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Tuesday, 25 February 2014

The Bottlenecks to Innovation in India

The Bottlenecks to Innovation in India

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, 07 December, 2013; Published 25 February, 2014

Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.

For other articles by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, please visit http://www.leftbrainwave.com

Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.

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Abstract

India has long had a tradition of imitation rather than innovation; of not taking risks; and, therefore, of rarely setting international touchstones of quality and excellence.  India needs to develop an “innovation culture” if it needs to acquire the DNA to consistently excel in leapfrog innovation rather than incremental innovation.  Critical to such an innovation culture are five factors: the encouragement and development of a questioning mindset by breaking traditional Indian ideas of absolute, unquestioning obedience to teachers, parents, and other authority figures; the development of higher education systems that encourage students to do independent research work; stringent, merit-based performance management structures; the emphasizing of Indian role models in excellence and innovation; and a recognition by industry of the long-term importance of leapfrog innovation in order that they may embrace the risks inherent in such ventures and trade short-term for long-term thinking.

Introduction

McKinsey ran their Reimagining India Essay Contest last year, for which they accepted entries until 12 December 2013 and recently announced the winners.  I was not one of the winners, but am presenting here the essay I submitted to their contest.

They had three topics on which one could write an essay.  I chose the topic that was presented thus:

How can “innovation capitalism” drive India’s technological and economic development?

“If the environment is changing rapidly, then you want to bias your system toward change, flexibility, and adaptability. You want to foster what I call “innovation capitalism” versus “incumbency capitalism.” Incumbency capitalism relies on generous depreciation rules that favor big established players, those who have the most capital and can pay for $400 million plants. Innovation capitalism offers generous R&D tax credits that favor start-ups, people with ideas, who are willing to experiment and create.”
—Vinod Khosla, “How to Win at Leapfrog”
Consequently, I submitted an essay on what I saw as the barriers to leapfrog innovation in India and how I believed they could be overcome.  That essay is presented here.  There was a word limit of 1000 words for the essay. 

Readers are cautioned that I come from an engineering/scientific background and my approach to innovation and creativity is naturally coloured by my experiences in the scientific world.  In particular, I have rarely found path-breaking, innovative work to be easy.  There is a lot of work (and attendant pain) involved.  I mention this explicitly here because there is (I state this in the essay below as well) a popular perception that innovation (and especially leapfrog innovation) is simply “looking at the world with different lenses” or other similar metaphors.  I don’t believe it is that easy.  Even if an initial insight comes so easily, qualifying it so that it becomes a true innovation is a lot of work.  That has been my experience.

My Essay Entry for the Contest

Mr. Khosla is right that India needs to have a flexible, leapfrogging model of innovation.  But at a more fundamental level, India lacks an innovation “culture” – and this mindset problem makes it very hard for Indians to adopt the “innovation capitalism” that Mr. Khosla alludes to.  This must first be tackled if Indians are to take advantage of innovation capitalism.

A word of caution is necessary in understanding what innovation really connotes.  It is a popular misconception that innovation is merely looking at the world with different “eyes,” such as the oft-cited example of using washing machines to make lassi; and that it does not require deep knowledge or expertise.  That is, indeed, true for the low-hanging fruit, but for deeper and more lasting innovation, technical excellence is an indispensable complement to creative thinking.

Innovation, at its core, is a practical enterprise.  A new idea that never crosses the threshold from academic curiosity to practical implementation does not meet the yardstick of innovation.  The role of industry in fostering innovation is, therefore, critical.

The Indian private sector has, indeed, allocated funds to R&D for decades, but by and large this has been utilized in imitation rather than innovation.  For proof of the same, consider that India did not have an indigenous automaker making cars with home-grown technology until Tata unveiled the Indica in 1998.

This timidity has been in evidence in practically every industry.  My father, who was a chemistry professor and industrial consultant, cited the example of an Indian company that asked its engineers to develop the scaled-up design for a new chemical plant on paper, for which my father had helped the company develop the chemistry in the lab; at the last minute, the company developed cold feet, discarded the indigenous design, and imported the entire plant from Switzerland.

There are five main reasons for this timidity.  The first is a reluctance to question the status quo.  The second is a lack of training in original thinking in higher educational institutions.  The third is the legacy of decades of socialism.  The fourth is the lack of Indian role models in technological innovation.  The fifth is a lack of understanding on how to address the risks involved in innovation.  Below I address each of these.

