Day: November 8, 2010

Interview: Jerry Rao – Chatting with an Indian Conservative

Notes From An Indian Conservative (2010) - Book Cover
Notes From An Indian Conservative (2010)

Admittedly, I was a little daunted before reading Jerry Rao’s collection of conservative columns. The series of writings have been published in Indian Express over the past five years and portrays a unique point of view that we aren’t usually exposed to. Being young and somewhat idealistic, I tend to scoff at the term conservative… yet as I read through his book, I found myself agreeing with a lot of the concepts he developed. The writing is straightforward, pragmatic and refreshingly distinctive in that much of the opinions presented are not tediously predictable, which tends to happen when you’re reading liberal writing.

He covers a wide range of topics; politics, economics, the environment, terrorism, literature and the book is dense with a variety of historical, spiritual and literary examples. Having pioneered consumer banking in India through the 80s and 90s, then going on to found Mphasis at the turn of the century, his deep and prolific professional experience makes him an intellectual with a true belief in what he has practised rather than just theorized. It also must be said, that Jerry Rao may be an opinionated writer, but he’s certainly not a stubborn writer and this is what shines through in this highly accessible collection of columns.

Image - Jerry Rao
In Pic: Jerry Rao

In an exclusive interview with Flipkart, Jerry Rao discusses his book ‘Notes From An Indian Conservative’ and what the term ‘Indian Conservative’ has come to mean…

An Introduction with Jerry Rao

Who is Jerry Rao and what makes him tick?
That’s an existential question, you can’t spring it on me without warning! Just a post-independence, South Indian male with a heavy influence from English literature and British history. That might explain my intellectual origins.

From India’s leading banker, to pioneering India’s IT sector, all the way to becoming an acclaimed columnist and author – how has your professional experience defined who you are as a writer?
The professional experience has been key. I tend to be a practical writer, I don’t write theoretical stuff. I look for empiricism, I look for what works, why somethings work, rather than what should be… If I had not had a distinct profession, particularly in the business field; banking – IT, I would have been more idealistic in my positions. Now I’m very much empirical. In that sense, it also goes back to the Scottish Enlightenment influence – David Hume and Adam Smith’s influence of empiricism.

The two have come together because I’ve done practical things. I’ve actually met customers, done business, made profits – these are very practical real things. You don’t get into a theoretical, idealistic frame work once you’ve had that experience in life.

“Notes from an Indian Conservative” is a compilation of your columns written for the Indian Express over the past 5 years – can you tell us how this partnership was born?
Shekhar Gupta
, the editor of Indian Express, has over the years been a good friend and a great inspiration. If you look at it, Express is one of the few papers which has solid intellectual content in its columns.

One day I was giving him a hard time, saying there aren’t enough right wing conservative columnists in the Indian scene and you people are falling into this trap that all intellectualism is leftist. So he just threw me a challenge and said, “If you feel so strongly, why don’t you write?”

Who exactly is your target audience and describe the kind of response you get from your readership?
My target audience is primarily like yourself; modern Indians whether they live in India or abroad, who are familiar with the English language, who are interested in contemporary issues – be it the environment, be it economics, issues of Indian poverty or Indian foreign policy or literature. Those who have some knowledge and interest in the historical evolution of modern Indian consciousness. English speaking consciousness if I’m being candid.

The responses have been interesting, a lot of have been; “We never thought about it that way. Thank you for showing us that new point of view!” But there are also some people who get vitriolic. There is a certain group of cultural nativists in India who get very upset when anyone praises British rule or praises English literature, or praises the influence of the English on modern Indian thought – they say all kinds of nasty things.

On ‘Notes With An Indian Conservative’ – From the environment to India as an IT superpower

You have labeled yourself an ‘Indian Conservative’ – with the ideology presented in your writing, can you define what the Indian Conservative believes in?
What we do believe is, that a minimalist state is not only ideologically correct, but it’s also suited to the Indian genius. Indians tend to be entrepreneurial people and to have a highly intrusive state is not good for us. We’re not a regimented people, which is why we should have a minimalist state.

Having said that, we’re also very opposed to radical, quick changes. We want constitutional change, we’re constitutionalists in that sense. If you think about it, we’ve taken positions which are very much in keeping with the constitution. We’re not saying there should be no change… of course there has to be change in human history, but the change has to be gradual and well thought out, not jettisoning good things with the past, simply because you want change. It’s a point of view which got lost out in the late 50s, 60s and throughout the 70s, as state interventionist leftist point of view took over. Leftist rhetoric dominates now and I think it’s time to bring balance with an alternative tradition.

