Monday, November 28, 2016

Transformation of Indian Higher Education: Noting The Signs of Change

For those who felt change is always slow and cumbersome in India, the recent move by the Indian government to annul the Rs. 500 and Rs 1000 notes overnight should be a clear sign that things have changed. Indeed, there are certain things which never change - the implementation was poor and thoughtless and the bewildering array of tinkering that came afterwards demonstrated the jugaad mentality - but Chinese-style decisive action may have now become politically fashionable.

This may give hope to those who thought India would open up its Higher Education sector eventually. There has been a bill, drafted and redrafted several times but never acted upon, to this effect dating back to 1990s. Various governments since then expressed its intention to make the Indian Higher Ed competitive globally, but in reality, had done the opposite. While India expanded its Higher Ed capacity significantly since 2006, creating a few thousand seats every day on average, the sector remained steadfastly parochial, corrupt and disconnected from global realities.

This is a tragedy if one considers the demographic and demand factors.

India hit a point of demographic advantage, with 2.1 million people turning 25 every single month in India. This made it the fastest growing Higher Education market in the world, with almost a quarter of the prospective students for college level education globally. Poor education made real the Confucian double threat: "Learning without thought is labour lost; thought without learning is dangerous."

Because of the demographic advantage, India is also poised to offer a quarter of world's new workers, about 25 million every year. And, yet, its very own IT service industries, caught in global recession, and threatened by increasing automation of what used to be called 'knowledge work', were poised to lose too many jobs. By some estimate, three-quarters of new service sector jobs in India, the ones that sustained the creation of the 'new middle class', are under threat of automation. And, while the talk is of 'moving up the value chain', the strengths that helped create the IT services industry - abundant pool of cheap manpower available for back office work - are precisely the weakness that prevents such a move.

The Indian students going abroad, given the rising aspirations and poor state of Indian Higher Education in general, is growing, though it was severely disrupted by the anti-immigration sentiments first in Australia (2007-8) and then in the UK (2011 onwards), two of three most popular destinations. However, despite this, the number of students travelling abroad for education is growing at almost 18% a year, and currently stands at 360,000 a year. Only China, with 700,000 students annually, has more students looking for global education (To put this in perspective, China's Higher Ed sector is nearly the double the size of India's in terms of number of students, the per capita income in China is about 5 times that of India and a number of foreign institutions have campuses or collaborative arrangements in China but almost nothing in India). 

While India set itself on a path to create an open global economy, starting with structural reforms more than two decades ago, its insistence on a closed Higher Education system, which has become out of step with the rest of the world and decidedly anti-innovation, is inexplicable. The only explanation why things are this way can perhaps be found in the lobbying power of the 'Education Barons', the large, mostly South Indian (but not exclusively) College groups that would go any lengths to keep the market to themselves. 

These groups were enormously powerful, not least because these colleges were effective licenses to print money. India, because of the demographic factors, is a sellers' market in education. It is also a market which combined excess demand with state regulation of fees that could be charged, resulting in a thriving black economy where the families would pay extortionate 'capitation fees' (or, once this was made illegal, some other form of payment) to send their children to college. The phenomena was well known and indeed the corruption was at all levels - a former Head of Indian Medical Council, which controls the Medical Schools across the country, was caught accepting a cash bribe from one of the colleges wanting to expand capacity - but these colleges controlled the politics through their money. Often, indeed, the college owners are the politicians, and vice versa. 

However, this may be finally changing. When the government annulled the high denomination notes, these colleges were among the most affected: The very fact that it could even be done indicates a political shift. One could speculate about a weakening of the private education business in India: The low employability (about 18% for Engineering graduates), competition from different states (private engineering colleges and universities are no longer a monopoly of South Indian states), the demographic shift within India (with North and East having younger population, and South Indian population gradually ageing) and the weakness of the Indian IT services industries may all have contributed to the position. 

The neglect of Higher Education has affected an entire generation of Indians, and the current government's mandate is, implicitly, to improve their lot. This may now happen. There are conversations in India about ring-fencing the profitable sectors, like Engineering and Medical Education, for domestic players, but allowing the Foreign Universities to offer courses in Basic Sciences and Liberal Arts. This may not be the ideal solution, but could be an important first step towards opening up an arcane and inward-looking system. There is also another idea, floated by the Indian Commerce Minister recently, about allowing Foreign Universities to open from Special Economic Zones, more like the UAE model (expect some 'Academic Cities'). This could work too, and there are some obvious candidate cities, like the upcoming city of Amravati, being built to become the capital of newly structured Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. The government's intention in transforming the education sector in general is evident in its efforts to get a new education bill passed (after a thirty year gap) and in breaking the monopoly of some professional organisations, like the Institute of Chartered Accountants of India (ICAI) or Indian Medical Council, on respective professional education areas. The current government, though socially conservative, is perhaps more aware than the previous ones about the middle class consensus that got it into office (and which can, in time, drive it out of it) and as a result, acutely keen on jobs and education that leads to jobs.