1.       To innovate, one must be willing to ask both the question of the curious learner – “why?” – as well as the question of the disruptive thinker – “why not?”  The traditional problem in India is that, from kindergarten through PhD, one is taught to never question the teacher, the guru – an attitude that stems from ancient Hindu tradition.  This has to change.
2.      Much of what passes for research in Indian universities is second-rate work.  There are, indeed, a few brilliant professors in Indian centres of excellence such as the IITs or IISc.  These professors use graduate students to advance their research, but generally do not succeed in inculcating in their students a spirit of independence and an ability to define problems.  These students find their way into Indian industrial R&D and, while they can follow a pre-defined research direction, they find it difficult to chart new paths – the activity that is at the heart of innovation.
3.      In a capitalistic system, your job is never secure – as a researcher, there is a push for you to stretch yourself to innovate for the market, to take risks and prove yourself.  In socialism, on the other hand, since annual pay raises and regular promotions are more or less guaranteed with an “average” level of performance, why put in the extra effort? Performance management strategies, including giving appropriate pay for performance and delinking salaries from politics, are necessary if Indian government agencies are to be more innovative.
4.      There are only a few organizations such as Tata, Aravind Eye Care, Narayana Hrudayalaya, and C-DAC that Indians can draw inspiration from when looking for role models in technological innovation.  Very often, Indian scientists and their managers are hampered by the belief that they cannot do truly innovative work; that real innovation can only happen in the west.  As India produces more innovation leaders, this problem will gradually go away.
5.      Leapfrog innovation, by definition, is something that has not been done before, and is not a “me-too” type of endeavour, where some minor tweaks are done to an existing product or process.  It is, therefore, inherently risky.  Work involves time and hence money and so, companies’ financial policies regarding R&D determine their attitude towards leapfrog innovation – i.e., towards significant inputs of time and money that don’t have guaranteed returns.  A good example of an organization that understands how to take risks is the American company 3M – one of the world’s most innovative companies, known for products like Post-ItTM.  In 3M, while 85% of their researchers’ time is to be spent on clearly-defined projects, with milestones, deliverables, and timelines, the remaining 15% is their own, to work on whatever “blue-sky” projects that they can define, with no questions asked, and no penalty for failure.  3M’s extraordinary success as an innovative company reflects the success of this policy, and should inspire other companies to do the same.

The Indian system has changed since liberalization and the arrival of MNC companies which have set up their R&D centres in India.  This is a positive first step, since these companies bring with them the culture of innovation that is part of their survival DNA.  However, the people who work in these centres are still often recruited from the older school of thinking in India, and it will take some time to change them and the innovation landscape in India. 

Indian industry leaders need to rise to the challenge and build innovative organizations – organizations that value creativity, innovation, and risk-taking – and reward excellence.  This involves grooming the right research leaders who can set the example, allowing R&D scientists the freedom to explore that is the fount of leapfrog innovation, and ruthlessly enforcing a meritocracy.


Sunday, 16 February 2014

Why Wendy Doniger’s Book Offends Hindus

Why Wendy Doniger’s Book Offends Hindus

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar 

16 February, 2014

Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.

For other articles by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, please visit http://www.leftbrainwave.com

Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.

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I have already written a blog article on this controversy.   The focus of my earlier article was that the reactions by left-leaning liberals in India and overseas to Penguin's withdrawal of their book were overblown and ridiculous.  The fact is that India's laws are intolerant and allow any religious group to put pressure on any book to be withdrawn because it "offends" them.  Penguin's withdrawal is not symptomatic of India becoming any more intolerant than any other country.  

When you write a book on religion that is unconventional, some group will be offended - the real question is whether your country's laws contain adequate protection for free speech to protect you from such groups.  India's laws do not.  That a small group of Hindus was able to pressurize Penguin to pulp Doniger's book is not proof that India is intolerant; it is proof that free speech in India is conditional.  The remedy to that is to abolish section 295A of the IPC.

The Ignorance of Hindus About Hinduism

But there is a second point to address here, and that is the question of why, actually, Doniger's book even offends Hindus.  As a person who has had a lifelong interest in Hindu epics, I have a fair idea of the reasons.  The first reason is that most Hindus know little about their epics.  Most Indians have never read the Ramayana or the Mahabharata in full; for most of them, the knowledge of these epics comes purely from Ramanand Sagar's and BR Chopra's teleserials.  The fact is that the actual books are HUGE.  I can testify to this personally - several years back I bought the full English translation of the Mahabharata in four huge volumes by Kisari Mohan Ganguli, and I have not yet found time to finish all four volumes.

Second, if one does read these epics in full, one finds all kinds of interesting information - information that is often shocking and not told to children by their parents and grandparents when growing up.  There are fairly stark sexual episodes that are mentioned in a matter-of-fact way in the Mahabharata that would make most conservative Indians turn a deep shade of red, despite their brown skin.  These are not stories you can tell your kids.  But it is a fact that our epics contain these R-rated or X-rated portions.

The Sanitizing of Hinduism

In modern days, there has been a clear attempt by rightwing Hindu groups to avoid any mention of these R-rated portions of the epics - to present Hindu epics as clean, wholesome, and without contradictions.  Modern TV presentations of the Ramayana and Mahabharata take generous liberties with the epics, to the extent that they even falsify what is in the epic.
 
