Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Blue Valentine

In Blue Valentine, there is a scene where Cindy has invited Dean over to her house to make him meet her parents as the two are planning marriage. Cindy’s father quizzes Dean on his education. Dean hasn’t passed high school while Cindy is studying to be a doctor. When the parents bring this up, Dean says the following: “I know, she is about the smartest person I know. I would want to have a doctor like her. I would trust myself with her, my kids with her”. He says all this with the langorous pace that comes with speaking on the spot and that arises from genuine love. It is a masterful scene.

The movie is about a couple who, a few years into their marriage, are not on the same page anymore. Dean, played by Ryan Gosling, paints people’s homes for a living, while Cindy, Michelle Williams, is a nurse. Cindy expects Dean to realize his true potential, but Dean is quite happy with the life that he has. He loves his wife and daughter and does not understand why this much is not enough for them as a family. In another scene that burns on the memory, Dean wants to get intimate with Cindy who instead offers herself to him for fucking. Dean pleads: “Be good to me, I am good to you.” Cindy walks away and locks herself in the bathroom, weeping. She cannot locate the love anymore, while he is bursting to share it.

Watch it!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Long due second post on the ethics workshop

Let me start by saying that the ethics workshop is nearing its end, with just one more session remaining. I attended a session yesterday with Prof Garg which focussed on Corporate Governance. It was a very useful session, we discussed corporate governance norms in India and the whole exercise never dipped into idealism. Prof was practical, calling a spade a spade and introduced us to the corporate governance closets of a number of Indian companies. Whoa, what skeletons!

Therefore I take back my reservations about the workshop. I think it has served a purpose, at least in sensitising us to certain important issues. And on that note, I put below the mail By Prof Kumar that he wrote me in reply to my mail expressing doubts about the sessions. Very decent mail, gives enough space for a healthy debate while also sends out the right signals to student to keep baser, publicity-seeking emotions in check :)

Dear Vikram:

Thanks for the email as well as the genuine concerns raised by you. I sincerely appreciate the concerns but have my own reservations about the way you are raising these. Number one, I don’t think you ought to be taking a position on behalf of the whole student community. You have the right to express your views but then each one of us has got that right. You may agree or disagree with someone’s viewpoints – that’s entirely your choice. Secondly, whether the attendance should be compulsory or not, I am no one to decide on that. You are most welcome to approach the right authorities – PGP office/ the Director - for this. However, I would certainly like you not to mark copies of your communication to your peer group.

And, you are most welcome to come to my office and we can discuss the things in detail in person rather than communicating through emails.



Friday, March 18, 2011

An evening

The first thing she noticed when she entered the office was him, everyday. She felt protective towards him. There was a sadness in him that she couldn't quite place. He was very intelligent, writing about books in a weekly column, that went from Roman History to Megasthenes to the other great rulers of the past. She found it terribly enlightening and also a little scary, to hold all the information inside one's head. She wondered about the thoughts in his mind when he was by himself. He sat directly opposite her and only a partition separated them. When he got up to go to the loo, she could see him from the corner of her eye and wondered if he was looking at her. She forced herself not to look up at him because then he would know that she was checking him out. So she waited to look at him as he walked away, when she was out of his sight but he was not yet out of hers.

They talked sometimes and her words seemed to spring from a part that was not her, that was more intelligent and more perceptive than she believed herself capable of. The other day, she saw him get up and arrange his things because he was getting ready to go home. He stared at his computer for a second and then, looking very serious, he switched off his computer and turned to leave. Just then, she asked him, "What do you ponder so hard, standing there, before going home every day?"

He stopped, startled, and turned: "Me?"

"Ah-huh! You stand there and look at the computer."

He laughed. He found it very funny, her observing him like that, when he was just waiting for the computer to shut down.

"Oh, I think about the untrustworthiness of womankind," he said and smiled.

"I wouldn't know about that," she said. "I have never been with a woman."

And they both laughed. And she was certain a gap had opened where none existed before.

The next day, he said hi to her and she waved back. She had taken special care to dress up that morning. Her skin was smooth and she felt light. She wished she would be held by him and their lips would meet. Sometimes she dreamt about that. Their lips meeting and he pressing down on her softly, his weight a sensation of such serene pleasure, she would wake up with a grimness she knew would last through the day.

She wondered what she should do to approach him. She felt it was for the guy to initiate the matter. But what did he feel for her, she wondered. Was he being flirtatious when he said he found women untrustworthy, challenging her to prove him wrong? She doubted he would say all that for any such reason. He was just being glib.

She told Naina, her childhood friend, about him, and Naina laughed at her shyness. "Just go and tell him, you fool," she admonished.

