Can the ‘Gem of a scam” become “Gem of an opportunity’??

The debate on privatisation of Public Sector Undertaking (PSU) banks has a habit of rearing its head in public discourse in India with regular frequency. Not so long ago, it was when the PSU banks were hit by the NPA (Non-Performing Assets) crisis embodied by the likes of a fleeing Vijay Mallya. Later, it was when the Government finally took a call on recapitalisation of the PSU banks last year. And now, it is when the Nirav Modi – PNB scam, the latest to hit the Indian shores (and shares) surfaced. Yesterday even Arvind Subramanian, the usually reticent Chief Economic Advisor has joined the debate!

Reformists are of the view that the Government is betraying Winston Churchill again and again who famously said that “Never let a good crisis go waste” in the context of biting the PSU bank bullet. They are of the view that the repeated crises which hit the PSU banks provided a plausible excuse and “Gem of an opportunity” (pun entirely intended) for the Government of the day to privatize PSU Banks and thereby get out of the rigmarole of using tax payer’s money to keep bailing them out. The underlying assumptions being that the PSU Banks are run usually inefficiently and being under sarkaari control are subject to pulls and pressures.  While this is true for almost all PSUs in general, money being closer to the pocket and heart of the public, privatisation topic haunts the banks more. One cannot dismiss the very popular data point thrown in the above argument’s favour which is that the market cap of a relatively younger HDFC Bank which is privately held is higher than all PSU banks put together!

At the core of the argument against privatisation is of course the security it provides to the Aam Admi. Irrespective of what happens around the balance sheets of these PSU banks. The general public does believe that the Government will not let their savings go down the drain come what may. One remembers the furore and angst in WhatsApp groups recently when we were all told that our deposits above 1 lac are not safe if the banks go belly up. So, for any Government of the day, it is a minefield of a quandary to attempt privatisation of PSU banks unless it is completely politically immune to a public outrage and the after effects thereafter!

Be that as it may – the Government’s quandary I mean, the larger issue is the conflict bordering on hypocrisy in the minds of people like us which is – my direct stake in the bank by way of savings/deposits Vs my indirect stake in PSU banks by way of government’s stake which is in effect all our tax payer’s money. In short “My money” Vs “Our Money”! Nirav Modi has just swindled a government bank of few 1000 crores but that still is not “My money” though it is “Our Money!  And largely our outrage has stopped with laughing out loud (or is it laughing like Renuka these days?) looking at jokes, memes and sarcastic jibes on the Government while a smart cookie has “been crying all his way to the bank”! I think as individuals we are more concerned about the safety and security of our savings which we feel is protected if PSU banks remain as is – Government owned.  Even if that means

  • The Government of the day interfering in the day-to-day functioning
  • The Government mandating the banks to carry out populist programmes which may not make commercial sense but may make immense political sense to them
  • Mounting NPA’s due to favouring cronies of the likes of Vijay Mallya
  • The Nirav Modi kind of frauds due to conniving staff
  • Less accountability in the system.

At the end of the day, as along as the banks are Government owned, the only fix for all the above ailments is injecting more capital which is by tapping into tax payer’s money. It’s obvious that the same money if not used for bailing out banks could be put to use for better roads, power, water, electricity or even for that matter the proposed grandiose Health Insurance programme – stuff our country has been deprived of in the last 70 years since Independence.

The 1.6 billion dollar question is whether as tax payers and citizens we are okay and ready to let the government seize the opportunity and privatise the PSU banks? My guess is maybe we are not. And this stems from our socialistic belief that next to God, the Government is the savior and hence must protect us. And the constant fear associated with losing our money if not protected by the government.

In a country like ours which is evolving and is still a work in progress on many fronts like urbanization, education, social mobility,..,… the fear is mostly legitimate. Coupled with the fact that the private sector has not fully covered itself with glory. But the performance of the new private banks set up since the opening up of the economy in 1993, provide quite a lot of hope. For example, as far as we know, the new private banks are not part of the NPA problem.  Even during the 2008 Lehman shock, when all over the world financial institutions were rocked and many went belly up, in India none of the banks including the private ones were affected so much (though banks like ICICI had exposures to the subprime crisis) due to very strong regulations in India.  So, so far we could bank on these banks!

