Sunday, April 25, 2010

The monster of capitalism vs. the beast of socialism

A rather good discussion can at times be fodder to the brain and make the neurons fire. What can be more explosive than a talk amongst good friends discussing the relative merits of Capitalism versus Socialism (equated to Communism) as politico-economic models. Today's discussion took place in our usual 'Adda', my friend Vikas's apartment at HEC Paris.

The post-dinner talk on the dying debate between Capitalism and Communism ventured soon into an interesting territory. Communism or/and Socialism doesn’t stand much of a chance when participants in the discussion are students of an elite MBA Management School- where the best ways to succeed in a capitalist model are taught and the capitalist system itself idolised. However, there were (un)welcome differences of opinion and at times heated defence of the stands taken.

Here I try to sum up the grand theses explored in the hot discussion.

The principle merit of capitalism is its stress on efficiency and its focus on aiding the aspirations of the individual to do his or her best. Of course, being a business school, "doing one’s best" would imply "making best profits and more money". But, it is this very space for individual experimentation and excellence, that capitalism provides, that leads to innovations, R&D, growth of science & technology etc. Undoubtedly, Capitalism is an excellent tool that allows the individual to aspire for the best and perform better in the shadow of free and fair competition.

The above merits seem brighter when compared with the pitfalls presented by a dumped socialist model. Socialism is about shared responsibility i.e. government control, lack of accountability, nurturance of the weak, lack of competition, wastefulness and inefficiency. We all know how the communist bloc dissipated overnight to announce the paramountcy of the Capitalism. But is the situation so simplistic? Is it such a clear divide as black and white? Of course not. Surely not amongst the discussion participants, who were all intellectually bright and objective (with some hints of emotional rigidities at times).

So it is important to look at the demerits of the all pervasive capitalist model..so dominant in the teaching at all b-schools, admired and pampered by the leading politico-economic thinkers, world leaders and those who have benefited from this system. Also, has the world got at least something to learn from the Socialistic model? Perhaps yes. A good reason why so many governments across the world, today, have a socialistic tinge to their policies.

A capitalistic or a communist model is just a tool to operate the social-political-economic system in a nation state or the world. A tool however has to have a purpose and goal.

Howsoever efficient may have been the tool of capitalism, its success has to be judged in light of a normative construct. So if a system allows individual freedom to express, experiment, make riches etc, does it also serve certain norms & goals? Simply speaking does it lead us anywhere? Capitalism solely for the sake of growth and freedom could be dangerous, if it lacks a defined direction.

Individual pursuit of excellence and the successes judged solely at the alter of "money is honey" principle, should not violate basic goals with which entire humanity concurs. Capitalism for example cannot be allowed to pollute the earth in an unabashed manner; howsoever it may be a result of individual aspiration to excel or to maximise profits. We have to ask the fundamental question- why have we allowed a capitalist system based upon individual aspirations? What are the goals and the ends we seek that should weigh over individual pursuits?

The larger aspirational goals should include respect, basic amenities and dignity for each individual (even those who lose out in the race of capitalism), right to live and to exist on a sustainable planet and to achieve greater welfare of the masses. No one can doubt that a tool (in this case capitalism with sole focus on the individual), with all its finesse and efficiency, has been able to pollute the planet to dangerous levels in less than a century, accelerated the gap between the rich and poor (social, economic and political gap) and has pursued growth without questioning its relevance and direction. It is here Communism/Socialism could provide some inputs.

A normative construct has to define the blackboard on which alone capitalism or any other tool should be allowed to draw a picture. France is an excellent example of a country trying to balance the capitalism's boon of individual excellence with the socialistic notions of welfare. Thus provision of excellent education to all children and a well functioning public health system goes hand in hand with a market based economic system that promotes corporate and individual excellence. Other governments elsewhere, including India too have tried to balance and control the market system with normative welfare goals having socialistic roots.

We humans, would hopefully soon realise, that in the end the individual pursuit cannot be allowed at the expense of ridiculing our collective responsibility towards human race and life on the planet. Socialism and Capitalism held together parallel the paradigm of the soul and the body. The balance between the two would define the future of our civilization.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Thank You HEC!!

I am sitting in my room in the residential block in the HEC Paris campus and looking out from the wide glass window. I can see the beautiful clear sky and savouring the spring which has slowly set in. It’s a wonderful day, a day I am wondering about my time at HEC and what I got from here.

I had come to HEC in August of 2008, after serving 7 years in the Indian Government in the elite Civil Services. I had worked in important Ministries and rubbed shoulders with the best of brains and the most powerful of men & women who run the Civil Administration in my great country. I wasn't sure what new I would learn at this great and iconic French institution but it wasn't long before the mystery unfolded with its bright colors.

16 months of rigourous classes, lectures from globally renowned Professors and Managers, a great work project with UN, a study trip to Senegal, some mind-blowing parties and hundreds of academic cases will remain etched in my memory for the sheer experience, delight and learning.

But HEC was more than just its classroom learning and projects. It was about a hard daily reality, a global setting and an insurmountable heterogeneity with mates from over 50 nations, compelling me to look at my knowledge, my self-identity and my life in a new way.

I arrived on the beautiful green HEC campus in August 2008 with my lovely wife with whom I had exchanged the marriage vows couple of months back. Anubhuti had studied in the UK and was more aware of the challenges that were possible in a foreign land.