Overall, there is an opening - even if just a sliver of it right now - and a possibility of rapid transition of Indian Higher Ed sector. We have heard this before, but this time, it is more solid than it ever had been. The institutions in UK, which have more or less given up on India, because of the failed expectations, and Indian students, because of UK government's single-minded persecution of them, should now wake up and prepare to re-engage. And, indeed, they may need a different set of strategies than they used in the past: The usual institutional visits to Indian colleges, which had failed to yield any returns, intellectual or financial, now need to be abandoned. The Indian government is likely to depend on private initiatives to reform the Higher Ed sector, and it is likely that Indian companies and industrial groups would be the prime sponsors of the new projects involving foreign universities. This is a different kind of conversation, though not without precedent. But, this, a new institution-to-business conversation, may open up the world's most exciting Higher Education market for the UK universities, just as they ponder their options in the face of a sudden exit from European Union.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Reclaiming The Public Sphere

Coffee shop chains are cool, but are they?

That Starbucks, Costa and Pret are everywhere in the neighbourhood, offering us a standard experience - of space, coffee and everything - is signalling more than just coffee: This is about what we use public spaces for and how we use them. They are an instrument to create our identities.

Imagine the morning coffee, not just its smell but also standing in the long queues at or by the station. The act of standing there is being part of a civilisation, which, despite its currency, seems to have been going on forever. This is being part of the office crowd, being busy, being hard-working, being on the path of, if one is not already, successful. The carefully crafted and branded paper-cup, with the cap and the holder, all parts of being modern, a fragment of our daily, and perennial, experience.

But, more so, it is the sitting down experience, laptops everywhere, each table a small universe of start-ups and ideas, napkins specially drafted for business models, and also, some permanent residents that seem to live on specific tables all the time. If the acts of standing on queues were the membership of a work-bee universe, the afternoon congregation is a step-up, the celebration of new creation. 

These are great good places, a third sphere outside work and home, where connections and creations can happen. But they are, as I notice, strangely homogeneous, orderly and disconnected. In their branded format, they just bring work to the street level, arranging themselves in cubicles of imagination. Their claims of inclusiveness are reinforced by the exclusiveness of the claim, the branding defining the sphere and content of the imagination, the freedom delimited by the membership of a kind. The homeless, the refugee and the old, the tiresome people that dot our public spaces, fall away as we step inside, the strangely neat and curated free spaces of the coffee universe.

For me, the branded coffee shops represent one key conflict of contemporary life - that between the professional and the political. It is an encroachment of the industrial, orderly and urban into the sacred space of creative imagination, the limiting of cross-spectrum conversation to a branded monotony, and the march symbols of the commercial trampling the cooperative and congenial. They represent a model of exclusive-connective, a kind of social where speaking to the people on the next table is frowned upon or forbidden, a kind of fraternity where no-one should know no-one outside the context of the immediate. It is all that professional should be - arranged, temporal and unobtrusive, based on an abstract commitment of interest - and against the spontaneity, existential and engaged political commitment of value and self. 

These spaces shape the contemporary experience, however, not just through our daily routine, but in defining the language: Television studios organise Coffee with Celebrities and Political Leaders, abandoning their firesides, now Talk with Tea. The existence of them, everywhere, and the message, in everything, look to wean us away from what we inherently are - political. A lot indeed can happen over coffee, as a chain claims: The message, 'Be the change you wish to see in world', stands to mean personal advancement, only that.

The final point, therefore, a creative universe is not defined by its symptoms - coffee shops - but its content and experience. All those claims of flat white universe of the London Start-Ups is perhaps a bit premature, too fuelled by cheap capital and mindless valuations, too embedded in a privileged world-view aimed at cynical manipulation of third world aspirations. The true creative turn may start with reclaiming the public sphere, and the battle is perhaps with the make-believe universe with creativity that we got accustomed to.



Thursday, November 24, 2016

On India's Demonetisation

Lots of odd things happened in 2016, and I wrote about them, almost reluctantly, as they happened. And, yet, while I could not keep myself from commenting on Trump's victory, I refrained from commenting on India's 'demonetisation' move, in which the Government annulled 86% of India's currency by value, overnight. This event has more real and emotional significance to me than Trump's victory, and indeed I am in the middle of a very heated discussion, online and offline, on the issue. Yet, I chose not to comment, at least so far, because I was so divided on the issue. And, commenting now is not a pretencion of self-importance: I rather thought it was best to say how I really feel, rather than trying to project that I am indifferent (which I am not).

To start with, I should be happy because the government has made people to make sacrifices. Instead of the promised better days, the Prime Minister has called upon the middle class to be the soldiers of the ATM, which, at least so far, they have gladly responded to. This is in line with the global policy thinking about scaling back the cash economy - Kenneth Rogoff being the proponent in chief (see here) - and there may indeed be long term benefits of it. 

Besides, this will surely hit the friendly neighbourhood corruption and black money of the real estate economy, and while a lot of the assets would be hidden in Gold and London flats, the money will be drained out of circulation and reduce inflation in the near term. Or, at the least, that is one scenario.

However, I think its impact is too early to tell. While the decisiveness of the action may be commendable, its implementation, so far, has been lacklustre. If the government manages to restore normalcy in the promised 50 days, or by the end of the year, this shock therapy may yet work out. But, this looks increasingly unlikely, given the scale of the challenge and the chasm between the rhetoric and reality. A long drawn out process of adjustment may hit production, particularly agricultural production, which may have inflationary, rather than deflationary, effect on food prices. 

Given India's record of policy implementation, this is indeed a scary prospect. The human costs of the move are obvious, but this can spiral out of control and different scenarios, including famine and popular rebellion (memories of Mao's Great Leap Forward have already been invoked), are equally plausible.

