“Turmoil” Nadu needs a Naidu!!!

The once prodigious state of Tamil Nadu (TN) has in the past few weeks earned a pitiable sobriquet of “Turmoil Nadu” and not without reason.  The state has been in a state of incapacitation ever since it’s Ex- Chief Minister the late Jayalalitha, was herself bed ridden for multiple health problems around the same time, last year. From then on, TN has been limping from one crisis to another. If it was uncertainty over Jayalalitha’s survival for few months since September, it was the crisis of her death in December for few weeks followed by the now done and dusted Jallikattu controversy in January.

When one thought that “Thai piranthaal Vazhi Pirakkum”, it is was the “Amma” of all leadership wrangles which ensued, resulting in the unceremonious exit of O. Panneer Selvam (OPS) as Chief Minister. The subsequent sentencing of Sasikala, the 24*7 resort drama that followed and the many heart to heart discussions various leaders had with the soul of Jayalalitha at her Samadhi consumed the state for few more weeks till Edapadi Pazhanisamy (EPS) was installed as Chief Minister. When one thought that the worst for the state was over, then came the cancellation of the bye election in R.K. Nagar constituency following brazen distribution of cash even at the peak of Demonetisation!

For political parties, fishing in troubled waters comes easily. BJP at the centre has been no exception in fishing in TN’s muddled waters. With the spectre of a drought looming large, this fishing expeditions so far have not yielded much results. Yet, it has not stopped the BJP from trying. Throwing the hat into the circus ring or rather posturing to throw have been two ageing star actors – Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan, who of late have found the voice to raise against the not so new ills of TN. As I write this, it is yet uncertain if these will remain dress rehearsals sans a final stage performance! In the meantime, there has been coming together of the OPS & EPS camps while isolating the Mannargudi camp which has been camping in one of the resorts in Pondichery. Or may be Coorg. Or is it Kerala?  With the judiciary intervening almost on a daily basis on conducting a floor test, on disqualification of the defectors and generally everything, one can be certain that the state is in Coma and governance in suspended animation!

The Tamil Nadu I grew up was never like this. Even today, in spite of the lack of any meaningful governance, the state does still rank high on many social indices. But this is living in past glory and milking the once healthy cow.  The seeds for today’s rot have been systematically sown by the two Dravida parties who have been ruling the state alternatively since the death of MGR. To be fair, till the beginning of this century, things were not bad.  Almost ten years ago, a foreign visitor after visiting few states like Maharashtra, Karnataka, UP, the then AP, and in the end TN asked me why things were looking better in TN compared to the other states. And like all Indians who never say “I don’t know” to any subject on the earth, I gave my own theory. Which was that TN was the only state where the economy was quite balanced between Agriculture (Rice), Manufacturing (Auto, Textiles and small machinery) and Services (SW). Unlike other states even when growing well, the growth was not balanced between the sectors and hence created its own problems. For example, Karnataka had a high share of Services and less of Manufacturing while Punjab had a high share of Agri and Industry but less of Services. But if I look at the statistics today, this is indeed the case for TN and this has certainly ensured a very equitable growth in the state and no other state comes close to this balance.

Again, what TN is today is a result of some far-sighted thinking in the 70’s and 80’s by the then Governments. In the last decade or so, the state has been drifting away. While TN has been sleeping and slipping, the other states have been catching up. And this catching up has happened mainly due to some strong political leadership in each of these states. The neigbouring state of Andhra Pradesh ever since its bifurcation has seen some frenzied action. Both Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are fiercely competing today to garner investments. And in the age of competitive federalism, one state’s gain is another state’s loss. When Kia Motors (a subsidiary of Hyundai Motors) decided to set up a new manufacturing facility they opted for Penukonda (Anantapur) in Andhra Pradesh. It is heard that the Chief Minster Chandrababu Naidu took personal effort in bagging the project for his state and ensuring painless and swift land acquisition. In his weekly Swaminomics column, Swaminathan Aiyar once hailed the AP model of land acquisition for developing the capital city of Amaravati as an ideal model for other states to follow. He wrote that “Other states must study Naidu’s example, and adapt pooling for their own use.”

