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"Take time to deliberate; but when the time for action arrives, stop thinking and go in."
- Napoleon Bonaparte

My Life My Choice - The Book

Author: Rajeshwari Victor

The Power of Goal setting… From Entrepreneur to Politician 

RK Misra was the winner of last year's Lead India movement - an initiative by the Times Group - to identify competent and concerned civilians who could be potential political leaders. I had been a keen follower of this event last year and when I conceived of this book, he was the first among the respondents to enter my list. He is a higher order combination of 'thinking' and 'doing'… And he knows that… He has a life that many in urban, educated India dream of achieving, but never end up there simply because they do not set definite goals the way he does and work on them. And of course he has had his share of luck - but after listening to him, I am inclined to believe that fortune favors the prepared mind…

 His 'preparation' began early- when he realized he was endowed with 'people skills'

"When I was just in my teens, my father entrusted me with the job of organizing my cousin sisters' weddings in our village. It was quite a complex managerial task - right from the three-day 'baraat' to arranging for the guests' stay. It was a logistical nightmare as resources were limited - we had to put up the guests in mango orchards, and cots were needed. We had to procure them from several nearby villagesand as they came with the durries they all had to be marked and numbered and returned carefully. And the people who would carry them were farm workers who could not read, so we had to put some visuals and explain these to them. This, combined with food arrangements, and ensuring the other rituals went off well was all my team's responsibility. I thoroughly enjoyed it, because it was a task that needed people management skills. That is the biggest learning I had from these events - managing people of different caliber and capabilities."

RK (as he is fondly called), went to a Hindi medium school in his village in Sitapur district of UP. He still made it to IIT– what was the driving factor for him?

"As I grew up in a small town, I saw the importance of knowledge - for e.g.: if only people were a little more educated they would probably understand basic things or how the government treated them in a better manner - this led me to believe in the power of education... Sub-consciously I felt that education is the only way to a brighter future. So I set a goal for myself to get into IIT, a tall order from any standard, given that my school could produce only one First Class pass student in 10th Grade, myself. Credit goes to my parents who laid emphasis on our education and worked hard to provide us with the opportunity to pursue our dreams."

A combination of people sensitivity and the desire to lead a better life propelled him - this was another example of his goal setting - getting into IIT.

How did his family manage the expenses at IIT?

"Rs 500 per month was not a small amount for our family, in those days. My mother was ready to pledge her valuables, if things got tough. I used to save some money from my monthly expenses and scholarship to buy little household things for my family, whenever I visited home. I still remember the pleasures of acquiring those small things. I think this "life of limited means" shaped my personality and thought process. Today I am able to afford comforts of life, but that  joy is missing…"

RK does not quite fit the IIT stereotype as he is as much a doer as a thinker - so how did the metamorphosis of getting into public life take place?

"Being in public life was never there in my mind during IIT days, in fact I wanted to do management - I took couple of optional (elective) management courses at  IIT.

Post IIT, my dad would have liked me to become an IAS officer as IAS was the symbol of power and control for small town people.  I was a more exploratory kind of guy. I wanted to see the world. I was thinking why should I limit myself?

My management electives had some courses dealing with the Japanese style of management, which intrigued me. I wanted to know more about Japan. One of my professors encouraged me to apply for post graduation at Tokyo University, which he had been to, as a visiting faculty.

I was fortunate to get through to Tokyo University, with a scholarship, as they chose only 2 of us from India. Some leadership roles during my IIT days, like Student Gymkhana, Hostel President etc., might have helped, along with the fact that I also ranked no. 2 in my Civil Engineering class."

A leader was in the process of being born here - displaying original thinking by choosing a Japanese University (when the norm at IIT was to go to the USA) and working in key student leadership positions helped him groom.

Did Japan turn out to be the way he had envisaged?

"The Tokyo University (known as Todai in Japan) program was designed to internationalize Japan. Civil Engineering was very important as the entire nation was being re-built. So they were very welcoming of us, and locally, Tokyo University was the most highly regarded. But I soon realized that to be able to enjoy Japan, I would have to integrate into their culture and society. So I learnt Japanese quickly and was able to speak Japanese without much of a foreign accent. At times, speaking over the phone, people mistook me for a Japanese and were surprised when we met in person.  I ate what they ate and drank what they drank. I really enjoyed my stay in Japan and made most of the opportunity with long lasting friends and enduring business relationships. Many of our foreign colleagues had a tough time with the language, culture and social customs and they could not enjoy Japan."

