Daag Acche Nahin Hain!

Just as I was checking my Twitter feed this Sunday morning, I saw the #Surfexcel trending. Initially I ignored attributing it to some sponsored marketing campaign. But when I saw a whole bunch of individuals from the Right to the Left tweeting on the same, I decided to check it out. There, I could see other hashtags calling for a boycott of Unilever products and so on. The reason for the furore being, this ad (watch here) which Hindustan Unilever (HUL) has made for Surf Excel for the upcoming Holi. I watched the ad and I thought it was a brilliant ad though the theme has got a bit repetitive particularly with HUL these days!

People calling for a boycott of Surf Excel and Unilever products though, had a different take. They questioned the need for the company to pick up on a Hindu festival (Holi) to push their product. Few also quizzed if Unilever would do an ad around any Muslim festival. There were also many other tweets with images of Muslim festivals photo shopped with Surf Excel and its now famous tag line – ‘Daag Acche Hain’!  Notwithstanding all this, the ad achieved the purpose of creating a buzz and finally going viral.

This comes closely in the heels of another ad from the same company created during the Kumbh Mela! This ad (Watch here) for their Brooke Bond Red label Tea literally kicked up a storm in the social media tea-cup! . Though extremely well made, it is clear from the ad that the product and its attributes were secondary while the primary objective was just to ride the buzz around the Kumbh. While the commercial went viral on many WhatsApp groups as a great ad, on Twitter though, folks derided the company HUL for hurting the religious sentiments of Hindus. The supers that appeared at the end of the ad said, “Kumbh Mela is the largest religious gathering in the world. At this holy gathering, many elderly are abandoned by their families”!

I am not sure what kind of research went behind, to make a statement like this.  Nevertheless, the ad, I repeat very well made and executed, came across as a botched attempt where just to bring in the “Kumbh” story, you build a very touchy and probably insensitive narrative. I would rather prefer the approach by Fevicol in a similar context for the Kumbh where, they weaved a positive story (watch the ad here) around the event while plugging the attributes of the product effectively.  In the Red label ad, the product got thrust upon in the story at the end. With the massive uproar about this ad in social media, I am told that the company decided to take down the same. However, it didn’t stop it from going viral on social media platforms where it got trolled heavily.

These days, companies when they brief the agency for their commercials, I think must be outlining their 1st objective as “It should go viral”! As I had written in my earlier posts, “Stir up to sell” is an old ploy in marketing and advertising.  Achieving the objective of getting ad go viral is of late falling into very predictable tropes like Hindu – Muslim unity sentiment, Indo – Pak emotion and so on.

The larger point I am trying to put forward though, is different.  Few days back, I received as a forward on WhatsApp a clip which, I then gathered was a trailer for an upcoming web series titled ‘Metro Park’. Watch it here. I watched it, had a hearty laugh and forwarded the same to few other WhatsApp groups as is the wont these days. Little did I realise that, even for what I perceived as a routine comedy clip, I would receive some critique questioning, if the makers would dare to make fun of any other religion’s practices in a similar way!

A few years back, the Surf Excel Ad and the Red Label Kumbh ad would have just got beamed across homes through your television sets and the agencies would have just walked away with awards galore. But today, there is no such getting away easily. Though personally I thought that the Surf Excel Holi Ad is a brilliant one which weaves in the product attributes into the Holi story, while at the same time talking of Hindu-Muslim brotherhood… the extreme reactions against the ad actually conveys something else. That of bringing to the fore the fault lines that exist/existed all along in our society.

First of all, the repeated emergence of these themes in ads is itself an aberration in my view. A Unilever company in another country say in the US or in Europe I feel, will not take pains to come up with an ad promoting Hindu-Muslim unity in the guise of promoting their product. After over 70 years of Independence and declaring ourselves as a secular nation, if we have to keep clutching at straws (read as films and TV Commercials) to promote self-belief as a secular nation, something has gone wrong somewhere. Secondly, the extreme reactions a TV commercial promoting harmony evokes among us, also is worrisome.  While social media playing the role of a watch dog is good, more often than not, it is barking up the wrong tree.

‘Daag Acche Hain’ (Stains are good) may be a good tag line for a detergent.  However, “Communal”, “Bigoted” as tags are stains. And as a country we could do without such stains. Kyunki woh Daag acche nahin hain!

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Time to shoot the messenger?

“Don’t shoot the messenger” is a cliché often used to decry when someone criticizes the media which is the bearer of bad news, instead of the one who was responsible for it. In the context of what’s been happening in India in the last few days, I am tempted to relieve this cliché of the word ‘Don’t”! We all now know that, media all over the world in general and India in particular is only headed towards abyss! And what we saw in India in the past few days only put a stamp of confirmation on it!

