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There is an old thumb rule in the tech industry which says that you can get at most only two out of performance, quality and price in any given product. For example, if you get low price and high performance, chances are that the product is sold by an inferior brand. If the product is sold by a great brand for a low price, then it’s likely that its features are limited. And so on. I call this the rule of three.

There may be a similar rule that applies to leaders, especially the political ones. I think you can get at most only two out of charisma, integrity and performance in a leader. By charisma, I mean an intrinsically trustworthy and likable person who has the ability to inspire large numbers of people. Manmohan Singh, for example, is not a charismatic leader. Ronald Reagan was a charismatic leader. By integrity, I mean things like not being corrupt, honesty, truthfulness and similar traits. Bill Clinton, for example, would not rank high on the integrity scale. By performance, I refer to an ability to govern and execute. Vajpayee’s stewardship of the national highways project, for example, is quoted often as an example of excellence in execution.

If we applied this model to Indian leaders, it seems to work well. Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi were not the best of administrators. Sardar Patel, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Narasimha Rao lacked charisma. Indira Gandhi lacked integrity. Atal Behari Vajpayee is the only one who comes somewhat close to having all three, which probably is why some consider him the greatest prime minister till date. Manmohan Singh displayed governance and integrity early in his career, as RBI governor and then Finance Minister. His last five years as Prime Minister are notable for their deficiency in all three areas of charisma, integrity and governance.

In 2014, we will likely evaluate three prime ministerial candidates: Arvind Kejriwal, Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi.  Kejriwal appears to possess charisma and of course, has built a campaign around his personal integrity. Inexperience in governance is his weakness. Narendra Modi scores on integrity and governance fronts, but comes across more as a polarizing force than a unifying one. Rahul Gandhi appears to be the straggler in this mix, possessing at best personal integrity and at worst, none of the three. That doesn’t bode well for Congress. If his party were to somehow win, it wouldn’t then bode well for the country. We can’t afford yet another leader who scores zero on three.

Can you think of any leader, either in politics or business, living or dead with all three? Please use the comments section to nominate.

I’d like to share something that I’d written a while back as my little ‘ommage to the master of humor, PG Wodehouse himself.

This is a re-telling of a story from Mahabharat, about Pitamaha Bhishma and my conjecture of how he came to take a terrible oath of celibacy. The tale is written in an irreverent Wodehousian style and might seem a tad too irreverent to some. My apologies if this offends you, though I do sincerely believe that it will not offend. I count myself among the many admirers of Devavrata who was renowned for his sagacity and resolve.

Two days back, I had posted Part 1 of the tale with the intent to post the remaining 4 parts over the next few days. Clearly, I hadn’t thought this through. A few wrote to me saying that a week was too long to wait for the rest of the story to unfold, and breaking it up into pieces was disruptive to the reading experience. So, I have published the entire version here on What Ho! in one place, so you can do what you deem fit – either read it all in one go or bookmark and read it when time permits.

Here it is – the full version of “A Man of His Word” Hope you enjoy this! cheers.

Here’s the link to part 1 of the Maha Kumbh Mela series if you want to read it first > Part 1

Day 3

When we set out for Ram Janma Bhoomi, I don’t think we knew quite what to expect. It’s fair to say that we were surprised, even stunned by what we saw. Before I get to that, here are a few of my thoughts as context, related to the questions of “Did Sri Ram exist? Who built the mosque? Was it built by destroying a temple which stood at that site?”

Did Sri Ram exist?

Believe it or not, this question crops up every once in a while. At the root of it is the argument that Sri Ram is a mythological figure, and that there is no historical proof that he existed. And by extension, the question of things such as birthplace, etc. is void. This is a slippery slope. If we go down this path, we’ll have to tear down every temple, church and mosque in this land and convert them into strip malls. I don’t think that any reasonable person disputes the value brought by the Puranas to the Hindus or by the Quran to the Muslims.

The question of if God exists or incarnated on earth is out of bounds to all except the believers. We must respect belief and put this question aside.

Who built the mosque?

I haven’t yet read Babar Nama, the diary of Babar. Who better than Babar himself to hear from? Apparently the pages from the relevant period of Babar’s life have gone missing from the diary, and the rest has no reference to Babri Masjid. Also, there does not seem to be definitive proof that Babar had the mosque built. There are accounts of Aurangazeb having done it. The accepted version seems to be that Mir Bakshi Khan, one of Babar’s underlings, built the mosque on his boss’s orders. In any case, there seems to be no dispute that the Babri mosque was built by the Mughals, though architecturally it pre-dates the Indo-Islamic style which came into vogue during Akbar’s era.