So, on the second Monday after she last spoke to him, she went up to him after the office had cleared and said, "I like you." All evening the weight of expectation had disoriented her and she felt she was floating above everyone else. It was an unpleasant sensation and she wondered if she should call the whole thing off. But she had pined too long and that other pain, slow and not sharp, was no less exasperating.

He looked at her, his eyes wide, and said softly: "What?"

"Well, I like you," she answered. "I have liked you for some time." She suddenly felt very brave as though she could accept anything at all. Everything that she had ever suppressed could come tumbling out, propriety be damned. If I was gay, I would accept that now too, she thought to herself and laughed at how weird that sounded.

"That's strange," he said. "I would have never guessed."


"And nothing. I don't know what to say. I guess I like you too."

She felt suddenly deflated, as though some dynamic energy was being sapped out of her. Is that all you can manage, she wondered, and it struck her that maybe he had never looked at her like that. Yes, that's possible, she thought and felt tired, and also a little ashamed.

"I guess I will go now," she said, and he nodded, and his nod was a gesture of such lovable simplicity that she wanted to move over and kiss him. Perhaps her eyes conveyed her wish and he looked down.

She turned and walked towards the cafeteria. She filled her glass with chilled water from the cooler and sat down at one of the tables. She tried hard to feel bad for herself, but she only felt stunned. How can such a connection be one-sided, she wondered, and downed the water in one large gulp.

She watched him walk to the loo and he was looking down, as he always did while walking. Often a light smile played on his lips but today he was withdrawn. Am I really in love with him, she asked herself, or merely with his face, his smile? He was not handsome, but there was a spark to him that she attributed to his quiet masculinity.

She came out of the cafeteria and walked out of the office. Her heart felt heavy and she did not know how to deal with that. She thought life was worth living and dealing with, but this new sensation was weighing down on her in a way she thought would change her outlook. She may begin to have her doubts about life, she thought.

She walked up to her car in the parking and eyed with longing his car that was parked some distance away. She heard footsteps behind her but decided to ignore them. She didn't feel like doing much and wondered if she should go back and get herself a cigarette. Absent-mindedly, she searched for her car keys in her purse.

"Hello again," he said.

She turned around and found him beaming at her.

"I just wanted to say sorry for behaving like a jerk inside. Thank you for saying what you said inside. But I have a girlfriend."

She heard his words as though from very far, and she took her time registering them. He is not declining me, she told herself, there is someone else.

"Oh, how nice," she said. "Whats' her name?"

"Geetika," he said. "She works at India Week."

She thought she had heard that name, but wasn't sure. "Ok," she said, and didn't know what more to say.

"I am sorry," he said, "but..."

"Oh that's fine, fine," she said emphatically and surprised herself. I must defend this, she told herself.

"I guess I will see you tomorrow."

"Yes, yes and have a good," she stopped herself.

He smiled that heartbreaking smile of his and turned around. And then again she found herself standing in the darkness, cold and bereft.

She got inside the car and put the keys inside the ignition.

Harrah's Entertainment

Once Harrah's realised that it could not match up to the Bellagios and Mirages of the world, it decided to forgo the capital-intensive expansion plan and instead, adopt IT to increase customer loyalty. The following questions answer some of the techniques they followed. Submitted as part of a class discussion on the HBR case.

Q.1 Discuss the factors that drove Harrah’s customer relationship strategy.

Ans: When Philip Satre joined Harrah’s as CEO, he was focused on people management as his main strategy. While this helped the company initially, Stare found that a lot of cross-visits were happening in the gambling industry, that is, customers who visited Harrah’s were not repeating their visits. With rising competition and flashier properties, Satre realized the need for a new customer relationship strategy. The company, being an old player, could not replicate the kind of themed properties that were sprucing up in Las Vegas and other parts of the US. Times were changing with new capital investments happening in a crowded market to attract new customers, and a limit on the jurisdictions that allowed gambling. Harrah’s knew it had to come up with a new strategy to survive.

Satre identified that while the company was performing well on operational parameters and technological brilliance, it was not able to retain customers largely because of a poor marketing strategy. A friend advised him to tie his marketing strategy with operations, in other words, connect all Harrah’s properties with a single database and use insights gleaned from there to implement customer retention strategies.

The aim was to implement marketing tools and programs across all Harrah's properties. Company COO Gary Loveman disbanded the existing marketing function and rebuilt it with experts who preferred quantitative methods to qualitative inputs. Customer Relationship Management (CRM) at Harrah's came to consist of two elements: Database Marketing (DBM) and the Total Gold program. While DBM allowed Harrah’s to segment customers and sell them offers based on analytical inputs, the Total Gold program motivated customers to consolidate their play. The data collected through the program allowed Harrah’s to execute direct marketing strategies that increased the efficiency and effectiveness of the company’s marketing spend.

