Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Secrets Behind How Oommen Chandy Survived - Exclusive Interview with CM of Kerala

Seasonal Magazine interviews Oommen Chandy, Chief Minister of Kerala State.

"Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive." So wrote a business manager and author in the early 90s. The last four words became one of the best-known success paradigms of recent times, in everything from careers to business to politics. Not because it was very intuitive, but because the guy who said it had done the impossible.

Fleeing from communist Hungary to escape persecution, this Jewish youngster would land up in America, educate himself, get employed with a start-up, and turn it into the world’s 7th largest company with 64,000 employees, registering a 4500% increase in market cap, and making its founders, himself, and its early investors billionaires and millionaires. That is how Andrew Grove built Intel.

Counter-intuitive to the market wisdom of greater trust, win-win, and all such stuff. Until Grove said that, paranoia was a mental affliction, and paranoids were sympathetically viewed.

Grove ‘suspected’ everyone, from competitors to associates to employees. He equated someone wasting a key officer’s time to someone stealing an expensive office equipment. For Grove, every decision, every thing depended on raw data.

India too had many ‘Andy’ fans, most notably NR Narayana Murthy who used to tell about meetings, “In God we trust, everyone else brings data to the table.”

But it goes to his credit that for all his paranoia, Andy was one of the most approachable Big Business CEOs ever, shunning the corner office, always working from a small worker-cubicle, and allowing colleagues to argue and shout at him. Andy also never owned a jet, but had a modest home, a modest car, and a modest life.

Still, the counter-intuitiveness of Grove was telling. Not that “only the paranoid succeed.” But that, “only the paranoid survive.” Even mere survival required paranoia in Andy‘s wisdom! 

Now, try telling that to politicians. At least 99% would readily agree. From Washington to New Delhi to Thiruvananthapuram. After all, isn’t that what the success of K Karunakaran, EK Nayanar, AK Antony, or VS Achuthanandan taught us? All of them were alert, suspicious, and paranoid to a great extent.

Now, try telling that to Oommen Chandy. He wouldn’t agree.

Even after he has paid a heavy price in 2013 for not being paranoid about stuff that other leaders would have been paranoid about.

Speaking to Seasonal Magazine exclusively, Chandy says, “I tend to take people and issues at face value, with sincerity. Let people prove otherwise.”

Even after a few of his staff have been suspended and put under investigation for allegedly helping the solar scamsters, Chandy is unrepentant. Is it arrogance?

Nobody who knows the current Kerala Chief Minister up-close would blame him for that character. He also can’t be arrogant, given his Government’s wafer-thin margin in the Kerala Assembly, and the belligerent attitude of his UDF partners as well as of competing groups in Congress itself.

Live political debates in various TV channels have also been merciless on him. How can they be otherwise, given that much of Chandy’s problems have come from within Congress and UDF.

Channels can do nothing but make merry when it is the likes of Ramesh Chennithala or his followers who publicly ‘suspect’ that Government is going soft on arch-rival LDF in key cases like TP murder and another one against Achuthanandan’s son, in lieu of LDF calling off a massive protest seeking Chandy's resignation. Outspoken KM Mani aide, PC George, nor the ever-smiling PK Kunhalikutty has also not made CM’s life easier.

Everyone has been trying to extract their pound of flesh using Chandy’s besieged status.

Kerala Police, which has never been immune to political patronage has in the last couple of years turned more complicated in its allegiances, often dictated by even Congress group rivalries.

But despite all this, Chandy has survived all odds, till now.

Is it because of the impending general elections, and Sonia Gandhi unwilling to upset the apple-cart before elections? Or is it because even his detractors think that Chandy is better than any of his potential replacements, any day? Or is it because of the all-out support he enjoys from the all-powerful AK Antony? Though all these factors are helping Oommen Chandy remain the CM, there are also unmistakable leadership traits that are unique to him, that no politician in Kerala has ever had.

When Seasonal Magazine trailed him almost for a whole day, for this interview, this was apparent to us.

Chandy, who will soon be 70, was tired beyond description when night came, having travelled to Kochi from Thiruvananthapuram during the day, and having attended a lengthy public function of SmartCity, besides a few other commitments. The interview was finally re-scheduled at 10:30, but at the last minute Central Minister Vayalar Ravi called upon the CM, prompting CM's PA to suggest us another wait.

It was past 11 PM, when Oommen Chandy ushered us into his room, after caringly bidding bye to the senior and junior police officers who had patiently waited for him to retire.