For example, Rama in the Ramayana, although an avatar of the God Vishnu, sees himself, and is portrayed in the epic, largely as a human, albeit an exceptional one.  The times that he realizes in the epic, or is made to realize his divinity, are rare.  This is unlike Krishna in the Mahabharata who, in general, is more conscious of his divinity than Rama in the Ramayana, though, again, not all the time.

Given this backdrop, consider this scene that I saw in one TV representation of the Ramayana a couple of years ago.  This was the scene where Rama breaks Janaka’s bow of Shiva and claims Sita as his wife.  The original poem by Valmiki, the entire unabdridged English translation of which is available online (due to Ralph Griffith), simply details, in lovely poetry, the sequence of events as Rama lifts the bow and breaks it, and as others watch this feat in awe.  But the TV serial went much further than this.  It showed Rama walking towards the bow, and as he did, all the assembled kings saw him in the form of Vishnu, with his four arms, holding the conch, the discus, the mace, and the lotus, and realized that this was Vishnu, and bowed to him.  The TV serial makers want to hammer the idea that Rama was divine all along, and have deliberately added things that the epic does not contain.  The “TV Rama” often makes statements that the Rama of the real epic would never make – for example, often stating himself that he is divine – whereas, in fact, those who have read the original know that Rama mostly describes himself as a human being, and has to be reminded by the Gods (as they do so when he subjects Sita to the Agni-pariksha or the trial by fire) that he is divine and should act accordingly.

This may seem like a subtle point, but it is very important nonetheless, because it dehumanizes Rama – and by dehumanizing Rama, robs him of much of his achievement.  The dehumanization makes it hard for us to understand, for example, why he would do such a thing as ask his wife, who had already proved her fidelity through the trial by fire in Lanka, to leave the Ayodhya palace again because a washerman said insulting things about her.  

Indians have a right to know their epics the way they were written, with both the good and bad parts.  It is wrong for someone to print lies about our epics; it is equally wrong for a TV channel to show an epic with lies in it simply because they think and decide it is more “appropriate” for us to watch.

To a large extent, Doniger's attempt is to present a more balanced version of Hinduism - to say that what are present in the Vedas, the Upanishads, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are much more complex than the "Cliff’s Notes" abridged versions that are presented on Indian TV and in abridged texts.

How Doniger Offends Hindus

Since the controversy, many twitterati have given links where Doniger’s book could be downloaded electronically, and I did download a copy so I could find out what the fuss is all about.  What I discovered was a book that tried to present many different angles on the epics, the Vedas, and the Upanishads – not complete translations of them, but select passages that bring out things that might surprise the average Hindu about his religion.

That brings me to the main topic of my post – why Doniger’s book offends Hindus.  There are two reasons for this.  The first is that, as I said, Indians are ignorant of what is in their epics.  As Doniger recounts in the book, one person threw an egg at her once when she was giving a lecture.  She found out that he was offended that Doniger had stated that Sita accused Lakshmana of having sexual designs on her. 

Offense was taken here in ignorance, because the listener was clearly unaware that Sita did, indeed, accuse Lakshmana in the Ramayana of wanting her for himself when Rama had gone after the golden deer and had not returned and, when pressed by Sita to go look for Rama, Lakshmana refused, saying that nothing would happen to Rama and that his orders were to guard Sita.  In fact, Sita's unfair accusations about Lakshmana are critical to the story, for they are the reason he disobeys his brother's command not to leave Sita alone - he is so horrified that Sita would level such charges against him that he leaves to look for Rama, unable to bear any more such accusations.

Part of the reason this person took offense was that he was unaware of what the great epic actually contained; part of it must also certainly be that he was only exposed to highly sanitized versions of the epics where any mention of sexuality is censored out.  The remedy to avoid this kind of misunderstanding, clearly, is for Indians to educate themselves better about their own epics.

The other reason why Hindus are offended by what Doniger and people like her (other professors of Hinduism) is that often, they bring western interpretations to Hindu epics.  This is treading into extremely dangerous territory, because while presenting parts of epics that people are normally unaware of might shock some people, these are still part of the original epic and all the professor has done is shine light on hitherto poorly-known facts; interpretation, on the other hand, is adding new material that is not contained in the epics; and no two people need agree on any interpretation.

A prime example of such interpretation that has annoyed many Hindus is when Doniger refers to an Oedipus complex when referring to Ganesha’s relationship with his father Shiva.  Now clearly this is a foreign concept, coming from the Greek myth of Oedipus, who desired his mother sexually and killed his father since he viewed him as a competitor for his mother’s affections.  Doniger interpreted the story of Shiva killing Ganesha as a reversal of the Oedipus myth – the father killing the son instead of the son killing the father as they compete for the same woman.  For a staunch Hindu, trying to project the relationship between the highly-revered God Ganesha, his mother, the goddess Parvati, and his father, the most powerful God of Hinduism, Shiva, in incestuous terms, is an unbearable sacrilege.