In the wee hours of 26th, India conducted a daring air attack deep inside Pakistan targeting some terror camps on what was touted as a retaliation to the Pulwama attack when over 40 CRPF jawans were killed by a suicide bomber of the Jaish. When we started hearing the news, incidentally first through cryptic tweets from the Pakistani side, journalists of all hue starting dialling up their sources and putting out more details – some true and rest hearsay accounts. In just a few hours, mainstream media and social media were engulfed with a tsunami of nationalistic pride over the attack, even when the Government or the forces never came out with the details in public. #Indiastrikesback, #Surgicalstrike2 and other hashtags started trending on social media and not to mention of the myriad memes taking pot shot on Pakistan!

There was a visible difference on the Indian response to Pak terror attack this time. Unlike in the past (particularly in the aftermath of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks) when India played the “responsible” card, this time the “Mirage” was for real (pun intended). Notwithstanding the valour and the efficiency of the armed forces in carrying out this attack, make no mistake, it was possible only because there was a go ahead for such a daring action from the political leadership of the day.  Unfortunately, in these days of a divided polity, opposition leaders like Rahul Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati and the like chose to be petulance personified as seen from their tweets! They all congratulated the IAF and chose to remain silent on the intention of the Govt. forgetting the fact that in situations like these, if there is no political will, there is no way! I am not sure, if BJP was in opposition under the same circumstances, they would have acted differently. Be that as it may, given that this is election season in India, the way media and some of the star anchors and journalists handled this was baffling.  In some of the channels, it was nothing but war mongering. War sets and props, anchors in army fatigues, prime time was unambiguously playing to the gallery. The pro-Govt. journalists had a field day frothing on TV, spitting venom on their social media handles without any responsibility.

The next day i.e. on 27th Feb, Pakistan now chose to retaliate just as their Prime Minister Imran Khan had warned. For many hours, it was not clear what exactly happened as the news trickled in bits and pieces. But soon it emerged that while we were able to put down one Pakistani F16, one of our pilots unfortunately ended up in Pakistan’s custody. Just as news of this emerged, the whole commentary in the media changed. The liberal commentariat which was cooling its heels the previous day came out with their daggers open, now blasting the Indian Govt. for war mongering and sacrificing its brave men with its mindless actions. As #SayNotoWar started trending, our country’s soft underbelly got exposed once again. During the Kandahar hijack, the same thing happened. And further when Imran Khan made a peace dove like statement in their Parliament that they were freeing our officer the next day, the exposure was complete, in my opinion.

From purely Optics point of view, there is no doubt that Imran Khan made most of the situation. While it was well known that they had no choice but freeing a POW, by doing that swiftly, Imran Khan won the perception battle. But to designate and celebrate him as an apostle of peace, just how some of the media personalities were doing on Thursday, was gross injustice to the 40+ jawans who lost their lives just few days back! Back then, the same Imran Khan did not have the courtesy to either condemn or regret the dastardly attack and just mouthed the same “show proof” rhetoric! Now this time it was the turn of the media which is against the BJP/Modi to pursue their agenda and were having their field day!

Neutrality in journalism is now passé. In addition to this agenda driven journalism which now we have learnt to live with, the behaviour of the politicians from both sides was equally regressive and repulsive.  While the ruling party taking this issue to the polls is not avoidable and partially understandable, counting the seat chicken before the border tension hatches as some BJP politicians were doing is highly condemnble.

So in India, we swing from one extreme to another so easily.  From one day shouting from the rooftop of “using our right to attack” in the verge of a terrorist attack to pushing for de-escalation and pull back the moment one of our officers get caught the next day, we proved that we are indeed a country of weak hearts.

Amidst all this, if we have to take lesson on response to these kind of situations, it must be from our defence forces. The same day evening when Imran announced that our officer Abhinandan would be returned to India, there was a presser by the armed forces team which I thought was brilliant, thoroughly professional and to the point. Even when prodded to respond to the so called “good will gesture” of Pakistan in returning our officer, Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor stuck to the fact that it was just an “act” which any country was supposed to do and that the IAF was happy to have the officer back. Period. And the whole presser had lessons for journalists and social media warriors on reporting facts, not giving own interpretations and not getting into matters which was not their domain. It is now part of folklore on how the officer Abhinandan behaved under custody. The training and upbringing certainly showed!

