Saturday, December 22, 2007

Taslima Nasreen: Where does she go from here ?

Where does she go from here? I refer not merely to her ‘homeless’ status, but also her literary works in progress, if any. I am not familiar with her writings; Taslima Nasreen is less widely read than written about, not always for the right reason. Leading a life, unsettled and under constant threat of violence takes courage. But can Taslima, or anyone else in her nomadic situation get any writing done at all?

I wonder if she ever regrets having written something, so long back, that was to pose a life-long challenge to her life; to brand her infidel and be banished from Bangladesh. Not that an apology would now alter her life. I am all for freedom of expression. But those who assert their right to write their personal truth on socially sensitive issues ought to realize that such freedom comes with social constraints, and consequences.

Arguably, the city she came to adopt as ‘home’, and the local authorities there have an obligation to protect Taslima. This hasn’t happened, which is why she is ‘on the run’, for her safety, from her beloved Kolkata. Her current situation is fluid, and sticky. And Taslima hasn’t helped matters by talking to the media from her ‘undisclosed location’.

She told The Hindu that the external affairs ministry has conveyed that she wouldn’t be able to return to Kolkata anytime soon; and wherever else she chose to stay in India, she would have to lead a life in captivity.

‘Captivity’ isn’t quite the word I would use to describe ‘security cover’ extended to the high profile writer. “Why do I have to lead a life in captivity?”, Taslima is quoted in her telephonic interview with The Hindu’s Marcus Dam, “all I’m asking for is to be able to lead a normal life”.

Isn’t she asking for a bit too much? Celebrities don’t have the luxury of ‘normal life’, as you and I understand it. Snag is Kolkata isn't the only city that isn’t happy to welcome her back. Authorities in Hyderabad and Jaipur have demonstrated their disinclination. However, Mr Narendra Modi of Gujarat, during his poll campaign, is reported to have invited her to his state. I don’t know if Taslima reacted to Mr Modi’s offer, which could well be public posturing.

Meanwhile, our media tracks Taslima wherever she goes, even in an ‘undisclosed location’. What’s more, she appears more than willing to oblige them, with quotable story. This, at a time when those concerned with her security would want to keep her location a secret. Wouldn’t it help if Taslima were to maintain a low profile, by staying off headlines, till such time the authorities finalize arrangements to settle her somewhere safe and secure?

The Bangladesh writer has, on more then one occasion, expressed her gratitude to the media. Their presence have been a life-saver, at times, for her, when Taslima came under attack from a bunch of intruders at the Hyderabad Press Club not long ago. But media exposure could also work against her; and it doesn’t always win her public sympathy. As she herself put it, “I have become, it appears, an embarrassment to all…”. And media interviews at this time don’t help matters, do they.

Cross-posted in Desicritics

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Brand India or business pariah ?

News: Orient-Express Hotels rebuffs Tatas’ proposal again

The bit in this news that bugs me is the Orient’s statement, saying that aligning with Tata’s ‘predominantly domestic Indian hotels chain’ would adversely impact the brand value of Orient’s premium properties.

I see it, not as just a rebuff to Tata’s, but as a statement that undermines India’s business pride. It may well be the Orient’s considered opinion that aligning with Tata’s hotels (that run the Taj Group) doesn’t add to Orient’s brand value. But to say that dealing with hotels that are Indian would adversely impact the Orient brand value is a bit thick. They make India sound like ‘business pariah’, don't they?

I claim no knowledge of the intricacies of valuation of corporate brands. Correct me if I am wrong in sensing that Tata’s is a reputed global brand, and the Taj Group, rated high in the Indian hospitality sector. To say that aligning with them is bad for one’s brand value doesn’t make business sense. If anything, it smacks of corporate apartheid.

This reminds me of Arcelor’s initial reaction to Lakshmi Mittal’s takeover bid - “we don’t share the same strategic vision, business model and values”. Arcelor, you may recall, was then the second largest steel makers in the world; and Mittal Steel, the world’s largest. India-born Mittal was portrayed “in terms that could be described at best as xenophobic’ and they questioned his company’s “European culture and value”. That Mittal took over Arcelor is now history.

Unlike the Mittal's, Tata’s are not in a hostile takeover mode, not as yet. With a 11.5 percent stake in Orient-Express, all that Tata’s seek is an alliance that would bring its non-Indian hotels under the Orient-Express fold; enable both companies hold minority stake in each other’s equity capital and have representation on each other’s boards.

It’s is difficult for a corporate novice such as yours truly to understand how such an alliance would adversely affect the brand value of Orient’s premium properties. What is clear, however, is that Indian business enterprises, setting their sights on global strategic alliances, may well face rejection, not because their company performance records are not up to the mark, but because they are Indian.

Maybe corporate India needs to take a hard look at our efforts at building Brand India. Maybe, our ‘India Everywhere’ campaign at Davos hasn’t been good enough. What India needs to get herself ‘shining’ is produce more of the likes of ‘Steel’ Mittals and ‘Citigroup’ Pundit.

