Rajinikanth – Destiny’s Own Child?

This piece was written for the News site – The News Minute and was carried on 2nd April, 2021. It can be read here:

https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/why-rajinikanths-dadasaheb-phalke-award-richly-deserved-146395

It was few days into June in the year 2007 in Mumbai. Those were heady days for the Indian economy with frenetic activity in retail, real estate and in fact almost all spheres in India. Malls and multiplexes within them were the cool things those days. In the midst of that, I saw some huge excitement around the release of a Tamil film in Mumbai, probably for the first time.  FM Radio stations were talking non-stop of that film, adding to the build-up. The film was Sivaji – The Boss, directed by Shankar and the reason for the excitement was Rajinikanth, who by then had transcended the Southern borders and was a phenomenon across the country in what I would say the phase-4 of his still running career.

The film got a huge theatrical release even in Mumbai.  When I went to watch the film over the weekend at the nearby multiplex, there were kids, teenagers, young couples, middle aged folks and senior citizens of all hue, who had thronged to watch the film. The buzz was palpable and unprecedented. I have not seen any other Indian actor who commands such a following across age groups, across class divide, across genders, in short across anything, till today.

I don’t think anyone would have foretold such a rise for Rajinikanth way back in 1975 when he literally “entered” into the world of films with Apoorva Raagangal pushing a huge gate in his entry scene. That scene in a sense remains metaphorical of his career in films. He had to push hard the prevailing stereotypes for an actor to establish himself in phase -1 of his career where he was doing support roles, many of which alongside Kamal Hassan, who was already an established star. Much credit is due to director K.Balachandar who saw something in him which others didn’t and mentored him as he evolved into a bankable hero. In this period, what made him stand him apart was not so much his acting prowess but, his screen presence and mannerisms which became to be branded as “Rajini style” in years to come.

The same “Rajini style” packaged with some raw energy on screen carried him through to become a sole hero in films in what will be the phase-2 in his career. Even as he started delivering hits as a hero, there were still questions around his acting skills. Comparisons naturally ensued. If it was MGR Vs. Shivaji in the previous era, it was Kamal Vs Rajini in that era. In those pre-social media times, there were endless arguments on who was better with Kamal camp emphasising on his versatile acting talent while the Rajini camp was pitching in for his wider appeal among masses. But given an opportunity by way of meaty roles, Rajini did prove himself as a consummate actor in films like Mullum Malarum,  Aarilirunthu Arubathu varai, Engeyo Ketta Kural, Thillu mullu to mention a few. Yet, Kamal, the “Class actor” Vs Rajini, the “Mass hero” debate went on unabated. After every film release of either of these stars, I remember our group of film buffs in our engineering college re-opening the debate and ending without a conclusion. There were no hashtags way back then to monitor the trends and announce victories.

It’s in the mid 90’s post Baasha, however, that something changed. Rajini’s appeal then started transcending all boundaries. Young and the old, privileged and not so privileged, urban and the rural, educated and not educated, men and women, Software geeks and accounting professionals – he endeared himself to one and all. Soon, Kamal Vs Rajini debates ceased to exist.  Rajini films were simply too entertaining and he himself became that mass entertainer. While most of Rajini’s films then followed a standard template of “riches to rags to riches” hero, in real life though, from one phase to another his career graph went only one way – Up.

From then on, what happened to him and his career are stuff that dreams are made of. Looking back, here was a guy who was defying all established norms and conventions for a Tamil film hero. Rajinikanth was not conventionally “good looking”. He was not fair skinned or even brown skinned – again a much needed specification for heroes at that time. His grip on the Tamil language and dialogue delivery were not up to the mark. He had not come from the “stage” background which was very common for most actors those days. He did not possess the best dancing skills either. And finally in terms of histrionic skills, there were better heroes around.  In short, he did not fit into the established grammar of a hero. Yet, he became the reigning Superstar of Tamil cinema. In all of these phases, he had the backing of talented screen writers and directors who knew how to package Rajinikanth on the big screen.

All the so called inadequacies didn’t prevent him from making a lasting impact on the audience. For sure, he picked up on his acting skills as time passed by.  He made up for the lack of everything else with his sheer screen presence. He turned his dialogue delivery style into his own with his baritone voice. On screen, he was always a man of high energy. And there was an element of style in his movements which people simply loved. In his own admission, more than his strengths, he was aware of his short comings and decided to work within them.  And more importantly like MGR, Rajini had the pulse of his fans. He was very choosy about the subjects he did and the film makers he worked with. While he was hands off in making of his films, in this phase, Rajini always had the final say on what made it to the final cut.

This phase -3 of Rajinikanth’s career is interesting in more ways than one. Before, commercial films were labelled “Masala films” a category in which Rajini ruled. With his films like Baasha, Muthu and Padayappa, Rajini now created the “Mass” film category and owned it for a long time. Mass films came with “Mass scenes” which became iconic.  Normal lines when mouthed by Rajini repeatedly in a film became punch dialogues.  Today, almost all stars across languages have made mass scenes and punch dialogues necessities in their films.

It is this mass adulation of whatever Rajini did, that pitch forked him to become the phenomenon he is today. Beyond the borders of Tamil Nadu or even South India, his films are eagerly awaited even in Non-Tamil speaking states of India. Not to forget the surprising admiration he earned in Japan since Muthu. It can be safely said that Rajinikanth is the biggest entertainer Tamil cinema has ever seen till today and he continues to be so.

At 70, Rajinikanth is at the December of his career. However he is not done yet. The opening his film like Kabali got, is the envy of many young stars. Even today, the expectations and the frenzy his new film release generates across all age groups are unmatched. The last few of his films might not have matched his all-time hits of the past due to poor story lines and screen play but, Rajini himself gave a good account for himself with his performances.

It’s only apt that the Government of India chose to honour Rajinikanth with the Dadasaheb Phalke Award now as he completes 45 years of stardom in cinema, that too without a break.   Notwithstanding the timing of the award which has set some tongues wagging, Rajinikanth the phenomenon truly deserved the Dadasaheb Phalke award or rather as the memes would go – Dadasaheb Phalke award truly deserved the Rajinikanth! After all, he is indeed Destiny’s own child, isn’t it?

Tamil Nadu Elections – A Battle of Known Unknowns!

