Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Mind of a Mobocrat – a review of Arvind Kejriwal’s ‘Swaraj’

“All Utopias are fed from the sources of mythology; the social engineer’s blueprint are merely revised editions of the ancient text” wrote Arthur Koestler in the book “The God that failed” in 1949, as he along with five other disillusioned revolutionaries came out against their previous faith named Communism.

Today, as has been many times in the past few months, Arvind Kejriwal is yet again in the headlines. This time, refusing to pay a bail in a defamation case and thereby choosing to go to jail. We are yet again in a shrill, pitched battle between the fans who see in his every move the manifestation of the impending revolution and his critics who see in his “antics” a compulsiveness to be in the media glare, or a desperate tactic to hold on to the public mind space. The adulations and criticisms have focused on individual moves. But what lies beneath these actions? What is the larger philosophical context in which they are being played out?

So far, we have tended to look at instances such as Aam Aadmi Party’s support to the Khap Panchayats, the vigilante justice offered by its leaders, Arvind Kejriwal’s anarchic ways and his selective referendums, as tactics imperative to political positioning or as exasperation accompanied by disruption of conventional wisdom, depending on which side of the political spectrum one belongs to. As somebody who has been a critic of the AAP’s politics as also having had a soft corner towards the movement and the political party, I too have internally juggled between the two. But clarity did emerge when (a few months ago) I read what was touted as AAP’s philosophical statement – Arvind Kejriwal's book ‘Swaraj’. Reading the book gives that ‘aha’ feeling. You are suddenly able to connect the dots between these incidents and the basic philosophy that drives them. The link, the causality, the big picture, everything starts to fall in place. It starts becoming clear that AAP’s adoration of the Maoist style kangaroo justice, its reluctance or unease with the idea of governance and its preference to agitational politics may not be accidental but representative of a political narrative that its founder leader professes.

Monday, May 19, 2014

What do Steve Jobs, Marc Benioff and Narendra Modi have in common?

Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple Inc. which created Mac and iPhone, is known to be a pioneer in making technology friendlier  to the masses ('technology for people and not the other way round' as they call it). Benioff, the founder of Salesforce, is one of the pioneers of the cloud computing era having foreseen the "End of PC" revolution. Modi, has been seen (undisputedly, after this week’s election, at least) to have shattered myths about Indian elections and ushered in - what is now being called - the era of developmental politics in India. All the three leaders are known to have disrupted conventional wisdom in their fields of action through their creativity and innovative leadership.

But there is something more in common to the three leaders. Each of them, at some point in their lives has sought the solitude of the Himalayas.

Jobs's spiritual journey took him to India to meet the mystic Neem Karoli Baba who had his Ashram at Kainchi in the foothills of Himalayas. He had to return disappointed as the Baba had already passed away by the time Jobs reached. But Jobs retained his spiritual bent of mind and also attributed his intuition to it. In his biography, he specifically mentions 'The Autobiography of a Yogi' written by Parmahamsa Yogananda as one of his favorites. As Marc Benioff notes about Jobs, "If you look back at the history of Steve and that early trip to India ... He had this incredible realization that his intuition was his greatest gift," Benioff said. "He needed to look at world from inside out ... His message was to look inside yourself and realize yourself".

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Why Modi represents a very Indian style of leadership

The run up to the 2014 elections has brought to the fore, some very interesting glimpses into leadership styles, which may in many ways disrupt the prevalent narratives of what constitutes effective leadership.  A stark contrast is being offered between the incumbents Dr Manmohan Singh and his lieutenant P Chidambaram on the one hand, both technocrats, decorated with academic degrees from Oxford and Harvard respectively, who were brought in for their credentials as economists, but are today being blamed for policy paralysis and the consequent economic downturn, and the challenger Mr Narendra Modi - a college dropout (on the insistence of well-wishers later he completed his graduation through external examinations), but who learnt his lessons from the hard knocks of life and who is increasingly being seen as somebody who can turnaround India’s fortunes.  

 This paradox has played out in many interesting ways, especially in the exchange of jibes between the two sides. Chidambaram chided Modi for his apparent lack of academic rigor, by claiming that Modi’s knowledge of economics “can be written on the back of a postage stamp”. He pointed out that the Gujarat Chief Minister “has said nothing about the fiscal deficit, nothing about the CAD (Current Account Deficit), nothing about monetary policy”.