The big difference in the media today in situations like these is the arrival of the monster called Social media. Social media not just gives a platform to all of us to express ourselves, it also becomes a platform for professional journalists to display their loyalties and show where their heart lies. It is indeed great to note that our Govt. didn’t buy into the canard of those putting out their own opinions based on their loyalties this way or that way and stuck to their actions in this situation.

As Social media commentary feeds off into main stream media and vice versa and with government functionaries actively present in the social media these days, one gets concerned if governance becomes a prisoner of media’s whims and fancies. And if that begins to happen, time to “Shoot the messenger, folks!

Cartoon courtesy: Amul

Kashmir – When History & Geography conflict!

While in school, I liked History as a subject. “King Ashoka planted trees and built lakes! Akbar founded and practiced his own religion – Din Illahi! And so on.  All these were interesting! But those days, my common refrain was, “What is the utility of us studying all these and remembering the years, the place and all that now? How is this going to help me in my life in the future?” While that was History, Geography was perennially boring. Remembering the names of countries, rivers, forests, mountains, cities, their latitudes and longitudes was all a torture. Little did I realise then, that the legacy of history has a long shadow on geography. Hence it becomes mandatory as students to get the perspectives right on History and Geography.  World over, eventually Geo-political conflicts are all about history!  Kashmir is no different.

Right since Independence, Kashmir has been a complex problem. Any proposal/s for solving this always come with insistence of it being a complex problem due to mistakes made by India in the past as per commentators. For many decades, the feeling in our country has been to maintain a status quo on Kashmir. In the wake of the last week’s dastardly attack in Pulwama on our security forces, it is clear that status quo is not the answer.

There are always different schools of thought around solutions ranging from military solution to political solution to diplomatic solution to combination of some of these or all. And frankly most of these have been tried in the past by different Governments of different parties when they got an opportunity to govern India. From Indira Gandhi to Rajiv to Narasimha Rao to Vajpayee to Manmohan Singh to now Narendra Modi, it is not for want of trying, this issue is not resolved. All have attempted in the past to crack the Kashmir code with sometimes the same or slightly different approaches. In my view, by and large all approaches have followed a contour that of keeping it within the constitution, respecting the sense of history and carrying that baggage. And the result of these efforts is there to see.

72 years since Independence means, 3 generations have rolled over, assuming a generation is defined by 25 years. This generation and the coming ones have no love lost for history or for historical narratives over Kashmir. They are concerned about the present and what the future entails. Hence to move forward on a long-lasting solution for Kashmir, the approach must entail shedding any historical baggage and looking into the future. What does this mean?

  • Jammu and Kashmir must be treated just like any other state of India. No special status whatsoever.
  • Scrap Article 370.
  • No Autonomous powers
  • Any law passed in the Parliament of India by default must be applicable to Jammu & Kashmir as well.
  • No Special constitution for Jammu & Kashmir
  • Allow business to be set up by non-Kashmiris in J&K just like in other parts of India.
  • Scrap Article 35A

And so on.

While I understand that it is not as simplistic as it sounds, we need to move in this direction and take firm steps.

Of course all this can work only under peaceful circumstances. There will be a huge uproar in the valley.  In the near term, the Government has to engage in multiple fronts in an effort to bring peace. That includes

Diplomacy – This Government has done a great job in working with relevant countries to isolate Pakistan. Continue the efforts to get more and more countries on board to tighten the noose.

Political – Within the country, take the main opposition parties on board on an agreed broad strategy. Get all parties to talk in the same wavelength not just in the aftermath of a Pulwama type attack but all the time. This will give a signal of India being one on this issue.  In the same token, do not rush to take credit as a party but give credit to all the parties in case of any successes.

Military – The 2016 Surgical strike was a great step. But it has not deterred Pakistan from carrying out the proxy war and stopping the activities of outfits like Jaish. One surgical strike in 2 years seemingly is not enough. We need to raise the cost for Pakistan by carrying our strikes in unpredictable frequency.

In the context of military intervention, we always encounter two refrains. One – that it can escalate into a fully blown war. Two – that a war between two nuclear capable countries is not at all desirable.  My point is, we have always been concerned of any military invention escalating into a fully blown war though Pakistan doesn’t seem to be concerned of the same while provoking us. For a change, why not make them feel concerned about a military escalation. Today, Pakistan is a failed and beleaguered state. Its economy is extremely frail. A fully blown war would only expose its vulnerability further. Except for China, which could come to its support militarily, Pakistan’s isolation is complete. Even for China, an economy which is stuttering today, ignoring India’s interests and siding with Pakistan will be a short term stupidity. So, eventually just like during the Kargil war, there will be more pressure mounted on Pakistan to mend its ways and take visible steps to stop cross border terrorism and take actions on outfits the same.