In Telangana, K.T.Rama Rao, its IT minister and son of the Chief Minister, has been in the forefront of attracting investments in the IT sector. In my own resident state Maharashtra, the young and dynamic Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis is focused on making Maharashtra the most sought after destination for manufacturing again. And he already has a few early wins. Among his other plans are big bang infrastructure projects like Mumbai – Nagpur Express way,… In Rajasthan, its Chief Minister Vasundara Raje has been the flag bearer for labour reforms for the entire country.

In the midst of such action, what has been TN up to?  Plunged in a serious leadership crisis ever since Jayalalitha went to jail in 2014, TN has been just a torch-bearer for sycophancy saddled between MGR/Amma anachronisms on the one hand and OPS/EPS/TTV acronyms on the other. So, for “Turmoil” Nadu to regain its past glory and become a “Thalai” Nadu once again, its needs a Naidu like leader! ASAP. No, as of yesterday!  Do you have any picks? I have none at the moment.

Cartoon courtesy: Surendran/The Hindu

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Demonetisation and it’s after”math”!!!

Ever since the RBI released its Annual report 2 weeks ago, Demonitisation (DeMo) is back in the news. And with its eminent Ex-Governor Raghuram Rajan now in India to promote his book, DeMo continues to hog the headlines and Op-Ed pages. The analysis of DeMo swing from scathing criticism of being a “big mistake” by the likes of Ex-Economic Advisor Kaushik Basu to calling it a “huge success and a course correction” by the likes of Gurumurthy, the veteran commentator on public affairs. So, as it happens in most issues these days, “for every spin there is an equally effective and opposite counter spin”! And where you stand on an issue depends on where you stand on the ideological divide.  On social media, it was a hashtag war between #DeMomenisationsuccess and #DeMonetisationfailure!

Ten months on, based on all the data available (99% of DeMo notes coming back to the banks) it seems that DeMo has not helped in sucking out the black money. In retrospection, I wonder how the government expected anybody in India to give up their prized possession (currency notes in this context) at all in the first place. In my own experience, when coming out with marketing promotion programs for the trade, we usually take twice the time for foolproofing the program compared to conceiving the program itself. This is from the wisdom of previous programs over the years where, we found that the Indian brain works over time always to find loop holes/gaps in any program announced. So, in a sales promotion program for example the trade will end up earning the incentives while you never achieve the increased sales objectives!

This is what happened in DeMo as well. If you remember, the day DeMo was announced, the chattering class’ verdict on WhatsApp group and dining area discussions was that it was a “Master stroke”! While the middle class and upper middle class folks who didn’t have unaccounted cash had to just find ways of beating the lines to exchange their notes, the ones who had, started cranking their brains. The result was the everyday tweaking of the rules and adding more terms and conditions for currency conversion. The then Economic Affairs Secretary Saktikanda Das became a celebrity overnight, thanks to his daily media briefings on what else – change in rules!

By now, it is clear that notwithstanding the anti-DeMo commentary of economists, there was overarching, tacit support for the DeMo move from common public. Inspite of loss of business for traders, loss of jobs for casual workers and loss of income for farmers the Note Bandi didn’t evoke much unfavourable mood towards the BJP so far. I am not sure if it will, from now on. What explains this paradox?

Many of the commentators have alluded to the human trait of Schadenfreude to explain this. That the poor were happy because this was one move which affected the rich and privileged and that the Prime Minister Modi had the guts to do so. This is a good possibility. But there could be more to this as well.  Within days of the DeMo announcement, the initial despair among people who were caught unawares with a lot of unaccounted cash turned into a relief, when they found ways and means to deposit the same into the bank. Among many ingenious ways, one was to tap into their own staff and workers to distribute the cash and get them deposited into their bank accounts. A report said that by Dec, the deposits in Jan Dhan Accounts peaked to Rs.74,609 crore! As of Sep, it was just 4,273 crore! The number of Jan Dhan accounts itself went up 5 times in this period!  My guess is that, in this process of conversion through the conduit of using others’ accounts, there must have been a cost.  The government must have lost an opportunity to earn taxes on the unaccounted income but those who had a lot of unaccounted cash ended up incurring a “conversion tax”! And I am certain that those who were witness to the rich incurring this tax felt certainly happy that DeMo was an equalizer of sorts. And not just being a witness, there would have been many who would have benefited from the sudden largesse of their masters as well and got their share of the “conversion tax”. So, instead of the government collecting taxes from the haves and distributing to have-nots by way of welfare measures did DeMo make it as a Direct Benefit transfer from the rich to the poor without the government in between?  Probably.

