Posted on 28-07-2013
Filed Under (POLITICS) by Shombit

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

West Bengal celebrates plurality, half of Kolkata speaks non-Bengali languages, in the hills it’s Nepali, but to a large extent they all share the same respect for Bengali culture. Yet in small towns, villages or community where people went to school, college or social functions together, played as children of the same neighbourhood, how is there so much abhorrence amongst these same people in different political parties now? Hatred, enough to even kill?  It’s shocking that in the name of democratic Panchayat elections in West Bengal, death has become a ritual at nomination time, during the polls and when counting the votes. In this year’s Panchayat election from nomination to the polling stage about 26 people died; in 2008 about 40 had died while in 2003 there were 107 deaths. I don’t know how we consider such electioneering a democratic process.

Neighbours suddenly became enemies in Germany too when Nazism started to wrest power in 1933. History will never forget how Hitler targeted to exterminate the Jewish race, using both archaic to scientific methods. His disgraceful active approval made it free-for-all to humiliate, torture or kill Jews, who he said, were inferior to German Aryans. Jews were made scapegoats for Germany losing World War I; denigrated as money lenders, “the nation’s enemies responsible for the fall of the economy.” The dark 1933-1945 Nazi diary cannot be forgotten.

Bengalis on the other hand have no professed religious hatred or racial complexities to tear people apart. Yet quinquennial Panchayat elections spell a death knell trend in West Bengal. About 74% of India’s population lives under the 3-tiered village, block, and district level Panchayat system. Being a Panchayat Pradhan (Head) is the most coveted post in West Bengal for the power, patronage and money that comes into play. Riddled with violence, from vandalism, fiery inciting speeches, to killing opponent politicians, their kin, and police and security personnel, bloodshed and destruction of personal and public property has made living in rural West Bengal a veritable nightmare.

As it is, livelihood generation in rural India is very tough. In West Bengal, neglected since Independence and held back by turbulent politics, its worse. Farmers with 2 acres of land and 5-7 family members barely generate any money.  Political leaders of different parties have not nurtured real peace and value for society. Left protectionism was symbolised in the combative slogan "lorai, lorai, lorai chai" meaning “fight, fight and fight needed,” but “fight” had no defined purpose and objective. All political parties have had a hand in devastating Bengal, making it devoid of progressive industry. Politicians took no big step even after 1991 economic reforms to change Bengal’s fiscal condition. India meanwhile has had many non-traditional entrepreneur businesses emerge. But we’ve not seen many Bengalis living in Bengal create some new dimension in industry’s new era, such as in digital technology or telecom.

Does it mean Bengali acumen is deficient somehow? Absolutely not. Plenty of Bengalis have excelled remarkably in exhibiting great competence outside Bengal, or outside India, in varied careers in business, education or medicine. Bengali politics sans business vision has forced people to exit to achieve personal success elsewhere. No political leader of Bengal has cared to understand and address this. The result has been that politics is the only source of income today. It’s squarely evident in the blood-tainted election process. In rural areas, contestants use force and support of political parties to win an election at any cost, even killing first, before becoming their leaders. The Pradhan is an all pervading post, controlling villagers by giving them jobs, birth certificates to even measuring property.

Let me recount the epic story of Judas Ben Hur from the Bible in the perspective of West Bengal’s Panchayat elections. In the famous horse chariot race sequence before the Roman Emperor and thousands of spectators, Hollywood film’s Ben Hur had only one objective, to win as the only survivor. The rest could die.  The opponent charioteer, his friend, stealthily used weapons as decorations in the chariot against gentle Jew, Judas Ben Hur, but he tragically died. People have similarly gambled unethically with human life in West Bengal Panchayat elections.

Unemployment, lack of industries and entrepreneurship form the crux of this extreme politicisation. Bengali society has always criticized businessmen, believing them to be up to no good. Our intellectuals have nurtured this appalling culture. A government jobber or professor is respected, but businessmen are considered corrupt.  That probably explains why, when I recently enquired of 20 to 40-year-old Bengalis about Biren Mookherjee’s legacy, they’d never heard of him. This aptly illustrates how a great business tycoon who’d uplifted the state’s economy has been obliterated. He brought in US investment, and was the first recipient of a World Bank loan to the private sector. But politically fanned labour trouble brought his IISCO steel business, second biggest after Tata Steel, down in 1960s. He’d sadly remarked, “I see before my eyes a vast industrial complex, with which I was associated for nearly 40 years, crumbling to dust.” Later the Government took over IISCO which is now part of SAIL. Just to illustrate, here’s Bengal’s entrepreneurial businessman Biren Mookherjee, a role model lost to the state’s next generation in the political battlefield.