For all the spin and hype, 'Brand India', to my mind, is a concept that is largely illusory. But it is an illusion that appears to sway some global business minds.

Monday, December 10, 2007

'Hotmail' Bhatia on the idea of 'failure'

When Sabeer Bhatia, who made his first million early in life, talks about the idea of 'failure' he ought to be taken seriously. It is not in our business culture to embrace failure, he says - 'we have not matured with the idea of failure'. People are surprised when he tells them that the story of Silicon Valley has been that nine out of ten products failed, but the one that made it more than made up for all earlier losses.
A failure is seen in the US as 'a badge of honour', as he put it; as an experience you learn from; something that spurs you to try again; and something that works up your hunger for success. And what does he find in India? You have people (promoters) saying, "Oh God, you've failed; I'm not sure if I would want to come anywhere close to you".
Mr Bhatia told the BBC(view video)the other day that raising funds for new ventures was tough here. India sn't such a hot or happening place for young techies with big business ideas, particularly if their ideas entail risks. And it is not in our business culture to factor in failure. Safe and secure are the attributes that attract funding. A project idea fraught with risks is, simply, no, no. According to Mr Bhatia, any new product that comes out of Silicon Valley takes five to seven years to realize its business potentials.
Google Search, starting in 1999, didn't make a go of it till 2005. Sabeer's 'Live Documents' took four years in developing. Mr Bhatia conceded he was lucky to have made a pile on Hotmail within two years. This was a decade back. As a student in Pilani he never thought he would become a businessman one day. And he did, with a bang, at Silicon Valley. Perhaps, it had something to do with Mr Bhatia's peer group at Stanford - Steve Jobs (who started Apple Computer) and Vinod Khosla of Sun. Though his subsequent business initiatives have not been such big hits, Mr Bhatia's Hotmail story still opens many doors for him.
I wonder if our home-grown first-generation millionaires in business – Infosys' Murthy, HCL's Nadar, Jet's Goyal and Deccan's Gopinath – share Mr Bhatia's perception that desi business culture constricts techno-preneurs, and that institutions in India tend to value experience and seniority, rather than intellect and creativity. His insight into business culture helps us get a sense of the predicament of our middle-class entrepreneurs, with knowledge as the prime asset. Power-point presentation of their bright ideas is, perhaps, the only collateral our knowledge-driven entrepreneurial class, can offer prospective funding agencies. These guys can take their bright ideas elsewhere. Some do.
Which is such a pity. For, in Mr Bhatia's reckoning, "our economy, the way it is going, allows people to take phenomenal risks and become superbly successful in three or four years." He concedes cultural constraints made it tough for many young techies to explore their bright ideas, and take them to entrepreneurial level - "we have so many have-nots that people here are happy differentiating themselves from the have-nots."
Our mindset is not amenable to taking risks; our business mentality finds failure unacceptable. Maybe, when they next hold or a global business summit, organizers should have a session on the dynamics of failure, inviting speakers who have faced notable failures.Our business leaders are fond of summit-ing only with those who have made it big. It is time they realized there is much to be learnt from the failures.
We needn't celebrate failure, as Mr Bhatia says Americans do, and see it as 'a badge of honour'. But we need to learn not to be scared of failures, if we want to realize the full potentials of our economy, as Mr Sabeer Bhatia sees it.

Cross-posted: Desicritics

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Our celebrity-obsessed media

Fireworks,the fanfare and the media fuss over Sanjay Dutt's homecoming from Yerwada were in keeping with our Bollywood fan-club culture. The Sanjay admirers who thronged his Pali Hill residence wouldn't have,probably,settled for anything less spectacular.For the celebrity-obsessed electronic media it was the big story of the day. Most channels led their lunchtime news bulletin with Sanjay's home-coming, while around the same time, in neighbouring Pakistan, Gen.Musharaff shed his uniform and took oath of office as his country's civilian president.
NDTV, arguably, one of our more respected elite news channels, went for live coverage,tracking Sanjay Dutt's travel home from the Pune jail to his Mumbai residence.The young and energetic TV reporter, positioning himself across the street from the block of flats where Sanjay lives, gave us details of the scene around him. A huge hoarding put up on a sidewalk read, 'Welcome Sanju Baba'.We heard the TV reporter tell us about how the cops on the scene, present in strength, formed a human-chain to stem the surge of fans onto the street that was cleared for Sanjay's arrival from the airport (he made the trip from Pune in a helicopter).
We learnt a convoy of five media cars followed the Bollywood actor on his drive home from Mumbai airport. As the car carrying him neared the closed gates of his residence hell broke loose and the assembled media'went berserk',as our TV reporter put it.
Wonder what Sanjay Dutt made of such fanfare. A sensitive mind would have felt awkward and acutely embarrased by it all. It wasn't as if he was coming home with an Oscar. Lesser mortals in his circumstances would have preferred to make a quiet entry and slip into their homes unnoticed, even by those in their neighbourhood.