True, invoking a doomsday scenario is bad politics - we have learnt that in the lead up to Brexit - but the opposition has a point that the poor has been asked to shoulder the costs of a painful adjustment. Consider, for example, a recent announcement when the very same people, who are so enthusiastically backing the demonetisation, were in near revolt: The proposal, not so long ago, that the government would tax Provident Fund withdrawals. This was a moral outrage, and all the necessary doomsday scenarios were invoked. The government, ever so sensitive to popular mood, immediately rolled back the move. I am not sure the Government has become any more decisive since then, nor the middle classes any more patriotic: Just that the people who will truly suffer here, apart from a few foolish real estate middlemen who kept money under the bed and were possibly funding the wrong political party, are not the ones the government cares about.

I know there is an Indian way of doing things. For example, Indian Masterchef format has one event where a team can remove an ingredient from the basket of another team and force them to improvise, something unthinkable in other Masterchef formats where cooking is considered an art and perfection is so overtly valued. And, Indians are rather proud of their Jugaad mentality. That the government has implemented the demonetisation so recklessly, on the assumption that people will somehow manage (and indeed, they are), is perhaps based on this world view. The point, however, is that this is the just the opposite of the psychological transformation that the government wants - the whole point of demonetisation may be the expansion of the organised economy and a new way of doing things - and this experience may tell a lot of Indians how little they can trust their government (and how little their government trusts them).

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The University As A Network

I wrote earlier about How To Build An University to argue that our current paradigms are flawed. My essential point was that the university, more than its buildings, curriculum and facilities, is a community, and this should be the key consideration for building an university. I wanted to add to this thought, how one may put the community at the heart of university-making, and think through some of the practical implications.

This argument that one may need to look at the University as a Community is old, and indeed, the first universities were conceived as communities more than anything else. This is also at the heart of a sophisticated business argument - Clayton Christensen and his coauthors argued for adopting an 'User Network Business Model' for the universities - and this did become a talking point when venture investment in education was raging. I did write about it then (See Education 2.0: Universities As User Networks , Universities As User Networks: An Update and The Architecture of Disruption: The University As User Network ) though my ideas changed over time. The limits of business imagination, that students are users, consumers who participate in a certain way, is perhaps limiting for universities. However, the essential idea of a network remains valid and this is one paradigm shift we need to afford in our thinking about the universities.

Essentially - and this is the crux of Christensen's argument - universities today are envisioned as a Value Chain, a process that transforms a new student into a scholar or a professional. The value resides in the process, which is made up of different things - curriculum, lectures, facilities, social life - and therefore, these take precedence in university making. The ritual of planning for an university creation starts with regulatory checklists, and then proceeds through steps to satisfy the regulators. Once the license is acquired, which somewhat guarantees the process is in place, the university focuses on two things - acquiring students (input) and enhancing academic prestige (process validation) - which drive allocation of budgets and all the thinking.

Network is a different architecture than the value chain. It is not linear, and its value resides in connections (or nodes) rather than the process. The network may actually do nothing other than connecting, and enabling the participants to create value through the connection. This is indeed the architecture of a telecom provider, or that of the Internet. 

It is difficult to see how the University could be a network, but that is essentially because we are stuck in a paradigm of value chain (that is what paradigms do, they obscure alternative possibilities). There are three essential shifts that one has to adjust to before one can start thinking of universities as networks. The first is that the students are not naive participants with empty heads, but intelligent, engaged and aware human beings. The second is that the University's primary job is not to offer certifications, though that might be done as a matter of course, but to offer a learning experience. The third is that learning does not come from consumption of content, but from solving real life problems, through conversation, collaboration and application.

These might sound obvious the way I presented it - admittedly I used language to make these sound obvious - but come to think of it, our conception of university as a value chain works on opposite possibilities. The model considers the students to be empty vessels, buckets to be filled, though all evidence regarding the good universities are only as good as the students they let in. Our current models emphasise the outcomes, degrees, jobs, starting salaries, and our marketing drives the attention towards that, despite the growing chasm between degrees and achievements. And, our conversations about the universities are all about facilities, libraries and classrooms, professors' credentials and custom textbooks, and not about collaborative projects, engagements or impact of the students on communities (which are, at best, add-ons).

Against this, Universities as Networks may present themselves as membership organisations that are defined by certain values, and invite learners into 'legitimate peripheral participation' (Jean Lave's famous phrase). The student life is constructed not of lectures and essays, but actual work, together with others, in businesses, communities and government. This university would provide a safe space, without the fear of failure or artificial constraints of time (a bane of corporate life), for creative pursuits, thinking and making. The university tours take visitors not to sprawling football grounds, but to local schools, hospitals and businesses where the university students are making real impact.

The university as a community is a rhetorical construct right now. It is constructed as a bureaucratic organisation, at least in most cases, run by managers, centred on outcomes and limited on imagination. It is a part of the bureaucratic state, its tool for self-creation and a mechanism of offering 'graces' to a select group of its citizens. This system, though, is at a breaking point. Expanding literacy and aspirations on one hand, and failure of salvation on the other, have put the system under enormous stress, requiring a reset. A more democratic and engaged form, as in the Network University, needs to emerge. Paradigm shifts usually emerge at the precipice, which we seem to be at, right now.

