Taming the Dragon!

This is intended to be a sequel to my last week’s blog– Return of the Dragon. If you haven’t read it, please read here.

The military standoff between India and China at the border is slowly turning into a diplomatic one with both sides waiting for other side to blink first. Marathon disengagement talks are going in parallel with coercive military build-up on both sides. And in India, we have set in motion a slew of things in an effort to “tame the Dragon”.  But what real options do we have to tame the Dragon?

I remember vividly that whenever we used to have these military tensions with Pakistan triggered by some terrorist attack, though we are a militarily and economically stronger nation, experts would say that a full blown war with Pakistan is not an option between two nuclear powered countries. At the same time, we were told that we must raise the cost for Pakistan to carry out terrorist activities, whatever that means. Since there is little economic activity going on between India and Pakistan, it doesn’t really make any difference to Pakistan even if we sever all economic ties.

Between India and China too, a full blown war is out of question considering the fact that we are both nuclear powers. The issue of longstanding boundary dispute can be resolved through talks and diplomatic efforts. But, since both countries cannot give up even a square inch of land, a solution to the boundary dispute is not coming any soon. Under these circumstances, the best option which is face saving for both is achieving Status Quo Ante!

At the same time, while pursuing diplomatic engagement to get the troops back to where we were before this round of escalation, it is necessary for India to raise the costs for China to deter it from indulging in border escalations.  This, I believe can happen only on the trade front.  On the trade front, I believe that China has more to lose than India if relations are spoilt.  And this is opposite to what the commentariat in the India media feel. That being the case, what are some of the options?

  • China is an exporting economy. For the past few years (coincidentally since Xi took over in 2012), the Chinese economy has been floundering, after years of high growth. Under the circumstances, it cannot shut business with a country like India which is poised to be the most populous country in the world soon. In 2019, we imported US$75 billion worth of goods from China. Those who say that this is miniscule compared to the total exports of US$2.5 Trillion China does, are missing the larger point. As globalisation weakens and Nationalism grows and in particular when large economies like the US, Japan and Germany are talking of de-risking from China in the wake of Covid-19, spoiling trade relations with India and denting the prospects for trade growth is the last thing China can afford. So, leverage on this aspect.
  • A quick look at the last quarter’s import data shows that Electronic Components, Telecom Instruments, Industrial Machinery, Computer Hardware and Peripherals are the top 5 categories of imports from China and take up almost 33% of total imports. As a country, we must roll out a solid, strategic plan for developing the domestic Electronic Hardware manufacturing industry. This cannot happen overnight. But can happen with a vision and a roll out plan in the next ten years. Considering the fact that the role of electronics, is on the continuous rise in every aspect of our life and every aspect of engineering, the scope for just catering to the domestic market and then emerge as a competitive, key part of global supply chains is huge. There has been talks in the past to build a globally competitive electronic manufacturing industry in India but this is the right time to translate those talks into actions on the ground.
  • Ever since, we lost lives of our soldiers in the border standoff, the cries of “Boycott China goods” have become louder and more visible. A total and real boycott of these is not neither feasible nor advisable under the current circumstances. Chinese components are a key cog in the Indian manufacturing wheel today.  Instead, whatever government does needs to be only “covert” and not overt. In short, kick off “Salaami slicing” in aspects of trade and commerce.
    • For example, for all government purchases, government cannot openly declare that it will not buy “Made in China” products. However, it can signal a preference to “Made in India” products.
    • Just last week, government made it mandatory for sellers to indicate the “Country of Origin” for their products offered on the GEM (Government E Marketplace) portal. While this was touted as a move to promote the Prime Minister’s Atma Nirbhar Bharat vision, that it was a move to identify products coming from China was not lost on trade observers. Government can do more covert actions like this.
    • For big infrastructure projects, go slow on Chinese companies. (There are many ways of doing this)

  • In the private consumption space, there is a groundswell of opinion among the common public against Chinese products. Usually this sentiment is very temporary. But now, as the government cannot take part directly in festering any Anti-China emotion, it can use the party, its loyal trade bodies and Non-profit bodies to do the job in keeping the sentiment alive for a long time. Though in terms of dollar terms, the reduction in imports in the consumer goods space may not be significant for China as a country, any reduction in demand and orders particularly with the weakening demand due to Covid-19, will affect the Chinese sellers. For example, for the upcoming festival season in India, even if the orders are reduced by half than usual for the many consumer items including domestic appliances, garments, plastics, gift items, decorative items etc. it will be significant blow.  And if that demand turns into orders for Indian manufacturers, it will also aid the economy here.
  • Creating stumbling blocks for Chinese origin businesses like more scrutiny of compliance matters is another way of covert signalling. For example, just last week, without citing any reason, India customs officials said that there could be delays in clearance of goods imported from China. Moves like these will raise the costs for those importing Chinese goods in India and indirectly act as a deterrent for promoting those products in India in the long run. Here, I would like to add that these moves cannot be sustainable in the long run. But, in the short term helps in messaging. And the Indian government doing this now is a smart thing to do. Manufacturing activity and demand in India is any way weak and tepid at this point in time. So, any delay of a few days here and there is not going the move the dial significantly. I am sure that this will be a short term prick rather than a long term change in process.

