospects of growth have begun to look good for India. But there are contrary opinions as well.

At least one industry shouldn’t be complaining: media. I have seen your ads on innumerable pages of newspapers, on hoardings all over the city, on so many websites where you would least suspect them to appear, and wherever there has been space to accommodate your well-bearded, avuncular face. And I have not yet reached the state of naiveté where I can believe that the media moguls have given you space for free because they are all Modi bhakts (devotees) or consider splattering those ads an act of patriotism.

Let us get this straight: I’m all for ads because they affect me too, for I’m also part of the media industry. But I think spending on building toilets and recycling waste will be more effective than saying, “Clean India, Clean India!” or “Swachh Bharat, Swachh Bharat!” a hundred thousand times.

Allow me to take just one example: I sometimes use the public loos in Delhi where a lot of swanky urinals were installed in ex-CM Sheila Dixit’s tenure (around Commonwealth Games I think). But hell, there is no water or flushing system and people just keep pissing into the ceramic receptacles ad nauseam.

Would it be possible to divert some of the tidal water from the Modi wave to flush out the filth in the capital’s urinals? (Other cities and towns would be worse off, I presume, and also in need of urgent watery intervention).

Another instance where I can speak from personal experience is the poor state of data connectivity. While your government has quickly launched some websites and your social media machinery is quite active, those gestures do not a Digital India make. I know, I know, other initiatives are in the works—but my fear is that as far as broadband connectivity in India is concerned, it has been always in the works for the past 10-15 years (many other “comparable” nations, meanwhile, have zoomed past India in “digital index”).

Narendra bhai, everyone knows your full name and that you are the PM of India by now. Ab naam ki nahi, kuchh kaam ki baat chalu karo! (Now start talking of the work rather than the name.)

I know you sleep fewer hours than many of your other, able-bodied political brethren. But please remember that hundreds of millions of Indians still sleep on an empty stomach. And those who do get their fill, still have no choice but to empty it in the open.

As of now, shit is one of the biggest things we make in India. The pun, though unfortunate, is intended.

You must fix a lot of things before India can proudly unleash its “lion” out in the world for its roar to be heard.

Maybe you can start by doing more and saying less.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Why Kejriwal is right about being scared #DelhiElections

Amid the ton-loads of news and analysis and comments and congratulations and long faces is one from Arvind Kejriwal that says, “I’m scared” of the thumping victory he and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) have got in Delhi’s assembly elections today.

Kejriwal has urged his party-workers not to be arrogant. If anyone, it’s he who knows very well that all the tall promises made by AAP to the people of Delhi to come to power are only too difficult to fulfill.

Not that other parties don’t make tall promises or fail in making good on them. But being the poster boy of anti-corruption and cleanliness, Kejriwal and, by extension, AAP will be under intense scrutiny more than any leader or party has ever been.

Today morning, before the results (and congrats and insults) started pouring in, when I asked a fruit seller as to whom did he vote for, his answer was as cryptic as it was practical: “Whoever wins in the election, I have voted for them!”

There is no doubt that Kejriwal and AAP have wised up in a similar fashion since last year’s short-lived fling with power when he was CM for 49 days (though it is rather strange that a so-called rationalist party wants to wait for 4 days to anoint him CM again so it could coincide with Valentine’s Day, the very day last year when Kejriwal relinquished the CM’s post so famously or infamously).

This year they left no stone unturned, to use a stoned-to-death cliché, to make sure more people wear AAP caps and hit the voting machine on the broom button (broom being their election symbol).

That’s why even as the victory bugles are being sounded, the really observant people will be wary of Kejriwal’s and his wide swath of supporters and think: “Kahin phir se topi to nahi pehnai?” (He hasn’t defrauded us of our trust again, has he?)