Monday, November 21, 2016

The Revolt of the Elites

The current mood in Europe can be summed up as Waiting for Le Pen. If Brexit was shocking, and Trump's victory was sobering, that Le Pen will triumph in May is something to be expected. It was indeed always in the realm of possibility - Michel Houellebecq was almost there till he conjured up an even more dystopian possibility - but in a space of last few months, a Le Pen presidency has become an unremarkable trend event.

However, such expectedness should take away nothing from the consequences of such events, that they mark the end of business as usual. The global system of international relations and internal politics of nations are both breaking down, opening up all sorts of new possibilities and unforeseen dangers. Civil Rights and Democratic systems are at risk, and the new leaders may indeed leverage unprecedented powers of surveillance and of control to create new, terrifying, possibilities. 

But this post is not about what could happen. There is already enough of that in the media, and besides, such predictions are perilous business. I wanted to write about what really is happening, causing this shift and creating a new political landscape. There is a very deliberate misrepresentation that lies at the heart of the current commentary pretending to make sense of these events, and, I believe, any future effort to reclaim democracy and protect civil rights needs to start with a busting of this myth of the 'popular revolt'.

A recent news item, that Oxford English Dictionary named 'Post-truth' as the word of the year, captures this claim rather succinctly. And, it tells a story which appears logical: My morning-after feeling of Brexit was indeed a revulsion about Direct Democracy. The narrative that a new breed of politicians are harnessing the popular revolt against globalisation to win elections and drive their agenda even with a very odious kind of politics made sense then, and later events only extend and confirm such feelings.

Not so fast, however! There are a number of hidden statements in this rather obvious claim, promoted as 'truth' by the media and political establishments as the bad news kept coming, which may not stand up to closer examination. First, the idea that a majority can be misled and the democratic process can be subverted, the essential idea behind 'post-truth', gives a clean chit to what came before. Indeed, a Trump administration can make anything that came before look good, but canonisation of Bill Clinton or George W Bush, or for that matter, of David Cameron, needs to be questioned. The invention of 'Post-truth' itself is a post-truth affair, if we care to step back and sober up. Second, the narrative that what we are seeing is a revolt of the masses is just as flawed as the 'othering' of the elite. There is nothing more discordant than when Nigel Farage and Donald Trump, two middle-aged, very wealthy, white men, photograph themselves in a lift made of gold, and claim that they have successfully battled the 'elite'. Third, the other side of this narrative of popular revolt is that democracy and republicanism are tearing themselves up, nothwithstanding the fact that it is the structure of the events - Cameron's bid to bypass a newly elected Parliament, or disruptive political strategies of Republican Congress in the Obama years - decided among the political leaders, by the political leaders and for the political leaders, which has ushered in the events as they are. 

There is indeed an alternate, and consistent, explanation of all that happened in 2016. What we are seeing now is not a popular revolt against globalisation, but rather a revolt of the elites, as Christopher Lasch foretold. This is the renunciation of the post-war consensus, made possible by the sobering realisation of the dangers of unabashed industrialism, built around a series of adjustments and concessions to minorities and underprivileged within each societies, and a system of national sovereignty in the international arena. This moment is not just post-truth, but more accurately, post-politics, a return to a system when a cosy global elite wants to a bigger share of political decision-making, which should enable them to suspend 'unnecessary' civil liberties and concessions for environment, drive production efficiencies and unequal trading relationships to shore up the rates of profit, and create a new international system of dependencies and deprivations. 

The explanation that this is all a shocking development that people, through democratic means, unleashed on an unsuspecting, benevolent, ruling class, is part of this revolt of the elites. All the little parts, like immigration, fits neatly into it: The idea of bribing the indigenous working classes into creating national societies that would feed the military and create a system of domination to maintain unequal trading relationships, can not work without limiting the access to that privilege. All that Trump said was not crazy, but meaningful, from this perspective; and indeed, this shift of perspective would even make Theresa May or Boris Johnson look like geniuses. And, this revolt is not an unexpected development - this was always brewing in the background and these doctrines and ideas are old - it is just that this is an unique moment of fragmentation of the alternative opinions. Among many, a particular factor behind these spectacular wins of these demagogues is the waning of the radicals, as a result of the opportunistic take-over by career politicians that undermined left movements across Europe, and their guilelessness in the face of the revolt of the elites.

I have no prediction to offer about how this will go. At this time, a sensible political conversation may, should, steer away from the business of prediction simply as so many things are up in the air. However, even when suspending the verdict, one must make an effort to understand what is happening, and particularly to dispel the myths. The current narrative, that democracy and common man are working against collective interest, is part of the elaborate strategies of the revolt of the elites, and is indeed the precursor of things to come. 



Sunday, November 20, 2016

How To Build An University

The above title is a red herring: This is no how-to guide on building universities. Indeed, I am no expert, and not pretending to preach. Rather, as I could not possibly title something like "Wondering How To Build An University" without being considered crazy or pompous, most likely both, I settled for this less offencive title.

However, the troubles with title offers some insight why the discussion is problematic. People do build things and organisations, but universities are not one of them, at least by common imagination. Despite being an empirical fact, hundreds of universities have been granted license in the last few decades, and an urgent demographic necessity, there is no other way to satisfy the growing middle classes, university building is seen to be something that takes hundreds of years, much beyond the imagination and scope of a single lifetime. Hence, while knowing 'How To Build A Company' is interesting and useful, claim to know 'How To Build An University' is crazy and pompous.