This was an extremely important part of personality - to be able to stay open-minded and do whatever it takes!

"Most Japanese respected India because it was the Land of Buddha, invention of zero and our nuclear & space program etc; but when it came to economy and poverty, they were mostly pessimistic - and this bothered me. Japanese economy was at its peak then and I was keen to learn the Japanese way of doing business, so I decided to work in Japan in order to understand their work culture so that I could carry some of that learning back to our country.

"While working in Japan, one thing was clear that they did not want us to stay for too long. Even if I stayed, I would have not risen to senior management position, as they practiced "managed" meritocracy among Japanese, and foreigners were not expected to stay long enough to compete for the top job, even if you were from "Tokyo University" which produced almost all top CEOs and bureaucrats..."

RK had a clear grasp of Japanese way of business fairly early in life, and had started chalking out goals- once again- so in the absence of a CEO possibility in Japan, what was brewing in his mind?

"I wanted to be an entrepreneur and have a company of my own. Those were the initial thoughts of entrepreneurship.  So I consciously started picking up Japan's strength areas - world class technology and people management skills - so I could use them later. Whenever I had the opportunity, I tried to convince Japanese companies to invest in India, given that India had just embarked upon economic reforms in 1991, but Japanese were more inclined towards China and felt that India was still not ready. This was very disheartening.

"The other aspect I worked on consciously was to promote cultural & business understanding between the two countries: we formed the Indian Student Association and conducted various cultural programs and economic talks at our Embassy in Tokyo and invited Japanese to experience India - this I hoped would give India better visibility and respectability."

Very statesman-like thinking for a young professional of 25 years! Quite unknowingly the seeds of a politician were being sown. Not that it was easy - he realized that in order for them to take a foreigner seriously, the person had to become one among them. He chose to see the positive side of the Japanese and understood their loyal caring nature—this helped him overcome his initial days of home-sickness.

Spotting the entrepreneurship opportunity

"This was the time when Japan's economy was booming and real estate prices were reaching crazy heights. Many middle class Japanese could not afford a home any more. I had read about the RVs (Recreation vehicles) of the US - I imagined them as "home on the wheels" a perfect fit for rich Japanese, who could not afford a house in Japan. I identified a craftsmen-run (Amish Community) company in Indiana, USA, which built high quality RVs, as the Japanese are very quality-conscious... The biggest hurdle I faced was when I wanted to ship these RVs to Japan. Since it was neither a house (it had wheels) nor a car (it had no engine), the existing import rules were not applicable. It was a big problem as I had already committed the funds.

"I decided to approach the Ministry of Industry and Trade, to find a way out of this problem… This was sheer guts on my part as there was an ongoing trade dispute between US and Japan, as Americans could not break into the Japan market - and here I, a foreigner, was trying to do exactly that...

"I used the Tokyo University (TODAI) tag with the seniormost bureaucrat (he was also a Todai alumnus) and persisted - finally he relented. In fact he went one step further and positioned this opportunity to show as to how Japan is actually very favorable to foreign trade. The media lapped it up – It was a lucky break, which gave me the confidence that if you persist, success will follow.

"I stayed in that business for a while. In the meantime I was keeping track of any possibilities of moving back to India with an entrepreneurship opportunity... I had a friend of mine who used to run Japanese subsidiary of an American Telecom company. He was keen to set-up S/W development facility either in China or India.  I suggested to him that it should be India and arranged a visit for him to come and experience Indian S/W industry. I was keen that Japanese business and investment should come to India. He liked what he saw in India.  On his return from India, he asked me, 'Why don't' you run it for me?' I was taken aback as I had no experience or knowledge of either telecom business or software development, though I intuitively felt that I could do it. 

"He mentored me and explained that he was looking for someone with entrepreneurial & leadership skills, while technical knowledge can be acquired on the job. It was a very Japanese approach to doing business: person and the relationships were most important.  This tied in very well with my desire to come back to India. But I was keen to have my own business. He hinted at a possibility of me taking over the Indian subsidiary in due course, if business and relationship went well - this sounded perfect to me - so it was on…"

At this point of time, I was curious to know how his personal life shaped up since he was growing more and more independent in his work pursuit, he definitely would prefer someone who could support him in his work life...