In summary, my point is may be if not all in one go, the Government could contemplate privatising PSU banks in batches of say 2 starting with the smaller ones. This will give adequate space to watch out for any pitfalls in the process and fine tune the same. This of course with the continued strong regulatory frame work in place.  The smooth completion of the ongoing privatisation of Air India may give the much needed heft to the Government.

With may be all banks out of governmental control in the next 10 years, the frequent exercise of tapping into “Our Money” to protect “My money” may be a conundrum of the past. The moot question remains if this current “Gem of a scam” will be turned into a “Gem of an opportunity” by the Government and that we as public will let that pass!

Postscript: Overheard in a lift: “These jewelers kept telling us that Diamonds are forever. But, they never told us that loans are also forever! Saala vaapas hi nahi kiya!!!

Toon courtesy: Satish Acharya

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Budget – The Annual celebration of Outlays!

It’s just about a week since the Annual Union Budget – supposedly the most important policy statement for any Government in power, was tabled in the parliament in India.  In these days of extremely limited attention span, the news and noise around the Budget are already done and dusted. The media has already moved on from analyzing the Budget to debating if an MP’s loud cackle is acceptable parliamentary behavior and if the PM’s witty riposte to that, will pass the test of a Nehru or a Vajpayee in parliamentary decorum! The only remaining nugget about the Budget I see in the media in the last couple of days is, as to who won the TRP war on the Budget day! For the television media, the annual Budget presentation is another TRP generating event in the annual calendar and hence the whipped up frenzy and hoopla around it.

For the past 20 years, I have also been a victim of the annual cacophony called the experts’ analysis of the Budget and in the same breath, culprit in doing my own analysis and critique. Over the last few years, it started dawning upon me that slicing and dicing the Budget and trying to evaluate the same as good, bad or average is an exercise steeped in foolhardiness. And so, this year apart from a cursory look at the highlights in the evening of the Budget day, I spent little time in that direction.

This distancing has nothing to do with this year’s Budget and its contents but on the way “we”, as a country carry out the discourse around the Budget. When I say “we”, this includes the Government, the Opposition, the political parties, the media, the Industry, the commentators and folks like us.  For years, I have been seeing that the reactions to the Budget proposals have become extremely predictable. The ruling party members give a huge thumbs up to the Budget and usually follow it up with head line making epithets. (Path breaking/Visionary,…)  While the finance minister is presenting the Budget, any announcement of outlay which is seemingly bigger than that of last year is welcomed with huge thumping of the desks by the treasury benches. The Opposition parties usually criticize the Budget calling it Inflammatory (if taxes are raised), Anti poor (if subsidies are cut), “What about implementation?” (If outlays are increased) and so on! And for other political parties, the famous Mile’s maxim applies – “where they stand on the Budget depends on where they sit” in the parliament. The Industry usually in front of cameras always give a 12 out of 10 to any Budget!  The media provides a ball by ball update on the stock markets as the Budget presentation goes on, as if the entire nation’s well-being depends on how the stock market reacts to the Budget on that day!  And we all know that the stock market yo-yos on the Budget day, without proper understanding of the provisions and settles down few days later.  The media commentators present a typically “On the one hand, on the other hand, having said that,..” analysis replete with clichés and Budget equivalent of Shastri’sms the next day in their columns. And with the advent of social media, Budget day in India is a Kaun Banega Economist? competition with you and me donning the hat of economists to hail/trash the Budget based on the outlay proposals and our own prejudices!  All this repeated itself this year as well.

In the din, what is completely missed is an analysis and report of the outcomes of the previous year Budget outlays. Budget after Budget, finance ministers announce crores and crores for initiatives and programmes. But as a tax payer, we never get to know the outcomes of those outlays. 13 years after the then finance minister P. Chidambaram spoke of “outlays versus outcomes” in his Budget speech of 2005-06, no mechanism is still in sight to measure the same. Take for example one such announcement in the last year Budget, which I clearly remember. The finance minister had announced that allocation under MNREGA was being increased to Rs. 48,000 crore from Rs 38,500 crore which was meant to be the highest ever allocation in all these years. And this was supposed to provide rural jobs, alleviate poverty in rural areas by improving rural incomes and at the same time end up building assets as well. One year hence after this historically high outlay, maybe I missed, but do we know exactly know what happened to this Rs. 48,000 crores? And this is just one outlay. A regular Budget speech is replete with outlays like this and more.