There is some justification in viewing university-making as a long term exercise. The globally acclaimed universities have histories stretching many centuries, and they make a big play of it. Many universities still use Latin where they can - on logos, in certificates and in graduation ceremonies - making a claim to a history even if none exists. The university architecture often invoke a past, often in gaudy and artificial fashion. And, where the universities do not exist and are urgently needed, like in India, regulators whet their appetite for stability and history by overtly defining land requirement first, defining the university by its campus and not by its content or activity. In short, university is a heritage product, and it is somewhat jarring if one claims to 'build' (or even explore building) a heritage product.

However, there are two things about universities and heritages. First, the universities are not that old. There are a handful of universities, in Europe and North America, which have history from before nineteenth century, and their modern forms, take Harvard if you like, have only emerged in the early Twentieth century. Second, heritage is a funny business - as some universities which are really old, like some in Egypt and China, want to refresh themselves and look modern and forward-looking, while others, which are really new, like the ex-polys in England, try their best to look as old as possible. Third, it is important to note that heritage has become a really interesting attribute rather recently, partly as a consequence of the search for authenticity by the newly-affluent Chinese and Indian students, who demand fragments of Latin and colourful robes as a part of the feel-good package of 'traditional' education.

My broader point is that this heritage business is indeed at odds with education. Illusions and vanity, dear as they are for the Higher-Ed marketers, are tools of confusion, not clarity. And, difficult as it may seem to build heritage, it is really not - as many of the theme parka and hospitality businesses have already perfected the trade. In fact, Higher-Ed as a heritage business is as counter-productive as it can be, with unintended consequences such as monkish indifference of the faculty, certificates of unintelligible value and students obsessed by social lives rather than moved by any greater purpose. The institutions in the heritage bubble are tools of social decay, rather than constant regeneration, as we expect universities to be.

My rephrased question, then, is this, how to build an university to perform the social functions that must be performed, to create a socially engaged, economically productive and morally imaginative student community? We may indeed be at the breaking of times, and even without being too apocalyptic, which will indeed be not out of place in the current circumstance, we should still appreciate the need for new engagements with society, value of economic re-alignment and re-imagined citizenship. Universities that will be built, in line with demographic necessities, can not simply be in the heritage businesses, and must answer the 'how to build' question.

And, this is a difficult question to answer. Apart from the lure of the 'faux heritage', the other influence on the university making is the regulatory guidelines, which usually define universities in terms of its real estates. Apart from making the university an enterprise open to builders and landowners, and excluding educators from the conversation, this has an additional consequence in defining what an university is. A high fidelity definition of university has become, within a space of two decades perhaps (as universities got built), a collection of buildings and sporting facilities, and nothing much else. 

The problem with this definition is that this puts the cart before the horse. Universities are, first and foremost, communities. They are communities of values, ideals and practises, and only by fostering these communities, an university can be successful. The real estate, the campus and all that, facilitate these communities, but they do not define the universities by themselves. In fact, if anything, the emphasis on real estate obscures what makes an university - people and their connections, is the short answer - and completely disregard some of the essential ingredients of a 21st century university, the online communities and conversations that must play an essential part. 

Coming back to the original question of 'building', it is perhaps important to realise that at the heart of our discomfort with 'building universities' lie our expectation of university as a settled form. Universities, in this imagination, are not to be messed with, but rather sustained, even if new capacities have to be added, through an extension of symbols and language, and appeals to an invented past and imagined values. And, this imagination is wrong, and counter-productive, and perhaps central reason why the world we built are falling off its seams. Asking the question is an essential first step, an opening of a possibility outside the current boundaries, and while what follows will perhaps be an inevitable game of practicalities and compromises within the current regulatory systems (the state must be satisfied), the point of an university is best realised within the new imagination rather than in tradition.



Friday, November 18, 2016

Looking Out to 2017

I usually measure my life not in terms of what I have, but what I have learned. This approach works for me, particularly as I have very little except a pile of books, but there is one problem with this approach: It does not necessarily tell me whether I am moving forward. 

Learning more should be good, but then one can argue that one can not live without learning, and therefore, learning, by itself, is not a benchmark of progress. Put another way, the question to ask is not whether I have learnt new things, but whether I learnt enough. This is indeed a more difficult question to answer.

Take, for example, the year of 2016. Even when I struggled in the past, I would usually feel good about doing better year-on-year. But, in comparison, I am approaching the end of 2016 rather bleakly. The year itself has been one of waiting. Last Christmas, I was hoping for some dramatic change, which failed to materialise. And even while I gave up on the plans I made, I was not able to develop something else immediately, and instead, meandered around in my comfort zone and in conversations which gave me hope but not much else. So, expectedly, at the end of the year, I am at the throes of this mini despair!

So, I did what I preach not to do. I indulged in comfort zone thinking, I failed to take the leap and to act and to change my life when it needed to. And, indeed, I did the other things that I should not have, like blaming my earlier failed experimentation for my risk aversion and the steady stream of bad geopolitical news for me being on the defensive. What I did not do, and the point I want to make here, is to step back and reflect, and come up with a better plan for 2017.

Despite my despairing mood, however, it would be wrong to write off 2016. On a better day, I would have labelled this an year of experimentation, a time of germinating ideas and reimagining who I am. And, to be sure, I have had quite a few discoveries along the way, and started a few things that may, in time, change my life.