Now, there is a distinct possibility that China does retaliatory moves (we hear, it is already acting on delaying customs clearance of goods from India). But as I mentioned, today, India imports 5 times more than it exports. So, as of today, it hurts China more than it hurts India. Of course the imported goods are a part of the Indian economic activity and hence any delay or disruption affects those who are in that sector. It is a small cost to pay compared to the cost our defence forces pay with their lives at the border securing our sovereignty.

In conclusion, to tame the Dragon, we must first believe we can, punch above our weight and play to our strengths as a large consuming and growing economy. “Challenge is a dragon with a gift in its mouth. Tame the dragon and the gift is yours” goes a saying. Time to replace the word Challenge with China?

Return of the Dragon!

For few months now, China has been in the news mostly for all wrong reasons. First, due to the way it handled the initial outbreak of the Corona Virus and now for the LAC row.  Ever since the Corona virus became a pandemic bringing the entire world to its knees, there has been a perceptible anti-China sentiment in most parts of the world. In the midst of fighting this perception battle, China also has been engaging in turf wars.  The obvious question is, why would an embattled China engage itself in these activities at a time like this? I am no foreign affairs/Geo political/Defence/Strategic affairs expert. But as an avid follower of current affairs, it is not too difficult to understand the predicament of China, at least towards India.

Consider the following chronology of events (Aap Chronology samaj lijiye):

  • In 2013, China announces its One Belt One Road project (OBOR), now known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This was aimed at connecting China with important cities and ports in Asia and Europe through maritime corridors and shipping routes. All of the neighbours of India like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan with the exception of Bhutan have joined this initiative.
  • In 2017, India announced its decision not to join this China’s ambitious programme on account of strategic reasons – read as “National Interest”. Not just that, India did not send even a representative to attend the launch summit which was attended by many countries which were not part of BRI. (The project is in tatters with some participants expressing concern over the large debt trap they were walking into)
  • In June 2017, India and China got into a border standoff at Doklam when India objected to the alteration of status quo by China, in constructing a road in Doklam at the trijunction border area. “Operation Juniper” was launched by India whereby, several companies of Indian soldiers crossed over to the Doklam area of Bhutan to prevent the construction. The standoff continued for two months and after hectic diplomatic parleys between India and China, the standoff ended with the halting of the road construction.
  • September 2017: India relaxes its rules relating to obtaining forests clearance for infrastructure and army projects along the LAC in a bid to speed up construction.
  • August 2019: Fresh from the re-election, Modi government changes the status quo of Jammu and Kashmir. As part of that, Ladakh region becomes a Union territory directly under the Central government. Though this is an internal re-organisation, the impact of this move on China was not lost on anyone. During the parliament speech, Home Minister Amit Shah thunders that whenever he refers to Jammu and Kashmir, it includes POK and Aksai Chin.
  • In November 2019, India opts out of the negotiating table of RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) ostensibly due to the China factor. One of the main reasons from the Indian side is to protect Indian industry and farmers from a surge in Chinese imports, if a free trade pact is signed.
  • February 2020: In the Union Budget, Customs duty on Toys was hiked from 20 percent to 60% to curb Chinese imports. Similarly 10 to 20 percent hike in few other product categories where China was the chief exporter.
  • Mar 2020: In the wake of Covid-19, QUAD (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) originally intended to be among United States, Japan, Australia and India) got upgraded to Quad Plus to include New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam. The conference calls, aside from discussing the fall out of the pandemic has also been seen as an opportunity for India to enhance its strategic weight in the Indian Ocean region.
  • April 2020: India revised its Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) rules to prevent “Opportunistic take overs” of firms who have become vulnerable due to Covid-19 triggered business slowdown. This was few days after People’s Bank of China increased its shareholding in HDFC. The move for obvious reasons irked China.

In between all this we also had informal summits between Modi and Xi in Ahmedabad, Wuhan and last year in Chennai, multi-fold increase in FDI from China into manufacturing and construction projects and start-ups and so on.

In Marketing and Public Relations, there is a strategy which is adopted by large corporations. Which is to “Say one thing in public and do exactly the opposite” in a bid to catch the competition on the wrong foot. I forget the exact name for this strategy but let me call it “Marketing by Deceit” TM for want of a better term. This strategy cannot be used by the same company repeatedly but to be used like a onetime Brahmastra!

If you see India’s strategy, it has been something like this. While, we have tried to engage with China to improve trade and diplomatic relations overtly, we have also tried to secure our National interests in matters of strategic concern. I am surprised that this point is lost even on expert commentators who keep referring to Modi’s photo-ops with Xi.

