Making Knowledge Interesting to People – Derek O’Brien’s Mission Statement

Mr. Derek O’Brien is an Indian Television personalityand a Member of Parliament from the Trinamool Congress party. Mr O’Brien visited IIM Calcutta to address the students as part of the Leadership Speaker Series during Intaglio 2014. During his talk and his interview post the event, he shed light on various aspects of Public Policy; how people form various fields coming into public service adds value, how effectively appraising happens in the political set-up and how learning an internship in public services or politics can be for the students.


In Parliament_DOB2


Q: Sir, How engaging did you find this experience here? Are there changes that you would suggest to the format (of the speaker series)?

I think the format is a very good and easy format. It is not a lecture-lecture format. I also personally prefer formats where the speaker sets it up for 15 minutes, which was what I tried to do and then leaves it to Q&A. But in doing that it is important that there is still a structure. If you noticed I planned a structure. I did not want the political party to come out too earlier.

Q: So you did mention in the beginning that you would cover politics at last and…

The guy asked me about AAP and all that and I answered that. I then wanted to end with my pitch for thestudents’ internship.

Q: So what you are suggesting is to have a more formalised structure but keep it interactive.

The architecture of the event is important, it can be loose but there needs to be a framework. Otherwise, it will be all… Like I knew we would do the political part first and the history part next. I need to get the basic understanding first. If they come to, if they are studying in Bengal, I thought I need to set up the tone. If I had gone to Yale and Columbia and talked about the end of communism in Bengal then it is only natural that in one of the finest educational institutions in Bengal, doesn’t matter where the students are from, they would also understand the basic ground issues.

Q: Sir, this is a question that a lot of people had asked in the campus. Your career trajectory; You have worked as a journalist, a sports journalist then moved on to advertising and then quiz-master, author and finally into politics. So how do you juggle those hats?

There are no hats. There is only one hat. The one hat is communication; Ideas and communication. If you have certain beliefs and ideas, you can communicate those ideas. I was doing that; for my one year as journalist it was more out of college. But for advertising and quizzing, if you look at my mission statement‘Making knowledge interesting to people’. If you change one word here around and one word there around, it can apply to a political party, it can apply to a knowledge company also. So the basic skills don’t change. The stage changes; the scale changes. You were saying knowledge….

Q: Knowledge is as important to a political party but in India unfortunately we have not seen the rigour that goes into designing policies or solving governance issues. Do you think this is evolving and how do you apply that to your political party?

I think the kind of comment that goes into – There is no kind of rigour.  So ITC has got better rigour or let’s talk about Mahindra has better rigour or Cadbury has better rigour. Not true, eventually political parties are the only ones unlike corporates who have to seek a fresh mandate everytime. ‘X’ becomes the chairman or MD of a company at the age of 49. Yes he is answerable to the shareholders but you know how these companies work. They will bulldoze him and chala dega na. Here (politics), you have to go to the Junta. That’s the tough part. Of course politics is evolving. 10 years ago when a quiz master came in, they said ‘Why god! Derek. You have got a successful career. You are gonna screw up’. Now it is fine if a Infosys director wants to join or one Royal Bank of Scotland MD wants to leave her job and join. And that also they are joining a newbie party, which is good.

Q: Sir, it is not just a question of leaving a successful career and joining politics…

I don’t know if it is a successful career but it is a career.

Q: Yes sir, even otherwise the youth have this general feeling that the kind of influence you would have as a quiz-master on the youngsters will be more than as a politician. The thing I would want to say is , If I would want to join politics I would have this block of mind about how I can contribute. Unfortunately there is this trend that is present obviously it is changing. Things are evolving but it is generally true for any country in the world that politics is a kind of derided profession.

That would change. See, eventually whether you like it or not, the real action is to change people’s lives. I agree with you when you say that there is this policy and all. But the real action today is your mom or my mom or my dad, they might not step from the multi-storeyed building and vote. However this guy (points to driver) will because that is the only thing which equates him and me. We are on the same page here. He knows by doing this this guy has got one vote and I have got one vote. Today if you look at Singhur as a case study, how the land movement by the corporates has changed. I once told my friends in TV studios, ‘Listen Rajdeep , if I come and buys your TV studio and make this into a mall, so boss you sell it to me. You may say no I want to be a TV journalist for the rest of my life.’ That has changed because the farmer today has that power now.