Economy – Raising the costs for Pakistan economically must be a continuous effort. Getting friendly countries to stop financial aid, labelling Pakistan a terrorist state, getting international sanctions imposed are all options on the table.

While these are ongoing efforts and I am sure Government must be engaged in all of this, the way to long lasting solution is to keep history aside and move forward. We hear that Narendra Modi has a penchant for leaving a lasting legacy. Solving the Kashmir problem could be his gateway to that. And for that History must give way to Geography, Economics and probably Chemistry! It’s time.

Narendra Damodardas Trump!

Back to India after a week’s trip from Trump land, one cannot escape the palpable political weather in both the countries. Large parts of the US may be freezing due to the polar vortex but politically, the climate is hot in the US as in India. While India is already in the grip of election fever with the Lok Sabha polls just couple of months away, in the US, presidential elections are due in 2020! Even then, the political chatter is all about if Donald Trump will get re-elected or not! Same is the question in India with Narendra Modi!

Ever since Modi, a rank outsider to what is now infamously called as the Lutyen’s Delhi, became the Prime minister of India in 2014 and Trump more famed as an “Apprentice” politician and a real estate baron became the President of America, comparing both these leaders and bringing out the similarities in them have been favourite pastimes of the commentariat. Probably rightly so! Here are two leaders who have defied many established conventions to chart their own course in governing their respective countries. The similarities in their methods and more importantly the narratives around the personalities are difficult to ignore.

In terms of the evident similarities, the liberal media’s scorn in India and the US for Modi and Trump respectively comes first, I guess. For example, all through the time I was in the US, TV news was engulfed by the Government Shutdown due to a budget fight centred on Trump’s demand for $5bn to fund a wall along the US-Mexico border. On TV, the built up narrative showed Trump as the central villain for bringing America to such a crisis. Images and clips of federal employees suffering due to loss of pay dominated most of the screens. In California where I was during that week, on the streets, it was business as usual! I can compare this to the narrative which was played up during Demonetisation in India. Of sufferings, deaths and what not. However, in election after election in the aftermath of Demonetisation, BJP swept the polls! Not surprisingly both Modi and Trump treat the main stream media with contempt. Trump calls channels as Fake news generators, Modi calls them ‘Bazaaru’ media! And therefore, they prefer to engage with the public more actively through Social media.

The other point of convergence is their response to border security. Trump has been vocal about constructing the wall along the Mexico border to prevent illegal migration into his country. In India, along the North East, the introduction of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill by the BJP is touted as a similar action to deal with illegal migration from Bangladesh. Likewise, both Trump and Modi during their respective campaigns had raised alarm over worldwide Islamic terror without beating the bush.

Yet another commonality in Trump and Modi is their approach to external affairs. It is said that Modi being a Gujarati always brings a sense of ‘Dando’ (business) to the table. In the case of Trump too, we have seen so far that he has been running the United States of America as another Trump Corporation! Again, in the context of External affairs and diplomacy, historical legacy and precedents have not come in the way of taking bold initiatives for both Modi and Trump. For example, in India, while we have always treated Israel as our friend for so many decades, Modi has been the 1st Prime Minister to make a historical visit to Israel and set the optics right. Rubbing our friends in the Gulf on the wrong side – a historical reason for not taking our friendship with Israel to the next level was set aside by Modi. Similarly in the US, Trump has been brazenly demolishing some legacy diplomatic hangovers like supporting Pakistan with aid even when it was not doing anything on curbing terror. There are few other examples as well like seeing China into its eye and not withholding the import curbs.

And the other thing I noticed which is quite common in the case of both Modi and Trump is this. While seeing what is said about these two in the media one may get an impression that they are steadily losing ground and are grossly unpopular. However, the reality may turn out to be different. In the US, I noticed that calling yourself a supporter of Trump can make you a social untouchable and therefore, people tend to stay quiet rather than expressing themselves. Like my friend said, he was routinely derided by his pals for riding a “Triumph” bike mistaking it for a “Trump” bike! Similarly in India, seeing the narrative in main stream media, an outsider can get an impression that Modi Is finished and his popularity has hit rock bottom. Those of us with ear to the ground know that the truth is far from that!

Beyond these, there could be more meeting grounds as well for Modi and Trump! Like they are both eternally on “Campaign” Mode”! So, while it is very tempting just to draw parallels between Trump and Modi and call it as the beginning of a new era in political personalities, I do feel that there is a need to pause here. I think beyond the veneer of similarities between Modi and Trump, I do feel that never the twain shall meet for many reasons.