If I were an official in the Ministry of Foreign affairs in China in charge of India, I obviously would be concerned by the above timeline events. Combined with the pressures around the spread of Corona Virus, it is not an enviable situation to be in. As a wannabe dominant power, China wouldn’t like to show that it is embattled or weakened at this point in time. So, the approach of “Offence is the best form of defence” not just in the Indian borders but in Senkaku Islands, in Taiwan and South China seas etc.

Ergo, our attempts at the LAC to up our infrastructure has been faced with a belligerent China. For both the countries, this development comes at a wrong time. Not just India, but China also is facing the ills of a plummeting economy now for few years. Both the countries are also in the midst of fighting the world’s worst pandemic. Hence better sense has to prevail at both sides to avoid a full blown war.

For India and the government, it is paramount to protect the sovereignty of the nation without getting engaged in a bloody battle. In Arthasasthra, Kautilya aka Chanakya says, “Do not reveal what you have thought upon doing. But by wise counsel, keep it secret being determined to carry it into execution!” In line with this, I believe the government will do what it should in India’s National interest without being overt about it in an All-party meeting or in a media conference.  It is laughable that the opposition and the commentariat being hell bent to know what the government is intending to do to resolve the standoff.

In India, Bruce Lee’s film was released as ‘Return of the Dragon’ as a sequel to his earlier hit ‘Enter the Dragon’! But in Chinese and in the original version released in the United States, it was ‘Way of the Dragon’!  Even in real life, between 1962 and now, let there be no doubt that it is the “Way” and not the “Return”. So, our Statecraft must be prepared to deal with this.

Pic Courtesy: India Today

Packaging of the Package!

In India, in the past few days, most Indians or at least the urban folks have been hooked on to the television by 4.00 p.m. every day. Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a grand announcement of ushering in an Atmanirbhar Bharat with an economic package of Rs. 20 Lac Crore, not just the devil, hope was also in the detail. So, it was left to the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman to announce the details that would not belie the hopes of millions of Indians.

In India today and probably the world over, if one has to depend on the media commentary to make up one’s mind on an issue, it is virtually impossible. On any topic, the tone of the commentary and its conclusion can be guessed without even reading the piece or watching the full clip, by just looking at the author’s name or the medium carrying it. These days, very rarely you get to read a piece that gives a balanced opinion on a topic, the two or more sides of it, the pros and cons and possibly the positive and negative impact.  So, even to the slew of announcements the finance minister has been making, the reactions have been on predictable lines. The pro-government media/authors have been only praising the initiatives while those opposing have only picked up holes in the announcements. Balanced commentary is increasingly becoming as oxymoron.

It is under these circumstances that I feel, any government today needs to be super-efficient in its communication, so that it has the intended impact on people.  The usually communication savvy Modi Sarkar, has been found wanting particularly in these dire times, when it is utmost critical to bring in comfort and then confidence to the public at large. I will explain why and will try my best to provide a balanced view.

  • First up, the intention of the government not to get bogged down by Covid, but use it as an opportunity to re-define strategic priorities for the country is welcome. To that extent, Modi’s speech on the 12th May, was pretty much on point. There was a vision and though delayed, a financial economic package to the tune of Rs. 20 lac crore,  which are both commendable.
  • The details of the package were to be released in the next few days which is what happened in the last few days, beginning 13th Feb and ending today.
  • The announcements do reveal that the government has done a lot of homework and that probably explains the delay in the unveiling of the package. Having said that, there has been issues with the content and form.
  • First the content.
    • The government in its wisdom chose to use this opportunity not to just announce the economic stimulus package but also address long pending reforms and amendments in laws which is appreciable.
    • Globally, there is an Anti-China mood and having a strategic game plan to take advantage of the changing winds is important. So, some of the measures announced I believe, are in that direction which augurs well for the country.
    • While few may understand that some measures are meant for short term remedy and others are meant for long term transformation, most of us cannot make the distinction.
    • It would have been better if the Government had broken down the announcement into two parts.
      • The first one, to just focus on the immediate short term stimulus/support measures that will “comfort” the ailing strata of the society. This announcement was the one which was widely and eagerly expected. So, what is in it for the MSMEs whose businesses have suffered badly, the urban and poor workers who are left without work and wages, and the farmers who have lost their income?  In this regard, some of the initiatives like the expanded MSME credit facility even without collaterals, free ration to the poor including those without ration cards and the Additional MGNREGA allocation are greatly appreciable.
      • There has been all around pressing calls for cash transfer to the poor as the panacea for the migrant crisis that has unfolded. The government’s view is that, it believed in empowerment rather than entitlement as a route to support poor at this stage. Also, there is a view that money transfer may lead to longer lines in front of liquor shops. There are no doubt, merits in these arguments. But, considering the current acute distress situation, it would have been good if, the government opted for cash transfer to Jan Dhan accounts of women for the next six months.  That would have addressed the lack of money and the alcohol problem in one bullet.
      • The second part could have been reforms and parliamentary actions that are more strategic that will give “confidence” to investors – domestic and foreign.  Muddling all these and choosing to announce major and a lot of minor initiatives together, has resulted in a problem of comprehension.
      • On each of the days of announcement, Twitter and WhatsApp groups were buzzing with more questions than answers, as to what all these actually meant the Aam admi. If the urban elite couldn’t make out that, how do we expect the poor who are expecting some immediate succour desperately from the government to comprehend what is in it for them?
      • If restricting the announcement to the top four or five big “new” initiatives would have reduced the stimulus to Rs.15 lac crore or something, so be it. That is better than creating a Shock and Awe with a huge amount and eventually leaving the public to just count the zeroes in it for the rest of the year.
  • Second the form.
    • In India, most of us suffer from what I call as the “More Points in Power point” syndrome. We feel that if there are more points in the slide, it is always better. In the corporate world, this syndrome translates itself into “More strategies”, More Key Actions”, “More priorities”, More slides, More everything!
    • In this case, the government too being a victim of this syndrome, ended up re-hashing many old initiatives, repeating stuff which have already been announced in the last budget. For example, the “One Nation One Ration Card” initiative was first announced if I am right in 2016. Stuff like reforming the Essential Commodities Act etc. have been touched upon in the past budget speeches.

