Friday, June 30, 2006

Quality Talk

Quality is a word that is dangerously close to becoming a cliche. Or perhaps it has already become one. Most organisations use it in their mission statements or punctuate their ads with the word 'quality' sprinkled quite liberally. In corporate circles, and now increasingly in other sectors as well, the word has acquired the status of a superhero.

It is seen as a mantra to restore customer confidence, enlarge market share, improve productivity and increase profits. And if this is not enough, quality is seen as the magic potion that will rid the organisation of all ills.

High expectations, indeed.

But an intensely competitive environment makes this kind of quality oriented focus highly necessary. After all, if organisations need to stand out in the clutter, they must be seen as ones that embody leadership in all aspects. And to make this happen, quality is the best bet for actualising any such ambitions.

Thus, discussions on quality have to move away from mere conceptualisations and philosophical treatises and enter the realm of concrete strategies. Quality cannot and should not remain mere talk. It has to be followed with an action plan that takes into consideration organisational objectives and aims at fulfilling them. It must also be rooted in reality and not be mere wishful thinking on the part of some copywriter on an overdose of instant coffee.

Current market realities have made this task unavoidablebecause organisations are faced with demanding customers who now have wide alternatives to choose from. Thus, quality can be one determining factor that can help in retaining and enlarging the customer base.

But all this would prove futile if organisations do not have a vision statement, clear cut objectives and a ruthless drive to enforce quality at all levels. The alternative for these organisations would certainly be, death by irrelevance.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

The tragedy of being Mahatma Gandhi

I stumbled upon BB, an online Indian network, which is part of the Ryze Business Network, where one or two members were taking serious potshots at Mahatma Gandhi. They felt he didn't deserve the title 'mahatma' or great soul and felt he deserved to be cast into the rubbish heap of history. And then, there were those that felt otherwise and provided compelling arguments to justify Mahatma Gandhi's position amongst the great. I provided my own views on the matter and I'm reproducing it here.

It's so ironic that Indians are saying such things about a man like Mahatma Gandhi. Let me explain why I'm amazed by these litany of anti-Gandhi posts.

I am a non-resident Indian, and have been one since I was four years old. Apart from my college years, my brothers' families and close relatives (most of whom are dead anyway), I have experienced hardly any emotional or any other connection to India.

However, since childhood, Mahatma Gandhi has been a hero and he has been one person who gave me a sense of pride about my Indian-ness. In fact, all my non-Indian friends consider Mahatma Gandhi as someone worth emulating and envy me for having such a leader who gave my country its freedom.

And yes, when they say that it makes me rather proud of being an Indian. In a strange sort of way, Mahatma Gandhi is that curious umbilical cord that links me emotionally to India because, to me, he embodies what India is, what India ought to be and what India could become -- a moral core residing within a flawed humanity.

Yes, he was a human being and, hence, quite prone to various flaws that come pre-packaged with our human race. But it is these flaws that make him an attractive person because he didn't allow these to overwhelm him and make him lose his objectivity. He remained faithful to his goals and inspired others to join him in the struggle (in days before satellite tv, mind you) and eventually secured India's freedom.

There are some who say that he did all this mainly because he was upset at being thrown out of a railway coach in South Africa. Well, why not? He turned an embarassing moment into something positive and didnt wallow in self pity and remorse. Most of us hardly see 'potential' in moments of embarassment, but Mahatma Gandhi did, and began a process that culminated in freedom for millions of people.

Long before terms like 'affirmative action' and 'political correction' were fashionable, Mahatma Gandhi chose to address people of lower castes as "harijans' or 'people of god'. Whether or not, it achieved any purpose is immaterial because history has shown that nothing much has happened to them anyway. I don't want to talk about the 'reservations' issue because that's politics and the architects of the reservation policy haven't, obviously, looked at the larger picture or the greater good.

Mahatma Gandhi was, probably, one of the earliest upper castes who stuck his neck out and declared that the lower castes were people worthy of respect and honour. The failure of any success as far as this goal was concerned can be attributed to successive governments of India who chose to see lower castes as a vote bank and not as people who need to be integrated into the mainstream.

And what about Khadi? It wasn't a fashion statement back then, it was a serious effort to make people self sufficient in everything, including, weaving cloth and wearing what one has produced. Indian economy was enslaved to the British, and when he asked every freedom fighter to pick up a spinning wheel and spin khadi, he was essentially attacking the domineering imperial super-structure that had destroyed traditional Indian handlooms and handicraft industry. And he was asking the freedom fighters to be economically and, yes, even sartorially, independent.

Today, we are slaves to designer labels -- including, myself -- and we don't like to step outdoors without our favourite label and in clothes that are, at least, fashionably current. Mahatma Gandhi's approach may seem rather idealistic and far fetched in these 'fashion tv' days but let's not ignore the bigger picture here. His objectives were very clear and that's something we cannot ignore.