Take, for example, this whole belated realisation that while I live a creative life in general, life of an entrepreneur is not for me. This should have been obvious to other, smarter, souls a long time ago, but it became belatedly to me. I was perhaps blinded by the rhetoric of entrepreneurial life, that of ideas, of world-changing ambitions, but missed one essential ingredient that makes an entrepreneur - the love of money! In fact, entrepreneurship is first and foremost about love of money than about ideas and ambitions to change the world. Coming from where I came from, the new Asia, the two somewhat looked the same, but they are not. If there is a way to make money without changing the world, and even worsening it perhaps, the entrepreneur would, and should, do it; and, indeed, there are other ways of living a life of ideas, and changing the world, without being an entrepreneur.

I did have a single deja vu moment in 2016, quite recently, when all this became clear. This was about an attractive offer, which I wrote earlier about (cryptically, as I would usually do in this blog), to run something which was traditional. It was, in fact, an easy play, and that excited the investors. While I was looking at the same asset, I was looking at a different thing - to leverage the asset to build a potentially new kind of education - and they were quick to point to the flaws of my ways. There was a clear and present opportunity, unexciting except the prospect of making money, that I was missing. I was indeed unexcited - did I want to go back to marketing a feel-good education - despite the money on the table. And, this, failure to be opportunistic, failing to be excited by money alone, disqualify me as an entrepreneur.

However, this realisation also spawns an existential crisis of sorts. If I am not an entrepreneur, what am I supposed to be? I lived my life in a series of experiments, and my CV is surely enough to make the Corporate types look the other way. There is very little hope that I shall ever fit into a 'Person Specification'. For all the talk in the world for T-skills and innovation, the HR departments have not been set up to find people who have, for all their lives, wanted not to be boxed. And, even if one is kind enough to view my experiments and explorations, as they really were, as a series of compromises, they would quickly spot that I have failed to compromise into anything in particular.

A kinder view of my 2016, which I hope to be able to afford with a long view, a few years hence, would perhaps mark not just the end of my search for an entrepreneurial bliss, but the beginnings of an experiment that leads to a new professional identity. Notwithstanding the depairing tone at the beginning of this post, I have made a number of new starts, distinctly outside my comfort zone. For once, I have started saying no to investors and opportunities, and rather, resumed my commitment, which once was central, to one big goal in life, something that is exciting enough to keep me focused, but big enough not to ever have been fully achieved in a lifetime. This has also made me think about my writing and research more seriously and more committedly (strange though that this has reduced the frequency of my blogging) and I have taken the leap of going back to school to study something I wanted to study all my life. And, I have taken time to live within my stories, making them come true even if for a short while, reaching deep in search of that creative departure that may truly change my life.

So, back to the current moment and habitual blogging, one good thing perhaps is that I am dreaming better for 2017 than I ever did for any of the previous years. My projects are now bolder, and my approach more courageous, not at the mercy of men with money but dedicated to truer departures. I may indeed start new enterprises, but will now do so without being an entrepreneur; I shall write without trying to sell my ideas; and, I shall go through 2017 without counting my successes or failures, but in commitment to one final, unwavering, goal.



Saturday, November 12, 2016

The 45th

This post is, as may be obvious, not just about Donald Trump, elected to be the 45th President of the United States. 

This is also about the 45-odd percent of the American voters who did not vote (OK, I am rounding up). And, about the world political system that we had since the 1945, that is breaking now. And, with it, the 45 year old system of globalisation and free trade around which there was a common political consensus, which is now at the mercy of the 45th President of the United States.

Was I surprised that Trump managed to get elected? Not really. Was I disappointed? No, because this was always in the realm of the possible. Am I sad? Most certainly, because what it signifies and what I expect to happen next.

Apart from those few who are genuinely excited about a Trump Presidency, I got three other reactions from the people I interacted on the subject, all three I disagree with.

The first was that this was all a madness. A friend wrote on Facebook that the Brits are relieved that they can call the Yanks stupid again. A London Bar put a sign outside requiring all Americans to be accompanied by an Adult. I disagree with this because there is a pattern here which we overlook at our peril. It is not just Brexit, but there is a trend across the world, from Philippines to India to Austria to Italy and elsewhere, towards an anti-globalisation consensus. While some individuals may be voting irrationally, there is a collective picture here which is not irrational at all.

The second is that this is all inconsequential. Trump will be an one term President. While that may happen, this may be one hell of a term! With all those Supreme Court appointments that may come up within the next few years, and Republicans controlling all the branches of the Government, this may change United States forever. Indeed, some people are hoping that Republican establishment may impeach Trump, as he is bound to veer away from official party position on so many issues. We have indeed heard predictions about Trump's evident demise so many times, which have been proved wrong.

The third is an optimistic, all-American view that the decent people in America will make it all work, as they have always done in the past. Indeed, very sensible - one person tweeted that expecting Trump to fail is like wishing the Pilot to make mistakes when you are on board in the aircraft - but this is both ahistorical and elitist. Ahistorical because such turns have, in the past, impacted a country and its future, in different countries around the world but also in the United States. It is a mistake to underestimate the power of the modern state, the evil people can do for a mere promise of job and stability, and the way the actions of an empowered individual can shape the destiny of a whole people. Elitist because, underlying this view is the assumption that this is all a mistake, and a desire to treat the symptoms without curing the disease.