Q.2 What are the Key Performance Indicators of the gaming industry. What are the objectives of the various database marketing programs and how are they working?

Ans: The case identifies the following three metrics (KPIs) for the gaming industry:

1. Customer acquisition: The first phase, “new business”, is focused on customers new to the brand or the property. The goal was to encourage customers to take a second and third trip after making an initial visit.

2. Building customer loyalty: This was focused on customers known for at least six months or three trips. The goal here was to continuously extend the relationship.

3. Customer retention: This was focused on customers who had broken their historical visitation pattern. The goal was to reinvigorate customers who had demonstrated signs of attrition.

The objective of the database marketing programs was to improve Harrah’s performance on each of the above-mentioned KPIs. The company hired Gary Loveman from HBS to bring quantitative muscle to its marketing strategy. What Loveman and his team did was development of quantitative models to accurately predict customer worth—the theoretical amount that the company expects to generate from a customer based on his past usage of Harrah’s properties. This was a transformational move for Harrah’s. From a historical model of operational CRM that focused on the customer’s past usage patterns, Loveman proposed an analytical CRM model that was predictive and therefore, radically different from how the company viewed profitable customers. Analytical CRM was implemented through the following programs:

New Business Program:

The New Business Program was designed to improve the effectiveness at converting new Total Gold members into loyal customers. The program used predicted customer worth (theoretical wins) to make more effective investment decisions at the customer level—thus allowing the particular offer to be more competitive with what the customer was currently receiving from their existing scenario of choice.

Loyalty Program—Frequency Upside

This program was designed to identify customers that, Harrah's predicted, were only giving Harrah's a small share of their total spending in a particular market. Harrah's capabilities enabled it to develop programs that offered incentives for these customers to visit Harrah's properties more frequently—i.e., switch a trip from a competitor to Harrah's. Harrah's calculated the profitability of these programs by comparing the incremental theoretical wins to the incremental cost of the program.

Loyalty Program—Budget Upside

Harrah's also identified customers with budget upside—customers who were only giving a small share of their gaming budget to Harrah's on each trip. In most cases, a customer's allocation of budget was directly related to the order in which they visited casinos on a particular trip—the first stop received the largest share, the second received the second largest and so on. Therefore, the objective of this program was to encourage the customer to visit Harrah's first and thereby capture the majority of the single casino trips.

Retention Program

The objective of Harrah's Retention Program was to reinvigorate customers who had broken their historical visitation pattern. Harrah's tested a variety of offers with customer segments to determine how much to reinvest in retaining loyal guests. Harrah’s recognized that the full potential of these ideas would be realized only if these capabilities could be used at the local property level. Therefore, they made significant efforts in educating the local property managers and their marketing teams about the potential and effective use of these Data Base Marketing capabilities.

Q.3 Explain how the concept of customer worth/ customer lifetime value has been applied at Harrah’s casino in the Database marketing efforts to gain a competitive edge in the industry w.r.t key performance indicators.

Ans Basing customer profitability on predictive worth (customer lifetime value) rather than historical data, Harrah’s came up with a new model to improve performance on each of the KPIs: customer acquisition, building loyalty, and customer retention.

Database marketing:

As an example the case mentions one Ms Maranees, who, under the new system, became a valuable customer who ought to be targeted with offers. This decision was made using decision science tools to predict customer worth rather than relying on observed worth from her first visit to the casino. While she would be considered a lousy customer based on her short visit to Harrah's, with the help of the information generated from one visit and one visit alone, Harrah's concluded otherwise by submitting her profile to the database. She was probably a great customer, but a great customer of Harrah's competitors. It, therefore, made sense to invest in converting her to a Harrah's customer. In the past, she would not have shown up on the radar screen.

Proactive marketing:

Also known as opportunity-based customer segmentation, this process allowed Harrah's to track customers’ play preferences, betting patterns, where they liked to eat in the casino and whether they stayed the night, how often they visited, how much and how long they played. Combined with the basic information contained on the application card, which included birth date and home address, Harrah's could begin to develop a sophisticated customer profile.

Harrah's estimated that 26% of players provided 82% of revenues, with avid players spending approximately $2,000 annually. These "avid experienced players" that tended to play in multiple markets became Harrah's target customers. Using this detailed information for every customer, Harrah's predicted potential customer playing behavior at its properties. Harrah's compared observed to predicted behavior and identified opportunity segments based on a disparity between predicted and observed values. Harrah's used customized marketing to achieve specific objectives such as driving incremental frequency, budget, or both.

Marketing Experiments:

Harrah's quantitative approach also made it possible to conduct "marketing experiments" and track customers over time. This helped Harrah's discover the right marketing instrument, for the right behavior modification, for the right customer. One example in the case relates to how tracking customer behavior let Harrah’s cut down on costs by learning that certain no-frills, less attractive promotions were actually more profitable than big packages.

