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Updated: November 16, 2012 00:12 IST

Trade in the ghosts of 1962

  • Ravi Bhoothalingam
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With the growing power and influence that India and China exercise on the world stage, business people in both nations must take the lead in visualising a new relationship

Fifty years have passed since the short but ill-fated war between India and China. The anniversary has already prompted several military men, diplomats and politicians to share their views. This is only natural, as they were indeed the principal actors in that tense drama in the high Himalaya. However, a view from a perch less privileged with insider knowledge, and more distant from the action, may also yield some insights. It is with that objective that I offer these thoughts, viewed from the standpoint of a management professional who has been involved with business and industry for over four decades.

Victory and defeat, success and failure, advance and retreat are all part of the rhythm of life. Business people know this all too well since they deal with risk every day, and feel the results through the ebb and flow of their fortunes. Risks in business are manifold. Less than one in 20 of new product launches, for example, turn out successful. Even smaller is the probability of hitting on a “blockbuster” product. The best of recruitment methods, interview panels and psychological techniques cannot guarantee that those selected as employees will not fall by the wayside later. Yet, risk cannot be evaded as it constitutes the very lifeblood of enterprise. What is important is to learn how to manage it. A truly capable business manager would demonstrate poise in adversity, an ability to study and learn from reverses, and the avoidance of hubris in times of triumph.

Closed archives

But can learning from business reverses — so different in magnitude from the national humiliation and tragedy of the Sino-Indian war — apply to the 1962 case? Indeed, yes, for the difference lies in scale and not in kind. Death through an industrial accident is no less a tragedy than through combat in distant mountains. The displacement of refugees through war and their loss of livelihoods are no more wrenching than jobs lost through factory closures and bankruptcies. How to experience and learn from defeat may, therefore, hold common lessons.

Learning from a setback is easier said than done. Confronting mistakes is painful, unpleasant and challenges one’s self-confidence. So, critiques of poor performance often lapse into easy self-justifications and excuses, however well disguised these may be as astute analyses. To get to the heart of the matter requires openness and a willingness to undergo painful introspection, backed by a determination to get at the “truth,” so that future generations might learn from our mistakes. Have we truly done this with 1962? That our official archives are not openly accessible provides a dusty and discouraging answer.

Managing a setback

Successful entrepreneurs and well-managed companies manage a setback through analysing both its content and process. In the “content” phase, they distinguish between two distinct sorts of human errors. What we may call “Type I mistakes” occur when the disastrous event is caused by a lack of knowledge or know-how, or through lapses of motivation, e.g. carelessness, shortcuts, poor application, etc. The second type of mistake — the Type II error — is caused not by shortages of knowledge or motivation, but by lapses in business judgement. Good businessmen distinguish between the two types of mistake even though their consequences may be similar.

Those who commit the first type of error are certainly taken to task. But, in well-run organisations, their immediate supervisors are punished more severely. For theirs was the responsibility to equip the people in their charge with the skills and the attitude to do the job well. However, the approach to Type II mistakes is quite different. A company that punishes bona fide errors of judgement will never build a cadre of entrepreneurial managers. Still, an infinite tolerance for well-intentioned but disastrous decisions can drive the best enterprise to the wall. A good company approaches this dilemma through careful career planning, gradually building the risk-taking ability of its people, whilst limiting the damage at any one time.

Yet, it is the “process” stage of this analysis that is crucially important. The sequence of examining one’s errors and learning lessons happens in well-run companies through a highly cathartic method of individual and group reflection, sometimes moderated by experts, on what went right and what went wrong. It is a painful experience as it exposes others and one’s own follies, omissions and attitudes. This cleansing process helps the participants understand and accept what went wrong, and to energise them to rectify the errors. Even more importantly, it stimulates a creative search for new directions and new vistas. Often, breakthroughs happen as a result.

In Europe and South Africa

The literature of business is replete with cases where enterprises that have gone through this cycle have radically changed their business model and their strategies, attaining great success. But so have countries. Take Germany after 1945. A shattered nation resolved to rebuild itself whilst simultaneously shunning militarism and revenge. Germany reconciled with her age-old enemy, France, and together they laid the foundation for what later became the European Union. Most difficult of all, Germany expressed true remorse and contrition to the Jewish people for her actions during 1933-1945. The contrast with an earlier, defeated Germany in 1918, with its bitterness and revanchism, is striking. Another example is South Africa. If Nelson Mandela’s inspired “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” had not happened, what would the wounds of apartheid have wrought in a free, South African state?

Thus, a genuine search for answers to the questions posed by 1962 means a lot for India. The correctives, when identified, to the Type-I and Type-II errors of 1962, will in themselves be important. But what will be crucial, and what we might miss in the absence of an authentic process of creative introspection, could be the formulation of a new relationship with China for the 21st century. Here again, examples from business point the way.

Business rivals rarely view each other as enemies. They might compete ferociously in the marketplace, yet they can and do cooperate in many other areas which benefit the industry as a whole. For example, in developing raw material sources, or improving educational facilities for future employees. A favourite is to lobby government collectively to press for pro-industry policies. Companies of standing generally respect and do not demonise the opposition, though their formations battling in the marketplace do give vent to their feelings in no mean measure! Such contradictions are second nature in business — indeed, businessmen could be the true disciples of Mao Zedong, adept as they are at “the correct handling of contradictions.”