Instead, Trump's election is a definitive break - from the Post-War Political system and Post-WTO globalisation consensus, but part of a bigger story of Brexit and surge of Fascism across the world. The elite, as represented in Hillary Clinton, have made the rhetoric work for them for generations, handing out empty promises, meaningless hopes and pointless futures in equal measure. They have built a world of political exclusion, striving to tame active citizens into passive consumers, stripping education of ambition and engagement and making it into a tool of need fulfilment. As it seems now, this has created a political underground, a despairing kind rather than an inspired one, and the very success of liberalism, political and economic, is now undermining its existence. 

It is the moment of breaking of times, apocalyptic rather than inconsequential, meaningful rather than crazy. But this is not about losing hope and writing off the next few years or decades, but to see beyond the hegemonic ideas that engulfed us. The Consumer Civilisation is crumbling under its own contradictions, and other possibilities are emerging. We are looking at a new generation for whom all that selfish self-promotion is so last century, and for whom, social responsibility is cool again! Indeed, the political left is devoid of leadership - that is why 45% stays home - but when ideas break down, possibilities and leaders who inspire emerge. My mood is sombre, but my expectations soar - it is the hour of the ideas all over again.

Thursday, November 03, 2016

Who Imagines The Nation?

One of the big advantages of studying again is that I can let the assumptions that I lived with be questioned, and even discarded, with much qualms. Sure, this would make some of my older posts look silly, but then, as Lord Keynes said, "When facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?" As a wise woman (only a woman could see this naturally, I deduce) once said, or so I derive from what she said, the path to wisdom starts from the courage to contradict oneself!

I have always made a lot out of the imagination of a nation. I have seen it, after some of the great social scientists and historians, as a modern imagination, even something that emerged after men escaped the thrall of religion, and needed an organising principle to arrange their ideas. It is, I always believed, a belief system invented (imagined is the word Benedict Anderson used) to sustain new states since the mid-nineteenth century, starting with Germany and Italy. 

This was a convenient theory that explains a lot, and fits neatly into the contemporary history. Coming from India, this allowed me to understand the Idea of India, at a time when the modernist conception was just about to fall apart. The Republican ideas that underpinned 'India', the democratic miracle that accompanied Indian state creation inspired me and formed the basis of my own political ideas. I saw the world through their prisms, and argued that this idea, this state, needs to be protected. 

What changes this now is that I am confronted with a basic question that I perhaps overlooked: Who imagines the nation? The assumption that the nation is an imagination, something crafted as a justification of the modern state which takes over the mantle of religion to serve as a worldview (just as it did to me), is modernist in itself: The idea is that a social and political elite, the leaders of the movement, state or cultures, invents nationhood, which then the wider community subscribe to. However, what is less obvious is that this rules out the pre-existence of a national consciousness - the essence of the people which every nationalist doctrine aims to establish - and nationalism is seen as a tool of power, of the elite on the masses. 

This is one construction, but not the only possible one. One may claim that the historical experiences of Risorgimento or the German unification bear this out, and nationalism was a political ideal that the Italian elite, Cavour and his friends, used to unify Italy. But this does not explain the Mazzinians fully, nor does it explain persistence of nationalism in the persecuted communities, such as the Kurds. This also excludes Zionism, which closely intertwined religion and nationhood, built around a thousands of years old idea that was incredibly difficult to achieve at the start. This reduces to the idea of Pakistan as merely an imperial intrigue, built over the heads of most of its citizens, and does not explain why Pakistanis are so proud of their nation, despite all its failings. 

For each vantage point, there is a possible view of nationalism. This idea of a nationalism as an invented political strategy somewhat adapts uncritically that social ideals come from the top. The alternate view, that the Italian leaders like Cavour only came to nationalism late in the day, and perhaps unified Italy against their own better judgements, or that the German Consciousness may have been shaped much much earlier than even Frederick the Great started his imperial adventures. And, indeed, there may be different kinds of nationalism - the British imagination may have been entirely different from the American ones, the Russian enterprise may have been a pre-modern project than a modern one, and nationalism in Asia may not have all in opposition of the Colonial rule and as a product of Western consciousness, but as a realisation of an intrinsic nature of the people. The dominant view that India was never a nation before the British, a view straight from the playbook of the imperialists, may just be one part of that civilising narrative: Indeed, the thesis put forward by Diana L Eck, about an India united since the ancient times through its sacred geography and religious consciousness, is surely worth considering. 

The danger in all this is indeed is to succumb to the conclusion that there is no such thing as nationalism at all. Despite its variety, it is hard to deny that the idea travelled. Many Asian nationalists were educated in colonial schools, and were deeply influenced by political conversations of their age; Mazzini, Garibaldi and others have inspired many, as did Lenin, Mao and David Ben Gurion, who were in turn influenced by ideas of others. The task of understanding nationalism therefore may be more than just saying that there are nationalisms, but no Nationalism; it is about seeing the phenomena of love of one's country, of a 'land', a way of life and its memories, as a complex and multifaceted one, not just a modern one imposed from above, but a contingent one, not just determined by the political ambitions of the elite but a romantic political imagination achieved from below, reaching political viability and cultural expressions at a given state of social and economic development.