The result is that, the Finance Minister ended up making her third budget speech for this year, the only difference being, it was in tranches. From the government’s point of view, this would have helped in deflecting the headlines for a week from the migrant crisis and other related bad news. But, I am not sure if the budget speech type announcements have helped in either “Comforting” the needy or building “Confidence” among the business community!

When marketing Guru Philip Kotler first talked of the P’s of marketing, he just referred to 4 P’s – Product, Price, Place and Promotion.  As marketing evolved, more P’s like Positioning, People and Packaging got added over a period of time. In the modern retail world, packaging got a lot of prominence due its influencing role at the point of sale. In today’s era of political communication too, I believe, even an economic or a stimulus package needs to be “Packaged” properly to reach its desired outcome.

Lest we forget, Narendra Modi has been the maiden recipient of the Philip Kotler Presidential Award.

Cartoon credit: Satish Acharya

Locking down a tippler!

In India, in the last few days, two set of visuals are making the headlines. One, is the unending stream of pictures of migrants walking along highways trying to reach their homeland. The other is of the long and unending lines of people in cities and towns in different parts of the country in front of liquor outlets. Ever since many of the state governments who couldn’t control their addiction to revenue from liquor (to borrow this fine phrase from Pratap Bhanu Mehta) decided to open up liquor outlets, it has opened up a Pandora’s bottle! Point to remember here is that liquor along with petrol/diesel are out of the purview of GST still and are in the state’s ambit for tax collection. So, not surprisingly most of the states opted for revenue maximisation ahead of Corona minimisation!

In India, the narratives of the so called experts are drenched in Anti Modi’ism. So, in the initial days of Corona, the narrative was around why India is not locking itself down like China did with an iron hand. In a few days into Corona, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did announce a complete national lock down, unprecedented and unimaginable to pull off in a culturally lax country like India. When that happened, the narrative shifted to the lock down not being thought out properly. The pictures of migrants walking along main highways did support this narrative.

During this period, calls from the commentariat including in the opposition were to do a direct benefit transfer to the needy of anything between Rs. 5000 to Rs. 12000 per month so that, many of the poor who have now lost their jobs and income can sustain. Along with this, there was also the call for free distribution of staples. In fact, Nobel laureate Dr. Abhijit Banerjee went to the extent of saying that targeted money transfer be damned and pushed for transfer of cash to the entire bottom 60% of the economy. He felt that targeting at this stage would be costlier and cumbersome.

In a while when the states started getting their act together to reach food to the migrants, the story was about how livelihoods are being lost due to lock down.  In the past few days, many experts tired of the lock down now are veering towards “opening up” the economy, as a complete lock down is no longer sustainable.  And that’s when the decision to open things up, which is now in the hands of the states, was taken by most of the states, who were feeling the pinch of empty coffers. And the key item that got ticked off in opening was the opening up of liquor shops.

And when the liquor shops got opened what happened?

  • In most places, all the gains achieved with so many days of social distancing got neutralised by thronging tipplers who threw caution to the wind.
  • In Bengaluru, on a Monday morning, you could see youngsters’ queuing up to get their stocks of liquor. In their prime, their parents lined up often in front of ration shops to get their share of kerosene, rice, sugar milk and other essentials.
  • In parts of Telangana, in some pictures where you could identify the people as not very rich or even middle class, men were seen lining up in braving dry heat.
  • In Nainital, Uttarakhand, people were seen braving hailstorm to buy liquor at a shop on the day liquor shops were open.
  • In Delhi, a man was seen showering flower petals on people standing in lines outside liquor shops apparently to celebrate them for helping the country’s economy!
  • There was also an invoice from Bengaluru that went viral showing liquor purchases for Rs. 52841 one shot!