Another glaring example is the Nirbhaya fund. Announced among thunderous thumping of desks in the 2013 budget by the then UPA Government following the heinous Delhi incident, over 90% of the funds remain unused. Does that mean that rapes against women have declined? This is a classic case of an outlay not yielding the desired outcome and still being provided for, year after year!

My disenchantment with the Annual Budget exercise stems from this gap. Of celebrating outlays without knowing what the outcomes were! In the finance minister’s Budget speech a review of the past year is usually limited to the GDP growth rates and projected fiscal deficits against the targets. Even these get revised when the actual numbers come out some time in May/June and very few of us take notice.  The Annual economic survey does cover some of the trends but I don’t think even that covers specifically the results of the previous year’s outlays.

For a developing economy like India, we need more transparency. We should not be pushed to use instruments like RTI to just understand outcomes and expenditures!  And hence here are my suggestions:

  • In the start of the Budget session, before the Budget for the next year is presented, have a day to present the outcomes for the previous year’s outlays. Tell the people what worked and what didn’t. This will help to justify increase or cut outlays for the next year.
  • Typically our parliament has 3 sessions. In these sessions, have each of the ministry provide an update on the progress of the initiatives, programmes, outlays and status of outcomes announced in the year’s Budget. If not for all, have this mandatory for all key industries.

In Delhi circles, I hear that this government of Narendra Modi is a “Dashboard” government. In the sense, the PMO expects weekly/monthly/quarterly dashboard on their ministry’s accomplishments from all the ministries.  Why not extend this “Dashboard” governance to the parliament and get ministers to showcase their ministries’ performance to the people?

Even the media and the commentariat must devote time to analysing outcomes of previous outlays and bring it to the fore rather than just talking of the new outlays!

Thumping of desks by MPs and celebrating outlays on the Budget is passé.  Aim must be to let people celebrate outcomes by voting for you at the hustings!!!

Toon Courtesy: Satish Acharya (Sify.com)

Rajinikanth and creating his own playbook!

“Normal people go to a party on 31st Dec., but Rajinikanth forms his own party on 31st Dec.”! This joke got added to the myriad “legend of Rajinikanth” jokes that storm the internet in regular frequency usually before his film releases. His next film 2.0 is still few months away. But his career 2.0 finally got released.

What were hitherto just signals and hesitant testing of waters turned into a clearly stated commitment on the last day of 2017, when Rajinikanth announced his intent to enter electoral politics in Tamil Nadu. The journey from being a matinee idol, Superstar Rajinikanth to the Thalaivar Rajinikanth has begun in right earnest. It’s clear that Rajini now sees an opening in TN to make an impact amidst the current political vacuüm that has engulfed TN since the demise of Jayalalitha and the virtual retirement of Karunanidhi. And for common people, of what has now become a rudderless Turmoil Nadu, Rajinikanth is their beacon of hope.

Why did Rajini decide to take the plunge now?  If you map Maslow’s hierarchy of needs into Rajini’s life, he is probably past the first 4 needs (Physiological, Safety, Love & Belonging and Esteem) and now he is seeking “Self Actualisation”. Nothing else explains his craving today to jump into politics having been so successful in his film career. The point to note is, if he lived in a state like Maharashtra, probably he would have just walked into the sunset like a Dilip Kumar. But TN has a strong precedent of popular actors trying their luck with politics (with mixed success though) and hence has shown politics to be the path to Self Actualisation for any mega successful actor.  Explains Kamal’s recent fishing in political waters as well.

If you just go by history just in TN, you have examples of stars who succeeded big time in politics and who failed miserably. MGR, Jayalalitha count in the 1st category while Shivaji Ganesan, Vijayakanth and a host of others fall in the 2nd. These tried to emulate the MGR playbook which didn’t work. In another era and environment, to succeed, Rajini needs to create his own playbook today. For which, he needs to know not just his strengths and weaknesses but also limitations of his strengths. Just like how he knew these and managed well in his film career all these years.

Having been an extremely successful actor and elevated to being a legend in the last 20 years, his popularity, charisma and top of the mind recall among the masses in TN are unparalleled. So he starts with this huge advantage of connecting with the youth, women and the underprivileged instantly.