‘Dealing with the Environment’ is extremely enlightening in your book, tell us about the topics you discuss in this section.
The environment has been usurped by leftists as their cause, I think this is a big mistake. We all have a stake in the environment. The first thing to look at it is; what are we doing stupidly to destroy the environment? When you subsidize diesel, electricity, fertilizer, pesticides, you’re actually creating environmental damage. My point is, why are we doing this?

The second thing is, basically the political class of India, especially the Delhi based political class, has lost touch with the reality of India’s environment. Loving India means not just loving ten streets in Delhi, the pomp and the pleasures of office… this is a gorgeous country, you have to be able to love every river, every lake, every mountain. There is no kind of mystic bond anymore. The last Indian leader who had this mystic bond with all our other faults was Indira Gandhi… she at least had some kind of relationship with the country.

In your section ‘Of Terrorists and Cops’,  there definitely seems to be a sense sympathy towards the policemen of India and their effort against terrorism.
The most important thing is not terrorism, but our response to it. I think we have over the last 60 years inadequately funded our police, treated them badly, not given them the tools, not given them the computer systems, the processes, the motivation to deal with this. This is sad, because we can so easily do it! To this day in every police station complaints are handwritten, there is no exchange system. You can commit a crime in one police precinct and move to another and they wouldn’t know!

These things can be fixed in 6 months; we have the money, we have the talent, the ability. Why aren’t we providing the police with the tools they need? Look at those guys wearing primitive bullet proof vests, when we have access to much more modern equipment! We don’t adequately equip them and then we beat up on them. That to my mind is idiotic, because that will demoralize them and through that we will surely lose the war against terrorists. That’s why I keep plugging in for the police because I think they are a much maligned unit, nobody talks about how terrible their lives are, how badly they are treated, how bad their working conditions are; instead of dealing with that, we say, “Hey, they’ve done a bad job.” We like to find individual scapegoats for every problem, rather than looking at the system and seeing how we can change it. We really need to avoid using individual scapegoats.

What is your view of India being an IT superpower? You keep using this reference in your writings, but with a twist.
I think India is not an IT superpower. We’re a pretend IT superpower. Indian companies are able to solve problems of their customer’s in America and Europe quite easily, but our own problems, especially our problems of governance, we’re not able to make any impact. I always say that tongue-in-cheek, this is a pretend IT superpower.

If we were an IT superpower why wouldn’t we have a networked police station system where you have files moving from one to another virtually… why are we still in paper based documentation? Why don’t we have GPS? These are all trivial things to be done and the Indian private sector routinely does it, so why can’t the state sector do it? We get very euphoric and happy, “Oh, we’re a great IT country.” Rubbish! If we are, then why don’t we make an impact on the citizenry and the environment of the country using those tools? I keep questioning this and it’s a deliberate tongue-in-cheek, sarcastic reference I keep making all the time.

On writing, books and favourite authors…

Your advice to CEO/industry leaders who aren’t writers by profession but would like to start?
A good way to start is to force yourself to a deadline and word limit. That way you get started. After that you can go to other places.

Name a few authors who have inspired you to get into writing and publishing?
Among Indian writers who I’m particularly fond of; Naipaul, Rushdie, RK Narayan, Ruskin Bond, Dom Moraes.

Your fascination with John Le Carré?
Le Carré I think is someone who spans the moral universe of the late 20th century using a genre which is usually not meant to do that. A spy novel is meant to give you quick thrills, like Ian Fleming. Le Carré holds an extraordinary mirror, a mirror of distortions, that shows up our own inner selves within the context of the secret service and espionage. Again, he’s an absolutely brilliant prose stylist. It’s rare to see somebody who writes prose as well as Le Carré does and I’ve found that when you re-read him you pick up even more of the nuances. I strongly recommend you re-read as many Le Carré books as possible.

Three books that have changed your life?
Camus’ ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’, TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ and Naipul’s ‘India – A Million Mutinies Now’.

What are you currently reading?
I’m reading ‘The Secret Life of Plants‘, a fascinating book on botany and everything else. Also a biography of Hamilton and re-reading Sir Dennis Kincaid’s biography of Shivaji.

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