A Christian Parallel: The Last Temptation of Christ

To understand how serious such an aspersion is, consider the parallel in Christianity.  In 1988, Martin Scorcese brought to film Nikos Kazantzakis’ 1960 masterwork, “The Last Temptation of Christ,” in which Jesus is presented as a human being with the weaknesses that all human beings have, but rises above them.  The story talks about Jesus on the cross being tempted by Satan, exploring the temptation that is offered to him of a happy domestic life with Mary Magdalene in what seems like a dream, and then rejecting it to die on the cross.

The movie caused a commotion in the western world, with many countries banning the film, including Turkey, Chile, Mexico, Argentina, the Philippines, and Singapore.  In one savage expression of intolerance for free speech, the Saint Michel theatre in Paris was attacked by Molotov cocktails, which severely burned 4 people, injured 9 others, and forced the closure of the theatre.  There was also a huge campaign against the film in the United States, which severely affected the commercial success of the film, as many theatres were forced to stop screening the film.

If so much anger can erupt simply for saying, in a relatively permissive western society, that Jesus, a human manifestation of divinity, with all the allowances that a human may be permitted,  may have had a consummated marriage with Mary Magdalene in what was, essentially, a dream, how much more anger can one expect from the (fairly conservative) followers of a religion who have been told that their Gods (not even a human son of God, but the Gods themselves) are in an incestuous relationship?

Throwing Out the Baby with the Bathwater

Wendy Doniger’s fatal mistake, and that of her students and academic followers who imitate her ways, was to show extreme insensitivity in dealing with the sentiments of Hindus about their religion while choosing to “interpret” it.  That this kind of insensitivity came from someone who has spent her lifetime studying this religion and interacting with Indians has made several people suspect that the insensitivity was deliberate and mischievous, which has caused them to intensify their attacks against Doniger.  I do not know enough about this, as I have not read enough of her works, so at this point I will give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she did not know how offensive her interpretations might have been to Hindus at large.

All of this is rather sad for, as I am discovering, the vast majority of her book is rather interesting and reflects a high level of scholarship.  Very few of us have actually delved into the Vedas, the Puranas, the Upanishads, and the two major epics in such detail as Doniger has, and the insights she presents from a lifetime of study are quite interesting and revealing, and helpful in constructing a unified synthesis of Hinduism from these diverse sources. But then, I am the kind of person who is capable of ignoring things that I consider as far-fetched or unnecessary and pick out what I like in a book; others may not be so easygoing.

A Need for Cultural Sensitivity – and Open-Mindedness

So Hindus, in their rage, are throwing out the baby with the bathwater; but in fairness, if Doniger had only shown a little sensitivity, none of this need have happened.  Accounts from people who have read the book corroborate this – that they started reading it, encountered these offensive sections at the very beginning – the reference to the Oedipus complex occurs fairly early on, for instance – and then get so offended that they completely disregard the rest of the book, regardless of its merits.

Some may accuse me of endorsing self-censorship, but that would be an immature response, and an impractical one at that.  As I said in my previous article, the right to free speech in India is not an absolute one, and if one can make a reasonable case that what someone has written hurts the sentiments of followers of a religion, it may be all the ammunition needed to ban the book or put pressure on the publisher, as in this case.  Until such time as section 295A of the IPC is removed, such abundant caution as I suggest here has to be exercised.  Merely informing Hindus of what their epics contain, and helping them understand the details of their ancient and complicated religion, on the other hand, cannot in any court be deemed to be deliberately offensive.  Had Doniger stuck to just that, she would have been hailed unanimously as a person who helped Hindus understand their religion better, instead of being accused as a Hindu-baiter.  It is even possible that instances like the Oedipus complex are very few and far apart in the book; most of what I saw as I flipped through the pages was highly revealing and interesting.

Hindu society, for its part, needs to educate itself better about its own epics and scriptures, and realize there is more to them than the flashy, packaged versions of the epics that they see on prime-time TV.  Reading the work of important academics (whether Indian or otherwise) provides Indians with the necessary perspective to appreciate their own religion in the completeness that is essential to prevent prejudice and closed-mindedness.


The Brouhaha Around the Pulping of Wendy Doniger’s Book


The Brouhaha Around the Pulping of Wendy Doniger’s Book

Written by Dr. Seshadri Kumar 

16 February, 2014

Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.

For other articles by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, please visit http://www.leftbrainwave.com

Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.

