Not PK, Congress needs an AK!

Notwithstanding the poor performance in the recently concluded state elections, Congress managed to hog the headlines in India for the past 2 weeks. And the reason for that was the imminent roping in by Congress of Prashant Kishor (PK), who has now clearly made a mark as a master election strategist in India.  After his very successful stint with TMC for the Bengal state elections where he had openly challenged the BJP on its final tally and won that round, PK had announced that he is moving on from being an election strategist for a party. Instead he said he will be associated in politics in a different avatar.

From then on, we have been hearing about his rounds of discussions with the Congress leadership to work with them for future which ultimately culminated last week with an announcement of a breakdown of discussions between Congress and PK. Except for BJP which was PK’s 1st assignment in working with a party in a poll campaign, the other projects that were successful were when PK and his organisation were signed up by a regional party. These regional parties had supreme leaders and PK had access straight to the top. PK’s package was absorbed and implemented by and large without dissent and he could show results. Even during the 1st assignment, PK was working for and with Modi and not for BJP per se.

Secondly, PK’s wins have been where he has been riding winning horses. I still would say his value addition must have helped in bringing a method to the madness of campaign management, data analytics in candidate selection and culling, innovation in campaign tools and last not but the least, handling a monster called the Social Media with deft. Yet, when it was not a winning horse on the race as we saw recently in Goa (TMC) or in UP in 2017 (Congress), PK’s magic didn’t work.

For PK therefore, working with the Congress comes with a substantial risk.  Congress is an elephant of an organisation and in its weakest form presently.  Yet his keenness to work with Congress and help them win by even joining the Congress comes as a huge surprise and circumspection. Now, with the announcement of PK not accepting the invitation of the Congress to join its Empowered Action Group, it seems it is back to square one for the Congress.  So, how does Congress pick up the threads from here and try to win?

There have been suggestions, ideas and models galore from political commentators in the past few weeks for the Congress that include fixing the leadership issue, building the organisation at the grass roots and of course coming up with a credible narrative against the ruling BJP.  In fact some of these have been detailed in the leaked power point deck of PK which he made to the Congress last year. So, I will skip repeating the same points here.

In my opinion, what Congress needs is not a PK but an AK i.e. an Arvind Kejriwal. And I will tell you why.  Among many, I would like to pick up 2 aspects:

  1. To become leader of the ruling party, you should first become and excel as a leader of the Opposition. Today, though Congress is the single largest opposition party, it has singularly failed in being an effective opposition party. How did AK become what he is today – A sitting two time CM and the leader of the party which is emerging as a credible challenger for the BJP? The answer is simple. It all started with AK launching the Anti-Corruption movement in India which shook the nation thereby taking on the ruling party – Congress in 2011. If you recall, the key aspects of that movement were
  • Picking up a subject (Corruption) that touched all citizens irrespective of caste, creed, religion, class, geography and demographics.
  • Having a credible face for the campaign (Anna Hazare).
  • Garnering support from mainstream media that produced a multiplier effect and clever use of social media.

The campaign propelled AK as an effective activist which he used well to launch a party and win Delhi.

In the past 8 years, can you recall an Opposition campaign spearheaded by the Congress or any of its top leaders on a country wide basis?  Whether at the Centre or at the states where Congress is the principal opposition party, the only place it chooses to take on the ruling party is Twitter. Tweets do not win elections by themselves.  If Rahul Gandhi wants to challenge Narendra Modi for the post of Prime Minister, first he should prove himself as an effective and credible opposition leader.

  1. Once AK became the CM of Delhi, he has made a mark by having his own “Arvind Kejriwal model of governance” with its impetus attached to Education, Health care and cheaper utility bills for the Aam Admi. This model has got a thumbs up from the people as seen by his re-election in Delhi with a massive one sided mandate in 2020. Now this model has also got acceptance in another state namely Punjab where AAP recently swept the Congress out of the state.

Herein lies the next ironical tale of the Congress. In some many years of governing so many states, Congress still doesn’t have a model state to boast of as the “Congress model of governance”! What is stopping Congress from adopting all its professed good ideas in states where it rules and turn into a model? Unfortunately, Congress has been struggling to hold to states where they get an opportunity to rule (Punjab, Karnataka, Andhra, Kerala for example)

A consultant like PK can come and only show the mirror to the Congress. But the weight lifting at the political arena has to be done by the Congress leadership, for which you need be an AK. At the Centre, be a credible opposition leader. And in the states ruled by Congress, show case a model of governance, for starters.

Image courtesy: Outlook India

Wanted: Swachh Bharat Abhiyan 2.0!

After about 24 long months, we are finally seeing a relief from Covid! I am hesitating to say that we are seeing the end of Covid yet, looking at the past propensity of the virus to take different shapes and names to haunt us.  In India now, we see normal life returning. Children have gone back to schools putting an end to the tyranny called “Online classes” at least for now. Employees have started working, meaning working from offices except of course those who continue to follow a hybrid model. Shoppers have started thronging the markets and malls. Cinema halls have started seeing crowds. Events of all hue are back. Travel for pleasure and work has re-started. Traffic is back on the roads with a vengeance.  And garbage, filth and littering on the roads are also back!

Flash back to the day when Narendra Modi announced the kicking off of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, a Clean India mission during his Independence Day speech in 2014, few months after taking over as the Prime Minister.  He said, “A Clean India would be the best tribute India could pay to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150 birth anniversary in 2019!” On the 2nd Oct, 2014 on Gandhiji’s birth anniversary, Swachh Bharat Mission was launched. I vividly remember the excitement it created immediately. There was a buzz around Swachhata in the following days in the whole country.

Everywhere I went, I could see and hear people talking about a Clean India. Politicians led “photo op” sessions to clean their neighbourhoods.  Celebrities followed suit. Social workers led actual sessions to clean their neighbourhoods.  Children followed suit.  Dustbins started making their presence felt all of a sudden in public places. Administration started spending money on keeping towns clean. Tourist places started to become cleaner. Railway stations, Bus depots sported a cleaner look.  Making cities, towns and villages “Open Defecation Free” became part of this program. Construction of toilets got a fresh impetus.  Even Bollywood appropriated the fever when a film titled Toilet Ek Prem Katha was made with Askhay Kumar in the lead with toilets for women as the theme. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan had arrived.

India had not become a Singapore but there was a movement in the right direction. But down the line somewhere, the goal post got shifted. Somehow the government made “Open Defecation Free” (ODF) by 2nd October, 2019 as the only goal of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Parameswaran Iyer, who had resigned from the IAS earlier was re-drafted as Secretary of the Ministry of Sanitation and Drinking Water and was tasked with achieving the ODF goal. He made the unthinkable happen.