But there is a strange disconnect I’m feeling this time. While last time, the play was completely on rooting out corruption (with the help of Lokpal Bill, among other vigilant measures)—and there was a visible effect in terms of the average government Joe refraining from asking for bribes or even refusing when voluntarily offered—this time it’s largely been the largesse: “Bijli haaf, paani maaf” (electricity for half the rate, water for free). And then throw in 15 lakh CCTVs for security and widely available Wi-Fi.

As I write these lines, there are blazing horns and hoots of victory by unemployed youth (most likely uneducated, too) parading in cars outside. In all probability, they could do with education and jobs more than being the proud recipients of a freeloader economy (which doesn’t and cannot work anywhere in the world).

What’s more, whether the new victory will result in the same impact of people being fearful of indulging in corruption will soon become clear.

For their part, Narendra Modi and his chief aide Amit Shah were not only arrogant but messed up anything they possibly could. That an I-me-myself Modi strutted around on Rajpath in an offensively expensive suit embroidered with his name this 26 January and whose noises and travels far outweighed his previously expressed intentions or work of nation-building—that, and more, certainly did not help.

Personally, if you ask me, I would have liked both Narendra Modi and Kejriwal to team up against the scam-ridden era of Congress and work together for a truly clean, pro-development India. 

Don’t laugh, if Kiran Bedi, who stood with Kejriwal alongside Anna Hazare’s India Against Corruption/Jan Lokpal movement could turn around and join BJP as its CM-candidate, and if Kejriwal, who launched himself into the political sphere by directing his “cough” stance against Sheila Dikshit, could look the other way and set Modi in his sights instead—then, well, then, anything can happen.

Like Kejriwal, I’m scared too—and I have my own reasons. I just hope Kejriwal rises up to the occasion and make a positive difference to all Delhiites.

Here’s my suggested to-do list:
- Quickly launch an investigation into the funding of ALL political parties (including the mysterious donations received by AAP and the cash but undisclosed funds of BJP and Congress).

- Start work on recovering the scam money from the hugely bloated budget of Commonwealth Games.

- Install correct-reading meters (this he will do for sure, I think).

- Put a final stop to the flip-flop on which colonies to authorize and which to raze (so that other political parties cannot offer them authorization next time).

- Put a stop to the practice of paving, re-paving and re-re-paving the already well-paved roads in and around VIP areas; instead try and correctly fill the large potholes on roads in non-VIP areas that are mysteriously stubborn to be repaired.

- Put a stop to the RO water supply mafia that’s not only a nuisance but a bane to the environment—and provide clean water (c’mon, he can charge a bit, okay).

- Focus on solar energy, as Delhi gets abundant sun and the cost of solar is coming down.

- And last but not least, if he really believes most industrialists are corrupt and in cahoots with existing political parties (which most people know is true), put them in jail; and now that AAP is the political party in power in Delhi, stop being in cahoots with *other industrialists* who manage to stay out of jail under his investigative watch.


Friday, January 30, 2015

Good to Great: The Art of Connecting

A couple of days back, I happened to attend an event, titled “Leadership Series – Good to Great,” organized by the CIO Klub, Delhi Chapter, and sponsored by HP and Microchip.

I was in two minds about going, as it was scheduled for late evening in the middle of the week. But two things contributed to making up my mind: the first one, obviously, was to avail of the opportunity to catch up with the IT decision makers from across the city.

The second one had to do with the leadership session by Tapas Dasmohapatra. In all ignorance and humility, I must say I hadn’t heard of him before. But the line in the invitation seemed intriguing, even if a bit presumptive or frivolous. It said about the speaker: “He is a darling for anyone who invites him for key-note address because of his friendly and high energy program.”

In the middle of an unusually cold Delhi winter (unusual for the past 15 years or so, quite usual before that), I thought maybe I could use some energy and friendliness. So I went.

Soon as the event progressed, I realized that rather short-statured and plump in a cutesy way, Tapas was indeed a little darling!

With his quick “connect,” sharp and focussed wit and a beguiling manner, he indeed showed that the gap between good and great has nothing to with your size or natural looks—and everything to do with how you “design” your success.