The answer to who built the mosque is irrelevant to the dispute. Let’s ignore it.

Was the mosque built by destroying a temple which stood at that very site?

This is the central, unavoidable question of the dispute. Naturally, there have been frenzied attempts by several camps to prove things one way or the other. If interested, you should read up on this. There’s plenty of information available on the internet and in books.

We live in a country where it is hard to prove your own birth place if you should need to. Something tells me that we’re going to have a hard time proving Sri Ram’s birth place. To arrive at a sensible solution, there’s no point in trying to decipher specific details of what happened in 1528. The only approach can be to look at patterns and trends instead. In other words, if we don’t have reliable eye witnesses, we must look at circumstantial evidence.

It was standard modus operandi for Mughal rulers to demolish temples and build mosques at sites which Hindus considered sacred (Kashi, Mathura, etc.). Speaking as a student of history and an objective observer, this fits the pattern of an aggressive new conqueror attempting to stamp his authority and power by replacing ‘your God with mine.’ The Ottoman Turks converted the Parthenon in Athens into a mosque until they lost control of the city. This has happened pretty much in every part of the world where there have been conquerors and vanquished. The temples of the gods of the vanquished have always been collateral damage. One of the first things a conqueror must establish is fear. And the best way to create fear is destroy the temples of the Gods of the defeated, and demonstrating courage by inviting punishment for the sin. There is nothing right or wrong about this. It’s just the way things once were.

I’m pretty sure that no one is going to fall out of their chairs in surprise if it is somehow conclusively proved that the same approach was taken by Babar in Ayodhya as well. If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it must be a duck; even if the duck was born in 1528.

Ram Janma Bhoomi

Coming back to our trip, I mentioned our surprise and shock. We live in a world where it has become commonplace to conduct our religious business while under the supervision of armed forces. We expected heavy security. That was not a surprise. There was a failed attempt in 2005 by terrorists to breach the wall here. So, in a sense, I appreciate the extra vigilance that is being maintained in Ayodhya. That we were body checked a half dozen times seemed a tad excessive. There are snipers in watch towers watching us as we walk through what I can only describe as crude metal cages, which are frankly claustrophobic and a public safety disaster in the making. I wouldn’t fancy anyone’s chances of getting out of these cages alive if there were to be, say a fire or a stampede. I wish we did better. Surely pilgrims deserve to be treated better than being herded like Holocaust victims in a concentration camp. I exaggerate not.

After about an hour of queuing through the cages, we finally caught a short glimpse of Sri Ramachandra Murthy, who has been graciously accommodated inside an Army tent. The story of Sri Ram and Sita-ji is about upholding dharma and dignity in the face of trials and tribulations. Perhaps it is fitting that their devotees have to undergo the test too.

My take

Are courts designed to resolve religious disputes?

The current approach of placing such a monumentally emotional decision in the hands of the courts is flawed. Courts are good at making binary decisions when there is reasonably solid evidence (or lack thereof). Courts are meant to enforce the laws of the land. They are good at interpreting rules, not creating them. They are not designed to make subjective judgements and interpret history. Courts don’t work well when it comes to arbitrating emotional issues or deciding relative merits. Plus, it’s not fair to place the burden of such a decision, and potential security hazards such a decision may bring about, on the shoulders of a handful of judges. Fear for personal safety may delay or distort decisions. It’s time to disengage this issue from the judiciary.

A group of villagers listening in rapt attention to a bhajan in Ayodhya A group of villagers listening in rapt attention to bhajans at a store in Ayodhya

Or should this be a decision of the nation’s collective conscience?

The Ram Mandir decision is one that has to be driven by the collective conscience of the Indian people. And the people who represent the public and thus its conscience are unfortunately our MPs. We have no other choice but to force them to get involved. There ought to be an attempt to construct a multi-party bill and take it through the Houses, which is then voted upon by our representatives. While I’m all for keeping the affairs of the state separate from affairs of religion, I must admit that the train has left the station, with the matter already in courts which effectively are government bodies. If a resolution were to be drafted and made to go through the Houses, it would be interesting to see how our representatives vote on the issue. It will give us a sense for how much they are in touch with those they claim to represent. It will give us an idea of how fair and balanced we are as a nation. Our best option to arrive at a sustainable solution may only be a legislative one.

The ball has been set rolling. Where will it stop?