In this week’s blog post, I continue my focus on Tamil Nadu state elections which is turning out to be a fascinating battle as the polling date comes closer. West Bengal elections and the results therein may be interesting for the commentariat for the sheer noise value around it because of the time and efforts being invested by BJP and Modi-Shah combine. But, I do feel that West Bengal is a simple and straight contest between TMC and BJP and the unknown in terms of result is only the margin of victory for the TMC and the extent of rise of the BJP in West Bengal.  In Tamil Nadu though, as it stands now, even with just few weeks for the poll date, the water is still muddy.

The reason for the same is there are many known unknowns in these elections that could impact the results in either way. What are those?

  1. Anti-Incumbency: Is there an Anti-Incumbency? The answer it seems depends on to whom the question is posed.  For a DMK supporter, there is an obvious anti-incumbency wave against the present EPS-OPS government. However for an ADMK supporter, there isn’t. There is a version which says even if it is, it is not strong enough to swing votes away from the ADMK. And finally there is one which says that few months ago there was but now there isn’t.
  1. Consolidation of Hindu vote: Will there be a consolidation of the Hindu vote in favour of the ADMK/BJP front? This is the first election in TN where BJP is making a serious attempt to make its presence felt. And it has been at it systematically in the last few months. In social media, there are orchestrated campaigns by BJP to make the Hindu vote count by appealing to the Hindu voters to reject the DMK based on its leaders’ past public utterances against Hindus and Hindu Gods. Yet, it is unclear if the campaign will lead to a consolidation of the Hindu vote and help the ADMK front.
  1. Kamal Haasan effect: Is Kamal Haasan’s party the Makkal Needhi Maiam going to split the ADMK votes or the DMK votes? It is clear that Kamal Haasan and his party are creating a buzz in the air this time. Targeted at those who are fed up with the Kazhagams in general, it is aiming to be an AAP in Tamil Nadu by being a third alternative. But it is obvious that it has not penetrated enough to form a government on its own and will lend support to one of the fronts in a post poll scenario. While the earnestness and honest image of Kamal are not questionable his personal ideology is. As an atheist and a non-believer, he is seen closer to the DMK ideology. At the same time, by calling himself as MGR’s ‘vaarisu’ he tries to appeal to the MGR’s supporters and legacy in the ADMK. It is also said that the youth are more drawn to Kamal. So, which section is he going to impress? Is he going to cut into DMK’s share or ADMK’s share or a bit of both? It is unclear.
  1. Freebies: In the battle of freebies and cash for votes, which side is showing more “catching” power? Tamil Nadu which usually has a paucity of rains, in election season shows a huge propensity for downpours. This season also, it is raining freebies from all sides. Whether the underprivileged and deprived class cast their vote depending upon the freebies being provided is a question which is unanswered. And there is also the phenomenon of distribution of cash to turn up to vote. Can the distributed cash provided an “aadhaar” proof of vote cast is a big question.
  1. Battle of narratives: On the one side from the DMK front, the narrative built is of a threat perception. Of Tamil Nadu succumbing to the Centre or BJP if the ADMK front is voted to power. On the other side from the ADMK front, it is the threat of handing over TN to one family which has always benefitted whenever it ruled. Between these two narratives – the first pegged around identity politics and weak leadership and the second around nepotism and corruption, which has more potential to gain ground?
  1. Leadership question: The last is the leadership question. This is the full first state election in Tamil Nadu without strong and charismatic leaders in both sides. Between Stalin and Palaniswami, is there a voter preference based on their leadership skills? Or is leadership an issue at all in this election?

All these known unknowns make the upcoming Tamil Nadu elections a tough one to call and a fascinating one for any political observer.  But one thing is clear. The stakes for not losing are quite high for all the main contenders except one. And you know which that one is. And that is a known known.

Graphic courtesy:  The Hindu Business line

Budget -21, Reform push and Time to Market!

There have been budgets in the past which have sort of quickly moved away from the headlines. And there have been budgets which remained in the headlines but for all wrong reasons. This year’s budget, incidentally the 8th one from the Modi Sarkar presented by Nirmala Sitharaman has managed to hog the limelight for all the “right” reasons. The pun here is well intended.

Talking of the reaction to this government’s previous budgets, it’s always been muted and for obvious reasons. Ever since Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister way back in 2014 that too with a clear majority, the expectation has been that he will bite the bullet on many of the much needed, long pending reforms. Honestly, the previous budgets of the Modi Sarkar were mostly incremental budgets with some increased allocations here, some improved programs there and so on. “What’s the Big Idea”? ‘Where are the Big bang reforms?” were some questions hurled by the commentariat post every budget. It has been my observation that under Modi, the budgets have just become an annual statement of allocations and outlays while Big Ideas whether it was the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or the Ujjwala Yojana et al were launched outside of the budget. But in this year’s budget, there has been a welcome change to announcing some “Big Ideas”.

The positive vibes around this year’s budget can be attributed to the announcement of few big ideas which have been reformist in nature, while keeping the budget free of any “bad news”. One is the announcement of the setting up of an Asset Reconstruction Company (ARC) which is a euphemism for a “Bad Bank”. Second, is the statement of intent on “privatisation” of two Public Sector Undertaking Banks and one General Insurance company. So far, governments have been taking umbrage under the term – Disinvestment without putting out the word “Privatisation” so openly.

Not just the budget, but the announcement has been followed up by speeches in the parliament and other forums by those who matter in the government, on the seriousness of the intent. In fact, as per news reports, Niti Aayog has recommended to cut the number of state owned Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) to just 24 from over 300 that exist today. If this programme takes off, it will make Modi a reformist of “Thatcherian” proportions. If you recall, Margaret Thatcher way back in 1979, on assuming power systematically embarked on a reform program to revive the British economy. She deregulated markets, cut tax rates, removed exchange controls and consigned militant trade unions to oblivion. But, it is the privatisation of State owned corporations like British Steel, British Petroleum, British Telecom and British Airways that stays as her enduring legacy till today. So, what Thatcher achieved in the early 80’s in the United Kingdom is what Modi is embarking to do in India after forty years. That brings to the next point of this post which is the important piece of “Time to Market”.