 It was expected that Modi would counter this by spelling out his policy vision for the economy in his “big speech” to the industry leaders. But instead of parroting these terminologies, to display an acquaintance with them, or using idioms like ‘animal spirit’, ‘escape velocity’ etc., Modi chose to focus entirely on his ability and his record in solving problems. As columnist R Jagannathan noted “if the gathering… was expecting tall talk about how Narendra Modi was going to combat fiscal deficits, cut subsidies, implement various reforms and boost growth, they would have been a trifle disappointed”. “But the Gujarat chief minister” the columnist added “went beyond the vision thing and offered something that is sorely needed: the promise of a 24-hour prime minister who would tackle the country’s problems by getting to the roots. His message: vision is important, but execution ability is super-critical.” Modi returned the jibe on Chidambaram saying “I don't need a lot of bookish knowledge. I can enlist people with knowledge”. 

 In many ways, Modi’s response and approach brings up a very important leadership phenomenon, typical of Indian worldview, that is of late being studied by Management Gurus – the concept of contextual resourcefulness. As eminent scholar Dr Devdutt Pattanaik notes in his book ‘Business Sutra’, the Indian approach to leadership, in contrast to the Western and the Chinese ways, among other things, “relies on resourcefulness”.

 The Indian spiritual texts which form the bedrock of the Indian psyche are averse to over-reliance on theories, books and experts and instead emphasize on one’s resourcefulness in decision making. In the celebrated dialogue of Yaksha Prashna in the Mahabharata, Yudhishtira, the eldest of the Pandavas, is asked the question ‘What is the right path?’ to which he answers, “Reasoning has its limitations, sacred books contradict each other, not a single Rishi’s words can be considered absolute. The essence of Dharma is hidden in a cave. Great men tread their own paths”. Dharma – the wisdom that drives decision-making is considered in this verse of Mahabharata, as beyond theories, books and experts. It exhorts leaders to base their actions on the knowledge “embodied” (hidden deep within the metaphorical cave) within one's experience and intuition. Rajiv Malhotra, a scholar of Indian civilization, who coins the word “embodied knowledge” suggests that the Indian worldview holds this knowledge unique and non-substitutable by other means. He counts this as one of the differentiating aspects of Indian civilizational thought.

 While being open to ideas from different sources, the Indian worldview, considers it the responsibility of the leader to figure out which ideas can be effectively acted upon in a given circumstance, which may not and which ideas are best left for academic discussions. This approach comes in handy, especially when a lot of problems that the leaders are expected to solve, are by nature dynamic, contextual, constantly unfolding and defy past theoretical patterns.

 As a news item quoting a source close to Modi notes, the Gujarat Chief minister has a team of academicians and intellectuals who help him get a theoretical grasp of issues, but he uses his empirical learnings to “distill a point down to the basics”. His empathetical connect with the masses probably helps provide him the empirical learnings and an independent reference point to scrutinize these theories and have his own mind.

 The Indian electoral landscape until now has relied heavily on the ‘manifesto approach’. While this approach may be useful in spelling out priorities, it also implicitly assumes that the problems are stagnant, that they have already been identified, understood and crystallized into ideological positions. Narendra Modi, has for the first time unabashedly tried and added ‘resourcefulness’ as an important part of his promise and an attribute of his leadership.  

Friday, February 7, 2014

The concept of 'sAdhanA'

Here is an attempt to look at a predominantly experiential cultural concept, through the eyes of a participant observer.

“Long distance running is not just about physical fitness, its an attitude” a friend of mine had told me when I first started training for marathons. Anybody who has run a marathon would agree that taming one’s mind and keeping it focused is probably as big a challenge as building physical fitness needed for the long runs. It is also increasingly being understood that the practice apart from building physical endurance, can also build mental stamina that manifests in other aspects of one's life – especially in one's drive and disposition - what my friend loosely called “attitude”.  And many times this mental enrichment that accrues can far outlive the marathons.

This is true not just for long distance running, but for sports, music, arts or any such thing that can be passionately pursued over a long period of time. Whoever has pursued Indian music or dance would know, this process of nourishing the mind through a practice, is called ‘sAdhanA’. In the Indian civilizational milieu, music, dance, an art form, martial arts or for that matter any inspired action (called kriyA) is considered an aid to one’s spiritual growth.
When somebody talks of taking up music as a sAdhanA, as my teacher often did, it means taking it up as the highest form of worship. It means preparing one’s mind to receive the knowledge, by focusing on cultivating the patience, perseverance and passion (and also the dispassion) required for its practice. By focusing on these rather than just on the skill, one can build mental stamina, an ability to watch one’s own mind, a greater level of tolerance, greater focus, lesser fluctuations of mind, an ability to enrich oneself constantly and also the ability to pursue happiness through the action. In short something similar to what the Buddhists in the West refer to as ‘Mindfulness’[1]. But while Buddhists believe it is possible to achieve this essentially through meditation, other Hindu spiritual traditions believe that like meditation, it can be achieved through music, through dance, through sevA (selfless service) or through inspired action of any kind.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Will Durant: A true friend of India