There is a beautiful part of Kambar Ramayanam in which the Tamil poet describes how ‘all the sins of Raavana over the centuries accumulated and manifested as a single white hair on King Dasaratha’s mane.’ Upon seeing the white strand, the long reigning king realized that the time had come to hand over the throne to Sri Rama, thus triggering the sequence of events which eventually led to Raavana’s demise.

Similarly, the sins of the Congress party over several decades may have manifested themselves in the form of the alimony petition brought forth by Shah Bano in 1985, which was then upheld by the Supreme Court. The ensuing protest by Muslim conservatives led Rajiv Gandhi to amend the constitution to effectively limit the powers of a secular judiciary from delivering judgments in conflict with Muslim personal law. The amendment created yet another backlash, this time by the Hindus. A ‘balancing’ appeasement measure led to the opening of the mandir at Ayodhya, which had been under lock and key for a good part of 200 years. The ball which was set rolling by Shah Bano in 1985 may well lead to the eventual end of the 125+ year old Indian National Congress as we know it.

As Chairman Mao famously replied when asked what he thought of the French revolution, “Let’s wait and see.”

Do share your thoughts. I remain open to insights, counter viewpoints and new information as always. Please note: Comments denigrating or mocking religions, religious heads or beliefs will be deleted.

Would you take the trouble of going to a place where lakhs of people gather and jostle for limited space and other resources, and incur obvious health risks posed by such an environment?

A bunch of us did. And this is my account of that.

Why?

It’s hard to explain why we chose to go to the Kumbh Mela. It’s one of those things which, once you allow it to seize your imagination, will not allow any negativity to be associated with it. We were a group of five college classmates used to travelling together. We made the decision in January to go, and we never had a second thought about it.

A lot of people go to Prayag to celebrate the Kumbh Mela. They go for many reasons. There are the millions of pilgrims, who come with belief and hope of absolution. There are saints and ascetics who descend from the mountains to renew their vows. There are the onlookers intrigued by the notion of belief and fascinated by the spectacle that is the Kumbh. I think we started as onlookers and crossed over into the zone of hope by the time we left. The way it turned out, we kept aside our cameras, mobile phones and facebook and twitter accounts for the most part and allowed the sensory experience to take over. There is something liberating about just seeing something as it transpires, and not being burdened with having to capture it anywhere but in your memory.

The Plan

We executed on a straightforward plan. We flew into Lucknow and drove to Allahabad. And with Allahabad as the base, we made round trips to Varanasi and Ram Janma Bhoomi on two separate days. The third day (Maha Shivaratri) we spent with Ganga-ji and Jamuna-ji at the Triveni Sangam in Prayag. I’m glad to say that things went without a hitch.

I’ve divided the account into three portions covering our experiences in Varanasi, Ayodhya and at the Maha Kumbh Mela in Prayag.

Disclaimer: This was my first time travelling in Uttar Pradesh. For those of you familiar with that part of the country, my observations may seem trite. Apologies in advance.

Part 1: Varanasi

Day 1: Impressions of Lucknow-Allahabad

The first thing that strikes me on landing in Lucknow was – this could not be Lucknow! The Charan Singh airport is pretty nicely done. No paan stains in corners. And when you come outside, there aren’t any unruly mobs or vehicles like a typical Indian airport. Shame on me for having these images of Uttar Pradesh being filled with dark caves, and Neanderthals roaming around with clubs over their shoulders. The roads are magnificent! Lucknow appears better than Bangalore or even Chennai, at first glance. Mayawati gets credit for this, we were told. Of course, we were just driving out of the city through the cantonment area and had not yet gone into the city. We did eventually go into Lucknow on our final day, which altered the impression slightly towards being like any other town in India. But the positive impressions linger.

The drive to Allahabad (pronounced I-laha-bad by locals) took us a little over 5 hours. We took the longer route via Kanpur, which seems to resemble an industrial and less attractive cousin of Lucknow. Traversing the roads tells you that you’re in UP, where casually driving on the wrong side of the road seems as normal as ambling to a corner dukaan for a chai. Vehicles, broken down or not, can occasionally be found parked on the fast lanes of major highways. If you can’t handle this sort of thing, I guess you’re just not cut out for the Darwinian jungles which are this state’s highways.

Upon arrival in Allahabad, we checked into the neatly maintained, friendly looking Chinmaya Mission ashram, which is about 10km away from Prayag. Awesome rotis and hot daal later, we turned in for the night. The town is empty. There is no sign of a Maha Kumbh mela here. Although this could change on Shivaratri, I can’t say we’re complaining about the lack of crowds yet.