West Bengal needs a political leader with the art of unifying different political parties as in a football team. Football team players have their different techniques of play, personal political opinion, positions in the field, but everyone in the match is unified with one objective, to strike a goal, to win. In a democracy, one-party dominance cannot exist. Bengal’s problem is that political parties all hate one another. Only when they mutually understand that politics serves to develop a state, can they contribute to industrial development and people’s entrepreneurship. There can be political differences, but 60% unification in ideology is important to deliver the state’s betterment. West Bengal even now has the geographical advantage of developing to great heights as the country’s Eastern port corridor.

To download above article in PDF Art of neighbourhood killing

Financial Express link:http://www.indianexpress.com/news/art-of-neighbourhood-killing/1147637/0

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Posted on 21-07-2013
Filed Under (TRENDS) by Shombit

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

An interesting contamination in our society is saying “Sir.” But before venturing into Sir-ing, let me share a few reader responses to my last week’s article when I’d asked for more occasions we say Yes in India when we mean No (http://www.indianexpress.com/news/yes-no-yes/1141578/0).

“On Friday I asked an employee of mine if he’d be around for a Monday meeting. He mumbled Yes. Later when I logged into my email he’d sent a mail to HR, copied to me, saying he will be on leave on Monday! Did not want to say it to my face….” wrote a client of mine who’s Chairman & Managing Director of a company.  Another CEO client said that at 11 pm he got a resignation letter by email from his senior manager whose workplace is just adjacent so he’s always visible through the glass partition. They’d worked together that whole day, even had a good review and planning session and parted amicably at 8pm. So he felt clueless and surprised that he couldn’t mention his resignation face to face but had to send a mail at night. Eminent senior journalist of a news channel, Sudipta Sengupta, wrote “There is at least another reason: Haven’t learned to say NO!”

Reader Gopal Kulkarni wrote, “Compliments for dragging out an unusual and unthought-of subject and converting it into a delightful piece of reading. It’s truly 100% correct reflection of Indian society in diverse situations.” He added his Yes input: “In North India, especially in Delhi, ‘yes’ has a tactical business dimension so as not to lose a customer come what may.” He said the customer is kept occupied, even with a cup of tea, while the shopkeeper’s assistant is secretly sent out to procure the item the retail didn’t have.  Another reader, Vibhu Haleja wrote that people say Yes when not understanding that “No” is a complete sentence that needs no explanation. They sometimes shy away from No to avoid explaining why they are saying no, or lack the conviction of their reasons for the No. “Perhaps people simply lack the courage to say No,” says Vibhu. “Many are programmed from childhood to put the needs of others before self, so Yes becomes a habit that continues. Also, when you want to be liked by all or feel indebted to someone, you don’t say No.”

Perhaps culturally we are not trained to say No. I really don’t know if this phenomenon is a deficiency, lack of boldness, or use of the politeness metaphor, but in any business transaction, a dubious Yes is certainly non-productive and considered untrustworthy. Now let’s tackle “Yes, Sir.”

Impact of colonial culture: “Sir” is a British colonial residue that’s entered our collective bloodstream. Not having worked in India earlier, I’m not used to Sir culture. At different corporate meetings, my Indian clients are surprised when my sub-30-year-old colleagues all address me by my name. I wasn’t born into the Sir title, so why take it from anyone? In my analysis, subordinates escape their business responsibility by saying Sir, or it’s another way to butter up the boss. I’ve sometimes even witnessed In India that everyone stands up when the boss enters the meeting room, somewhat like giving him a standing ovation, only the applause is missing!  I’ve noticed the boss feels happy with this kind of respect. It’s akin to Britishers ruling their subjects, imposing dictatorial supremacy as personal power over another race. Unfortunately, bosses here have literally copied this kind of attitude to keep their employees under the thumb.