Chandy was already in his night dress, ready to retire as soon as our interview was done and over with. Still, the moment he started replying to our questions, his energy returned, and his clarity on a wide range of issues we asked were startling for his age and the approaching midnight.

If we felt guilty of making him stay awake, we reminded ourselves that he was a person who has done it umpteen times, not just with a couple of probing journalists, but with thousands of people thronging him for submitting their petitions, often at odd hours and public functions, as part of his uniquely successful Jana Samparkka Paripadi (JSP), a mass contact program which won him a United Nations award. Grassroots level contact is a uniquely energizing exercise for a politician, indeed.

The second key trait of Chandy is that ever since he assumed office, he has spared no efforts to push all the large transformational projects like Kochi Metro and SmartCity, so that they can be completed on schedule. For this, he had also roped in some of India's best administrators and planners like E Sreedharan, KM Chandrasekhar, and Sam Pitroda. Clearly, Oommen Chandy has turned professional, which is usually not a trait found in most past Chief Ministers of this state.

Though we had interviewed former Chief Ministers, and even this Chief Minister before, this time it was totally different. Oommen Chandy was more candid, more combative, but restrained and realistic with regard to Kerala's performance.

In the end, at around 12 AM, it was we who felt exhausted as Oommen Chandy comprehensively answered all our questions, before wishing us a good night’s sleep.

The key takeaway was simple. Paranoia is not his style. He trusts everyone, meets everyone, works with everyone if possible, and tries to build that difficult consensus in every decision.

But in a world where only paranoids survive, will Chandy survive?

But then, even the father of paranoids - Andrew Grove - has failed dramatically during the last ten years. The paranoid company that he built, Intel, has been totally wiped off from the smartphone and tablet processor market by the ARM Coalition, a broad group of small and large chipmakers led by a small British firm, ARM Holdings.

So, maybe even those who aren’t paranoid can also survive.

Seasonal Magazine in conversation with Oommen Chandy, Chief Minister of Kerala:                     

(Interview and feature by Jaison D and John Antony)

Today must be a happy day for you, as the Raghuram Rajan Panel report has reiterated that Kerala together with Goa are India’s most developed states. How do you view this development?

Yes, it is a happy day, of course. But the point is whether we should be satisfied with such a recognition, however true it is. I will tell you a quick example. When a student with the potential to win the first rank, comes home with a first class, will anyone be satisfied? Maybe compared with students who failed, or who were placed in second or third class, one can argue that it is a satisfactory performance. But is it really so? This is something that all Keralites should be asking themselves.

You mean to say Kerala has squandered away many potentialities?

Exactly. And this squandering away of opportunities have been going on since Independence. I don’t know whether you are old enough to remember, but there was a period, post-Independence, when India was a food-deficient nation and we had to depend on US donor programs like PL480 and all. From that sad state of affairs, the nation planned well ahead and systematically advanced through various stages of the agricultural revolution, so much so that, within a few decades India became a food-surplus nation that exports significant quantities of food grains. But sadly, Kerala had no role whatsoever in this achievement. Why? Because, some parties here were fighting the introduction of tractors and mechanisation, ostensibly for protecting worker interests. But will such short-sighted measures ever work? The irony today is that whatever paddy cultivation we had has dwindled seriously, mainly due to shortage of workers. And this is not the only such instance in Kerala’s post-Independence history.

Can you elaborate?

What was the response of these same parties to computerization? Didn’t they fight it tooth and nail for long? Again, their short-sighted logic was that computers would kill jobs. But see what happened to our next-door neighbours, Karnataka. In fiscal year 2012-13, their IT and allied exports stood at a whopping Rs. 1.35 lakh crore. Our number for the same period would be just around Rs. 5300 crore. And instead of the job-losses these parties feared, Karnataka has created over 8 lakh new well-paying jobs in the IT and allied sectors by embracing computers at the right time.

But is it reasonable to expect that Kerala would have been as successful as Karnataka, if we had welcomed computers early on?

Why not? With our fondness for higher education and English skills, we should have been the natural destination for software revolution in this country. Even today, are the vast multitude of engineers who power Bangalore’s software companies, hailing from Karnataka alone? We all know that a significant percentage of them are Keralites and from other states. So, it is very clear that we could have done it as successfully as them, had we encouraged IT companies at the right time.

Any other area where we have squandered away our possibilities?

