Democracy and Islam

Democracy and Islam

The debate starts once again, “Should Muslims participate in politics in a democracy, since ‘democracy’ is itself not an Islamic form of government?” Let me try to put this in perspective. Before I begin let me state that I am not talking about the philosophy of democracy i.e. Supremacy of the People instead of Supremacy of Allahﷻ. Let me state also that in terms of Islam, the only one worthy of worship and obedience is Allahﷻ and that only Allahﷻ has the right to make laws which He did and His Messengerﷺ conveyed to us. Anyone who considers laws opposed to the laws of Allahﷻ as being superior or even permissible, has committed Shirk. This article is about the issue of Muslims living in democratic countries, often as minorities. What must they do? What options do they have and what are the consequences of these options?

To the question, “Should Muslims participate in politics in a democracy, since ‘democracy’ is itself not an Islamic form of government?” I would like to state that first of all, there is no specific form of government that is ‘Islamic’. If anyone disputes that statement and says that the ‘Khilafa’ is the only form of government that is permissible in Islam, then we have to ask why it is that ever since the ascension of Yazid bin Muawiyya, monarchy has been accepted as ‘Islamic’ even by Sahaba who lived under Yazid and supported his rule? This continued even though the terms, ‘Khalifa’ and ‘Khilafa’ continued to be used off and on, until the institution of Khilafa was finally abolished in 1923. For the record, the Ottoman rulers called themselves ‘Sultan’ and not ‘Khalifa’, though the government itself was called ‘Khilafa’. How does that work?

So, what is the Islamic form of government?

Islam is concerned with the nature of the government and not necessarily its form.

Consider this: the Khilafa Rashida itself followed three different processes to choose a successor in the case of the first three Khulafa.

In the case of Abu Bakr Siddique (R) it was an election of the Supreme Leader by lesser leaders in Madina. This was the usual way of the Arabs when electing a new Ameer or Chief of their clans where the decision would be taken by a few significant and powerful elders/leaders and everyone else would accept and support it. So also, in this case, it was not one-man-one-vote involving the entire population of Madina. Even if it had been, hypothetically speaking one could have argued that the people of Makkah, Ta’aif, Najd and all the tribes of the Hijaz had not voted. Yet, the leader being chosen would have authority over all Muslims. Abu Bakr Siddique (R) was elected by the people who had gathered in the Saqifa Bani Sa’ada and was later ratified by the rest of the community in Masjid An-Nabawi when other people gave him the Baya (Oath or Pledge) of Allegiance. In the election in the Saqifa Bani Sa’ada, which itself was not planned but was impromptu, many of the important Sahaba of Rasoolullahﷺ including Sayyidina Ali bin Abi Talib (R) were not present and neither was their opinion sought. This was not deliberate or by design but because Ali bin Abi Talib (R) was busy with the burial of Rasoolullahﷺ he was not disturbed, and he gave his pledge the next day.

But since Abu Bakr Siddique (R) was already accepted as the foremost among the Sahaba and was their leader, nobody objected and they all, including Ali bin Abi Talib (R) gave him their Pledge. They remembered that Rasoolullahﷺ had always sought his advice and used to give him precedence over everyone else because of him having been the first man to accept Islam and for his service to Islam and to Rasoolullahﷺ. They remembered that Abu Bakr (R) was Rasoolullahﷺ’s companion in the cave during their Hijra from Makkah to Madina. People remembered that Rasoolullahﷺ had given him Imamat of Salah from the Thursday before the Monday when he passed away. For the Sahaba, that was a clear sign that Rasoolullahﷺ preferred and had thereby nominated Abu Bakr Siddique (R) as his successor. Having said that, there are people to this day, fourteen centuries later, who differ and say that the Khilafa should have gone to Ali bin Abi Talib (R).

The fact that Ali bin Abi Talib (R) himself never said this nor did he object to the leadership of Abu Bakr Siddique (R) and gladly gave his Baya (oath) of Allegiance with sincerity (what else do we expect of Ali bin Abi Talib (R)?) cuts no ice with them. We will put that dispute aside as it is not relevant to this discussion and look at what happened two years later, when Sayyidina Abu Bakr Siddique (R) was dying.

Abu Bakr Siddique (R) took the advice of the Asharum Mubashshara (the 10 Sahaba who had been given the good news of Jannah by Rasoolullahﷺ) about his proposed choice, Omar ibn Al Khattab (R), as his successor. All of them except one (Zubair bin Awwam (R)) accepted this choice and so Abu Bakr Siddique (R) called Omar ibn Al Khattab (R) and nominated him. This action of Abu Bakr Siddique (R) was in keeping with the informal but clearly understood and accepted hierarchy among the Sahaba in which the Asharum Mubashshara came first followed by the Badriyyeen (Sahaba who participated in the Battle of Badr) and then everyone else.

