Posted on 27-05-2012
Filed Under (TRENDS) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

Catholicism took 17 centuries to grant liberty of expression that enabled science, invention, art and literature to flourish.  An American President took just over 4 years into his presidency to set a precedent by endorsing homosexual marriage. That’s bubbled up wide-ranging negative-positive views across the world. Being Black, did Barack Obama empathize better with discrimination that non-mainstream people are subjected to? Such prejudiced experience could be on account of race, colour, caste, gender, same-sex marriage among others.

"Pede comme un phoque" (French slang “gay like a seal”) is how my colleagues had cautioned me when I was assigned to assist Maitre Arte, Russian-born French Art Deco artist, to clean scratches in his lithographic prints on paper in a closed room. That was my first brush with the concept of homosexuality. As a 20-year-old sweeper in a lithography paint shop near Paris in 1974, I didn’t understand their warning as I still couldn’t speak French. I deeply revered this first art master I’d met, a gracious, creative and humble person who treated me as an equal artist, saying, “Art is a silent giant that stays, it’s never obsolete." Arte trained me that, "Art does not sell by itself. It’s not like physics or chemistry with self reaction to move. As an artist you have to make art go places.” After he’d migrated to the US and become a famous designer in many fields including fashion, jewelry, graphic arts, costume and set design for theatre, film, opera and interior décor, I came to know he was a homosexual. Because the first homosexual I’d ever met was Arte, whose talent, passion and love for human beings is etched in my memory, I’ve become a supporter of the gay community. 

Jean Francois Trouve, a most talented business principal in my Paris office who’d worked 10 years with me, makes no bones about his being gay. I’ll never forget his elegance, extravagant knowledge, perceptive behaviour. He loves to drive my Mercedes, and being of short stature, pulls the seat up front. But when he returns the car, he’s never failed to leave the seat exactly the way he found it. I’ve met his boyfriend Bertrand several times, they are living together for over 25 years now. This exceptional couple’s intellectual connect with me is unparalleled. The 1980s AIDS propaganda in Europe was that all homosexuals are in trouble.  I was very scared for them, but Jean Francois explained, “AIDS has obliged gays to re-invent a new sexuality, more sensual, more based on sharing moments. The fear of the damaged condom is always present in our mind. AIDS actually reinforced links in gay couples, there’s more fidelity now, less sexual partners! Sexuality will always be important for us, but in a bit different way.” While writing this article I gave Jean Francois a call and found him in his country house. Bertrand and he had taken his father for a vacation there.

Jean Francois introduced me to the famous gay café in Le Marais District, Paris’ legendary gay quarter.  It’s a place to get drugged with creativity. Nothing can replace for me this most fashionable district of incredible creativity because I’m forever looking out for new ideas for corporate work or my own paintings. Alone one day in this gay café, I was concentrating on some writing when a little drama unfolded. I may have been the only non-gay person at the café so I tried not to give any false impression. Seated at the next table was a gay couple, one dressed in a manly fashion reading a newspaper, while his partner with female mannerisms was holding his hand, looking up to his face lovingly. But the newspaper reader paid scant attention. Upset or perhaps bored by this lack of response, the partner’s eyes strayed to a nearby table. The man there returned an expressive face, making inviting eyes. It was an amazing experience watching this fabulous romantic adventure in such an open space. Contact of four eyes, interlocked in fascinating gestures that even a man-woman couple cannot craft. Slowly the partner released the newspaper reader’s hand and went towards the toilet, making a wonderful body movement like a woman. The man making eyes followed him. When his partner returned talking animatedly with the other guy, the newspaper reader looked annoyed, put down his paper. But tantalizingly ignoring him, his partner continued to chat away with the other guy, but took stealthy sideways glances at the newspaper reader. In one such look their eyes suddenly got locked and stayed hooked for a while. Then the partner hissed the word, "Jealous!" to the newspaper reader. Theatrically the newspaper reader threw his paper and stormed angrily out of the cafe in high speed. Immediately transforming, the partner ran behind him in utter despair, calling out in a shrill voice, "Pierre! Pierre! Je taime mon amour…" (Pierre, I love you…)