He was, also, perhaps, the only one -- or one of the few -- who knew that the real India lay in the villages. To him, it was essential that the revolution should begin from there because only then would it succeed in affecting the rest of the country. His idea was to make villages -- and thereby Indians, at large -- self sufficient, and not dependent on anyone else. If this idea was seriously implemented, it would have had positive impact even today.

Take for example, slums and road-side dwellers who crowd all the big Indian cities and create urban squalor. They come to cities because of bread and butter issues because their villages have ceased to provide them with livelihood. And why is that so? Many reasons can be assigned ranging from weather patterns, floods, droughts, economic policies but at the heart of all is an undeniable fact that villages are no longer self sustaining. Some would argue, why should they be in these days of globalisation? And to that, one can also ask, does that still make the situation acceptable?

It is easy for urban dwellers and tourists like me who visit India occasionally to be disgusted by poverty on city streets. But it needn't be that way. Governments and economic planners must find a way to create economic opportunities in the rural belt so that these people do not have to crowd cities and have to live in filth.

Mahatma Gandhi's peaceful resistance has been discussed ad infinitum and I do not have anything new to add on the subject. But let's consider the possibility of Mahatma Gandhi having used violent means to secure freedom. It would have robbed the freedom struggle of its moral core, and would have justified any violent reaction on the part of the British government.

And let's not forget that violent struggle is, also, synonymous with terrorism. And before we go all la-di-da about terrorism and say 'today's terrorist is tomorrow's statesman', let's remember the root word of terrorism is 'terror'. It is not a positive or even an uplifting word. It is not even an inspiring word. Terror is meant to terrorise, and that act is, essentially, immoral. It does not make one's hands clean, in fact, it does the exact opposite. It makes the victim and the oppressor one and the same. It creates a vicious cycle of revenge in which everyone ends up perishing.

Violent resistance has hardly worked anywhere, and we don't need to be a rocket scientist to figure out why. Besides, Mahatma Gandhi knew that a violent struggle against the mighty British empire would end up a dismal failure because none of the Indian fighters would be a match against the mighty imperial fighting machinery. A different approach had to be chosen, and he chose 'non-violence'... and it worked. And not only did it work, but it inspired others like Martin Luther King and others to adopt in their struggle.

This does not mean that one should devalue the role of those Indians who used violence in their struggle. But we need to ask, did they inspire? Did they lead? Did they have a vision? Or were they merely responding to a situation?

Mahatma Gandhi, on the other hand, had a vision for India and he worked with that big picture in mind. He was disappointed that freedom, also, resulted in partition despite his efforts to stop it. But then, when partition became inevitable, he played a fundamental role in stopping the orgy of violence that followed.

In my opinion, he deserves to be called "Mahatma" or a 'great soul' because there has been no other Indian in the political stage who has come anywhere close to his moral stature and visionary leadership.

And to people like me who are non-resident Indians, he is -- and will remain -- a hero.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Remembering Tiananmen

I wanted to write about the Tiananmen Square Massacre. I wrote something last week and thought about it. One of those long and painful thoughts that wrestles with the notion - 'is this the right thing to do?' And yet, deep in my heart, I was aware that I had to say something about it. And yet, there was this temptation to just ignore it and then blame it on procrastination.

So what do I have to say that hasnt been said before or even analysed to death by pundits with academic degrees heftier than Hulk Hogan's biceps? After all, 4 June 1989 was a long time ago, and the world has changed a lot since then. The date, itself, has crept into history and has become just another 'historical event', or so it would seem to any ordinary observer.

However, to those of us, who were university students at the time, the student uprising that took place in Tiananmen Square was an eye-opener and an inspiration. It showed us, back then, that there were other students in other parts of the world who were concerned about more serious matters than the petty ones that usually occupied out minds. It gave us a glimpse that there other things worth fighting for and fretting about, and that dreaming big was, also, potentially within our reach.

Our concerns were mostly centred around - relationships, hostel food, assignments, weekends, killing boredom - or in other words, silly things. Ofcourse, they didn't seem silly back then, but examined in light of what the Chinese students went through... definitely silly and inconsequential.

It would be tempting to imagine that the eventual massacre that took place on 4 June was a clear indicator that the students had failed. After all, what chance did those students and their supporters have when they came face to face with the might of the Peoples Liberation Army? David had no chance with this Goliath, did he?

History will be able to give a definite answer to those questions, but there are other indicators, too. China has opened up a little more since then, maybe, not in the way everyone would like it to but, at least, the bamboo curtain has seen a rupture. If this rupture eventually leads to some kind of change in the social and political set-up, only time can tell.

However, it would help if the present proponents of 'democracy' remember what took place seventeen years ago in Tiananmen Square. They must remember not only the sacrifice of these students but the fact that this was a home-grown movement. It wasn't imported nor was it forced upon a people, but it grew out of an urge that finally found expression in a protest movement.

But it happened so many years ago, and the event can be easily forgotten by merely ignoring it. Maybe that's what some people have done for reasons best known to them. But that still does not explain why I took so long to write this piece.

I wonder, what was my reason?

