Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Forbes India: Why India's CEOs want Government jobs

I chanced upon this really interesting cover story by Forbes India. I was elated to read this 4 page story. I am reproducing the first page with a link to the story, at the bottom of this post. We only get to see and hear about the ills of our government. It is good once in a while to read about what people who strongly feel about 'making a difference' are actually doing. This is the story of Dr. M M Singh and his team and the roping in of private industry stalwarts like Arun Maira, Nandan Nilekani, Shailesh Gandhi and Raghu Raman. Will they be able to make a difference in the lives of common citizens? Some of them are already doing it, and I do wish them well and pray that their breed continues to grow. The cover story by 'Malini Goyal' follows: -


The Mission: Member, Planning Commission. To help the government evolve better policies on urbanisation and industrialisation.

The Difference He Makes: As a consultant, he can locate systemic problems and provide solutions. He is already helping the Planning Commission overcome its inward-looking mindset and open up to feedback from the outer world.

Key Insight “The biggest thing that hits you here is the scale. Anything that you do affects millions of people.”


Arun Maira was on a holiday with his wife. He was on a train in Prague when his phone began to buzz. In normal course, he would have been hard-pressed to recognize the caller’s soft, gentle voice amid the rattle and roll of the express train. It was the Indian Prime Minister on the line. Maira had been alerted about it just 15 minutes earlier. In fact, his idyllic vacation had suddenly turned topsy-turvy that morning with an urgent mail and a call from his college batch-mate and deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia.

Ahluwalia had come to the point straightaway. “The PM would like you to join the Planning Commission. You have rich experience in industry.” Both surprised and taken aback, Maira enquired politely, “It is an honour. Tell me who thought of me.”

“The PM asked for you himself,” Ahluwalia said. “He would personally like to invite you. I am sorry to bother you on your vacation. But are you okay to take a call from him?”

Maira was glad to agree but since he was out sight-seeing, he asked for enough time to rush back to the hotel. But not even 15 minutes had passed when the PM’s call came through. “Arunji, would you accept the invitation to the Planning Commission?” Dr. Manmohan Singh asked. “We need growth which is much more inclusive.” The PM also told Maira he would have a minister’s rank as a planning commission member.

Shailesh Gandhi got his wake-up call some five years ago. Till then, he was running a successful packaging firm with more than 500 employees and a clientele that included many blue-chips. Then one day, an alumni meet changed everything for him. One of his professors chided him: “You used to be so critical about the society. What now? Things have only gotten worse. What have you done?” It tugged at his conscience. By 2003, he had sold off his business and become a Right-to-Information (RTI) activist. He reckoned he could shine the spotlight on governments and force them to be more transparent and improve their performance.

In August 2008, Gandhi heard from his activist friend Arvind Kejriwal. The Manmohan Singh government was appointing four information commissioners. “Why don’t we nominate four, five names from civil society?” Kejriwal asked. Gandhi’s name was one of them. One day, he got a call from Prithviraj Chauhan, minister of state in the PM’s office, inviting him to come on board. He agreed. “Why not be an insider and make a bigger difference rather than just criticising from the outside?” he asks.

In June last year, military veteran Raghu Raman felt he had finally got the break he had always aspired for. He became the CEO of Mahindra Defence Land Systems, a Mahindra-British Aerospace joint venture, a position he had coveted for long. Raman joined M&M in the 1990s and seeded its security business in 2000. Instinct told him it was the right place and the right time to be in, given the growing security awareness around the country. “Everything felt just perfect,” he said.

The moment didn’t last long. In the wake of the 26/11 terror attacks, the government decided to set up a national grid that would link up all the intelligence agencies in the country, under the leadership of Home Minister P Chidambaram. Raman was one of the candidates being vetted by the government to head the NatGrid.

For a while he could not make up his mind. Of course, there was no comparison between the government job and the M&M assignment in terms of money and perks. Besides, taking a plunge would mean giving up the thrill of leading a growing company. Speaking to friends didn’t help. “Some said I am mad to even consider a government offer,” he recalls. Others thought it was a great opportunity. For a while he was torn. But his employers were supportive: “Where is the doubt? You have been called for national service. It’s an honour,” a proud Keshub Mahindra, the chairman, told him.

The government took its time to vet the candidates and complete its due diligence for the critical position. It also gave Raman time to make up his mind. “Once I gave my commitment, the clarity emerged. The amount of difference a civil servant can make [to the country] is of a different caliber altogether.”