In business, Time to Market is nothing but the time taken by a company to launch a product or a service from the date of firming up on an idea.  For companies, this is an important issue in new product introductions.  In businesses that are highly competitive or for that matter any business, you cannot afford to have a long Time to Market.  That would run the risk of your competitor getting ahead or consumer preferences changing that makes the idea less relevant or even redundant.  I believe that even in the matter of reforms for a government, a short Time to Market is critical. And as a country, our track record on that front is unenviable so far.

In the context of reform push, I believe there are three stages namely – Idea, Intent and Implementation. First, the idea is just floated in a budget speech or on important occasion/forum. Then the Intent is demonstrated when the idea is given a proper shape, laws are formulated if there is a need and resources are allocated.  Implementation is when finally the reform becomes a reality and is rolled out. So, in India if you see the history of Time to Market on important reforms, it doesn’t pose a pretty picture.

For example, take the case of a reform like Aadhaar. The idea and need for a unique citizens identity card was floated way back in 2001 by an Empanelled Group Of Ministers (EGOM) chaired by the then Home Minister L.K. Advani during the Vajpayee led NDA regime. It was only in 2009, when the intent was demonstrated by the UPA government led by Manmohan Singh with the announcement in the budget and then following it up with the set up if UIDAI (Unique Identification Authority of India) under the leadership of Nandan Nilekani. And finally, the first Aadhaar card was issued to a citizen in September 2010. So, from the idea to the launch it took a good 9 years. In the case of GST, from the time of the floating of the idea way back in 2000 to showing the intent in the budget in year 2005 to finally launching GST in India in 2017, it took seventeen years.

In the case of the policy of allowing 100% Foreign Direct Investment in retail however, from the stage of the Idea to Intent to Implementation, the landscape of retail has changed. India doesn’t still allow 100% FDI in multi brand retail. This was seen as an important reform in attracting FDI and employment generation a decade ago. But now with the advent of E-Commerce where 100% FDI is allowed in the marketplace model, 100% FDI in Multi-brand retail is no longer seen as a constraint. In other developing countries like Thailand foreign direct investment in retail gave a huge boost to the economy. But India missed that boom because of the dogma around FDI in multi brand retail which stretched the Time to Market on that reform.

Ergo my point is, if the reforms which have been announced in this budget have to make an impact, short Time to Market is critical. Having floated the Idea of a Bad Bank, it is important to follow up quickly with the formation of the ARC and eventually roll it out within this year itself so that the PSU banks can be freed of the stressed loans and they can get back to lending with more ease. Similarly, in the case of privatisation of PSU Banks, the idea has been floating for a while now. But this is the first time, the government has expressed its formal intent via the budget speech. The road to privatisation is not going to be easy at all with trade unions already gearing to pick up the gauntlet with the government. I though believe just as the mass VRS issue in PSUs like MTNL and BSNL etc. went through in spite of stiff resistance from trade unions, this time, the government may be able to pull it off with a few hiccups. Or so I hope.  Also, while the stock markets are on a high this year, the government can manage to get better valuations.

In the run up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Modi repeatedly talked of “Less Government, More Governance” and “Government has no business to be in business” – thoughts which signalled a clear Rightward tilt on the economic philosophy front. However, till this budget speech, we didn’t see much of action towards withdrawing the government from running many businesses. This budget from that sense is critical in signalling the government’s intent towards moving away from running inconsequential businesses, which is a good sign. And, if the intent is translated into action in a reasonably short Time to Market, then it will be Narendra Modi’s lasting legacy in changing the economic course of this country.

Post Script: If Aandolanjivis are those who make a living out of protests, what about taxing them? And what would be the Time to Market for this idea? 😁

Gabba Win and the the many Demons it exorcised!

This piece was written for the News site – The News Minute and was carried on 24th Jan, 2021 It can be read here:

https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/india-s-historic-gabba-win-and-many-demons-it-exorcised-142077

It was September 22, 1986. If Chennai had four seasons, it’d have been a nice pleasant autumn day. But since Chennai has only one season, it was just another hot and humid day. It was the fifth and final day of the first test between India and Australia. The previous day ended with Australia still batting at 170 with the loss of five wickets. With a lead then of 347, one expected the Aussies to continue batting for a session or two to build a lead of over 400 before they contemplated a declaration. So, a dreary draw was the anticipated outcome of the match. A crowd of just 10,000, a modest turnout at Chepauk by any standards, showed up to watch the proceedings.

Things, however, changed as the fifth day’s play began. Allan Border, the Aussie captain, decided to add some spice to the proceedings by pressing an outcome, which in his mind was the only one – a win for Australia. Australia declared their innings at their overnight score of 170 for 5, setting a challenging target of 348 for India to win. The probability of an Indian win at that stage seemed a fantasy. But, when Srikkanth in his usual flamboyant style got off to a quick start and later Sunil Gavaskar and Mohinder Amarnath put up a solid partnership reaching 150 runs with the loss of just one wicket, hope started swelling. So did the crowds at Chepauk. Elsewhere, Indians started looking for excuses to settle in front of a television set to get a glimpse of the live action.

By the time the last 20 mandatory overs started, India was sailing comfortably with less than a run a ball required and seven wickets in hand. It appeared that the top order came with a resolve to win as desired by the Indian captain, Kapil Dev. With a solid knock of 90 from Gavaskar, a steady 51 from Amarnath and a stylish 42 from Azharuddin, things were going as per plan for India. And then all of a sudden, two quick wickets to the wily off-spinner Greg Matthews put India in a spot of bother. In walked Ravi Shastri, who was in an infallible zone in that period. With a mature head on his young shoulders, he was touted as the next big thing of Indian cricket. He sized up the situation and even as wickets were falling at the other end, kept his cool and batted sensibly as the situation demanded.

Cut to the last over, India needed just 4 runs to win. And Aussies just a wicket. Shastri by now was batting with Maninder Singh, who was the last man in for India. Matthews, who had a golden run in the innings so far, was pressed into action for the final over. With Shastri on strike, India was just one stroke away from an epic win. Shastri defended the first ball and scrambled to take two runs off the second ball. We were now just 2 runs away and Aussies a wicket away without giving a run, for a win.