In what I believe was a towering session on leadership, motivation and success rolled into one, Tapas uncoiled the secrets of going from good to great in a tightly knit capsule of an hour or so.

I have always held that humor is one of the greatest ways to connect with people. Now I saw the living proof of it in the person of Tapas. As he cracked joke after joke and related anecdotes in quick succession, the audience—mostly somber-faced, time-challenged Chief Information Officers by day—were in splits.

And not only were the jokes funny on their own, they seemed to fit, like IT folks often say fondly, seamlessly into the larger scheme of things. Recalling the relevant joke at just the right moment and delivering it with style is an art, and Tapas looked like its high priest.

He began his seminar with how people, especially educated guys, indulge in “self-deception”— whether knowingly or unknowingly.

“When we are already good, who can hold us down from being great? We ourselves,” he said.

So people must recognize and acknowledge the instances of self-deceit in their lives if they want to work toward designing their success.

Using the technique of keywords to drive his message clearly and unmistakably, Tapas then focussed on the two words “natural” and “design,” and related the commercially successful role of design (which I think can be broken down into planning, resource mobilization and effort in the context here) in our lives.

Another pair of significant keywords he used: “connect” and “correct.” The success mantra of great leaders is to connect with people before they attempt to correct them.

This tenet matches a similar one I had come across sometime back in relation to giving feedback to people (especially your juniors) in the right way: praise, criticize, praise.

The best part about Tapas’s session, I think, was how he picked specific examples to illustrate his points and used an effective mix of English and Hindi to drive them home.

I have attended tons of presentations and management sessions but seldom have I seen people glued to their seats for more than an hour—a sentiment echoed by senior CIOs who were present there.

Tapas ended the session with some music and jumping and holding of hands and going around the room hugging people—and there were many who rushed to hug Tapas first.

Did the invite mention the word “darling”?!

(Note: Along with his co-founding partner Suresh Mohan Semwal, Tapas Dasmohapatra runs the training and speaking consultancy Possiblers out of Jor Bagh in New Delhi.)

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

An Open Letter to Rajkumar Hirani and Others on Using Religion in Movies

Dear Mr Hirani and Mr Vinod Chopra,

I recently had the pleasure of watching your movie, PK, in which Aamir Khan plays an alien who descends on Earth in the middle of a Rajasthan desert and happens to undertake a jaunt through the idiosyncrasies of multiple religions in search of his lost remote control (that would enable him to go back to his planet).

First of all, let me congratulate you on your attempt to send a much-needed message through the film: that we have too many fake godmen here on this our own planet who take gullible people for a ride and it is high time we saw them in their true colors. I particularly liked the “wrong number” analogy through which a TV channel and its reporter (played by Anushka Sharma) are able to reach out to the masses and spur them on to some action against the fraudsters who dupe folks in the name of religion.

But there is an episode that is in the crosshairs of a multitude of people in India, some of who are demanding a ban on the movie for hurting their religious sentiments. Let me recount it here briefly for the benefit of those who may not have watched it.

In the controversial scene, a nincompoopish PK (the lead character of the alien played by Aamir with a stupid demeanor that I think comes naturally to him ever since his Satyamev Jayate shoots) chases a wimpy “Lord Siva” (played apparently by a Sikh), who is going to the loo in the middle of a stage show that is supposed to highlight the fearlessness and other divine qualities of the Hindu God. Obviously, the poor guy is just a character in a cheap stage act and ends up fleeing from and cowering before an aggressive PK, who even locks him up in the toilet.

I know most people who saw it probably laughed it off, knowing that the fella whom Aamir was chasing in the movie is NOT Lord Siva but just a stage actor.

But you must know that millions of Hindus truly worship Lord Siva and what He signifies and I think you should NOT have used the controversial imagery to build your storyline or screenplay.