We had some tough initial months as our intense search for an affordable accommodation, could only lead us to a smallest possible room outside the campus. I had to manage the early classes after a 30 minute walk from home to the nearest train station, got a 10 minute rest during the train journey, followed by another 20 minutes of walk to reach the HEC campus. The classes started sharp at 8 AM and the temperature outside was something I had never experienced before. After a long day of classes and group work, I repeated the same journey regimen and reached home to join my wife who spent her day in a never experienced solitude. This wasn't the life she had dreamt of after marriage but she was always resolute in her resolve to back me to the hilt. Things improved when we bought a Car in some time though my application for an accommodation at the campus bore fruit only in February 2009.

The residential life on campus was the most blissful thing for both of us. I never imagined that a 20 square feet room could bring so much happiness to us. It meant constant company & socialisation in the hostel, participation in various parties and get togethers, freedom from early morning alarm and much more. Small things in life are so important..life was teaching me a lesson.

In the two years at HEC, I was exposed to friends and acquaintances from over 50 countries. Such was the heterogeneity in the class that no teacher was required to learn about the world we live in. My world was different from the world of others and my eyes learnt to respect and appreciate this difference. The typical ethnocentric perceptions and stereotypes about self and others were challenged by the more objective appreciation and information that emerged from vivid interactions with my colleagues from other cultures.

I realised that the Americans too can be intelligent and humble, Japanese can laugh and smile, Brazilians can be cool headed, the French can work hard and Indians too could make mistakes. The common elements that unite all humans were evident in the shared concerns we had for each other and for the important happenings around us all. There were also differences but I learnt to accept and enjoy the same as never before. After all at HEC, I got initiated to the numerous worlds in our world for the first time.

Now that I am about to end my HEC journey and expect to get my well earned MBA degree in June 2010, I find myself a somewhat changed man. There is a difference in the Nimish who arrived on the Campus in 2008 and one who shall soon leave it. HEC has made me a global citizen with friends across the world. It has imbibed in me an unwavering spirit of possibility and confidence. The demanding class schedule and curriculum coupled with the experience of managing life as a student in a different country, the social exchanges with my colleagues, the intellectual debates, and the numerous triumphs and failures...all together have made me surer of my capabilities and strengths. I have firmer belief that I could succeed in any geography, task and any social situation.

The time at HEC was also an opportunity to strengthen my bond with my wife who was a willing partner in my dreams and struggles.(HEC also made me a decent cook..which helps). Also, it was while at HEC that my parents visited me. My father had studied at the Bath University(UK) and was relating things at HEC to his own experience. He really loved the greenery- sight of the tall trees from the room window- and the pollution free environs of HEC and France. We travelled a bit like driving to La Rochelle and they travelled extensively in Paris courtesy SNCF. Later, my elder brother visited HEC with his family and it was fun to have his kids (Siya and Arush) around. My family thus was part of my HEC experience in spirit and in deed.

To sum up what HEC gave me....HEC provided me the best possible yardstick on which I could sharpen my skills both as a professional manager as well as a discerning and sensitive human being. I am glad I chose HEC and made the right decision in 2008 to come out of my comfort zone to a zone of expanded horizon, possibility and knowledge. Thank You HEC!!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Well Done Abba

A movie was long due and Anubhuti, my better half, proposed the idea of a cinema getaway for the family. I was in Delhi for a short while taking a break from my MBA project in Paris and we had not gone out for a movie as a family for long.

Neer, my 4 month old son, was the reason for my initial reluctance to the idea, as he had the power to ensure that we don't sit in the dark space surrounded by loud noises, but must say that Anubhuti's instinct prevailed. So Neer, his parents, Anubhuti and I, and his grandparents (my parents) went for a late evening show of "Well Done Abba" on April 2nd 2010.

The movie began sharp at 2015 hrs and it immediately gripped us all (including Neer) with its excellent theme, narrative, direction and the brilliant acting by Boman Irani. The movie is a remark on the way the Government of the people, for the people and by the people works against the people.

Set out in a village in Andhra Pradesh, the movie's chief protagonist, Boman Irani, is a muslim who works as a driver in Mumbai. The story runs as a flash back in with Irani describing how he gets entangled in a series of Sarkari (read "redtape") procedures (read "corruption") since he dared to avail the rightful benefits of a government scheme meant to assist and fund the poor citizens to dig their own water wells (not oil wells). This he thought, would end the misery of the family whose members had to travel far off distance to get their water and also provided him a dream of irrigating some land for gainful agriculture.

The movie is unlike a lecture on morality and ethics and does not depict the horrors of governmental corruption in a typically grave and dark manner. Rather, it conveys the ghory impact of corruption on the lives of the poor in a rather subtle and humorous way. It also shows how the women empowerment initiatives in the village government structures - called Panchayats - (e.g. women have elected seats reserved for them) have been hijacked in a male dominated social setting. Also, the film does not end with the typical divine justice by punishing and hanging the corrupt officials and politicians...and thus whether we like it or don't - is closer to the reality of our times (in India). In doing so, however, the power of the film's message is not lost.

It shows how the poor victims of corruption can get their government (or rather the corrupt officials) to work for their well being. It shows the power of the democratic Right to Vote and the Right to Information Law that the Parliament of India enacted some years back. The story was enriched by the typical culture and mannerisms of a (hyderabadi) muslim family, the family story of twin brothers- a bad and good one, a subtle old world romance and few songs (which i thought were brilliant).

To sum up, it was worthy movie that made me wonder, whats the use of our own education and degrees, if we are not capable of helping our people in the villages and towns, learn about their rights and help to mobilise them for their right to have government deliver on its promises..not just on paper but in deed.

The movie's name, "Well done Abba", was fitting for the manner in which the chief protagonist fights for his rights, the subtle humor and of course Shyam Benegal's direction. I am sure my son Neer, was also saying to me "Well done Abba" for ensuring that this movie was his first ever.