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Background

Wendy Doniger, a professor of religion at the University of Chicago, wrote a book in 2009, titled “The Hindus: An Alternative History” that became quite popular as a textbook in US universities that taught Hinduism.  Many Hindus took exception to some of the content in the book, accusing it of sexualizing Hindu mythological references in a manner that was offensive to them (e.g., an Oedipus complex analysis of Ganesha’s relationship with his father Shiva).  There was a court case in India, which ended in an out-of-court settlement whereby Penguin, the publisher of Doniger’s book, agreed to remove all copies of the book from circulation and pulp them.

Reaction


Analysis

All of these reactions are overblown hyperbole and just plain nonsense.  Why?  Here are the facts.

1.       This is NOT a book ban.  Book bans are carried out by the state.  The state did not intervene in this case.
2.      There is a law in India: section 295A in the Indian Penal Code, 1860, that reads, “Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs.-- Whoever, with deliberate and malicious intention of outraging the religious feelings of any class of 6 [citizens of India], 7 [by words, either spoken or written, or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise] insults or attempts to insult the religion or the religious beliefs of that class, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to 8 [three years], or with fine, or with both.”
3.      The language of section 295A is ambiguous, and allows people to sue anyone who offends, willingly or not, their religious beliefs by writing or speaking publicly about them.  But this was not a law created by the Hindu right, or even in independent India.  It was a British law, created to protect Islam from any Hindu writing derogatory things about it.  All that has happened in this instance was that people have used this intolerant law on the books in India to prosecute something that offended them.
4.      A Hindu religious group believed that Doniger’s book was insulting to Hinduism and so filed a lawsuit against Penguin under section 295A of the IPC.  After fighting the case in court for some time, Penguin thought it better to settle the case, for reasons known only to them.
5.      So, in summary, there was a law that provided relief to those who felt their religious sentiments were hurt by a book; a party that felt its sentiments were hurt filed a legal case; and the defendant settled out of court.  There is nothing illegal in this.  This is not similar to a case like that of James Laine, who wrote a biography of Shivaji that was violently opposed by the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra, leading to the ban of the book after much rioting.  In the present case there was no violence; the state never got involved; and the legal process was duly followed.
6.      If Hindus displayed intolerance to Wendy Doniger’s writing, they did so within their legal right.  I am not going to discuss here whether or not what Doniger wrote was offensive.  That is beside the point here.  What is relevant is that the law in India gives legal recourse to anyone who feels their religious sentiments are hurt.  To say that Hindus should NOT avail of such a law is to DENY them the legal recourse provided by Indian law, and is unfair.  Keep in mind that section 295A is equally applicable to Muslims or Christians who feel that their sentiments are hurt by a book or speech.
7.      One cannot conclude anything negatively about the Indian courts and judiciary from this case either.  Penguin could have waited for the court to rule whether or not the learned judges found that there was something offensive in the book to Hinduism or not and, more importantly, whether the offense was “deliberate and malicious.”  Why they did not is not clear; but the statement they released suggested that they believed that the law on the books was ambiguous enough that they could not hope to win the case.

Conclusion

The real culprit in this case is the presence of section 295A in the IPC of 1860 that is still being used today.  The presence of this law serves to remind us that in India, the freedom of speech is not absolute.  I am no fan of book bans and personally believe that if a book offends you, don’t read it.  But section 295A is a reality, and the plaintiffs in this case merely asked for relief under the existing laws.

If Siddharth Varadarajan or Arundhati Roy are truly outraged about what happened, they should expend their energies, not on the dramatics they are indulging in, but in trying to get the offensive law from 1860 amended so that freedom of speech is truly allowed in India.  As long as section 295A is on the books, true freedom of speech will not exist in India in matters of religion.  It is silly and futile to argue that a law should remain on the books, but no one should avail of its protections.  It is something like saying that people should not avail of a tax exemption provided under the tax code.  If a particular tax exemption unfairly favours a particular group, the correct recourse would be to lobby to correct the apparent injustice, viz., change the law, not get angry at those who use the tax exemption.  And that’s how we should react here as well.  Doniger herself has recognized this.

So here is what I propose.  I do not like section 295A, and would like to participate in a movement to remove the section from the Indian Penal Code.  I hope Siddharth Varadarajan and Arundhati Roy will use their celebrity status to lead this movement.  But I seriously doubt this movement will succeed, even if Varadarajan and Roy agree to lead it – not only because of Hindu fundamentalists, but equally because of Muslim and Christian fundamentalists, who have also conveniently used this law to oppress (and sometimes ban) books they didn’t like.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

The Voice of a Real Aam Aadmi (Common Man) of India

The Voice of a Real Aam Aadmi (Common Man) of India

A First-Person Interview in a Mumbai Taxi

Reported by Dr. Seshadri Kumar 

13 February, 2014

Copyright © Dr. Seshadri Kumar.  All Rights Reserved.

For other articles by Dr. Seshadri Kumar, please visit http://www.leftbrainwave.com

Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of Dr. Seshadri Kumar alone and should not be construed to mean the opinions of any other person or organization, unless explicitly stated otherwise in the article.