The Mission: To launch the world’s most ambitious national identity project.

The Difference He Makes: Renowned networking specialist. Understands building consensus is the first step to bringing big change.

Key Insight: “It is just that the processes here have more cholesterol in them than we are used to. I am not unduly worried about it. That’s a legitimate part of democratic process.”

Nandan Nilekani got his call from the PM towards the end of May 2009. Singh first offered him a Planning Commission job, but Nilekani said he was interested in a more independent role where he could make a larger impact. Leaving Infosys would be a big decision and he could do that only for a challenging assignment. The PM asked him to meet him in Delhi two weeks later.

When told about this, the co-founders of Infosys agreed that this was a significant opportunity for Nilekani and gave their assent without any hesitation.

On June 15, he met the PM privately at his 7, Race Course Road. The meeting lasted half an hour. Singh offered him the role of Chairman, Unique Identity Authority of India, with a cabinet minister’s rank. He would report to the PM and have the freedom to bring the best minds from outside for the project.

Within 10 days, Singh cleared the papers and informed the Cabinet. Within a month, Nilekani was on board.


Maira’s first day at work turned out to be a huge culture shock. He has been given a modest but spacious office at the commission’s headquarters, Yojana Bhawan, replete with a big dining table and the familiar red-green lights outside his room.

Continued at the original site here.


BK Chowla, said...

Absolutetly,the govt and the babus have failed the nation.
Getting experts from the pvt sector seems to be the only answer.

Balvinder Singh said...

In December last i had attended a seminar at Delhi. Capt Raghu Raman had been invited to conduct a session on a related subject. The other speakers included some industrialists, bureaucrats and also some foreigners. He was far above the rest in confidence and clarity of thought.

There is no dearth of talent in our country, only it needs to be tapped. The problem with our governance is that most of the times there are square pegs in round holes. Right person has to be put in right place.

Thanks for sharing.

Piper .. said...

Sir, it is highly encouraging to read this. But tell me, how many actually want to get involved in politics? The whole arena seems so dirty and corrupt, that it seems impossible for honest people to even try and attempt to bring about a decent change.

J P Joshi said...

BK Chowla: I would not go as far as you to say that they have 'failed' the nation, but I would subscribe to the view that they have put personal interests before national interests, in most cases. This always happens when we have bad systems leading to no cross checks, and poor accountability. The private sector can surely help in devising better systems; to remove the excess cholesterol from the system, like Nandan Nilekan says.

With better systems in the case of the railways, and competition from the private sector in telecom and aviation, I have seen positive changes happen in the railways, telecommunications, and the aviation sector in my lifetime; other sectors are too going through the reform process - I for one am confident that this process will accelerate once the middle class in India crosses the 50% mark; the taxpayer base increases to a respectable figure, like in the developed economies - and that day is going to happen in my lifetime.

I hold a very positive view of our institutions at a macro level - they have done us proud; yes, I too am frustrated at the micro level and that can only change when WE all change, one citizen at a time - it has to be an inside out change - our politicians and babus are part of us, and sadly but surely represent us.

J P Joshi said...

Balvinder: I agree with you but I also believe that things are happening in the right direction now, and this process is only going to accelerate in the coming years - irrespective of which party comes to power - our politicians have done a great job of holding this diverse nation together; of reconciling seemingly irreconcilable differences - there is no other nation like this on this planet at least.

Many years ago I had read a book and remember two thoughts from that - 'a govt.'s job is to legislate and enforce legislation and not get in to the means of production that can be done more efficiently by the private sector'. This is happening and things are changing too, slower than we would like but then our diversity would not let it happen any other way - naxalites, farmer suicides are symptoms of reforms not reaching the lowest in our society.

J P Joshi said...

Piper: I firmly believe that politics is the art of reconciling divergent views & expectations, and is not inherently bad. However the way it is practiced by a majority in India makes it bad. Professionals are finally realising, like Arun Maira says, every action affects millions and that should be motivation enough for people to want to serve the underserved millions in India, specially people who have fulfilled their personal dreams and ambitions and that seems to be only way out of the mess that we are in in politics, and we should encourage and support it, if we cannot particpate in it. Politics does need honest people, and Dr. Manmohan Singh has quite a few good ones in his team. Let us look at the good also that happens due to our politicians.