Whichever way you look at it, there is something fundamentally wrong in what we saw as an after effect to the opening up of liquor shops. And here’s why:

  • What are the young men and women (who we can assume are working in IT or ITES companies) doing in front of liquor shops in Bengaluru on a fine Monday morning (1st day of the week) when their companies expect them to “Work From Home”?
  • In the other case of poor people crowding the liquor shops, what about their source of money? Did we not hear that many of them have lost their jobs and not getting paid due to lock down?
  • Or is it that they are using the little amounts transferred by the governments to quench their thirst for liquor instead of using it to buy ration and other essentials for their households?
  • Domestic violence reached an All-time high during the lock down period. The sheer number of men in the lines made us think of the women they go back to.

I was disappointed to see once again the media narrative on the above scenario. In the “liberal” worldview, calling for a prohibition is of course untenable. But, at least during these extreme situations of Covid related lock downs, I would have expected a strong questioning of the timing to open liquor shops. Instead what we saw in most media stories were:

  • What happened to social distancing norms in liquor shops? Why did the government not think through this?
    • Really? Even in normal shops, maintaining social distancing is a herculean task. And how can one expect discipline in liquor shops that are opening after many weeks?
  • Instead of opening the liquor shops, why can’t the government arrange for home delivery of liquor thro apps like Zomato, Swiggy, etc.?
    • Yes, the authorities in the midst of fighting the health hazards due to Covid must also spend their time on discussing with Zomatos of the world to ensure efficient door delivery of liquor to nook and corners of India including remote villages. Is it? If such efficiency can be attained in India for booze delivery, why can’t that model be put to use first to deliver essentials to people would be my question!

The fall out of this untimely and stupid decision is there for us to see. Mumbai has rolled back the decision. In Tamil Nadu, Kamal Haasan headed outfit along with few others challenged the decision in the court and obtained a stay on selling liquor for now. The state has now knocked at the doors of the Supreme Court! Few states have slapped very high taxes, which I don’t know will make any difference.

It is not very clear as to which is more dangerous? People’s addiction to liquor or the Governments’ addiction to revenue from liquor? And who has to give up the addiction first? My personal view which could be an unpopular one too is, it is high time governments view this issue in perspective. That is, to look at the so called revenue from Liquor and tobacco versus the money spent on health care to take care of ailments related to smoking and drinking. And when that is done over a longer period of 20-30 years along with the cost of social ills, it will be as clear as daylight that, in a country like India, prohibition in “some form” is essential. Which answers my question as to who should give up the addiction first. It is the State.

Winston Churchill apparently said, “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me!” in reaction to those who critiqued him for depending too much on alcohol. It will be however wise to realise that in the case of governments, it is the otherwise.

COVID-19 aftermath – Time to revive two flagship programmes of GOI

If there is one quote which has been oft repeated by commentators of all hue in the past few weeks as the world grapples with the COVID-19 crisis, it is this. Winston Churchill’s “Never let a good crisis go to waste”! As India locked itself down in its fight against Corona Virus, the lessons for future are many. And indeed it must learn those and never let this crisis go to waste, once things settle down. In India, we have a tendency to move on quickly from natural disasters and other calamities without learning the lessons and putting them to practice for future.

In the context of COVID-19, once we are out of the crisis completely, two programmes of the central government which were launched with much fanfare in the 1st term of Modi Sarkar but which lost steam or didn’t take off the way they were envisaged come to mind. It’s time to revive them and re-launch them with added rigour. And in the aftermath of the Corona virus pandemic, I do believe that the chances of them now doing well have got better.

On the 15th of August, 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the launch of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, it caught the imagination of the public by and large. “A clean India would be the best tribute India could pay to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150 birth anniversary in 2019,” declared the Prime Minister. This was the first time, cleanliness entered public discourse since Independence. Immediately after the launch, there was an air of excitement and flurry of activities. I remember voluntary groups and public carrying out weekend shramdaan to clean up the neighbourhood. Celebrities did their bit by participating in symbolic photo ops with brooms to spread the message of cleanliness.

What started off very well, soon started losing steam with the typical Indian attitude of laxity creeping in, after the initial enthusiasm.  From the government perspective, we also saw that Swachh Bharat Abhiyan from the original goal of a “Clean India” by 2019, moved to making India “Open defecation free” by 2019!  So, accordingly the focus turned towards building toilets across the country and giving the poor access to toilets even in the remotest of villages.  In his address to the parliament in Jan 2019, the President announced that over 9 crore toilets were constructed across the country under Swachh Bharat Abhiyan program and that the coverage of rural sanitation went up from less than 40% in 2014 to 98% in 2019.  While these are commendable data points, we were not close to becoming a clean and hygienic country by Oct 2019, as envisaged by the Prime Minister when he kicked off the programme.

