Sunday, January 13, 2008


It happens only in Bharat! For those who might have forgotten, or have never heard, Bharat is the ancient name of the sub continent of India.

Last week, Ratan (Jewel) Tata set new benchmarks in automotive innovation and engineering by launching the Tata Nano, a great looking modern, small car at the impossible price of $2500. The whole country, indeed the world, took notice of the fact that Ratan Tata had kept his promise to keep the price of the car at Rs1 lakh, even though the input costs had gone up tremendously during the last few years. That said a lot about the man - easily the most respected and admired business leader in India - who is absolutely honest, does not pay bribes and does not bend either rules or his back obsequiously to politicians.

Management guru CK Prahalad, one of the world’s foremost management thinkers, was effusive in his praise for Tata’s achievement. Writing in The Times of India of January13, 2007, he said: “In India, it lays to rest skeptics who five years ago assumed India cannot compete in manufacturing. Yes, Indian engineers—given the right challenges and leadership—can out-innovate and out-engineer others. Seldom does a single product introduction challenge the received wisdom in the industry so radically. The Nano also sheds light on how to leverage emerging markets as innovation hubs. We can constantly complain about constraints. We can also use constraints as levers for breakthrough thinking. I call this process of constrained innovation as working within the Innovation Sandbox.”

Highlighting the importance of the achievement, Prahalad wrote: “This innovation is serious. But now, let us celebrate. I just want to say: Ratan, what an extraordinary New Year gift to India and the world! To ordinary people! Ratan Tata, Tata Motors, and all the suppliers and dealers deserve our thanks for rekindling the innovative spirit of India.”

Even as the world was saluting this Bharat Ratan, this precious Jewel of India, for his many stupendous achievements, including the explosive growth of TCS, the acquisition of Corus, Pierre, Tetley, Daewoo’s truck division and Jaguar and Land Rover (both almost in the bag), and the earlier launch of the Indica car, India’s politicians were again on display for the usual reasons, just to remind us that the ‘other’ India was still there.

India’s highest civilian award is called Bharat Ratna, India’s Jewel. Ratna is also spelled as Ratan, as in Ratan Tata. It was originally instituted with the noble aim of honoring Indians who were national icons of the highest order. Soon our politicians discovered that the award was more useful as a tool for getting votes of the constituencies represented by political leaders who were given the Bharat Ratna. To exploit this tool fully and quite immorally for this unstated purpose alone, past leaders were also subsequently made eligible to receive this reward posthumously. This enabled the government to bestow the award on luminaries of the freedom struggle like Sardar Vallabhai Patel, Dr BR Ambedkar, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose etc.

Guess who never became India’s highest jewel? Mahatma Gandhi, of course! Possibly it was out of respect for the Father of the Nation who is much taller than any award in the world. But, considering the manner in which the award has been given and some of those who have got it, I cannot shake the feeling that Gandhi was overlooked mainly because he could not be identified with any narrow political constituency which would translate into votes.

It is on the Republic Day that national awards are announced. January 26, that special day, is less than a fortnight away. LK Advani, Prime Ministerial candidate of the BJP, fired the first shot by making public his demand that former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee should be given the Bharat Ratna. A confidential request should have sufficed but no Indian politician likes to miss a chance to claim credit for himself or discredit his opponents, even it means stooping to low, petty levels. Predictably, others started championing the cause of Jyoti Basu, ex Chief Minister of West Bengal, and Kanshi Ram, the founder of the BSP and mentor of Mayawati. There are rumours that before all these public spats started, K Karunanidhi, Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu was quietly lobbying with the Centre for himself on the strength of his party’s critical support to the UPA government.

During this very week, the salaries of the President, Vice President and Governors were enhanced substantially. There were also debates in the media about the need for giving politicians salaries at par with the corporate world! All that these guys can see and covet are the salaries of business leaders. They are simply blind to the qualifications, the competition, the competence, the accountability and the risks which accompany such salaries. As far as they are concerned, even criminals and convicts are entitled to be cabinet ministers; they have been elected by the people after all and are above normal scrutiny. We are the law makers; they never tire of saying, so supreme that they frown when even the learned judges of the Supreme Court question them for repeatedly making laws that are repugnant to any semblance of impartiality and morality. Recall the Office of Profit Bill that Dr Abdul Kalam, the President with a conscience had retuned and the recent bill to ensure the personal victory of Health Minister Ramadoss over the AIIMS Director Dr Venugopal. Just give us fat salaries, they say, but do not question who we are and what we do!

Is it any surprise that despite the coincidently timely launch of the Nano, the latest in a long series of outstanding achievements to the credit of Ratan Tata, no politician across the political spectrum has even whispered that he be awarded the Bharat Ratna? You can hear some of them criticizing him all right! Mamta Bannerjee has, in fact, asked Rata Tata to give away 10 lakh Nanos for free in lieu of the land that the government of West Bengal has given to Tata Motors at Singur to manufacture the Nano!

This happens only in Bharat! The real Bharat Ratnas who do their country proud despite the many Mamtas in the political landscape remain unrecognized by the government while tinsel is embraced and honoured again and again. All for a few votes more in just one election by appeasing a section of the electorate to whom the awardees belong! It does not concern them in the least that by doing so, all that they are achieving in the long run is destruction of the value and sanctity of such national awards, and belittling of the achievements of those who have got them deservedly. This is Bharat Patan (decline, fall), but who cares!

The really great miracle of India, greater than even the Nano, is that both Bharat Patan and Bharat Ratan are able to happily co-exist in this land of many contradictions and achieve their dreams! This is the despair and delight of the India that is both exasperating and exciting! This is also possibly responsible for the many Jugaads and impossible innovations of which the Nano is the newest example.

This happens only in India!