Ten years later when Omar ibn Al Khattab (R) had been stabbed and was dying, he called the rest of the Asharum Mubashshara and told them to choose one among them to succeed him. Some of them declined to accept the role of Khalifa. There were two contenders who remained. Abdur Rahman ibn Awf (R), who was a scholar among the Sahaba and one of the wealthiest businessmen of the time was himself from the Asharum Mubashshara and who had declined to be considered for Khilafa, was chosen to pick between them. He decided to consult the Sahaba who had participated in the Battle of Badr and other significant leaders in Madina and at the end of this consultation, he borrowed the Amama (turban) of Rasoolullahﷺ and wearing it, he ascended the Minbar of Masjid An-Nabawi and announced Othman ibn Affan (R) as the leader who had been chosen to succeed Omar ibn Al Khattab (R). Everyone accepted this choice, including Ali bin Abi Talib (R) who had also accepted Omar ibn Al Khattab (R) as Khalifa and worked under him as a judge.

Othman ibn Affan (R)’s Khilafa ended in war and Ali bin Abi Talib (R) was forced to accept the Khilafa to put an end to the worst turmoil and violence that the Muslims had ever seen. However, this was also contested, and we have a history of ever more complex conflicts thereafter. Once again, I am not going into details here as they are not relevant. What is relevant however, is that twenty years later, when Muawiyya bin Abi Sufyan (R) was dying, he nominated his son Yazid bin Muawiyya (also called Yazid I) as Khalifa, thereby dispensing with the entire selection/election process and converting the Khilafa into a hereditary monarchy.

This became the default Muslim (Islamic) form of government all over the world, from the Banu Umayyah who started it, to the Banu Abbas, Fatimi, Ayyubi, Saffavid, Mughal, Uthmani (Ottoman) and other rulers right down to our modern times, who all accepted hereditary monarchy as the way Muslim lands were to be governed. Before we blame the kings however, let us reflect on the fact that none of their subjects, including Sahaba, all the Imams of Fiqh, all the Ulama of the Tabiyyin and their followers including to this day, have ever criticized or refused to accept hereditary monarchy, calling it ‘unislamic’ nor called for the establishment of the Khilafa. One reason could be that the Khilafa Rashida itself was established in three different ways. So, which of them would one choose?

The point that I want to make is that it appears from reading our history that Islam is more concerned with the nature of government than its form. Our great classical and modern scholars seem to be agreed upon this and this seems to be the majority view. Islam is concerned with how the government is carried on; whether it establishes the laws of Allahﷻ as mentioned in the Qur’an and Sunnah, whether it establishes justice or not, whether the poor and weak are taken care of, whether there is corruption or not, and whether law is enforced so that crime is minimized if not eradicated. It is not concerned with how the government itself came into being or its structure, if that government does what all good governments are supposed to do i.e. good governance. Therefore, different forms of governments were accepted as valid and legal if they provided good governance.

Of course, from the Islamic point of view, for a government to be considered Islamic, whichever form of government it may be, it must follow the Divine Laws of the Shari’ah and must not legislate against the Laws of Allahﷻ. Governments are free to legislate and pass laws to ensure the best for all people, without denying, altering or going against Divine Laws. For examples, laws of taxation, zoning of cities, regulation of road traffic and so on can be made because they don’t contradict the Laws of Allahﷻ. However, laws which make Halaal what Allahﷻ prohibited, for example, interest-based banking, consumption of alcohol and other addictive substances and so on, are not permissible and any government that makes such laws would be unislamic even if the government was run by Muslims.

I am not claiming that democracy is the best form of government from a Islamic theological or philosophical perspective but that it is the best among all that exist today. There are some clear issues about parliamentary democracy which must be borne in mind. A parliamentary democracy is the rule by political parties, where the party which gets the most votes rules the country. This means that independent candidates, no matter how good they are, have no chance to be effective or to be able to form a government. Candidates who stand on tickets from any political party must necessarily follow the party line in all matters, no matter what their own opinion may be. The party is run, not always by elected representatives but often by its ideologues and leaders, who need not be elected at all but who direct all policies and actions of the party.

It is in this context that we must look at democracy today when some people say that Muslims must not participate in democracy because it is not ‘Islamic’. My contention is that there is no such thing as an ‘Islamic’ form of government. What is ‘Islamic’ about a government, lies in its actions of governing. Obviously, there is great misunderstanding about forms of government which is exacerbated by our general lack of knowledge of history so that we have no perspective or decision-making ability. We must correct this urgently.

What is the role of Muslim citizens who live in democratic countries? Should they participate in government, from voting, to standing for election to discharging their responsibilities in difference capacities in Parliaments and Senates? Or should they abstain from doing any of these things. And if they should abstain, then how are they to ensure that their rights, needs and issues are represented and addressed by a government that they didn’t elect or show any interest in?

My contention is that democracy, like monarchy is simply a form of government; in terms of governance. Citizens of democratic countries must participate in democracy for the simple reason that all change can only be initiated and implemented from within. As a matter of interest, if we take the very first form of government of the Muslim State after Rasoolullahﷺ passed away, it was a ‘democratic’ decision. As I mentioned earlier, it was different from our present form of universal suffrage leading to universal suffering (except for politicians) but it was democracy, nevertheless.