It’s evident now that the DeMo move has been a rocking political success for the government. On the economic front, though the objective of sucking up the black money has not been achieved directly, certain fringe benefits have accrued. Like reduction in cash circulation, increase in Digital transactions, and increase in bank deposits,…  These may leave the country in good stead in the future.  In the short-term however, the country skipped its GDP beat.

So when one does the after”math” of DeMo, it may well be like the popular “Elephant and the Blind men” story. For some, it’s a failure. For some, it’s a success. For some, it’s a partial success and for some it could be a partial failure. I would like to go with Rajan’s assessment that the short-term economic losses far outweighed the long-term benefits.  In hindsight, one is always wise. Other times – otherwise!

Our Tryst with GST* – * Conditions apply!!!

GST – The Good and Simple Tax, as our acronym lover PM touted during the launch on 30th June is finally a reality after almost 11 years of intense labour. This along with FDI in retail must count among the most awaited reforms in India by India observers.

So, the advent of a single tax which subsumes, at last count, some 17 different taxes and myriad cesses certainly must count as the single largest Tax reform undertaken in India. Not to forget the application of tax only on value added in the chain. Along with this simplification, the fact that goods from one state can pass thro different states without wait, harassment and accompanying corruption portend a new beginning for trade in our country. In the pre-GST era, logistics and warehousing strategy of companies have been dictated by tax compliance rather than supply chain considerations. In the sense, the number of warehouses and their size would be driven by billing point concerns rather than geographical spread of demand. In the GST era, warehousing will depend on supply and demand equations and not taxation points. And hence like in most developed countries, companies will get to run larger, integrated and fewer of warehouses. Development of more efficient logistics hubs, warehouse consolidation and ensuing FDI will become a reality soon. This is a new dawn for retail, supply chain and logistics industry.

So with all the seemingly obvious benefits of the GST regime, why is it that there is still some cynicism and negativity from different quarters about the move? Why is P. Chidambaram once the prime mover of GST when UPA was in power, cautioning all of us to “Get Set for Turbulence”? The GST in the current form is nowhere close to the one which was originally conceived. Rolling stones probably gather no moss. But a rolling GST gathered whole lot of moss on its way from the wisdom of empowered committees to standing committees to GST council. The current version of GST is a product of what I call “co-operative federal bullying”. The result is instead of the One Nation, One Market, One Tax premise, what we have is One Nation, One Market, One Tax name, 3 Sub Tax names, Multiple Rates, Few Exceptions, Some flexibilities and with an *. * – Conditions apply.

Being part of the GST council, the states in their own wisdom, ensured that we as a country don’t get away with a simplistic tax which may throw many Chartered Accountants out of jobs. However, I understand that without having a set of different GST rates (in some cases different rates for the same category as per user segments) or without excluding items like Petrol, Alcohol, Real estate,.. consensus could never have been built in getting GST off the ground. UPA’s failure to make GST a reality during their regime stems from this. So the choice before the centre was to accept what the states demand and bring about a not so ideal GST or wait endlessly for a few more years may be decades before some major economic crisis forces all concerned to come to an agreement on the ideal GST. From that point of view I agree with the stand taken by the Govt. to bring in GST in its present form with its shortcomings, with a hope of ringing in the changes in the coming years. Kudos are in order hence.

The Congress party which at every opportunity reminded us that the seeds for GST in India were sown by the UPA, however, chose to be petulance personified and boycotted the GST launch. While rubbishing the GST in its present form its main “anGST” against GST was that it is being rushed thro and should be delayed by 3 months till September. We all in India know that in our country whatever may be the preparatory time available, things get accomplished at the last minute. If we get more time, we stretch our deadlines accordingly. That if we have more time, we will be more prepared and can do trial runs before actual roll out,.. exists only in theory. Don’t we see in our Indian weddings, folks tying up some loose ends literally till the baraat arrives and continue to do so as the wedding is in progress?  Finally when the wedding gets over, its smiles all over.  So even after the GST roll out, there will be glitches, teething problems and surprises which I am sure we will find ways and means of getting over. Pushing back by another 3 months is not going to make things any different.