Day 2: Varanasi, the timeless city.

Today was a day in which things didn’t go per plan, and yet everything turned out brilliantly.

First, we get off to a later start than planned. En route, we take a detour to Sita Marhi, where the consort of Sri Rama was embraced by mother earth. And by the time we reach Varanasi, it is late afternoon.

As we drive through Varanasi, the mind fills with images of how it must have once been. Legend has it that Varanasi is the site of the first Jyotir Lingam. A place where Lord Shiva appeared as a pillar of fire stretching between the earth and the sky. The mystical significance of Varanasi was established even before Ganga-ji had an opportunity to appear here. One of the holiest towns in the land lying on one of the greatest rivers in the world, Varanasi was also an important trading destination. It was ruled by eminent kings and filled with prosperous merchants who patronized art and intellect. Imagine standing in the bazaars of Varanasi two thousand years ago. They were filled with the foreign tongues of adventurous Greeks, Parthians and Scythians who would come from Mathura and then travel eastwards along Ganga-ji to the famed Pataliputra.

On the dip in Ganga-ji, what can I say about a simple act of contrition other that you feel its momentous nature only when you immerse yourself into the mother of rivers and engage in the experience. I don’t know if a dip in the Ganges washes your karma away. But watching everyone there, you get the sense that surrendering to Ganga-ji is about asking for a second chance and about renewal of faith in a power higher than the self. And the Lord knows we could all use some faith and a second chance.

Gangaji at Varanasi

We must have stood in line for over a couple of hours before we got to glimpse Kashi Vishwanath-ji for the briefest of a minute. As you enter the temple through its heavily guarded entrance which lies below the ground level and walk past multiple checkpoints with diligent soldiers with rifles who frisk you repeatedly, that’s when you begin to grasp the sacred significance of the reigning deity of the second oldest city in the world, whose name fittingly means ‘the lord of the universe.’

The Kashi Vishwanath temple structure has been destroyed by invaders and rebuilt many times. Mohammad Ghori, Qutb-ud-din Aibak and Firoz Shah Tughlaq were the early invaders. Akbar rebuilt the temple (through his minister Todarmal) which was destroyed yet again by Aurangazeb, who built the Gyanvapi mosque in its place. Ahilya Bhai Holkar, the Maratha queen, rebuilt the temple which stands today. The reign of Aurangazeb lasted 49 years, the reverberations of which have been felt over hundreds of years. The Gyanvapi mosque stands vacant today, a mute testimony to the misguided emperor’s failed attempt to erase a way of life in a city, both of which have an insurmountable, timeless nature to them. I have more to say about this in the context of Ayodhya and Ram Janma Bhoomi, to be covered in Part 2.

Coming soon: Part 2 – Ram Janma Bhoomi.

Here’s what I will do.