As of November 28 that year, some 10.14 crore individual household toilets were constructed under the programme. And as per the concerned minister’s statement in Rajya Sabha, the sanitation coverage in the country, which was 38.7 per cent as on October 2, 2014 had increased to 100 per cent and all the 5,99,963 villages of the country had declared themselves ODF.  Therefore, while this goal of achieving universal sanitation through toilet construction was achieved, which in itself is not a mean achievement at all, the original objective of a “Clean India” got buried somewhere in the garbage dump perhaps. I am not yet clear as to when the goal post got shifted.

With the return of the Modi Sarkar in 2019 in the back of a historic win in the elections where toilet construction also played a part, the original Swachh Bharat Abhiyan seemed to have vanished from the collective memory of the nation. Then of course by March 2020, Covid struck and everything else lost focus and priority.

It is therefore I feel, now that we have a reprieve from Covid and things are getting back to normal in India, it is time to put Swachhata on the National agenda again. I read that in October 2021, Modi launched the second phase of the Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban (SBM-U) and the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) stressing that these missions were aimed at making India’s cities garbage-free and water-secure. So it looks like the program is in place. However, I don’t recollect (probably it could be due to our pre-occupation with Covid way back in October 2021) the launch of this second phase.

October 2nd, 2019 has come and gone and three more years have gone by. It is time to go back to the original idea of “A Clean India”. In my earlier posts on Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, I had mentioned that if this program fails, it is not because of Modi. It is because we as public failed the program. I see now that people are back to littering on streets. Paan spitting and “painting the city red” never even paused. I pity the municipality workers who are given the job of cleaning road dividers time and again of the paan stains only to be painted red just in a few days. Men peeing on highways has become a common sight again. Those toilets which were put across highways have somehow vanished! Garbage is overflowing from the bins on to the streets. Public places like municipality parking lots in Mumbai and Pune (which I have seen first-hand) are reeking of squalor like in the past.

There is hope still. When one sees for example, the Ghats in Varanasi or the Railway stations these days, they are squeaking clean. Just that the awareness about Clean India has to be brought back as a National obsession.  India needs Swachh Bharat Abhiyan 2.0.

As I wrote before, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is not about cleaning but eliminating or reducing the need for cleaning in the first place. The onus of that of course lies with us, the public of India not the municipalities, not the State Government, not the Central Government and certainly not Narendra Modi.

Pic Courtesy: Swachh Bharat Mission website

Takeaways on the takeaways from the 2022 election results!

The long election season in India came to an end last week and the results are in line with my forecast in all states except Goa where I thought that BJP will be shunted out this time.

We have been fed with a surfeit of analyses and takeaways by commentators of all hue by way of articles, videos and podcasts. I don’t want to further add to that cacophony by posting my takeaways on the election results.  However, I am unable to resist listing my key takeaways on the takeaways of the experts themselves. And here we go:

  1. “Switch” Bharat Abhiyan doesn’t stick: Just before the elections were announced in the UP, we saw a big number of defections mostly from the BJP to SP. These were interpreted by pundits as a pointer to the way the political wind was blowing.  In the end however, out of the 21 turncoats who shifted from BJP to SP just before the polls, only 4 won.  The big name among this was Swami Prasad Maurya who hogged headlines for at least a week. He lost his own seat. So, the message is, when leaders leave a party just before polls claiming to have not been given justice blah, blah, the reality could be different.  They might have sensed that the party may drop them from the contestants list due to their poor performance.  We saw this in Bengal also when few leaders jumped from TMC to BJP and they all mostly lost. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan may still be a work In progress but, this “Switch” Bharat Abhiyan is mostly still born!
  1. Differentiate between “Voting” public and “Vocal” public: Reporters doing ground reports often get carried away by the “Vocal” electorate and come to a conclusion for the entire “Voting” electorate. Here, I would like to give an analogy from marketing. When a product or service doesn’t meet the consumer’s expectations, it is very common for him/her to put it out on social media or talk to others about it. But, when the product or service is good and meet the expectations, consumers seldom talk to others or post a review. Negative WOM (Word of Mouth) always trumps positive WOM. It is the same case with voters, I feel. There could be those voters who are not happy with a party and hence tend to be vocal in front of the camera. But, there could be a larger section of voters who could be happy with a government and don’t bother to say anything to reporters. Coming to a conclusion in favour of the vocal public like many commentators did in the recent UP elections is fraught with a high probability of going wrong.
  1. Covid is not Government’s creation: In the run up to the polls and even later, we kept hearing experts talking about how UP government mismanaged Covid and how people will vote out the incumbent BJP government because of that. My point is, if Covid was mismanaged, it was mismanaged by all countries, all states and all administrations all over the world. I don’t think there is any administration that came out covering itself in glory in managing Covid. Even in India, if UP mismanaged Covid, so did Delhi, Kerala, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and so on. But commentators were rifle focussed in talking about Covid mismanagement only in UP while not referring to the same in other states. And the larger point is, the common public did not think that Covid was a creation of the Modi Government at the centre or for that matter any state government. Even in West Bengal elections or in Bihar elections, at the peak of the first wave, people did not punish the incumbent governments over Covid. I think there is a clear resignation among public that Covid was a pandemic not created by the governments and that the governments were trying to do their best with their backs against the wall.
  1. Pro-Incumbency doesn’t mean Anti-Incumbency is over: Since BJP won 4 out of 5 states in this round and sort of retained power in all these states, there is an opinion that the time of Anti-Incumbency is over and it’s the time of Pro-Incumbency. Well, this is only partially true in my opinion. Anti-Incumbency is over only if the incumbent is not Congress. The Congress still manages successfully to succumb to Anti-Incumbency in the states they rule. I am not saying this just because Congress lost Punjab this time where it was incumbent. In the recent past, Congress managed to lose power in states like Pondicherry (2021), Karnataka (2018), Tripura (2018), Himachal Pradesh (2017) and so on.  Yes, other parties have learnt to overcome Anti-Incumbency by mastering the art of governance and delivery like TMC in Bengal (2021), LDF in Kerala (2021), AAP in Delhi (2020), BJD in Odissa (2019), BJP in Gujarat (2018) and now in four states to sight a few examples.  But not the Congress. There is not a single state where Congress has managed to retain the state by demonstrating good governance and thereby projecting a case for Pro-Incumbency. The antithesis from here is that unlike in the past when Anti-incumbency was peddled as an acceptable excuse for losing power by an incumbent government, presently, Anti-Incumbency cannot be an acceptable ruse for a defeat.
  1. Marketing works only if the product is half good: In the beginning of the UP campaign, commentators were talking of how Priyanka Gandhi was running an exceptional campaign in UP with women at the core of the pitch. ‘Ladki hoon, lad sakti hoon’ (LHLSH) was hailed as a brilliant campaign. We now know the outcome of that campaign. Even during the campaign, key women faces of the program jumped ship. Any great campaign cannot save a poor or an average product.  So, I was surprised that commentators were getting carried away by the LHLSH slogan and were expecting Congress to make an impact. To me, it was of no surprise that the campaign lost steam midway.  Same can be said of TMC in Goa where the marketing muscle and resources couldn’t muster a single seat.
  1. In Election Arithmetic, 1+1+1 is not 3: Too many commentators have this habit of summing up individual party’s vote shares in the previous elections to forecast the vote share of an alliance in future elections. As we have seen repeatedly, 1+1+1 need not be 3. It can be 4, if the alliance is on the right side of winning and can be 0.5 if it’s the wrong side of winning. For example, just because RLD tied up with SP this time, the entire JAT vote didn’t shift to SP combine as we were told by experts.
  1. Day-today issues Vs Electoral issues: Increasingly I am seeing that reporters and experts talk to people on the streets on their issues and tend to conclude that they are key “electoral” issues based on which voters would eventually vote for a party. For example, in UP, commentators were talking of “stray cattle” as a big poll issue going against the BJP government. It is obvious to anyone as daylight that BJP as a party will never get punished for an issue like “stray cattle” that too when Yogi Adityanath who has been a votary of Cow protection is the Chief Minister. Also, can anyone tell me when Mehengayee (Price increase) and Berozgaari (Unemployment) have not been issues in India? These have been perennial issues in India and at least in the last 30 years, voters have not started voting for or against a party on these issues.  These issues are taken as given and voters weigh in their mind as to which party can provide them with more opportunities to get over these issues rather than tackle these issues per se.  

