The politics behind political Strategists!

(This piece was written for the news website thenewsminute.com and was first published on the 14th Feb, 2020 and can be read here:

https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/when-poll-strategists-jump-party-party-why-isn-t-there-non-compete-clause-118196

In the business of building political brands in India, Prashant Kishor or PK to many, has now emerged as the undisputed numero uno. In a short period of under ten years, since he started his career with then Chief Minister Narendra Modi for the Gujarat state election in 2011, he has indeed come a long way.

The ease and manner with which he and his organisation Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC) have managed to segue from one political party to another irrespective of ideology and geography is now a subject of shock and awe.

Shock because, till he was recently expelled from Janata Dal (United), a BJP ally, PK was its serving Vice President and that didn’t stop West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee from hiring him to help her to fight BJP in her state. And awe because, PK’s client list reads like the who’s who of Indian politics from national parties like BJP and Congress to regional parties like Janata Dal (United), Trinamool Congress, Aam Aadmi Party and the like.

And very recently, in the south, after YSR Congress (YSRCP) in Andhra Pradesh, DMK has become the second party to sign up I-PAC and in effect, PK as its political strategist for the Tamil Nadu Assembly Elections in 2021. This news was made public via a tweet by the DMK President Stalin recently. Welcome to the era of commoditization of Indian parties where ideology takes a back seat while marketing, brand positioning, catching eyeballs, mindshare retention and at the end winning, reign supreme.

The non-compete clause

This brings us to the central issue of this piece which is the politics of political strategists. And then there is the question of conflict of interest arising out of aligning with parties with competing ideologies, who are rank competitors. In the business of advertising, brands/companies sign agreements with non-compete clauses with advertising agencies and other strategic consulting companies. Under these agreements, agencies cannot sign up with brands/companies in the competing space not just during the currency of the agreement but also for a mutually agreed cooling-off period. The reasons behind signing such agreements are obvious. No company in this highly competitive era can afford any leak of trade secrets. A brand communication partner would have knowledge of the current and future road map of their clients, their strengths and weaknesses and hence no agreement is complete without non-disclosure clauses and non-compete clauses.

Such clauses have been part of hiring contracts of senior executives as well. Even in the highly competitive world of sports and games, similar clauses exist. I doubt if a coach of one IPL team in a season can sign up as a coach for another team the next season without a cooling-off period. The same holds good in the world of showbiz too.

I have nothing personal against the likes of PK or his organisation but cannot stop wondering why in India’s political space, there is no such non-compete clause while signing on election strategists, looking at the way election strategists have moved on from one party to another. A political party today is akin to a corporate entity and its leader to a brand. So, while companies are so protective about their brand strategies and rightly so, how come, in India we don’t see such sensitivity among political parties and their leaders while collaborating with political strategists?

From in-house campaign manager to professionals

In media interactions, PK has maintained that I-PAC, an organisation which he founded, is on its own now and his role is limited to mentoring and giving wise counsel when needed. This was when someone questioned him on the possible conflict of interest when he became a full-time member of Janata Dal (United) while I-PAC was working with other parties. Now that he has been expelled, it is not known if he is back in I-PAC on a full-fledged role. The I-PAC website carries quite a few references of PK and his work for different political outfits under its own umbrella.

It’s not just PK who is involved with competing parties in the same space. John Arockiasamy, who was associated with PMK in 2016 under the aegis of JPG-PAC, then went on to work with the Congress in Karnataka in 2018.  Reportedly, he has been in discussion with AIADMK in Tamil Nadu to be its political consultant.

Before the advent of PK as a professional election strategist, parties mostly relied on in-house talent for running their campaigns. And they used to work largely with advertising agencies for executing the campaigns in a conventional style just like any other product. For Congress, Jairam Ramesh used to be their election war room manager for years. For BJP, Pramod Mahajan and then Arun Jaitley used to play these roles. So, the possibility of poll strategies getting leaked to rival camp or an espionage operation was limited.

I guess that it is after the advent of digital and social media that we see the outsourcing of campaigns to external agencies by political parties gaining traction. Data analytics is the buzz word today in all fields and so too in election management. This needs specialists and hence parties have no choice but to engage with professional organisations who provide end to end election management solutions from strategy conception to last-mile execution. Execution involves back room warriors who work 24*7 on social media and feet on street who do the booth-level mapping and campaigning.

The potential of social media vehicles like WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook to enable stories to go viral in no time is unparalleled today. This is a boon and at times a bane. Political consulting firms who have worked with rival political parties have access to a lot of insider information on these parties. And hence there is a real risk of such sensitive information getting leaked online and going viral in no time. Also, I wonder how demographic and psychographic data collected as part of one party campaign is firewalled and not used for another party later on. Memories of Cambridge Analytica, the famed British political consultancy firm that got caught adopting unethical practices have not faded away.

Hence, it is all the more intriguing that political parties in India so far have not considered incorporating non-competing clause while signing up consulting firms. In this politics of political strategists, what are we missing?