  1. Day 1 morning: I will conduct my swearing-in ceremony at 9am on a Monday over video conference from my desk in the office, while finalizing a proposal to completely eliminate paper money in five years. The bill will be taken to Lok Sabha by 11am. It will be passed within 15 minutes because every MP who votes for it will be “creatively rewarded” for doing so. Rajya Sabha MPs will be arrested if they don’t vote for the proposal.  Eliminating paper money will effectively eliminate bribes, kickbacks and theft of public money. Now that I’ve solved the problem of corruption in the first 2 hours of assuming office, I will now don my bullet proof vest and move onto other matters.
  2. Day 1 post lunch: Unknown to everyone, I will have sneaked in fine print in the aforementioned proposal which will impose a mandatory 1-term limit on every elected official in the country. This term limit will stay in effect for 50 years. In other words, no one will be allowed to return to any elected position irrespective of whether they have done a good or a bad job. I will thus have stripped the incentive for crooks, thugs, criminals, perverts, cheats and liars to become career politicians and increase their influence. Instead, this will lead to ordinary citizens stepping forward to represent the people by donating 5 years from their careers. They will hopefully make decisions in the best interests of the country. I will announce this in a nationally televised press conference, during which I will release my  own post-dated resignation letter with a legally binding commitment to not contest elections at the end of my tenure.
  3. Day 2: I presume that today will be Bharat Bandh, supported by all political parties including my own, who will all be deeply unhappy with me. I will smile wistfully as I prepare for a direct televised address to the people of India. In the address, I will inform citizens that rules of voting have been changed as follows:
    1. If a citizen is qualified to vote and is found to be not registered to vote, a fine of Rs. 10,000 per unregistered voter will be collected from the winning candidate in that constituency.
    2. If a citizen is qualified to vote and is registered to vote but has not voted, that citizen will be arrested if they use Facebook to bitch about me.
    3. Citizens will be asked to pick their top three voting issues. They will be given an exam for 100 marks on these issues. Votes will be assigned weighting based on marks in the test. For example, if a voter obtains 75 on 100, his vote will be assigned a 75% (=75/100) weight when counting. Voters will be assigned ranks based on their marks and they will vote in the order of the rank received. Voters obtaining 100% will be unconditionally granted the Bharat Ratna and allowed to treat the State Raj Bhavan as their personal guest house.
    4. I expect Kota and Hyderabad coaching centers to be set up by enterprising entrepreneurs to help citizens crack the voters exam and improve their ranks. Once these centers become successful, I will nationalize them.
  4. Day 3: It’s likely that the country has descended into shock and chaos by this point, and Arnab Goswami has been taken to the hospital after suffering a heart attack. I will take the day off to golf. This will give everyone time to ponder options about how they can get rid of me.
  5. Day 4, morning: I expect to have the login credentials with passwords for all Swiss accounts held by Indian citizens, from the team of four B. Tech. computer science students from IIT Madras whom I have hired for this purpose. The five of us will spend the morning sipping hot cups of coffee and silently transferring money from all the accounts into the government treasury. I expect to net $1.2 trillion dollars or higher. I will publish the final audited figures here on What Ho!. Each citizen will be mailed a check for $1000 equivalent in Indian rupees along with a box of Swiss chocolates within 14 days, through registered post, acknowledgement due.
  6. Day 4, Post lunch: I will announce a bill that will provide the constitutional rights to every citizen to 1. Drive on the wrong side of the road 2. Never have to stand in queues 3. Receive refund with interest to every Ram Gopal  Verma movie he may have seen in his life. I will also announce the appointment of superstar Rajnikant as the only minister in my Cabinet. He will hold approximately 64 portfolios at any point in time, and will be assisted by fresh IIM grads. I expect these measures to create an unstoppable wave of popularity that will overwhelm and remove all ill-will I may have created on Day 2.
  7. Day 5: I will conduct a triumphant Rath Yatra in four major cities during which I expect to be mobbed like Justin Bieber by school children. Songs from Dabangg 1 & 2 will be played at full blast wherever I go.
  8. Day 6: On this day, I will move with the purposefulness of a lion and the speed of a cheetah.
  9. Day 6, 11am: A call center with approximately 100,000 employees will be in place, made possible with the help of Airtel. These call center employees will call every elected official in the country to get status updates on projects. For example, “Have you fixed those three potholes on 2nd main 4th cross Koramangala?” will be repeated every 2 hours with the local councilor until the job is completed. A fine of Rs. 1 lakh will be levied on any official who does not answer the call.
  10. Day 6, 1pm:  I will now grandly announce that we have nabbed Hafiz Saeed and Dawood Ibrahim through “Operation LeT Them Come To Us.” This operation will involve luring the duo to Mumbai on the promise of a Hindustan Times Leadership Summit keynote speech and a personal, warm interview with Barkha Dutt on NDTV.
  11. Day 6, 4pm: I will attend a special screening of Viswaroopam 2 only because both Kamal Hassan and Rajnikant invited me to join them, and that’s the way I roll.
  12. Day 6, 9pm: I will pour myself a stiff one, lean back on the sofa and watch the 1983 Prudential World Cup finals through the night in loop.

Day 7  onwards: Now that I have accomplished every goal I had set out to, I will spend the rest of my term solving the following more complex and intriguing problems, which pose a clear and present danger to the country’s well being:

  1. Can we get a minimum of 3 fast bowlers who can bowl at 140kmph+ into the Indian cricket team?
  2. Can we somehow ensure that neither Laloo Prasad nor ND Tiwari produce any more progeny?
  3. Nitin Gadkari & Khaki shorts: Can this be made to NEVER EVER happen again?
  4. Can we constitutionally levy super-taxes on any person who spouts uninformed opinions on Twitter?
  5. Can we work with the scientists at CERN to investigate Rahul Gandhi to identify specific skills, if any, that he may possess. These CERN guys found the God particle. This should give them an even bigger puzzle to solve.

Jai Ho. God bless India.