Like, while Modi and his office are active on social media, you can never find one politically inappropriate tweet from Modi. In the case of Trump, we have to search for one which is not!

Though Trump has been active in his direct communication through Social media, he has still respected the traditions of giving interviews and doing press conferences regularly. Modi, on the other hand, has shown high contempt to main stream media and has not addressed one presser since he took office. He has been quite stingy on giving personal interviews as well. His Man Ki Baat can be deciphered by the people through the radio and not through the mouths and writings of journalists!

Unlike Modi, I must say that Trump has shown more commitment to the promises he made during his campaign. Right or wrong, he has been diligently ticking off the promises he made one by one whether it is corporate tax reduction, steps to prevent illegal migration and so on. I would say that his stand on the Shutdown was another visible demonstration of his commitment to his manifesto. In the case of Modi, it has been a case of “Glass half empty”.

On the question of jobs, Trump has a better record to show certainly. A recent report said that US created 304,000 jobs against 170,000 expected just in January smashing all expectations. In India, the question of job creation is a mystery with no clear answers. As Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar points out in his Sunday TOI column, “An employment crash of the catastrophic sort indicated by the NSSO and CMIE typically occurs only in terrible, deep economic depressions. But India has been averaging over 7% GDP growth, and is the fastest-growing major economy in the world. Never in history has a miracle economy, growing at over 7%, witnessed a collapse of employment.”

A big difference between Modi and Trump has been the way they handle their teams. In India, Modi has his own handpicked team in his PMO. Most of them are from his erstwhile Gujarat cadre or with a stint in Sangh parivar backed Vivekananda foundation. They have stayed with him so far and we have not seen any public dissent against Modi. However in the case of Trump, we have lost count of his team members who have either quit or got fired! I don’t think any of the original staunch supporters of Trump are still sticking to him in his close circuit. I don’t think Modi will fire a subordinate over Twitter!

Another important point to add here is the influence of the family. In the case of Modi, his family has been kept at a far distance with no one occupying any real or virtual posts of power. In the case of Trump it is exactly the opposite. His daughter Ivanka and son in law Jared Kushner have been in the thick of policy making. Morality around conflict of interest has been thrown out of the window. And this I feel may return to haunt Trump for a long time when his term gets over!

I mentioned earlier about what the common public thinks of these leaders. Even the staunchest opponents of Modi would not venture to label him as a clown. But, in the US, calling Trump names – “Clown” and “Joker” being popular in that is uber cool! Similarly, Trump’s earlier escapades with women have routinely surfaced in regular frequency to embarrass him. Modi has a clean record on this score.

Above all, if there is going to one lasting difference between Trump and Modi, it is going to the legacy they leave. In today’s business parlance, “Disruption” is a virtue and “Disruptors” are visionaries. However, Trump as a disruptor is likely to lead America to paying some heavy price in the future. Many of his moves though in the short term have paid dividends politically and are seemingly smart for America today, may not be, in the long term. In that sense, I reckon that the legacy he leaves may be of the disruption in the real sense. On the other hand, Modi has been very circumspect in disrupting anything. He has believed in what I call as “Improved continuum”! I believe for a country like India, his legacy may be a more positive one. From that point of view, I do feel that talking of Modi and Trump in the same breath may just be a good academic exercise and therefore “Narendra Damodardas Trump” may just be a good click bait title for a blog. Just.

From Quota politics to a “Quota for politics”!

In India, they say the wheels of the Government usually move very slowly. Not always. When there is a political will, the same wheels can attain humongous velocity just like how it happened few weeks ago. The Cabinet approved a proposal for introducing a 10% quota for economically weaker section of the society on the 7th Jan. And by 9th Jan, the bill to amend the constitution for the same was passed by both the houses of the parliament! The quota bill was done and dusted in flat 3 days!

During the debate over the quota bill, almost all parties mouthed the usual platitudes – not on the proposal per se but on the timing. The coming together of the ruling and opposition for this cause demonstrated another aspect of “Unity in Diversity” in India. That is, on the issue of reservations which has high impact on electoral fortunes, almost all parties think alike. Herein lies the irony.

 “A quota for the economically deprived sections of the society” sounds logical and seems a significant forward step in our country which for a long time has been having quotas based on caste. As a step which doesn’t differentiate based on religion… it is high on optics.  But then, as they say the deadly devil lies in the details. This 10% is over and above the existing 50% as mandated by the Supreme Court for caste based reservations (with the exception of Tamil Nadu which has 69% reservations).