Interestingly, in the movie, PK was led to believe that only God can help him get back his remote control and so he visits the places of worship of Hindus, Christians and Muslims to propitiate divine forces (though, in the case of the mosque, he is chased away by angry mullahs even before he sets his foot on the premises, what with two bottles of wine in his hands as offerings).

Along the way, you have shown PK attacking the blind beliefs of symbolic-religious-minded people.

When all that PK gets is thappads (slaps on the cheek) and realizes that no god is helping him get what he wants, he becomes forlorn and puts up posters of various gods on city walls with the word MISSING written in bold letters.

Hiraniji and Chopraji, PK goes to the temples of various religions but the MISSING posters show only Hindu gods.


Do you or Aamir…I mean PK…think that the gods of other religions are PRESENT in the classrooms of devotees, serving their intended function?

A lot of angry people on social media believe you deliberately chose to show Hindus, Hindu gods and godmen in poor light because A) it is easy to target Hindus, as they are soft, liberal or do not mind someone lampooning them or their faith B) part of the funding for the movie/promotion has come from Islamist terrorists or organizations with links to terrorism (throw in some dollars from Christian missionaries as well) and C) you have grown stupider since your past couple of movie successes such as Munnabhai MBBS and 3 Idiots.

I can’t be sure what the truth is. Like I said before, the message of human unity is timely and much-needed in this weird age of scientific advance commingled with religious fundamentalism. But I think you are barking up the wrong tree in your movie: Hinduism.

Let me make it clear that I admit much is wrong with Hindu godmen and our own bunch of stupid, wide-eyed blind devotees—and I have myself written against them (see my blog post here, if you get time from counting the box office collections of PK).

But hey, HELLO!! Can’t you see which religious group is causing the most terror and atrocities in the world today?

By heavily lading your movie against one religion, you seem to have fomented trouble as well as diluted the underlying message the film could have otherwise delivered more emphatically.

It is possible that you have simply overlooked this little detail (haven’t I already referred to many bouts of idiocy in this post?). I know you have tendered a generic apology and there are reports that the Siva sequence could be deleted. But the cash registers are ringing, no? In all possibility, you might be working on a sequel (who doesn’t like a neat, cash-generating movie franchise these days!)

But will it be possible for you, or any film maker in Bollywood for that matter, to show a stage actor playing “Jesus” or “Prophet” being chased and locked up in a toilet instead of a Hindu god?

Most probably NOT (to dissect the above question would require a lengthy exposition on what all is wrong today with folks, religions and beliefs in living harmoniously on the only planet we’ve got so far—but that would be another blog post.)

Or do you promise to act less foolishly next time around?

And what about the charges doing the rounds on social media? Would you care to counter them and be transparent?

Messrs. Hirani and Chopra, let me end this letter with a phrase from the country’s notoriously rambunctious news anchor, Ornab Shor-swami: “India wants to know.”

Meanwhile, I need to attend to some other correspondence meant for hateful fundamentalists, spurious devotees and a guy popularly called NaMo…

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Weeding out Rampal-like fake gurus: what India and Modi should do

The recent episode of a self-styled godman holding thousands of “devotees” hostage in his sprawling ashram to avoid arrest in a contempt of court case has once again left a lot of people agape with wonder mixed with disgust and disbelief.

The drama unfolded over several days in the north Indian town of Barwala in the state of Haryana and left five women and a child dead and scores of people injured. The long arm of law (too long for anyone’s comfort I would say) is said to have finally caught up with the belligerent Baba Rampal.

Details of the entire episode are available everywhere on the web, including here, here and here.

But this article is not about those details—ghastly, horrendous and shameful as they are.

This article is about a serious contemplation on the rampant darkness, ignorance and poverty in one of the world’s fastest growing economies that is also home to one of the largest collections of illiterate, disease-ridden or mentally bankrupt people anywhere in the world.

It is about a mass of humanity that shares a common glorious past but which, at the moment, is as far removed from glory as the Milky Way is from the remotest black hole in the universe.