In India, elections come sooner than IPL. Just as we finish this round, we will have the next round of state elections towards the end of the year. And if you just kept hearing that UP is the most crucial test for BJP in the last few months, you will soon start hearing that Gujarat is the ultimate test for BJP and Modi in the run up to 2024. And the question, “Is 2024 a done deal for the BJP?” will keep coming up till the exit polls of 2024!!

Cartoon credit: Manjul

Annual Budgets and Annual Reactions!

In the days following the Annual budget last week, I saw a clip going viral on WhatsApp which had Uddhav Thackeray, the Shiv Sena Chief and Chief Minister of Maharashtra speaking in a CNBC function to felicitate Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. This clip (watch here) must be couple of years old. In the clip, Thackeray in a very self-deprecating manner, talks about his tryst with giving budget reactions. He says that for few years he tried to understand what’s in a budget but by the time he could do so, it was time for the next budget! But, since as the party chief he had to give some reaction to the budget, he developed a template response which was “This is a budget which will make poor poorer and rich richer” and more often this response for every budget landed well with his constituency. You would notice that even today, this response has a lot of owners among politicians! In today’s article in the Times of India, columnist and now a MP Swapan Das Gupta has mentioned that Vajpayee while in opposition had a stock reaction to any budget which was “Garib ke pet lat” (Kick in the stomach for the poor)!

If there are Annual budgets, there are equal and opposite Annual reactions! It’s therefore clear that one cannot go by the reactions of politicians on the budget to conclude how the budget has been. If leaders of parties and politicians cannot figure out what’s there in the budget how can we expect the common man to understand how it is going to impact him? While we all know that provisions in the budget have a huge impact on the livelihood of millions of people in the country who remain below the poverty line, during the budget week what we hear is only responses of people to whom budgets don’t matter. Those who are impacted by the budget are not in a position to comment because it is beyond their comprehension.

Here’s where I feel that the Budget presentation and the speech needs to be simplified if we want the common man to fully appreciate the implications of announcements being made by the FM on behalf of the government of the day. And here is my wish list on some of the changes I would like to see in my lifetime (I might have articulated some of this before also):

  • Articulation of what matters: In the run up to this year’s budget, the buzz was on jobs. We all know that in the last two years of the pandemic jobs got hit badly. In a double whammy, the pandemic led to a cut in existing jobs and slow addition of new jobs. Human/Contact facing service industry faced the worst hit. So, the expectation was that there will be clear actions to revive the job market. However in the budget speech, there was no explicit mention of job creation. In the post budget interactions, the FM and her team took pains to explain that the government has taken the route of propping up growth by spending which will lead to job creation. For example, they said that the huge 35% increase in outlay towards infrastructure and capital expenditure is a step towards reviving consumption in sectors like steel, cement etc. and jobs. This is logical.  Yet commentators continue to mention about the lack of focus on jobs in the budget.  And Aam Admi obviously feels the same.
    • Now considering that there was an overall anxiety and expectations about jobs among common people particularly those below the poverty line, what if the speech mentioned the estimated number of jobs that would be created due to the outlay? For example, “National Highways network to be expanded by 25000 km in 22-23 resulting in an estimated number of “X” jobs during the year”! 100 PM Gati Shakti Cargo terminals for multimodal logistics facilities which is expected to create “Y” number of jobs!
    • The same outlay but with a clear articulation of what matters like “jobs” this year, I think would generate a lot of confidence and comfort to the people for whom these announcements matter.
  • Putting out Outcomes of last year outlay before announcement of new outlays: During the entire budget speech the FM keeps announcing crores and lakhs of Rupees as outlays for different initiatives much to the loud cheers of the party MPs. But as public, we don’t get to know what was achieved with previous year outlays for the same initiatives to appreciate the new outlay.
    • For example, the health sector has been allocated a 16% higher outlay of Rs. 86200 Crore in this budget compared to last year outlay of Rs. 72931 crores. Now we don’t get to understand details of how the outlay of RS 72931 crores was spent and what was achieved. Another example – During the UPA regime, after the horrific Nirbhaya incident, an announcement was made of a “Nirbhaya fund”. I have no idea if that fund still exists and how the same is being put to use.
    • If we understand that, then we will be in a better position to appreciate the increased outlay for the next year.
  • Articulation of what went wrong: In the budget speech we never get to hear of anything that went wrong on the outlays or the outcomes in the previous year.
    • For example, the targets for disinvestment have been missed for few years now. But we don’t get to understand what went wrong and why those numbers were missed. It could be the procedural delays or timing issues (Bull Vs Bear market) or it could be pandemic related delays. This could be a very utopian thought but if the government of the day articulates the reasons for the miss, it will go in a long way building credibility in the budget process.
  • Articulation of how taxes work: Present a summary of how the taxes that have been collected have been put to use in the current year.
    • Many years ago, on a trip to Colombo, I saw at the heart of the city, some major repair work was going on with the roads and traffic was diverted. There I saw a board which said “Take Diversion. Your Tax money at work”! This was in the early 90’s. The fact that I still remember it and recall it here says about the impact of such earnest disclosures from the government side. What if at the beginning of the speech the FM says, “With the taxes collected last year, we could lay X kms. of roads, build Y number of new hospitals, open Z number of Colleges and schools and so on just focussing on the physical assets created with the taxes this year? Don’t you think that this kind of commentary will once for all remove the clamour for income tax reduction or slab changes or rants for paying taxes year after year?
    • I firmly believe that the common people who earn and can afford to pay the taxes must be co-opted in the nation building process. Such small gestures of earnest disclosures, I believe will go a long way in this.
  • Keep the jargons for The Economic Survey: The speech and announcements are supposed to pick up threads from the Annual Economic Survey. My suggestion is that Economic Survey being a reference document prepared by economists can and should use jargons like “Crowding in”, “Virtuous cycle”, “Animal Spirits of the economy” and “JAM Trinity” etc. while the budget speech should be left simple free of lofty jargons and acronyms.