It must be commended that this Govt. stuck to the date of July 1. It would have been very easy for the PM and the Govt. to throw in the towel and put off the launch by a few months. But then, there are other implications. Come Oct. it is the peak festival and hence business season in India. Does It help if the roll out happens when India is in the midst of its biggest Annual economic cycle? Will it help if GST is launched in Jan. in the final quarter of the fiscal year???

The ruling party, the BJP counts traders as its important traditional support base for the party. That the party still decided to go ahead with the tax reform which professes maximum disruptions for this group is a significantly courageous move.  In India economic reforms have always been carried out under duress; when push comes to shove. The heralding of GST must be the 1st major economic reform brought in when not under any kind of stress but just to ease up things for the future. This certainly conjures up the arrival of Acche Din for our country.

Still our penchant for complicating things comes to the fore here as well.  Though the GST collections have to be shared between the state and the centre, could it not have been done at the back using technology rather than coming up with 3 variants like SGST, CGST and IGST??? Does the Anti-profiteering clause make sense? Will not competitive economics eventually drive pricing??

GST is indeed a Good and Simple Tax. So there is nothing like a good or better time to introduce the same. But, we should not forget that this is India and we are Indians. So, conditions apply.

The Passport called English Medium!!!

Hindi Medium for the uninitiated is a Hindi film that hit the screens last week sans the trappings of the typical Bollywood fare but which holds a mirror to the society with a strong social message. Without any of the leading “Star Khans” but with just Irfan Khan as the lead star, I am not sure how far the film will reach eventually. After 3 Idiots if there was one Hindi film which leaves you thinking as you left the cinema hall about your kid’s education this must be it. In the film, the lead couple go to unimaginable lengths just to secure admission in one of the Top English medium schools in the city.  Because in the lines of the mother, “If the child goes to a Govt. school, she can’t learn anything. If anybody talks to her in English, she will not be able to fit in the society. Hence she will be lonely and will get depressed.”  The extremes the couple stretch themselves to secure that admission in a top English medium school like even trying to transform themselves to poor people to take advantage of BPL quota as per RTE act may sound preposterous.  But the message – that “English medium” is a mandatory passport for one’s flight to success in life is not lost on anyone.

Not just this one, but there were other films like Chetan Bhagat’s novel turned film – One Half Girlfriend and Sridevi’s super hit – English Vinglish dwelling on the theme of the need to master English to get recognized/get ahead in life. Ironically this is not some typical Bollywood fantasy but stark reality of India being mirrored in films.  At workplaces today, one’s command over spoken English is considered essential to rise up the corporate elevator whether you like it or not. There are very few careers I can think of today where one can still succeed without mastering the English language. Probably politics (where being oblivious to the English language can become your calling card) or some creative fields could be those. Otherwise even in medical field the reality is, you feel comfortable of a surgeon’s ability if he is able to explain the diagnosis and treatment course of your patient in eloquent English!!! Narayana Murthy of Infosys once controversially observed in the context of IITs that with Indian politicians “rooting against English”, the task of getting good English speaking students at IITs gets more difficult and that affected their quality .  He was being practical and honest. In urban India the caste system based on Manuvaad is gradually on the wane. But in its place there is a new caste system based on “Medium of Instruction” – English medium being forward caste and any other being backward!!!

However this is not the case in many other successful countries. In Germany you don’t need to master English to head an organization. In Japan, though knowledge of English is an asset particularly in an Export driven economy like theirs, lack of flair in English has never been a liability.  Same is the case with China.  It’s another matter that they probably now realise that if they had imbibed the English language they could have ruled the global commerce not just in Mfg. but even in services!