Now, what Shastri did with the next ball would become a matter of intense debate for days, months and years together. He played a cricketing shot and took off for a single, thereby giving tailender Maninder the strike. That brought the scores at level. One run in the next 3 balls would have given India a historic win. A wicket off the next 3 balls would tie the match. And that’s what happened. Maninder successfully defended the fourth ball but in the next ball, got wrapped on his pads and umpire Vikram Raju lifted the dreaded finger to give him out. Even as Maninder stood his ground trying to indicate that it was bat and pad, it was all over. History was made as the match ended in a tie, only for the second time in cricketing test annals.

After the match, I remember the heated discussions in homes, offices, colleges, local trains, in the media and so on. The crux being: ‘Did Ravi Shastri do the right thing by taking that single? Instead, should he not have kept the strike and gone for the winning two runs?’ Shastri himself defended his move vehemently saying that by taking that single, he ensured India “did not lose”.

For the Aussies, the result came as a huge relief. After declaring with an intention to win, had they lost the match they’d have been roasted back home. A tie was an acceptable middle path. For the Indians, though the tie result was not a defeat in the technical sense, it was an opportunity to win that was lost. This tied test match, which we could have won, remained a demon that was not exorcised. Well, till last week.

Indians like me who belong to the Doordarshan generation have been used to attaching priority to ‘Not losing’ instead of ‘Winning’. And that is not without reason. Who can forget the agony we went through when we lost to West Indies by 38 runs chasing a paltry score of 120 at the Bridgetown Test in March 1997? Or for that matter, the collective depression the country went through after the narrow 16-run defeat to Pakistan at Chepauk in January 1999.

Even on the last day of the Gabba test, the resounding sentiment among a majority of Indians was, I guess, even if we draw the match we’ll still be able to retain the Border-Gavaskar trophy. So, it was such a revelation to see the current generation of cricketers like Rishabh Pant, Shubman Gill and Washington Sundar not being satisfied with a ‘Draw’ result and going for a win. And what a win it turned out to be.

And the win at Gabba came close on the heels of a well-fought draw in the previous test at Sydney, which in itself was not expected. For Ravi Shastri, who happens to be the coach for the Indian team, the win at Brisbane must have brought closure to the Chepauk test tie. By egging the team to be fearless and go for the win instead of settling for a draw and finally achieving the same in a test after being down and out, Shastri has managed to have the last laugh.

Much has been talked and written about the historic Indian win at the Gabba. Suffice it to say that this one win has managed to exorcise the demons of that ‘Tied Test Match’ of 1986 against the Aussies. Wait a minute. In one stroke, the Gabba win has managed to exorcise wholesale all those demons of the narrow misses of the Indian team thus far in test cricket. Period.

Nothing Private about this!

Ever since, WhatsApp informed all its users of its new update on the privacy terms with an option to accept or “else”, debates and discussions have been happening on whether to move out of WhatsApp or just agree and continue. Irony lost its privacy when all these discussions have been happening predominantly over WhatsApp itself!

In the meantime, rival platforms like Telegram and Signal have seen a huge traction in terms of new users. WhatsApp has been trying to put out the fire through full page ads in mainline newspapers insisting that the new changes are not of any material consequence. And finally, it took a call to put off the effective date for the new policy till at least May which was earlier the 8th of Feb. Hopefully the chatter on this issue will reduce in the coming days. For the rival platforms and media companies though, in these tough times, this has become a bountiful New Year present from the Facebook Corporation.

I personally have been trying to wrap my head around what’s the brouhaha about and what should I do. Privacy is indeed a major issue. But the moot question remains as to where do we draw the line on it. With the advent of technology first in the form of computers, internet, Networks, the Mobile phone and now Apps for anything and everything under the Sun, it is clear that life has become more convenient. At the same time, it is also clear that all these invade a lot into our privacy.

The last time when the issue of privacy entered the drawing room discussions in India was when the Government of India was pushing Aadhaar linking to bank accounts, mobile phones, IT returns and so on. The move was challenged in Supreme Court and post the verdict which sent mixed signals, we don’t see so much push on the Aadhaar front these days in terms of linking with anything and everything. Aadhaar has now been relegated to just being one of the requirements for identity proof.  This is unfortunate because, when Aadhaar was envisioned by Nandan Nilekani and his team, the scope was to use Aadhaar for delivery of many of the Government services. There was also a talk of a virtual Aadhaar Bank. All those big ideas lost their way now due to the battle which a few launched on the privacy front against Aadhaar.

I was then of the opinion that all those who use mobile phones, who are active on social media, who use tools like Google search and maps and so on should never complain about privacy. As part of their functioning, they anyway track the users. So the question of privacy doesn’t arise. The only way to protect one’s privacy is not to use them at all. Even the congressional questioning which took place in the US against Facebook, Google etc.… did not lead anywhere because, at the end of the day, as users we choose to use the tools and accept the conditions that define the usage of these tools. We all have the choice not to use them at the expense of convenience in life.

My position around the new changes in WhatsApp and the next steps, veers around the same points.  If you are a user of Google search, Maps, Mail and the works, anyway a lot of your activity is tracked and shared across platforms. And today, I came to know that our off Facebook activity say in other Apps are being shared with Facebook by the Apps for which we have signed up and accepted the terms of usage! It’s ironical that many who complain about the new update in WhatsApp continue to post “Check in” and “Check Out” status on Facebook!

I also realised that more than the issue of actual privacy, the inhibition towards WhatsApp’s new policy has come from “Big Corporate phobia”. I remember reading in Philip Kotler’s Bible on Marketing that large corporates and market leaders are always prone to becoming victims of negative public reactions frequently and so the Marketing team in such large companies should be equipped to pro-actively sense this and strategize accordingly. Had this privacy update notice come from a smaller player, the response would have been muted. But because it was from WhatsApp which is this humungous communication monster today that too owned by another monster called Facebook, the noise became louder.  And looks like the marketing team there hasn’t read Kotler!

I feel a bit lazy and hassled to ditch WhatsApp now and start using another messaging App say like Signal knowing very well that Signal could be acquired by Google or Facebook tomorrow. And what stops the rival Apps from changing their privacy policy tomorrow? And also even after moving to another App for some group activities, if I have to continue with WhatsApp for other groups, it is a pain to dabble in multiple platforms, not to mention of the erosion in the available memory space on the poor mobile phone.

