Indianomix: Making Sense of Modern India

Indianomix

Image Courtesy: bookadda.com

The tittle and blurbs of Indianomix: Making Sense of Modern India might give an impression that the book is about economics or more specifically about how economics could help us understand modern India. The book indeed has many examples related to India. However not all examples are confined to economics. The authors try and make sense of a range of topics from the surprising verdict of 2004 Lok Sabha elections, Nehru’s (and India’s) surprise when China attacked in 1962 and how MSM (Main Stream Media) in India confuses opinion with facts.

In one of the chapters, the authors describe how in Delhi economic incentives are used by Delhi Police to improve pedestrian safety and in Mumbai an NGO is using behavioral psychology to prevent deaths at unmanned railway crossings. These two examples show different applications of behavioral economics, a branch of economics closer to psychology than economics. The NGO in Mumbai succeeded in reducing the death toll at railway crossing whereas the experiment in Delhi seems still to be a work in progress. Different chapters in the book explore themes like randomization or luck, how traditions gel with modernity (the most interesting example in this chapter is from China) and how MSM (Main Stream Media) in India prefers sensationalism over fact checking.

The chapter on randomization or luck had two election results (2004 Lok Sabha and 2012 UP Vidhan Sabha) as examples among others. Based on the electoral data and opinion polls/exit polls the authors make two interesting points. First being that close elections are like a coin toss and second (a corollary of the first point), it is a matter of luck to correctly predict the election results. So the authors suggest that saying that NDA lost because of India Shinning campaign and BSP lost because UP voters voted in favor of development politics makes little sense.

I am a student of Indian Politics and hence this chapter was of special interest to me.  The authors conclude that in a close election even data (opinion and exit polls in this case) would not be of great help in predicting the outcome. They arrive at this conclusion by comparing the relation between vote share and seat share at macro level i.e. for the whole of India while analyzing 2004 Lok Sabha elections and for entire state of UP while analyzing 2012 UP elections. Lets us look at the case against polls. Yogendra Yadav, India’s most famous pollster and a fox has been conducting exit polls since 1996 Lok Sabha elections and announced his retirement from polling after 2o12 UP polls. A fox is someone who is pragmatic, not ideological and open to discard a cherished theory according to Philip Tetlock, author of Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? where as a hedgehog is a single minded devotee to a particular big idea or concept, which they stick to through thick or thin. According to Indianomix such people exude confidence, boldly tell you without mincing words whats going to often and are more often wrong. Yogendra tried explaining 2004 debacle (of exit polls) by suggesting that there were three main reasons why polls can go wrong: sampling error, response bias and difficulty in translating vote share to seats.

The explanation given for sampling error in 2004 is that urban voters were oversampled and since BJP has most of its supporters in urban areas, most exit polls were off the mark. However a closer look at election results of 2004 would reveal that BJP under performed in urban areas. It did not win a single seat in Delhi and Mumbai. In 1999 NDA had won every seat in these two cities. In Maharashtra, the second biggest state in the country, NDA won 25 out of 48 seats and UPA won the remaining 23. The 23 seats won by UPA include 9 urban seats of Mumbai, Pune, Nashik and Nagpur. NDA could win only 1 urban seat in the state. In fact in the Vidarbha region, the agrarian suicide capital of the country in 2004, out of 11 seats, NDA won 10 and the one seat that NDA could not win was the lone urban seat in the region i.e. Nagpur. In Maharashtra, NDA won more rural seats then UPA and UPA won more urban seats than NDA. Outside the state too, NDA lost most of its seats in urban areas. So this argument of sampling error does not hold much water. Response Bias as explained by Yogendra Yadav, where voters purposely do not divulge correct information, is very similar to the Bradley Effect in US. A closer study of polls in India would reveal that hardly has any poll correctly predicted seat share and vote share correct at the same time. Now if pollsters want to explain this by citing response bias then it would be better if they stopped conducting polls altogether.

The third reason i.e. difficulty in converting vote share to seats has some merit. In a multi-cornered fight, it is almost impossible to predict seat share. Even when the contest is mainly between two parties, it is not easy and we would soon see why.