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Abstract

This is an account of an interview, the audio recording of most of which I have already posted on youtube, which I personally conducted with a common man, an “aam aadmi” of India - a person hailing from the Hindi heartland - a village in Uttar Pradesh. 

What I learned from this interview stunned me – that the common man of rural India today is nothing like what he is imagined to be by the mainstream press and by the national parties.  Instead of being an ignorant beggar who has his arms outstretched for government handouts, the aam aadmi of today in India is a confident, assertive person who simply wants the shackles on his freedom removed – a man who favors a free-market system instead of the freebie system that has been institutionalized in India.

The audio can be heard here.  

Introduction

In December 2013, I had the opportunity to take one of those A/C cab services that are ubiquitous in major cities in India today.  In Mumbai there are several – Easy Cab, Mega Cabs, Meru, and the like.  I usually like to chat with taxi drivers when I go on these rides, especially if it is a long journey.  This time I had the bright idea of recording the conversation.  When we reached my destination, I told the driver I had been recording it, and asked him if he would terribly mind if I shared it publicly.  He happily gave his assent and said people should hear the voice of a common man.  And so I am sharing this interview I had with a real Aam Aadmi.  He happens to be a Muslim from Uttar Pradesh (UP) who works as a taxi driver in Mumbai. 

I found my subject to be extremely intelligent, highly aware of the issues surrounding him, and a very competent decision-maker.  I found our conversation to be very illuminating, illustrating what the Aam Aadmi of this country actually wants.  He does not, as most political parties today assume, want free food, free education, etc.  He just wants freedom to earn his living and earn his bread on his own merit.  And he trusts no politician. 

There are those who will claim that this one sample does not represent what all rural or urban Indians actually want.  While I agree with such an assessment, and make no claims that this is an exhaustive, scientific study, I still think this individual will give us all an idea of what the real India wants – specifically because my interview subject is from the minority community in India – the community that is so specifically targeted by many government policies.  My subject was also not rich – he made his living as a taxi driver in Mumbai and came from a fairly poor background in his village in UP. 

It should be, therefore, quite educative for people interested in Indian politics to understand what this gentleman from a minority community – whom I had never met before (or after), and who had nothing to gain from me by lying (he did not even know that I was recording this interview until it was over) – had to say about the state of the country and what his aspirations and the aspirations of his fellow-men and women are.

Narendra Modi and Muslims

My interview was on the day that Narendra Modi had his mega-rally in the Bandra-Kurla complex – December 22, 2013.  Since my interviewee was a taxi driver, I asked him what traffic disruptions he had witnessed.  And so began our conversation.

He said that there were about 700 buses that had been pressed into service to ferry the people who wanted to attend the rally from various train stations to the venue.  He also told me that the party had organized food packets for tens of thousands of people – each consisting of a samosas and other eats.  He then asked me “what is the point of this massive expenditure?”  He said, wouldn’t it make sense if the huge money spent on this rally was used to help poor people?

This was getting interesting, so I asked him: “What do you think of Narendra Modi?”

He said, “Sir, what is there to think about?”

I replied, “Well, the Congress government says that Modi is responsible for the 2002 riots, and that if the BJP is elected and he is made PM, he will engineer more riots against Muslims.”

He replied, “Sir, look, as far as instigating riots goes, it is never one man.  There are so many people in this country who are guilty of instigating riots, who will you put in jail?  Also, I don’t believe that if Modi comes to power, he will incite violence against Muslims.  I believe he will make sure no such thing happens on his watch.”

I then asked him, wondering if this might be the “new Muslim voter” the BJP is looking for, “So do you believe that the BJP might improve things for the common man?”

He surprised me by saying, “No sir, I don’t believe they will.  Nor do I believe that the Congress will improve our lot, nor for that matter any other party.”

“So you have no faith in any political party?” I asked him.

“No sir, I don’t.”

“What about the Aam Aadmi Party?” I pressed on.

“They too are worthless, sir. Sab bakwas hai.  Sab ek jaise hain.” (transl.: They are all the same, just talk the same nonsense.)

At this point I decided this guy was very interesting and I hit upon the idea of recording the conversation on my iPod.  I did ask him before I disembarked if he was okay with it, and he was fine.  You can see the recorded parts of the conversation here.

I reproduce most of the conversation below as a translation from the Hindi.  I have grouped our conversation into topics, but that’s not exactly how the conversation went, as you can hear from the audio.  I quizzed him on various topics of contemporary interest – and recorded his answers.  I have grouped them into headings for ease of navigation.

Here are the views of this Aam Aadmi on all these topics – in his own words.