WhatsApp has turned out to be one of the most convenient mode of instant communication today and has become ubiquitous. So ubiquitous that WhatsApp has become a verb. You don’t send a picture over WhatsApp but you just WhatsApp it! It is indeed convenient and it has been free all along. It has broken all kinds of class barriers. It will take a while to completely sign out of this presently. Not that it is not probable. (Remember Orkut?)

Back in 2014, when Facebook acquired WhatsApp for a staggering US$19bn, the first question that came up in our minds was, what all will Facebook do to monetise WhatsApp? What’s been happening of late with WhatsApp is part of the answer to that question. The launch of WhatsApp business accounts, WhatsApp Pay and probably a virtual WhatsApp Bank are all steps to add revenue streams to the company.

It appears that there are two options now. One, if I am so concerned about my privacy, I have to ditch my smart phone, become smart myself, stay away from social media and stop using all the convenient Apps. It’s like going back in time to another era altogether.

The second option is not to get so concerned about the privacy threats and continue to use technology but be conscious of what we do and what we share on Apps and platforms and hope and pray that all’s well that ends well. For now, I have chosen the 2nd option. What about you?

If you like this post, do share among your WhatsApp groups or any other platform you have taken to of late. Thank you.

Pic Courtesy: NBC News

Thank God It’s a New Year!

In all these years so far in my life, never have I seen such wholesome relief in people on the passing by of a year. Year 2020 has been one of a kind. Not that there have been bad years before. But in the past, a year would have been labelled annus horribilis probably due to a natural calamity, a sad event/s, an economic bad spell and so on. Also, it so happens that a year turns out to be worse for some regions/countries in the world and better for others. But 2020 turned out to be a disaster for almost most part of the year due to the Corona Virus which did not spare any part of the world. The same time last year, as people ushered in another New Year with the usual sense of happiness and glee, none saw it coming. By April, the world was scrambling to lock itself down to save itself from the raging pandemic. Even as I write this, the pandemic is not behind us fully.

Any New Year usually brings in a ray of hope. A hope for better things to come.  2021 I guess, has been mankind’s most anticipated milestone. And people have not just been looking forward to a ray of hope but a landscape of hope. One just wanted to leave behind the horrors of living through a pandemic year and lead a normal life.  By the end of 2020 if you had asked me to name the phrase I hated the most, it was ‘New Normal’.  It still is.

Coming to India specifically, the year 2020 indeed turned out to be bad. Yet, I would reckon that we as a country came out of it relatively unscathed.  Of course the economy took a humungous hit. Of course lives were lost. Of course the common man had to go through hardships. Of course senior citizens had a tough time coping up. Of course people lost jobs. Of course migrant labour had to migrate without a hope. Of course earnings of people took a beating. Yet, if one looks at the situation now, we should consider ourselves fortunate to have bent the curve decisively, got away with fewer deaths per million compared to many other countries and be in a position where life seems to be getting back to the “Old Normal”!

Leaving aside data and statistics, there are other reasons that made me say that as a country we came out relatively unscathed.  First our size. We are a population of 1.3 billion. Second, most of the cities and towns in our country have a very high population density. Also, much of the population does not have the luxury of space. Third, our general civic standards though improving by the day, still has a long way to go.  Fourth, our propensity to not follow rules and not be disciplined overpowers our propensity to follow rules and be disciplined. Fifth, our overarching credo of ‘Chalta hai’ has ingrained in us an attitude to take things lightly without getting overly concerned. And finally, the lack of adequate medical infrastructure in the country. All this doesn’t at all augur well for a country like ours to handle a pandemic like Covid. Add to this, the complexities of being a democracy and a federal democracy in that where, a central writ cannot run across the country! Throw in the fact that this is the first time that a Covid like pandemic of this scale has stuck India because of which we don’t have established SOPs or tribal knowledge to handle the situation. All these are recipes for nothing else but social tension and unmitigated economic disaster.

The reality as it panned out has not been so bad.  There has been no visible social tension in the country. The only tension we see these days is “Social media tension” between those who support Prime Minister Narendra Modi and those who oppose him. In fact, the not so privileged have shown tremendous resilience in dealing with the crisis. During the last few months, I have been in constant touch with a cross section of common people who touch our lives and who would have been the most affected due to the extended lockdowns. They have all taken the unfortunate fallout of the pandemic in their stride and have got back to their normal lives now. None of them blamed the government for what it did or what it didn’t do. They all politely refused any offer of support and claimed that they were managing fine. This picture is totally opposite to what one gets to read in columns of the commentariat where the Modi Government’s lock down is being pilloried for what it would have inflicted on the poor.

Further, as an economy we seem to be bouncing back quicker and better than expected. To quote economist and famed columnist Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar from one of his recent columns, he says, “First, India has proved far more resilient than expected after the terrible first quarter of Covid. Second, India has been resilient despite having among the smallest fiscal stimuli among major nations.” Again, we have managed without actually doling out cash support which was what was touted as the silver bullet for stimulating the economy by almost all the top economists except those who were advising the Government.  Looking back, unlike a country like US where people like to spend, Indians are conservative in nature and would like to save for the rainy day. So, in a pandemic situation, I feel that people would not have spent even if money was transferred to their accounts. Instead, it would have only been kept aside for savings, which in the final run would have been detrimental to the cause of stimulating the economy. In that sense, the approach of the Government in providing free food grains to the needy or loan support for small businesses etc. seems wiser steps for a country like India.

The New Year has been rung in India with the best possible news of the approval of the vaccine for Covid.  Based on the last few months trend, it is clear that the manufacturing and allied industries are on a re-bound. With the dip in numbers and the availability of vaccine, hopefully, the services sector like Travel, Hospitality, Tourism, Food & Dining and related verticals will also see a quick recovery after which, we can say that we are reaching a “Normal” state.

As we segue into a New Year, my wish has become more grounded and guarded. As one exults “Thank God It’s a New Year”, here’s wishing one and all a New Year 2021 which will be just Normal and that will turn out to be an Annus Mirabilis!

The Mandi Vs Modi battle!

As a country, I believe that we are cursed to contend with one distraction after another, which keep our governments busy. If it was the Anti-CAA protests which were grabbing the headlines during winter last year, it is the farmers’ protests against the Modi Sarkar’s farm bills this winter. And in between, we have the Covid and its numbers to be pre-occupied with, still.