"Mine was not exactly an arranged marriage - I was having tough time with long distance marriage proposals. Finally when I met my wife - she is from National Institute of Fashion Technology - we just clicked. I told her about my plans of relocating to India and risks associated with being an entrepreneur.  She was quite cool about it and fully supportive of my venture. This was a great source of confidence. She was working before we got married, she later gave it up to take care of our children as I was extremely busy growing our business—she has been completely in charge of our household affairs and has single handedly brought-up our two sons. She has been a great support all along my entrepreneurial journey - I couldn't have done it without her."

His admiration for her is evident as he continues...

"Even in terms of upbringing, she has always been much more grounded. We both cherish our middle class value systems and are trying to inculcate the same in our children. Being the eldest, I have emphasized the same value systems to my siblings and encouraged them to find their own path to success, while we were there if they needed us. They are well settled now."

He had covered some important milestones of his life - early education from IIT, Japanese and Indian entrepreneurship and of course his marriage... what did he look forward to for the rest of his life?

"I have been somehow conscious of the age milestones - I had set a mental goal for myself that by the age of 30 I should be back in India as an entrepreneur and by the age of 40 I should be able to retire from business. Not that I had very concrete plans of what will I be doing post 40 - in fact the thought of being in public life evolved gradually.“

"People did not believe me when I said that I was going to retire at 40, especially when I was doing well—But I had wanted to move on to do other things.

"While still in business, I had started to involve myself in civic activities to improve the surrounding areas where I lived in Bangalore and also began to help my village and surrounding villages in UP – gradually people got to know of my work through media and word of mouth. I was keen to do something for those who had been left behind and needed help.

"My dad had always tried to help others in whatever way he could. I took inspiration from his desire to reach out to those in need of help. He is still very active, even at 70, and fully involved in our "Rural livelihood improvement" project involving 9 village in UP."

RK seemed  hit upon a formula that works for him—he identifies a goal and goes after it with his 100% efforts...

"For me the success is being able to do what you want to do. It is not about how much you got or how much you own, it is your ability to be able to pursue your dream and desire and be able to do what you like to do. And that way, I can say that I am a satisfied person.

"I feel strongly about the betterment of millions of underprivileged people in our country whose life can be improved by formulating the right policies & their efficient implementation - business no longer holds my interest...

"Having dealt with the public issues for 5-6 years, now I may have some access to the right people and necessary resources – but there was a time when I was running around - I faced rejection - but I persisted. There have been challenges at every step of life.

"Having faced challenges and being able to overcome them, you become confident. At times you feel that may be it is your destiny. Of course you have to make the effort and be sincere and committed to your goal. I agree with Paulo Coelho in Alchemist that all the forces of the Universe will conspire to help you achieve your goal, if you really desire and sincerely work for it.

"Lead India seems to have been another positive coincidence in my case.  It gave me an opportunity to express my thoughts and be recognized for the work I have been doing all these years. We had very capable and committed people among 40,000 participants. May be I won because, as the organizers concluded - "We are looking for good leaders, who get things done".

Fierce goal- setting, once again. Now that he does not have a paying career, he must have chalked out his family financial needs quite well.

"We own our house. Parents are retired and healthy, siblings are settled.  So financially things look under control."

How did his middle class family react to his political ambitions...?

"The problem in today's politics is that it has become a profession with many ills and evils, which deters educated professionals from entering the world of politics. There is a kind of social stigma attached to the politics and politicians, which is unfortunate.   "My family has been aware of my desire, so it is not a surprise for them. Of course they are worried and concerned as they keep hearing all not so pleasant things about politics and politicians. My answer to that has been that if we all hope that someone else is going to do the job, it may never get done."

What next?

"The country is changing, our demography is changing. More than half of our population is below 25 years. They dream of a different India, a prosperous, just and equitable nation, which is respected and emulated by other nations.  They expect their leaders to be capable and trustworthy to fulfill this ambitious goal. They find that majority of our politicians are not rising to this challenge. They don't consider them as role models.

"However in the next 20 years, our political system will go through a major change. People will respect leaders who are educated professionals, whom they can identify with and relate to, and who have done something meaningful and creditworthy before entering politics.  We are already seeing some of it. The  fact that that you don't have to be a career politician to be holding the high post of PM, like Dr Man Mohan Singh, gives me lot of hope and confidence that things will change.“

"My focus and desire is to make a difference by engaging in public policy formulation, primarily in the area of socio-economic empowerment, to achieve inclusive growth.  It is a long and winding road and I have no illusions about the hard work I have to do to reach my destination."