Q: In fact Sir, we had a case study on the Singhur Dam in our Environment & Development class. We looked into how the acquisitions have to made and what mistakes have been made and how this should have been done.

This SEZs and all, forget the politics they are a rip-off yaar. So anyway this is the challenge. You say quizzing and you will reach more people but I cannot describe to you the scale. For people talking about politics and all this is going to change. People from different walks of life… You have got to use, the guys who are coming from allied fields or cross-fertilization like someone like me. I cannot come and abuse the platform. Like today, I hope at least I left you guys with some thoughts and insights even as management students. You would get thoughts and insights from others as well, much more qualified. But not only as a politician, If I only came here and bored you guys by brainwashing about Trinamol Manifesto, then the credibility is lost. So I tried to share what my experience was and not to give you any fundas.

Q: I personally feel that this habit of mix and match of people from various fields into the core field of public policy is actually very good.

Like, I didn’t give you or I didn’t come prepared with Andy Gru (writer) story but then this story is relevant today to share with you guys. Talk to Hari and talk to someone like Mansha (IIMC students who interned with TMC) because when they came, they actually saw the rughro. We didn’t treat them separately because they are from IIMC. We just gave them a place to stay since they were not from Kolkata.

Q: There is this sense of political awareness among student community in general. Kolkata is a different ball game. In cities like Bombay or Delhi, Kolkata is sort of more politically aware.

Was today’s group politically aware.

Q: I mean yes as opposed to groups in Bombay, probably it was. There are obviously more biases here. My question is more around, do you see that trend in the first place? What is good or bad about that? Because most of my friends didn’t discuss about corruption and all before. The last this happened is may be during the Jayprakash movement. For example, in my life so far, I have never seen this. But now, there has been a certain increase in talks about politics, partys’ manifestos, etc

Good, Very good. The cynicism has to go yaar. If all of us are going to cynical… You take an example across parties forget whether Congress or BJP, there are a lot of people in parliament or otherwise , serious talent is there boss. I mean Nilekani or Jaitley, these are not flunks yaar. There are many, I just gave you two examples. That is why I said, it is the scale. I sometimes examine my own conscious, I think whenever I talk about quizzing as small-time and all is it really me talking or whether is it when I have had an outlook of a different life when the ball game is big like in a stadium. The cynicism among the young has to go.

Q: Sir, we talked about industry friendliness. But one thing we are talking about is, it is not just big corporate houses that get you development there are also small scale entrepreneurs, there are public private partnership models, etc. So what innovative models or ideas you have in mind for pushing forward. For example, Bangladesh has got this idea of Grameen health model, grameen health initiative, etc. And West Bengal has got similar conditions, similar demographics and dynamics. So are there ideas to attract small scale or social entrepreneurs.

Let me try to answer this in two parts, this is a serious and good question. First part is Bengal needs to fix the vehicle. It is like keeping a car in flooded water for about 5 days and you see rusting starts. I don’t want to go to the political part of the fix but there is a financial fix that has to happen. For every child born in Bengal today, there is a 85000 per capita per child debt burden. Two years ago, the total tax collection in Bengal was 20000 crores per year, three year ago sorry. Now that figure has gone up first to 31000 and by March 40000 crores. Double in two and half years. May be 40 may be 38, that’s tax collection. Now you are servicing a debt, a huge debt, so the first fix we need is a moratorium on the debt. We need a moratorium on this debt not any other debt. This is where the political muscle is needed after 3-4 months. This is the first fix. It is all very well saying we want to do this, we want to do that. The bottom line is for the 40000 crores we collect, we pay now… Last year 31000 we collected, we payed out as debt as interest 28000 crores. These are all hard numbers, these are not some secret numbers I am telling you. We cando all the lollypop talking but this is the reality and this is the political thing we have to do. The second thing we have to do is about work culture. That is conceptual, how do we do work culture. If that changes everything else changes. Let me give you 5 little examples all in the work culture. One is I have already told you in the session, you have to have a physical mind space change. When you walk into the writers’ building with all the cobwebs, there are stalls in the corridor selling tea and elevators with those slides and all. Now that is a work culture change. Number 2 is appraisals, annual appraisals. Whether you are an industry minister, big-shot in the party here or there, perform or perish. It is an appraisal and you are on the line. Number 3 is an administrative calendar for the year. All these are part of the work culture. When you have some money in place, there will be some laggards who would be thrown out and you have got to give the signal for this work culture. So this is the major story in terms of government. We have published results, appraisal is for people, but we have published 100 days – what have we done, 200 days – what have we done. Let me give you three examples. Neo-Natal units in Bengal, for child birth. Since 1997 to 2011, there were 7 neo-natal units which were government run, I am not talking about private ones here. From 2011 to 31st of Dec, 2013, the number has gone up to 34. This is a hard number. We have to take it even up, we want it to go to 54 but this is not just about the system, we also need the doctors. We need the staff, we need the software and that is where we are getting stuck. Second example, is agriculture. We said we will cut 50000 ponds in five years. Ab hogaya 53000 ponds. Electricity is not a problem now in Bengal while it was a huge problem in 70s and 80s. Bengal is not electricity surplus although we need to reach electricity everywhere. So all these things are there and there is a lot to be done. So this is it but this is a big opportunity for us. Where do people like us from our backgrounds with limited connect, where do we get a chance like this to put our skills at use.

