Notes from my Lockdown Diary – Part 1

As I write this, India is in a complete lockdown due to Covid-19 and today is Day #5. 16 more days to go.  May be more. Never in our lives have we experienced a lockdown like this.  Neither our parents have.  As Indians, we are normally used to different kinds of curbs that hit our daily lives very often. I am talking of the Rasta rokos, Chakka Jaams, Curfews, Hartals, Bandhs and so on. But this is at a different level.  Even Kashmiris who face the brunt of partial shutdowns would feel the same, I reckon. Even as recently as a couple of weeks ago, when we were hearing of the Corona virus news from China, we wouldn’t have imagined that it will hit home so close and like this which sort of forced the government to shutdown India completely.

This complete India lockdown has brought to the fore the many “New Normals” in our lives. To start with is of course WFH – “Work From Home”, hitherto a kind of privilege enjoyed by the IT folks. In the current scenario, almost everyone is forced to WFH.  Just that in the New Normal, it also implies “Work For Home”. With the entire family spending time within the confines of the four walls, there is no dearth of tragic scenes which are comical and comic scenes which end up turning tragic depending upon which side of the divide you are! In this diary notes, I try to capture some of these scenes for posterity!

In India,  milk for daily use is usually delivered at our doorsteps. Not now. Milk is delivered at the building lobby and you have to collect it. The wife who usually picks the milk from the door has now delegated that responsibility to me to go down and fetch the milk from the lobby. “Anyway you can’t walk and exercise and all. Just consider it as a morning walk and do it” is the wife’s take. “Does that apply only to me” was the immediate question which arose in my mind. For obvious reasons, it remained a mind voice.

As part of the lockdown routine, newspapers also have been stopped. For many men, newspapers play more than just one role. Apart from the obvious one of providing updates on happenings around the world, it also performs the most important function of aiding daily “bowel cleaning”. Without the paper in hand, for many, it is a torture. One had to dip into the old newspaper stock these days to get the day going! In the West, I hear newspapers are filling in for the toilet roll shortage in stores.

“Because of the shutdown, can’t even do my daily exercises! Can’t even do walking within the complex”, I lamented on Day #2. “As if before this you were regularly going to the gym and all!, the wife taunted. “After this New year resolution, I remember, you went to the gym at a stretch for 3 days which is better than the last few years record of two days!”, the taunt continued.

“In my friends group, a gym trainer is sharing day wise simple exercises one can do at home. Let us do it together at home”, the wife declared. “By sharing these videos openly, isn’t the gym trainer risking his future business?  Why is he doing this?” My rather nonchalant question was obviously misconstrued and dismissed with this rejoinder. “That is his problem. Why are you worried? Chalo, let us start”! So thanks to the daily dose of gym trainer’s home exercise videos, we have started doing stretching and exercises at home for the past 3 days. Today being a Sunday, of course I took a break!

In India, if you ask the women who they usually miss the most, it is not the kids or the parents or the husband. It is the maid servant! On returning from office, if you find the wife in a pissed off mood, you can safely conclude that the maid has applied for leave for few days and has not arranged for ‘Badli bai’ (replacement maid)! So these days, one of the most important terms during appointment of maids is she should arrange for ‘badli bai’ when she proceeds on leave for more than 2 days. For less than 2 days leave, the bai herself will tell to manage with the ‘Ghar ka bhai saab’!

Under the lockdown situation both wives and husbands alike miss the maid servant. In the absence of maid servant, the monthly calendar has been temporarily morphed into a scheduler for carrying out BJP activities at home in turns. BJP here is an acronym for Bartan, Jaadu and Pocha! (Vessels, Sweeping and Mopping)

At home, the wife allotted Jaadu on Day #1. The vacuum cleaner which had not been used for years now, had to be first dusted and cleaned before being deployed for action. As I got into my cleaning gear, connected the plug of the vacuum cleaner and switched it on, there was a “dup” sound and off went the power! The next scenes are easy to imagine. “You had to use that vacuum cleaner which you last used when you were a bachelor, today only? You can’t even get an electrician now to fix the power problem”, the wife now donning the “Chandramukhi/Manjulika” avatar, yelled. “Wait, let me speak to the society manager and find out if our building electrician is available here only” I quipped. “Why you have to call the electrician? You are an electrical engineer, no? You can’t check the problem yourself?”  If I have one regret in life about my choice of education, it is the stream of engineering I chose – Electrical and Electronics!