The argument that most of these countries are not Muslim (meaning that the rulers are not Muslim) is met with two arguments:

  1. How ‘Islamic’ is a government where the rulers are Muslim but permit interest-based banking in their realms, when they know perfectly well that Allahﷻ not only prohibited it but declared war on behalf of Himself and His Messengerﷺ on those who participate in interest-based banking? How can a government, which is classified as an enemy of Allahﷻ by the definition of the Qur’an, be called Islamic?
  2. In the Shari’ah we follow the principle that if you can’t do (have) everything, you don’t reject or stop doing everything.

So, if we can’t have the perfect state of government that Rasoolullahﷺ provided when he was the ruler, we will live with and support rulers (and governments) who provide justice, safety, law & order, economic development and general protection of rights and privileges even if they do other things which are not perfect. We don’t support them in things which are against Islamic law (e.g. we will not participate in interest-based banking, even if it is allowed in the country) but we will support them in everything that is for the benefit of everyone.

Authority can be delegated. Not responsibility. Responsibility remains with the original person. Meaning that if the one to whom authority was delegated fails to perform, it is the one who delegated it, who will still be responsible. Often there is confusion between authority and responsibility. Authority is the permission to act. Responsibility refers to the consequences of the action. That is why training is very important, before delegating authority. The ruler delegates authority to various officials, but the responsibility remains with the ruler whether they succeed or fail. It will be called the success or failure of the ruler. So also, the CEO, Head of Family or whatever; delegates and should delegate authority, because he or she can’t do everything themselves. But the responsibility i.e. accountability, remains with them. If they delegate authority without preparing their subordinates or delegate it to people who are incompetent, then it is their rule or tenure or performance which would have failed.

We, the people of the nation, through the ballot box have delegated the responsibility of running the nation to those we elected. Hence, we retain the responsibility for their success or failure. It comes back to my favorite political quote: “We get the government we deserve”.

We should realize that we have delegated authority. Not responsibility. So, if those to whom authority was delegated, failed, we need to take back the authority and realize that to give ourselves good government is our responsibility, not anyone else’s.

In conclusion I would like to state clearly and unequivocally that Muslims living in democratic countries must participate in government in every way knowing that it is entirely in keeping with Islam to do so. They must participate because Islam orders them to support all that is beneficial for everyone, Muslim or otherwise and to do that in a way that showcases Islam for the rest of the world. Muslims must participate in democracy, because only by participation can we ensure that our interests are addressed, and our needs met. We have seen many examples of what happens when we don’t participate.

The first thing to do therefore is to ensure that your name is listed as a voter. Then YOU MUST GO TO VOTE. Whether it is raining or not, whatever be the situation, you MUST GO AND VOTE. Remember this is the only opportunity that you have in a democracy to be heard, to influence your own future and to protect yourself from those who wish to hurt you.

Finally, a party is elected not by the majority of the population of the country but by the majority of those who cast their vote. This last line is the key to modern democracies and the reason why you must vote. If you don’t enroll yourself and don’t go and vote, then don’t blame anyone else for the result. You are responsible, and you will pay the price.

 

Of Butlers and other superior life forms

Of Butlers and other superior life forms

Our servants in the plantations were wonderful people. Many were old hand downs from the British planters who had trained them in their ways. Some had special attitudes inherited from the British, who they imitated faithfully.

The pecking order of servants was very strict. At the top was the Butler. He was cook, waiter, and until you got married, the valet; all rolled into one. He would cook your meal – usually to his own satisfaction. He would serve you at table; supervise those who took care of your clothes, house, car, and garden. He would more often than not iron your clothes himself and would cook some of the special things, especially the puddings. He would ensure that there was always soap in the dish and that the towels in the bathroom were always freshly laundered.

The Butler was followed by the Chokra (a Hindustani word with a derogatory tone which literally means ‘urchin’). This worthy was the assistant of the Butler who did all the cleaning, scrubbing, and polishing work in the bungalow. Then there was the gardener who did all the work outside. If you had a cow, there was the cow-keeper. There was the dhobi (washer man) who washed and ironed your clothes. All these for you as the Assistant Manager.

The Butler made sure that there were always flowers arranged in every room. Some Butlers were excellent artists at arranging flowers, having learned these and other skills including cooking European meals from the wives of British planters. Most useful for us of course.

This experience also gave them a sense of standards that is almost impossible to find today. For example, my Butler Bastian would always be dressed in clean white shirt and dark trousers with a belt. He would always be clean shaven, would always have used something to hide the smell of the cigarettes he used to smoke, which I would never have imagined if I hadn’t actually seen him once without his knowledge. As a courtesy, I never walked into his pantry without making some noise on the rare occasion that I did go. It was always more polite and convenient to ring the bell, conveniently located in every room in the house. He would not wear shoes inside the house no matter how much I tried to force him to do, especially in the cold winters. When we had guests and he could not serve from the correct side, he would say, “Sorry, wrong side Sir.” Nothing was taken for granted, including the fact that most of those who heard this statement had no idea what he meant. They hid their confusion by laughing. He would always greet me at the door when I came home, push my chair in when I sat at table, and then serve me with a towel on his arm. And at the end of the day when I had eaten dinner and he knew I was not going to need anything else, he would come and say, “Good night, Master.” This would be followed by the other servants in strict order of precedence.