But again this reason would sound valid if at least pollsters could get vote shares for parties right. Predicting the vote share correctly is a rarity for Indian pollsters and mostly happens when fight is between two main parties. Ironically, Yogendra Yadav who correctly predicted seats for Samajwadi Party in 2012 UP elections, could do so because his vote share predictions were spectacularly wrong. He overestimated SP’s vote share by a massive 5%. In UP, where vote share difference between top two parties was just 3.4%, this error is huge. However, Yogendra Yadav was widely praised for correctly predicting the UP polls as most people including astute political observers (foxes and hedgehogs included) seldom look at the details of elections or polls.

So are outcomes of close elections really like a coin toss as the authors of Indianomix seem to suggest? If we only look at polls conducted in India, we would have to agree with the author. However, if we look at the second biggest democracy, a math geek has cracked the code of predicting elections. Nate Silver not only correctly predicted the final outcome of US Presidential Elections (that Obama would win) but his prediction was correct in all fifty states. And this was a close election with less than 4% vote share difference between Obama and Romney. Its equivalent feat in India would be to not only predict the winning party or alliance in a Lok Sabha election nationally but to also correctly predict the winning party/alliance in each state of the country (if not the actual seats in each state). Needless to say, no pollster has been able to achieve this in India since the first national opinion poll conducted in 1980 by Prannoy Roy and Dorab Sopariwala for India Today.

Nate Silver is not a pollster. His methodology is very simple. A poll of polls where each poll is weighted by its past performance, sample size and other attributes. A blogger who goes by the pseudonym Albatrossinflight, performed a similar exercise before Gujarat election results and predicted 130 seats for BJP. The actual tally for BJP was 115. So does that mean the Nate Silver approach would not work in India? It most probably would not if surveys are conducted in the same way as they are conducted now in India. Most surveys only cover a handful of constituencies and extrapolate the results to the remaining constituencies. Even Lok Sabha elections in India, are an aggregate of 543 constituencies. An urban voter in Mumbai voted differently in 2004 (where BJP lost all seats) from an urban voter in Bangalore (where BJP won both seats of the city). Nate Silver could predict the results correctly in US, because his sample size i.e. the opinion polls were better in quality than the polls in India. His algorithm had multiple state specific opinion polls at its disposal. Indian pollsters assume that an urban voter in Nashik would vote in the same way as an urban voter in Nagpur. It hardly matters to them that MNS is a strong factor in Nashik and may not win the seat but still impact the result whereas in Nagpur MNS has no major impact.

In short, because of quality and quantity of the polls, Nate Silver was better placed to predict elections than an Indian Nate Silver would ever be. Indian pollsters would not only have to conduct polls in every constituency but also get the sampling right in each constituency. This may seem difficult to execute but this is exactly what C-Voter, a survey company tried in Gujarat this time. For their exit poll, they collected samples from each constituency in the state. They may not have got the seat share correct but were very close (within 1% ) in predicting vote share for BJP and Congress. A more detailed study of the poll results of C Voter would give a better idea of its performance. So by 2014, if we have more C-Voter type survey companies, who poll in every constituency, predicting the election result would not be an outcome of coin toss. Since any election is an aggregate of results of its constituencies, the authors are most probably right in asserting that making sweeping generalizations about election outcomes at a macro level makes little sense (like NDA lost in 2004 because of India Shinning or SP won in UP because people voted for good governance).

My favorite chapter in the book is News from India. As the title suggests, this chapter is on Indian Mainstream Media. The authors cite several examples ranging from HIV, child malnutrition, violence against women etc and show how our media in general either does not understand data and logic or choose to take the easy way of rhetoric and sensationalism. Not only this chapter but the entire book should be made for compulsory reading in all journalist schools in the country.

The book may not focus exclusively on any one field and has a range of topics but the theme that binds all the topics is that data and reasoning should be given prominence over popular belief. In one of the chapters, Nehru is quoted after the defeat in 1962, “We were living in an artificial atmosphere of our own creation”.  Whether it is a Prime Minister, an NGO working towards saving lives of people who cross railway tracks, someone trying to predict outcome of an election or someone who wants to understand factors affecting women safety after the horrific Delhi gang rape, we all need to be open to reasoning & logic and not swayed by rhetoric. This is the first India centric book which makes this point and hence is a must read for all.

