Power Partnerships

This weeks Mint Lounge is a quirky take on Power Couples.  It includes parent-child partnerships along with the usual spouses one.  When my editors told me to write on “Power Couples,” I wrote a sneering, snarky one that was (again) at attempt at humor.  Thankfully, this meeting happened and I attended.  So I asked if I could refile and substitute that one for this.  Here is the piece on Mint’s website and below.  I hope BPAC flourishes.

 

The future belongs to power partnerships

You need a mascot, power broker, driver, doer and bridge-builder to start a movement
Shoba Narayan

N.R. Narayana Murthy. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint.
Last Sunday, at 11am, about a hundred Bangaloreans filed into the compact auditorium of The Energy and Resources Institute (Teri) in Domlur. I went because ace swimmer Nisha Millet and epicureanStanley Pinto had invited me. My husband came because co-hostT.V. Mohandas Pai had invited him. We scrambled to reach on time because N.R. Narayana Murthy was the chief guest and he is known for his punctuality. Sure enough, at 11.01am Murthy asked, “Why aren’t we starting?”
It was the launch of B.PAC—the Bangalore Political Action Committee, India’s first and possibly only effort by private, influential elites to influence public policy. On stage was Biocon’s Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw, B.PAC’s president; Pai, its vice-president and trustee; former state additional chief secretary, K. Jairaj; political candidate Ashwin Mahesh; and in the centre, Murthy.
How to start a movement? You need a mascot, power broker, driver, doer and bridge-builder. B.PAC has them all and you can figure out who plays what role from the above list. Pai said they have enough funds to last five years, always a good sign and one that is necessary to sustain a movement. Mazumdar-Shaw is a long-time Bangalore advocate and activist. She is at the stage in her career where she seems to be moving increasingly into philanthropy. Pai is trying new things: venture capitalist, influencer and backer of projects. B.PAC fits right into his current portfolio.
Act two: Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw. Photo: Jagadeesh NV/Mint.

They all made speeches outlining what B.PAC was about. Most impressive of all were the speeches by Jairaj and Mahesh, which carried the charismatic ring of natural politicians. Both began in the vernacular, “Ellaruge Namaskara”, and switched to English. Jairaj treads many paths. I have seen him at the Ramaseva Mandali Carnatic music concerts in Chamarajpet. A well-respected IAS officer who also takes risks, he has done stints in Princeton and Harvard, US. Mahesh is an ex-Nasa (the US’ National Aeronautics and Space Administration) scientist who wants to run for elected office. Together they know the workings of the Karnataka government and have the political savvy to get things done.

The other smart thing about B.PAC is the alliances it has forged with existing urban reform agencies, all listed under “Friends of B.PAC” on its website . There is SmartVote, co-founded by Prithvi Reddy, that aims to improve voter registration and the election process. Reddy stood on stage and fed bytes of information to Pai during the event. Other “Friends of B.PAC” include Daksh, Imagine Bangalore, OneBengaluru, and Prajalytics. This subjugation of ego is a strength in Bangalore where countless reform agencies and NGOs function in silos, all thinking that they are masters of their domain. Bangalore, with the possible exception of Mumbai, has one of the most well-intentioned citizenry in all of India. Waste management: check. Solid waste expert Kalpana Kar is on it, as are countless other building committees. Kar is part of B.PAC too. Other core B.PAC members include danseuse Vani Ganapathy; fashion choreographer Prasad Bidapa; sportspeople Ashwini Nachappa, Millet, and Charu Sharma (Prakash Padukone was in the audience); Inventure Academy founder Nooraine Fazal; brand expert Harish Bijoor; theatre-people Prakash Belawadi and Stanley Pinto; lawyer Harish Narasappa; and R.K. Mishra, who was listed as a “doer”. The spectrum of people involved in this initiative is a huge plus. Typically, activism tends to attract like-minded individuals whose approach towards doing things is clonal. B.PAC will have to find consensus amid its creative modes. Put a fashion type, a dancer, a CEO and a lawyer in the same room and see what ensues.
After the launch, I stood outside in the sun-warmed lawns of Teri, chatting with V. Ravichandar, possibly one of Bangalore’s least egotistical do-gooders. Ravichandar works behind the scenes of many of Bangalore’s initiatives including the recently concluded Bangalore Literature Festival (its co-founders were in the audience for B.PAC’s launch too). We spent a good 20 minutes gossiping about ego and social initiatives.

There are three types of good samaritan initiatives in Bangalore. Most common are the small, quiet do-gooders who work in their church or community to make this city a better place to live. They have a deep footprint like Cheshire Homes or a relatively new one like Head Held High. Some seek scale; many don’t. The second kind includes large, well-funded social initiatives that are branded or associated with either one or two people. These are well-known social initiatives that get press footage and have worked in one area for years. The only complaint that could be made against them has to do with silos and hubris. They work alone and they are loath to share the limelight. But they are effective. Bangalore has a few dozen of these. B.PAC’s challenge will be to figure out a way to get them on board. The last kind is the informal and occasionally transient citizen networking groups, neighbourhood RWAs (resident welfare associations) and social media networks. These can be harnessed and taught to become more effective.