Another example is the eradication of "same day cash" at most Harrah’s properties—the process by which casinos returned a portion of a customer's bet each day with the hope that the customer would play more with the cash. By using sophisticated decision tools, Harrah’s learnt that it could eliminate "same day cash" without adversely affecting the business. Thus, the company was able to eradicate practices that did not contribute to incremental revenues.

Q.4 Does Harrah’s have a sustainable competitive advantage? Can other companies duplicate what Harrah’s has done? Discuss.

Ans. Harrah’s realized early on that sustained competitive advantage will only come from a rigorous customer focus and nothing else. Any other tool could only be a facilitator of the process. High operational efficiency and implementation of IT are but ways to ensure that the customer keeps returning to Harrah’s properties. Harrah’s has had a successful history of reaching the customer on a personal level by trying to learn as much as possible about them. This knowledge in turn helps the company to serve its clients better and also significantly improve its operational effectiveness. For example, if a customer lives close to the casino he/she will rarely receive an offer for a free night at the hotel since the likelihood of that person accepting the offer is slim. Conversely, if the customer is a regular in the casino’s restaurant, the chances he will accept a free steak dinner invitation are relatively high.

Attention to customers at the service level also matters. Most customers, as mentioned in the case, lose money during gambling and often feel “shitty”, and they are disgruntled. Good customer service will take care of such disgruntled customers and ensure they have a good time.

Apart from the above, Harrah’s has the option of protecting is innovative processes and knowledge through proprietary means. This will give its business the necessary edge without having to worry about competition trying to reproduce its innovative processes. Further, Harrah’s may license its intellectual property and earn revenue from its proprietary software.

Q.5 Discuss the privacy, ethical and security issues associated with what Harrah’s is doing. Are there concerns and how can Harrah’s address them?

Ans. There are a number of business practices that Harrah’s follows which may not be deemed entirely ethical:

1. Given the nature of their business, they promote gambling. People go to the casino because they want to feel “exuberantly alive”. Harrah’s works at enticing customers to feel the adrenaline rush of gambling. Most of their offers are targeted towards this. This has definite ethical issues since gambling can become an addictive practice and Harrah’s offers encourage such behavior.

2. Harrah’s IT system relies on tracking customer behavior, right from their playing strategies to their personal information including address and birth date. This raises issues of privacy, particularly when Harrah’s can track customers’ spending patterns on gambling. However, in times of social media, this looks less like a security issue than earlier. With Facebook around, concerns over Harrah’s privacy invasion sound overrated.

3. The bigger debate around data mining is the problem of sharing Harrah’s internal data with credit card companies. This sort of data cartel can have far-reaching consequences for a customer’s credit profile and ability to secure credit. So far, however, Harrah’s has not been accused of breaching this line.

4. Harrah’s also runs the risk of too much profiling through its data. Forcing behavioral/psychographic patterns on users can backfire, when all customers are looking for is a good time. Customers’ behavior in Harrah’s may only be a reflection of their less guarded selves, and an incorrect pointer to their behavior metrics and/or psychographic positioning.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Do prediction markets work?

There are several advantages to prediction markets:

  • They introduce common sense to such basic management follies as beta testing taking more time than originally planned.
  • They can be used to get a general sense of any project that is devoid of hard management considerations such as financial viability, expenses etc. In other words, whether the project has enough firepower to create buzz. This can be a potentially rewarding input for new technology companies, smartphone apps, etc.
  • They can be used to check one’s intuition about a project: it can do wonders during those gruelling decision-making times.
  • Prediction markets allow top management to keep the ear to the ground and not get carried away with their management-speak.
  • Conditional prediction markets can be used to predict likelihood of events that are contingent on some other events. Often for financial managers, the choice is between two projects that look equally attractive from a cash flow perspective. Say, an FMCG company X wants to get into the biscuits space with choco-sandwich Y to take on entrenched rivals, or alternatively, expand its fast-growing potato chips business Z. Both projects look attractive from a purely financial perspective, and the marketing department has a mountain of data that is unable to help. In such a situation, a conditional prediction market can help with gauging the popularity of Y on purely consumer attractiveness measures contingent upon X taking up Y and giving up on Z. Or, consumers might like new variants of Z and that input will gather more traction on trades than the stock corresponding to launching Y.
  • Prediction markets have major advantages in the political domain. Consider the current unrest in Libya. One question before president Obama is whether or not to exercise the military option. The US administration is chary of a quick decision because of the morass it finds itself facing in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Besides, the issue of body bags (bodies of dead soldiers from frontline areas returning to the US) has gained an especial emotional currency in the US. If the President did not want sophisticated military models to drive his decision and wished to read the pulse of the nation, a national, real-time prediction market can help. How the prediction market can help in such cases is by nuancing the debate with several viable options.