But then India is not a homogenous state with one culture, one lingo like Japan or Germany. We are “United States of India” where our culture, language, food habits,…,.. keep changing every 500 kms. We sort of got stuck in the middle where we couldn’t have Hindi or for that matter any other Indian language as a universal Pan Indian language due to our cultural diversity. At the same time English being a language imported due to the colonial rule couldn’t achieve the universal reach across the board. Result – we have a language divide. If we have to get out of this situation, it’s too late or virtually impossible to go back to a Japan or Germany universal Indian language model.  So it looks like adopting English language universally in India is only the practical option left with us to go forward from here.

“Universally” is the key. It was the very articulate Shashi Tharoor who once said, “Denial of opportunity to learn English to our children would be tantamount to destroying their future” and I agree. It’s unanimously accepted that India’s command over English has been one of the key attributes to our success in Software business worldwide. So why not we build on our strengths and leverage the same? That is certainly not by keeping English a privilege of few and sowing the seeds for another conflict. Instead a way forward could be to make ‘All” schools in India – English medium schools and phase in English as the universal medium of instruction from a particular year in the very near future. This is not to shortchange our own native languages which still needs to be taught in the same schools but need not be the “Medium of instruction”. We could expect politics to play and outrage factories running on full capacities over this move.  But then have we seen wards of politicians who get educated from Non English medium schools?  By the way in our neighbouring Pakistan in 2013, I heard that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province took a call to switch over from Urdu to English medium gradually in a period of four to five years!!! This could be a significant reform in the field of education that would ensure English not just being a passport to economic, social and educational advancement universally but a ‘Visa on Arrival” for growth, the likes of Donald Trump notwithstanding!!

This reform may not be “the” only cure for all the ills in our education system but would be a good place to start.

Postscript: While on this, just after the ascent of Mr. Chandrasekharan as the Tata supremo, a picture of him and his 2 brothers has been doing the WhatsApp rounds. It talks of the fact that the 3 brothers are actually are from Tamil medium schools from a village in Tamil Nadu and that today they were head honchos. The message being, one doesn’t need to be necessarily from English medium schools to get to the top. Well, not sure even if Natarajan Chandrasekharan will accept that premise today and forward that to his WhatsApp groups!!!

2016, History & Hope!!!

This time of the year, the last week is usually a “feel good” week. There is celebratory mood around thanks to Christmas, holiday outings to look forward to and with a fresh New year coming up – a feeling of Hope. Had the year gone well, one is anyway happy and hopes that the good days continue into the New Year. If it had not, you want to quickly move on and again hope that the New Year brings some cheer. Was it Ghalib who said – ‘Umeed par Duniya Kayam hai…uska saath na chodo’ (Hope sustains this world, don’t lose its company!) So it is with fervent hope for Achhe Din (oops not the political type) that one usually steps into the New Year – year after year!

While there are 12 months, 52 weeks and 365 days to a year, when history is written a year is usually defined by what happened in a week or probably in a day.  And seldom have we realised when an event unfolds that it is history in the making. That is left to the wisdom of hindsight. For example, we now know that 1991 has been an important year for India. For opening up of the economy. For the end of license Raj. For unshackling the animal spirits. Yet, when the Industrial policy announcement was made in July 1991 by the Government, they were acknowledged by and large only as important “course corrections” considering the state of the economy by the media.  Then, they were not labeled historic.  The “Reforms” were always treated with suspicion and even in the Congress party there were many a doubting Thomases who derided the then Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and the Finance Minister Manmohan Singh. But today the rearview mirror displays that the reforms of 1991 have indeed left a positive trail in our country.

History is a great leveler. And at times more charitable than the present. So you find more eulogies on Narasimha Rao as a visionary, as a modern Day Chanakya,..,..  today than there were when he was alive. Or even when he passed away in the same month around the same date in 2004. Hence I was not surprised when Manmohan Singh in his last press conference as a Prime Minister famously said – “History will be kinder to me than the contemporary media!!!”

So likewise when history is written I do believe that 2016 will have a significant place in it for the one event which happened on the 8th of November – The Demonetisation of high value currency notes! We will know how the after effects of this move play out in the next few quarters. As I mentioned we live in eternal hope. So the hope is that we get over the pain caused by this move sooner than later and the economy is back in track by March/April.