Rajini has thus far a super clean image. He is not known to have cheated people or swindled others’ money. Stories of him returning money to distributors when his films like Baba and Lingaa flopped have only helped cultivate the image of him as a person with high moral values.

Rajini’s other important and I would say deliberate approach has been to stay away from controversies. Being just an actor so far he has not felt the need to give his opinion about all matters under the sun. Also he never threw his weight around in matters which are unconnected with films and thereby managed to remain unattached. This has earned him more sympathisers than adversaries!

But succeeding in politics and becoming a ruler of a state needs more than just a charismatic leader. You need a grass root organization with credible leaders who will be connecting and engaging with people on a day-to-day basis. Here’s where I would like to bring in Rajini and a seemingly far fetched BSNL analogy.

In India, when BSNL got the license in the 2nd round for offering mobile phone services, it started off with a distinct disadvantage. That of, competing with established private players who had a head start in the market. However compared to the other private players like Airtel, Tatas who also got into the market late, BSNL had one great advantage.  The private players had to put up a cellular tower network in their respective regions from scratch, right from identifying location, incurring high capex in real estate, setting up towers,…  BSNL however, already had their established base of offices for landline phones in the nook and corner of the country. So BSNL had to just put up cell phone towers in their own office buildings and do the roll out. This explains the fact that even today when you travel to remote rural areas, Airtel/Vodafone,.. fail miserably while BSNL provides great connectivity. I notice this every time I travel to my native place in Kerala!

Akin to BSNL’s offices in the nook and corner of the country, Rajini, though new to politics, has his established organizational network of Fan clubs in the entire TN. This network needs to be activated to become what we call in Marketing as “Touch points” for people. And from the announcement speech, it appears that this is what is Rajini’s first task going to be! I.e. of organizing the fan clubs into political shaakas!

Tapping into the BSNL analogy again, in spite of having such an advantage in terms of an established infrastructure, BSNL did not manage to set the cellular phone market on fire. While in rural areas, BSNL could hold fort thanks to the superior coverage, in urban India it couldn’t match the nimble footedness of private players. The “sarkari” image and the sloth experience customers got to experience in BSNL’s touch points in urban centres didn’t at all help in getting users to try BSNL. As Rajini tries to activate the fan clubs across TN, it is important for him to give a different flavor for these fan clubs in rural and Urban TN to appeal to the different sensibilities.

This is where it is important for Rajini to have the right set of advisors around him. Those who will be able to translate his intent into set of initiatives that will impact the people. Here, he can go back to his model what he has been adopting in his film career. As far as his films go, Rajini had a very clear but simple approach. That is of selecting the right script and choosing his directors very carefully. Apart from bringing his personal heft behind the project and picking the director, he didn’t do much in terms of influencing the script or choosing his technicians and the cast,…,… beyond a point. Here he is very different from Kamal Haasan or even other top Tamil stars like Vijay. Surya, Ajit,… who I understand involve themselves in the film beyond just being the hero. Similarly, with a right team in place and a winning script in the form of a vision for the state of TN, Rajini should let the team carefully craft the roll out of the policy, programs and promises.  Having a right team is also critical as, in the world of competitive politics, Rajini, (an ageing star turned politician at 68 with health concerns) has to be “seen” on top of issues 24*7. This can only happen if he has a good team to lean on. The current set of ‘Fan club” leaders may not fit the bill entirely.

In marketing, Brand positioning is considered to be the most crucial element in the whole mix. How one positions the brand in the minds of the consumer differently with respect to competition defines the way the brand is remembered and adopted. And here I feel, Rajini has thoughtfully come up with a unique positioning i.e of “Aanmeega Arasiyal” (Spiritual politics). While we have heard of Secular politics and Developmental politics and politics of all hue, this is unique. In TN, Dravida parties and their variants for decades have professed Atheism, Care for the oppressed and all such lofty ideals but have practiced exactly the opposite. I feel that this positioning will resonate well with the urban middle class segment which has been enduring the hypocrisy of the Dravida parties for quite some time.  Having cracked the positioning bit, it’s important to live it up and be consistent around this positioning as time goes by.