1. Threat of return to recession in the form of an oil shock should conflict in Libya prolong.

2. Strategic rewards from establishing a no-fly zone over Libya

3. Arming the opposition rebels and defending them from aerial attack launched by Gaddafi’s forces

4. Perception of Americans on war, ranging from important (defeating communism in Vietnam, terror post-9/11) versus cautious (messy states with a history of perennial conflict)

Would managers want prediction markets?

At first glance, any manager would be skeptical of prediction markets since leaving out the decision to a diversified marketplace is fraught with danger. There is the chance that a rival manager in another department might strategise to “play” the market. But this argument is not right since it overplays the role of the individual investor (to borrow stock market terminology) in market trades.

There is another risk to managers from prediction markets. What if a prediction market is able to accurately and consistently predict information that companies pay to get from marketing research personnel? This would jeopardize a number of jobs and lead to much bad blood on the ground.

Most managers will likely not want a prediction market to suggest negative outcomes for their products/projects. The risk to management from a prediction market comes in the form of dilution of “information asymmetry”. We know that a prediction market, much like a stock market, endeavours to reduce the information asymmetry that surrounds any product/project. Managers often play upon this asymmetry to sell their projects. A prediction market will substantially reduce the agency cost associated with running an enterprise.

There is another risk that prediction markets pose to middle management. If top management begins using them to listen directly to the employee workforce, then the best ideas, the most exciting innovations will directly reach the top management without the filter of the middle management, and this may not go down well. Such “disruptive information flow” can engender new ways of intra-organisation communication at multiple levels.

However, for obvious reasons, prediction market trades will be but one factor of consideration in the final decision. So the input should be welcomed and not feared.

New technology companies use different ways of boosting innovation, for instance, Google allows employees 20% time to work on something they like and which can later develop into a sellable product. The real learning here is the focus on incremental innovation, as against hankering after a blockbuster product. Apart from the pharma space, where revenues are typically driven by blockbuster drugs, most sectors will do well to tap the productivity of their workforce. Prediction markets can help bridge the current gap in realizing incremental innovation.

How to get employees interested in prediction markets?

Between cash awards or other soft awards, there is another system called the lottery system that makes better sense since it would promote the kind of behavior (participants should bid based on true beliefs, and not financial incentives) that is desirable.

However, cash awards in themselves are not a bad idea. There is the fear, in my opinion unfounded, that if cash awards become the basis of reward, then some employees would bet on an extremely unlikely event and win big if that event actually happened, but incur no financial loss if it did not. But this is how any efficient market, in the sense of the term coined by economist Adam Smith, functions. Traders buy and sell stocks on any number of parameters ranging from personal bias to deliberate strategizing. To expect an intranet to not ultimately follow such behavior is to miss the point of a prediction market.

Another positive of prediction markets is greater cohesion within the company, since they induce people to show their intuitive superiority in a quantifiable way. In other words, it earns them “bragging rights”. In this regard, T-shirts or other soft gifts make little sense since they would not entice someone to actually log on and start trading. They may only act as a hygiene factor for people already interested in prediction markets. However, to really scale up the technology, hard cash/lottery needs to come in.

Prediction markets can only work if there is enough liquidity in the system, in other words, if more members login and join the trades (Metcalfe’s Law). After the initial euphoria of the early traders, hard incentives will need to be brought in to increase liquidity.

(Part of a writeup submitted for a case in the Management of Information Systems course, Term III, MBA)

A democracy that's really a functional anarchy

As India marked the 60th anniversary of its independence last year, a clutch of books celebrating the nation’s meteoric rise in the aftermath of the opening up of its economy in the 1990s was released. Prominent among these were former India head of Financial Times, Edward Luce’s In Spite of the Gods, and historian Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi. The India of these books isn’t the reviled, satirized nation of V. S. Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness (1964). Rather, it is a mercurial, hungry assortment of a billion-plus voices waiting to grab their moment in the sun. It is a nation, which while still being bogged down by endemic poverty, is also drawing comparisons with China for the fierce competition that these two regional powers are posing the West. India’s software prowess and English-speaking citizenry are the envy of China, the manufacturing hub of the world, which publicized its development trajectory in a spectacular extravaganza at the Beijing Olympics.