When you decided to have a party and invite some people, a very essential part of plantation life, your Butler would advise you about who you should invite and even more importantly, who you should not invite; either because of the wrong image that would give you or because that person did not get along with the other more important guests. He would advise you about what each one liked to drink and what anyone was allergic to. Bastian was horrified when I told him that we would not serve any alcohol. For a long time, he was convinced that he was working for the wrong person because the Butler’s prestige would go up if I was promoted quickly and we moved into the Manager’s bungalow. He held the popular opinion that without serving Scotch whisky at parties to the bosses, I would get nowhere. I suppose he also did not like the thought that he would not be getting his quota free of cost either. I, on the other hand, was of the opinion that promotion must come as a result of performance, not on account of the amount or cost of whisky served. Mercifully, my career progression bore me out and proved him wrong. What, if anything, he did about his quota I never discovered and neither did he ever appear to be under the influence, as it were. So that part of Bastian’s life remains a secret.

When you got promoted and went to the Big Bungalow, you got an additional servant inside the bungalow and a driver for your car. The pecking order remained the same. The pecking order was very strictly followed. Almost always the only person you spoke to or who spoke to you was the Butler. He was the one who handled the money. You would give it to him, to give to the others or to the provision merchant from whom food for the bungalow was bought on credit. Credit played a major role in life as most assistants had no money. Many who liked high living had club bar bills that took up most of their salaries and so they lived on credit. This was obviously an evil because apart from the obvious reasons, many Butlers set up their own kickback systems as a result. It was a given that you would pay more for provisions than other people but that was the burden of being the Chinna Dorai (Small Boss). Many British managers were very stingy and corrupt and set up systems of gratuity and underhand payment in kind that they would write off to some estate expense or the other. These systems were well learnt by their Indian subordinates who added to these systems of subterfuge and deception and ran a very corrupt ‘ship’ as it were.

One cardinal fact of plantation life always took its toll – nothing in planting life was private. If you took a bribe, its exact amount, who gave it, and for what, was the subject of much conversation in the bazaar. If you refused to be corrupt and lived a life of honesty, that also became common knowledge. The result was that the actual love and respect that you received from the workers and staff was directly proportional to the kind of life you lived. And in the end, it affected your own success, the loyalty that people showed you, and the peace of mind you lived with. People spoke with great respect about managers who were seen as incorruptible and with disgust and disdain about managers who were corrupt. And in a place where you were the subject of most conversation, public opinion made a very big difference.

I had two Butlers during my stay in the Plantations. Bastian was with me when I joined in Sheikalmudi as Assistant Manager and remained with me for two years. Then he left and Mahmood (more about him later) joined my service. Mahmood was with me when I got married and stayed with me for a total of about three years. When I returned to Lower Sheikalmudi as the Manager, Mahmood left and settled down in Ooty, his hometown. Bastian then returned to my service and remained with me until I moved to Ambadi Estate in Kanyakumari. He then left and settled in Kotagiri.

A few months later we learnt through the grapevine that Bastian had passed away. I was very sad indeed to hear about his passing. Bastian had been a friend and a very good guide for me to ease into plantation life. A few months later I was in Kotagiri visiting my dear friend Berty, when driving down the road, who do I see walking up the hill, but Bastian. I was so delighted that I yelled out his name and swerved the car to park it, almost making the rumor about Bastian’s ending true in the process. Passersby must have thought it very strange indeed to see this Peria Dorai (Big Boss) jump out of his car and hug an old Butler. But that was my Bastian. A man who served faithfully and who was a friend more than a servant. He was completely loyal to me, preserved confidentiality in all matters, and treated me with utmost respect.

Bastian is serving our friend Gomes. I am standing on the right

Bastian was a brilliant cook and claimed that he knew more than 100 recipes for soufflés and puddings. I have no doubt he did, and I was the beneficiary of many, if not all. His cream soups were brilliant. So were his fruit soufflés. He would top some of them off with caramelized sugar like an elaborate web. Very stylish. But for the love of anything, he wouldn’t teach anyone else how to cook those things. My wife and many other ladies tried every trick to learn. Bastian would very politely say, ‘Of course Madam. I will teach Madam. Madam come when I am making it.’ But when Madam went there, at the final moment, he would do something to distract attention and there it was all ready and made and Madam would have to wait for the next opportunity. After a few such attempts, Madam got the hint and satisfied herself with eating Bastian’s cooking without trying to learn how to cook it. On one occasion, my wife suggested to Bastian that he should teach the houseboy who was his assistant in the kitchen. Bastian’s response was classic. He said, ‘No Madam. Chokra dull Madam. Can’t learn anything.’ And that was that. Chokra dull Madam. I sometimes say this to my wife about myself, when I am feeling a bit under the weather, “Chokra dull Madam,” and we both have a good laugh remembering Bastian.

Bastian like most of his tribe spoke ‘Butler English’ and was very snobbish. My wife used to speak to him in the same way to make it easier for both to understand what was going on. So sometimes I would come in to hear, ‘Bastian, tomatoes got, not got?’ And Bastian saying, ‘Got Madam. But when Madam going Valparai please kindly bringing cream Madam. Need to make vanilla soufflé for Wood Dorai Madam’s dinner party. If Madam want, I am coming to Valparai with Madam.’ And life would go on.

