Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Proximity of Greatness


Ajit Chaudhuri – November 2012

‘Be not afraid of greatness: some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them!’

My first tryst with greatness was in 1978! I was watching Brazil play at the World Cup (in those days, one did that on a small black and white TV a few days after the game was played), when Roberto Rivelino came on as a substitute and was referred to as ‘the great Rivelino’ by the commentator whenever he touched the ball. Wow, I remember thinking, and what must one do to earn that sort of respect? I got an answer at a discussion about the Indian footballer Inder Singh in the early 1980s – this was among spectators in the cheap seats during a football game at Ambedkar Stadium in Delhi, long after Inder had retired, when a guy said – ‘Maine Inder ko jeetke dekha, maine Inder ko haarke dekha, lekin maine Inder ko kabhi bey-imaani karke nahin dekha’ (roughly translated as ‘I have seen Inder win, I have seen Inder lose, but I have never seen Inder do something dishonest’). And that, I thought at the time, is how I would like to be remembered – assuming that people are willing to overlook the matter of a missing ashtray from the Maurya Sheraton Hotel that somehow turned up in my hostel room back in college days.

But, I digress! This paper is not about either honesty or football – it is about ‘being great’! There is something pathetic about monarchs who have ‘the great’ appended to their names (Peter, Catherine, Frederick, et al), it being unlikely that their subjects had much choice on the matter – a mere ‘His/Her Majesty’ or ‘Royal Highness’ would no doubt have ensured that their heads faced a separate existence from the rest of their bodies; in that respect, I always preferred Ivan the Terrible on his choice of moniker. Modern day greatness is a little different in that it is conferred by hagiographic biographers upon anyone with money and a penchant for PR , and there is a veritable raucousness all around from the multitudes clamouring for the title. I’m not sure how many people actually merit ‘greatness’, more so in their own lifetimes, when time has yet to put their achievements into perspective and smoothen memories of the chaos they have caused. The living great are few in number and, except possibly for Nelson Mandela, difficult to recognize.

Dr. Verghese Kurien was already great when I entered IRMA in 1987 – Operation Flood had happened, and the enormity of the achievement, that households across the country had reliable access to that most basic of products, and the subsequent recognition of it, had set in. One got the occasional glimpse of him in the two years that I was there, mostly as a chief guest to IRMA functions, and one saw the unbridled power that he held, as also his ruthlessness, charm and sense of humour. An occasion I remember was some function in the IRMA auditorium that the students were invited to, presumably to put bums on seats, and Dr. K introduced the chief guest (the then central minister Margaret Alva) by saying that they had met before and that she had called him a male chauvinist pig. So when Ms. Alva came on to speak, we were spared the usual politician monologue about how much the government was spending on this, that and the other and how grateful we should be to it for our existence; she devoted all her time to communicating that she had in fact not called Dr. K an MCP, she had merely wondered why the National Dairy Development Board’s emblem was a bull (and not a cow).

The difficulty for young students at the time was that Dr. K’s achievements were not up for question – which was fine – but neither were the cooperative principles that enabled them. There was no space for dissent or scepticism, (Dr. K didn’t share Sir Karl Popper’s belief that something is best proved by focusing on disproving it and succeeding by not succeeding), and there was an Orwellian bombardment of the ‘Anand Pattern’ down our throats. Needless to add, we grew allergic to the word ‘cooperatives’ while we were there, and those who saw value in them did so in spite of, rather than because of, IRMA. It was only later that one grasped the enormity of his achievements and the possibilities for poverty alleviation that cooperation provided; when one had a better understanding of the scale at which Dr. K worked and of the barriers he faced in a country that incentivizes inactivity, obsequiousness and slime.

What can the wannabe ‘greats’ of today learn from Dr. K about greatness? In this paper, I hazard to venture some simple guesses.