To all youngsters who come to me for advice on which stream of engineering they should go for, my standard answer is “Anything but electrical”. Only if you are an electrical engineer will you be asked to fix the fan, check the AC and so on at home. I have not seen a civil engineer husband being asked to repair a wall if there is a leakage and all. So all aspiring engineers, do keep this in mind.

Thankfully, it was just a tripping of the circuit breaker due to the overload on the motor of the vacuum cleaner. God that day was kind enough in not subjecting me into further embarrassment and power was back soon. That also meant that the idea of using the vacuum cleaner had to be buried and sweeping had to be done physically with the Jaadu. After that the wife, being her turn, did the Pocha smoothly in 15 minutes flat using the Easy Spin Mop! Why this build up about the mop, you may wonder. Read on.

On Day #2, it was my turn for Pocha. When I got up in the morning, I didn’t realise that my tongue’s Vastu was not alright that day. As I readied myself for the Pocha or the mopping work, I quipped, “How come there are so many deep stains on the floor?”  This was a remark meant to highlight the quality of the work the maid does. But I forgot for a minute that the mopping was done by the wife the previous day! “So, If I am doing lousy work, why don’t you do it properly and remove those stubborn stains today?, the wife retorted angrily, of course. After getting a demo of how to use the engineering marvel called the Easy Spin Mop, I launched myself into the job. It certainly seemed simple when the wife gave the demo.

After draining the water, I took out the mop stick and started mopping. Soon enough I turned my attention to the 1st tough stain which I encountered. Being quite conscious of the fact that the stain needs to be removed of its existence, I started mopping like a man possessed.  Next, I heard was the sound of some plastic breaking which emerged even above the “Ponaal pogattum poda” song from the old Tamil classics playlist playing in the background. The mop stick unable to withstand my sincerity and urge, gave way and broke into two! The wife who doesn’t usually miss these kind of noises in the house, immediately got alerted.  You recall I talked of the Vastu and all.

In the next few minutes, I was given an earful about how the maid was using the mop smoothly for two years and that the mop stick was just replaced two weeks ago and how a simple task cannot be accomplished etc., etc. “These days, the quality of goods is so bad in India. How can Make in India succeed?”, I mumbled in self-defence. “Pottu udakarathayum udachuttu, Quality mela pazhiya podu” (Why blame quality after breaking the stick yourself?)  Little did I realise then, that I will have to now do to the back breaking Pocha for the rest of the days!  The broken mop stick ended up breaking the peace at home which was holding up till Day #4!

To be continued…

Postscript: On day #5 today, as I sat down to pen this blog, the wife said, “During the lockdown at least why don’t you give a break to your blog?”  I put up a brave face and replied, “This week I am actually writing a light piece, not the usual serious stuff!” My BP is now racing upwards as I begin to wonder what will happen when the wife reads the blog.

Pic courtesy: Webdunia

COVID-19: Turning the crisis into an opportunity!

COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. What started off as an outbreak in Wuhan, Hubei province of China is now a pandemic that has spread in more than 130 countries worldwide as we speak. In India too, the number of people who have detected positive has been multiplying by the day. Most of the state governments are waking up to the reality and state after state have been shut down.

In this sombre time, it may not sound so appropriate to talk about tapping opportunities that may arise. But then, one of the key jobs of strategic experts in counties is to always look beyond the obvious, see ahead of today and tomorrow and peep into the future.  In India, if such experts do that, they will see a window to turn this crisis into a long term, game changing opportunity.

Few weeks ago, when Corona virus had not spread like it is today, other than the human calamity, discussions were about how global supply chains have been disrupted due to the outbreak in China. Today, with China controlling the spread quickly using strong arm action and with the virus spreading all over, discussions around supply chain disruption have receded.  The focus today is around containing the spread as country after country have found people inflicted by the virus. However, when the dust and storm around the pandemic settles down in a few months, policy makers and industry experts will start pondering over putting all manufacturing eggs in the Chinese basket. De-risking from China for future would be top in the agenda.  Already, we are beginning to see some noise in that direction.