But apart from this, if there is one thing for which this move will be remembered for in history, it will be for how Demonetisation changed some steadfast habits of Indians. As author Shankkar Aiyyar famously said in his book – Accidental India that almost all of India’s turning points like the White revolution, Liberalisation,…) were not the result of foresight or careful planning but were rather the accidental consequences of major crises that had to be resolved at any cost.  Similarly the cash shortage situation resulting out of the Demonetisation program in the initial few days was panning out to be a major crisis. (Some would say it is still, though I beg to differ looking at how ground situation has changed for the better) This made the buyers and more importantly the sellers think of carrying on with their businesses with no or less cash.

Today in a traditional market in Mumbai – the usual signboard which said “Credit Card and other cards not accepted” – has the word “Not” blackened out! Paan Walas sporting “PayTM Accepted here” is no more just a subject of WhatsApp jeers but a reality. Restaurants and other outlets no more scorn at you if you flash your credit card for small payments. At multiplexes, there was are big lines during the interval not for buying popcorn tubs, but for swiping cards in one solitary POS machine! Personally speaking I am left with more cash in hand than ever in the past few years! The expenses haven’t reduced mind you though I would have lived with that side effect!

So this change in behavior of using less cash and migrating to digital means seen in Metros and big cities which will also spread to small towns and villages in due course could again become one “accidental” after effect of Demonetisation. We all know the overarching benefits of a Cash less /Digital economy. Indians by nature are trained to be less transparent in terms of disclosures – in matters of income and expenses. If we are forced to shrug off this ingrained reticence and have now become more open to transparency (all digital payments leave a trail) I think it is one helluva big step for a country like India naysayers notwithstanding.

2016 has been a historic year when status quo has been demolished everywhere. Brexit, the ascent of Donald Trump and in India – the Demonetisation move. The underlying sentiment has of course been “HOPE” in all these of better times ahead.  With the ushering of another New Year, there is continued Hope. For, Hope is not just a good thing but is the “Best” thing! And isn’t it increasingly perilous to lose its company?

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“Hoping” you will continue to read my posts and provide valuable feedback – see you in the next year!

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Savour the Achhe Din!!!

In these largely agonizing days in India, a call to savour the Achhe Din would seem highly preposterous, isn’t it??? Well, wait a minute!

  • New Delhi, Oct 1984 – The then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is assassinated by 2 of her own body guards. Over the next few days, thousands of Sikhs get killed and their property burnt in Delhi in a violent reaction.
  • Chennai, Dec 1987 M.G.Ramachandran, the charismatic actor turned Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu died after prolonged illness at his residence. His death sparked off a frenzy of looting and rioting all over the state. Shops, cinemas, buses and other public and private property became the target of violence.
  • New Delhi & Parts of North India, Aug 1990 – The then VP. Singh Government decides to accept Mandal commission report which recommended 27% reservation for OBC candidates at all levels of Govt. services. Large scale protests erupted mainly in North India including self-immolation bids by students against co-opting the report.
  • Mumbai, Jan 1993 – Following the Babri demolition in Dec, 1992, what started as peaceful protests escalated into large scale communal riots in Mumbai between Dec 1992 and Jan 1993 where thousands of people died, properties looted and destroyed.
  • Thane, Mumbai, April 2001Shiv Sena Leader Anand Dighe dies in Singhania Hospital, Thane at a relatively young age of 50 following a cardiac arrest. As soon as the news of Dighe’s death broke, irate Shiv Sainiks went on a rampage in the premises of Singhania Hospital and set on fire the hospital.
  • Bengaluru, Sep 2016 – Supreme Court orders Karnataka to release of 15000 Cusecs of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu. Immediate violent reactions erupted with burning of TN registered vehicles and destruction of public and private property.

In all the above, one can notice that while the provocations are different – from a leader’s killing to another leader’s own demise to a political move to demolition of a religious symbol to an adverse Supreme Court judgement that too in different parts of the country, the reaction of the people followed a pattern. Violence, looting, mob fury, vandalism,…,…. leading to many deaths and large scale destruction of property.

This proves that as Indians we are a bunch of gullible emotional people. We can get easily provoked into carrying out what are supposedly unlawful activities that bring disrepute to the country and also affect us economically.

In any country’s timeline there are defining moments. Moments which change the destiny of the country for the good or worse. Our country’s history since Independence also is replete with such defining moments – some of them which we can be proud of and others which push our heads down.