In the last few weeks, ever since the farmer’s agitation picked up steam, there have been many op-ed pieces from erudite authors which have by and large spoken in favour of the farm bills. And they have said that this is the 1991 moment for Indian agriculture. And yet, the farmers associations have stood their ground against these reforms. Irony dies when we see articles with pictures now of farmer protests in the past demanding the same reforms!

The opposition has joined ranks with the protestors in trying to push back the Modi government on the farm bills. And it has been pointed to us that many of the opposition parties including the Congress, which is now siding with the farmers in opposing the farm bills, have been votaries of the same proposals in the past. It is clear now that since the opposition cannot take on the government on the floor of the house, its strategy is to take on the government on the streets.

While there have been many pieces exposing the double speak of the parties, I would recommend all to read just this one authored by Gautam Chikermane for the ORF – “An intellectual biography of India’s new farm laws”. Read here:

This piece chronicles the various studies and reports tabled by expert committees under different governments’ right from the year 2000 and invariably the recommendations are similar to the very reforms the present farm bills have brought in. It thereby exposes the intellectual hypocrisy of not just the politicians, which to a large extent we have learnt to live with, but of the commentariat which is not coming out and expressing its views in favour of the farm bills strongly, though it was in favour of the same before.

As you can see in the said article, there has been a rare consensus among economists and domain experts on the issue of reforming the APMC Act and Essential Commodities Act. Therefore, it is a pity that we are seeing such virulent, stubborn opposition to the reforms from one section of the farmers’ universe.

In the past five years, I have consistently observed that the commentariat in India keeps shifting goal posts as per its whims and fancies.  In the beginning of the 1st term of Modi, the narrative was “Where are the big bang reforms?” When the Modi government started bringing in reforms it became, “Where is the consensus in bringing these reforms? Where is the consultation?” When reforms are brought in after consultation and building a consensus as in the case of GST, the narrative is, “Where is the execution?” So, clearly we are seeing a pattern of opposition for the heck of it irrespective of the merits of the case.

In the case of farm bills too, there are those who have been saying that there has been no consultation. It is clear as broad day light in the article that, there have been consultations with stake holders for 20 years now! I believe that the government must reach out to many of these experts who were in favour of these bills during UPA regime and enlist them to express their support for the reforms they were batting for in the past. This could include people like Montek Singh Ahluwalia, M.S. Swaminathan and the likes. Here, it could take a leaf out of UPA-1 rule when Sanjaya Baru, the then Press advisor to Manmohan Singh, reached out to Brijesh Mishra enlisting his support for the nuclear deal when BJP was opposing it tooth and nail. The Civil Nuclear deal discussions with the US started when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the Prime Minister during the NDA rule. So, having an Ex-National Security Advisor to talk in favour of the nuclear deal when BJP was opposing the same, sort of punctured the opposition narrative.

Again coming back to the point of introducing the reforms after extensive consultations across the board, our experience has not been very good. During UPA, the land acquisition bill was brought in after extensive consultations and after building a broad consensus. The result is there for all to see. The bill never took off. It is a classic case of the operation being called successful while the patient was dead. The Modi government in the very 1st year wanted to fix this and brought in amendments which never went through. Finally, in the absence of a consensus, the amendments were not made and the bill continues to languish without serving the purpose of its existence.

Much of the infrastructure projects announced by the Modi Government are behind schedule or languishing in spite of having a very enterprising and well-meaning Nitin Gadkari as the minister at the helm. The main reason has been the delay in land acquisition essentially because of the rigorous clauses built in the bill that was brought in with a broad consensus.  So, any bill just because it is brought in with a lot of consultations and a broad consensus need not be the ideal bill.

In the parliament, the idea of consultations and building consensus effectively means putting the draft of the bills or amendments through select committees or standing committees. To borrow the words of HDFC Chairman, Deepak Parekh, “In India, when the government cannot commit, it committees!” Which effectively means extended discussions and delays. At the peak of UPA rule, when most of India wanted a decisive government with a majority on its own, it was precisely for these reasons. So, when Modi Sarkar which has now won a decisive mandate on its own twice over, takes the route of avoiding these long winded committees and brings in changes in laws on issues like the farm bills where discussions have been going on for 20 years now, we shouldn’t complain.

Building a consensus is often overrated and I concur with the latest statement by Niti Aayog Chairman Amitabh Kant that in India, we suffer from “too much” democracy. I sincerely hope that the government sticks to the main proposals and not roll back on the essence of the farm bills. In the meantime, it should use its communication firepower led by more amenable ministers like Gadkari to get the message across to the farmers’ associations and get them to pull back.  The Mandi Vs Modi battle is clearly a distraction for us at this time when the government must be focussed on handling the economic mandi (slump) on a war footing to bring the growth back on track.

Post script: The title for this post is courtesy my good friend Gopal Kutty Sasthri who popped this up during one of our chats on the topic and so due thanks to him.

End of a Nightmare!

The last few days, almost whole of the world was consumed by what was happening in America with respect to the presidential elections. In my memory, no other US presidential election was followed so much with anticipation and anxiety. Partly it could be due to the proliferation of the media and of course the monster called Social media. Also it could be due to the long drawn electoral process this time around which meant that people had to remain connected with this topic for a longer time than usual. All these notwithstanding, I doubt if a character called Donald Trump was not in the frame, the US elections would be followed with so much interest.

In 2016, when Trump won the elections and became the President, there was a sense of shock outside of America. May be even within the US. During conversations following that election, I remember many of my American friends being embarrassed about the fact a person like Trump has been elected by their country. These could all be liberals who couldn’t fathom how Trump with his idiosyncrasies could pull off a win. Though there were many reasons attributed to his win that time, it was important to respect the democratic will of the voters which elected a person like Trump.  It was believed that once in power, Trump will behave more responsibly and be an inclusive President. That was not to be.

In the recent past, world over we have seen many disruptions. But, I would say that the mother of disruptions has been the Trump Presidency. Trump put foreign relations completely on transactional mode with no considerations of the past. He displayed a fair amount of disdain and contempt for multi-lateral International bodies like the UN, WHO, WTO etc. He pulled out of agreements which America had committed to in the past. And much more all in the name of protecting America’s national interests. But to be fair to Trump, we can say that he was only following his agenda basis which he secured the mandate. And he was ticking off his poll promises one by one.