One, the great give meaning to the terms ‘values’, ‘vision’ and ‘mission’ – they are not mere buzzwords ticked off on some strategic plan – and they communicate this successfully to others. This trait separates the ‘great’ from other competent leaders, institution builders and administrators. And it is this that is missed most when they go, when a vision vacuum sets in in their wake.

Two, all good leaders share the traits of brilliance, self-belief, drive, attention to detail, the ability to work extremely hard and to communicate well, and ruthlessness. The great, in addition, use these traits for public benefit and the larger good – personal pecuniary matters tend not to have obsessive allure.

Three, the great are scrupulously honest and they ensure that the institutions they set up share that characteristic. Dr. K had no shades of grey regarding integrity – he used to say that it was like pregnancy and virginity in that you either were or you weren’t, and if you weren’t you were not going to survive with him. New entrants to NDDB were told that the institution did not pay bribes, and also that it did not accept not paying bribes as an excuse for work not getting done – one had to get the work done without paying off anyone.

Four, the great recognise greatness in others. Visitors to his home in his later years were invariably shown his proudest possession, a large photograph of Mount Everest (or was it a painting?) that had been personally signed, at different times, by Tenzing and Hillary. This had the pride of place on his wall, and was given far more prominence than his own respective Padma awards.

Five, greatness rarely ends well; the great have an innate inability to fade quietly into the sunset. Those that don’t get assassinated or taken away by more natural means early enough tend to stay on their thrones until they are prised away, finger-by-finger, kicking and screaming all the way.

And six, and to conclude, the great live on in the people they have touched – more so than the institutions they have created. My father visited Anand earlier this year and dragged me off, against my will (irreverence and scepticism being somewhat ingrained in my character), to meet him. I was surprised later by how sentimental I was during this visit, when the enormity of what I (and so many others) owed this old man and how much we are what we are because of him kicked in. So thanks, Dad, for forcing that visit!

IRMA Institute of Rural Management, Anand
MCP Male Chauvinist Pig
NDDB National Dairy Development Board
PR Public Relations


Ajit Chaudhuri said...

Wow....this is indeed greatness!

I remember that Kurien speech really well and wondered how anyone could make an audience of 200 cynical students listen with such rapt attention to a
lecture on milk.....

Dr. Amirullah Khan

Dear Amir,

Thanks for this!

You may also remember the moment when one of the conference organizers, a lady with nicely shampooed hair, came up, gave the vote
of thanks and thanked the IRMA professors for being available for support at any time of day or night, and when she said 'night' we all started laughing.


Ajit Chaudhuri said...

Hi Ajit,

Nice reading you again. And it was a photograph that was signed by Tenzing.

Good that you wrote about your visit to his place, last year i also visited his place and can certainly say that you are right in all you said about the trip.

Salman Haider

Ajit Chaudhuri said...

Hello Sir

Thanks for sharing this. This was a bit more penetrating than some of the
other ones.

Ashutosh Tosaria

Ajit Chaudhuri said...

Dear Ajit,

Thanks for sharing the piece on Dr. K. - Very well put together - the true spirit of Dr. K - both the sides (if you like to call it so) of his style.

One small correction that you may want to make about the hindi sentences on Inder - you need to replace jeetke with jeet-te similarly for haarke, karke.

Enjoyed reading it and hope to read the next one soon!


Prof. Madhavi Mehta

Thanks Ma'am! I stand corrected!


Ajit Chaudhuri said...

Hi Ajit,

The harsh Afghan winter has obviously not had any adverse effect on your writing talents - very enjoyable piece.

Arundhati Gupta

Anirban Mukerji said...

A slightly shorter note as compared to others and thus easier to understand. In case you are in Afghanistan, there are a few IRMANs with whom you can catch up

Nidhi Bansal said...

I enjoyed it :)

Ashish Patil said...

Hey Ajit,

That's really a nice & informative piece about Dr. K!! Thanks for sharing.. :-)

Ashish Patil