In several respects, though, India and China are as different as chalk and cheese. While China’s development model is top-down — heedless of opposing voices — India’s is too often accused of being a slow starter thanks to a democratic ethos that must accommodate varying opinions. This, combined with the formidable cultural diversity of India, makes it a somewhat unique case, and therefore, of tremendous interest to academics. In Vishnu’s Crowded Temple, Maria Misra, professor of modern history at Oxford University, tries to make sense of the wonder that is India (to adapt A. L. Basham’s famed title). Beginning with the First Great War of independence in 1857 which finished the reign of the East India Company and brought India under the direct control of the British Queen, Misra takes us through the freedom struggle, India’s independence, and the post-independence fissures the country faced, in a well-researched and lucidly argued book.

Misra’s book, while serving as a treatise on the history of the subcontinent, is especially attractive for registering the diverse impulses that have shaped and continue to shape the India story. The title draws from Periyar E. V. Ramaswami’s struggle in 1931 demanding Dalits be allowed entry to the famed Vishnu temple in Guruvayur in present day Kerala. The temple had been, until then, the sole preserve of the higher castes, who feared that the entry of a Dalit into the sanctum sanctorum would debase it. Periyar was a low-caste intellectual who had launched the Self-Respect Movement in 1925 to promote equality for Dalits and allow them to enjoy a sense of pride in their Dravidian past. Periyar’s struggle was also directed at the Congress party, which he accused was a “Brahmin-dominated claque devoted to the preservation of high-caste privilege and hierarchy”. The debate over low castes’ entry to the Guruvayur temple became a rallying point for the Self-Respect Movement, and ended in success. Misra’s “crowded temple” is a pointer to the Dalits’ political struggle to gain equality and legitimacy in public spheres.

The colonial edifice

But Misra’s temple is also the colonial edifice, which from the 1857 Great Rebellion up until the First World War, was built on a systematically divisive agenda that targeted casteist and religious affiliations. Traditional historiographies have tended to portray a rigid division of castes with the priestly Brahmins at the top, followed by the warrior caste of the Kshatriyas, the merchant Vaishyas, and at the bottom of the ladder, the Shudras, comprising farmers and artisans. Beyond this stringent four-tier structure were the Dalits, or the untouchables. Misra, deviating from this approach, proposes that before the British arrived in the nineteenth century, the divisions among the various categories of Hindus were not rigid, and often there were inter-caste struggles on supremacy. She notes:

… throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Brahman elites had been involved in disputes with ‘kingly’ warriors and land controllers about who possessed higher status. British enquiries into these matters were seized upon by Brahmin literati as an opportunity to settle these controversies to their own advantage. They duly reported that the ancient laws of Hinduism reflected a religiously authorized hierarchy...This order, they claimed, was based on a divinely ordained Hindu cosmology according to which individuals were born or re-born into the caste they merited by virtue of their dutiful action (dharma) in a previous life.

Consequently, after the Revolt of 1857, the British created special provisions in property laws and job quotas which incentivized Indians to seek a certain caste status. This resulted in the rise of a new religiosity, what Misra calls a “sacralized martial culture”. Dalit groups tended to adopt high-caste practices (a phenomenon known as ‘sanskritization’) and were welcomed into the upper caste fold by reform groups such as the Arya Samaj.

Such posturing, however, was not restricted to casteist considerations alone. There was a growing divide between Hindus and Muslims, arising out of an “intense competition for work, space and respect”. The British further stoked these latent fires. As Misra writes, “For many Hindus and Congressmen the most egregious act of colonial gerrymandering was the creation of separate electorates for Muslims.” By the late 1930s, Hindu-Muslim riots had become a commonality, with the police turning a blind eye to the violence.

It was in this backdrop of rising caste/communal tensions, accompanied by economic crises, that a steady rise in nationalist sentiment was witnessed. Mahatma Gandhi was gaining prominence as a campaigner of civil disobedience. The militant atheism of the likes of Bhagat Singh and Chandrashekhar Azad fired the imagination of scores of youngsters to free their motherland from the yoke of foreign rule. With drastic changes in the international scenario in the aftermath of the Second World War, it was a matter of time before the ‘colonial temple’ was demolished. Given the scope of the book perhaps, Misra’s treatment of the period immediately preceding India’s independence is rather cursory. Interested readers should visit Freedom at Midnight (1975) by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins, or Alex von Tunzelmann’s Indian Summer (2007), which detail not only the political parleying that led to the demise of the Raj, but also the personal relationships of the dramatis personae.

An uneasy truce

India’s religious and cultural diversity has entailed an uneasy truce in the country’s public life. The country’s birth as an independent state was scarred by the trauma of Partition, with the subcontinent being cleaved into two distinct nation states founded on religious identity — secular India and the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The Partition was one of the bloodiest episodes in modern history, resulting in the death of over 250,000 people. The scale of human migration and the violence it unleashed were unprecedented in the region’s history.