For countries and manufacturing companies, de-risking from China is nothing new. Many of them started doing it ten years ago when China, in the back of around 10% GDP growth for few years in a row from 2003 to 2011, was on fire as an economy. High economic growth also means increase in wages which shot up from CNY 750 in 2007 to CNY 2420 in 2018! Coupled with raising wages was the non-availability of skilled labour. A factory manager in Shanghai way back in 2012 told me that after the Chinese New year holidays, half the workforce would not return as they would end up joining companies which are located in provinces with higher minimum wages and with more overtime potential. Invariably mobile phones and other high demand product manufacturing units would suck up a lot of skilled manpower leaving other production units to scramble for trained manpower.

The logical option was to expand facilities out of China, if not to shift the entire production. Many Japanese companies who had put up factories in Thailand, Malaysia and later in China went and invested in Vietnam. It was a golden opportunity for India to have tapped that wave in that period. But we missed. Vietnam in spite of not boasting of very high skilled manpower but with relatively low labour cost managed to take advantage of the Japanese expansion plans. I was told that companies used to travel to interior Vietnam provinces and literally call out in the streets with microphones like in the feudal days as part of recruitment drive for factories!

India with its low labour cost and abundance of skilled manpower, still couldn’t feature in the agenda of companies looking at de-risking from China. And there are many reasons for the same.

It’s a myth that foreign companies just go by low labour cost when they try to invest in manufacturing facilities outside of their existing country bases. What they look for is whether the entire manufacturing eco-system is in place. China showed the world as to how to put that kind of eco-system in place that includes availability of low cost land in plenty, abundant skilled and low cost labour, low interest rate regime, tax benefits/holidays, access to ports, high quality infrastructure in the form of roads, highways, airports and sea ports, access to vendor base (this is particularly critical for Electronics and Automotive production) and more importantly what I call as the “hygiene factor”.  And this is the comfort factor which expatriates develop for the country where they want to set up production.

In India, we do not attach much importance to this while planning but, in my experience this becomes the key, tilting factor when choosing between options. If the team of expats who spend time in the country looking at options, do not feel comfortable about being able to lead a decent quality of life, they would never recommend that country. We should not forget that when a large production facility is set up, there will be hordes of expats who will be spending time during the project set-up phase and also later at supervisory/managerial roles when the unit is up and running.

That’s why I would not squabble if our governments spend money and resources to put their best face forward when foreign leaders visit here. For, many a times, there is a delegation of corporate chiefs who accompany these leaders and it is important that they carry a good impression of India as a country when they visit. In a Japanese company I worked earlier, the decision to invest in India which was lingering around for a while was finally taken when the group Chairman visited India and got impressed seeing the campus and Golf course of Infosys in Bengaluru!. I am talking of 2005 and fortunately the traffic situation then wasn’t as bad as it is today!

Coming back to the hygiene factor, this includes availability of good international schools, safety for women, availability of their country cuisines and even stuff like “Not a dry state” or “No Beef Ban”…!

In the wake of COVID-19, it is my belief that India must put its best foot forward in pitching itself as a robust manufacturing destination to the world which is looking at options.  And for this the government must move on a “Mission” mode quickly and activate “Make in India 2.0”!  We may not be able to scale up the economies of scale of China but then we are not looking at China completely. Our pitch must be to position India as an augmenting base.

Compared to the 1st decade of this century when India missed the opportunity when companies were de-risking, I believe that we now stand a better chance overall and hence it’s worth taking a shot now. Our roads and highways infrastructure is getting better though it’s a work in progress. We can now boast of world class airports in all the metro cities. The ports infrastructure have improved leaps and bounds and our customs clearance processes have smoothened.  We could still do much better on the “Ease of Doing business” front, though!

Ergo, I do believe that with a focussed approach towards getting companies to invest in setting up production facilities in India, India can be a good option for companies contemplating to de-risk from China. For India, which is in desperate need of a boost to the economy, nothing works like expansion in manufacturing as it increases direct and indirect jobs.

Author and Economist Shankkar Aiyyar in his book, The Accidental India has documented how in India every landmark game changing event since independence happened as a response to a crisis. Going by that track record, we are in the throes of another crisis with COVID-19 and hopefully we will come up with a response that is game changing!

The last booster shot for the Indian economy came in the beginning of this millennium and that was due to a global threat of a bug! The Y2K phenomenon opened the flood gates for the Indian Software industry and helped erect a pillar for our economy called the “Services”! Twenty years hence, now, a virus could provide the booster shot for the economy if India gets its act together. That of getting the manufacturing ecosystem in place and tap the opportunity which could present itself in the coming months. It’s not easy. But then its not impossible either.

Covid-19 in the world and Comvid-20 in India!