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Connect The Dots


In her first book Stay Hungry Stay Foolish Rashmi Bansal profiled twenty five entrepreneurs who were alumni of IIM – Ahmedabad. Many had then wondered including yours truly, how important an MBA degree is to become an entrepreneur. Rashmi claims this inspired her to write Connect The Dots, story of twenty one entrepreneurs but who dont have an MBA degree. The format of the book is same as her last book. There are twenty chapters, one on each entrepreneur (Gaurav Rathore & Saurabh Vyas who co founded PoliticalEDGE are covered in one chapter) and the entire chapter is based on one single interview.

The book is divided in three sections : Jugaad, Junoon & Zubaan. Jugaadis are those who didn’t get any formal training in business but learned by observing, experimenting and applying their mind. It includes some one like Kunwer Sachdev  of Su-Kam who created a Rs 500 crore company from scratch; Ganesh Ram, who started what is today India’s largest English training academy, VETA when there were no BPOs and no one knew that English coaching would be as big a market as it is now.

Junoonis as the name suggests, are passionate about something that is ahead of its time. This was my favorite section in the book. Gaurav Rathore and Saurabh Vyas envisioned a consulting and research firm exclusively for politics and founded PoliticalEDGE; Satyajit Singh, founder of Shakti Sudha not only created a new industry but also benefited thousands of farmers in rural Bihar; Chetan Maini, founder of Reva, designed a solar car and has been producing electric cars since the time when global warming was  not so well known and creating electric cars seemed to make little sense.

The third section Zubaan is about creative people like Paresh Mokashi, creator of Harishchandrachi Factory, India’s official entry to Oscar last year or Krishna Reddy, whose Prince Dance Group, consisting of daily wage laborers won India’s Got Talent last year.

I had great hopes from the book as I loved Stay Hungry Stay Foolish. The first chapter on Prem Ganpathy is literally a rags to riches story of someone who came to Mumbai with no money and now owns Dosa Plaza, a fast food chain with 26 outlets in the country.The rest of the stories too are very encouraging. The book is replete with inspiring anecdotes and quotes . When I read the synopsis on the third section i.e. Zubaan, I thought it would be probably the weak link in this book as stories on creatives who had made it big in the field of art would be a misfit in this book about entrepreneurs. However, all these artists achieved commercial success by following their passion and this justifies their inclusion in this book about Entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurship after all is about following your heart.

Generally when the first book is good and successful authors fail to recreate the magic in their subsequent books and that too in the same genre, as people have high expectations. In this case Rashmi Bansal definitely exceeded my expectations. A very good book and must read for some one aspires to be an entrepreneur.

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Stay Hungry Stay Foolish

The title of the book, Stay Hungry Stay Foolish is inspired by the last sentence of the commencement address given by Steve Jobs at Stanford in 2005. In his landmark speech, Jobs chronicled the ups and downs of his life and explained how the low points in his life helped him in achieving great heights. The book is about 25 entrepreneurs who graduated from IIM Ahmedabad and chose the difficult path of entrepreneurship rather than joining or continuing with cushy jobs, high salaries and like Steve, had their low points but did not give up. The author, Rashmi Bansal is an alumni of the institute and an entrepreneur.

The oldest alumni profiled in the book graduated in 1967 from IIM A whereas the youngest in 2004. Most of them were from middle class backgrounds and had been to some of the best colleges in the country as under graduates. Many would be surprised to read that for quite a few of them, taking admission into IIM A was not a result of any well planned strategy but a decision taken almost at the last moment. In those days, IIM aspirants were still in four digits unlike today when more than two lakh people take CAT (IIMs entrance exams).

The book was commissioned by IIM A probably to drive home the point that it does not just produce people who can sell financial instruments & soap. But after reading the book one does not get the impression that the institute imbibes the culture of entrepreneurship in its students. All the people profiled in the book were either Believers (people who knew that entrepreneurship is the chosen path for them even before they joined IIM), Opportunists ( who seized their chance when they saw it, much long after graduating from the institute) or Social Entrepreneurs. There is no instance where the premier B School of the country had influenced or inspired anyone to be an entrepreneur. Of course most entrepreneurs give credit to the “insurance” of a job that an IIM tag gives them and the alumni network which played a very crucial role in some of the success stories covered in the book.