The Paris gay circuit may not be as effusive today, but gays hate hypocrites and are extremely sensitive.  My creative route led me to many genuine friendships. From them I‘ve discovered intra gender nuances of the ‘active gay’ with the male role and ‘passive’ the woman’s role. Normally the roles don’t change, but there’s total democracy to switch on the couple’s choice. Among my gay women friends in Europe, many had hetero-sexual marriages that broke because they were frustrated over men’s attempts to dominate them. They subsequently became gay, and explain how lesbianism is very different. According to them, both women are at the same level, with a comfortable, acceptable hint of dominance and submission. Their emotional and sexual pleasures are different from men so their harmony is a win-win game. They’ll never return to the man-woman liaison.

In today’s democratic world we still find opponents of homosexuality getting incensed when two men or two women kiss before a marriage judge. However, let’s hope that Barack Obama’s support of gay rights signals a positive change of wind across different cultures and countries.

To download above article in PDF Homosexual freedom

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Posted on 20-05-2012
Filed Under (BUSINESS) by admin

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

Tolerance is a virtue for retaining good human relationship, to uphold human rights, but definitely not for business.

The mentality to accept the imperfect chalta hai (will do) is a most deceptive and unwanted malaise in business. It destroys customer value delivery and sustenance of business in the competitive environment. Polishing the bad, literally putting a bandage on it to make it look good, is like giving Propofol to Michael Jackson, American King of Pop. The pick-me-up power of this hypnotic agent is exhilarating, but when its short-acting effect wears out, it can be fatal with continuous use, the way it suddenly killed Michael Jackson in 2009.

Chalta hai is slothful business: Currently, most industries in India are very seriously enjoying short term revenue generation through volume business. This trend is not good for the country’s future as the demand led working culture in both exports and home consumption does not allow entrepreneurs to be creative enough to craft the value led market. A simple example of this malaise in our society is that we don’t even produce a hard disk which tiny Taiwan can churn out in a jiffy.

The chalta hai attitude exists in businesses where market demand is flat, such as traditional OTC products, fabrics, khadi, utensils, among others. Having lasted decade after decade in dull vertical categories, they’ve had no inclination for renovation. Whether the market is growing or not, profit is always under pressure. Negligence of on-time market watch can bring dangerous symptoms like obsolescence because an emerging category enters and knocks them off the market. If there is no technology obsolescence, the business can be transformed through intelligent innovation by adding differentiation and customer benefit that’s felt in the product or service. A disruptive platform is required to turn the business and organizational culture upside down. Such a successful displacement example is loom maker Toyoda transforming to Toyota to join the ranks of today’s global leaders of vehicles.

As India’s an emerging society, everybody looks for growth with market expansion. This idea that we have a large enough population so penetration will resolve all growth woes is a woebegone solution. You can see how retail brands are opening store after store with no profitability in sight. In most domains, per capita consumption is far lower than in developed countries. No business institution trains students on how to increase per capita consumption, which is the real indicator of brand fidelity. Only value led propositions can drive per capita consumption growth.

Demand led syndrome: In a demand led market, all you need to do is supply as long as there’s demand. In concentrating on fulfilling orders, you dangerously neglect to plan future strategy. Of course when good money is coming in you should undertake this generic business, but have you realized that the customer has multiple choices?

Take India’s IT services industry, our biggest money spinner today, it’s a part of the demand led market. After economic reforms in 1991, the huge requirement from foreign companies for India’s coding services became evident. So everybody wanted to enjoy the fruits, irrespective of how much competency and domain knowledge they possessed. In its honeymoon period in 2001, the business was giving operating profit margins of 35 – 42%. It was an easy entry ticket, making company after company jump in. They invested in whatever would grow revenues right away, that is, good administration, great infrastructure and English speaking manpower.

Then the foreign customers got smart. Not seeing any difference in the generic deliverables from this competitive environment, they started haggling. It’s human instinct after all to negotiate for better price advantage when the market’s aplenty. Indian IT companies had to fall in line, and gave discount after discount to hold on to customers. Quality of deliverables slipped, recruitment levels fell from engineers to BSc graduates. The real demand led market malaise hit them. Profit steadily dwindled to between 25 – 35% in 2006, and by 2012 margins have plummeted to 18-28% among Tier 1 companies. Obviously the figures would be lower for the lower tiers.