Higher education is something that readily comes to my mind. This had an even more serious impact, because the long-running resistance to private higher education resulted in tens of thousands of crores of rupees flowing out of our state for decades. For certain parties and their student organizations, higher education always had to be free or heavily subsidised. How long can a government do that? Government can only subsidise for the needy or meritorious students. Since the Government was incurring huge expenses compared with the small fees being charged, expansion of seats in government sector became next to impossible. And that resulted in this outbound money flow, and other states becoming richer at our expense. Finally, it was the AK Antony led UDF Government that allowed self-financing professional colleges, and it was a welcome relief. Still, much more needs to be done, as some percentage of our students are still going outside for better facilities. We are also yet to significantly attract students from other states to come and study here. We can pretend that we have high standards of education. But the reality is that when it comes to higher education, we are nowhere.

But overall development of a state has other criteria too, like health and primary/secondary education, where Kerala ranks high…

I am not disputing that, as we are indeed much advanced in such areas. But it is not really a new phenomenon, as Kerala’s pursuit of health, hygiene, school education, English language skills etc predates even the Indian Independence. We have just continued with that culture, but we have not built up on that further, like for advancing our higher education standards. That is what I meant.

It can’t be disputed that the backbone of Kerala economy is the NRK remittances. Isn’t it high time that Kerala started preparing for an eventuality that many expatriates will have to return? And won’t that hit Kerala economy severely? What is our Plan B?

Yes, in fact, we should have started our preparations long back. The Saudi Nitaqat is a case in point. Due to the negotiations Kerala had with Saudi Government, the time was extended once, and even that deadline is getting over now. The government is now preparing some plans for rehabilitating the Saudi returnees. But on a larger canvas, we would be addressing such issues in a more comprehensive way, so as to find lasting solutions. Developing entrepreneurship and skill-sets for the workforce will be the two major initiatives in this regard.

Can you describe each of these initiatives in more detail? You have been a great proponent of entrepreneurship and start-ups. But why does the state harbour a narrow focus on telecom and IT? Don’t we need start-ups in every field?

Yes, we need to be more inclusive, and it has already started happening. We just started off with telecom and IT, around a year back, and the response has been tremendous, especially from student entrepreneurs, in these two fields. But we need to go further, and that is why recently the focus has widened to include travel, tourism, art, entertainment, hospitality, health, culture, farming, cinema etc. Around 1% of the state’s budget, which currently comes to about Rs. 500 crore, would be spent on supporting entrepreneurs, every year. This is the largest such annual budget allocation by any state government in support of entrepreneurship, so far. We have also decided to redesign the Kerala State Entrepreneur Development Mission (KSEDM) and re-launch it as a flagship programme with greater coverage. So far, the mission has succeeded in identifying 674 entrepreneurs for financial assistance provided by the Kerala Financial Corporation, out of which 200 have already started functioning. Our main aim is to transform many young job-seekers to be job-creators.

What are your plans for the second initiative, skills development for the workforce? Kerala is known to be very keen about a major push into the skills development arena for young people as per PM’s grand vision for the same i.e. 50 crore Indians to have productive skills by 2022. Can you elaborate on state’s plans?

This is another area where we are equally bullish about. Our plan is to follow a dual approach, which includes skills acquisition and skills enhancement. Two different ministries will cater to these. The Labour Department will run the Additional Skills Enhancement Programme (ASEP) for those who have dropped out from education and other youngsters not interested in a university program. And Education Department will execute the Additional Skills Acquisition Programme (ASAP), for those in Universities. But our interest in skills development goes much beyond doing our proportionate role of the national objective suggested by the PM. What we are foreseeing is that many states would find it difficult to meet their own targets due to poor facilities, and that for them, Kerala can be a national skills development destination.

The Cabinet has decided to use the expertise of retired hands, recently. Can you elaborate on this need and the plans to execute it?

This proposal was suggested by Sam Pitroda, Chairman of National Innovation Council, and Mentor to Kerala Government. The Cabinet found the suggestion very creative. Today, many employees are at the peak of their expertise when they are forced to retire at 56 or 60. We can’t let that talent go to waste, because they can fulfil many duties which the young may take years to master. This doesn’t mean that all retired personnel can be used. The focus will be on the really meritorious or outstanding employees whose skills can be put to good use by the state. The modalities of how to go about it would be decided soon.

Affordable health care has been one of the issues close to your heart. Don’t you think health insurance should be an integral part of this. With not even 20% of our population insured, how can it be really made affordable? What are your other plans for the same?