Since the advent of Social media, “Going Viral” is considered the ultimate thing! As we speak, the world in general and India in particular are reeling from something that literally went viral. The Corona virus pandemic which is now being called by WHO as Covid-19 which started from the Wuhan region in China, has now been spreading rapidly across the globe.

In China where it all started, we understand that things are getting under control. The new cases are reportedly fewer which is a key indication of the virus not spreading further. The Chinese government has been swift in taking tough decisions including shutting down towns and cities in a bid to arrest the spread very early.

As one can expect in a globalised world as it is today, while the situation is getting better in the origin (China), there are other countries where Covid-19 is taking a huge toll. First Italy, then Iran and now Korea have been under the onslaught of the Corona virus in the last couple of weeks. And those who have visited the affected places like Italy and those who came as tourists from these countries into other cities have become silent carriers of the virus. So, countries like America and India have also come under the affected list. Though the numbers are low at this point in time relatively, considering the population in these counties and the viral nature of the contagion, the risks associated cannot be dismissed away.

The approach of the countries to the pandemic is also a reflection of these societies. In highly disciplined and if I may add, regimented countries like China, Korea and Japan for example, the governments moved fast, enacted tough strictures and the public fell in line. The results are there to see. On the other hand, in flexible and If I may say, slack societies like Italy, the government has been slow in action and reaction. It’s only today that we read of Italy taking a call to shut down parts of the country which have been affected. The damage is already done.

From the perspective of economy, it’s already been well documented as to how the global supply chains with its epicenter in China and in particular Wuhan have been disrupted globally. It is believed that Covid-19 will impact global GDP by over 2% negatively in 2020 and this is huge.  As the Corona virus signalled the first decline in demand of oil, Saudi and Russia decided to pump more oil in a battle of market share! Result – Price crash to the extent not seen in 25 years! The chain of events have led to the carnage in the stock markets worldwide. After a long while, we saw the circuit breaker being triggered at NYSE yesterday!

Apart from manufacturing industries affected by Covid-19, the other worst industries are those that deal with people. Travel, Hospitality, Tourism and Events sectors will see an impact worse than the Lehman crisis time! It would be sad if the next summer Olympics being planned in Tokyo in July 2020 is called off due to the Corona virus. As can be only expected, Japan has been super ready for the event for a  few months now and will be a pity if all those efforts go down the Corona drain!

After the Lehman shock of 2008, Covid-19 is the next best example of a globalised world rising and perishing together in ironic harmony. There are very few countries which are immune to this today. The synchronised interest rate cuts by the Central banks a few days ago, I am not sure will help. Because what we are seeing is a supply side disruption and constraints arresting human movement. This is a not a demand problem or a capacity building issue where capital infusion could do the immediate trick. Of course any softening of interest rates is welcome! While the world struggles to get into terms with the aftershocks, I do believe that China from where it all started, may recover faster than expected. Already people have started going to offices after a long break since Chinese New Year and factories have started brimming with activity from last week. Again, at the risk of being repetitive, being a disciplined and a regimented society which China is, we should not be surprised if China gets back to normal by June while other affected countries still continue to struggle to get back to their feet!

Coming to India, along with Corona virus, we had another thing which has been going viral in the past many weeks – the “communal” virus” or Comvid-20! Ever since the Citizenship Amendment Bill got passed and became an Act followed by the government’s “chronological” intent to take up NRC (National Register for Citizens) all over India, the country has been on the edge.

The CAA protests also took almost the same route as a virus spread.  What started off as peaceful protests in different parts of the country essentially college campuses, soon spilled over to the streets. A hitherto unknown entity to those outside Delhi – Shaheen Bagh, entered the daily vocabulary and a subject of Prime time loud debates. And finally culminated with full blown communal riots in Delhi in the 1st week of March.

For Modi Sarkar which prided itself of not facing a communal riot in the country for 6 years since 2014, the Delhi riots have come as a huge blot on its image. That the riots happened in the first place, that too in Delhi which is the capital of India with its heavy security apparatus and when a big diplomatic event that of the US President Donald Trump’s visit was in progress, is an embarrassment. The coverage of the Trump visit therefore turned “split screen” globally with beaming faces of leaders and burning streets of Delhi, side by side!