But what about the primary function of any educational institute? Was there any special learning from the institute or any special moment within the institute which played a crucial role in their decision to find their own way ? Very few. A few did take some entrepreneurship electives and the institute now boasts of an incubator (the book is funded by the same) but for most, the institute played little or no role in inspiring or guiding them to strike out new paths.

One wonders what would have been the fate of the same people had they not been a part of IIM A or for that matter any B School ? Would they have been still successful without the “insurance” of a well paying job or the alumni network ? Does a believer really need an MBA education ? Probably a Stay Hungry Stay Foolish – Part 2 which covers entrepreneurs who had not been to B Schools can answer such questions.

Of the profiles covered in the book, there is a good mix of people from different sectors. From the founder of naukri.com, manufacturer of Sintex tanks, a sugar baron to the founder of First Micro Finance Institution in the country. Each chapter of the book is actually a candid interview of the author with the people profiled. Of course, it would have been better if more research was done rather than just basing the entire chapter on one single interview (the financials seemed to be updated & verified). But then the book is not about the businesses that these 25 people founded but about their never say die attitude. The book does not claim to be a primer on Entrepreneurship but like Steve’s speech at Stanford aims to inspire the younger generation with real stories that it pays to remain hungry and foolish. And the book is more than successful in driving home that point !!

Don’t miss this book if you ever thought about striking out on your own but were bogged down by the risks involved. As the book says, in life there is always risk involved and security is not everything. I can’t agree more.

The 3 mistakes of my life

Despite the fact that One Night At Call Center  was disappointing, I was eagerly awaiting for Chetan Bhagat’s third book as he is one of those rare Indian English writers who writes for Indian readers . In this book, Chetan has combined Cricket, Politics and Business, in trying to portray the aspirations of contemporay young India. It is the story of three young Indians from a middle class background who aspire to make it big. The book succeeds in touching a chord when it deals with the struggle of the three protagonists, Govind, Ishaan and Omi, in setting up their business. Cricket is omnipresent throughout the book but when it comes to Politics, the book is as clueless as its three main characters.

 

There are few similarities between this book and Five Point Someone. Both the books have three main characters and a leading lady for one of them so that situation for the mandatory sex scene can be created. But the similarity ends here. The humour is not as good as it was in Five Point Someone also the sex scene this time somewhat contributes to the storyline unlike his previous books. The book is fast paced and is obviously written with a potential block buster in mind. The prologue of the book succeeds in making this book unputdownable even in the first few chapters, when the book drags a little.

Chetan did an excellent research for Cricket and it shows in the book. However if he had done half that research on Politics as well, the book would have been a must read. Or maybe dumbing down Politics in the book is not such a bad idea, considering the target audience for the book. But the book scores on the portrayal of small town India and its aspirations. When Govind aspires to own a chain of Sports Goods stores one day, he represents ambition and hope of millions of Indians. Through Ishaan, Chetan has taken a subtle dig at Indians for whom watching cricket is a substitute for patriotism. The characters of Govind and Ishaan has evolved really well. But the same cannot be said about Gopi. Infact none of the remaining characters has shaped well.

After IITs and Call Centers, Chetan has chosen communalism as the backdrop for this book. Such a serious issue demands much more research than done by Chetan. Looks like Chetan had just read some riots stories and made an opinion about the cliched communal psyche of the Gujarati society. However the book succeeds in portraying the entrepreneurial spirit of Gujaratis.

A much better book than One Night At Call Center but Five Point Someone is still Chetan’s best book.

The Polyester Prince

 

The Polyester Prince is not just a biography of Dhirubhai Ambani but also a very good reference book about the functioning of the Indian Polity and Media since independence. Hamish McDonald has done a great job in chronicling the life of Dhirubhai Ambani and the fact that the book is banned in India (as the Ambanis found it defaming and fought a court case to get the book banned) would only make it more authentic in the eyes of many. 

