Atanu Dey On India's Development

IIT-Inspire, Invovle, and Transform — 2

[Continued from Part 1 of this series.]

Made Up Stuff

Naturally, I was not part of the organizing committee and so I can’t know how they chose the keynote speakers of Dec 23rd at the Pan IIT 2006 meet. Therefore, I give in to wild conjecture. Consider this a sort of “reverse process engineering.”

“We need to choose a keynote speaker.”

“Yes, but to attract a wide range of audience, we must have more than one. Let’s set the parameters first. How about someone who appeals to technologists, as we are all techies. At the other end of the scale we have to have someone who widely regarded as a spiritual leader. Most of all, we must have famous personalities.”

“I guess that is a great strategy. We must have complete and comprehensive coverage of the entire spectrum. We need the commies as well as the capitalists amongst us satisfied. So, we must get a money bag to be a keynote speaker. Married speakers as well as bachelors.”

“OK, I get the idea. Let’s see: we have married, unmarried; commies, capitalists; spiritual, commercial; desi, foreign; political, apolitical; national, universal; pseudo-secular, communal; majority religion, minority religion; good speakers, bad speakers; good writers, bad writers; young, old; sensible, idiotic—anything else?”

“Yeah, how about gender equality?”

“IITs don’t graduate too many of the female persuasion. We could consider those famous female anti-globalization activists. But they are busy being anti-growth. We don’t want them. They may turn off too many people. So we have to give that gender equality thingy a miss, unfortunately.”

“We missed an important dimension. Economist. India is going to be an economic superpower. We need to get that famous Bong economist. No, not that one who writes that dismal blog but the other one who won that huge pile of cash.”

“Actually, he is booked till 2008. So we will have to go with someone who makes pseudo economic claims.”

“That settles it, then. We have the winners. These four are the minimal set that most comprehensively covers the entire set of dimensions except for that gender bias. Ah well, you cannot have it all.”

Having gotten the non-serious stuff out of the way, let’s get back to what matters.

For the record, the four were President Shri APJ Abdul Kalam, Sashi Tharoor, George Soros, and His Holiness Pujania Gurudevji Sri Sri Ravi Shankarji. I wrote briefly about Kalam, Tharoor and Soros the last time and ran out of steam before I could get to SSRS. So here goes.

Container and the Content

After having read so much about SSRS, and having received so much mail from his ardent followers, I was really psyched up to actually see SSRS in person. Of course, I had seen his picture plastered all over India a million times—on billboards and flyers, in newspapers and magazines. I was expecting to react along the lines of

Beware ! Beware !
His flashing eyes, his floating hair !
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.

It was a terrible let-down for me. SSRS delivered his well-worn homilies in a faintly feminine voice, pausing frequently for effect while he smiled benevolently at the crowd. I was in awe of the man. He has got to be the world’s most successful marketing genius, a brilliant strategist. I should make it absolutely clear that what he talks about, apparently teaches, and packages is not snake-oil: it is some of the best that India has to offer, such as yoga and meditation. That sort of stuff doesn’t have to be sold and for selling it, you don’t have to be a genius. And therein lies the answer to why he is so successful.

Here are two questions I try to answer whenever I buy something. What am I being sold, the container or the content? And, which is the container and which is the content? What I buy may often not be what is being sold. I may buy the content even though they are merely selling the container, or vice versa.

Yoga and meditation are the container. What is being promoted, in my opinion, is the content, His Holiness Gurudevji Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. People are attracted by the container and the content gets spread. Gurudevji wraps himself in ancient Indian wisdom and promotes himself to the hilt. The marketing genius is in figuring out that yoga and meditation are a golden container and encasing oneself in it.

So how do I feel about the Art of Living and SSRS? Very positively. His self-promotion is actually spreading Indian ideals and ideas that I value across the world. From a consequentialist point of view, I value the service he ultimately provides to the world, never mind what I consider his motivation to be.

The Social Good

Which brings me back to the larger issue of the PanIIT meet. What was being sold there? What is the overall impact of such an exercise? From a free market perspective, the event is like any other voluntary exchange and therefore socially beneficial (because when private parties engage in free exchange, social welfare is enhanced.) There are externalities, of course, that arise from most private transactions. For instance, the negative externalities of, say, a celebrity speaker whose attendance causes public inconvenience which is a social cost that is not compensated for by the private parties involved in the event. But one should not discount the positive externalities as well.

Self-confidence and an optimistic can-do attitude are valuable traits in an individual which make success more likely. So also collective self-confidence and optimism can lead to preferred outcomes. Events such as the PanIIT 2006 can raise the collective consciousness if directed properly.