Post script: In Tamil Nadu, where films follow politics and vice versa, two big films of last year – LKG and NGK featured election strategists in key roles. A clear sign that these external poll strategists are here to stay.

Time to bid good bye to the Budget!

Just yesterday, Finance Minister of India, Nirmala Sitharaman presented the Union Budget for the upcoming fiscal year 2020-21 in what was a very long speech. The length notwithstanding, it however failed to enthuse the sagging mood in the country with respect to the economy. The markets tanked big time by the end of the day. If one goes by the commentaries in the media and expert opinions in social media, it seems that the budget has disappointed one and all.  As one expert on TV put it, the reaction was about what could have been done rather than what has been done.

The reaction to the last budget by the same minister in July 2019 was almost similar. Right after the big victory and into a second consecutive term, everyone expected a bolder budget with a road map for tough reforms from the Modi Sarkar. That didn’t happen.

If you go back further to the last few budgets, the story is similar.  In the pre-budget season the air is thick with expectations of all kind. Expectations of big bang reforms, of new big ideas, of a vision for the country and of course of income tax rate cuts! And post the budget speech, the reactions have been similar. “What is the one big idea in the budget?” “Where are the big bang reforms?” “There is no vision in the budget!” and so on.

The last time the media hailed the budget generously was P. Chidambaram’s way back in 1997. It was termed as the “Dream Budget” when it presented a road map for economic reforms in India and included lowering income tax rates, removal of the surcharge on corporate taxes and reduced corporate tax rates. But ever since the budget presentation became a media spectacle post the explosion of 24*7 News media, I don’t recall any budget (of any government) being hailed as a visionary budget or a great budget. Most of the times, the budgets have only disappointed people.

Today, there is a big disconnect between the expectations from the budget speech and what it can deliver. And increasingly, the scope of what the budget speech can deliver is reducing day by day thanks to reforms and change in governance models.

I am of the view that it’s high time we do away with this annual over hyped British era relic of a budget speech which focuses on outlays for the following reasons:

  • Leaving aside the Aam admi who doesn’t follow or understand the language of the budget, increasingly everyone expects the budget speech to actually lay out the “Governance vision and strategy” rather than increase or decrease of allocations. Essentially people are expecting the government to talk the corporate language. Of Vision, Mission and Strategy for the coming year/years.
  • For the budget speech, the FM takes inputs from other ministries on their key initiatives for the coming year and then announces outlays for the same. In a sense the FM is talking on behalf of her/his colleagues. There is little review of outcomes of the past outlays and the focus is more on the future outlays.
  • In the past, one of the areas of interest for the common man from the budget is to know what gets costlier and what gets cheaper. The finance ministry adjusted the tax and excise rates to balance revenue collections for the budget. In the present GST regime, the GST rates are decided by the GST council. The GST council meets as per their charter and decides the change in rates when required. Ergo, the budget speech doesn’t have details of prices going up and down. The exception being any reduction or increase in basic customs duty for imported goods. As we have seen in the recent past, the finance ministry has taken to these announcements whenever they want.
  • Coming back to yesterday’s budget speech, the common feeling was that there was no big announcement that would assuage the struggling economy. If one remembers, the same Finance Minister Sitharaman, had announced an unexpected corporate tax rate cut in September 2019. One must remember that this was not done in the budget speech of July 2019.  This was announced out of the blue, in an out of turn announcement as a counter measure to prop up the economy, then. So my point is, measures that are required to be taken can be and should be taken and announced when needed. One doesn’t have to wait for the budget speech to actually make such announcements.
  • Again if one closely analysed the budget speech, many of the initiatives announced by the Finance Minister can reach its logical conclusion only with last mile delivery by the states. In the sense, these are more like nudges to the state to perform better to get more outlays.
  • Till 2016, there was another media spectacle called the Railway budget. The Modi government took a wise call to do away with this ritual and merged with the Union budget. Except for the reason that it was a British era custom that was followed, it seemed there was no reason for just one of the many departments of the Government of India to have a separate budget presentation day! We don’t have any empirical evidence of any deterioration in the ministry’s performance since then.
  • As I see, there are just a handful of countries in the world who still follow this Annual budget presentation ritual!

Considering all of the above, my submission is, it’s time to bid Good Bye to this all-encompassing Annual Budget Speech by the Finance Minister. Instead, this should be replaced by an address by the Prime Minister in the lines of the State of the Union Address (SOTU) in the US. In this address, the PM should take stock of the situation in the country, the issues on hand and present a vision, road map and the priorities for the coming year. This should be followed by debates in the parliament to understand the views of the other parties and opposition. In the same session, key ministries must present the outcomes of the previous year against the outlays and the plan, initiatives for the coming year in line with the vision, priorities outlined in the PM’s speech. By this, along with the Prime Minister the entire cabinet will be made responsible for their achievements and misses in their ministries, every year.

Narendra Modi, who has a penchant for leaving a legacy has a golden opportunity here. By replacing the budget speech ritual with PM’s Annual Vision Address!

Pic Courtesy: Bloomberg