I reckon that the Demonetisation call of 8th Nov, 2016 would be such a defining moment in our country’s history when it’s scripted later. I am not here to pronounce this based on the economic benefits of Demonetisation. The erudite are already doing it with media abound with pieces hailing and trashing the move in same breath. And frankly it is early days yet. However something else that is monumental is happening in the country which is what this post is on.

Going back to what I elucidated in the beginning of the piece, in our country we get easily provoked. And the result of the same is there for all of us to see. In this context let’s look at what’s been happening since that eventful address to the nation of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 8th November:

  • Bulk of currency in circulation was withdrawn and we were told to go Banks/Post offices to withdraw/exchange the old currencies before Dec. 30th
  • Since then there has been serpentine lines in front of banks.
  • Banks have been woefully short of currency as RBI’s supply chain right from printing to distribution has not been able to cope up.
  • Banks when they had currency only dispersed high value 2000 rupee notes.
  • ATMs have not been mostly functioning and if working for few hours, could give us just 1 note of Rs.2000.
  • The rules of withdrawal and exchange have been changing by the hour and have been the butt of new WhatsApp jokes by the minute! In fact the exchange goal post of 30th Dec. has been brought forward.
  • Both the TV and print media have myriad stories of how Demonetisation has affected the common man in urban and rural areas.
  • There have been many deaths attributed to Demonetisation in many parts of the country. Every day there are updates on the death toll in the media.

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It’s almost a month now and still the situation is fluid. As one can see that this Demonetisation gamble by the Govt. has presented to us – public many, many opportunities to get provoked.  But the one difference is we that have not got provoked. At least up until now. And I hope I have not spoken too soon.

The resultant emotional outbursts leading to violent reactions for events mentioned in the beginning are sometimes quite spontaneous (though it is still difficult to explain the reactions so very violent) but many times orchestrated to further political interests. In this case (Demonetisation) also we have seen few political parties trying their best to spin things out of control and bring the Govt. on its knees. But just that this time around, few things have been different:

  • The common public of all hue – have not taken to damaging of banks, burning of empty ATMs, attacking Bank officers, setting on fire currency vans,… even when they have been driven to heights of frustration.
  • There have not been blackening of faces of BJP leaders or burning of effigies of PM or the RBI Governor!
  • For the 1st time in my memory, political parties had to go a large length to explain that they were not supporting any Bharat Bandh supposedly after reading the citizens’ Anti bandh mood!
  • For the 1st time again in my memory, no political party has given the Demonetisation move a communal colour so far. Otherwise in our country any decision from awarding a Padma Shri to constructing a hospital is given a communal tint by commentators and vested interests very convincingly.

For the above reasons I would like to believe that the benefits or otherwise of Demonetisation notwithstanding, this move will emerge as a defining moment in India’s history – where the public of India completely toed the line of its Prime Minister, shunned the rhetoric of others, remained unprovoked and went through the grind.

I am not sure if we as a country will display such great maturity in reacting to unfavourable events in the future. But for now, let’s savour the Achhe Din!!! Shoba De in her today’s column calls 2016 – Annus horibilis! No, Ms. De – for this significant change in our public reaction, 2016 is in fact Annus mirabilis!!!

Toon Courtesy: Satish Acharya

Also read my other post on Demonetisation – “Cash Mukt Bharat” here!

Ad today, Sad Tomorrow – A Brand Ambassador’s soon to be story!!!

Since the time, Sindhu won a Silver and Sakshi a Bronze for India at the Rio Olympics, their phones (probably endorsed by a Kareena or an Alia) I guess haven’t stopped ringing. Or perhaps their managers’. For, many brands are on their way to signing them as brand ambassadors. For now it’s O.K., for Sindhu or Sakshi to sign on the dotted line in these endorsement contracts and make hay while the medal shines. However not if the Government pushes forth the changes in the Consumer Protection bill which proposes jail term and fine for celebrities in case of misleading advertisements for products they endorse. The intention being to make celebrities also responsible for products they endorse apart from the manufacturers. “Consumers tend to get influenced by the promise made by the celebrities in ads” is the argument behind the proposed move.