It is widely believed that Trump’s track record on the economy front has not been too bad till Covid struck. I am in no position to comment on this. But data on the GDP, unemployment, jobs etc. show that till the pandemic hit US, Trump era has been good for the United States from an economic perspective.

The real issue though, was his own personal conduct as the President of United States of America. One lost count of the inner presidential staff he fired during his term, at times through social media. Most of the days, the world woke up to his tweets that were disruptive in nature. He would in a seemingly innocuous style blurt out comments that are not expected out of any Head of a State. Trump would callously speak about personal conversations he had with other leaders taking everyone by surprise. For example, one day he will be in full praise of “his dear friend Modi” and the next day in a presser he would decry the high custom duties India levies on Harley Davidson motor bikes. Similarly, he will volunteer to mediate between India and Pakistan when the established position has been not to intervene. Trump became notoriously famous for this kind of “hit and run” diplomacy that would create chaos only for his team to clean up the mess through clarifications later on.

Trump’s unpredictability, his disdain for established conventions and a total lack of grace has been in full exhibition even in the last few days after the polling has been over. To the rest of the world, it comes as a complete shocker when a Head of a State calls his own country’s electoral process a fraud. Even after the election has been called in favour of his opponent, Trump continues to claim that he has won.

There are many in India particularly those belonging to the liberal intelligentsia clan who claim that the Indian Prime Minster Narendra Modi is similar to Trump in terms of personality. This comparison is nothing but prejudiced and completely preposterous. Apart from their contempt for liberals, I don’t think there is anything in common between Trump and Modi in terms of their personalities. As a Prime Minister, Modi’s social media communication has been extremely measured and calibrated. He seldom interacts with the press and even then, there has been no instances of embarrassing comments about leaders of other countries. Even on the diplomatic front, though Modi has challenged the status quo in many fronts, he has never tried to show disgrace in his conduct.

Even as the results of Trump’s imminent defeat was trickling in, there has been few articles by opinion leaders which said that Trump may be out but Trump’ism will continue to stay. In the sense, though Trump has been unseated, in terms of popular vote there is only a thin wedge that separates Trump and Biden. So, there is a large American population which believed in the way Trump ruled the country in the last four years. And that it would be difficult for any new incumbent to ignore the sentiments of this large base and completely move away from Trump’ism. Well, if this means being sensitive to the voice of even those who voted for Trump and taking steps accordingly it is fine.

I have no great insights into Joe Biden’s calibre or his past track record in governance. However, I am sure that whatever we have seen of Biden so far, he can never be an embarrassment to even those who did not vote for him, unlike Trump.  It was important that a sense of grace and order be brought back to the seat of the President of the United States and I am glad that it happened with the defeat of Trump. I am not sure if Biden’s term is a beginning of a dream for the world but the nightmare is over.

Post script: If Covid had not struck, they say that Trump’s re-election would have been near certain. So, there you are. If there was a silver lining to Covid, this is it.

Image courtesy: nytimes.com

Death of an Emotion!

Yesterday was one of those days. That too a Saturday. I had not seen or touched the day’s newspaper till about 5.00 PM in the evening! It doesn’t happen this way. Usually, the newspaper is dissected in the early hours in the morning and by evening it is consigned to a heap meant for raddiwala. The Covid-19 pandemic has ushered in a lot of changes in our lives and lifestyles. Some temporary and some I reckon would be permanent. Our connect with the newspaper would probably fall in the latter category.

When a complete lock down was announced in March, among other things, the daily newspaper became a casualty. Media houses had to suspend printing of the newspaper and so there was no door to door distribution. For few days, there was an intense sense of withdrawal symptoms in the morning without getting to read the newspaper. And why not? After all, the daily newspaper has been a fellow traveller in our lives all these years.

When I was growing up in Trichy (Tamil Nadu), The Hindu newspaper was part of our lives. Initially for reading in detail mostly the sports column in the last page. Descriptive analysis of Rajan Bala about the previous day “Test Cricket” or Nirmal Shekhar’s take on the Tennis match the previous day were part of my daily routine. When I was over ten years, the attention started going to other pages as well to cover politics, arts, films etc. Reading of The Hindu served many purposes. Apart from helping us to keep up to date on the news and happenings of the day, it helped to polish our English language skills immensely.

When I moved to Bombay later for further studies, I had to shift from The Hindu to The Times Of India as Hindu was not available in the mornings. It was not printed in Bombay those days and the day’s edition used to come by the evening flight and was available for sale only after 3.00 PM that too in select outlets in select suburbs like Matunga. Those who have read The Hindu for long would admit that adjusting to any other newspaper was so difficult then.

Eventually that adjustment happened. So much so, reading any other newspaper then became difficult. It was the 90’s and India was witnessing the first waves of consumer boom. The manifestation of this was being witnessed in the media whether it was Television or the Newspaper.  A medium like The Times of India joined the party early, while it took a while for others and eventually almost every newspaper started emulating the Times!  I don’t want to make this piece as a commentary or comparison between different newspapers. But enough to say the newspaper would change but reading the newspaper in the morning as a habit continued to thrive all along.

This trend continued through the next two decades of the internet boom. The obituary of the newspaper has been in the works for a long time now. Particularly with the advent of the mobile phones, TABs and more importantly cheap connectivity. I don’t want to comment on other countries where the dynamics are different. But in India, even till last year, the print media readership overall grew by 4.4% over the previous year.

In spite of the possibility to read newspapers online, somehow most of us were still hooked on to reading the physical newspaper that too first thing in the morning every day. We might have caught up with the main news the previous day itself on TV and would have seen some of the headlines on social media then and there. But still, reading the newspaper was a morning fix. For many, particularly of the previous generations, newspaper in the morning with the coffee or tea had even a romantic ring to it. And for few, the daily chore of emptying their bowels would not happen without the newspaper in hand. And there are those who get depressed in the morning after a national holiday when the newspaper doesn’t make the morning appearance at the doorstep.