To understand the snobbery of this breed of Butler, let me tell you about something that happened one day. I was informed at about 10 am that the Tahsildar (a District Administration officer) was going to come to the estate to check on some land matters. I was to give him lunch at my bungalow (most estates had no guest houses or hotels and so all official guests had to be entertained at home for which managers were paid some token amount). So, I drove my old Royal Enfield Bullet, kept running mainly due to the daily attention of Thangavelu the mechanic, up to the bungalow and said to Bastian, “Bastian, the Tahsildar is coming for lunch so please make some extra lunch.”

“O God, Master!” said Bastian.

“What happened? Why are you O Godding, Bastian?”

“Master, I had planned to make fish in white sauce for Master,” said Bastian.

“So just make some more, Bastian!” I said with some impatience.

“Unh! What that man know about white sauce!” snorted Bastian.

So duly, rice and Sambar with two other curries was made. At the end of the meal, Bastian in his usual style, produced crystal finger bowls with warm water and a small slice of lemon on the edge. The Tahsildar, who naturally knew nothing about finger bowls and who came from a place (Pollachi) where people drink warm water, squeezed the lemon into the water and drank it up. As soon as he left there was Bastian with a big grin on his face telling me, “See Master! What I told Master about that man?”

The interesting thing in this story is that the standards that Bastian exemplified were the standards of the British, taken from their culture. The Tahsildar was actually a man who came from the same culture as Bastian himself, yet Bastian identified with and got his own sense of significance from the standards of the British rather than from his own people. The power of indoctrination and identification with the ‘ruling class’ was very visible in plantation society where the culture of the White Sahibs was very much alive and followed to the T by their successors, the Brown Sahibs. Not to say that all these standards were bad. Not at all. Many of them referred to manners, ways of dealing with subordinates with fairness and dignity, the importance of appearance and presentation and the power of the ‘Covenant’ that made the managers ‘Covenanted Staff’ as against all the other staff who were called Non-covenanted. But there was also the element of superiority of race, caste, and more importantly, class. Social class.

 

 

For more, please read my book, “It’s my Life”

Change the language

Change the language

 The one who controls the language, controls the debate. Today Indian Muslims are in a peculiar situation where they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. and interestingly it is all a product of language. ‘Secularism’, which was the refuge, not only of Muslims but all those who believe in our Constitution and in the freedom and dignity of all Indians, is a term that has now lost all credibility. It has come to mean “Muslim lover = Paki lover = Anti-national.” Muslims have been so effectively ‘othered’ that anyone who even attempts to stand by them, automatically commits political suicide. Being Muslim is a crime, it is treason, it is the reason to be suspected, demonized and hated. Consequently, secular parties and candidates are saying explicitly or implicitly, “Even if you vote for us, please do it quietly and clandestinely and don’t talk about it. This is for your own good. Your company is the ‘kiss of death’.”

Leaders from Muslim intelligentsia also believe this and have been advising whoever listens to them to do the same. They have been advising politicians who propose schemes for the economic or educational upliftment of Muslims to implement these schemes without talking about them too loudly. That this is anathema to all politicians who get their breath of life from talking about whatever they do, is countered by the warning that if they talk in this case, they will be sealing their own fate. That Muslims are an integral part of the population of India and citizens of our country and not beholden to anyone for this, is simply ignored in the face of present day reality where Muslims are not only being murdered but their murderers are being protected, applauded and rewarded publicly and shamelessly. This behavior not only doesn’t result in unpopularity for the politicians engaging in it, but results in political gains. Polarization seems to be the order of the day for every politician.

The traditional flag bearer of secularism used to be the Congress party at one time; at least according to their own trumpeting. But what was always the case and which has become blatantly clear today is that it is really only a shade less saffron than BJP/RSS. Rahul Gandhi’s latest drama in Parliament where after tabling the no confidence motion, he hugged PM Modi and then said that he was demonstrating that he is a ‘good Hindu’, goes to show that as far as the public discourse is concerned, it is centered around religion and that anyone who wants to be taken seriously must first prove that he is a ‘good Hindu’. That this is far removed from the idea of India, is irrelevant today.

To illustrate with an example, apartheid and racial segregation ended in South Africa in 1995 when they gained independence and Nelson Mandela became the first President. However, read any South African newspaper, website or blog, listen to any TV discussion or debate, speak to anyone in the street and all you will ever hear is the language of race. People talk about Blacks and Whites and Indians and Coloureds. This is reflected in South African politics and is becoming more and more clear, aggressive and potentially destructive. When a White South African looks at a Black South African, he sees a Black, not a South African and vice versa. And this happens while the Constitution of South Africa says clearly that no race has superiority over any other race and that all South Africans are equal citizens entitled to the same privileges, protections and dignity. That is on paper. But it appears that the change has not happened in the hearts of people.

