Whether it’s leaving his job as the CEO of Proctor and Gamble, or revisiting the moral lessons of the Mahabharata in his book, The Difficulty of Being Good, Gurcharan Das continues to chart unorthodox waters in his quest to combine "knowledge of history, philosophy and sociology" to better understand today's world in general, and India specifically.
Why did you choose to retire early and become a full-time writer?
Well, there were a number of reasons. For one, I had worked for 30 years and when I reached 50 I thought it was time to do something else. I enjoyed my work, but there was a big world outside and it was time to do something else. At the time, reforms had taken place and I saw that nobody was selling them to the people. So I became a cheerleader for reforms.
Also, there is only so long an adult can come to work and look at the market share of Vicks Vaporub, Pampers, Tide, and Ariel (laughs).
What leadership requires more than thought is action. What’s more important than intelligence is determination and willpower.
What's your take on the govt’s recent reforms?
They are not sufficient. They are just the beginning of what’s needed; there are many more to do. And they should have been done five years ago. But it's not just reforms that’s needed. Look at our whole process of approvals that leave so many projects stuck. You don't need reforms to make sure that the coal arrives in time for a power plant.
Will a revolution be required to change things?
I don’t think there will be a revolution. In fact, I don’t think a revolution is a good idea because once revolutions are unleashed, they can get out of control. Sixty-five years of democracy has created a lot of safety valves. Also, it won't happen because of the nature of our country, our democracy, and the temper of our people. We are not a revolutionary people (laughs). We are a little more relaxed; we are a tolerant country.
The Anna Hazare movement is really a movement against corruption. It’s a movement that is the voice of the new middle class, of the IT people. And they are impatient. They have tasted success through their hard work and they see the contrast between private success and public failure. So they ask: Why can't we make our public life the way we have our private life'?
Talking about IT folk, will the IT industry continue to strengthen India?
It will continue to be a driving force. The entire IT and ITeS industry will be a driving force, at least for a couple of decades.
Can technology help achieve the new state envisioned in your book?
Of course I think that technology can help! E-governance is about technology. The Aadhaar/UID project is about using technology to improve governance. What technology does is it creates transparency. The corrupt thrive in opacity rather than transparency. If you put all land records on the Internet, then a lot of the source of corruption goes away.
Technology creates transparency and that helps accountability. It also removes human errors, so it contributes to efficiency.
What can the government learn from how Indian IT companies are run?
The lesson is that you require a strong, decisive, determined executive. What we are missing in India, what we forget in our constant drive for accountability, is that the state was created to act. It's this action that we have forgotten. Let me give you an example. The Anna Hazare movement was meant to bring about more accountability. But that drive for accountability has paralyzed the executive. Bureaucrats are scared of putting their signatures on paper because they think that 10 or 20 years from now someone will catch them for something.
Switching to enterprises, how should business leader's view technology?
I think it's always necessary to be open-minded. Human beings, as they get older, tend to get comfortable with what they have. It’s the youngsters who want the latest cellphones and the latest technology. It's very important to be open, flexible, and to be able to learn continuously. Technology expects you to be a student for all your life.
What advice do you have for today’s managers?
I’d say that looking at the example of Manmohan Singh is a good lesson for all CEOs. What we can take from the example of Manmohan Singh is this: What leadership requires more than thought is action. What’s more important than intelligence is determination and willpower. Manmohan Singh has a Phd in economics from Cambridge, but look what a failure he has been as a leader because he just didn’t have that determination. He showed that determination only once on the nuclear deal and just now in these modest reforms.
If you’re hiring somebody keep in mind that intelligence is an over-rated virtue. Don’t look at their resumes, and be awed if they came out of IIT or IIM or at the top of their class. You have to find out whether someone has fire in the belly; whether that person has the quality of determination, and the stubborn willingness to stick to the issue.
Can the Indian economy grow by 7 to 8 percent, as you have forecast?
Our base case is 7 to 8 percent growth. I think that our savings rate is still high; it’s over 30 percent. Our investment rate has to pick up because the economy is far stronger than the investment sentiment. Initially, the investment sentiment was high, then it lowered because of government paralysis. It will recover in time.
One of the things we have to understand is that India is a consumer-driven economy. For a consumer-driven economy interest rates are very important since people have to take mortgages for houses, take loans for cars, or motorcycles, or scooters. Our interest rates went too high and they have to recover. I think they will normalize, and if they normalize we will be back to growing.
What can we take away from Singapore's style of governance?
We can take a lesson in how they reformed their bureaucracy, their judiciary and their police. All that Singapore does very well. They have a meritocratic bureaucracy.
For our bureaucracy, the entry point is meritocratic. But after you get in, then everybody gets promoted at the same time—everybody. They don't differentiate whether you work an hour a day or 12 hours. Everyone is rated good and outstanding, as a result people who don’t work, or perform poorly, or are lazy, also get promoted at the same time and get the same increments as the others. So then employees start asking why they work or why they can’t be absent.
We can learn good governance from Singapore. The principles of good governance don’t depend on whether you are a dictatorship or a democracy. Those principles are technical principles of merit, of rewarding merit, and of punishing failure.
Eric Ernest is correspondent. Send feedback on this interview to email@example.com