Monday, February 4, 2013

Need is Not Rahul or Modi, But a Government of Professionals

The rise of Rahul Gandhi in Congress and that of Narendra Modi in BJP has been simultaneous. While Rahul's rise is an after effect of Congress workers yearning for someone young and charismatic after Rajiv Gandhi, the rise of Modi is seen as the result of BJP workers thirsting for perhaps the only leader who can make the party win against UPA's and third-front's tactics. The heightened demand for new leadership now is due to increased chances of Congress deciding on a snap poll soon after the Budget. But whether these leaders finally end up as frontrunners for Prime Ministership, the need of the hour is that whichever party wins, the new government should include professionals from all core sectors of innovation - like science, technology, engineering, and mathmatics. Indian politics has always been dominated by other professionals like lawyers, economists, and of course, career politicians, and their very nature of being non-innovative has been India's curse. Also of importance is selecting professionals with formidable track-records in their own fields, and it will go a long way in stopping the rot due to be being governed by career politicians who haven't done anything productive or professional in their lives, apart from staking a claim of being leaders of masses.  

USA recently grabbed world eyeballs for coming up with a new legislative proposal. Award green cards for all those who complete a postgraduate degree in science, technology, engineering, or maths, the so-called STEM fields, from any US University.

Indian and Chinese media were suddenly abuzz with excitement, with commentators from both countries claiming that the largest beneficiaries would be students from their own countries.

Very true. But the excitement was as though India and China were going to be the beneficiaries.

Far from it. Here is what Republican Lamar Smith, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, and the proponent of this bipartisan proposal had to say, "Cannot afford to train these foreign graduates in the U.S. and then send them back home to work for our competitors."

Competitors. That is how US views China and India. Period.

But that is not the issue. America is awakening to the supreme realization that they need to steal young talents in STEM from the world over, and make them US citizens, if they are to sustain their global economic leadership that still now seems invincible compared with the rest of the world.

Now, that is what is called foresight. Remember, these are the same legislators who would oppose any move to allow more H-1B or other employment visas to the Chinese or Indians.

Focus on pilfering global STEM talent also reveals two other aspects. Firstly, America can take care of its own in other core developmental academic fields like economics, management, business etc. Affluent American youth is not keen to pursue academically tougher fields like science, engineering, & maths.

Secondly - and this is the key point -US policymakers foresee that it is leadership in science and technology that will create long-term value addition to the economy, nation, and standards of living.

Maybe this is an inevitable backlash to the first decade of this millennium, when economists, bankers, and businessmen emerged as the new key leaders of world society. That emergence, in turn, was natural, emerging from a decade (1990-2000) that ended with Y2K debacle and started off with the dotcom burst of 2000-01.

But are we having too much of economists, bankers, and businessmen, these days? India has so far aped US in this regard, and looks ripe for a US-like course correction. The newfound American love for STEM was accelerated by the dubious role economists, bankers, and big businesses played in the 2008 financial crisis.

The problem with economists and bankers is as the saying goes - if all you have is a hammer everything looks like a nail.

Just look at the way even the Indian media and public mindspace have been hijacked by these economists and bankers, during the last several years.

What is our biggest problem? Anyone who reads newspapers or watches TV would blurt out - Fiscal Deficit. Our second biggest problem? Current Account Deficit. And what can be done about them? Government should turn its fiscal levers and the central banker should turn its monetary levers.

Bullshit. When earlier in our history have we sat as a nation, eager to know whether the RBI Governor would be kind enough to turn his interest lever a notch down on a particular date? And applaud when he invents smaller and smaller increments to do it?

Bullshit really. Is that our big problem or our big solution? Absolutely not. But our economists and bankers have conditioned us to believe this kind of crap.

What is really our big problem? Zero innovation. What is the only solution? Innovate aggressively.

When was the last time economists, bankers, lawyers, or activists invented anything?

Starting from the humble wheel, none of the human inventions that prospered the world, like - tools, printing press, fertilizers, automobiles, electricity, anaesthetics, light bulb, telephone, antibiotics, television, computer, space science, internet, and mobiles - were by any of these guys.

At best, the only thing that economists and bankers successfully invented was modern fiat currency in the 1970s, by which money lost its intrinsic value or convertibility to gold! And in a sense, that led to all the subsequent asset bubbles and crashes including the tech bubble/bust, realty bubble/bust, derivatives bubble/bust, and the ongoing gold bubble that is yet to burst.

And what has lawmakers and lawyers ever invented? Tons of jargon, and a maze of legalese that ensures that the common man will never master it enough to obtain justice, even while the ‘adjournment machinery’ ensures that it is a profitable profession for all involved.

This is not to degrade any profession - be it economists or lawyers. But it is high time that the society realizes that economists, lawyers, or bankers alone can’t solve our problems. At best what they can do is administer professionally, and tweak the system a bit when necessary. They can never be expected to invent or even innovate.

That is why we need a more inclusive government of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. Just think of the enormous inspiration that was unleashed when Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam was made the Indian President. Reading his ‘India 2020’ is a refreshing change, as that is about progressing as a nation through science and technology, by using innovations like wind power and solar energy, and not about progress through tweaking interest rates.

Similar was the case when Rajiv Gandhi followed technocrat Sam Pitroda’s suggestions to unleash the telecom revolution, much earlier in the country. A more recent example is how rapidly and smoothly software technologist and Infosys co-founder Nandan Nilekani implemented the Unique Identification (Aadhar) system. Distinguished railway engineer E Sreedharan is another glowing example, who as Metro Man, was pivotal in the success of Delhi Metro and other such projects. Sreedharan continues to be in demand, even in his senior age, having been inducted by Tatas as a Board Member in one of their Trusts, apart from his professional service in Kerala.

In a recent brilliant article, titled, ‘Why We Can’t Solve Big Problems‘, Editor of MIT Technology Review, Jason Pontin compares the Apollo Program that put the first ever men on Moon with the history of innovation since then. He rightly finds that compared with the Moon Mission, nothing since then has ever come close in human achievement. Pontin attributes it to several factors like, President John F Kennedy’s ambition to defeat arch-rival USSR, huge public funding, a coming together of diverse scientific and engineering talent pool, public-private partnership, and military style administrators for the project. Apollo is said to have achieved in 10 years what was destined to take a 100 years or more.

Feats such as that are possible by India too in more productive fields. But it needs a lot more than economists, bankers, and lawyers. Are our political leaders listening?

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