This is the ace cartoonist R.K.Laxman’s cartoon way back in 1989 post the budget!

This could very well play out the same way even today. The only way to change the same is to simplify the budget speech and ensure that the common people are co-opted into the budget comprehension process.

Decoupled and Modi Sarkar!

For the uninitiated, Decoupled is an Indian web series that premiered on Netflix last month. It is written and created by Manu Joseph, one of India’s most interesting columnists/authors. The show is mostly in English and features Madhavan and Surveen Chawla in the lead.  It’s a light hearted take on the life of a rich, urban couple and the struggles with the institution called marriage.  But beyond this very common story line, what takes the cake is the way Manu weaves in day today happenings around us, using every opportunity to call out hypocrisies of the privileged and the opinionated.  If you haven’t watched it yet, I would recommend it.

Now the overall response to the series has been interesting to see.   Almost all the critics or of what I saw, sort of panned the show in unison.  When I saw Decoupled, I quite liked it.  The series quickly hit the top spot on India trends on Netflix.  With whomsoever I checked in my circle, they all loved it.  In social media, the series is now being celebrated for its refreshing take on life. Some of the clips and lines from the series in fact have been going viral on WhatsApp, a sure indicator of a show’s success if I may say. In short, common viewers like you and I just loved it while the critics hated it.

In my opinion, the critics hated Decoupled most likely because it was from Manu Joseph. For long now, Manu has been holding contrarian views on issues that challenge the common opinions of expert commentators. And that he could present his arguments in a very articulate and convincing manner that are not so easy to counter, makes him more reviled among his peers.  Week after week, Manu in his weekly columns of late, sets the cat among the pigeons with his compulsive, against the flow takes that rattle status quoists on the one hand and instigate what Manu himself calls as asparagus eating liberals, on the other hand.  For example, when the entire commentariat was taking on the Modi government for its push on Aadhaar quoting privacy concerns, Manu’s take was and I quote, “Absolute privacy is a right that people have given up when they chose not to live in forests”! So, he has this knack of hitting well pitched yorkers out of the park.

I therefore feel that the image Manu acquired of being this rattler through his columns or non-fictional writing, came to the fore when critics watched Decoupled which is his work of fiction. One of the reviews alluded Decoupled to be “a vessel to communicate creator Manu Joseph’s most divisive thoughts to an audience that normally wouldn’t care about them”.  For critics, this was an opportunity to give it back to Manu for what he does week after week through his columns.

Now, this dichotomy is something we are getting familiar with. And a very common parallel to this which comes to my mind is the reaction Narendra Modi gets in India.  And this where the twain of Decoupled and Modi Sarkar meet and I will explain how. Majority of Aam admi in India like Modi. But the critics and the liberal intelligentsia hate him from his Gujarat days and for growing to this stature in spite of their writings against him. So whatever Modi does, the liberal commentariat tends to find ways and means to critique them, while the common man keeps lapping them up.

I can quote so many examples in the past 7 years since Modi became the Prime Minister, when the so called experts chose to critique his ideas or find fault but, which resonated well with the people by and large.  I found it amusing when this government launched the Toilet construction programme in villages, some critics were asking about water availability! Similarly, when free LPG connections were provided, the question was who will pay for the refills!

In fact in some of the cases, I thought that the ideas were criticized just because they were from the Modi Sarkar and probably they would have been appreciated by the critics if they were from say a Congress government.  The whole revamping of the old Parliament building for any logical person, is an idea whose time had come many years ago. Instead of not appreciating this government for taking the lead in creating the New Central Vista, the intelligentsia is only finding holes in the proposal by clutching on to straws of history.  I am yet to come across one common man who had any problems with it, though.  The same is likely hold true for the latest idea of shifting or merging the Amar Jawan Jyoti as well.  The problem is not the idea itself but that it is has been initiated by Narendra Modi during his regime. Just like the problem being not with the web series Decoupled itself but with its writer and creator – Manu Joseph.

We are living at a time when though the message may be right, it will be called out as wrong if the messenger is not liked by some masters. It’s high time that the commentariat realises that its credibility is at its nadir and if this practice of shooting the message depending upon who the messenger is not stopped, it will deteriorate further.

The best part is, in fine arts writers and artists gain recognition from readers and viewers, and not just from critics.  And so is in a democracy. All eligible citizens vote and not just the commentariat.  Thank God for small mercies.

The new LCS Trinity in the Carnatic World!

In the Carnatic music world, the Trinity refers of course to the three legendary composers – Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Sastri. So, what is this new LCS Trinity I am talking about? Read on.

With the Covid pandemic stretching itself for close to two years now, there is hardly a domain in the world that it would not have disrupted. The world of Carnatic music is not an exception. Concerts typically involve gathering of people and travel – both of which were subjected to restrictions due to Covid.  The result – For the rasikas, no opportunity to sink their heart, mind and soul in some peaceful music in person and for the musicians no opportunity to perform live in front of an audience and revel in their applause.  Suddenly, the musicians found that they had a lot of time in their hands when lockdown happened.

This is not the case however for most of the Carnatic musicians usually. In normal times, their schedules are packed with live concerts throughout the year within and outside India.  The rise of the Indian diaspora, with a substantial chunk of them with origins from the south of the Vindhyas, has set the demand for Carnatic musicians outside of India soaring beyond imagination since the beginning of this millennium.

I would imagine that for most of the Carnatic artists, a typical year would look like this at normal times. Starting from November till Mid-January is when they would be stay put in Chennai, the global epicentre of Carnatic music, to be part of the “December Music Season”.  After this season is over, from Mid-January to end March is the window available for the musicians to perform in other cities in India. In between, you also have the Annual Thyagaraja Aradhana festival at Thiruvaiyaru which is also now being held simultaneously in other cities where usually the musicians participate. This period is also the season for Temple Ulsavams in Kerala. And Carnatic musicians of all hue make their presence felt in kutcheries as part of the ten day Ulsavam festivities.

Come April, it is the onset of summer in most parts of India and musicians travel to other parts of the world to perform during this window. Again in April during the Easter break, The Cleveland Thyagaraja Festival, which is touted to be the largest Indian classical music festival outside of India is scheduled, where many leading Carnatic exponents participate year after year.  By September/October with the onset of the festival season in India starting with Ganesh Chaturti and followed by Navarathri, you will find most of the musicians back to their bases to participate in concerts organised around these festivals in different cities. And in November, it is time to prepare for the “Season” ahead.

