Saturday, November 22, 2014

Indian Education: Revisiting The National Culture

If one has to go by the shelf space a writer gets, one of the most popular writers in India is Devdutt Pattanaik. A physician-turned-leadership consultant, he seemed to have caught the imagination of both the Indian Senior Executives as well as the aspiring young ones. A self-proclaimed mythologist, he is intent on discovering, and talking about, the Indian approach to leadership.

This has been done before. This is a well-healed American model, epitomised by, among others, Steven Covey, who recycled biblical wisdom into self-help advice. In Mr Pattanaik's work, which has somewhat taken off from his initially successful attempt in Business Sutra, the Indian mythology is intertwined with management wisdom to say some pretty obvious things. But, like Mr Covey and the likes of Robin Sharma, he says things well, and it is sticking.



Mr Pattanaik's success, I believe, is no fad, but rather a trend. This is because I see a number of people catching on to it. Mr Pattanaik is a prolific writer and he is indeed making the best of his popularity by writing on everything from Hindu Epics to Indian Calendar Art, but he also has lots of people jumping in the fray with their own mythological self-help books and management theories. It is no longer about a smartly written book - and indeed Mr Pattanaik primarily writes in English - but a widespread aspiration to find a model as something does not seem right. The senior managers who would have bragged about having received Franklin Covey certificates are now quietly burying them in the shelves behind Bhagwad Gita and copies of Mr Pattanaik's work, whereas the desperate souls of Franklin Covey franchisees are now having to tie up with Indian skills training providers to take their wisdom to the bottom of the pyramid market. Something has indeed changed!

That something is the emerging middle class we all love. One could say that the phase one of their evolution is now about over, and the conversation is turning, from EMI (equal monthly instalments, which was such a hot topic during India's consumer boom that an eponymous movie was made) to culture. Angela Merkel was so upset with India's winding down of the German language training programmes in many of its universities, and replacing it with Sanskrit, that she brought it up in G20 summit. But, indeed, this is rather irreversible.

I am not sure this is connected anyway with the ascendancy of the Hindu Nationalist party to power, but my feeling would be that this is natural self-assertion of a maturing middle class. So, if this is linked to BJP's rise, that is not a cause-and-effect relationship; both were symptoms of the same phenomena. This is that point when Indian businesses are thinking that something is not right, and the American models don't work very well in the local context; this is when Indian executives, including those fully exposed to the western thinking models and permanent residents of English language bubble, are thinking that they need better concepts than just hand-me-downs. And, Mr Pattanaik's popularity is just one of the many things that are changing in the conversation, even if that is the most prominent.

Personally, this may mean that the attractiveness of foreign education may actually reduce in India, and the Foreign Education Providers' Bill, as I long predicted, has no chance of passing. Indeed, there will always be students traveling to other countries to study, but a realignment of India's education will happen. In fact, it may be already underway, with brand new universities with world class ambition coming up, and quite a handful talking about reviving the gurukul tradition and classical training. So the days when the British counsellors coming to India used to get mobbed may be limited, which is partially because Britain has also been so unwelcoming to Indian students. 

Indeed, this is too optimistic and India's education system is still badly broken. However, I see a change: That there is a new-found social purpose of education and there is talk around it. The new talk is not in the old line of India being the largest English speaking country in the world (which it is not anymore, as the Chinese has overtaken it) but rather about it being a civilisation, and not merely a nation that was conceived at Independence. National culture is back - perhaps irreversibly - and the country is somewhat rejigging itself into greater alignment with some of its prouder Asian neighbours. 

India is, however, that country for which, whatever we say, the opposite will also be true: So don't bring up another anecdote proving me wrong, because I shall be able to find its opposite anecdote easily. I am not claiming India has changed based on airport bookshelves: All I claim is that in my personal conversations, I see a profound shift of attitude. And, I am not distressed about it: In fact, I welcome it. While I am no apologist for parochialism and going back in time, nor I particularly admire any national chauvinism, I believe India needs to start thinking for itself. And, while Mr Pattanaik may or may not be doing a good job (I did not read his books), it is time to have a conversation about what India really stands for (and it does stand for more things than just Hindu mythologies). We have lived in a bubble endowed by our colonial masters for far too long.

 

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