Election diary of an immigrant

As much as I want to believe that those who display the St. George’s flag are proud, fair-minded, and patriotic people, the truth couldn’t be further. Let me explain…

Last week on St George’s Day, I went canvassing for a friend of mine who’s contesting a parliamentary seat in North West London. As those who’ve knocked on doors before will recognise, you’re provided with a sheet of names and door numbers of those who may vote for your party, so that you can (once again) confirm their voting intention for polling day. Should they confirm that they’re interested in voting for your candidate (e.g. my friend), you do everything possible to ensure they leave the comfort of their home to cast their vote on May 6th.

Knowing this, you come up with all kinds of ways to ask them the most important question – “Will you vote for x, y, or z?” and unsurprisingly each person reacts in their own way, but as far as my experience shows, no one’s nasty – some are rude – but never nasty.

So, for this reason I’m prompted to write this post. It just so happened that every house that displayed the St George’s flag happened to show their total dis-regard, ignorance, and lack of respect – which bordered on being nasty and racist. One lady, even brought her dog (a bulldog!) to the door to tell me she wouldn’t be voting for my friend. She let rip on every single problem that “the immigrants” are responsible for. Right from litter on her street, missing light bulbs on street lamps, all the way through to the recession – it seemed that we were to blame.

Normally, I’m not flustered so easily, but I couldn’t get over the fact that I’d heard the same kind of stuff at all the houses that I knocked on which had the St. George’s flag displayed in their window or on their car. I’d love to believe this was a coincidence, but other houses, in this otherwise aspirational suburb, didn’t express such views when I engaged them!

As the son of an immigrant, I consider this my home (not India or Kenya, where I was born) and I believe that our diversity is also our biggest strength. We live in a country that is facing challenges that it’s never had to deal with. Take the challenge of emerging economies like China or India and their impact on us in the next 50 years, or of as an island nation tackling the threats posed by global warming – I believe we need to embrace new ideas, new ways of developing solutions to face these issues, and for this reason, to believe that immigrants who bring varied experiences that contribute to our society are fundamental to our future success.

I know that the vast majority of people will think that I’m making a mountain out of a molehill out of one bad day at the doorstep, but it’s important for all of us (red, blue, and yellow) to reclaim the St George’s flag from these nutters (not just for the upcoming World Cup), who’ve hijacked an identity that is so respected all over the world.

Back to door knocking tomorrow…

A Dubai Born Brand Going Global

It’s not often that you witness history, but last night, I observed just that. I’m in Dubai at the moment – a place I must say is not the most endearing for the simple reason that it’s all quite new and sparkly – despite the emirate of Abu Dhabi having to step in to help it honour its financial obligations.

There’s approx 1.5million people residing here, of which the local community constitute approx 15%. The vast majority seem to be from the southern states of India, who work in all capacities from maids & servants, professionals in corporates, and are also major investors with large enterprises in Dubai – all of whom, which have enabled its skyline to be as extravagant as it is.

It’s for this reason that I was truly taken aback to learn that the Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum went to his first ever non Emirati (local population) event in Dubai, and he couldn’t have picked a better one. The event marked the 50th anniversary of an Indian family having invested in Dubai, whose company – GEMS – is a world beater in the education sector.

What’s remarkable about this family and firm is the way they’ve taken the best of being Indian and have fused it with Arabic culture, to set it on it’s path to global success. As an internationalist, I’m going to use this post to not only congratulate the Varkey’s, but importantly to applaud the Sheikh for taking this small, but important step in strengthening Dubai’s ties with the future.

As for GEMS, having looked at them closely, I’m convinced they’re at the cusp of truly becoming a global brand. They may have a 100 schools and educate 100,000 kids, but the landscape is so, so wide for them to paint. Yes, they’ll go through the pain of becoming a business that moves beyond the identity of its owner; yes, they’ll also make mistakes – but having witnessed their flair, ambition, and drive to recruit the best talent, it’d be hard to bet against them becoming “the” first global private education brand.

In Dubai, we may have just seen the future…

Slumdog Millionaire Shines for India

What a film! I finally got around to watching Slumdog Millionaire last night and have to say that for once, the film exceeded all the hype that’s been thrusted on us since its release.

Quite uncharacteristically for a Gujarati to shower superlatives on someone else, but I have to break tradition and insist that we salute Danny Boyle for his direction, AR Rahman for a beautiful sountrack, and of course, Vikas Swarup for writing the book in the first place.

I can understand the reasons that some people – mainly Indians – are kicking off about the film – it shows India’s shameful poverty like no other film has – and in these times of intoxicating economic growth – I can see why they’d want a better narrative to portray India, but let’s not forget that a third of the world’s poor reside in the motherland.

Not surprisingly, those non-Indians who’ve watched the film – who i’ve spoken with over the past few weeks, have all said that despite the poverty depicted, they’d love to visit India.