Bangalore, like Chennai, does not do well with ego. It likes self-effacement in its celebrities. Delhi has a larger appetite for flamboyance and grandstanding. B.PAC’s immediate agenda is to support (suitable) political candidates in the coming elections: a fantastic goal. In order to succeed long term, B.PAC’s founders have to get two things right: figure out how to include a widening array of citizens while keeping the intimate nature of a community (the book, The Dragonfly Effect, should help); and more interestingly, figure out how to keep individual egos in check.
Power couples are so yesterday. Power partnerships are the future.
Shoba Narayan will likely join B.PAC. She is looking forward to a hybrid between a fashion show, a Bharatanatyam performance and a Million Man March from its founders. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com

About Ashwin Mahesh

  • Columnist
  • Posted: Thu, Mar 15 2012. 7:12 PM IST
Being a good citizen is something that we urban elite think about and struggle with. How do you become a good citizen? What are your rights and responsibilities?

The Good Life | Shoba Narayan

How does a bystander become a stakeholder? That’s what this column is about. Some time ago, I got an email from a woman who lives in my building. Tara was supporting a Lok Satta party candidate, who is contesting the Bangalore Graduates Constituency in the Karnataka legislative council (MLC) elections to be held in a few months. She invited me to meet the candidate, Ashwin Mahesh.

 

Visionary: Mahesh seems sincere and is clearly competent in getting technology projects done. But will that translate to politics? Jagadeesh NV/Mint

Visionary: Mahesh seems sincere and is clearly competent in getting technology projects done. But will that translate to politics? Jagadeesh NV/Mint

 

I had heard of Mahesh. Bangalore, like most Indian metros is—in the end—a small town. A colleague had seen the traffic camera system Mahesh had installed for the Bangalore police and had come away impressed. Cameras at this city’s intersections are able to zoom in on licence plates and catch offenders, stopping speeding taxis in their tracks. I had heard that Mahesh was involved in the development of Bangalore’s 180-odd lakes and had designed the Big10 bus system (which connects 10 major Bangalore roads to the city’s outer ring roads) along the arteries of Bangalore. Even so, I was hesitant to go. Frankly, I had enough on my plate and helping an election campaign was not something I wanted to do. How do you become a good citizen? What are your rights and responsibilities? 

I struggle with this idea—erratically enthusiastic. Mostly, I feel impotent because I am not sure that my ideas or efforts will carry weight. For example, about 75 people from the community where I live rallied around to clean Ulsoor Lake. We had the lakes commissioner visit our building and talk about the sewage and stench of the lake. The beleaguered man said the money was available to clean the lake if someone from our community would take charge of the project. No one did.

Being a good citizen is something that we urban elite think about and struggle with—along with exercise, flossing teeth and—this may apply to you but not me—not reaching for that fourth samosa. Our intentions are good. We join civic action groups, neighbourhood resident welfare associations (RWAs), building committees and community affairs groups. We contribute to non-profits that are improving our neighbourhoods, and occasionally go and meet the politicians in charge of our ward. There is one challenge that flummoxes even the most ardent volunteer: The problem never stops. You can clean up a lake but the garbage keeps coming.

I anchor my building’s recycling project but it fell apart when I went away for the summer holidays. I am helping a woman in our neighbourhood who wants to develop a composting system. I am an enthusiastic volunteer but I am not sure about whether her efforts will bear fruit. We have bought Daily Dump’s composting bins but even if the system is in place, someone has to supervise. I don’t want to be that person. How do you sustain your enthusiasm and effort towards finding a solution when the problem never seems to go away?

Over dhoklas at Tara’s house, a group of us, including some scientists from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, met Mahesh. The candidate is remarkable. He speaks with the slang of someone who has spent time in Silicon Valley. His campaign is run by Indians who have returned to India and are working for Sun Microsystems, Oracle and other technology companies. They are people like us. Mahesh talked about why he—a technocrat, scientist and professor at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Bangalore—decided to contest. I am used to new ideas but even jaded old me was impressed by his notion of how to scale. Scaling, he said, was not simply about replicating a good idea across the nation. It is about involving local problem solvers who can take an idea and modify it to suit their community’s needs. It is about increasing the surface area of citizenry who want to participate. Mahesh’s way to do this is by proving to his constituents that they have a voice and that their solutions will be implemented. Sounds great, doesn’t it?

Governance is hard. It requires consensus, long-term thinking and dogged, relentless effort to tackle problems that never seem to end: road safety, traffic, garbage. After some haphazard volunteering, I have started thinking that maybe such efforts are best left to professionals. The trick is to vote in the right people who have the expertise, energy and time to do their job. Ergo my interest in Ashwin Mahesh.

Mahesh has a website (www.ashwinmahesh.in). He seems sincere and is clearly competent in getting technology projects done. Will that translate to politics? I don’t know. Then again, the stakes are not high. Last term, the winner of the MLC elections garnered 11,000 votes.

Weeks later, I heard that Wired magazine had picked Mahesh for theirSmart List 2012: 50 People Who Will Change The World. Tara told me that Mohandas Pai, previously with Infosys, was endorsing their candidate. I cold-emailed Pai to check if this was true.

Yes, Pai replied. “My support is my endorsement, a small contribution to his election fund and my personal vote.” As for why he was supporting the candidate, Pai gave a long list of the usual reasons: impeccable integrity, deep understanding of urban issues, great vision. “He is the right kind of person to represent the highly educated class in the legislature. He is liberal, very modern and symbolizes all that is best about Bangalore.”

When does a bystander become a stakeholder? So far, I have been a bystander in Mahesh’s candidacy. He has made the first cut. People I know and trust are supporting his candidacy. What Mahesh needs now are registered voters and the buzz of a winning team. He has his work cut out for him. Scratch that. We have our work cut out for us. I guess I just went from being a bystander to a stakeholder.

Shoba Narayan is a closet Formula One (F1) driver but Mahesh’s traffic cameras are cramping her style. Write to her at thegoodlife@livemint.com