MNREGA (Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme)

“The MNREGA scheme is full of corruption.  It happens this way: People work in this program for a few months – 4 months, 6 months.  But how seriously the work is done is not examined.  A little mud is removed, and walls are built on the sides with mud, and they proclaim that a lake has been constructed.  And then when the rains come, the mud walls will dissolve, and no one will know there ever was a lake there.  It is completely worthless.”

“Very few people in the villages enrol in MNREGA. Why?  Because you get Rs. 120 a day for participating in it.  If you work elsewhere, you will get Rs. 250.  If you can get Rs. 250, why would you go for Rs. 120?  Why would you join MNREGA?”

BPL Cards for Food

“You know what happens in UP in these government schemes?  There are educated people who earn Rs. 1 lakh or Rs. 1.5 lakh salary and possess below poverty line (BPL) cards, and do you know what they do with the food they get from these cards?  They feed the food to their animals!”

Housing Subsidies

“There is this government scheme to provide the poor with housing ... they supposedly give a poor family Rs. 20,000 or Rs. 25,000 to help him build a small hutment.  The person who needs it doesn’t get it, and the person who lives in a palace grabs it and uses the money to build a stable for his animals.”

Government and Private Schools

“There are plenty of private schools in my village.  I myself have studied in private schools.  Nobody goes to the government schools in our village if they can help it; except the hopelessly poor, all those who can afford it prefer the private schools.  That’s because villagers want good education for their kids.”

“Why don’t we go to government schools?  Well, the government schools give you everything – they give you food (midday meals), uniforms, books, all for free – they even pay you to attend them – but they don’t provide the most important thing that a school should provide – knowledge!  They don’t teach in government schools.  And that’s why village folk don’t go to the government schools.  In fact, for 5 teachers in a government school, you won’t find 50 students in all for them to teach.”

“And this is in spite of the fact that government school teachers earn so much more than private school teachers.  A government school teacher may make Rs. 45,000 to Rs. 50,000 per month, whereas a private school teacher makes only Rs. 3000 to Rs. 5000 per month.  So why do they teach in these private schools at that salary while the govt. school teachers do not teach?”

“I’ll tell you – because there’s no need for them to teach!  There is no accountability!  They government pays them anyway, right?  They come in the morning, sign the register, hang around for a little while, and then go home.  The ones who teach primary classes don’t know anything at all.  Many do not even teach English.  If you do the same in a private school, then in a couple of months, the parents will pull their kids out of your school, saying your teachers do not know anything.”

“They should get rid of all these government schools – privatize all of them.”

“You ask me if inspectors check these things – tell me, who will check?  The inspectors are related to the teachers or are their friends.  There is nepotism everywhere.  And if there is the odd person out who wants to be honest, he will be transferred either to another place or out of this world.”

“Earlier people were chosen on merit for jobs.  Nowadays you sit at home, someone else writes the exam for you and you pass it by paying money – and you get the job.”

“We only send our kids to English private schools.  Nowadays, even in villages, good schools like Dolphin schools are present.  They are good schools, but they do not ask much in fees --- it’s not much, but still it’s significant for a villager: Rs. 300 or 400 a month, but we don’t mind paying that.”

Government Hospitals and Private Hospitals

“Now look at doctors.  Any doctor needs a BMC certificate to practise (so technically they are all qualified doctors.)”

“But look at doctors in government hospitals.  Aren’t they doctors?  If you go to a government hospital, you’d think they don’t know anything – their service is so poor.  But you see them in their own clinics, and then they are quite willing to practice medicine after taking Rs. 200 or Rs. 250!”

“The only people who go to government hospitals are those who have no option.  Those who can afford it, go to private hospitals because the care is better.”

Political Parties in UP and the Political Process

“All the political parties in my state are thieves.  Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party – all of them.  I’ll tell you about the BSP.  That is a completely worthless party.  She (Mayawati) has no child, what’s she going to do with that much money?  Why the hell does she have to spend so much on her birthday?  Do something that will benefit some people, even after you are gone, so people remember you for something good.”

“You ask about caste.  Yes, unfortunately a lot of people still do vote on caste lines, though they should use their brain, think carefully, and not do such things.  They just sell themselves.”

“You ask me if Kumar Vishwas of the AAP can defeat Rahul Gandhi.  I say: why not?  People will treat politicians like they treat old clothes.  Maybe it is time to wear a new shirt?  What have they (the Gandhis) done for UP?  If they were to provide electricity, then some factories could propser.”

“Now think about this: if you set up a factory – will that not provide employment to 5000 or 10000 people?  And it isn’t just the people who work in those factories – someone will sell tea, someone will do some other service, and that’s how it works.”

“Elections are very expensive.  Think of this: if there is an election in 5 years, the country goes backward one year, because of the expenditure involved.  That’s where all the money in politics is.”

“Now think of this man, Narendra Modi.  He used to sell tea.  Where did he get all this money from for today’s rally to burn?  It is the public’s money, right?”