While not taking any credit away from the government for pursuing this initiative, I have always maintained that Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is not about cleaning and more cleaning but, reducing the need for cleaning in the first place. That essentially means developing instinctive disciplinary traits and attitude toward cleanliness like for example, the Japanese.  This calls for a huge attitudinal change among us as we are by and large happy to keep our own four walls clean while not being concerned about littering in public.

It is undisputable that COVID-19, in the last few weeks has increased awareness of self-hygiene as well as community hygiene in a big way in India. Use of sanitisers hitherto seen as a “NRI tantrum” while in India, has now got into the collective conscience of India. I do believe that thanks to social media like WhatsApp, the ills of a pandemic like Corona Virus have reached the nook and corner of India and hence messages concerning the need to maintain cleanliness may be received with more seriousness than before.  By the end of 2019, looking at the way the programme sort of petered out, I concluded that a “Clean India” may be a few decades away when the current student generation with more awareness from childhood stages take to public cleanliness more seriously.  However, now I feel that COVID-19 has given us a great opportunity to reach our goal of a “Clean India” probably a few years earlier and it is important that we as a country seize this opportunity.

Weeks or months later when we get over the COVID-19 crisis, the governments – Centre, States, local municipalities and panchayats should step up the gas on Swachh Bharat Abhiyan once again.  The government must use all the communication machinery at its disposal to build up on the Corona Virus messaging of “washing hands” to start talking about keeping one’s surrounding absolutely clean and safe to prevent further epidemics like this. We should move from friendly nudges to slapping heavy fines for offences like littering in the open, urinating on the side of the roads, Open defecation when toilets are available in the vicinity and spitting on the roads and walls. We must remember that making India a “Clean India” is not just the look out or job of the government of the day but is in the hands of the public. So, as a society, we must not let this good crisis go waste on the hygiene front and make our march towards a “Clean India”!

“Make In India” is another flag ship programme launched by Modi Sarkar way back in September 2014 with a view to give boost to the manufacturing sector in India with an eye on creating lakhs of jobs. Initially conceived to cover 16 industries, the scope was expanded later to include 25 identified industries. Five years hence, when one looks at the outcome of the programme, it’s a mixed bag. “Make In India” has seemingly done well in mobile phone and allied manufacturing with around 268 units producing phones and related accessories in India as of November 2019. This was just 4 in 2014. We are now the 2nd largest manufacturer of mobile phones in the world.  But beyond mobile phone manufacturing, other electronic manufacturing has not taken off in India as yet.  We are nowhere close to the objective set of making manufacturing contribute to 25% of our GDP. With the economic slowdown in the last few quarters and the disruption due to COVID-19, the outlook for manufacturing looks even bleaker.

This is where, COVID-19 could provide a window of opportunity to India in next five to ten years. COVID-19 which erupted from China with the industrial province of Wuhan as the epicentre, has ended up disrupting the global economy in more ways than one. When the virus spread was around China in the month of February, the talk was about how the global supply chains particularly in the Automotive, Pharma and electronics sectors have been disrupted. With the contagion now spreading alarmingly all over the world, COVID-19 could emerge as the single largest cause and effect on the global economy in many years. It is estimated that the global GDP could shrink by 2% this year.

The COVID-19 crisis has hastened the shift of global supply chains out of China actively a move, which gathered momentum in the height of US-China trade war last year and increasing labour costs in China over the last few years.  As we saw in reports, the Japanese government has announced support to companies shifting production from China back to Japan. Korean companies are reportedly exploring options with India to expand their capacities. The US and EU will eventually follow suit.

For India, this is a great opportunity to tap into this shift out of China.

It is good to see the Indian government sensing the opportunity and looking to further the cause of Make in India. Just recently, we saw a package of incentives being announced for the Electronics manufacturing industry with a focus not just on finished goods production but also developing downstream production units. Similarly package was cleared by the cabinet on the 21st March for incentivising production of chemicals and raw materials that go into bulk drugs production.  Initially these moves may help in softening our own dependence on China for imports of electronics and pharma goods but over a period of time will give a boost for exports once the ecosystem in put in place. So far so good. But these are not enough. Making India a part of global supply chains requires a well-co-ordinated (between Centre and states) 360 degree action plan to launch Make in India 2.0 in the light of COVID-19 that covers diplomatic, economic, commercial, human resources and even marketing front. This also requires changes in some of our laws (for example land acquisition) that can make ease of doing business a reality on the ground.

COVID-19 crisis is panning out in front of us as we speak. While we fight the health and immediate economic after effects of the same, it’s time to work on re-launching “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan 2.0” and “Make in India 2.0” in a couple of months and not let this crisis go waste.

Dear India, make 2021 the next 1991!

COVID-19: Turning the crisis into an opportunity!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The politics behind political Strategists!

(This piece was written for the news website thenewsminute.com and was first published on the 14th Feb, 2020 and can be read here:

https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/when-poll-strategists-jump-party-party-why-isn-t-there-non-compete-clause-118196

In the business of building political brands in India, Prashant Kishor or PK to many, has now emerged as the undisputed numero uno. In a short period of under ten years, since he started his career with then Chief Minister Narendra Modi for the Gujarat state election in 2011, he has indeed come a long way.