If one would have noticed, since the 31st Dec, when he made the announcement to join electoral politics, Rajini has managed to remain in the news. Instead of doing everything on one particular day and keeping quiet subsequently (a la Kamal), Rajini has been carrying out his activities in tranches. Thereby remaining on top of the news clutter. A smart approach so far.

Rajini has thus far created his own playbook and has played his cards well. But politics is a long game. It will be interesting to watch his next moves and the outcomes. Whether this playbook helps him to succeed, only time will tell.

Usually when so called “Good people” join politics with a promise to bring a change, they end up changing themselves. But here, “Politics has joined Rajinikanth”. Hopefully politics gets a makeover. Or so many pray!

Pic courtesy: AFP

For Congress, time to have a Punjab Model!!!

For the Grand Old Party of India – the Congress, yesterday the 16th of Dec, 2017 was a historic day. Or that’s what the Congress and the media made us to believe. A day in which their long waiting scion, Rahul Gandhi was finally crowned as the President of the party a post held by his mother, father, grandmother, great grandfather and great great grandfather in the past. While it was a very natural event which needed to happen one day or the other, Rahul takes charge at a time when an arduous task lies ahead.  That of pulling the party from the woods which it has got into since 2014. But for Punjab recently, electoral successes for the party have been far and few between. But, all hopes are not lost. The ruling behemoth called the BJP may be clinically executing its mission of a “Congress Mukt Bharat” and coming close to achieving it as well. But that doesn’t mean that in a country like India, Congress is out for ever. As the “once party with a difference” – BJP grows, it cannot escape afflicting itself with the trappings of power and the downsides that come along with it. As the principal opposition party with a national footprint, the Congress can certainly hope for its time to come.  And Rahul Gandhi being the current heir of the “Gandhi turned Nehru parivar”, can also hope to become the Prime Minister of India, one day. I am not saying that this could happen in 2019 or even in 2024. But for a 47 year old, Rahul can certainly count on his chances sometime in the future.

Having said that, just counting on his chances or luck will not be enough to resurrect the party and become the PM of India. Not in these times. Certainly not with a competitor who is developing a sense of invincibility by the election. Tomorrow is the counting day for state elections of Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat and by this time, it will be clear if Rahul’s stars are in the upswing or they continue to betray him. The exit polls have not been kind. Anyway, irrespective of the final results, Rahul Gandhi needs to have a game plan for the next 20 years for his party. First, to become a formidable opposition to BJP and then to become a credible party of governance.  At a time when Rahul takes up the new mantle, this piece aims to provide some unsolicited advice in this direction to the Grand Old Party. That also means that this has nothing to do with what is going to happen with the Gujarat results. The advice is irrespective.

Now that the Congress has a clear face by way of Rahul Gandhi, it needs its own “Model”. While it can continue to attack NarendraModi and the BJP for all their fallacies, the question in the mind of the “unattached” voter is, what does Congress stand for today?  It’s my view that in general, core voters are loyal to their own parties, come what may. It’s the non-core voters who determine the swing and accordingly the winner. Today, the non-core voters are usually the urban middle class, women in general and the youth who have got into the voting net in the last few years. I have found that these groups are Ideology agnostic and make up their minds based on what is it for them as individuals. The youth of today are not aware of what Congress did or did not when it was in power for most part of 70 years in Independent India. Modi and the BJP have been very effective in reminding these voters of the omissions and commissions of the Congress. Hence, Congress needs to have a positive narrative of what they could do now, if they come to power which is different from the past and from what BJP is doing. The easiest thing is to showcase this in one state first. Take up a state where you are in power. Nurture an effective leader. Focus on governance. Do all what you feel BJP is not doing. Finally, Deliver, Deliver and Deliver. Make this a showcase. In short make this state a Model! And effectively “market” this model!

Today, the biggest issue with Congress is its credibility. There is no state which can be shown as a success story for the Congress. Congress had a great chance when it wrested back Karnataka from the BJP 5 years ago. But it has squandered its chances there with some lacklustre performance. As Karnataka goes to polls in 2018, Congress has its back against the wall.