Before venturing into another quota based on economic class, I think that there was a need for an assessment of how the caste based reservations have performed in India in the so many decades since they were introduced, against the desired objectives. Based on what I have seen in Tamil Nadu in very close quarters, I have no doubt in my mind that the caste based reservations have helped in emancipation of a generation of people. Thanks to the quotas, many of the deprived sections could get access to decent higher education and then jobs. Which in turn have helped a generation of families to be part of mainstream India. This could not have been possible by another poverty alleviation programme, I believe. Having said that, the important issue to define now is how we will close the tap on this affirmative action.

We all understand that the originally envisaged time frame of 10 years for caste based reservations in India is impractical. Now that we crossed 68 years with reservations which typically means it has benefited two generations, where are we in terms of social equality and equity? Do we know? Do we measure? Who will bell the cat in terms of suggesting the sunset clause?  Do the offspring of those first two generations of people who could get access to higher education and government jobs need the same level of quotas as their parents and grandparents? In addition to quotas, what else is required for bringing down the class divide which still exist in the society? These are few important questions which arise.

The second issue is, the definition of the economically weak for the purpose of this bill. The provisions like a household income of under Rs. 8 lacs or owning less than 5 hectares of land seems to be extremely liberal when you look at all angles possible and government’s own definitions in other contexts.  In one stroke, above 95% of the populace has been covered under this ambit!  So, I join the naysayers who question the effectiveness of such a quota. From the total population, if you remove those who are already beneficiaries under the earlier quota regime (roughly 70% of the population), this new 10% quota is applicable for the economically needy among the balance 30% population.

The third issue is, there are different points of view if this will finally stand judicial scrutiny. As per the Government, the 50% cap was only meant for “Caste based reservation quota” while there are others who say that the cap applies to all reservations!

Finally, Affirmative action by definition means policy intervention for favouring individuals who are known to have been discriminated for various reasons in the past. Will economically deprived but not marginalised by caste, come under the category of those who were discriminated in the past? While the concept of helping those economically deprived is indeed noble, why not provide scholarships for higher education and assistance for business ventures instead of quotas?

You can question our netas on their intellect but we cannot under-estimate their political instincts at all. Not surprising that almost all the parties voted for this quota bill in both the houses of the parliament.

In the upcoming election season, the ruling NDA will certainly go to town for ushering this new direction on quota politics in India. However, even in the Hindi belt, I feel it will have minimum resonance. The opposition by playing ball on this, has in a sense blunted the political rewards what the BJP/NDA can reap. Imagine the situation had the Congress/UPA and others had opposed this move. So, all have played their moves smartly.

The bottom line is, a quota for economically deprived is as I said, provides for excellent optics and is sound politics. I do feel, like how the Supreme Court has put a cap on the quotas on reservation, we should have a cap on the quota for playing politics for every political party when in power. We cannot expect them to stop playing politics completely but, what about a Quota for politics?

Cartoon courtesy; Times Of India

In #2019, no TINA but be wary of TAIL!

As 2018 winds down and we step in to 2019, for India, it is just not another new year. Mid of 2019 is when we will have the Lok Sabha polls that will determine if Narendra Modi will get another shot at being the Prime Minister. In my memory, I cannot recall of any individual who has come for so much scrutiny as an elected representative. And whose re-election is being discussed and debated so intensely in the country. First up, blame it all on the social media and its growing tentacles!

The fact that a government’s performance is coming up for such a rigorous appraisal itself, augurs well for our country. It should be like that. I only hope that this appraisal business isn’t selective and not just reserved for Modi Sarkar! If I think as to why this government has come under such a close assessment, I realise that it should blame itself for the same.

Did we have any other government in the past that

Set targets for itself on many fronts?

Which announced the targets and put them out in public domain?

Which tracked the actual delivery against the targets and presented them for everyone to see and comprehend easily that too mostly on real-time basis?

Today we know, not just what this government’s targets are for rural electrification, construction of highways, building targets, opening of bank accounts so on and so forth but also where it stands in terms of achievement. One look at the https://transformingindia.mygov.in/performance-dashboard/ site gives us an update on a real-time basis. It is not that governments in the past did not set targets for themselves. But all these targets were usually in terms of outlays announced in the Annual Budget speeches and seldom one would know what the final outcomes were. Between the outlays and outcomes, the India story remained in tatters. I guess not any more.  So, if people keep remembering the promises made and get disappointed if some of the promises have not been met fully or adequately, blame it on the Government’s efforts of putting out data in the open which makes it possible to compare achievements Vs goals easily.

