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Lessons from my political odyssey

Politics and business have a lot to learn from each other as the experience of ABN Amro’s India chief proves.

Print Edition: June 28, 2009

My political journey was in large part a result of the 26/11 terrorist attacks on Mumbai. I felt the time had come to stop criticising the system and try and make a positive contribution instead—especially in trying to bring the same standards of discipline and accountability to public governance that we have in the corporate sector. So, I threw my hat in the ring and participated in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections as a candidate from South Mumbai. Without a political background, I had to draw upon my experiences in the corporate world to stitch together an effective election campaign.

Meera Sanyal, Country executive, ABN Amro Bank India
Meera Sanyal
I interacted with many groups of people, scoured several expert reports and researched the issues that I felt needed the most attention. Prioritisation and focus are essential for companies to achieve results. I applied the same lessons in politics. I chose a five-point agenda for Mumbai, which laid emphasis on more investment in Mumbai’s infrastructure, a radical overhaul of the public transport system, a more effective internal security mechanism, empowerment of citizens at the neighbourhood level and the need for a fully empowered and directly elected mayor.

Just as companies take great pains to market their product, we also realised the importance of ensuring visibility to our campaign. Instead of going through the traditional marketing routes of large paid advertisements in the papers or on television, we harnessed technology to provide us interactive, quick and cost-effective communication through a website, an invigorating Facebook space and SMS alerts.

While I may not have won, my campaign made a big impact. Many of my opponents soon adopted my agenda. All the issues placed before the electorate by my team were gradually also accepted by other candidates.

Now that I’m back in the saddle at ABN Amro, I feel my experience of running for public office will stand me in good stead in my profession as well. I have returned with several business ideas, which would not only improve the lot of the Mumbaikars but also be viable business propositions for corporate India. Let me explain with a couple of examples with special reference to the banking industry.

I now realise that it’s critical for corporate India to encourage the social enterprise sector. It can make a massive difference in India, and during the course of the campaign, I interacted with social entrepreneurs who are working hard to improve the lot of the poor. Given my long association with microfinance in the bank, I have come back with business plans for social enterprise and microfinance in our urban slums. Indeed, microfinance will remain a focus area for my bank in the future.

I have also seen at close quarters how the financial nerve centre of India is unable to provide basic amenities to its denizens. One of the biggest challenges is providing affordable housing to the urban poor who live in appalling conditions of slums without adequate basic facilities such as piped water and sanitation. To my mind banks and housing finance institutions can play a big role here. So far, only the upper and middle class have had access to mortgage financing. I believe it can be extended to the low-income groups as well. The key would be in providing affordable finance, which would stimulate demand for affordable housing.

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