I went through their souvenir publications which collected some of the best contributions of celebrated and accomplished Indians. There is a lot of reporting there but no real analysis of what should be done and why. That is in my opinion an unfortunately widely accepted practice: doing too much and calling for action on many more directions without adequate thought to why we are where we are and what must be done to get to where we should be.

Positive analysis must precede normative recommendations. That is, you must understand what is and why before one recommends action to reach a future desired state. I saw very little positive analysis and too much call to action.

I will continue this line of inquiry in my next bit.

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  • mahashakti

    Sri Sri Ravi Shankar may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but he is definitely helping others, he’s a great karma yogi. He’s helping others by spreading message of self-healing through ayurveda, yoga and meditation. He spreads love in a world that is so full of violence. If he is promoting himself, does it really matter that much? Take what you need. He’s not asking you to surrender your soul to him. he’s good at what he does. He’s a great dancer on the world stage. He makes living, and dying look easy. He’s in a nice space. He wants to share. Hes doing it his way. Its okay.

  • http://randomstorm.blogspot.com Bidisha Sen

    Dear Atanu,
    I am amazed that a person with your intelligence is spending so much time writing numerous articles on H H Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, debating between what is being sold, the container and the content. May I bring it to your notice that it is just you who seems to be stuck to the content and not the container, using your own words.
    It is not just your fault, it is a trademark of our nation, we do not get confused between the container and the content when we take guitar lessons or swimming lessons, but when it comes to spirituality, which is one of the greatest things that India contributes to the world, we feel suddenly threatened when we see someone who has the insight, the experience and is ready to share his knowledge with the world.
    By knowledge here, I mean the experiential knowledge of life, for that alone can make true difference. I graduated from IIT as an engineer and it was in the same place I undertook the Art of Living workshop, without judging, without any expectations, concepts and without fear. It has been one of the best take aways from my IIT years. And so it has been for many other fellow colleagues of mine from IIT, which resulted in H H Sr Sri Ravi Shankar being invited to teh Pan IIT meet, so you may actually put to rest your wild conjecturing and reverse engineering. It was just an expression of gratitude for what we have got and an opportunity to share with those who have not yet. Also, the service projects taken up by the organisation is something you may like to take a look at, instead of pondering what He stands for. If you do have to write or criticising, I feel focusing on our 5H prgram, Prison Smart courses, Drug Rehabilitation and Trauma Relief and interviewing the people who have undertaken the programs can be a good place to start.
    I wish you all the best in your endeavour.
    Bidisha

  • Vijay SRD

    http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/holnus/001200701020310.htm

    Here is was a IIT Keynote speaker candidate that was ignored!! I guess the organisers didn’t want to confront with reality ( of course Govt.)-
    IITs are a set of failed organizations! I guess PVT engineering colleges/RECs have provided India with equally good number of engineers at far cheaper costs! IITs are just white elephants sucking from my Tax money. Till to open them to market and let them pay by there own nose.

  • Manu

    Atanu, you are a hopeless cynic, a common trait in IIT students.

    Everybody talks of the new India that is more confident and sure of itself. The younger generation has simply stopped being cynical about the country as a whole and themselves individually. When it comes to the institutions in our life, we are no different from our parents and their parents.

    As a side note, I completely agree with your comment on “The Social Good”. Independent organizations like panIIT, newspapers, cheerleaders of new India, Pankaj Misra, et al. can only decry or celebrate things as they stand. True change is a lot harder and a prerogative of the executive (government). Unfortunately, the government is busy putting nails in the coffin of IIT instead of spending money on research that will actually take us forward.

  • Kishore Verma

    My five years spent at IIT Kharagpur were a total waste of time except for the company of a large number of highly intelligent co-students I met. The Institutes are given undue credit for their contribution to “education”. We were never given any time to think, just non-stop rote and grinding for completion of copied assignments. The only claim to fame of IITs is the entrance examination that separates out high achievers from non-achievers at a sweet young age of 16. Moreover, we hear only about a handful of financially successful IITians. The majority are miserable failures because of lack of political and social skills in organizational environments.

  • Soumen Chakrabarti

    When the President goes to an event like this, do the organizers at least reimburse the travel expenses (forget externalities) or does that come out of taxes you and I paid?

    Also see an
    antidote to CBS60
    — not entirely fair, but a much-deserved slap in the face.

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  • Doesnt Matter

    Do we need to be taugh “the art of living”. Do we not know what we need to do when we are stressed. Does someoe need to tell us that we have to take proper sleep. Does someone need to emphasize the importance of healthy food and the ill-effects of consuming narcotics & alcohol. I think when someone steals, he know consciously that he is doing wrong, when someone smokes a puff he knows he is killing himself, when a husband beats his wife he knows that its morally incorrect, when we lie we know that we might get caught and land up in a soup- but we still do all this.
    So It is a big question as to how does the art of living help someone when he himself is on a way to “not to live”

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