This is what has happened in India over the past 70 years since our independence. The formation of Pakistan based on religion landed us with a legacy of divisiveness which Indian Muslims have borne the brunt of, for no fault of theirs. Vote bank politics became the norm and is openly practiced. ‘Appeasement of minorities’ is the slogan used for what is essentially vote bank politics which every party has always used. Today it has reached the stage where you are told to vote for this or that party because they are of your religion, not because of their performance in government or outside it. All this is not the creation of the NDA or BJP but the legacy which they inherited and continue to use. Their fault is not in its creation but in its continued use. Compromise is the name of the game and frankly I think this is a characteristic of being Indian; that we compromise on everything. That is why we live with atrocious things which in any other country would have resulted in a revolution but in India life continues because we compromise.

I think the time has come to take a stand. This is my stand.

Secularism is the other side of the coin from Hindutva or any other religious extremist ideology for that matter. This is how the language is being controlled by calling it ‘Sikularism’ for example and all its other permutations. In this way the discussion is kept in the ambit of religion instead of taking it into the ambit of governance. A government is elected to govern. That is the only basis on which it should be judged. Its religious ideology is immaterial. Its performance as a government is not. We have a nation with a robust constitution and legal system. But we have huge problems of poverty, unemployment, safety & security, total breakdown of law enforcement, legalized corruption and blatant oppression. We have reached a breaking point where if these issues are not addressed we will implode and disintegrate as a nation. None of these things have to do with Muslims. Just ask three simple questions.

  1. What is the religion of the farmers who have been committing suicide; till date, over 400,000?
  2. What is the religion of the perhaps more than 300 million youth who are not only unemployed but are unemployable thanks to our failed education system?
  3. How will killing or disenfranchising or whatever else is planned for Muslims, help those who are committing suicide or who are unemployable?

My proposal is that our language must change. We must abandon the terms ‘secular & secularism’. Focus instead on issues that really matter and hold the government accountable for their performance on those issues. Promises not met as well as gross failures in four main areas: Safety & Security of life and property, Breakdown of law and order, Economic collapse of the small scale and unorganized sector and the failure of the Education system creating unemployability. I don’t care which government is in power. If it addresses these issues; if it can guarantee safety and security of all citizens, enforce the law, create entrepreneurship to uplift the poor and create jobs, and focus on health care, I will vote for that party. So should you. As I have said earlier, a government is elected to govern. And it must be held accountable for governance. Nothing else matters.

I propose that we change the language of the debate. Let so-called “Secularists’ call themselves “Principalists” and speak only and only about Principles of Governance. That is all that matters. Religion is immaterial. It is personal and must remain that way. What matters is governance. Let all those who are interested in the welfare of our nation ask what has happened to governance today. Let us stand together and demand accountability. If anyone brings religion into the debate, discard them outright. Talk about governance, rule of law and upliftment of our people. It is only then that everyone will be able to stand together on the same platform without fear or shame. It is only then that we will have One India. That is what I want. What do you want?

Making the difference through Customer Service

Making the difference through Customer Service

Whenever I speak of customer service I am reminded of how some people from north India, from the Hindi speaking belt of UP and MP pronounce it. They say, ‘Kasht-mar service’. Now ‘Kasht’ in Hindi means ‘difficulty’. And ‘Mar’ means to die. So, the literal translation of ‘Kasht-Mar’ would be (Kasht-say-mar) meaning ‘die slowly with difficulty’. Not a very nice thing to say but that is what some people in the business of providing service seem to be saying to their customers (Kashtmars).

Customer service is about customers, not about the content, technology or industry in which those customers operate. This is a very important thing to understand and accept if one is not to fall into the trap of feeling that somehow our own industry is so unique that the lessons learnt in the airline, hotel, BPO, IT or hospital businesses are not applicable to us. If we deal with people, lessons learnt in any industry that have to do with people, apply to us and we would be very foolish to ignore them. Customers and people and people think holistically. When we experience bad service on board a plane we compare it quite happily (albeit sometimes unconsciously) to the overall service standard that we are used to in our own environment and feel proportionately bad about it. If we come from a country like Singapore where the quality of service is generally very superior, we will tend to feel highly dissatisfied with bad service. But someone who comes from another country where service standards are generally pretty low, they may find the same service to be acceptable because their expectations are so low to begin with. When experiencing on-board in-flight service, we don’t compare it only to our experience on other airlines. Even people who are flying for the first time feel dissatisfied with poor service. So, lessons are transferable.

In my view great customer service is a combination of two things: a genuine desire to serve and some key things to do (tools). Let us look at each of them.

Attitude: Whenever I think of an attitude of great customer service I remember when I first went to Singapore in 1994. I was there to teach a course in teaming skills at GE Asia. I reached my hotel by about midday and having had lunch and rested, decided to go out in the evening to see the city. I came out of the hotel and stood at the curbside waiting for a cab. One came along in less than 2 minutes and then it happened. The driver pulled up, got out of the car, trotted (he didn’t walk, he trotted) around the back to where I was, opened the passenger door at the back and ushered me into the cab with a flourish. I realized that I was in the presence of something special and silently got in.