That today, Social media has a huge role to play in spreading this communal virus is unmistakable!  Images and counter images, Videos and counter videos were just going viral in what I call as a battle of narratives! In sum, even today, we are yet to get a final answer as to who lit the spark first. And in spite of all the media and social media explosion, we may never get it, in our lives! Everything that went viral finally did their bit to mobilise mobs, fuel frenzy and finally celebrate madness.

Covid-19, with the world putting its might behind it may soon get a vaccine and a cure! However, Comvid-20 with its epicenter in India and to do with the majority community Vs minority community wrangle ingrained in our minds for decades, may not get a vaccine soon. Unless, we become a truly secular society where religion is personal and ceases to be a vote bank. Welcome to Utopia!

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 was short on material required to  lift 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

Rajini and Modi – The Twain meets, again!

In a post way back in 2016 after Rajinikanth’s Kabali released, I wrote about the strange coincidences between Rajini’s Kabali and Modi Sarkar @ 2 years. You may want to read that piece here. Strangely again, now in 2020, post Rajini’s latest film release – Darbar and few months into Narendra Modi’s 2nd term, I find both of them in the same rocking boat!

Darbar, which released to huge expectations last week is still raking the moolah at the box office. As per various reports coming in, just like Rajini’s few other earlier movies, this one also may set records for collections. However, popular opinion is spilt down in the middle. While the film has endured itself to Rajini fans, it has not impressed the more discerning movie viewer. For them, Darbar has been a huge let down.

Now hold this thought on Rajini and Darbar and let’s look at what’s happening with Modi and his government now. Ever since it passed the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill, popular opinion is split vertically down the middle in India. The core voter base of the BJP has hailed the Act as one which has been long overdue. On the other hand, the more liberal and non-core supporters of Narendra Modi are of the view that CAA and the proposed NRC are divisive and should have been left alone. This group which probably voted for Narendra Modi for the 2nd term too, is a trifle disappointed with Modi Sarkar’s priorities.

In the case of Darbar, film critics have panned the film almost in unison. Most of them felt that the film lacked coherence and A.R. Murugadoss, the director was trying hard to pander to the fan base of Rajini. As a result of which he lost sight of the screen play and ended up wasting Rajini.

Similarly, the media has been extremely critical of Modi and his government the last few weeks ever since protests erupted all over the country against CAA and NRC. The narrative is similar. That the Modi Government is pandering to its Hindu fan base and attempting to bring in legislations that are bound to alienate Muslims.

For Rajini, the film before Darbar was Petta. A film in which he went back to playing a youthful Rajini after a gap of few films like Kabali and Kaala. A film which was touted as an ode to the Superstar of yore full of Rajini-isms. For a change, people and critics alike accepted the film, notwithstanding the overdoing of Rajini-isms!

Before Modi Sarkar ventured into the controversial CAA-NRC territory, just within few months into the 2nd term, it made some big bang moves like nullifying Article 370 and passing the Triple Talaq bill. Notwithstanding the process followed in nullifying Article 370 and notwithstanding the fact that Triple Talaaq bill was targeted at conservative Muslims, these moves were hailed as stuff which were long overdue.  And Modi was hailed as a solver of long standing issues which needed fixes. To a large extent even by the liberal media, perhaps reluctantly!

One thing that was found common across all critical reviews of Darbar was how Rajini came unscathed. The unanimous view was that Rajini tried his best with his usual charm, style, energy and wit but without a strong script, the film failed to deliver. So the ire was reserved for the Director and his team.

Similarly in spite of the missteps of the Modi Sarkar around the economy and CAA and NRC issues, Modi’s image still seem to be intact among the common man. He is still seen as this hard working Prime Minister who is working round the clock with unbridled energy to fix India’s problems. And so the ire is targeted towards his team and the bureaucracy which is not measuring up!

Over a period of time, people who liked Rajini’s films expanded significantly beyond his core base who just adored him for his style, his mannerisms, his swag,.. in short, what I call as Rajini-isms. In few films, Rajini demonstrated that beyond these ‘isms” he can also pack a punch and seriously act. Today, there is a base of film watchers who yearn to see that side of Rajini, who will choose a script, a director and do a film, going beyond the Rajini formula and template!

In the same vein, for Narendra Modi in the run up to the 2014 elections, there were people from outside the BJP core base, who preferred Narendra Modi as the next Prime Minister. This group saw the work he did as Chief Minister in Gujarat and wanted to give a chance to him at the National level. Today, this non-core supporter group wants Narendra Modi to go beyond his “isms” which are basically the Sangh Parivar agenda items!  