My brush with colonial attitudes materialized on a hot day in early 1990s when I’d just landed from Paris for a couple of days in Kolkata. My friend Basanta Choudhury, one of the best Bengali film heroes, invited me for breakfast at a famous gentleman’s (it now has lady members too!) club that started from colonial times. I wanted to relax, so I wore the new pair of leather sandals my mother had bought knowing I love to be without shoes in the summer heat.  Alighting from the car, I couldn’t believe that the door man was actually making hand motions to say I cannot enter even as he was addressing me as Sir, “Without shoes I cannot let you in Sir.” Nonplussed, I gaped around. Mobile phones had not come to India then, so on seeing a member going in, I sent word to Basanta Da (this is how we address elders in Bengal) who hurried out and apologized for such club rules. The club actually stocks shoes for under-dressed guests like me. My real shock was that in a city like Kolkata, home to some of the poorest people in the world, where many don’t even have footwear while others go without shoes in the debilitating muggy weather, this colonial club still maintains decadent British rules as discipline. Later some Bengali friends gloriously revealed that Indians were not allowed inside certain clubs even up to 1955. In a country where discipline is a question mark, that colonial discipline still existed makes the ingraining factor of Sir very evident. Basanta Da and I looked at each other, laughed at the quirkiness of history, and left the club to enjoy breakfast outside. 

If the Sir culture is abolished in business and society, our business productivity would be superior by at least 40%, and people’s real capability will flesh out. Oftentimes, undeserving people are promoted at work because of their overwhelming “Sir-ing” character. It takes street smartness, not competence or capability to butter up the boss. Time and again capable people don’t make the grade being too simple to understand this kind of unprofessional tactics for climbing the ladder. If Indian enterprises can pledge to stop the Sir culture, they can progress in every sense.  “Sir” is like propofol, the powerful drug that killed the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. Propofol interrupts or deprives normal sleep cycles, while making the person experience a true night’s sleep. “Sir-ing” similarly anesthetizes the boss and takes the company and society into deep sleep.

To download above article in PDF Sir Propofol

Financial Express link:http://www.indianexpress.com/news/sir-propofol/1144449/0

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Posted on 14-07-2013
Filed Under (PARADOX) by Shombit

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

Flummoxed, a foreigner asked me in utter incomprehension: “Does it mean ‘Yes’ when you nod your head vertically, or when you shake your head horizontally?” In India both actions mean ‘Yes’ I said. His obvious next question was, “How do you differentiate?” Now that’s not so easy. You have to be culturally ingrained to understand the mind and body language of saying Yes.

I’ve deeply observed this Yes aspect in the last ten years in India. My habit in the West has been that people clearly choose to say Yes or No. Committing to Yes as to be 100% supported by your capability, which you can yourself measure. I’ve never faced a problem saying No when I don’t know. I’ve noticed that Americans, in particular, become enthusiastic to enlighten me if I say, “I don’t know, I want to learn.”

A few years ago, in a 360-degree, around-the-world research I did for a client, I had to meet senior management of diverse Fortune 500 companies to diagnose their industry. My client who’d fixed my meetings said none of the top business leaders had given more than 15 minutes time. So I accordingly made questions for 5 minutes only to record them in the next 10 minutes. My questions were so embedded with curiosity that I ended up spending almost two hours with my interviewees. They were engrossed and sincere in parting with knowledge. In a couple of meetings I even had to beg leave as my next appointment was already scheduled. This vast learning from global business leaders of different industries was indeed helpful for me to present my client with strategic planning inputs that allowed the client’s business to move ahead. It proved that if you sincerely admit you want to learn, it’s not a defect. It encourages those who teach to unleash their generosity.

In contrast, people in India hesitate to say No. I’ve analyzed 8 types of Yes saying reasons: Satisfying the hierarchy; Respecting elders; Complacent arrogance; Guilt; Escapism; Avoiding weakness; Fear of expression; Baggage of British colonization.

1. Satisfying the hierarchy: Saying Yes Boss without assessing one’s own capability is very common. A subordinate can be a boss to others, so this lack of capability can cascade down to several subordinate layers.  Without substantiating capability, the boss guarantees some delivery to the super-boss. If you’re the super-boss and have slept easy on your subordinate’s commitment, you could be exposing your business to grave danger. The more you delay verifying the reality of that Yes, the more business sedimentation you will create. As a boss in any layer you have to assess what’s happening behind your subordinate’s Yes factor. Otherwise don’t be surprised if things collapse!