It is about a burgeoning elite class of people with money and access to power who are so intoxicated with their own sense of power that any idea of retribution or justice makes them laugh the rambunctious laughter of Ravana: only there seems to be no Ram in today’s India, only scamsters of the ilk of Rampal.

It is about a media that kowtows to the high and mighty rather than pursue its true calling: which is to investigate and bring to light instances of corruption and social injustices on a constant basis (and not on the whims and sudden revelations of vested interests), among other things.

And finally, it is about the poor, uneducated, often hapless people of the country who are misled by the politicians, fake godmen, spurious gurus or anyone with an ax to grind: again and again and again...

It is highly possible—as it has been made possible by the politics-business-religion-nexus countless times before—that the Rampal incident would be forgotten in a few days of hysterical TV coverage, full-page paper reports and the usual politics-inspired chest-thumping, clench-fisting and mud-slinging.

It is almost a cinch that the media would lose interest and start groping for other stories that can keep people (and advertisers) “hooked.”

And—alas—it is more than a certainty that a few years or perhaps months down the line, another Rampal-like godman would pop up somewhere in the vast topography of the country.

“Why do I say these things will be certain to happen again?” you ask?

Because India is not a (largely) homogeneous, educated, developed society but a weird mish-mash of abject poverty (anywhere from 30 crore to 70 crore poor people depending on whose stats you take), gross illiteracy (28 crore people, largest in the world as per UNESCO) and towering wealth (1.8 lakh dollar millionaires in India as per a Credit Suisse report—including a $1 billion tower-monster-of-a-home for a certain guy I choose not to name).

So, where does Narendra Modi fit into the picture?

Before I go on with the rest of the piece, let me make some honest admissions: I have some grudging admiration for this guy whom the hundreds of millions voted to power as the prime minister of India. And my admiration has nothing to do with his designer beard or outfits but everything to do with a re-ignition of hope for the youth of the country who see him as an icon and role model. It has also to do with the disgust with the stockpiles of corruption cases, scams and indecisiveness that the previous, Congress-led government and its putative PM engendered in their 10 years of misrule.

So, where Modi gets into the picture, or rather, should get into the picture (even if it’s a movie not of his own making) is a series of quick measures he and his battery of ministers and bureaucrats are required to take, in my opinion:

  • Get a list of all the ashrams currently occupied all over the country.
  • Start the arduous but necessary process of examining the land allocations.
  • Look for trouble spots or signs that would betray the black sheep from the flock (most of them, but NOT ALL, in my own spiritual and personal experience, would turn out to be black).
  • Arrange for a systematic way to interview and record the experiences, motivations and involvement of a fairly representative sample of their followers (with the vast army of central and state employees, this should be doable).
  • Set the process rolling on laying down the guidelines for media on how godmen or gurus who love to get in front of cameras for giving sermons, fortune tellers who tell (and make) fortunes, etc., should be covered or “involved” in/with media. (Again, in my own spiritual experience, though most of the real gurus, rishis and munis have long disappeared from the soil of India, the few remaining ones, who are true to their own spiritual quest as well as to those of their devotees, would rather sit contentedly with a small group of people in harmony than blare out their decrees or show off their “scriptural knowledge” to a bloated, dumbstruck audience. See a related post here that I wrote on the subject when Asaram Bapu was arrested).
  • Closely examine the source of funding of ashrams and where and how the money is spent.

These steps (and the impact they will create) may not root out the problem of fake godmen appearing and reappearing completely, but I think we need to make a start somewhere.

While much of what I have written above portrays India and most of its people negatively, the country also has a large number of educated, right-thinking (and I don’t mean right-wing only!) people who can contribute not just ideas but time and money to cleaning up India spiritually as well.

We may need many more Swachh Bharat Abhiyans—where sweeping is done not with a broom in hand but with a high beam of light shone upon the darkness of the mind.