Archive for May 2009


The Roadblock to India’s “Tryst with Destiny,” Part 2 of 2

May 18th, 2009 — 5:36pm

I held off on completing this post – a direct follow-on to my last one – until the Indian elections ended. The 700 million strong electorate returned to power the current Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, with a stronger plurality of votes than anyone has obtained in a long time. This means India should have a stable, reformist government for the next few years, led by a technocrat with integrity.

One reform that won’t be on Dr. Singh’s radar is the dismantling of the “Iron Triangle.” It won’t be because it is important, but in the face of many, many other issues, not urgent. Yet, it is this Iron Triangle which keeps more people like Dr. Singh from wielding power and driving change that will benefit the country at large.

The “pervasive mindset effect” of the Iron Triangle initiates this problem. I had just completed my eight standard (grade) when my father called me back from the playground. Did I want to be an engineer or a doctor? I chose the former to avoid dissecting cockroaches (an 8th grade requirement). My friends, all good students, had similar conversations. Only one smart kid among the 220 boys in my class opted out of the sciences; today he is a well known Indian author and journalist. Years later, at the premier Birla Institute of Technology and Science, a computer took on my father’s role: it directed students with high Grade Point Averages to engineering or science, those with moderate GPAs into management; and those with low GPAs into English or economics.

Mahatma Gandhi decision to involve college students in India’s freedom struggle reinforces the problem. Unlike the “Young Republicans” or “Young Democrats” chapters on US campuses, Indian National Congress-affiliated students took to the streets, demonstrated, and went to prison. After independence, every political party set up student chapters and extended their battles into campuses. Students who aspired to be scientists, doctors and engineers typically did not join; they had too much work. But those who cared little for an education did so. They organized strikes that shut down the universities regularly. Because strikes showed a person’s ability to organize people, these people were welcomed by the political parties.

The rigidity of the educational system exacerbates the problem. For example, the famed Indian Institutes of Technology do not admit anyone older than 25 for their bachelor’s programs. The premier Indian Institutes of Management do not (they used to in my youth), but their heavy focus on academic qualifications assures that most entrants lack significant real world experience. Few mid-career Indian professionals can emulate US General David Patraeus, who took a leave of absence to do a Ph.D. at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government; his thesis on successful fighting of insurgencies (seemingly!) helped turn the tide in Iraq. Multitudes of such ridiculous restrictions create a system which pigeon-holes people in professions which do not interest them and for which they have little aptitude or passion.

The consequences of this Iron Triangle are the range of problems other observers blame for holding India back. The best of the best in my generation left the country; the best of the best in today’s generation by and large, eschew the difficult and essential task of nation-building. In the US, some successful executives move – at least for a few years – into senior government positions; though this practice is not without its problems, these pale into insignificance when compared opportunities lost because of the lack of such movements in India. Sure, half a dozen people have made such jumps and have helped the country, but they are exceptions, not the rule.

A reformist government would reform higher education in order to demolish the Iron Triangle. Reducing rigidity will be simplest, though it will require vision. For example, the curriculum at IIT Madras trains students more rigorously in engineering than MIT or CalTech do, but gives them little chance to learn about life – or ironically, how society affects technology. Will someone replace a few science and engineering courses with music, art and poetry?

Changing the science-focused mindset will be harder and require even greater vision. In the 1970s, it made sense for my father to limit my choices. Today India needs to make the Liberal Arts an area of study that will attract the best and the brightest. (Good news: IIT-M has recently begun an Arts program.) It must create Schools of Law on the model of the IITs, IIMs and the premier private universities (like BITS).

De-politicizing the universities will be hardest, but essential. The government might have to figure out how to ban political activity (as opposed to studying political science) on campuses. This recommendation is greatly at odds with my liberal view of life, but how else can India stop the least deserving from becoming the most powerful?

The good news is that Indians are stepping up to the plate. Infosys Co-Chairman Nadan Nilekani recently publicly asked the new government to reform education. Two successful business people – ABN AMRO Bank CEO Meera Sanyal and an IIM-Ahmedabad graduate and entrepreneur Sarath Babu – were candidates in the recent election. All three’s views of what needs changing may differ sharply from mine, but that’s immaterial. What is material is that people to whom education mattered are turning their attention to the body politic. If you don’t think their efforts are important, simply consider this: how long would India’s recent rapid growth as a business powerhouse last if an ill-educated politician successfully managed to eliminate English from its premier universities?

3 comments » | Business Environment, Politics

The Roadblock to India’s “Tryst with Destiny,” Part 1 of 2

May 8th, 2009 — 2:02pm

Last week, I was at the Judge Business School of Cambridge University. This year, Cambridge is celebrating its 800th anniversary. It is astounding that an institution not tightly bound by religion has thrived this long, much of that time as a leading center of human thought. There is hope for humanity yet!

I took the time to chat with Navi Radjou, a former colleague at Forrester, and the first Executive Director of the Center for India and Global Business. Recently created in part with a grant from the Indian Government, the Center pays homage to Jawahar Lal Nehru, an architect of Indian freedom and its first Prime Minister; Nehru had studied at Cambridge in his youth. On a recent trip to India on behalf of the Center, Navi met business people, politicians, film makers and ordinary people. He described fascinating examples of business and social innovation, some of which truly have the power to change the flow of life even in other parts of the world. I will not steal the Center’s thunder and describe any of these here; suffice it to say that this Fall, PBS will be airing a series of documentaries on some of these innovations (created by filmmaker Khursheed Khurody) and the Center will do some supporting work on the series.

With all the good happening there, it might seem churlish to some for me to keep the promise I made in my last post and bring up India’s Achilles Heel. But the country must address this and soon. So, I will go on.

India’s Achilles Heel is not the limits to the numbers of engineering students it can train; while the world focuses on the Indian Institutes of Technology, most engineers trained by its many of the regional engineering colleges (e.g., Delhi College of Engineering) are highly skilled. It is not lack of basic essential infrastructure, which, without doubt, is way behind world class. It is not grinding poverty, accentuated by the still pervasive effects of caste, though that is terrible to behold. (Incidentally, caste is not just a Hindu problem; sadly, Catholics, Protestants, and Muslims – as well as adherents of several other religions – also espouse their caste status in issues of importance, like marriage.) It is not religious or caste battles; these, though ugly when they happen, are not as common as the Western press makes them out to be. It is not even the fact that some 20% of the current Members of Parliament have criminal records or outstanding criminal charges against them; this fact has received widespread coverage in the West now that 700+ million Indians are voting.

I could go on with this list of issues, which have all been raised by various observers of India, some friendly to the country, and some not. In reality, all these issues – and others like them – are derivatives of the core problem, which no one I know of has described. It is a self-reinforcing Iron Triangle made up of (1) a pervasive mindset that believes that smart people should – and must – study engineering or medicine; (2) a still rigid academic system that does not give most people second chances; and (3) Mahatma Gandhi’s greatest error: the politicizing of universities.

Demolishing this Iron Triangle is India’s biggest challenge; if it does so successfully, it will flourish and achieve what Prime Minister Nehru called its “tryst with destiny.” If does not, it will probably still be successful, but is likely to plateau at a level far below its potential.

In my next post, I will describe each of the legs of the Iron Triangle and how they interact. I will also offer some thoughts about what India could do.

1 comment » | Business Environment, Politics

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