2. Respecting elders: Our cultural nuance is to revere people older in age, without considering competence. When this stretches to the Guru, whether in music, literature or art, a learner has to respect the teacher like a god of boundaryless competence, and always be submissive. Both understand the one-way discipline, top down. The guru cannot imagine his disciple can become better than him yet subliminally the guru feels insecure.

3. Complacent arrogance: Just to prove a point, people challengingly say yes even though there’s no substance there, just make believe. This complacent arrogance to temporarily overcome a crisis without considering the long-term can have a debilitating impact.  Later when market reality emerges to the contrary, the business takes a hit. Such Yes masters disturb Indian industry in both renovation and innovation in product and service.

4. Guilt: To avoid confrontation, some people say Yes. These salaried people guiltily realize they don’t have the capability required for the job. So they camouflage the situation with glib, neutral statements that are neither negative nor positive so nobody else discovers their incompetence.

5. Escapism: It’s quite shocking when I hear managers admitting to a market mistake, but in the same breath happily pointing to their competitors making the same mistake. This amounts to escaping from the problem, shrugging off responsibility for defects, instead of correcting those deficiencies.

6. Avoiding weakness: Those incompetent at work are the best at glossing the apple. Upholding Indian tradition of obeying the superior, they affirm they’ve given the right orders. Then they turn around to blame subordinates for non-execution. This very dangerous political game of not owning up to accountability or correcting incompetence takes a company squarely into mediocrity. 

7. Fear of expression: Our feudal heritage leads to the boss becoming a lion and subordinates having little choice but to say Yes to protect their livelihood. Their mundane jobs get scant respect, their craftsmanship no appreciation. They rarely have scope to learn more. Fear of expression is the killer for the bottom and mid level working force, driving them towards hierarchy deference, and impacting operational and maintenance areas of business. If you’re oblivious to their hidden reasons, you could be waiting indefinitely without the job being done.

8. Baggage of British colonization: Colonial British influence has so weakened our country’s backbone as to make the Yes very vulnerable. Thankfully, colonial “Ji Huzoor” no longer works with the sub-30 Zap generation. Let’s hope it’ll vanish in 10-20 years, making Yes more pragmatic. One day the HR person of a client company where I’d recommended hiring Zappers to contemporarize operations complained to me. He said when the CEO wanted his computer adjusted, he called a 24-year-old IT engineer who fixed it in a jiffy. Then in innocent amazement the Zapper said, “You’re the CEO, and you didn’t even know this simple fix?” The CEO was intelligent enough to take his bewilderment positively and appreciated the youngster. But the HR person’s attitude was somewhat reminiscent of colonial days. He said these brash Zappers were disturbing the company’s work ethic and throwing protocol out the window.

Dear Reader, please let me know if you have identified more Yes nuances to add to my list.

To download above article in PDF Yes = No = Yes

Financial Express link:http://www.indianexpress.com/news/yes-no-yes/1141578/0

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Posted on 07-07-2013
Filed Under (WOMAN) by Shombit

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

“I gave my beauty and my youth to men. I am going to give my wisdom and experience to animals,” said the world’s most enigmatic femme fatale, Brigitte Bardot, former actress, singer, now an author and spokesperson committed to animal welfare. She walked away from silver screen razzmatazz at age 39, at the height of her fame because, “Animals…are an easy prey, as I have been throughout my career. So we feel the same.”

Brigitte Bardot, 78, has withdrawn her threat of exile from France that I had written about last week. The French Government met her and other activists’ demand of not killing two unwell elephants at Lyon zoo. Monaco’s Princess Stephanie has offered to house them. Clearly, Brigitte’s unswerving dedication to the cause she’s committed herself to is quite remarkable. Let’s take a look.

Commitment to be herself, a femme fatale:

Bébé, meaning baby, is how the French articulate BB, that’s Brigitte Bardot. Her first husband, director Roger Vadim, projected her naïve, innocent spirit that’s resplendent with wanton passion in And God Created Woman in 1956. She’d been making obscure films with different directors since 1952, but Vadin was convinced his wife had inherent talent waiting to explode. Having lived with her, he observed her real character and wove it into a story in association with producer Raoul Levy. The film opened with BB lying naked on her stomach on sand, reading a book. It shook international box offices, triggering her recognition as the most beautiful, provocative actress of all time. The world’s first sex symbol was born; it established Vadim as a successful director. “I am not an actress. I can only play me – on and off the screen,” BB said later, “My wild and free side unsettled some, and un-wedged others.”