The book starts off with Dhirubhai’s adolescence and his participation in India’s Freedom struggle. Not many are aware that it was during the struggle against the Nawab of Junagadh, who was averse to integrating his state with India, Dhirubhai had his first brush with authority and realised the importance of maintaining good relations with the ruling class. The book then chronicles his journey from Yemen to Mumbai. The major part of the book deals with the legendary rivalry between Dhirubhai and Nusli Wadia for the Polyester market. Of course Dhirubhai with the help of his well wishers in Government and Media not only wins this war but makes Reliance Industries a force to reckon with in India Inc. The author compares their rivalry with the Mahabharata but rightly concurs with Blitz, a Mumbai based tabloid now defunct, that in this Mahabharata it is difficult to tell who is Pandav and who is Kaurav ? The purists may scoff at the means of Dhirubhai but for millions of shareholders and investors who grew along with Reliance, Dhirubhai was on the path of Dharma.

In most parts, the book holds your interest as you read about the murky details of corruption and the unholy nexus between Businessmen, Politicians, Bureaucrats and Media. However, the book gets slightly boring when the author writes in great detail about the technical aspects of  Polyester. Hamish has been able to do justice with most of the facts as he has mentioned in detail how Gurumurthy had the support of Ramnath Goenka of The Indian Express and how Dhirubhai had cultivated friendship in not just almost every other major newspaper but also with senior Govt officials and ministers including RBI Governor, CBI Director and senior Cabinet Ministers like Pranab Mukherjee who were always eager to circumvent or change rules to benefit Dhirubhai!! However Hamish fails to reasonably explain why Gurumurthy, convenor of Swadeshi Jagran Manch and an RSS idealogue crusades against Dhirubhai on behalf of Nusli Wadia. One reason could be the fact that Nusli was ideologically close to Sangh Parivaar. His friendship with Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani is well known but what is not well known is the fact that his son Jeh Wadia has even worked as a volunteer for an organisation of Nanaji Deshmukh, an RSS idealougue, for an year in Chitrakoot. The book fails to investigate this aspect of Nusli’s life.

Apart from the legendary tales about Dhirubhai’s business acumen that is common folklore now what makes the book different from normal biographies is the excellent research and narration of behind the scenes activities of Businessmen, Politicians, Bureaucrats and Journalists. Hamish who had worked for The Washington Post, Financial Times and the Far Eastern Economic Review has done a great job in leveraging his experience and contacts to make this book a must read for any one who has interest in India’s business history since Independence.

If God was a Banker

I usually buy a book only if some friend recommends it or if it had good reviews. This may not sound a very good way to select books but given the fact that I don’t get much time to read, I wish to spend my time on good books. So the above mentioned criteria has by and large worked for me.However, the book, If God was a Banker was not recommended by any friend and nor do I remember reading any review for this book. I picked this book because it had “Banker” in its tittle and the synopsis at the back of the book was promising enough to force me to buy it.
The author Ravi Subramanian, is an alumnus of IIM Bangalore and works in a retail banking unit of a foreign bank. This book promised to be an insider’s account of an International Bank through the journey of two IIM graduates at the top.However, the book failed to impress much. There are a lot of good points though. Ethical Swami beats unethical Sundeep in the long run just as it happens in a Hindi Movie. The narration is also not bad and the author has obiviously used his experience in the banking industry to give a realistic picture of behind the scene scenarios of important decisions and appointments. However a person not from the banking industry, could end up assuming that sleeping with the boss is the only way by which women get promotion, after reading this book.  Also, the way by which their love lives have been dealt is not very convincing. The author obiviously wanted to settle them as early as possible so that he can focus on the ethics battle between the two, which is the central theme of this book. The book is obiviously one of the best work in its genre. It is much better than Chetan Bhagat’s One Night at the Call Centre and Abhijit Bhaduri’s Mediocre But Arrogant.  The book, obviously written for an Indian audience, would have been much better if the sex scenes were less descriptive. Chetan Bhagat dealt with them in a better way in his books.

 To conclude, this book can be read if you have nothing else to read. For those, who liked ON@CC , you will definitely love this book. And the wait for an Indian Monkey Business just got longer.