Having missed the opportunity in Karnataka, the next bet for Rahul is to focus on Punjab, a state which Congress wrested from the SAD-BJP combine in 2017. With more than 4 years to go for the electoral test there, time is ripe for the Congress to demonstrate its capability and come up with its own “Punjab model”. It has nothing to lose and in fact everything to gain. It has just come to power in the back of severe anti-incumbency and promise of better governance. It has got a Chief Minister who I am told is an effective leader (Only time will tell) and who has a mind and brain of his own. Punjab is not a Bihar. It has been one of the wealthier states in the country. Agriculture and Industry have been thriving. So, for Congress to focus, identify the gaps in governance and focus on plugging them should not be difficult. In fact, Rahul should summon the entire might of the Congress in supporting the CM and ensure by 2022, the state is No.1 in terms of economic growth, infrastructure and social indices. And go for re-election with the narrative of its own “Punjab model”! 

In marketing, we often talk of a concept of “One-Three-Five-Many” by which we first successfully launch a product in one market, make it a success and then take it to three, five and then many other markets. I see no reason why Congress cannot follow the same. After making a success of Punjab, Congress then can focus on capturing few other vulnerable states in 2023 like MP, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan,.. which by then in all probability would be inflicted from severe Anti-Incumbency and fatigue. Having 3-5 major states in the pocket is when Congress will be in any serious position to take a shot at the Centre.

Immediately after BJP’s rousing win in UP this year, Omar Abdullah in part jest and part irony tweeted that the opposition should forget 2019 and start planning and hoping for 2024. Developing a marketable “Punjab model” by 2022 could be that plan and hope.  Or else, wait and watch for BJP to implode, Ram Bharose!!!

Postscript: While on this, cannot avoid but sharing this joke:

Congress worker: Sirji, for us to come back to power, we need a successful Punjab model.

RaGa: Why just one? We always have many successful models from Punjab:) 🙂

The rise and rise of the Censor Senas!!!

Acclaimed film maker Sanjay Leela Bhansali has again been engulfed in a controversy. This time around his soon to be released magnum opus Padmavati, which has enraged a section of people in North India –   Rajputs in particular, who have threatened to behead Bhansali, maim the lead actress Deepika Padukone apart from stopping the screening of his film. A few years ago, Bhansali had faced the ire of some religious groups over his film Ram Leela over the title. Bhansali then rechristened the film to Goliyon Ka Raasleela – Ram Leela and managed to get away. And his last movie, Bajirao Mastaani met with similar pre-release blues when activists from Maharashtra claimed that Bhansali was distorting history in the name of creative freedom. The film was finally released after Bhansali claimed that it was a fictional work. So, with all his rich experience in handling similar crisis in the past, hopefully Bhansali will get over this as well, even as I hear that the producers have deferred the release of the film.

Bhansali is not alone in this. In the past, quite a few filmmakers have gone through the harrowing experience of their film being threatened to be stopped. And the reasons varied from “hurting religious sentiments” to ‘distorting history” to “disrespecting past leaders” to “using Pakistani actors” to “hurting a particular community” to “against Indian ethos” and so on. Almost every month we have a film which gets caught in such a controversy at the time of release. Conspiracy theories abound that filmmakers often play with fire to stoke these controversies as a means to promote the film. In these days, where a film’s financial fate is decided on the opening it gets, one cannot dismiss these theories. Controversies help to “hashtag” the film for a few days and help to raise interest levels!  And then the producer gets into a “compromise” with the fringe groups in return for a safe passage for the film! And one cannot blame the producer for the same as few million bucks ride on each of these films!

These days, some fringe group or other raises a stink even before they have seen the film suspecting to hurt their sentiments just by going by the trailer and promotions. In the case of Padmavati, Bhansali got into trouble just as he commenced shooting when a group called the Karni Sena vandalized the sets at Kolhapur earlier this year. What perplexes one is how could they conclude that the film is going to hurt their sentiments even before the shooting commenced? Did they get to see the script? The Karni Sena chief admitted recently that though he not seen the film he had a “hunch” of what the film is about. Well, if only if we can find a way of utilizing their skills of prescience better like in weather forecasting,… we may be better off!