Today, if you analyze our population, the main issue is not education, employment, food, or housing. The situation has improved so much that such issues can be managed by most Keralites. But health care continues to be a real challenge except for the really well-off. It is not due to lack of hospitals. Kerala today has the best of medical facilities in India. But how many can afford a serious medical procedure? It can cripple the life savings of most households. This should change. This is not something peculiar to the state, but to the whole of India. That is why Kerala Government mooted the idea of ‘Right to Health’ in two National Development Council meetings. It is an original contribution from Kerala, and if it gets implemented, will provide a lasting solution to the prohibitive cost of healthcare in this country. Right to Health should be the natural next-step to Right to Information, Right to Education, and Right to Food or the Food Security Bill.

Kerala has recently decided to appeal against the Green Tribunal’s orders. How ecologically safe is such a move?

We are all aware that we shouldn’t pursue development at the expense of environment. Kerala is especially prone to environmental damage due to the nature of our land and climate, with landslides being a prime example of potential ecological catastrophe. But having said that, it is very obvious that we also need development, which most often will need the use of resources like land. That is why we are against the blanket rejection of any development by the Green Tribunal with regard to Western Ghats. That shouldn’t be the right approach. There is an environmental clearance framework in this country, which is one of the best in the world. Let projects apply for stringent environmental clearances and get approval if deserving. And all environmentally cleared projects should face no hindrance in execution. That is our stand, and that is why Kerala is appealing the blanket rejection against any development. This is especially important for Kerala as land is very scarce here. Such blanket rejection will cripple all development in the state. Environmental activism is appreciated, but development that passes environmental clearance will not be allowed to stall due to such activism.

Is there any area where you are disappointed with the way environmental activism has hindered development?

Mineral sand mining is one example. Studies suggest that Kerala is sitting on a huge mineral fortune without utilizing it. It is like, if the Gulf countries were unwilling to mine for oil. This should change. We should develop and pursue the ways and means to utilize our God given resources without harming the environment.

How do you view the issues faced by KSRTC? What would be the lasting solution to its woes? Don’t you think it is high time that an efficient crisis-manager kind of administrator is brought at its helm?

Today everyone is bashing KSRTC. But one thing we should remember is that KSRTC is not an all-out failure. Far from it, this state PSU has fulfilled many social obligations like subsidized transport for the masses, concessional transport for students and deserving people, providing service on financially unviable routes etc. Which private transport firm would run on a financially unattractive route? KSRTC has also helped in preventing travel charges from sky-rocketing in the state. So, much of KSRTC’s problem is not from within, but from outside, which means it is suffering because it has always catered to social obligations. That is why the Government will be holding its hand for as long it would take. This doesn’t mean that KSRTC doesn’t have any inefficiencies. It has inefficiencies, like any other state-owned company, and that would be improved. The challenges facing KSRTC is not small by any measure. For example, the pension expenses have surpassed the salary expenses, and there is no easy solution for it.

While your Jana Samparkka Paripadi has been a huge success, why can’t such an intensive proactive scheme be conceived for aiding big, medium, and small companies, and thus removing roadblocks for generating huge employment?

We are already doing it, as part of JSP and otherwise. The government remains always open and approachable. I always have time for hearing grievances of all, including industries. Maybe as and when JSP gets more institutionalized and it evolves, more formal structures for addressing the issues faced by companies can be implemented.

Narendra Modi is taking a keen interest in Kerala BJP these days, with his frequent visits. Do you foresee any kind of communal unrest or even riot due to this? Kerala has a backdrop of cases like Marad, while even top national Congress leaders are seeing the hand of Modi aide Amit Shah in Muzzafarnagar…

If there is one state where Modi’s tactics won’t work, it is Kerala. The state has proved it again and again, when it remain unperturbed even when many states were rocked by issues like Babri Masjid demolition. You cannot judge Kerala by the unfortunate incidents at Marad that happened long back. Communal harmony is a natural culture of Malayalis, and Modi or anybody else can’t change it. I am least bothered with his so-called influence. It simply can’t work in Kerala.

Do you feel upset when religious or caste based organizations like NSS, SNDP, Church, Muslim Organizations etc try to influence and threaten an elected government?

That is not the way how Congress sees it. A real Congress worker smiles when he hears such criticisms from various communities. Because, you have to think why such criticism is only directed towards Congress. It is because Congress is the only real inclusive party in the state. Every community is welcomed to work with Congress, every community’s grievances are heard and acted upon, and so every community feels as a part of Congress. We are never upset with such criticism, and always take it as constructive feedback to understand where all we can improve in meeting each community’s aspirations. We have a uniquely inclusive culture.

How do you view the recent move by some Islamic organizations in the state to lobby for making 16 as a legally acceptable age for Muslim girls in the state to marry?