In comparison to the upbeat mood in 2014 and 2015, today the mood in the country is more sombre. Even the most loyal fans of Modi have realised that probably he chewed more than what he could swallow. Five years are just not enough to turn around and solve all the ills of the country. That too when the global economy is facing one headwind after another! But then, as a country we had our own share of misses. Right when the economy was getting back on track in 2015/16 from the throes of policy paralysis and negative vibes and was poised for a leap, this government let loose the Demonetisation devil on the economy.  This set the economy back by 2 years to get back on track. That we didn’t fully collapse and managed to grow the economy at a slower pace nevertheless, would be a miracle, academicians would pore over in the years to come!

Before the effects of Demonetisation could subside, this government went ahead with the introduction of GST which according me is the biggest Tax reform in Independent India. Irrespective of the critics who take on this government on the “not so perfect” GST, I maintain that it was extremely creditable on the part of Modi Sarkar to launch the GST without further delaying, on the 1st of July 2017. In India, in aspects of meeting deadlines, we Indians follow religiously and rigorously the Theory of Elasticity which says solid materials deform under the application of external force and regain their original shape when the force is removed. So, in the quest of a perfect, ideal GST, if this government had deferred the launch, who knows, perhaps we will still be talking of “introducing the GST” in the upcoming budget!  Against that, today we already have a thriving GST which is now going to complete 2 years! The introduction of GST will remain this government’s biggest achievement when its history is written.

The short term pains inflicted by these 2 moves (Demonetisation and GST) to the small and medium businesses combined with the government’s failure to address the Banking crisis at the beginning of its term have led the BJP to the situation where it is today.  In its strong hold states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, the party’s support base has been dwindling. On the contrary, the Congress which seemingly had no hope of a revival till mid-2017, has smelt blood and is hoping to deprive Modi of a second term and a shot at history.

In India today, in the main stream media and also probably social media, the obituary of Modi Sarkar is being written on a daily basis. As per me, it is too early to write off Narendra Modi in the context of 2019. In spite of his government’s misses in terms of promises and more importantly the delivery of Achhe Din, his personal credibility as a leader who is keen to deliver, is intact. I do believe that there are those who are disappointed with him. But they are still not disgusted with him. Yet.  My personal feeling is that they would like to give him another chance.  The same states which voted out the BJP recently could very well see voting for Modi in the Lok Sabha polls!

Apart from this factor of Modi’s personal charisma, there is another important factor at play. People like to call it the TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor. I don’t believe that there are no alternatives to Modi. In fact, we have many. We have the spectre of a Rahul Gandhi becoming the Prime Minister, if a Congress led UPA front emerges as the biggest. Or else it could be toss between a Mamata Banerjee or a Mayawati or a Chandrasekhar Rao or any other leader depending upon how many seats they win, as part of a coalition which will be cobbled together post the elections. In all these cases, a leader of the party with 30-40 MPs would head the coalition of 10-15 parties with each party playing the “I am indispensable” card!

This Mahagathbandan where, parties will oppose each other in one state but will come together in another state is only a Maha”cut”bandhan who want their share of power and the perks that come with it. I believe that people are smart enough to understand and realise that Modi Sarkar might have disappointed but will still probably vote for him not because of TINA but being weary of TAIL – The Alternative Is Lousy!

In the past, we saw many Accidental Prime Ministers as we didn’t sight TAIL properly! Hope 2019 is different. On that hopeful note, wishing India a momentous 2019!

Cartoon courtesy: Satish Acharya

Semi-finals and the many Confusing Signals! Part – 2

In my last post (read here), I had written about the recently concluded state elections in 5 states with focus on Rajasthan. In this, I intend to cover Madhya Pradesh and Telangana and try to drive home the message of the confusing signals coming out for an election strategist and watcher.

In MP, in an evenly poised, see-saw battle, Congress eventually scraped through and has now formed the government with support from other parties, having just fallen short of the half way mark. At the outset, it would appear that for BJP’s performance wasn’t that bad considering that it has been in power in MP for the last 15 years. The question is – “Is it par for the course for voters to get tired with a party which has been in power for more than 2 terms?” I don’t think so. Hence brushing aside a defeat owing to just “Anti-Incumbency factor” may not be correct. There could be and usually there are other factors at play which make people ring in a change.  Considering the fact that eventually BJP ended with the same vote share as Congress with just few seats less, it doesn’t look like as if a severe Anti-Incumbency wave swept away BJP or Shivraj Chauhan.