Choose to deliver value: Indian IT companies do have a choice though. They can go against the wave to create value without leaving this business for another. Instead of being the “order takers” they are today, they can become strategic partners to their customers by adding premium value to the work they deliver. Such value can be supplemented with massive execution excellence and in-depth industry knowledge that will eventually help their customers to shape their own business strategy. Once customers experience that value, they will be ready to part with a better margin.

Need for creative, disruptive platforms: Our business education system needs to impart training on creating disruptive platforms that can change the world. Delivery of out-of-the-box execution excellence by Indian companies to create the value led market needs to be built up. That’s not extra terrestrial or humanly impossible. The first step of leading the market through value is extensive research to understand the gaps in between. Certain investment in research and development is required to interpret those gaps and plug them with 360-degree improvement of products and services. This business model demands micro detailed efficiency and has to be handled very sensitively. To avoid commoditization that can easily destroy an established business, high technology knowledge is imperative here. And innovation has to become a continuous process to see the future as up-front as possible.

To exit the demand led market is very simple. Just ask any customer why she always pays a higher price for a reputed foreign brand in a given category. Is it for their inventive power, product quality or advertising? She’ll definitely choose the first two options. So the biggest thrust the country needs immediately is how to create a generation of value led market creators.

To download above article in PDF Chalta hai is a no-no in business

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Posted on 13-05-2012
Filed Under (POLITICS) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

Electronic media has made Indian politics more and more entertaining. It’s beating Bollywood’s typical clichéd storylines of love, hate, fight, prison, poor man becomes rich man. Indian politics has more or less the same storylines except the love affair bit, making it Poliwood. Wonder why our political journalists are avoiding love affair diagnostics?

Actually we’ve got enough titillating stories where politicians invoke celestial powers to get jobs done. Even animals enter the picture. De-throned Karnataka Chief Minister Yeddyurappa and current Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalitha had expressed gratitude by donating elephants to temples after their political wishes were fulfilled. When UPA-SP Government won a trust vote in 2008, a Madhya Pradesh MLA sacrificed 265 goats and buffaloes, equivalent to 265 winning votes, in Guwahati’s Kamakhya Temple. Even Indira Gandhi had visited Ma Anandamayi with daughter-in-law Maneka, and Rajiv Gandhi, according to IPS news agency, had called on holymen when campaigning for reelection in 1989. A sadhu who lived in a tree placed his feet on Gandhi’s head, assuring him of success, but it didn’t work. The Congress was voted out of power. A few months ago, instead of inviting investors or industrialists, a yagna (religious ceremony with the fire) was held in West Bengal for getting business into the state. Did it work? A believer pointed out, “Didn’t Hillary Clinton come to Kolkata last week to promise American economic partnership?”

Divine interpreters like swamis, bhagwans, astrologers, gurus, yogis, palmists, babas, faith healers, acharyas, numerologists dominate much beyond politics into their believers’ daily lives. Several TV channels dedicated to religious pravachans have godmen dancing and singing in uncontrollable religious fervor, their audience of thousands following suit. Reminds you of the effect rock stars in concert have on screeching fans. Some swamijis give 10 to 30 second predictions to individual disciples on live TV. Devotees kow-tow, scraping forward with folded hands, and openly discuss even intimate conjugal problems. They seem oblivious to the millions viewing them on the idiot-box, or other disciples jam-packed behind them, awaiting turns for confession or guru advice.

Politicians in different states get elected from this kind of society of diverse cultures, languages, food and religions with multiple deities. There’s no one belief system that people subscribe to, their mentality, behavior, way of acting, thinking differ radically. In contrast, cultures with one God have a principal belief system where it’s easier to get collective focus for a goal as the overwhelming majority shares the same work ethic and worships in one direction. I’d written about how difficult Indian businesses find to extract disciplined quality work from employees from multiple God cultures ( As there’s no single point of adherence in a religion of multiple gods, the system can become irrational with no established point of convergence. When everyone interprets quality practices it disrupts the laid-down business process. Just as individuals can fragment quality, can the situation in politics be any different?