In that sense, the conundrum before Rajini and Modi are similar. Whether to just keep the core fan/supporter in mind and continue to pander to his fancy. Or look at the larger group who have supported them over the years and have made them the icons they are today?

While I have attempted to put Rajini and Modi at the same pedestal here, it’s a very simplistic view. The stakes involved are of course completely different. For Rajini, it is just the fate of his films at the box office and his own legacy. However, for Modi, the stakes involved are much higher. Modi is presiding over the fate of millions of people who expect him to deliver the promised Acche Din!

For Modi, the next release of consequence is the Union Budget. For some time now, I had begun to believe that the Budget is an over rated event in India. But this year, considering the perilous state we are in as far as economy goes, I do feel that the Budget 2020 gains enormous significance. Outside of India, among foreign investors, there is frustration over India’s continuing “Work in Progress” status. And clearly there is disappointment over India’s “1 step forward, few steps backward” economic progress. So, for Narendra Modi who always keeps an eye on the legacy he leaves in whatever he does, this is a good opportunity. To make Budget 2020 as significant or more than Budget 1991!

Just like the non-core fan base of Rajini who wants the Superstar to move beyond Rajini-isms and deliver a mega hit betting on a strong script, characterisation and acting skills of Rajini, the public of India also would like Modi to keep aside the “majoritarianisms” and focus on the Economy in the coming months to deliver a turn around.  For becoming a 5 trillion economy Modi must “Chumma Kizhi”!

Picture credit: indiatoday.in

A New Decade Resolution for India – Moving on from being WIP!

When you are neither here nor there, you are Work In Progress (WIP). As a country, India has been that. A Work in Progress. Now for a long while!

Since Independence, we probably had the tag of an “Under developed” country till the 80’s. From then on, we moved on to be called as a “Developing” country. Since then, it is now 5 decades but, we still continue to be a developing country. An emerging market. A Work in Progress.

Personally for me, from the time I started my career in 1991, India has been a developing country. Even today it continues to be. After close to 30 years.

Just look around and you can notice that almost everything around us is Work In Progress.

Our public transportation in all cities is still evolving.

Roads and highways are perennially under construction.

Health care is floundering but getting better day by day slowly and is Work in Progress.

To just cite a few areas.

In all these years, one thing constant has been that we hold promise. Promise of future potential.

We have had goal posts by way of Vision 2020 etc. in the beginning of this century. In the many versions of those vision documents, by 2020, India was supposed to be an economic Super power.  Supposed to be the 3rd largest economy ahead of Japan or some such thing. As we speak we are still the 7th.

For India in the last few decades, it’s been a case of missed opportunities. We never miss to miss an opportunity. Once missed, it’s a question of living in futuristic hope. If one thing that has kept this country going in the last many years, it is hope. Hope others have on us. More than what we have on ourselves.

In the past, whenever we seemed to have caught the economic growth train, we have quickly derailed it ourselves.

Beginning of every decade is touted to be India’s decade. And we have belied that systematically.

As we step into another new decade, can we actually turn it into being India’s?

What is stopping us from realising our potential? Is it “We the people”? Is it the Government? Is it the politics? Is it the bureaucracy? Is it our attitude? Is it our capability? Is it the population? Is it our chosen path of democracy? Probably it is a combination of all these. And so the answer is complex.

I think the first and foremost need is to put “Economic growth” at the centre of our National discourse and put everything else in the back burner for the next ten years.  For the government, for the media and for the citizenry. There could be and probably there are other unfinished businesses. But it is time to prioritise. And prioritising Economic growth over everything else has obvious beneficial effects on peoples’ quality of life. Has a direct effect on many social issues. It also promises a placebo effect on issues.

It’s not that governments have not been focussing on economy in the past decades. They have, but only intermittently. The question is – was it or is it a single minded focus? As people, did we make Economic growth the single issue while voting?  Politics is driven by electoral results. If parties get the message that if they don’t deliver on economic growth, they cannot win, there will be difference. Today, this is not the case.

A new year is always a time for personal resolutions. This is not just a new year. A new decade beckons. Hope on India is still high. At least as of now. So time for a new decade resolution for India as a country. A resolve to put the Economy first.  Not just first. Just that. For the next ten years.

And move on from being a Work In Progress, come 2030!

On that note, here’s wishing you a busy and exciting decade. Working to Progress.

Image courtesy: Yourstory.com