This makes me look the idea of India in a different light. It is not just a construct of the Europeanised political elite, a tool for unifying diverse people, built around the principles of republicanism and democracy. And, this shifts my position, only slightly it must be said, on what I think of Hindu Nationalists - instead of crazy, I think of them as the cynical ones - and perhaps that is not a big shift after all.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

The Hollow Society: One Conversation India Needs To Have

India is the fastest growing major economy, is the persistent claim. There may be some statistical truth (which some may consider an oxymoron) in the statement, Indians are definitely one of the most optimistic lot in the planet. For most of them, lives have got better within a lifetime, and they look out to the world - at least an world without Pakistan - with confidence. And, this dominates the political conversation in India - hope trumps fear, with pun intended - and the message of better days transcend political sloganeering to turn into everyday faith.

Being the doubter, therefore, is to fall out of step. Questioning the great achievements of the country is quickly pounced upon, and even reasonable discussions can get one branded as an enemy of the people. And, indeed, in this - the unquestioning faith in the India - the intractable regional differences that dogged India for most of its modern existence seem, for the first time perhaps, wither away. For once, the unquestioning hope of a Bengali clerk resonate with the pragmatic faith of a Gujrati trader or of a Tamil engineer. The hope that India will develop, and that it will claim its rightful place among nations, seem to unite the country, or at least, its striving middle classes.

It should be a great moment, this unity of hope! However, I fear that it is too ephemeral, and this conversation reflects not how strong the Indian identity is, but rather how hollow. And, before one gets to the all-too-familiar objections that talking about poverty and illiteracy is cliche, one must make the point that they come up, predictably and all too often, because they exist and they are getting worse. The hope that India has finally awaken and is ready to achieve its manifest destiny, apart from being a borrowed and ill-fitting euphemism, is superficial and perhaps unrealisable.

And, it is superficial and becoming even more distant not because India is destined to be in poverty by some divine reason, but rather because the political chest-thumping about development, and the accompanying shouting down of all forms of reasonable doubt, distract us from the structural issues that India faces. The current formula, of, for and by the Middle Class, that a domestic consumption led growth would completely transform the Indian economy is grossly unrealistic. Besides, other corollaries of the development agenda - the 'reform' to unleash animal spirits backed by infrastructure growth - espoused not just by the current government but also the previous ones, ignore some of the foundational issues of how a country like India can turn around. And, this ignored issues - Health and Education - are fast eroding away any gains India has made in the past couple of decades.

So, in short, I claim that India is facing a full fledged crisis of Health and Education. This is not what India, and Indians, want to talk about, but this is real, all pervasive and going to eat away the gains the economy may have made. The Prime Minister boasts, statistically correctly, that India will have one of the youngest population in the world, and will supply most of world's workers in the coming decades. But, this is a hollow claim like the other, as despite its youth, India's workforce is generally unhealthy and poorly educated.

Somehow, this issue is compartmentalised in discussions about India's development. Talking about Health and Education makes one look like a naysayer. Government officials, policy pundits and even business executives will rather talk about other issues - Labour Reform, Infrastructure or Easy Credits - than these issues. Even the well-meaning thinks that these are just too difficult and just too long term.

But why is it so? The reason simply is that these are the two sectors where India's shadow economy is. These are two sectors flush with black money and cash investments, and indeed, because of that, the mafia that dominates these sectors can control India's political discussions. The Modi government can even get Foreign Direct Investment approved for defence sector, despite India's ongoing paranoia about the ill intentions of Western powers and business houses with regard to its sovereignty, but it can not move an inch regarding any kind of innovation in health and education. Powerful vested interests, capable of buying out the political system with cash, keep the lid on these conversations at every level of the economy.

India's education in particular is one of the least liberalised, least open and rapidly deteriorating. It is controlled by black money and regulated by mostly corrupt bodies. One of the past presidents of Indian Medical Council was even caught taking a straightforward cash bribe from a medical school - for permitting an expansion of their seat capacity illegally (so that the school itself can 'sell' more seats for more cash) - and was convicted. The South Indian Education Conglomerates have blocked, for almost twenty years now, any bill allowing Foreign Education in the country, keeping their stronghold on the engineering and medical education, spoiling an entire generation with poor quality education and causing a jobs crisis and poor competitiveness which India is poised to face now. It is they who kept the conversation out of the media, generally controlling the discussion through their appointed talking heads and by control of the policy-making.

That a country can progress by tweaking policy but not addressing its health and education issues is a delusion of Titanic proportion (nowhere else arranging deck chairs on a sinking ship is more apt). And, yet, some conversations are now possible, for two different reasons in these two different sectors.

For Health, this is about technology - and the ability to disrupt the market through the creation of low-cost public health options, as well as things such as telemedicine. It is a market poised for disruption, as there is a vast majority of people who can not afford India's private hospitals and the public infrastructure is falling apart. But it is also important to recognise part of India's Health problem is India's education problem, the poor quality of health education, poor quality of medical schools and poor quality of jobs and lifestyle all bundled together. This is reaching a crisis proportion - young people dropping dead has now become far too common - and Indian middle class is facing an epidemic of heart and stress related diseases.

For Education, it is a longer shot, but some conversation is facilitated by rapidly changing nature of work and India's loss of competitiveness in the world market. This is now creating an unemployment problem - a quarter of India's engineers find a job after degree - which, in turn, is reducing the rates of profit. As with the historical experience of other protected markets, breach happens not when a market is very profitable and lot of outside players want to get in, but rather when the profits fall and the controlling powers of entrenched interests fall, and Indian Educational institutions may be rapidly entering that moment. 

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