In effect, what we see is fringe groups taking the mantle of the censor board and becoming “Censor Senas”! Karni Sena, which was originally formed for securing the interests of Rajputs against discrimination, seems concerned only about the image of their clan as depicted in films as can be seen the last few times they shot into limelight – like before release of Ashotosh Gowarikar’s Jodha Akbar! During the release of Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam, I had opined that filmmakers may have to get their films certified by fringe groups on whom the film is about!  But it appears that not just fringe groups, but filmmakers may have to seek approval even from news anchors as we saw yesterday when the producers of Padmavati had an exclusive screening of the film for a few news anchors! So, Arnab Goswami apart from being the Prime time Prosecutor cum Defense lawyer and Judge now has turned a “Super” Censor Board member as well!  As things stand, in India, film makers may have to show their script, may be add a few scenes to glorify and take blessings from the “Censor Senas” and then commence shooting!

In all this, what comes under very close scrutiny is what the Govt. of the day does or doesn’t do in such circumstances. In this, no party has covered itself with glory. While our constitution has enshrined the Freedom of Speech and Expression as a fundamental right, as far as political parties are concerned it often is secondary. What is more important to them is the political impact of exercising that freedom. And they take umbrage under “Whataboutery” of such incidents of the past! I am certain that if the ruling govt. makes its intent clear right from the beginning that once the Censor Board clears the film for release they will ensure that they will provide the necessary support, the threats of stopping the film will lose its sting. But, usually it’s not the case. The party panders to the community overtly or covertly as per their electoral clout and plays to the gallery. Just like what the BJP government in Rajastan has done in the case of Padmavati or what the AIADMK Govt. did for Vishwaroopam. Then it is left to the filmmaker to broker peace with the protesters either financially or by tweaking content. Either way it doesn’t augur well for our country which often talks of promoting its soft power!

“Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins” is a quote often made in the context of freedom of expression. So, the argument is that no creator has any business of hurting sentiments of others and hence they should stay off topics like religion, community, biography of leaders, depiction of history, Indian culture,…,… If that is the case I am afraid that the only way out for filmmakers is to become a Rohit Shetty and churn out capers of the Golmaal variety!

On a serious note, while in a country where people are emotional and argumentative, aspects of religion occupy an important space in one’s lives, I do agree that it is important to respect the sentiments of others. However, any act of disrespect or alleged disrespect cannot be judged by people themselves. It was our former PM Vajpayee who once said “An answer to a book is another book!” in the context of banning a book! Similarly the answer to a film one doesn’t like, is to stay away from the film and not threaten to stop the film or vandalise the theatres!

Ergo, I feel that the role of the Censor Board becomes crucial while certification. As per its charter, the CBFC (Central Board for Film Certification) can refuse to certify a film on many accounts including some of the concerns espoused like disturbing communal harmony,… Once the film is certified for release by the Censor Board in its due wisdom, it should become the responsibility of the State to support the filmmaker with its release, if the situation warrants. With such an onerous responsibility, it also becomes crucial for the Board to have the right people as its members.  Here again, instead of treating Censor Board as a place for rewarding loyalists, considering the sensitivity involved, the Government of the day should pack this with eminent people from different walks of life who can carry out the job without prejudice.  At a time when as a country we are in the throes of “Arriving” in the world scene, we need minimum distractions.  Threat to Freedom of Expression must not be one. Time for the Censor Senas to Rest in Peace!

Postscript: This is my 150th post! A big thank you for reading, liking, commenting and at times sharing my posts! Your encouragement has always been a big driver!

Pic Courtesy: Amul 

Mersal, Mitron and the New India paradox!

For those outside of South India, a week ago, the word Mersal would have called for a detailed introduction. Today it doesn’t. The leaders of BJP in Tamil Nadu with their outbursts against Mersal, have ensured that the film became a National hashtag! I watched Mersal and frankly my take was that it was a regular masala pot boiler meant strictly for the actor Vijay’s fans.  Towards the end, Vijay gets into a monologue against the corrupt medical system in the country looking into the camera lens.  In between, he also trashes the recently introduced GST with what are clearly illogical and false arguments. Somewhere in the beginning of the film there is an innocuous line taking a dig at Demonetisation as well!

In Mumbai where I watched the film, there was no applause or whistle for the GST lines. Probably there were, in other parts of the country particularly Tamil Nadu. Enough for the TN wing of BJP to take offence and call for muting of these lines in the film. Some other leaders of BJP went further.  They dragged the religion to which the actor Vijay belonged – apparently Christianity and pointed out that, it was the reason there was another line in the film where his character says it is better to build a hospital than a temple in the village!