Having devoted nearly half the book to this phase in India’s tumultuous history, Misra moves on to chronicling independent India’s tryst with destiny. The collapse of the colonial temple called for a new approach to India’s development, one that entailed fuller representation of the many dissenting voices that had characterized the pre-independence years. As Misra says, “Modern Indian history is not merely about storming, but also about building the temple.” Her analysis, she points out, differs considerably from traditional interpretations of modern Indian history, namely, liberal, Marxist, and subaltern. Liberal commentators tend to portray a grand westernizing image of 21st century India, replete with shining malls and glitzy office spaces. Marxist theorists look upon India’s growth trajectory as one of uninhibited inequality, in which the economic elites have systematically crushed the faceless poor. Finally, the subaltern school’s interpretation is similar to the Marxists’ in that it sees a definite divide between the elites and the others, but its view is that this divide is more cultural than economic, the British influence having raised a generation “Indian in name, but alien in spirit”.

Misra discards each of these interpretations as erroneous — since they do not capture India’s “complex and halting evolution into a very peculiar kind of modern nation”. India’s inequitable growth, she argues, has been an outcome of the contravening impulses of hierarchy versus equality (as epitomized by caste struggles), rationality versus superstition, and modernity versus tradition. The starkest example of this struggle was the determination of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, to develop India as a scientific superpower. Nehru’s stance was in marked contrast to the arcadian vision of his mentor, Mahatma Gandhi. It was under Nehru that the country’s successful atomic energy program took root, and he directed considerable energy toward establishing the Indian Institutes of Technology, globally renowned today as centers of engineering excellence.

However, Nehru’s economic policies, the central theme of which was economic planning, failed to effect real change on the ground. This was particularly so in farming, where co-operative schemes to raise agricultural productivity backfired. His death in 1964 in the backdrop of India’s humiliating defeat by China left a deep crater in Indian politics, and it was to take a few years before national politics could find its feet again. Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi was to emerge from the shadows as a shrewd tactician, one who would go on to personify a flagrantly partisan brand of politics.

Misra devotes sizeable attention to the excesses of the ‘Emergency’ — the period between 1975 and 1977 when Indira Gandhi suspended civil liberties and adopted authoritarian rule to avoid relinquishing the prime minister’s chair after an adverse decision of the Allahabad High Court challenging her election to the Indian Parliament. The Emergency proved to be a defining moment for Indian democracy. The iron hand with which Sanjay Gandhi, Indira’s errant son, enforced his ramshackle decrees diluted the misgivings of anyone who had bemoaned the red tapism that seemed synonymous with democracy in India. The most dreaded of Sanjay’s many experiments was nasbandi (forced vasectomy). A means to effect family planning, nasbandi, under Sanjay’s tutelage, became a military-style operation with attractive incentives for ‘motivators’ who had to come up with a certain number of successful cases to be eligible for them. Little wonder, the program assumed draconian proportions. Misra writes:

Soon vasectomy clinics sprang up in the poorer areas of towns, and though volunteers were supposed to be of reproductive age and already to have had three children, young boys, old men, vagrants and anyone in any way dependent on the state found themselves pressed by ‘motivators’ into having vasectomies. In September 1976 mobile nasbandi vans, and armies of ‘motivators’ seeking to fill their quotas, began descending on the countryside. In Satara, police rounded up eligible men, took them to rural health centers and more or less coercively sterilized them.

Indira was at worst an active participant; at best, a silent bystander in her son’s egregious abuse of power. “Paradoxically,” Misra writes, “India’s half-baked experiment in dictatorship had the effect of entrenching democracy.” The next general elections, held in 1977 after the suspension of the Emergency, routed the Congress and resulted in the Janata Party forming the government in Delhi. Though the experiment was short-lived and Indira Gandhi returned to power in 1980, it was the first time that a non-Congress government had assumed power at the center.

Secessionist tendencies

The 1980s were marked by a rise in secessionist tendencies, most virulently in the western border state of Punjab. The Nirankaris, a heretical Sikh sect, demanded the creation of a separate Sikh state of Khalistan. Their leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was a charismatic orator, whose call to possessing arms and reinforcing Sikh identity was taken quite literally by many young men. Matters came to a head in 1982, when Bhindranwale and his men installed themselves in Amritsar’s Golden Temple, the Sikhs’ holiest shrine. Throughout 1983, Indira Gandhi’s government carried out negotiations with different stakeholders, but to little effect. The threat of Punjab declaring nationhood was now very real. In June 1984, after much dithering, Gandhi ordered the Indian Army to storm the Golden Temple. Operation Blue Star, as it was called, turned into a blood-spilling three-day siege, killing nearly 600 people. The timing of the operation coincided with an important Sikh festival. The entire exercise was, therefore, viewed by Sikhs as an act of sacrilege and in the aftermath several Sikh soldiers resigned from their positions in protest.