So, with this type of a crowded calendar, a typical Carnatic musician is so busy that he/she doesn’t have the time to think of anything else apart being in Pack-Travel-Perform-Repeat mode. But this was all before the global disruptor called Covid came and upset the rhythm of this well set routine.

During the pandemic induced lockdown since March last year, with more time and bandwidth at their disposal, Carnatic musicians have tried to re-invent and re-engineer themselves in more ways than one. Just like how the JAM (Jandhan-Aadhaar-Mobile) trinity helped the government to reach social benefits directly to those in need more efficiently, I would say that the LCS (Lockdown-Connectivity- Social Media) trinity has come in handy for the artists to stay connected with their audience. Many of the leading musicians lapped up this opportunity with both their hands and became social media savvy in this period.  Though most of them existed in social media before also, they now have started using it to converse with the rasikas and not just use it to put out schedules and other announcements like they did before.

T.M.Krishna, usually active on social media continued to engage with his rasikas during the pandemic period with his singing bits and in fact did a few fund raiser gigs streaming from home to support fellow artists who were deprived of income during the pandemic. The singer duo of Ranjani-Gayatri put out quite a bit of content on social media for listeners to watch and enjoy.  Trichur Brothers – Srikrishna Mohan and Ramkumar Mohan have been very regular in uploading their singing videos on social media.  Vocalist Sikkil Gurucharan, through a series of webinars answered questions of rasikas on various aspects of Carnatic music in general and his music in particular while explaining the technicalities of the form.  Rajesh Vaidya became an instant hit with his short and sweet “Do you have a minute?” series where he plays bits of hit film songs and puts them out almost every day. Veena exponent Dr. Jayanthi Kumaresh is another musician who has been extremely active on social media since the pandemic in engaging with her rasikas.

We could also get a glimpse of the other sides of the artists as well. Famed singer Sudha Raghunathan let us enter into her kitchen with her short videos of singing while cooking.  She also displayed her anchoring skills by doing online interviews with a wide range of interesting personalities.  Singer Unnikrishnan, apart from showcasing the talent of his daughter Uthara through joint singing sessions, also showed that he is a fitness freak by regularly posting his work out videos.

Among the Carnatic musicians, if I have to pick up one musician who stood out in engaging with the rasikas during the last few months, it would be Carnatic vocalist Sanjay Subramanyam.  Using a combination of his own pleasing personality, savvy marketing and smart use of social media, Sanjay constantly upped the ante in terms of rasika engagement. While in the initial few months of the lockdown, he was putting out some of his old recorded videos, he then started investing a lot of time and effort on this with a help of a social media team and started putting out fresh and interesting content which stand out on a regular basis.

In a series of short 2 odd minute videos titled “On That Note”, Sanjay narrates interesting side stories and episodes from his life including some of his interactions with legends like M.S.Subbalakshmi, M.L. Vasanthakumari etc.  Similarly, “Short Notes” – another series of short videos where he takes up a raga and sings few phrases, is now a huge hit among his followers. He typically ends these notes with phrases from Maestro Ilaiyaraaja’s hit songs in the same raga. In some of his videos and interviews he has mentioned that he is an unapologetic fan of Ilaiyaraaja and #RajaisGod is his favourite hashtag which he uses often on Twitter.  It is interesting to see Sanjay bringing out such nuances from film music which otherwise is not possible to appreciate for an ordinary music listener who is not trained in Carnatic music.  I can see that this aspect of highlighting the Carnatic influence on film music has become a huge hit among his followers.

In continuing with his rasika engagement efforts, he has started a paid channel – “Sanjay Sabha” where full-fledged professionally recorded concerts are put out regularly for people to pay and watch.  All this has culminated now with a series of live concerts in Chennai as part of “Sanjay Sabha” for the ongoing music season. From the social media conversations on his handles, it is clear that these efforts have generated a lot of interest and chatter among music followers.

One can also see that his web site is regularly updated to the last detail in terms of events, schedules and other press notes. Sanjay also keeps penning his thoughts on a blog and the last one was about the experience of taking the stage for a live concert after two years! Even for a seasoned musician like Sanjay, there is a re-discovery and rebirth, I reckon.  I do recall that in the dotcom boom period in the late 90’s, Sanjay ran the web site on Carnatic music where he answered questions from rasikas and put out some content. But I guess over a period of time, the site met a gradual death. So now in the back of the LCS trinity he is now back with his site with a slew of offerings and content of interest to the rasikas and I am sure that this inning will be longer and permanent.

The pandemic will hopefully end soon but I hope that the engagement kicked off by the musicians will continue even in the post Covid era with the help of the CS (Connectivity-Social Media) duo.  This will go a long way in mainstreaming Carnatic music and further open it up to a newer audiences.

Postscript: It’s not my take that the LCS Trinity is exclusive to Carnatic world or something like that.  It is relevant to many other fields as well. I have just tried to explain how LCS has helped to transform even a very traditional domain like Carnatic music.

Image Courtesy: Outlook India

HNY to HNQ??

As I sit to pen my first blog for this year in the early days of another New Year, I am reminded of my first post for the last year which was titled “Thank God it’s a New Year”! That time (1st week of 2021) we were just coming off what appeared like a terrible year. The entire world was disrupted by the global pandemic in a scale not seen or heard in many, many decades.  But then by January, we already were recovering and started gradually getting back to pre-Covid way of living. Lockdowns were over, travel started and so on. So, the theme of my piece then was that the worst was behind us and we must thank God that we are in a New Year and raring to go.

In the year 2021, we did finish the first quarter on a high. There was optimism all-around of a sharp turn around. But then, just in a few weeks, the world in general and India in particular was mauled by the 2nd wave.  I shudder to recount the horrifying things which were happening around us in the months of April/May/June/July. Enough to say that the cursed tentacles of the virus were still spreading all over spelling doom on all recovery predictions.  Drawing room conversations were all around the availability of vaccines and the time when vaccines will provide an eventual shield for the virus.

If we recall, by the third Quarter of 2021 however, things on the ground started changing rapidly. The vaccination pace picked up dramatically with better availability of vaccines by August. And we were talking about flattening the curve for the second time. Through the festival season in the months of October/November the mood was upbeat and we could start seeing the recovery even in “Contact sensitive sectors” like travel, tourism and so on.

Things started dramatically changing again with the discovery of the Omicron variant in South Africa in early December. And towards the end of December and as we speak now, we are witnessing another rapid spike in cases and preparing ourselves for the inevitable third wave!  If you have been following the IMF predictions for the global economy and specific countries through the pandemic, you will realise that they have been changing their forecasts every quarter up and down. Now, what am I trying to drive at here?