The ease and manner with which he and his organisation Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC) have managed to segue from one political party to another irrespective of ideology and geography is now a subject of shock and awe.

Shock because, till he was recently expelled from Janata Dal (United), a BJP ally, PK was its serving Vice President and that didn’t stop West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee from hiring him to help her to fight BJP in her state. And awe because, PK’s client list reads like the who’s who of Indian politics from national parties like BJP and Congress to regional parties like Janata Dal (United), Trinamool Congress, Aam Aadmi Party and the like.

And very recently, in the south, after YSR Congress (YSRCP) in Andhra Pradesh, DMK has become the second party to sign up I-PAC and in effect, PK as its political strategist for the Tamil Nadu Assembly Elections in 2021. This news was made public via a tweet by the DMK President Stalin recently. Welcome to the era of commoditization of Indian parties where ideology takes a back seat while marketing, brand positioning, catching eyeballs, mindshare retention and at the end winning, reign supreme.

The non-compete clause

This brings us to the central issue of this piece which is the politics of political strategists. And then there is the question of conflict of interest arising out of aligning with parties with competing ideologies, who are rank competitors. In the business of advertising, brands/companies sign agreements with non-compete clauses with advertising agencies and other strategic consulting companies. Under these agreements, agencies cannot sign up with brands/companies in the competing space not just during the currency of the agreement but also for a mutually agreed cooling-off period. The reasons behind signing such agreements are obvious. No company in this highly competitive era can afford any leak of trade secrets. A brand communication partner would have knowledge of the current and future road map of their clients, their strengths and weaknesses and hence no agreement is complete without non-disclosure clauses and non-compete clauses.

Such clauses have been part of hiring contracts of senior executives as well. Even in the highly competitive world of sports and games, similar clauses exist. I doubt if a coach of one IPL team in a season can sign up as a coach for another team the next season without a cooling-off period. The same holds good in the world of showbiz too.

I have nothing personal against the likes of PK or his organisation but cannot stop wondering why in India’s political space, there is no such non-compete clause while signing on election strategists, looking at the way election strategists have moved on from one party to another. A political party today is akin to a corporate entity and its leader to a brand. So, while companies are so protective about their brand strategies and rightly so, how come, in India we don’t see such sensitivity among political parties and their leaders while collaborating with political strategists?

From in-house campaign manager to professionals

In media interactions, PK has maintained that I-PAC, an organisation which he founded, is on its own now and his role is limited to mentoring and giving wise counsel when needed. This was when someone questioned him on the possible conflict of interest when he became a full-time member of Janata Dal (United) while I-PAC was working with other parties. Now that he has been expelled, it is not known if he is back in I-PAC on a full-fledged role. The I-PAC website carries quite a few references of PK and his work for different political outfits under its own umbrella.

It’s not just PK who is involved with competing parties in the same space. John Arockiasamy, who was associated with PMK in 2016 under the aegis of JPG-PAC, then went on to work with the Congress in Karnataka in 2018.  Reportedly, he has been in discussion with AIADMK in Tamil Nadu to be its political consultant.

Before the advent of PK as a professional election strategist, parties mostly relied on in-house talent for running their campaigns. And they used to work largely with advertising agencies for executing the campaigns in a conventional style just like any other product. For Congress, Jairam Ramesh used to be their election war room manager for years. For BJP, Pramod Mahajan and then Arun Jaitley used to play these roles. So, the possibility of poll strategies getting leaked to rival camp or an espionage operation was limited.

I guess that it is after the advent of digital and social media that we see the outsourcing of campaigns to external agencies by political parties gaining traction. Data analytics is the buzz word today in all fields and so too in election management. This needs specialists and hence parties have no choice but to engage with professional organisations who provide end to end election management solutions from strategy conception to last-mile execution. Execution involves back room warriors who work 24*7 on social media and feet on street who do the booth-level mapping and campaigning.

The potential of social media vehicles like WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook to enable stories to go viral in no time is unparalleled today. This is a boon and at times a bane. Political consulting firms who have worked with rival political parties have access to a lot of insider information on these parties. And hence there is a real risk of such sensitive information getting leaked online and going viral in no time. Also, I wonder how demographic and psychographic data collected as part of one party campaign is firewalled and not used for another party later on. Memories of Cambridge Analytica, the famed British political consultancy firm that got caught adopting unethical practices have not faded away.

Hence, it is all the more intriguing that political parties in India so far have not considered incorporating non-competing clause while signing up consulting firms. In this politics of political strategists, what are we missing?

Post script: In Tamil Nadu, where films follow politics and vice versa, two big films of last year – LKG and NGK featured election strategists in key roles. A clear sign that these external poll strategists are here to stay.

Time to bid good bye to the Budget!