Q: Exactly, every skill of yours, the way you handle people, the communication skills, ideas…. You have to have a team that sorts of handles every single aspect

People like us get a chance to perform. Even in Congress or BJP, there are people who are lawyers and get a chance to perform. I can tell you in corporates, I have been in the Corporates for nine solid years and I have seen head to toe in corporates. The kind of talent there is in parliament is like ‘Woof’, there is writing, thinking, speaking, interpreting, strategizing. Leave the politics aside, if you take AAP as a brand, what a brand name man. You think all the things about brand. Brand name AAP, Aam Aadmi Party the acronym is superb & simple. You need a visual thing for all of this to buzz. Nike has a tick, AAP has the cap. You know, 90% of communication of Trinamool has Mamta Banerjee’s face in it. That is the brand. So everything you do must be something about that brand. Today if I gave the same lecture in the IIM wearing a white Kurta, 70% of the batch would have switched off even before I have started.

Q: One last question Sir. This is around women’s safety. Women’s safety has been an issue of contention in Kolkata and obviously everywhere in India. For example, the recent gang rape and the subsequent burning of a 16 year old and so on. Now obviously this is not an issue that can be solved overnight, but what are you views on tackling it and handling it?

Zero tolerance for sexual stuff like this. The specific case you are talking about, the facts of the case. Complaint was filed on the 26th of October, last 4 days of October and one day in November, 6 guys were arrested including the prime accused. That is one, two in 50 days  fast track trial was held and guys were put behind bars and now the case is going on. 23rd of December, in the morning two other guys harassed the same girl and within two days those two guys got arrested. These are the facts. The reality is rape is deplorable, families lose their loved ones and it is sad that people are playing politics with this. Rapes are happening there are well-educated people doing that in closed lifts. The poor Bihar taxi driver, I couldn’t care less whether he is a CPM guy or a forward block person. Doesn’t matter, he is a father. Fast quick action has to be taken. You see, media also have a role to play. We believe so much we read in the media because it comes out on the front page, etc. So action is there, if you look at the facts of the case. This is not an issue just in Bengal, it is an issue all over the country.

Q: You have recently tweeted about the Kolkata zoo. And Kolkata zoo has had deplorable conditions. What is your take on this?

It was pathetic. I was there today morning and it was much better. Is it there where I want it to be, not yet. But two years ago and now much better. I have two step-daughters in New York. I took them along two years ago, they ran away , while today they stayed with me for two hours. Atleast they did not feel like killing animals or anything. It is much better. Can we do better, yes we can. Give us two more years and we will do a lot of stuff.

Q: When do you think the Kolkata metro is going to be complete?

I can’t answer that question because this is the only metro in the country that is not run by the state but comes under the Indian Railways. It comes under the ministry of Railways. I would have been able to answer that question when we run the railway ministry. So I got lucky with that.

Q: And about the 2014 general elections…

Trinamool I think, people have spoken 3 or 4 times recently. They have seen the work we have done and I think they would reward us. They will reward us.


Interviewed by:
Pranshu Diwan
Partha Sarathy

Excerpts of the Interview on HBL

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