As a marketing professional I have never been very excited about using celebrities in ads to push a product. In B-schools every year, one popular project students carry out with the blessings of their professors is to find out the effectiveness of celebrities in an ad campaign. That the study is done regularly conveys that the jury is still out on that. At a superficial level though, it is commonly accepted that use of a celebrity helps break the clutter and differentiate the ad. Though as per me, this is “laid back, lazy creativity” as there are indeed many other ways to break the clutter. Using celebrities is of course a low hanging fruit for those with big budgets and is often deployed as a creative strategy when one can afford. I just realized that this piece is not on whether to use celebrities or not in ads. We will keep that for another Sunday. But on the proposed changes in the law which could stop the party on its tracks for the so called Brand Ambassadors.

Going back in time, I think ads whether print or TV just had people featuring in them and were called as models. And then slowly the practice of plugging in celebrities like actors, sportspersons,… crept in as I mentioned, probably to make the communication stand out. I am not sure when this “celebrities modelling” for an ad morphed into “endorsing the product” and then as we see now becoming “brand Ambassadors” for the company.

She looks like Sonia Sahni to me.

As long as celebrities “featured” in ads for products I guess they were just plain actors parroting some lines. But when they started endorsing brands (making a killing in the process) – that’s when I guess they came into the ambit of influencing buyers’ decision and of course within the prying eyes of lawmakers. In my understanding there are 2 types of celebrity endorsements. First, where a celebrity is used to promote a product which is related to what he/she is doing and is a direct endorsement. For example – A Sachin or a Kapil Dev being used to promote ‘Boost’- an energy drink for children. When Kapil says – “Boost is the secret of MY energy” there is a clear communication to moms that “if you want your child to become like me, do consider giving Boost to your kid”.  Or when Katrina Kaif says – “if you want a smooth skin like mine, use Lux Soap”!

The second category is where brands just use a celebrity as a face in the ads and the products may not be related at all. For example – Amitabh Bachchan featuring in Binani Cement ads.

And probably there exists a third category – where the product is not related to the celebrity’s field of normal work but companies tap into the credibility of the star to push their wares. Though this is not common, we have started seeing this of late. For example, when Cadbury’s wanted to make a comeback after they got hit by the “worms inside chocolate” tornado, they dialed in Amitabh. Amitabh featured in the commercial as “himself”. See the ad here. As you can see in this TVC, he was clearly putting his personal credibility at stake to communicate to consumers that with the many steps taken by the company, “All is well” with the chocolates!

(I’m not considering the social awareness campaigns using celebrities for the moment)

In the whole business of celebrity endorsements, many questions do arise. Do the celebrities who extol the virtues of brands use the product/service themselves? Have they first checked if the claims they are making are true? In the case of endorsing for investment projects,.. do the celebrities vouch for the credibility of the promoters?

The thinking behind the proposed changes in the law seems to be after many instances of consumers landing in the pit after they invested their hard earned money in projects which also had big stars endorsing the same.  At the same time, there have been so many cases where consumers lost money in projects where stars were not at all involved!

It is difficult to believe that consumers are so gullible that they buy a product just because a star endorses it. This premise seriously underestimates the intelligence of a consumer. If just a star endorsement can make a product tick, all those mobile phones with celebrity brand ambassadors must be outselling the I-phone isn’t it???

But whatever it may be, punishing celebrities for wrong claims of a product because they feature in the ads seems a bit farfetched.  A consumer is expected to do his/her bit before deciding to buy a product/service. More so in the case of big investments. Putting the blame on a M.S.Dhoni just because a real estate project he endorsed didn’t see the light of the day is sheer escapism, I believe. I think we should consider celebrities featuring in ads as enhancing the entertainment quotient and nothing beyond that. At the same time as a socially conscious individual a celebrity should be careful in lending his/her name or face to a product which has inherent health concerns a la Gopichand who refused to feature in Cola ads in his prime time! And also do a bit more homework on the credibility of the brand/promoter before signing on the dotted line for the next 1 crore endorsement deal. Or else post the new law it will be “Ad today, Sad tomorrow”!!!

Post script: Will be interesting to know in which category of celebrity endorsements does the Jio campaign featuring our PM fall into???😝😝😝