Personally, I am against it, as I feel that the national consensus on 18 as the minimum age for girls of all communities to marry is a well-thought of rule, which should continue. It has served us well for many decades. I hear that some Islamic organizations in the state has now mooted the idea that it should be reduced to 16 for the willing. Some other Islamic organizations have also come up against it. So, it is a proposal at a very nascent stage. There is no need to jump the gun now itself, from the Government’s part.

Don’t you think UDF should have been more disciplined in public relations? Is it not true that if such a move had been taken earlier, it would have helped the UDF government in these difficult times?

UDF is a unique tie-up of like-minded parties, which has several advantages unique to it, like its democracy and consensus culture. What you are referring to, is its disadvantages, which are unfortunately inevitable.

With the Palmolein case now withdrawn by the Government, how do you view its 22 year old eventful history? Was it just a case of political vendetta?

It was never a significant case, and was pursued only for political advantages. The state hadn’t lost a single rupee due to the alleged issue. If the then UDF Government hadn’t acted swiftly, we couldn’t have been able to obtain palmolein  during that crisis period for edible oils, because only around 4 or 5 states were allowed to import using that special mechanism, back then. Many states were competing to be included in that one-off mechanism. And it dragged on and on, despite the last UDF government deciding to drop it. Anyway, we were just waiting for the High Court to confirm the findings by Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Bureau which absolved me of any irregularity as Finance Minister back then. We had to take this decision now, better late than never, as the careers of two senior IAS officers were unnecessarily being affected for over 20 years due to this politically motivated case. Even the Central Vigilance Commission had opined long back in this regard, that the cases against them be dropped.

You had always had excellent relations with media. But recently you were upset with the way visual media was going. Do you think any vested interest is at play?

I still have good relations with media. But the competitive landscape of visual media has changed dramatically in recent years. Each news channel is trying to outdo the other by providing so-called breaking news, exclusive coverages, allegations etc, which are often poorly researched due to the obvious time constraints. Visual media also pressures politicians to respond to daily developments on a live or instant basis, creating further controversies. But I don’t think there are any vested interests or concerted efforts to undermine the government. They target Governments because, there is nothing to be obtained by targeting the Opposition Parties. I see it as a marketing game, but eventually the public will see through this game.

Are you upset with the huge official time of yours being taken up by the various allegations of scams? Don’t you think your focus on developmental issues have taken a back seat due to these scam allegations? Are you satisfied with the progress of Kochi Metro, Smart City, and other such major projects in the state?

First of all, let me make it very clear that my time or the government’s time is not taken up by these allegations at all. All key projects like Kochi Metro and SmartCity are right on schedule. Today, as you know, I am just back after publishing the revised and approved plan for SmartCity. The first building will be ready by December 2014. Kochi Metro is also racing ahead for its firm commissioning by June 2016. It would be the first time that projects of such a large scale would be commissioned on schedule, in this state. The solar scam is not a serious issue at all. Was there any loss to the Government? No. Did the Government help the accused in cheating anybody? Not at all. The only thing is that some of my staff’s call records had calls with the accused. That is not conclusive proof. A CM’s office and assistants get numerous and repeated calls due to the busy nature of his work. Is there any proof that the alleged staff made any illegal gains out of this? No again. But the opposition parties and some sections of the media exaggerated it beyond any imagination. Anyway, we have ordered a full enquiry, and a judicial enquiry as well. We have also removed all alleged staff from their posts. We won’t meddle in the investigation at all. It will proceed free and fair. No accused will be protected if found guilty.

Smell of another scam is here, with regard to the arrest of Fayaz PK for gold smuggling. Do you now think that more care should have been taken while selecting people for key assistantship posts to CM?

Most of the staff were reasonably well-known people, and reasonable checks were also done regarding their integrity. But can we be absolutely sure about anyone before appointing? I tend to take people and issues at face value, with sincerity. Let people prove otherwise. Action will be taken. I am of the opinion that nobody should be victimised just on hearsay.

Should Kerala expect a major style-change from Oommen Chandy?

The style in which I operate has its advantages. I am a hands-on leader, who is most comfortable meeting with hundreds of people with grievances, every day, often at odd hours too. If I change style and turn extremely cautious, I can’t meet even 10 people on a day. What if one or two people I meet during a day, among the hundreds, turn out to be insincere? I can’t be held accountable for that, as long as I haven‘t done them any undue favours. But I am not planning to sacrifice the opportunity to meet the remaining thousands of people, just to avoid a couple of bad elements. It is simply not my style of functioning. I don’t think that is the way any grassroots level politician should function either.

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