“Think of Kripashankar, also from our state.  He used to sell milk.  His sister’s home is 3 kms from our home.  Where did he get all this money?”

“There is too much unemployment in UP.  In UP, there are 8000 vacancies for watchmen, 80,000 police officer jobs are vacant.  Why doesn’t the state government do anything about it?”

Food Security Bill

“Sir, they won’t give you any free food.  You saw what they did with the LPG cylinders. First they say we will give you only 6 subsidized cylinders; then, under pressure from the public, they raised it to 9.  Where will they give it from?”

“Sir, 90% of Indians are poor.  No one cares about the really poor.”

“They will give a pittance here and there and say they are giving us free this and free that...but you know what?  I say, don’t give us anything free!  We have hands and feet, we can earn our own bread.  Give us that (jobs) by which we can earn our own money!”

Other Thoughts

“Now you know they say that today everything is cheap and made in China?  I say it is not good, it is bad for us.”

“You remember, in the old days, in the rain, everyone used to wear Bata shoes.  Now everyone wears Chinese shoes because it is cheap.  Yes, it is cheap, but your jobs are going away!”

“People buy and throw things these days.  In the old days, you wore a watch all your life.  Nowadays you buy a thing for a couple thousand rupees, and there are no guarantees – they even post it on the shop, much as you would post a sign, “beware of dogs.”

“Am I unique in the way I think?  No, I don’t think so.  I think many people think like me.”

“But you see, it’s like this.  If you ask them, 'is this wrong?' most will agree and say this is wrong.  But if you put them in the position of power, they too will do the same thing.  They are not Gandhiji.  If things are going waste, they will say let it, it’s not ours, it is government money.”

“Times have changed a lot.”

My Concluding Thoughts

Our interview ended when we reached my home, but I was stunned and elated on what I had learned that day.  Let me summarize my observations on the interview.

1.      The Aam Aadmi is not someone who can be fooled or bought by freebies, the way the Congress, the BJP, and the AAP are trying to do.  I was absolutely stunned by what the driver told me: “I say, don’t give us anything free – we have hands and feet – we can earn our own bread!”  I think parties in our country had better wake up and smell the coffee.
2.      If this driver is representative of the people in our country, then hopefully the evil effects of the socialist system that were imposed on India by misguided intellectuals like Nehru since 1947 will finally end.  That this person is no fan of state socialist policies was clear from his reaction to government schools, government hospitals, the food security bill, MNREGA, food and housing subsidies.  In every instance he thought the subsidy schemes were worthless, not based on some textbook argument of why capitalism is better than socialism, but on raw experience.  He had seen firsthand that socialism did not work for him and was rejecting it.
3.      The first (and obvious) conclusion from this is that if the Congress Party has been (as it clearly has been) counting on the various subsidy schemes that it has rolled out, including the Right to Education Bill (Government Schools), Food Security Bill (Free Food), MNREGA (Rural Employment Guarantee) to win over the rural poor, they have massively miscalculated.  The poor in the villages are not impressed.  The driver’s comments on the condition of government schools is a scathing indictment of the UPA government’s flagship scheme, the Right to Education (RTE) act.
4.      Even more significant than the fact that the villagers are unimpressed is the reason why they are unimpressed: the realization that these ideas SIMPLY DO NOT WORK.
5.      Why that realization is so stunning is that in debate after debate on TV channels like Times Now, NDTV, CNN-IBN, and the like, you have so many commentators who defend these freebie schemes as what the poor really need.  These commentators like to attack those who criticize the government socialist schemes as elitist and paint themselves as advocates of the poor.  Not only are the politicians totally out of touch with what works and what poor people need, even the so-called social and economic experts, people like the well-known Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen and his followers, who make a living out of acting like champions for the poor (who never asked for a champion), HAVE BEEN DEAD WRONG.  Mr. Sen may write a big book with Mr. Jean Dreze, and get many people to praise it for his “humanity,” but clearly he understands NOTHING of the way things REALLY WORK in India’s villages.
6.      This should also be a wake-up call to the BJP, most of whose leaders still seem to believe (with the notable exception of Narendra Modi, who has been the only BJP politician to chant the capitalist ideal) in the idea of the Mai-baap government, and many of whose leaders have publicly said that they will continue the UPA’s disastrous subsidy schemes.  One can only hope that these pronouncements are cynical and that the BJP is saying them only to win the elections – but the ground reality in BJP-run states like Chattisgarh, where 90% of the population is covered by a food subsidy, suggests otherwise.
7.      What I heard this Aam Aadmi, this Common Man of India, say to me is: “We’ve had enough of socialism.  Free our shackles so that we can have a free-market system.”  And in cases where they have been able to do it themselves (like having private schools in villages), they have done so without waiting for someone to do it for them.
8.     Politicians in our country have been underestimating Indian voters for decades.  It is about time they stopped doing so and started developing a mature relationship with them.