However, the most glaring consequences of the operation were yet to unfold. In the early hours of October 31, 1984, Indira Gandhi was gunned down by her Sikh bodyguards. Anti-Sikh hysteria gripped Delhi and nearly 3,000 Sikhs were butchered over the next two days. Rajiv Gandhi, Indira’s other son — Sanjay had been killed in a bizarre air crash in 1980 — assumed the mantle of prime ministership overnight. The rebellion in Punjab died down. A secessionist movement that had threatened the integrity of the country was subdued by a tragic series of events and at the cost of thousands of lives.

While Misra’s treatment of Sikh separatism and Rajiv Gandhi’s political capital is uniformly scholarly, she comes truly into her own in tackling the most serious political upheaval of the ’90s: the Mandir agitation. Through the 1980s, a series of events, most notably the Shah Bano case – in which Rajiv Gandhi overruled a court order granting alimony to a Muslim woman after pressure from Islamic outfits – engendered a feeling among Hindus that a policy of appeasement toward Muslims was being played out by the Congress government in violation of their own interests. Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) leader Lal Krishna Advani sensed this alienation and launched the Ram mandir (temple) movement in 1990. It was aimed at demolishing Babar’s mosque in Ayodhya, the birthplace of Lord Ram, and erecting a Ram temple in its place. Sections of Hindus had long held that Babar had destroyed a Ram temple at the site and built a mosque over the temple ruins in the 16th century.

On December 6, 1992, to the cries of raucous supporters, Advani’s rath yatra (the march of the chariot) reached the site. By evening, the mosque had been demolished — an event that was to have far-reaching repercussions on Indian polity. The riots sparked by the demolition led to the death of over 2,000 people nationwide. It also placed Hindutva, the BJP’s avowed policy of keeping Hindu interests paramount, firmly in the political saddle. Misra calls this the “leveling of the temple” — the ascendancy of a “xenophobic, hierarchical, bellicose and reactionary” ideology that stormed the bastions of Congress’s electoral success.

Always interested in the insidious workings of caste in India, Misra is nearly gleeful at the contribution that the rise of a lower caste consciousness has made to the country’s political arithmetic. This includes, but is not limited to, the controversial move to reserve seats for lower castes in government jobs and educational institutes as a way to bring them on economic parity with upper castes. Misra is an unabashed admirer of Laloo Prasad Yadav, “scourge of Brahmanhood and political showman extraordinaire”. Laloo, whose initiation into politics was marred by allegations of corruption and nepotism, has emerged as a messiah for the Yadav community in the Hindi heartland. In his latest avatar as India’s railway minister, he has displayed a rare efficiency that has transformed the face of the Indian railway. So popular is Laloo’s rustic brand of management that he is now a regular invitee to top-grade management schools to deliver sermons on what makes the rural hinterland tick.

It is the paradox of a public persona like Laloo Prasad that exemplifies the larger undercurrents driving India’s much-vaunted growth. Across classes and social strata, there is a raving scramble to better oneself, a fight aided by the country’s democratic setup. Of course, the results of such a chase aren’t always desirable. In Aravind Adiga’s The White Tiger (2008), Balram Halwai, a small-town bloke from Bihar, moves to Gurgaon, the software outsourcing hub of India, to drive the car of a rich businessman. The novel traces Balram’s disillusionment with the ‘fast life’ of the metro, a lifestyle that both repels and seduces him. Humiliated by his downtrodden status, Balram commits a brutal murder which, rather than proving his nemesis, opens the gates of opportunity and prosperity for him. Interminably bleak, The White Tiger is a scathing portrayal of the societal divisions wrought by a fast-changing economic scenario. As India finds its feet in IT and nuclear energy, and comes to be identified as the world’s back office, it must do more to make this growth all-encompassing, and ensure that the benefits of globalization percolate down to the poor.

Stephen Cohen, senior fellow in foreign policy studies at the Brookings Institution, once wondered if India will one day emerge as a global power or forever stay “arriving”. Like Luce and Guha, Misra is of the cautious hope that India will surpass its status as a rising power. Returning to the temple metaphor, she concludes that Vishnu’s temple is in danger of being displaced by fidelity to Hanuman, the monkey God. Himself a disciple of Lord Ram, Hanuman is looked upon as a more approachable deity than the patriarchal Vishnu. Large temples devoted to him are sprouting across the length of the country, each competing with the other in grandeur and finesse. Much revered for his entrepreneurial skills in the Ramayana, Hanuman has come to symbolize resourcefulness and communication for the new India. To Misra, Hanuman is the harbinger of India’s fluidity, chaos and compromised continuity — an apt almighty for a democracy that’s really a functional anarchy.