Just yesterday, Finance Minister of India, Nirmala Sitharaman presented the Union Budget for the upcoming fiscal year 2020-21 in what was a very long speech. The length notwithstanding, it was short on material required to  lift the sagging mood in the country with respect to the economy. The markets tanked big time by the end of the day. If one goes by the commentaries in the media and expert opinions in social media, it seems that the budget has disappointed one and all.  As one expert on TV put it, the reaction was about what could have been done rather than what has been done.

The reaction to the last budget by the same minister in July 2019 was almost similar. Right after the big victory and into a second consecutive term, everyone expected a bolder budget with a road map for tough reforms from the Modi Sarkar. That didn’t happen.

If you go back further to the last few budgets, the story is similar.  In the pre-budget season the air is thick with expectations of all kind. Expectations of big bang reforms, of new big ideas, of a vision for the country and of course of income tax rate cuts! And post the budget speech, the reactions have been similar. “What is the one big idea in the budget?” “Where are the big bang reforms?” “There is no vision in the budget!” and so on.

The last time the media hailed the budget generously was P. Chidambaram’s way back in 1997. It was termed as the “Dream Budget” when it presented a road map for economic reforms in India and included lowering income tax rates, removal of the surcharge on corporate taxes and reduced corporate tax rates. But ever since the budget presentation became a media spectacle post the explosion of 24*7 News media, I don’t recall any budget (of any government) being hailed as a visionary budget or a great budget. Most of the times, the budgets have only disappointed people.

Today, there is a big disconnect between the expectations from the budget speech and what it can deliver. And increasingly, the scope of what the budget speech can deliver is reducing day by day thanks to reforms and change in governance models.

I am of the view that it’s high time we do away with this annual over hyped British era relic of a budget speech which focuses on outlays for the following reasons:

  • Leaving aside the Aam admi who doesn’t follow or understand the language of the budget, increasingly everyone expects the budget speech to actually lay out the “Governance vision and strategy” rather than increase or decrease of allocations. Essentially people are expecting the government to talk the corporate language. Of Vision, Mission and Strategy for the coming year/years.
  • For the budget speech, the FM takes inputs from other ministries on their key initiatives for the coming year and then announces outlays for the same. In a sense the FM is talking on behalf of her/his colleagues. There is little review of outcomes of the past outlays and the focus is more on the future outlays.
  • In the past, one of the areas of interest for the common man from the budget is to know what gets costlier and what gets cheaper. The finance ministry adjusted the tax and excise rates to balance revenue collections for the budget. In the present GST regime, the GST rates are decided by the GST council. The GST council meets as per their charter and decides the change in rates when required. Ergo, the budget speech doesn’t have details of prices going up and down. The exception being any reduction or increase in basic customs duty for imported goods. As we have seen in the recent past, the finance ministry has taken to these announcements whenever they want.
  • Coming back to yesterday’s budget speech, the common feeling was that there was no big announcement that would assuage the struggling economy. If one remembers, the same Finance Minister Sitharaman, had announced an unexpected corporate tax rate cut in September 2019. One must remember that this was not done in the budget speech of July 2019.  This was announced out of the blue, in an out of turn announcement as a counter measure to prop up the economy, then. So my point is, measures that are required to be taken can be and should be taken and announced when needed. One doesn’t have to wait for the budget speech to actually make such announcements.
  • Again if one closely analysed the budget speech, many of the initiatives announced by the Finance Minister can reach its logical conclusion only with last mile delivery by the states. In the sense, these are more like nudges to the state to perform better to get more outlays.
  • Till 2016, there was another media spectacle called the Railway budget. The Modi government took a wise call to do away with this ritual and merged with the Union budget. Except for the reason that it was a British era custom that was followed, it seemed there was no reason for just one of the many departments of the Government of India to have a separate budget presentation day! We don’t have any empirical evidence of any deterioration in the ministry’s performance since then.
  • As I see, there are just a handful of countries in the world who still follow this Annual budget presentation ritual!

Considering all of the above, my submission is, it’s time to bid Good Bye to this all-encompassing Annual Budget Speech by the Finance Minister. Instead, this should be replaced by an address by the Prime Minister in the lines of the State of the Union Address (SOTU) in the US. In this address, the PM should take stock of the situation in the country, the issues on hand and present a vision, road map and the priorities for the coming year. This should be followed by debates in the parliament to understand the views of the other parties and opposition. In the same session, key ministries must present the outcomes of the previous year against the outlays and the plan, initiatives for the coming year in line with the vision, priorities outlined in the PM’s speech. By this, along with the Prime Minister the entire cabinet will be made responsible for their achievements and misses in their ministries, every year.

Narendra Modi, who has a penchant for leaving a legacy has a golden opportunity here. By replacing the budget speech ritual with PM’s Annual Vision Address!

Pic Courtesy: Bloomberg

Rajini and Modi – The Twain meets, again!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picture credit: indiatoday.in