The interior was spotlessly clean and smelled of some pleasant mild perfume. I sat waiting for the next act of the play. And there it was. He said to me as I was sitting in the cab, ‘That is today’s newspaper for you Sir and some water if you’re thirsty. I hope you are comfortable.’ I said that I was and thanked him. He shut the door respectfully, trotted (once again he didn’t walk) back to his seat and said, looking at me in the rearview mirror, ‘Where can I take you Sir?’ I replied, ‘I don’t want to go anywhere. I want to just sit here so that I can enjoy the experience of being in your car.’

I still remember this incident 16 years later as if it happened yesterday. The point is that he was an ordinary taxi driver who had never gone to a single training class in customer service. He was in a business where customers commonly have the least expectation of service and are only interested in not being deceived to pay more than their due. His customer is with him for probably the shortest time of any service; just the few minutes it takes to drive to the customer’s destination. And typically he would probably never see that customer again. Yet here was a man going out of his way to be nice to his customers and to give them an experience to remember. Why?

The only answer I have is, because for him service was about who he was. Not about who the customer was. Neither I nor anyone I know would expect, much less demand a taxi driver to get out and open the door for them or keep clean drinking water (sealed bottle) and the day’s papers in the car or to keep the car in an absolutely pristine state. After all we are used to shabby taxis and as long as it is not horribly dirty we don’t give it a second thought.

He did what he did because he saw his service as defining him, not because he thought the customer cared about it or wanted it or demanded it. It was his own pride in his work and his desire to serve.

Let me give you another example. In 1997, I lived in Bangalore and wanted to buy a Maruti 800 car. I called a number which I thought was the number of the agency which financed Maruti purchases. A lady answered, and the conversation went like this:

‘Good morning, this is Citibank Car Finance. How can I help you?’

‘Good morning. I am looking to buy a Maruti 800 car and want to know if you finance it.’

‘I am sorry Sir, we finance only Opel Astra (four times the price), but if you hang on a minute I will get you the number of the company which does Maruti.’

Once again, I knew I was in the presence of someone with that key attitude – the desire to win customers. So, I waited. She came back on line in less than one minute.

‘Here’s the number Sir. And if you change your mind and decide to buy an Opel Astra, please do give us a call.’

She knew perfectly well that I was not an Opel Astra customer, but she still said that so that I would not feel bad about not being able to afford an expensive car.

Once again the power of attitude.

The first thing I would ask anyone who has to deal with any customer in any kind of business at all is, ‘Do you really want to do this job? And if you want to do it, how much do you want to do it?’

  1. Is it an, ‘Ah! Here comes another one’, kind of thing?
  2. Or is it a, ‘Well, since I am here I may as well get it over with.’
  3. Or is it, ‘Another fantastic day for me to give some customers service they have never seen before. I love the look on their faces as if they can’t believe their own eyes and ears.’

Which one applies to you?

It’s really as simple as this.

Now how about if you are not the # 3 kind of person?

Well, you have two choices; change your job or change yourself.

Changing your job may neither be feasible nor is it easy to find a job where you don’t have to deal with people. There are such jobs, like feeding crocodiles in a zoo, but not so many fall vacant unless the feeder slips into the pool. Like it or not you are going to have to deal with people. So, what should you do?

Here is what you should do:

  1. Stand before a mirror and tell yourself, this is the BEST job that I could possibly be doing because I have an opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life. Now what is more worthwhile than that? I was in the airport in Hyderabad and wanted to use the washroom. I entered the room and found that the toilets were being cleaned. The man doing the job saw me and said to me, ‘Please give me a minute Sir.’

Then he not only cleaned the toilet, but he sprayed air freshener and then took some tissue and dried the toilet seat. Did that make a difference in my life? You can bet it did and I ensured that I gave him the biggest tip he would have received in a while. Though going by his attitude and quality of service it would take a shamelessly stingy person to pass him by without emptying their pockets into his hands. Once again, I don’t think that man ever saw the inside of a Customer Service Training class. So, stand before your mirror and tell yourself, ‘I want to make a difference in someone’s life today.’