Even if Slumdog walks away without winning any Oscars this year, this film will have done more for India and Bollywood than the past two decades of films (since Gandhi), heavy investment for the Incredible India advertising campaigns, her cricketing prowess, and diplomacy of India’s elite foreign service, all bundled together!

I recently interviewed Kishore Lulla, CEO of Eros, which is India’s most successful film production and distribution company, for a book I’m writing on Indian business going global, and it was he, who prophetically said that India’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would come from nowhere – a total suprise at a totally unexpected time. Looks like he may have been right.

Slumdog, at least in my opinion, should surpass the impact of Crouching Tiger, as it speaks volumes not just about the Indian film industry but for modern India as a whole, unlike its Chinese equivalent, which for me demonstrated how far its industry had come along. In the case of Slumdog, its not Danny Boyle, Anil Kapoor, or even Dev Patel that’s on show, the story is simply about India.

Brilliant film, a must see for anyone interested in India.

David Miliband's visit to India

The Foreign Secretary’s recent visit to India, which has created quite a stir in India and within the diaspora in the UK, reinforces, at least for me, the need for better inter-cultural understanding from both sides. Yes, he could’ve avoided connecting the recent Mumbai attacks with the bilateral dispute with Pakistan over Kashmir; yes, he could’ve avoided coming across as arrogant and forceful; yes, he could’ve adhered to formal titles when addressing senior ministers in Delhi; and of course, yes, he shouldn’t have visited Rahul Gandhi’s constituency so close to the upcoming general election.

We’ll do well to remember that Indian politics is complex and the subtext of what you say is probably more important that the actual words you finally use, we’ll also benefit if we understand that in most cases, Indian politicians come into the front line after they hit a half century – let’s not forget Manmohan Singh is in his 70s and Mr Advani is in his 80s. With Miliband barely into his 40s, it must come as a huge surprise to the Indians when the “young man” started flexing his muscles.

David’s visit to Pakistan is being hailed a huge success as my sources tell me that he got them to agree to move a lot further than expected on key issues including curtailing their terror infested networks, which is the right place to  flex his muscles. In my opinion, India deserves a little more respect given our alignment of many, many strategic & substantive issues.

Now that the visit is consigned to history, if I were David Miliband, I’d ask myself what I could improve on and work towards that goal. No Foreign Secretary is going to be able to avoid India, so you might as well acknowledge that you may have got your messaging wrong and that future visits and speeches will be planned with an extra helping of intercultural awareness.

Slumdog Millionaire

Whilst I profess that I haven’t caught the ‘must see’ movie of the season, I can’t help but feel that I already know everything about the flick! As with most films that are based on a popular book, I’m sure Danny Boyle’s added a few twists that are from his own imagination and not that of the author – who incidentally is a friend from his London days and shares a great first name with me 🙂

In conversation with those in the know, they tell me that as a result of Danny Boyle never having visited India before he decided to make this film, the cinematography and pictures captured with his small crew is creating quite a stir.

Criticism from one camp of the way he depicts India’s racial tensions right the way through to the manner in which he brings India’s slums into the multiplex’s of the developed world will be forgiven if Slumdog brings home India’s first ever Oscar.

If there’s one thing India is known for is its ability to entertain the masses. I’m looking forward to catching the film next weekend.

Jaguar / Land Rover & Tata

I’m writing this post in the context of hearing on the news that Lord Mandelson has placed a call, this morning, to  Bombay House, the Tata HQ in India.

I was speaking with a senior government figure, who’s involved in this matter, two evenings ago at a Whitehall pub in which he began enquiring as to what the Tatas would do if the UK Government refused to lend them the £1bn bailout they’ve requested for Jaguar / Land Rover.

To say that the Tatas have no other options would be misleading, as it wasn’t so long ago that the media reported that they had deep pockets and more importantly the intent on making the new venture a success. Let’s also not forget that within the Tata Group, there are a couple of companies which can only be described as ‘cash cows’, such as TCS, the IT firm from which they can divert resources to the benefit of Jaguar / Land Rover.

However, what I found interesting was his take on the cultural differences between the parent and child. He suggested that the Tata’s weren’t used to a culture where their plans would be stress tested and scrutinised as, in their opinion, their track record, trust, and their brand should prove to be enough of a guarantee for the UK taxpayer.

I disagree with the suggestion that the Tatas are naive and culturally backward. The Tata’s have been in the UK for more than a century and employ almost 50,000 people here in some of the most intensive and unloved sectors of the economy. As a result of their experiences here, they would understand the nervousness of the Government and therefore not take it as an affront to their heritage if certain questions were asked. After all, they understand that government money, ultimately is raised through taxation – our money.

With that comes responsibility. The Tata’s understand that, all too well.

It's Christmas… the politics of public holidays

With Christmas and Boxing Day around the corner, I was asked whether India celebrated these holidays. Questions such as: do queue’s appear at petrol stations on Christmas Eve? are the supermarkets gridlocked? do the TV channels beam old classic films like Star Wars into their living rooms, like they do in Britain? Of course, not! India has its own unique way of doing things!