To be fair to the BJP and Shivraj Chauhan, MP has seen a sea change on the positive side during the last 15 years. It is no longer cursed as part of the “BIMARU” states of India! Those who have visited the state in the last 10 years can see the visible improvement in the road infrastructure not just in the cities but the connecting towns. 87% of rural roads in MP are surfaced (road laid with bitumen or tar), which is higher than the national average (64 %)!  Similarly the progress on the electricity and water supply fronts are visible.

Bijli, Sadak, Paani as far as I heard, were no longer the issues in MP! So what were? Have the voters punished a government even after showing visible vikas?

Farm crisis is one reason which has been talked about. Here again, there are missed signals. Madhya Pradesh has reported the best agricultural growth in India over eight years and yet there is widespread farm unrest. It’s clear that BJP has lost in rural pockets with a seat share drop from 67% to 42% in 2018 Vs 2013. However surprisingly in Mandsaur which was the epicentre of the farmers’ agitation few months back, BJP retained its tally of 3 seats! Similarly in Neemuch district, BJP retained all its 3 seats!

Coming to urban centres, BJP’s major losses came from here unlike Gujarat where it was saved by urban Gujarat! As mentioned before, there has been visible development in urban centres like Bhopal, Indore, Gwalior,..  In fact, Indore has been ranked the cleanest city as per the Swachh Bharat survey in 2018 for the 2nd consecutive year. Bhopal came in 2nd!  Even then, BJP major losses in this election came from the urban pockets! The seat share fell from 90% in the urban areas in 2013 to 55% in 2018!

It looks like BJP in MP has been felled by the weight of expectations and not on its standalone performance which has not been so bad. The expectations could be with respect to the State’s progress from what it has achieved so far and also of the Centre’s promises to usher in the Achhe Din! In his column – “No proof required”, Dr. Surjit Bhalla calls the election results – “The Revolution of Rising expectations”! It is possible that in spite of the local BJP Government under the leadership of the “Mamaji” – Shivraj Chauhan delivering governance, the people expected more. More in terms of jobs, more in terms of disposable income and finally “Yeh Dil maange sub kuch more”!

In MP, the other factor is BJP lost 10 seats with a narrow margin of under 1000 votes!  Again, if you look at the swing of votes against BJP which is at 4%, it is not a big swing but reduced BJP’s number of seats from 165 to 109, a drop of almost 1/3rd of the seats! What does this say of BJP’s famed booth level management tactics and WhatsApp outreach programmes??? What happened to the “Panna Pramukhs” this time?

The fact that BJP lost 10 seats by a margin which was lower than the NOTA votes polled in those seats would lend credence probably to a simmering anger among a section of loyal BJP voters to teach a lesson to the party!  It would be interesting to see if this anger is temporary or permanent enough to afflict a damage to BJP’s fortunes in 2019 Lok Sabha polls!

Coming to Telangana, the TRS (Telangana Rashtriya Samithi) party under K. Chandrasekhar Rao(KCR) successfully saw off the Anti-Incumbency and managed to not just win, but win by a landslide! I have not looked at Telangana closely but as far as I saw, TRS planned out the 5 year period well.

In the 1st 3 years, KCR’s son K.T.Rama Rao was in the forefront of pitching the state to get investments. In this effort, they rolled out the red carpet to industrialists and companies in India and abroad with a promise of industry friendly policies. In the centre’s ranking of states for “Ease of doing business”, Telangana consistently came 2nd with its not friendly neighbour Andhra Pradesh coming 1st. The previous year, Telangana and AP had jointly topped the charts!

In the last 18 months though, Telangana has been focussing on welfare initiatives. Free housing for the poor, Direct cash subsidy for farmers,.., all right at the nick of time in the last year of the rule!  It ended up spending more than on Agriculture, Irrigation,… than the Rest of India.

It looks like KCR’s government divided the 5 year period into 2 halves. In the 1st half they focussed on long term, reformist initiatives, while the 2nd half closer to elections they came out with short term, populist welfare schemes that would give electoral results. A closer analysis of how this pans out probably may provide a working model for all those seeking to beat Anti-Incumbency. That of balancing long term with short term by focussing on reforms and structural changes in the 1st 2/3 years of the rule and resort to populist, welfare programmes in the last 2 years closer to elections.

With the many confusing signals emanating from these results, it becomes all the more difficult for an election strategist particularly of the BJP to come up with a winning formula for 2019! But here, one must not forget, that India has begun to vote differently between state elections and National elections. Therefore one should linearly extrapolate the trends from these Semi-finals to the finals at their own peril. However, it is safe to conclude that with these crucial wins in the Hindi heartland, Congress has got its mojo back and BJP is on the back foot. The next few months will be interesting to see how the final narrative for the 2019 elections unfolds.