The pandemic though has changed everything. There was no newspaper at all till June. By then, we had survived the initial withdrawal symptoms and learnt to manage without the morning physical newspaper. After the initial few weeks, many of the media houses smartly started sending the links for their E-papers. We started reading the same though grudgingly. Then they allowed the physical printing and distribution of newspapers around July, even then there were very few takers. Considering the nature of the Corona Virus spread, newspapers were seen as a major threat. And finally around September when we all started reconciling to a co-existent life with Corona, we allowed newspapers to be distributed as before. But then somethings have changed at least for me.

At home, I don’t rush to the door in the morning to pick up the newspaper when the bell goes. The newspaper remains at the door for a long time till one of us remembers to pick it up.  Even after that, it is left in a corner untouched for some time. And after few hours during breaks, I glance through it very quickly.

Yesterday was one of those days when I didn’t look at the paper till evening! Today is a Sunday and as I type this piece, I have still not read today’s newspaper. What a climb down from a time when during weekends we used to call for an additional newspaper like The Indian Express in addition to the regular newspaper and spend more than an hour poring over from top to bottom. Post Covid, things may be limping back to normal. Newspaper business may not be dead yet. But I can vouch that the newspaper emotion is dead.  Do you agree?

Tanishq Ekatvam – Anatomy of the Campaign!

When you read this, I am sure you will be familiar with the latest product of the “Outrage factory” in India. Tanishq, Tata’s crowning jewel other than TCS provided the raw material this time. The outrage was around an ad which was put out to kick off its new Ekatvam campaign. The company soon pulled down the ad bowing down to the social media outrage but not before it went viral and divided popular opinion.

As a standalone ad, (see here) I personally liked it. The story is consistent with the purported theme of the campaign, where “the beauty of oneness” was being promoted. Oneness in this case was conveyed through the coming together of Hindu and Muslim faiths after a marriage between a Hindu woman and a Muslim man in this case.

There was predictable outrage following the ad where many questions like “Will they show a marriage of a Muslim girl and a Hindu boy?” and “Why are they showing as if the Muslim parents were doing a favour by following the girl’s traditions” and so on. I am certain that if the ad was shown as above, there would have been exactly opposite questions. Newton’s third law – “For every action is there is an equal and opposite reaction” and Whataboutery are the cornerstones of today’s outrage factory.

My take on the ad itself is that it was a well thought out plan. The campaign was launched during IPL just ahead of the festivals which is peak season for brands like Tanishq. And during this period and particularly during IPL, it is important to cut the clutter. One way of doing it is to make a nice commercial but with a contrarian story line. It helps the ad to stand out and also ensures it goes viral. That’s what happened with the Tanishq ad. Today for most marketers, the starting point of a campaign is to make it “Go viral” and if it does, it is the ultimate take away for the bucks spent.  So, kicking off a controversy through the ad is one established method of making it go viral. Many companies in the past have done that and Tanishq is no exception. I had written about this in one of my earlier posts “Stir up to sell” and if you haven’t read that, please do read here.

It is unfortunate that the company decided to pull down the ad. At the same time, it is easy to criticize the Tatas for succumbing to social media pressure in taking that decision. But I believe that it was a pragmatic choice. Already the business is reeling under the after effects of Covid with showrooms just being opened up. And the peak season is just ahead of the company. At this time, it makes no sense to do grandstanding risking the safety of its retail staff and properties.

At the same time, due to the heat the ad cranked up, the ad went viral and more people have seen than probably originally envisaged. The ad and the brand have become talking points for weeks over and even this blog would not have been written if the ad showed a plain vanilla oneness story!

This post though is not about the journey of that particular ad. I wanted to use the window the ad provided to look at the strategy behind the campaign itself.

As I mentioned earlier, the campaign titled Ekatvam has been kicked off by Tanishq just ahead of its biggest season. In North India, the festive season around Navaratri and in particular Diwali/Danteras are peak seasons for buying gold jewellery. And any serious brand would not like to miss out on this high stakes season.

At the outset, Ekatvam seems to be a brand building exercise to build on its core values of “Trust” etc. So far so good. After having seen the ad that sparked the controversy, I went to Tanishq’s website which also showcases the Ekatvam campaign. And here’s the thing! It says “Tanishq presents Ekatvam – the beauty of Oneness!” It says the “thought” being, “Beautiful things happen when people come together. But today, we’re asked to stay apart, keep a distance and be safe. While we continue to do this, through compassion, empathy, hope and care, we’ve come together when it was needed the most.” And goes on further. “The beauty of oneness. One as humanity. One as a nation. Ekatvam. A confluence of India’s finest craft forms, intricately knitted into one stunning collection, bought alive by our skilled Karigars, where similarities and differences all become one!”

Beautiful thought and an excellent copy. However, if this is the Ekatvam (confluence of India’s craft etc.) Tanishq wanted to promote, where does this aspect come out in that ad? It is common marketing wisdom that when a company launches a campaign, it is showcased consistently across media platforms may it be Print, TV, Web site, Digital etc. I don’t see that being followed here. While the website talks of the campaign being a noble effort to bring together different craft forms and craftsmen, the TV commercial tries to convey oneness by bringing faiths together.  If you look at the print ads, the one in North India (see below left) is consistent with the theme in the web site. However, the print ad in South (see below right) doesn’t explain anything about Ekatvam beyond the tag line of “the beauty of Oneness” and looks more like a “Sales promotion” ad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, this brings back to my original hypothesis that the controversial ad was part of a game plan to “Stir up to sell”. The brief it seems was to deliberately bring in the Hindu – Muslim angle and showcase the oneness. And probably the company sort of expected the backlash. In any case, backlash or not, the ultimate objective was to make it go viral and maximise the bang for the buck. The outrage factory in my opinion completely missed this point and effectively contributed in making the ad and the brand top of the mind for few weeks.

What the controversial ad would do to sales would be an interesting thing to watch in the coming weeks. While some commentators feel that it may affect the retail sales a bit, I reckon it may not do much damage.

In final summary, just as you shrug off a lean business period after lock down and get into a peak season phase, why would you launch a CSR kind of corporate campaign of Ekatvam?

Post script: Another innocent question to the makers of the ad. When you wanted to showcase Hindu-Muslim confluence, why would you choose a Kerala family as a backdrop when the ad is in Hindi and aimed at festival season (Diwali) in North of India?