As populous, continent-sized countries, with aspirations to provide their peoples with the basics of a decent living, both India and China face huge challenges in their domestic spheres. Their growing power and influence draws attention regionally as well as globally. So it is only realistic that their relationship with each other will be complex and multifaceted. Great opportunities will coexist alongside problems and irritations. So a return to the naïvety of the 1950s bhai-bhai type would be foolish. But so would clinging to the Westphalian “realist” notion of the “inevitability of conflict between rising powers.” That would only bring joy to the international arms merchants whilst doing a great disservice to the common man. Left to themselves, I suspect that business people in both countries would rather focus on the huge opportunities and benefits in the potential reconnection of their two giant economies, in the sharing of common concerns, and in cooperative approaches to innovations and new projects where Sino-Indian collaboration could benefit the entire planet. Could the business people of both countries take the lead in breaking free from the past and visualising a new relationship between China and India?

Is this a step too far, an “impossible dream”? Perhaps not. Businessmen know that whilst having one’s feet planted firmly on the ground, without daring to dream there can be neither innovation nor transformation. If we can exorcise the ghosts of 1962, perhaps this may be the lesson that emerges out of that tragedy 50 years ago.

(Ravi Bhoothalingam is a former president of the Oberoi Group of Hotels and travels extensively to China.)

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A brilliant view point to the existing prophecies .

from:  govind s
Posted on: Nov 17, 2012 at 08:28 IST

look ahead but do not forget they are not reliable.beware always and
try to make a good friendly relation because the coming era is of
Asia and Indo-Sino counts a magnificent role together.

from:  durgesh upadhyay
Posted on: Nov 16, 2012 at 20:06 IST

21st century model of Sino-Indian relations must by definition be based on fundmentals of doing business and trade with each other - not developing military capacity to destroy the other.

Conflict is not pre-programmed, as it was in 1962. The hypothesis that India provoked Himalayan boarder conflict is historically verifiable - (I did my Ph.D. on the McMahon Line).

Now, we need to move forward because Indian democracy is still fragile and subject to external shocks. Only an economically sustainable subcontinent can really manage to feed the billions under its roof.

Mainland China has proven it can do it. There is a lot India can really learn from policy makers in Beijing and the countryside.
Don't for a moment consider that current political system, on mainland, will indefinitely prevail without internal social contradictions (Mao's thesis) and its subsequent developments.

A Sino-Indian relationship based on mutual benefit and political non-interference will benefit a lot

from:  hari naidu
Posted on: Nov 15, 2012 at 22:12 IST

Wars the commonly observed emotional patriotic attachments often undermine the prospects of fruitful cooperation. The future full of cooperation and compassion not just between two countries but between states of a same country, religions, ethnic and linguistic groups could evade large number of social evils. Bhoothalingams thought provoking management approach of Knowledge and Judgemental errors to neighborhood issues of Indo china approach is a must read for policy makers.

Posted on: Nov 15, 2012 at 20:37 IST

It is very true that emphasis on trade relations distances other
problems like border issues,territorial claims and hegemonic
attitudes.That said,in case of China-India the ballooning trade
deficit in favour of Beijing is a real matter of concern for
India.This problem is only due to our over emphasis on services sector
especially IT services in contrast to China which emphasized more on
manufacturing sector.
Huge man power coupled with manufacturing
investment led Chinese items to occupy almost every sphere of
life.Lets hope positive atleast now with recent National manufacturing
policy and National Electronics policy which emphasized domestic

Posted on: Nov 15, 2012 at 15:29 IST

Business is a open corridor to prosperity.India and china have come
from a topsy turvy background of relationship,so increasing business
volume in multilateral direction can be proven a good step to healthy
political relation between two Asian rising powers.But this should
also kept in mind that the pillars of development and sovereignty are
very different in India and China.So any new endeavor will need to be
mulled over.As far as potential of business is concerned both nations
are having numerous capabilities and resources.Asia need now a rebuilt
to face the uni polar world and India and China are the potential
participant in the region.1962 is old story now and everyone has
learned from this;but now the equations are different and increasing
business among regional neighbors will only strengthen the economy and
demographic standards.

from:  Mayank Kanga
Posted on: Nov 15, 2012 at 14:46 IST

It would be great if the leaders of the both the countries India and China look for a relationship that will empower the business opportunities for the their peoples. I, truly, agree that what happened 50 years ago will not benefit us by any means. But today we can rebuild ourselves or with the help of opposition. Great piece of work who wrote it.

from:  feroj khan
Posted on: Nov 15, 2012 at 14:08 IST

china and India are emerging as the second front of the world after it is essential to have a better economic,cultural and military relations between India and china in order to inculcate a better outcome for global growth.

from:  shivam
Posted on: Nov 15, 2012 at 13:42 IST

Above article may be 12th or 13th one i am reading this month on 1962
war alias military operation or whatever people call that, but i am sure
that ghost of above thing are haunting Indian media way more than Chinese media.The reconciliation needed to India was exercised by
improving our military strength and developing the nuclear weapon and by
china by retreating from the most of the area captured during that time.

from:  sharan kumar
Posted on: Nov 15, 2012 at 10:51 IST

Both countries can play ego games to impress the locals and waste time or get on with progressive policies promoting friendship, commerce and mutual tourism. Historically both countries have been good neighbors except for a couple of recent spats. Neighbors never leave and building bridges and developing cozy relationship is a must and wasting time is irrational! There is much to gain in mutual cooperation and earlier one gets on with it, earlier one can reap the profits of the decision. There are no perfect neighbors, so waste no time dreaming for that! A country like India with so much philosophy and wisdom inherent can possibly see my argument in this matter.

from:  Saratchandran
Posted on: Nov 15, 2012 at 07:21 IST

With creating conflict he wanted to get Closer with US...went well,but misfired in China determination to retaliate.Part of Politics is risk and opportunity.

from:  ram
Posted on: Nov 15, 2012 at 00:49 IST
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