With such an uncertainty in the world triggered by a virus and its variants today and it could be something else tomorrow what does it leave for long range planning for a country /company /household etc.?  It is tough. To elucidate this point let me talk about the way Indian government handled the economic support during the pandemic versus some of the larger well to do countries. When the pandemic struck in March 2020, big economies like the US, Canada and European countries who could afford, opted for cash transfer to its people to pump prime the demand and therefore the economy. Some of the Non-resident Economists of Indian origin of the likes of Dr. Raghuram Rajan, Dr. Kaushik Basu and Dr. Abhijit Banerjee also advocated this route for India and were extremely critical of the Narendra Modi government for not going the whole hog and opting for a more calibrated “Drip support” approach.

In this approach, instead of direct cash transfer, the government opted for free supply of rations to the needy and generous support of working capital to ensure that the businesses stay afloat. There were also moratoriums on loan repayments for most part of the year 2020. The logic of the economic think tank that included the likes of Dr. Bibek Debroy (Chairman – PM’s Economic Council) , Sanjeev Sanyal (Principal Economic advisor in the Finance Ministry) and Dr Krishnamurthy Subramanian (Chief Economic Advisor) was to take one step at a time when how the virus situation will pan out was uncertain, uncertainty being the key word. The time period for which any support was to be provided was not clear. Also another important thing, during the pandemic induced lockdowns, the issue was in the supply side largely. People stopped going to salons during the pandemic not because they didn’t have money. The same logic can be extrapolated to other service sectors as well. So, the idea was to keep the powder dry for eventualities in the future. As per IMF’s Dr. Gita Gopinath, large economies including the US have no more leg room left to keep supporting the economy and hence are facing an imminent challenge if the virus continues to hold sway. I must say therefore that the Indian think tank certainly stand vindicated on this account when we had to contend with the second wave and now the third wave.

My point therefore is, are long term planning or Annual plans relevant anymore? Things on the ground change so dramatically and drastically these days that any assumption for the better or worse of the future happenings is proved wrong very quickly. Since in India we understand similes from Bollywood easily, let me give an example. RRR is the next film after Bahubali from the ace director Rajamouli. This is also a magnum opus that has been made in multiple languages. Obviously due to the huge budget involved, it had to opt for a theatrical release and was planned for a release in January. The entire team was seen doing mega roadshows in different cities as part of the promotion for whole of December. But then, I see today that they have taken a call to postpose the release due to the like increase of restrictions in many cities due to the Covid surge of late! So it is a matter of few weeks for things to change for the fate of a film that was on the works for five years!

Even in the context of business in the pre-Covid times, I have not been a big fan of rigorous annual planning as, over a period of time, I have seen that assumptions and market conditions change drastically leaving the annual plans as an academic exercise. Now in the post Covid New normal, I feel that time has come to focus on QSQT (Quarter Se Quarter Tak).  While an overall Annual plan can be made for directional purposes, the drilling down of everything to quarters and months and weeks is a wasteful exercise in my opinion. In the sense does it make sense to assume that Omicron is not going to impact the economy so much and plan expenses accordingly for the coming fiscal year? Or we in any position to comment the recurrence of any new waves in the future? Instead in the current situation, whether it is the country or corporation or housing society or our own house hold we may be better off to keep the horizon of three months and take it from one quarter to another. On that note, wishing you all a Happy and contented New Year or should I say Happy New Quarter (HNQ)?

Image courtesy: Kat Millar.com

When Farm laws became Former laws and the lessons therein!

Guru Nanak Jayanti henceforth, will have an additional reason for celebration for many. Apart from celebrating the revered Sikh Guru on his birthday, the day will be also be remembered and celebrated for bringing Narendra Modi’s strong government down on his knees. This week on the day of Gurpurab, the Prime Minister chose to announce the repealing of the three farm laws which were meant to reform agriculture. This after almost 18 months of relentless protests by farmers mainly in Punjab, Haryana and Western UP. That the government had to finally relent and nullify the laws is unfortunate.  From here on, it is going to be tougher for this government to push through reforms of any nature. The opposition and the other adversaries have smelt blood and have found the soft underbelly of this government and hence a template for pressurising this government.

Farmers celebrate after India’s Prime Minister announced to repeal three agricultural reform laws that sparked almost a year of huge protests by farmers across the country in Singhu on November 19, 2021. (Photo by Xavier Galiana / AFP) (Photo by XAVIER GALIANA/AFP via Getty Images)

This means that moving forward, the Government needs to be inventive and creative in pushing through contentious reforms and bills so that the same fiasco is not repeated. And here are some unsolicited, practical ideas to the government to help push path breaking but contentious reform bills:

  1. Say No to Ordinance: The word “Ordinance” immediately raises the antenna of the opposition and commentators in civil society who deride anything that is an ordinance. Even if it’s a legitimate cause, pushing it through the ordinance route, unnecessarily gives it a colour of conspiracy.  If the Government opted for the Ordinance route to save time, then it is ill intentioned. In India, in matters of reforms, we are used to passing laws after 10 years of debates and discussions. So, trying to cut a few months of time by opting for the ordinance route is not worthwhile. And as we have seen in the Land acquisition bill and now in the farm laws, ordinance route has not helped at all. Considering the fact that the government has a comfortable majority on its own in the lower house and can manage a majority in the upper house, it is wiser to table the laws in both the houses, do some discussion and pass them as laws legitimately.
  2. Roll the red carpet to “Select Committees”: Opposition parties have egos. And egos need to be massaged often. What’s the other better option for this than rolling out the red carpet to “Select Committees”? In your planning cycle for tabling a bill that is reformist in nature and which will attract the ire of the opposition, buffer in certain time for sending the bill to “Select Committees”. It is usually said that “When a government cannot commit, it committees!” I would say that even when a government is clear in its mind and can commit, it should “committee” so that the opposition feels that they have been consulted and the law has been passed after due process. Now the flip side of this is possible dilution of certain provisions which may distort the intent of the law itself as we saw in the case of the “Land Acquisition bill” which the UPA government passed.  Ultimately it has become an ineffective piece of legislation that is the reason for delays in many of the infrastructure projects that are underway. But here again, I would say that with the numbers on its side, the opinions and recommendations of the Select committees can be managed in its favour by the government and in case there are some genuine provisions that need correction, that is welcome.
  3. Head hunt key opposition leaders to be ambassadors: Most of the reforms that are being brought about by the government are long pending once that have been talked about for a long time now. So, in public domain we can always check if any key opposition leader had a favourable view on the subject. It is important to head hunt such leaders and co-opt them as ambassadors for the law by reaching out to them before the law is tabled in parliament. This will not only divide the opposition but will also help in influencing public opinion in favour of the intended reforms. For example, in the case of farm laws, it is known to all that Sharad Pawar when he was the Minister of Agriculture had talked in favour of some of the provisions in these laws. So when Pawar expressed his reservations on the farm bills, the first attempt of the ruling party leaders was to expose his hypocrisy. Instead of that, the government should have reached out to him and sought his support before the bills were tabled. He could also have been used to influence other parties and fence sitters could have been won over. This approach needs a bit of deft floor management and handling of the opposition which I feel is lacking with the Modi government presently.
  4. Cherry pick opinion leaders to influence opinion: During UPA-1, the nuclear bill which Manmohan Singh was personally championing got into rough weather when its own allies from the Left were opposing the bill tooth and nail. The principal opposition party then which was the BJP, also took an opposing view though it was NDA under Vajpayee rule that had sown the seeds for engagement with the US on the nuclear front. In a masterstroke that set the cat among the pigeons in the BJP camp, Sanjaya Baru the media advisor to Manmohan Singh then, reached out to Brajesh Mishra, who was the National Security Advisor to Vajpayee and a vocal supporter of the nuclear bill. Brajesh Mishra came out openly in the press to support the nuclear bill which took the sting out of the BJP attack in the parliament and outside. The present government can take a page out of this play book and cherry pick opinion leaders from civil society to come out in the open to support the proposed reforms. While on this I must add here that many commentators who were in some point of time votaries of the farm bills turned their back and changed their opinion just because the reforms were brought by the Modi government.  This sort of exposed the intellectual dishonesty of such commentators and this is another reason why I advocate that it is important to cherry pick and co-opt some of these commentators who can influence public opinion.
  5. Debate and Debate: I have been reading that the farm laws were passed by the Modi government without any debate or discussions with the stake holders. A lie repeated often becomes the truth. This government might not have debated the bill in the floor of the house during this regime but the subject of agri reforms and the need to reform the APMC act have been discussed and debated enough since 2000. One has to just read this finely detailed paper titled “An intellectual biography of India’s new farm laws” by Gautam Chikarmane to understand the chronology and the journey of these laws. My proposal is, for future even if the need for a reform has been discussed many times, provision a few weeks for repeating the same in the parliament in your regime. Because in India, carrying out the debate in the floor of the parliament is supreme, notwithstanding the quality and the purpose it serves.

The government has its plate full in terms of the reforms agenda in the months to come.  Opposition parties and other interested parties can and will try to follow the SOP of the farm bills in derailing these reforms in the remainder of this term of the government. Therefore it is important that hard lessons are learnt to ensure that this government under Modi is not seen just as a harbinger of “former laws”!

Pic Courtesy: Forbes India

The Anti-Climax of a Rajinikanth Film!

First up, I haven’t seen Annaatthe – Rajinikanth’s latest film to have hit the big screens all over the world during the festive Deepavali week. So, this is not “My Flash Review” of the film. However ever since the film got released on the 4th, I have seen quite a few reviews – both of the professional reviewers and the social media type. And mostly they have not been charitable about the film. In fact, they have all trashed the film. Herein lies a tale of irony.

Among the Tamil speaking audience not just in Tamil Nadu but all over the world, Rajinikanth has been a huge phenomenon for many years now. No other star has been able to get the kind of adulation he gets, till now. In fact, over the years his appeal has spread to other South Indian states and now even to other parts of India.  So, when a Rajini film is about to be released, there is this huge expectation. And this expectation gets hyped up and amplified in the new age digital era with the release of First looks, Teasers, Singles, Trailers and Making videos which flood our screens before the release through well-orchestrated PR campaigns.

One would argue that the trend is the same for all popular stars today who use social media to the hilt to create a buzz before release. But in the case of a Rajini film, other than the hard core fans (which every star can boast of), the excitement extends beyond his loyal fans. It extends to common public, youth, children, elders and even IT Professionals!  The countdown starts as soon as the release date is announced.

First there is frenzy and craze for booking the tickets for the opening weekend and then there is this craze for the FDFS (First Day First Show) tickets. The whole experience of watching a Rajini film wherever in the world FDFS is completely different. Since this has been written often enough, I am not dwelling into the same here. And those who watch the film FDFS also take it upon themselves the onerous responsibility of giving a ball by ball update of the film from inside the theatres through social media with pictures, clips and what not. The result – the verdict on the film is almost out within three hours of the release. The irony of Rajini films in the recent past has been this “Verdict”.

The fact of the matter is since the film Sivaji – The Boss in 2007, we are yet to see a fully enjoyable “Rajini padam”. Enthiran was also good and enjoyable but I would call it as a Shankar film rather than a Rajini film. If you see the films since then which are Lingaa, Kabali, Kaala, 2.0, Petta, Darbar and now Annaatthe we can see  a pattern. A pattern of the films weighed down by some huge expectations and then flattering to deceive. I am not getting into the debate of Box Office collections or profits these films made because they are subject to interpretations and fair data are seldom available in open domain. We can’t get into conclusions with the available “convenient” data.  So, instead of calling them as flops or failures, let me call them as “Underwhelming” films.

In the above seven films, Ranjith’s films – Kabali and Kaala were disappointing not for the same reasons as the other five. Ranjith tried to capitalise on the Rajini persona with a matching character, imagined Rajini and cast based on his actual or close to actual age and did not make him dance and prance with heroines one third his age. The problem in these films as per me was Ranjith not knowing what to do in the screenplay while untying the knots at the end, resulting in both films promising a lot but leaving us disappointed at the end.

The other five films can be grouped together and they suffered from what I call as the “Fan Boy Director” syndrome.  The directors of these films namely K.S.Ravikumar, Karthik Subbaraj, A.R.Murugadoss and now Siva see themselves as fiercest fans of Rajini first and then as his director. And herein lies the problem. When they wear their fan boy hats, they only see the form of Rajini which they enjoyed way back in the 90’s.  The script takes a backseat. Showing Rajini as this larger than life mass hero of the 90’s takes prominence. In my opinion, this concept is done to death in movies like Annamalai, Baasha, Muthu, Padayappa, Yajaman and in even Arunachalam where a template of “Riches to Rags to Riches” (R3) formula was used to good effect.

We are in 2021. In my opinion, only those in the age bracket of 40-60’s now can relate to the 90’s nostalgically like the directors. Children in the teens today were not born then and they can’t understand the brouhaha over a film like Yajaman!  Similarly the youth in the 20’s and probably 30’s were toddlers then and so cannot relate to the Rajini –Meena romance in Muthu or a Rajini-Khushbu kadavule kadavule chemistry in Annamalai.

This is the BTS (Bangstan Boys) or PUBG generation. To them, trying to bring back the nostalgia of the 80’s and 90’s by rehashing some of the earlier themes in my opinion just doesn’t work. Even for those in the 50’s, having seen many of Rajini’s films in the past, we would like to see him in substantive roles rather than doing the same thing again and again. Here, I would also like to add that it is not necessary that in these times of feminism, social media activism and wokeism, yesteryear super-duper hits of Rajini like Padayappa and Annamalai may meet with the same response today.  Some of these films haven’t aged well, frankly.