  1. LEAD: Listen, Empathize, Accept Responsibility, Do Something
    1. Listen: Listen to the customer. Listen to what they are saying and to how they are saying it. Sometimes it is not the words of the customer but his tone of voice or his body language which gives the one who listens well, the real message.
    2. Empathize: Put yourself in the customer’s shoes. How would you feel if someone did to you what you or someone in your company did to your customer? The reason it was done is immaterial. That he had to suffer is what the customer is conscious of. Let me give you an example. I was in San Francisco at the Marriot, having arrived there by a late night flight at midnight. I had asked for a non-smoking room as I am allergic to cigarette smoke. When I went up to the room almost at 1.00 am I found it reeking of cigarette smoke. I complained but the person at the front desk told me that they did not have any other room. I was furious but there was nothing I could do so I slept as best I could. Next morning, I had to leave early for work. When I returned, I was met at the lobby by the hotel manager who took me up to another room, this one smelling sweet and asked if I liked it. I said that I did. She then asked if she could have my luggage moved there. I agreed. Then (only then) did she say to me, ‘Sir, I apologize for the problem you had last night. We had booked a non-smoking room for you but unfortunately it seems that the guest had someone else in the room who smoked and so the room smelled of cigarettes. We did not realize this until too late and there was no other non-smoking room available last night. I blocked the first room that fell vacant this morning and here it is. My apologies once again.’ The beauty of this response was that she first solved my problem and then (only then) gave me the explanation for what happened. It was clear that they were empathetic about my problem. They did not try to brush it aside or pretend that it was not really a problem nor did they try to justify or explain it. They addressed it and solved it and then explained why it had happened, once the problem had been solved.
    3. Accept responsibility: Accept the fact that the problem of the customer is really your problem. This is something that we don’t see too quickly and act as if the problem has nothing to do with us. It is our problem because it is causing our customer to be dissatisfied. And a dissatisfied customer is very much our problem. Own your responsibility and don’t send the customer to someone else. This is one of the biggest aggravations that customers face; being shunted from person to person and having to repeat their story over and over.
    4. Do something: Take action. You take action. Don’t tell the customer what to do. You go do it. And then let him know what you are doing and how it is going to solve his problem. Reporting periodically is essential for customer satisfaction. People don’t like to be left in the dark. So, tell them.
  2. Pre-empt problems: It is a known fact that in most cases it is the same things that tend to go wrong again and again. Identify the three or four major things that tend to go wrong most often and have preset responses for them. In order to do this, it is essential to document what happens in your customer interactions so that you can correctly identify what goes wrong most often. Preset responses take away the stress from the interactions and ensure the fastest recovery from failure. Research shows that customers who had a problem that was solved well are more satisfied than those who did not have a problem at all.
  3. Moments of Truth: Identify and monitor your moments of truth. A ‘Moment of Truth’ is defined by Jan Carlson, ex-CEO of Scandinavian Airlines, who first used this phrase in the context of customer service as that moment when a customer or a potential customer comes into contact with any aspect of your operation and has an opportunity to form an opinion. If you know what that point of contact is and can control the interaction such that the customer’s experience is positive, then you have a winning operation. If you either don’t know what your moments of truth are or where they occur or have no control over them, then you have a losing operation. It is as simple as that. However, knowing moments of truth and controlling them is a matter of rigorous measurement and documentation which most organizations are unwilling or unable to do and so they blunder along and create dissatisfied customers and lose business and in some cases go under.

Conclusion

Great customer service is about concern; being genuinely concerned for the customer. It is about pride in your own operation and your own identity; wanting to be the best. It is about wanting to add value to people’s lives; about seeing value in serving. It is about being a shrewd business person; recognizing who pays you and ensuring that he/she is not just happy to do so but simply delighted that you are there to serve them. Great customer service is the only guarantee for survival and growth and the only insurance and hedge against bad times.

Customers don’t remember what you did. They remember how they felt. That is the key.

What makes a Winner?

What makes a Winner?

Before I begin on the three fundamental principles that make winners, let me state one thing: In life, only winners are rewarded. So the first requirement of winning is to be passionate about winning. To realize that a real win is one that is gained fairly, with integrity and without harming anyone. Only that is a win.

There are three fundamental drivers of all winners:

  1. Drive for excellence
  2. Compassion
  3. Desire to leave a legacy

Drive for excellence emerges from the winner’s self-concept. A winner defines himself by his output. Her contribution is her signature. Winners are contribution oriented, not entitlement oriented. They constantly seek to give and to give more and better each time. Naturally this gives them profit, fame, honor and popularity but that is not why they do it. They do it because of who they are. Not because of what others say about them. I recall a carpenter who was making a table for me and asked for 7 grades of sandpaper. When I complained about the time it would take, he said to me, ‘It is your choice. This is how I work. I want whoever sees your table to ask you, ‘Wow! Who made this?’ Not, ‘Who the hell made this?’ He was working for his own satisfaction. That this would result in a satisfied customer was incidental. He would have worked that way even if he had no customer to sell to. The table he made for me was of teak wood, polished to a mirror finish. A delight to see.

Compassion comes from a sense of connectedness that winners have. They realize that they are not alone in the world and that they became what they became because of what others did for them, without thinking of a return. Compassion is not merely to be concerned about the difficulties of others but to be concerned enough to put our money and effort where our mouth is. Compassion is what defines us as human beings. Animals don’t have compassion. A wildebeest herd stands and watches one of its members being eaten by lions and do nothing to help the one that was taken. It is peculiarly and essentially human to be concerned for the welfare of others. Winners are concerned and they act. Today our major problems that threaten the world are because of a lack of concern, a lack of compassion for others. We are singularly focused on growth at any cost. Growth for the sake of growth is the philosophy of the cancer cell. Predatory growth results in environmental destruction, impoverishment of people for the enrichment of a few and increase in unrest and insecurity.

Legacy: Finally winners who have lived all their lives trying to create an impact on their environment don’t want to disappear beneath the waves without a trace. They like to leave a legacy of goodness that continues after they are gone. So they build organizations, systems and processes so that their work will continue. They spend time, energy and resources to train others, to teach them what they know, to share their life’s hard earned experience so that others don’t have to go through the same hardships to learn. Winners leave their mark on the hearts and in the lives of all those they touch. They don’t do this to be remembered but they are remembered because of what they did. For the world remembers us not for what we had but for what we did and how that helped them. The legacy of the winner is in the smiles of those who they helped.