Today (November 5th) is the 128th birth anniversary of Will Durant, the renowned American philosopher and author, popularly known for his books ‘Story of Philosophy’ and ‘Story of Civilization’. He was awarded  the Pulitzer in 1968 and the Presidential Medal for Freedom in 1977. A facet of his though, that has long been forgotten, is his vociferous support to the Indian freedom movement.

In the year 1925, a few years after the First World War, the voices of freedom had started gaining momentum in India. But the “magisterial” voices in the American intelligentsia and academia very equally vocal in brazenly ideologizing the colonial rule in India. Katherine Mayo’s ‘Mother India’ insinuated against Indian culture, the character of Indian people and leaders to claim that Indians were not fit for freedom. It was rejected by Gandhi as a “report of a drain inspector”.  Along with many Indians, intellectual rebuttals to Mayo’s work also came from two fellow Americans, Jabez T Sunderland, in his work ‘India in Bondage’ and Will Durant’s then famous but now long forgotten book ‘The Case for India’. Incidentally this book had gone out of print for many decades, before a gentleman named T N Shanbhag picked it up and got it republished in 2007 through his Strand Book Stall. I had the fortune of reading it a few days ago. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Book Review: 'And the mountains echoed' by Khaled Hosseini

'And the Mountains Echoed', Khaled Hosseini's third and the latest novel is morally complex, unlike the linear, uni-dimensional characters in his earlier novels. It is scattered into smaller stories and also subtler themes with no straight heroes or villains but with characters that are torn by the complexity of their circumstances, choices and their inner struggles. Afghanistan, his country of birth, and the events therein, particularly the political and social turbulence, move from being the essential backdrop in his earlier two books to having a peripheral presence - not solely dictating the trajectory of lives and events.

The story itself is otherwise a group of separate stories, artfully connected, only to put them together as one. If there is one theme that runs through most stories, it is 'care-giving'. Hosseini  tries to bring out how care-givers make choices, their frail moments and convictions, joys and tribulations, and the struggles associated with their choices. Whether it is the seven year old Abdullah who takes up the task of caring for his three year old sister Pari, after the demise of their mother, or how decades later Abdullah's daughter, also named Pari, chooses to take care of him, sacrificing her marital life and her dream of being an artist, Hosseini  brings out the importance of 'care-giving' as one of the bases, foundational to the concept of family. There are other themes - simple, complex and melodramatic that criss-cross the story and also run in parallel. Although the novel starts with the tragic separation of Abdullah and Pari when Pari is adopted by a rich couple and later taken by Pari's adopted mother, a Farsi poet, to Paris, it soon goes into the back burner, giving way to other stories of Abdullah's uncle Nabi who works as a driver in Kabul, Nabi's guest Markos who is a aid worker from Greece, Markos's aging mother in the Greek Island of Tinos, her childhood friend and so on.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The ‘Slum-dog Millionaire Syndrome’ and more

My review of Arvind Adiga's 'The White Tiger'

By that expression in the title, I, in no way suggest that slums do not exist in India, or that themes such as class struggle, servitude or corruption are inappropriate for novels. But that many authors writing on India and particularly on its social context, are tempted to play to the Western gallery. This, they do, by perpetuating stereotypes and furthering simplistic understanding rather than problematizing the issues or providing an insight into them. 

It has been a while since I read this novel and had been wanting to write about it, but never got time enough to put these lines together. Adiga’s main protagonist in this novel is a son of a rickshaw puller from the remote village of the Hindi heartland which is characterized by poverty, feudalism, naxalism and a broken system of governance - marked by a lack of education, healthcare facilities and basic amenities. The story is his struggle in upward mobility from being a cleaner at a small-time sweet-shop to becoming a car driver to a politically influential and wealthy family of erstwhile feudal lords to ultimately an “entrepreneur” at Bangalore.  But his escape from poverty and exploitation is not through a “farcical” ladder that the Democracy promises but through crime - a common theme among many Leftists. The novel written in a humorous way brings out some very important aspects of class struggle and servitude, not very accurate though, nevertheless very relevant to the current Indian social and political context.