I would suggest therefore, that Rajini provided his health permitting, follows the playbook of Amitabh Bachchan who still rules Bollywood but, qualitatively and not quantitatively.  Following the footsteps of Amitabh is nothing new for Rajini. In the 70’s and 80’s many of Rajini’s super hits in Tamil were remakes of the “Angry Young Man” films of Amitabh. Just that when Amitabh’s glory as a hero waned off in the 90’s, Rajini had to look elsewhere for his scripts and landed up with the “R3” template.

Today, Amitabh is not necessarily cast as the main protagonist but is always cast in a role in which he can make a difference.  Which means that directors finish the script and approach him for casting if he is suited for it and not the other way about as it is the case for Rajini today. Mostly, directors and producers get the nod from Rajini based on a broad story line and then they try to fit in Rajini, the mass hero into a templated script. This also means casting the most popular lady as the heroine invariably, crowding the film with popular co-actors whether the script demands or not,  filling in with frivolous comedy tracks thereby shooting the budget to astronomical proportions. This in turn raises the expectations of the entire supply chain and as we have seen, the film wilts under the weight of its own expectations.

Even in the last few films, one thing which is still going, is Rajinikanth himself.  No one is still questioning the power of his screen presence or his energy or even his capability. What is under scanner for sure is his judgement of scripts and roles. So, at the December of his career, Rajinikanth can decide to write the climax of his career differently by being more discreet and choosy. After all, we don’t want this climax to become an Anti-Climax!

Tata…, Air India!

The last time I flew Air India was before the pandemic to Shanghai from Delhi and return. The reason to fly Air India was obvious. There were no direct flights from Mumbai to Shanghai (Yes, surprise of surprise, after Jet Airways stopped flying this sector) and to save time on transit, it made better sense to fly to Delhi and take the direct flight to Shanghai. For most of us, the reason to opt for Air India for international flights, particularly when travelling for business/work would be this.  In the absence of a better option and not necessarily being the first choice.

The other set of non-business travelers from India (Students, Senior Citizens, vacationers) opt for Air India for cheaper fares or the extra baggage allowance which comes handy.  In the past one or two decades, rarely I have seen or heard anyone opting to fly Air India for its superior service or for the flying experience.  And herein lies the sad and sordid tale of Air India as a National carrier of India. If this is the situation with Indians, one can imagine where Air India would stack up in the minds of foreigners.

The situation was not so bad all along for Air India. During my MBA days, way back in 1990, we did a survey of air travelers in Mumbai as part of a marketing project. International travel was not common those days as it is now. I vividly remember that Air India fared very well in terms of perception and I guess those were the heady days for the Maharaja. But in the subsequent years as International air travel picked up and when the market was actually exploding in India post liberalisation, Air India was imploding.

The reasons for the rot in Air India have been chronicled well in Jitender Bhargava’s (Former Executive Director of Air India) book – The Descent of Air India. In a deadly cocktail of an indifferent and unaccountable Top management, political interference and string pulling and a demotivated and tired staff, there was only one direction the airline was heading – southwards. Of course, he argues that the descent was accelerated by ill-timed and ill-advised decisions including purchase of new fleet at uncompetitive prices and signing of non-profitable bilateral agreements during the UPA regime.  Irrespective of the political regime, it is a known fact that PSUs like Air India and ITDC were treated like personal fiefdoms by both the executive and the bureaucracy to further their own personal interests.

Now and then, different governments have tried to revive Air India by blowing money on marketing campaigns and taking advantage of exclusive route agreements.  The Air India marketing campaigns have always been top notch. But as I have said before, the best marketing campaigns cannot save a floundering product. Some of the attractive routes, Delhi-San Francisco for example, are profitable and well sought after by Indians but such far and few successes in between cannot sustain a full airline.

The present sad state of affairs at Air India, the losses it has accumulated, the capital it guzzles on a monthly basis, the struggles of the staff in getting salaries on time etc. have been documented well overall and hence not repeating those points here. Enough to say that if there was any company which the Government of India should disinvest and exit in a hurry, it was Air India. So after a few attempts in that direction right from the first time under the Vajpayee’s regime to Modi’s current run, finally the disinvestment of Air India is a reality.

 

Air India is Ghar Wapsi for the Tatas. The story of how Tata Airlines became Air India by a forced nationalisation is also well documented. It will be interesting to observe how the Tatas embrace Air India and more importantly turn it around quickly. For Ratan Tata, there is an emotional connect with Air India. But then, we know how just having emotional connect doesn’t help in business. It calls for a Himalayan effort to start from scratch, change the culture, compete and build a world class airline. Tatas of course is not new to the airline business. They have been running Vistara in a joint venture with Singapore Airlines for some time now. Tatas also have investments going in Air Asia – a regional airline. But then, taking over a fledgling Airline like Air India and turning it around is another cup of Tetley tea!

Airline business is one business which is CAPEX intensive and OPEX intensive at the same time. There are businesses which are highly CAPEX intensive but once done, do not incur high operational costs (Like the mobile telephony business). There are businesses that don’t require high CAPEX investments but need working capital and operational efficiencies to remain afloat and profitable (Like trading businesses). Airline business is one which demands very high CAPEX investments (Planes, slots, infrastructure etc…), high operational costs on a daily basis (fuel, high salaries, marketing etc.) and require operational efficiencies of the highest order in order to be profitable. The moving parts are so many that with one wrong move, the business can get into a crisis mode. Ask Vijay Mallya or Naresh Goyal. This is one of the reasons why we have seen so many airlines folding up in India itself ever since the skies were opened up to private players.

In Airline parlance, there are this headwinds and tailwinds. Tailwinds propel the flights and headwinds have the opposite effect. In he history of Air India as a business though, it has seen only headwinds.

I am certain that Tatas would have obviously done their homework that too extensively, before bidding for Air India. Now that they have won, they have their task cut out. There are many things going for them, on top being the good will of Indians in general towards Tatas. That’s why we didn’t see much of opposition to the announcement of Air India being sold to the Tatas. With “revenge travel” post Covid expected to take off, the timing is just right for Tatas to soar into the Indian skies with Air India N.0! I am personally looking forward to the day when I would opt for Tata-Air India as my first and only choice when I fly abroad. For now, it’s Tata, Air India from GOI and as Amul says, a “Good Buy for Tata”!

Post Script: Interestingly, the Air India Staff Union expressed its happiness over Tatas winning the Air India bid! When was the last time a staff union was happy over privatisation in India? And when was the last time we saw no noise from the Left over privatisation?  Acche Din are here, guys!