Pop goes Murthy

N.R. Narayana Murthy as co-founder of Infosys is one of the most iconic figures in India today. Along with men like Ratan Tata, M.V. Kamath, Deepak Parekh, he is listened to as part of the wise men of industry, reflecting on issues that confront India. His recent speech at the convocation ceremony at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) excited a great deal of attention.

Mr Murthy’s lecture was a meditation on innovation. He began with a book on Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) that lists its 101 gifts to the world. After citing the usual list, Mr Murthy proceeded to analyse the reasons. He observed that the students of MIT “walked the untrodden path, asked unasked questions” and then added that almost all inventions “like cars, electric bulbs, radios, television, etc. happened, thanks to the research by Western universities.”

He then played the devil’s advocate and asked like a friendly Bhishma. What “have Indian institutions like IISc and IIT, done over the last 60 years to make our society a better place?” Stepping up the rhetorical angst, he asked whether there is one invention from India that has become a household name across the globe?
After the standard litany of India as a country with the largest number of illiterates, the largest number of children with malnutrition, and the poorest health service and the dirtiest rivers, Mr Murthy wondered why this is so given that there is no difference in intellect, enthusiasm, energy or confidence between students of IISc and Western universities. He rightly bemoaned the fact that the problem itself has not been addressed by our leaders. The Sixties he claimed were the last time India confronted such questions.

In attempting to recreate the magic of the Sixties, he insisted that a respect for scholarship be recreated, that students have opportunities to go abroad, that higher educational institutions should encourage open-ended research. Mr Murthy then listed out his prescriptions, insisting that the civics of good research include 1) a problem-solving mindset; 2) the democratisation of education; 3) the continuous habit of reading books. Such advice is well taken but what one eventually confronts is the superficiality of the narrative. There is little that is new and even less that has depth or insight.

Mr Murthy’s idea of innovation and invention is old fashioned, inadequate and incomplete. Firstly, one has to point out that the radio, the car and the electric bulb had little to do with the university. One must remember that the likes of Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Nikola Tesla were not products of the university research system. Secondly, he could have been more generous to P.K. Sethi and his collective of craftsmen who produced the Jaipur Foot, which might be more of a household legend than Infosys. Of course, the Jaipur Foot was never patented and one wishes Mr Murthy would ask, “Is the patent the only index of innovation?”

But what is really disconcerting is not just these errors of fact, but the superficiality of the analyses delivered in an avuncular style. Mr Murthy is a part of a new fashion whose breast-beating about ranking and innovations, starting with our current President Pranab Mukherjee, has created an epidemic of consultants who are devastating Indian education. One wishes Mr Murthy was more qualified in his critique looking at the negative and positive sides of an innovation. If household impact were a criteria, Indian dams as innovations have destroyed millions of households; of course these dams create households without names.

Secondly, Mr Murthy rarely looks at the informal economy and its demands and forgets that the grammar of the survival economy, the informal economy, is radically different. In fact, part of the new critique of jugaad as a “chalta hai” attitude ignores this sense of creativity under survival. This also raises the question whether corporate dons alone can define the cognitive map of research. Such a view gives a shareholder rather than a stakeholder model of research where research as an activity loses its wider contours. By emphasising corporate productivity, we might valorise biotech over traditionally innovative agriculture.

Deep down, Mr Murthy, who has been poetic about IIT, has to ask whether the educational system of IITs produces convergent or divergent minds. Our scientists are good as “summarisers,” but does such an orientation make for a research mind?

Basically the lecture as an analysis is overrated. In fact, if it were an anonymous tutorial in a science studies class at Cornell, Harvard or Delhi, it would rate less than a C for understanding. In fact, what is interesting is the excitement around it. As a piece of reflection, it is simplistic and outdated. It might be more relevant as an advice in character building than as an act of innovation.

There is a lot of personal advice but little understanding of the logic of institutional innovation. In fact, if one looks at such pieces, one finds a disturbing trend. Think of three essays. Firstly, the President’s litany on Indian universities being unranked in terms of global standings. Secondly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speeches on innovation — from his “Make in India” litany to his bit of epiphany in calling “nuclear energy” as the passport to second modernity. Then place next to these Mr Murthy’s assessment of the research impact of IIT and IISc. There’s an analytical and managerial thrust while questions of autonomy, creativity are sidelined. The scientist’s own perception of the situation has little value. Deep down, no one looks at the political interference in academics or the creative islands in every domain. Such a managerialisation of the problem ignores the fact that we need reforms, improvements and the ordinary scientist must be a part of that change. Our corporate dons and political leaders only talk of the democratisation of education in terms of entry. Few talk about the problems of democratisation in terms of decision-making. To talk of one without considering the other is a form of intellectual populism.

Finally one must ask, is relevance always in terms of economics impact? Corporate dons have no sense of playfulness without which science cannot be creative. Are creativity and innovation the same activity and what are the norms of judgement beyond market? Mr Murthy’s lecture is too casual, too cosmetic. One would like to see the questions he raises articulated at a different depth. Right now, it is a piece of pop sociology waiting to be forgotten in a few days. One wishes the question was treated with greater seriousness. By transposing a few sentences Mr Murthy’s piece could be about how to win friends and influence people. It is time to demand more from Mr Murthy if he wishes to play to the role of the guru or wise man in any future enterprise.

 

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