Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Right person for the right job


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By Derek O’Brien

Ajay Banga’s appointment as president of the World Bank is an inspired, off-the-beaten-path choice that needs to be commended. A corporate veteran, a capable administrator and decisive leader, the former global head of Mastercard, a man equally at home in the developed West and the developing landscape of India and the Global South, Banga will bring an unusual lustre to the job. As Banga’s country of birth, we need to ponder why people with a professional background such as his don’t make it to ministerial or government positions in India, except as a very, very rare exception. This is not a problem limited to one government or era, but it needs to be said that even the 56-inch Union government has, over the past eight years, hardly experimented with outside talent. When it has brought in non-politicians, it has tended to favour retired bureaucrats or party historians cum ideologues. When she came to office as Chief Minister in 2011, Mamata Banerjee thought out of the box and made economist Amit Mitra finance minister of West Bengal. I wish we had more such examples in our country. I wish Ajay Banga were serving in New Delhi, rather than in Washington, DC.

To put the record straight, my interest and pride in Banga’s achievement is personal. He has been a close friend for over 30 years, and he was a key figure in my professional journey. In 1988, Nestle hired me to conduct the Maggi School Quiz. I had a full-time job in an ad agency and the school quiz was a weekend affair. Then the new Nestle branch manager invited me to his office and put forward a new proposition: “Why are you doing quizzes only on the weekend for us? Why not quizzes in schools during school hours? Why not quizzes Monday to Saturday?”.

He was showing ambition to take the Maggi Quiz deeper into district towns, well beyond the big city. He was clear he wanted to tie the Nestle and Maggi brands with knowledge and wholesome learning. He got me thinking. Soon I resigned from my job and set up my own company. Maggi was my first major client. Mr Banga had changed my trajectory.

Since then Ajay has remained a friend. We have both moved to other pathways, but the small things in life – including Ajay answering his text messages promptly – have not changed. Those formative professional years in Kolkata were so fulfilling. As a mutual friend from those days, Sunil Gupta, recalls, “Ajay and I first met when he was a fresher at St Stephen’s College, and I was in my final year. It was evident he was an exceptional talent, and so it proved – Univ topper in Delhi, topper at IIM Ahmedabad. We next met when I was in HTA in Kolkata and Nestle was a client. In 1992, when I returned to Delhi, Pizza Hut was looking for a marketing head. They didn’t need to look beyond Ajay. His rise was meteoric – Citibank, Mastercard, London, then New York …”

What can I add about Ajay that is not already known? Despite a high-pressure job, he is amazingly grounded. His wife and IIM contemporary Ritu (Goel) – a top pro in consumer research – treat each other as equals. Through the years, they’ve made a special effort to create family time and have brought up two lovely daughters. Last year, I was invited to the wedding of one of the Banga girls. Kolkata puchkas were on a wedding menu in New York – a lovely thank you to the city that still means so much to Ajay and his family.

Ajay’s leadership comes with an integrity that commands respect. In the aftermath of 9/11, his then employer – Citibank – was concerned about his safety. After all he was a brown-skinned man in a turban at a time when accusations of racial profiling and even stray attacks on those who “looked different” were unfortunately not unknown. Ajay was offered a private jet for travel to other cities and a company car to secure him from a subway commute. He refused. “Dealing with it is more important than hiding from it,” he later said in an interview.

He didn’t “hide from it” in Kolkata either. In the early 1990s, the city was infamous for state-sponsored bandhs – thankfully a distant memory today – and on one such occasion Ajay couldn’t risk taking out his Contessa, lest it be targeted by violent pro-bandh activists. But he had to go to work. So he requested a junior colleague, Roy Chatterjee, to give him a ride on his motorcycle. “I picked him up at 8 am,” Chatterjee remembers, “and we drove down empty streets, with Ajay riding pillion. We chatted through the journey, he was so down to earth … Still is.”

How will Ajay do at the World Bank? I’m not an astrologer but I can confidently predict two things. He will give it a hundred per cent; and he will leave the Bank a changed and better place. He usually does that to institutions he embraces and individuals he touches. Ask me.

(The writer is Member of Parliament and Leader, All India Trinamool Congress Parliamentary Party (Rajya Sabha). Additional research by Amit Ghosh).

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