Inane arguments and counter arguments occupied national prime time in the week following Diwali and at the end Mersal, which would have been anyway a super hit became a super-duper hit. I’m certain that remaking rights in other languages will go at a fancy premium now. One can only get Mersalled (meaning “Amazed” in colloquial Tamil) looking at these developments!  The particular clip with the GST lines went viral that too with English Subtitles and what was just meant for Tamil Nadu is now being consumed by people all over!

The same last week we saw another “Mersalling” development. A short clip of a mimicry artiste by name Shyam Rangeela went viral on WhatsApp. In that clip, you can see Shyam doing an immaculately close mimic of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This act was originally part of a Star TV show – The Great Indian Laughter Challenge. But after the clip attained gigantic viral velocity, the producers decided to edit off this portion. I watched the clip and was “Mersalled” by the talent of this guy. His act of Modi was spot on, with liberal throw ins of Mitron and Bhaiyon Aur Behenon,..  just like how Modi does in his speeches.  After this development, I am sure his phone must be ringing endlessly and he has already become a mini celebrity in the highly competitive 24*7 sound bite seeking world!

Those who are tuned to the FM Station Radio Mirchi would be familiar with their very popular satire show “Mirchi Mitron”. In this satirical program again, there was a voice which could be identified with Modi having conversations on current topics with different people. Though this was popular, in a surprising move, this section went off air since early this year.

In all this, there is a clear pattern. Political satire in India is on a ventilator where pulling the plug comes easily. It looks like it’s no longer cool to take pot shots at the ruling party or its leaders. Either the party will take strong exception and flex its majoritarian muscle to come down heavily on the perpetrators of these satire (the Telugu version of the film Mersal is still languishing at the censor table) or eerily the creators develop a sense of self-censorship and exercise restraint (Like in the case of Star TV and Radio Mirchi). In any case, these don’t augur well for a New India!  Has New India’s leadership lost its sense of humour? Is political satire so damaging??

In the “Old India”, political satire was thriving and flourished peacefully. In Tamil Nadu, where BJP made a ruckus about few lines against the Government, one gentle man by the name of Cho Ramaswamy used to shred parties and their leaders with his sharp wit, that too for 60 years till his last breath last year. Being a man of multiple talents, he used multiple platforms – from Theatre to films to Magazines to TV to take his political satire to people. In his heyday, he didn’t spare any of the ruling party or its leaders. And naturally Indira Gandhi and her Congress party for most of his life were at the receiving end of his relentless jibes. Never to make a personal attack on his adversaries, Cho used wit, sarcasm and comedy to drive home the point. Later on, he trained his guns on the Dravida parties. The magazine Tughlaq was popular when he edited the same. His TV shows gained high TRPs among middle class Tamils. His plays were usually sold out. And the irony starts here. In spite of Cho’s continuous attack, Tamil Nadu was among the handful states in the country that withstood the Anti-Indira wave in the aftermath of the Emergency in the 1977 Loksabha elections. So, the people of Tamil Nadu enjoyed Cho’s satire but made smart, practical choices while voting in the elections! They used to vote for Congress at the centre and one of the Dravida parties at the state!  My point is that people by and large don’t take these political satire seriously. They do enjoy the same but make their own smart choices.

We keep hearing that the New India is about being confident, looking ahead and keeping insecurities aside.  But, it looks like the leaders in BJP do not think so. While I am not sure if the Prime Minister is himself against satire trained against him or his party, it is clear that in his party there are those who send clear signals to that effect. And that doesn’t augur well for the New India which the PM is persistently pitching for! So why not he openly invite Shyam Rangeela to perform the Mitron,… act in front of him in a public meeting in his next Man Ki Baat address???  That could be his best tribute to Cho, undisputedly one of India’s best political satirists whom Modi himself considered as one of his mentors and well-wishers!

Postscript: This is now part of folk lore. R.K Laxman had just caricatured Jawaharlal Nehru after the 1962 war against China in his own inimitable style. Did the TOI editor get a call from the PMO to demand an apology the next day? Well, Laxman got a call from Nehru himself the next day where he told him, “Mr. Laxman, I so enjoyed your cartoon this morning. Can I have a signed enlarged copy to frame?”

“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