Why not take NGO route?

"NGOs fill a space which has existed because Government has failed to provide that particular product or service to its citizens due to inefficiency and lack of accountability. Most NGOs deliver well on pilot projects while they are small and focused, but as they grow they also face the same problems of inefficiency and lack of accountability.

"In my opinion, NGOs' growth is a manifestation of the failure of the public sector in formulating and effectively implementing right policies & social programs. NGOs cannot be a substitute for poor policies and inefficient public delivery systems. Social sector is the responsibility of the government and we should not look at short cuts by transferring the responsibility to the NGOs. NGOs could help in demonstrating best practices by running scalable Pilot Projects. Learning from these pilot projects should be formulated into public policy and implemented efficiently. This would be a good Public Private Partnership model, in my view."

So Politics is the means for you to influence the Public Policy?

"Yes, politics for me is a means to put my thoughts into action.

"There are two ways to engage in formulation & implementation of public policies, either as a bureaucrat or as a public representative (which we call politician).

"As a public representative, you have the mandate and ability to make a positive difference to the lives of vast majority of people. I have been a successful entrepreneur and industrialist. I also come from a village and am involved in various rural initiatives; so I feel that I understand the pulse of the nation, both Urban and Rural India.

"I see no conflict of interest between these two Indias. One does not grow and prosper at the cost of the other, as is argued by some. In fact they are complementary and both can prosper together. What we need is suitable policies and political capital to implement them effectively. This is what I desire to do in my public life."

He had a fairly insightful grasp of what his new profession demanded - so what kind of people would politics be suited to?

"I think your ability to connect to people is most important. It is about action not speeches; people have to see your sincerity;they should be able to believe that you are authentic; so there has to be immense trust and feeling of comfort.

"And most important of all you need 'clarity of thought and conviction of beliefs'. You should be clear about your objective to enter politics and what you want to achieve when you reach there.

"So clarity of thought, conviction of belief and genuineness of purpose are the three very important aspects of any leader."

What about popularity?

"Popularity will come if you are sincere and committed."

What is THE WAY for a common man to get into politics?

"I don't know of any set procedure.  I started to engage with public issues in 2002. You got to be known to the people. You should be known for doing things of common benefit that do good to others. You have to connect with the electorate. Political parties want candidates who are WINNABLE - no compromise on that - once people know that you are a winnable person in that constituency, the buzz will reach. Meanwhile, just enjoy the process and be committed to your cause."

At the end of this discussion, I wanted to capture a glimpse of this man in certain specific aspects so...

What comes to your mind when I say People?

"Everybody other than me."

And success?

"Getting what you desire..."

What is the one key human value you treasure the most?

"Sincerity"

Finally how do you like to be remembered as far as your professional life is concerned?

"A guy who knew how to take risks…"

Having come so far, does he feel politics will help him grow as a person?

"Yes. Politics is the biggest gamble in your work life. Stakes are high - resources, reputation, family life, all are affected. So you have to be very clear in your thought process and committed to your beliefs. It is not easy, you learn as you go."

What is the most satisfying aspect of your work now-a-days ?

"It is the opportunity to make a difference to the lives of people who need help and support to come out of poverty. The Rural Livelihood project I started in my village Sonari in Sitapur district of UP has spread now and each of the nine villages has got concreted streets, access roads, power and they are on their way to economic independence And the beauty is that except the community dairy part, everything else was done with Government funds. We just saw to it that money was spent well and work was of good quality.

 "We had a lake which attracted migratory birds. I am working with the government agencies to develop it as a bird sanctuary. Preliminary work has already begun. But the main concern and focus is the transformation of the villages from abject poverty to dignified livelihood. I am making a documentary of the whole process to show how the village is getting transformed. I desire to develop these 9 villages as MODEL VILLAGES and hope that government will use this as a model and formulate suitable policies to replicate it in other parts of the country.

"I am a dreamer. I always wished and hoped that one day our village will develop. It is slowly coming true. Is it not destiny? I think it is, I am just an instrument."

Who has been the strongest influence in his life?

"No doubt, Mahatma Gandhi, and what keeps me going is his saying 'Be the change you want to see"

RK is surely living the change he desires to see around him - his clear and well-defined goals at every point of time in life seem to point out that he is well on his way to achieving a high position in his chosen area of interest. And to think that he is just 43 years old. I left wishing him good  luck-- not that he needed it!