Members of Parliament get elected from their own states, and not all have a national political background. When an MP becomes a national minister because of his/her party’s winning power or through alliance, partiality to the state of origin is obvious and human. So is the expectations from people of that state from the Minister. There’s continuous compromise in the Minister’s mind. The dilemma increases when he’s a Minister in a Government formed by an alliance of several parties: should he serve his own party, national interests or his constituency? This makes the entire Central Government system quite vulnerable, and no national leader can emerge, as seems to be the case in current Indian politics. Like a spring that stores accumulated force at a certain gravity to throw and retract its power, perhaps the monarchical political brand of the Nehru-Gandhi family has been so stretched that it’s worn everybody thin. After all, if you stretch the spring continuously, it evens out like a string and eventually breaks into pieces. Is this the situation with our national leaders today? On all issues of governance we seem to witness Bollywood-style histrionics or banana skin slips, where the banana skin can be clandestinely put in front of a politician by any of the many vested interests.

In a one party majority Presidential system of government where the whole nation elects the leader there’s less of a chance for Poliwood drama. A strong personality with a supportive party can make the government stable. An interesting episode on Armistice Day 8th May in France perhaps illustrates the strength of the Presidential electoral system where control remains with the President. France has just voted Socialist Francois Hollande as President. Outgoing President Nicolas Sarkozy, for the first time in history, invited his successor to accompany him to Arc de Triomphe to commemorate the end of World War II. Sarkozy, who’d long lost people’s aspirational emotion as per polls especially in the last year, has suddenly warmed everyone’s hearts when in his 6 May defeat speech, he admitted that his personal defects made his party lose. He offered total co-operation to the new Government and requested everyone to support Hollande. That’s democracy and reconciliation, forgetting the past to collaborate for national interest. It’s unlikely to happen, but I won’t be surprised if Hollande, who takes over on 15th May, names Sarkozy as his prime minister!

In India, from being colonized by a gun-toting monarchical, British political system, we chose our current Parliamentary politics. This democratic Government process seems to match the diversity of our Hindu-dominated, multiple God culture where all politicians are perforce wary of banana skins, from voters and opposition alike. In trying to escape banana skins, how much attention are elected politicians paying to keeping their electoral promises? Only when the quality of politics is at a higher ground can there be better governance. Instead of giving us Poliwood stories of corruption, divisive politics, managing caste equations and allies, can we have our elected representatives resolve our many economic problems, and provide employment, education and health for the masses?

To download above article in PDF Poliwood like Bollywood

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Posted on 06-05-2012
Filed Under (POLITICS) by Shombit

From Discomfort Zone column by Shombit Sengupta in Financial Express and Indian Express

Unknown inventor running the world: Roland Moreno epitomizes my last week’s article that non-aggressive French inventors donate their inventions to charity for others to exploit. In 1974, Egypt-born Frenchman Moreno invented the computer chip that’s used in smart cards. France pioneered smart card usage, France Télécom in 1983, French banks in 1992. American Express didn’t use it until 1999, and British banks and transport systems later. Just verify in your own pocket how many chips you use, for banking, shopping, commuting, in your passport, your mobile phone SIM card, among others. Yet when Moreno died last week (29 April2012), his company Innovatron had only made €150 million from an invention that’s touching almost everyone on the planet today. Without Moreno, where would Job’s iPad, iPhone, Samsung’s Galaxy or Nokia be? Or world’s top billionaire Carlos Slim Helu make his $69 billion from Telmex or Airtel’s Sunil Mittal make his $8 billion? Moreno’s chip is converging billions of business dollars where France or Moreno has no role to play. Wasn’t this invention for charity? It shows how un-smart France has become, from being inventive through past centuries to currently losing its AAA Standard & Poor rating and recording highest unemployment at 10%. Yet French politicians are honoring workers in May Day rallies to woo votes in Presidential elections today (6 May2012).