Her commitment is absolute, without a fault: “When I love…I give myself entirely. And each time it is the grand love of my life.” She’s loved 4 husbands. Lovers she’s allegedly magnetized all happen to be creative persons, the famous ones being singer-composer Serge Gainsbourg, Mick Jagger, Sacha Distel, Gilbert Becaud, actors Jean-Louis Trintignant, Sami Frey, Marlon Brando, Warren Beatty, Sean Connery, artists Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, sculptor Miroslav Brozek, writer John Gilmore; even matador Luis Miguel Gonzalez Lucas. There’s a story about how, during her scorching affair with Gainsbourg, she had to fly to Spain for shooting Shalako with Sean Connery. Before her distraught departure, they swore eternal love with a blood pact, writing love words with each other’s blood. At first she was hysterically longing for Gainsbourg, but by the end of the film shoot she’d found another lover. Her innocent query: “Do you have to have a reason for loving?” She does not hesitate to change men, saying, “It is better to be unfaithful, than faithful without wanting to be.” She plays by her own ferocious rules, “I leave before being left. I decide.”

Actually Vadim’s film is reminiscent of the great Marcel Pagnol, the first filmmaker elected to Academie Française in 1946, France’s highest recognition in liberal arts. His films became my route to understanding rural culture in my adopted country, France. His artistic sense was extremely pictorial, embroidering village life and social system of French Provencal people. He chose local rural actors to get their real accent and culture. Using this style, Vadim threw Brigitte Bardot’s sexually liberated personality into Juliette, an orphan among the rich and the poor in the luxurious French Riviera surroundings of St Tropez. This distilled the local flair of French Provence. Juliette’s behavior and body language were true to BB’s character. Her Mambo dancing in the film made it evident that BB was a trained ballerina since childhood. To Vadim’s credit is converting BB’s upfront rural character into paradisiacal amorous scenes, making his film forever memorable.   

Vadim’s film revealed that BB’s extraordinary glamour is guiltless. “I am shocking, impertinent and insolent. That’s how it is,” she says. Reputed director Jean Luc Goddard, among others, has admitted that And God Created Woman was the beginning of French new-wave films. In fact it very sensitively captured BB’s affection for animals from an early age. When leaving her adopted parent’s home to elope, Juliette sets free her pet rabbit and bird. But when the boy ditched her, she lovingly recoups her pets. 

Commitment to animal welfare:

“I only live in the world of animal protection. I speak only of that. I think only of that. I am obsessed,” BB admits. Selling her personal property and jewels she’s formed Brigitte Bardot Foundation to campaign for animal rights. Using her fame she promotes animal protection through donations in over 40 countries: in India for street dog sterilizations and training of vets, conservation of Hainan Gibbons in China, care of donkeys in Tanzania, saving turtles in Madagascar, stopping sale of animal furs, animal tested cosmetics, foie gras, horsemeat in Europe and slaughter of whales in the Antartica, among many worthy causes. She even wrote to US President Barack Obama to stop seal hunting permits.

BB is criticized for not maintaining her beauty with age as Sophia Loren, Catherine Deneuve, Gina Lollobrigida and Claudia Cardinale have done. But does she care? No; she has no stylist for her hair or make-up, and just wears black. The media often portrays her ravishing 18-year-old portrait alongside her current 78-year-old image. For me, her beauty is not plastic; it has inner depth. So whether 18 or 78, her personality remains the same; this icon’s commitment is the vedette (star).

Emerging just after World War II, sensational “sex bomb” BB had incredible influence over creative people in the Western world. This captured her genuineness, commitment, purity and expression of total creativity. During her artistic career she gambled with men’s love and sex cravings; now she’s raising the clarion call to protect animals, especially from cruel cultural practices. She summarizes herself, “I am really a cat transformed into a woman… I purr. I scratch. And sometimes I bite.”

To download above article in PDF Purity of commitment


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