Scoring self-goals

Written by Arindam K Bhattacharya | Updated: Jun 29 2013, 08:12am hrs
Last week I had the opportunity to hear Hillary Clinton, former First Lady and Secretary of State of the United States, at our Global Partners meeting in Boston. She left a powerful impression on me with her candour and perceptiveness on the enormous issues facing the world today, and the failure of our leadership to address them effectively. Her message was simple: the essence of leadership, be it political or corporate, is to make the world a better place for our children and grandchildren. In the short term, the key to this is to create more and better jobs for our people. Everything else should be geared for this. She went on to talk about the challenges faced by the US, both on the political and economic front, and shared her optimism for the future with the discovery of shale gas which has changed the entire economics of energy and manufacturing, and recent moves in Congress to forge bi-partisan support on key issues.

Shale gas has been the game-changer for the US and the country is embracing it wholeheartedly despite many environmental challenges, and is regaining its economic momentum. The US has already recovered the jobs lost during the recent economic crisis and is creating many more. We also have a game-changer in Indiaour vast young population and their growing consumption. We leveraged their consumption story to grow at around 8% in the 2000s and became the toast of global elite at the World Economic Forum, Davos, and investors around the world. But instead of building on this strong platform to create the 200-million-odd jobs India desperately needs in the next decade, we have shown a serious propensity to score self-goals to not just undermine this story, but potentially kill it at least in the immediate future.

The stark reality of the dramatic change in the external perception of India was brought to me at our partners meet by the questions posed to me by my colleagues, and to my wife by their wives. Many partners asked me why our growth rates have fallen to around 5% with no real sign of rebound, and why has our currency depreciated so fast They spoke about the instability of our investment climate and tax regimes and that their clients are becoming increasingly negative about investing in India. On the social side, my wife had to field questions on safety of women and children in India given the frequent and incessant reporting of unfortunate events in the media.

This raised two questions in my mind First, is this the image we want to convey to people outside India, be it investors or an ordinary person on the road, and do we care what they think about us Second, do we care enough for our young population to bring a single-minded focus on creating more and better jobs as described by Hillary Clinton in her definition of leadership

Mrs Clinton went on to make another important point on leadership. She said that the hallmark of a political leader is to think beyond winning the next election and decried the hold of straw polls and news headlines on policy-making, or rather the lack of it, in the US. It seems to me we are not very different in India; in fact, in some areas even more driven by breaking news. Pick up a newspaper or open a news channel in India and, more often than not, the breaking news or the headlines will tell a negative story. An economic or social rape story is being literally beaten to death with many pundits offering expert views. As a media leader recently told me, Indians love mental voyeurism and the Indian media is giving it to them.

Of course, reporting these negative stories is a legitimate way of highlighting the issue(s). Yes, when an FIR is filed against a senior industrialist or a bureaucrat, it is news. But it is equally important for the media to wonder why legitimate businessmen making tens of thousands of crores of investment have to pay speed money to get their investments implemented on the ground or to get access to raw materials which make these investments viable. After all, these investments create hundreds, if not thousands, of new jobs and should be welcomed by our leaders. Most of these folks are not corrupt by choice but are often coerced by the governance processes. When the news reports or TV channels flash their accusations as breaking news, we should also be raising the uncomfortable question of what forced them to break the law also as breaking news.

Clearly, we are failing the test of true leadership as articulated by Mrs Clinton. We are not focused single-mindedly on creating jobs. And our political leadership seems tied up managing the fall-out of one scam after another, creating or chasing headlines rather than focusing on the well-being of future generations.

Finally, I cannot resist a word on the media. I am not an expert but if I go by the questions posed by my partner colleagues and their wives, I wonder what kind of India we want to project to our own people and to the world outside. Are we a country of only scams and rapes or a country which is witnessing a human revolution with the largest number of people in recorded history coming out of poverty and making a better life for themselves Are we a country of negative stories or also a country of young people with high aspirations To me, the latter is an equally if not a more powerful story to tell, a story that energises and not demoralises, a story that attracts investors and not drives them away. Hillary Clinton, thank you for reinforcing in me these simple truths about leadership.

The author is managing director, the Boston Consulting Group. Views are personal