Born in Chicago 1886, May Day reverberates worldwide: Every May Day France’s extreme right National Front holds a rally to honor Joan of Arc. This teenage warrior born 600 years ago symbolizes patriotism, she fought to oust the English from France. This year Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s resurgent, anti-mostly Muslim immigrants FN party invoked Joan of Arc’s memory by firmly opposing Anglo-Saxon domination of French politics through NATO and USA that sent French troops to Afghanistan. Actually 1st May commemorates a general strike at Chicago’s Haymarket 1886 demanding an eight-hour workday, where violence broke out killing dozens of workers and policemen. Subsequently, across the world, socialist and communist trade unions recognize May Day for working class rights. Except, ironically, in the US where to avoid any revolutionary character Labor Day is in September. French trade unions in Presidential election year highlighting their woes in May Day rallies countrywide. Buoyed up by her record high 18% score in the first Presidential election round, Marine told her FN followers that she’ll not endorse either Presidential candidate. Which has left a big question mark on who will get her party’s 6.4 million votes in today’s election.

Scandals rock French electioneering: Tom and Jerry mudslinging and insult trading are dominating France’s Presidential race. Their only TV debate on 2nd May turned into a scrap-fight. Socialist challenger Francois Hollande said President Nicolas Sarkozy was irresponsible, using the global economic crisis as an excuse for broken promises. “You lie, you little slanderer!” retorted Sarkozy, saying France is Europe’s only country with no recession since 2009. Both rivals are plagued with scandals. Investigative news website Mediapart, founded by left-leaning journalists, published an internal Libyan regime document recording an alleged 2006 illegal funding deal of 50 million Euros ($63 million) from Muammar Gaddafi to Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign. Sarkozy dismissed it as “crude forgery” and sued them. Mediapart’s counter-sued him.

Scandal erupted among Socialists lawmaker Julien Dray’s birthday bash at a bar in Paris’ Rue St Denis, historically associated with prostitution, had invitees including senior Party campaign members and Hollande’s former partner Segolene Royal. Segolene furiously walked out when she discovered the guest list had former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, accused of sexual assault in New York and currently under investigation for alleged ties to a vice ring. Hollande categorically declared that DSK, earlier slated to be the Socialist party candidate, now "no longer has a role in political life…” DSK on his part has allegedly said that for political gain, agents loyal to Sarkozy had a hand in politicizing a sex scandal in May2011 that cost him his job and political future, as per extracts from Edward Epstein’s upcoming book released to British daily The Guardian.

It seems political disgrace is not new in France. President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing in 1975 declared President Jean-Bédel Bokassa of Central African Republic is "friend and family member." France supported him with financial and military backing as he declared himself Emperor 1977. When his empire fell in 1979, Bokassa went into exile and wrote his memoirs. He claimed he’d shared women with Giscard d’Estaing, and gifted him diamonds worth a quarter million dollars in 1973 when he was finance minister. Giscard lost his 1981reelection bid when the scandal broke.

Is the Indian President PRO or priest? India’s also undergoing Presidential election in July 2012, but of a very different kind. There’s no direct people’s representation here, the process seems more a monarchical remnant from our colonial past. The difference? Whereas the British monarch comes from family tradition, here, the more puppet-like a candidate appears for the ruling party and its allies, the better his/her chances of getting selected to live in luxury’s lap in the world’s largest Presidential Palace. Indian politics veers around a few intellectuals in the metros pandering to 20% of the population, while 80% of the country’s poor struggling for a livelihood has no time, inclination or choice to protest against what’s meted out to them in the name of democracy. They come into the picture only when some political party herds them into trucks and buses to show its “numbers strength” in processions in the metros. Politicians are flying back and forth nowadays touting Presidential names, confusing people as to whether they’re selecting an actor for Bollywood films or the President. The semantic is President, but the activity is public relations as India’s brand ambassador, or as a priest who’s required only for officiating ritual maneuvers for upholding people’s mental satisfaction in a belief system.

As French and Indian Presidential symphonies pan out, let’s hope people in the two nations benefit economically and in stature, in spite of political rumblings.

To download above article in PDF Presidential symphonies

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