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

Meeting Mr. Murthy

Some things you remember because they are dramatic.  Some things you remember because of circumstance.  I remember Mr. N.R. Narayana Murthy phoning me up to tell me how much he liked my first book, Monsoon Diary.

I had interviewed Mr. Murthy a couple of times and had exchanged emails and phone calls with him in that context.  One day, a year after our last encounter, I was in Chitradurga with my niece, Nithya, as part of her Indicorps fellowship.  We were having breakfast in a dhaba on the highway when my mobile rings.  It is Pandu, Mr. Murthy’s assistant, telling me that Mr. Murthy wants to speak to me.  Then, Murthy comes on the line and tells me how much he enjoyed Monsoon Diary.  I am eating masala dosa in Chitradurga; and holding this conversation at a highway hotel.  We had a ten-minute call and Mr. Murthy was very gracious and generous with his praise.

A few months ago, when we were looking for people to write blurbs for “Return to India,” I thought of Mr. Murthy.  I emailed him and he said he would do it right away.  There was one caveat: he wanted time till June 10th to read the book because he was travelling a lot.  We agreed and then the publishing schedule got pushed forward a bit.  So I sent a desperate email to Mr. Murthy asking if he could give his blurb by May 20th.  He asked me to email a soft-copy to read on his iPad and delivered the blurb on the day of the deadline.

Today, I made an appointment to meet him at his home-office in Jayanagar.  I wanted to give him a copy since he is leaving town today and returning only a month later.  We chatted a bit and I asked if I could take a photo and upload it to my website.  His assistant, Pandu, took the photo and Mr. Murthy wanted to check everything so that the “book was visible.”  With his permission, here it is.