We shouldn’t forget that public holidays are decreed by parliaments in democratic nations and by virtue of this simple fact, politicians are often lobbied to extend their number. Groups of every nature and interest make the case every year that a national holiday would support the promotion of their cause. Luckily, in Britain, our MPs have resisted the call, but the situation in India is wholly different.

As a result of its religious diversity, India celebrates an exceptional number of public holidays, especially if you’re a civil servant. There have been suggestions that the number be curtailed to eight, but political compulsions and votebank politics trump common sense and at times economic progress.

Being a practical person, I’d advise those on vacation to visit India during one of the major holidays to experience the huge difference in the way festivals are celebrated. As a business traveller, you’d be stumped if you didn’t check the public holiday calendar before booking your tickets.

Pratham – breaking cultural stereotypes

Last weekend, my friends at Pratham – one of India’s largest and most effective literacy / educational NGOs, organised a fabulous event to raise the profile of their cause. Sensing the worries of their donor base, they made the prudent decision to organise a ‘no frills’ party instead of their signature Ball – which last year saw them raise in excess of £2m for their ‘Read India’ campaign.

Having worked and supported with many NGOs that have their roots in India, not only am I impressed with Pratham’s ability to tap into the city / banking circuit in London and New York, I have to applaud the efforts of Reita Gadkari and the entire team for breaking many stereotypes that I believe dog the Indian charity scene.

For me, Pratham leads the way in not only showing us that an Indian cause can raise millions in the UK, but importantly, Pratham shows us how to gain the support of non Indians for charity. As a result of their clear focus and messaging, we saw a huge turnout of supporters from all ethnicities – all rooting for improved literacy in India. Sounds strange, but I haven’t seen this before – at least not on this scale.

My advice for those who rely on newspapers and TV for their information on India – don’t believe the hype! Yes, India is booming. Yes, it produces so many million more graduates than Europe. However, not all of these are of the quality that you and I are lead to believe. Basic literacy and skills are a major concern and this is where groups like Pratham provide effective solutions.

As an event – great fun. Well done. Was good to see eminent persons like Andrew Neil, Lakshmi Mittal, Anshu Jain, Dalip Pathak, Jim O’Neill all present and supporting Pratham.

A White Diwali!

We’ve all heard of it snowing on Christmas, but no one could ever have imagined that we’d have a White Diwali in London this year!

Despite the unusually cold and snowy evening, we’ve had a fantastic few weeks in the run up to the big day. We’ve seen celebrations all over the world. In London, Trafalgar Square was overflowing with people wanting to experience Diwali, temples were packed to the rafters, community halls hosted Diwali parties, and the shops did brisk business, which was a welcome relief in these times.

In India, Diwali is a huge deal. I don’t often state the obvious but unless you visit India during this period, you’ll simply not be able to realise the scale of the festival. India comes to a standstill for five days. Think of Christmas in the West and multiply it 100 times.

Apart from celebrating the return of the Hindu God – Rama to the city of Ayodhya after a period of 14 years in exile in which he defeats the ten headed demon Ravana to recapture his wife – Sita, we also celebrate and worship the Goddess of wealth and prosperity – Lakshmi.

On this day, members of the business community close their previous year’s books of accounts and open the New Year’s accounts by performing a ceremony to worship Goddess Lakshmi, to ask for her blessings for good profits in the forthcoming year.

Those interesed in learning about Indian culture are advised to pick up a copy of the Ramayana or Mahabharata, in which the tales of Hinduism’s two most worshiped incarnations of God are recorded. There are many good versions in English that can be bought on the net.

As is customary during festivals and celebrations, I’ve eaten far too much in the past few days and now need to schedule an extra couple of shifts at the gym!

Happy Diwali and New Year.

American Jobs for American People

The British Government’s commitment to engaging with India can only be described as deep and meaningful. Whether we’re discussing the thorny issue of immigration, collaboration between educational institutions, strategy on counter-terrorism, right through to to the relationship with the Indian diaspora in Britain.

However, its the cool commercialism that hits the headlines on an increasingly frequent basis. With the acquisition of major brands by India’s firms, its no surprise that the day after the government reshuffle, the Department for Business fielded a senior Minister to meet with leading Indian investors in Britain.

At the dinner, Pat McFadden’s grasp of the detail was impressive. He spoke openly and was genuinely interested in learning the challenges that these businesses have in the UK. He seemed committed to providing a fair and transparent environment for businesses to flourish.

Given that our economy is under severe pressure and one in which even the PM suggested was headed for recession, I’m surprised that in the US they’re  making a bad situation even worse by rejecting the benefits of globalisation. Don’t get me wrong, I like Obama and want to see him in the Oval Office, but on this issue, I’m with McCain.

For me, I struggle to understand how the American’s have succeeded for so long, when at every big moment they start making statements like: ‘American jobs for American people’. It seems that interdependence is simply not in the cultural DNA of the US and is a clear example of how the cultural makeup of a country is directly linked to its success or failure.