Saturday, June 03, 2006

R

Let me call him R. R as in rat. R as in randy. R as in ruffian. R as in... oh well, I think, R should do for now. Safer to call him R than anything else even though I much rather call him something more colourful.

The thing is, R annoyed me in a big way by a comment he made the other day. Now it's not always that comments bug me or that I'm touchy about any stray comments. But this one was a big no-no, and as far as I was concerned... he had crossed the rubicon.

We were talking about a Filipina housemaid who was raped by her boss within a week of her arrival in Bahrain. I mentioned that it must have been quite a traumatic experience for this young girl and was hoping that the rapist receives his just desserts in the court of law.

And what was R's response? He smiled and gave a sneering sort-of look. I found that quite strange and so, pretending to be a little thick, asked him to explain what he meant by that sneering look. No, I didn't use those exact words but something close, more or less.

And so, R obliged me with an answer.

He said that some women - and he hinted at the woman's nationality - invited and even encouraged it. His opinion was that Filipinas were wild and enjoyed having sex with anyone who was willing to give them a good time. And so, according to him, there was no need to feel sympathetic towards this housemaid who got raped. He said that it was quite possible that she either asked for it and, maybe, because she didn't get an orgasm she must have cried, rape.

I had to control myself because I couldn't imagine someone could actually believe this type of nonsense. And not only believe but, also, to state it as an undeniable fact. I was angry but more than that, furious. Majorly. Royally. Uncontrollably furious. And when I'm really furious - as opposed to instances when I give the impression of being furious - I usually prefer to remain silent in order to gather my thoughts and find my peace.

The trouble is, R's opinion was not unique. He shares these lopsided views with many other men who, somehow, find justification for criminal actions like rape, sexual harassment or whatever. Perhaps my moral world-view is divided into black and white, and maybe, I'm too naive to even consider that shades of grey may even exist in such matters. Maybe. But I prefer to be naive if it involves saying a rape is a rape, and a rapist is a common criminal and nothing else.

Why is that too hard to fathom?

And one more thing, what has nationality got to do with someone's rape-ability? Isn't that the worst kind of presumption -- almost racist in character and intent? And this coming from R, an Indian, who should know better what it means to have the 'wrong' skin colour. But no, his opinions were crystallised because of this strange logic that since these girls appeared westernised and were friendly it has to mean that they were 'available'. That's right. After all, he said, why else would they want to be friendly?

I find it hard to be on friendly terms with R after this conversation, and it's highly unlikely that he'll ever enter my chums list. I don't know if I'm following the right approach because, on one hand, I could try and steer R from this kind of thinking but, on the other hand, I wonder if it'd be a fool's errand.

However, the bigger challenge is to let women in our community know and understand that not all men share R's viewpoint. And that some of us, actually, regard women as human beings worthy of respect, honour and affection.

Why do I get this uncomfortable notion that it's not going to be an easy task?

Anatomy of a rant

What is it about silence that some people find so repulsive? I mean, seriously. Why can't some people just keep mum when things are going just right for them. But no, they have to just open their mouth and make a complete ass of themselves. I find it hard to believe that there are people out there who have this passionate urge to demean oneself in the eyes of others. This fascination to look like a twerp must be one of one of the world's last great mysteries.

Why am I saying all this?

I met someone the other day who made the mistake of stating his opinion on a certain issue on which he had little expertise. And yet, he plodded on with passion raging through his flared nostrils and his voice rising to a higher octave as he hammered away ineptly over each and every point of his so-called argument. He thought shouting aloud made him come across as a persuasive orator but it only invited pity. Of course, I didn't say that to his face because I didn't feel it was tactful to shatter a man's preconceived notions of himself. Not the right thing to do, even if one is in the right. Or so I believe.

But such experiences throw light on so many other issues as well. If one pays close attention to someone's ranting, then, one can, also, get a peek into motives, reasons, purpose and other behind-the-scenes stuff. Sometimes people hold on to a silly premise not because they are convinced by it but because rejecting that premise would force them to adopt a new perspective and opinion. Many people don't like that. They are comfortable in their pre-suppositions, and quite cosy with their favoured myths. Their pre-suppositions have developed roots and are so deeply entrenched in their consciousness that any other paradigm would seem like a bad idea. Even if it makes sense, they'd choose to reject because it's safer to do so.

I can imagine I could be in danger of doing just that, and falling prey to the very things I am ranting against. After all, it is natural to have a few pet premises that one can use as one's ideological prism and favoured benchmark. But the problem is, years of being considered 'weird' and a 'contrarian', as far as public opinion is concerned, has turned out to be of great benefit to me. While it used to upset me when I was young and would often rattle my self-confidence as I was growing up, but now it's like water on a duck's back. I am now able to look back and look at arguments with a certain detachment and search for motives behind any ranting I encounter. It didn't happen in a day but took years to accomplish, and I'm still scraping only a thin crust so far.

But if there is anything I've learned, then, it is this: intelligence is not measured by the answers we know, but by the questions we ask.