Friday, December 30, 2005

Passion for the Future

I’ve seen the future, my friends, and I need my sunglasses.

The Chatterjee Group, lead partners of Haldia Petrochemical (HPL) of West Bengal, India, has just bought for US$ 5.7 billion – Basell a JV between Royal Dutch Shell and BASF – a company 9 times HPL’s size.

Lakshmi Mittal, an NRI based out of London, has been slowly buying up enough steel mills around the world to give him effective sway over the world industry.

Reliance Industries, despite feuding brothers, have put in money in countries from the US to Africa, from Central Africa to China in projects as diverse as telecom, infrastructure and gas exploration.

Tata Sons have invested in truck plants in South Korea, in the world famous Tetley brand in UK, in Taj Hotel properties Maldives, and are even talking of a major project in Bangladesh.

Vijay Mallya’s UB Group has become the second largest liquor marketer in the world and has just paid about GBP 2 million to get Tipu Sultan’s legacy back from the British.

And I’ve not even touched on Wipro that has 40,000 people working in BPO operations around the globe. Or of Infosys who have become the blue-eyed boy of NASDAQ. Or of Jet Airways who have taken to the sky towards London and Singapore. Nor of the hundreds of other Indian companies that are looking beyond their borders. They are looking at the world as their playing fields and staring down the future, eyeball to eyeball!

“India is Shining”. Well, true that this slogan failed to win the BJP the last elections. But there was much more to the defeat than identification with the brand India. Indeed no one can deny the common man in Indian cities believing in the statement and breathing fire into the prophecy, ensuring that the country is indeed shining!

I have had the opportunity to study and live in India during the watershed years of “liberalisation” of the Indian economy in the early part of the 1990s. And then have worked and interacted with many Indians over the last decade and more. And I have seen a marked change in the attitude pulsating throughout society. My earlier years in India were in basically an American “International” school in South India. This was a school where the children of NRIs and rich Indians from Mumbai went. And my latter years were in one of India’s finest bastions of learning – St. Stephen’s College, a breeding ground for future leaders of the country. A college that at one time produced, I am told, 40% of all the top-level bureaucrats. Why, it even gave Pakistan a President! Now these last few sentences are not to boast that I am actually educated (a lot of my professors are shaking their heads in disbelief) but to highlight the valuable learning that I have had. An “insight” as we say in advertising, an inner glimpse of the psyche of the Indian mind.

Believe it or not, India is not one country! It is an amalgamation of many kingdoms, tribes, dynasties, people and languages. They actually owe it to the British for uniting them. Till the “Engrez” came and conquered them (and even after) they were basically warring states with ever changing borders. And, mind you, the Raj is not so far in the past. Without giving out her age (sorry Ma) my mother was actually born during the Raj. In an evolutionary clock that is less than a fraction of a nano second! This difference is still engrained in a multiplicity of beliefs, religion and roots. A Mumbaiwalla is so different from a Boro from Assam. A Mallyu from Triviandram is poles away from a Pandit from Kashmir. A Bengali babu from Kolkatta is different from a cyber sassy youth from Bangalore. And, mind you, it is not only the language (come on, English is the great unifier) and physical structure that I am talking about, but ethos of one’s ego. I used to half jokingly tell my Indian friends that the only thing that united them was their love for cricket and their hatred of Pakistan!

Now that joke is no longer true. They have another shared platform. And that is their belief they are going places and that they are going to conquer the world! Trust me, this is a very powerful belief. I see it in the body language of everyone I meet now. I see it in the conversations of friends. I see it in the attitude of their media. I feel it throbbing in every city I visit. Indians are dreaming a marvel bigger than any of the Bollywood story spinners can conjure up. They have been bitten by the bug of a bigger vision and they are sprinting toward their “tryst with destiny”.

Well, my rambling over the last 800 or so words was not to actually tell you what Indians are doing. But to tell you what we should be doing! Senator Clinton is right. We live in a village. If we do not understand that, we will never move to the tree-lined boulevard of Planet Earth. (No! I am not talking of a “city beautification program”)

We are too insular in our vision. If you can call an annually changing Five Year Program that! I understand the pain of the Honourable Finance Minister and am not preaching for blindly taking the pills prescribed by Mr. Wolfowitz at World Bank. But we need to compete in the world, need to believe in our abilities, and we need tool ourselves to the tasks of the modern demanding cyber world. (Let’s face the facts if you aren’t connected you are going no where fast!)

It is not any one policy I am preaching (well, at least, not in this article) but rather pleading to everyone – especially the powers that be, or not currently be, to unite the country to a shared goal, a rallying vision. Let us take the challenge on with zeal to succeed. Let us smell our own self-confidence. Let us be enchanted by the music of our victory that will be. Let us rush towards victory with the conviction of madmen. Let us believe. Let us try. Let us shine.

Anyway, whichever way, I need my sunglasses. Either the future is blindingly bright or it is a blind politician’s shenanigans.


Supriyo said...

Farhan! I read this earlier, and read this again. I had a few comments which I probably never mentioned before, but thought of sharing it here so that it can bring up views from your other readers.

As an Indian, I agree, we are in that threshold of formation of an 'Indian Dream'. Though still embryonic at this time, there is enterprise and enthusiasm, as you rightly identify. But the challenge is whether this is sustained and replicated, and despite its momentum, there are many reasons why this may not be sustainable. I am in no mood to spoil the party, but thought it is responsible to import a little sobriety.

The Indian Dream, you will know, is built in line with the American Dream, and we expect a similar fate. We dont want to take a perpetual second place, like Japan, nor we want to look backwards, like Europe. The only competition we see in our race is China, far ahead, but again, as unsustainable [can talk about it separately], and we want to emerge as [an economic] superpower, big and fast.

But then, the American Dream was not just about setting about large multinational businesses, but also about creating a model in thinking. As you say, Vision - a way of looking at things. The great american dream was to create an 'opportunity society', where everyone, regardless of birth, social status or geography, can make it big in life. However imperfect its implementation, it rendered true in spirit, spewing innovation and enterprise not seen elsewhere.

As I said, bottom of our hearts, we want to renew that experience. But without dismantling the social barriers, without making it an opportunity society first! We dont want to innovate in education, politics or legal systems. We revel on our successes in BPO, but dont think about the opportunity cost of channelling so many young graduates to such low-end jobs, sustained only by an exchange rate mechanism at the mercy of an administration elsewhere.

To me, this current Indian vision sounds like 'Fordism', as in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, where a nation is changed and ruled by corporate intervention. But that idea sounds like a Capitalist Planned Economy, which never got off after having a very unfortunate start in Hitler's Germany.

Indian dream built on a few corporate successes will have similar tendencies of self-destruction. It already has, in its near-total glossing out of the poverty, environmental degradation and corruption. The current environment, so geared to big businesses, but still offer little incentive to start-up entrepreneurs and innovators. [For all this talk about Intellectual property, look at the innovation record of big businesses] It is still far from an opportunity society.

Dont get me wrong - I love my country and share an Indian dream. But this one is different, and unfortunately sounds closer to 'India's tryst with destiny' than 'India shining'. We set out to establish a model of governance and development in a poor country. I always fear that a false sense of achievement will divert us from that imperfect yet cherishable goal.

Supriyo said...

Farhan! Recently I came across a book 'The Idea of India' by Sunil Khilani. I guess it is a very well known book, but I was reading it now, and in its new edition. I shall recommend this to you, a brilliant historical and political thinking, and very relevant from the overall south asian perspective. Supriyo