2021 State Elections – My Flash Take aways!

This round of elections in five states is finally over today and India will get a break from being in election mode for a year.  It’s been too long an election process that, everything else took a back seat including our war on Covid.  The counting is still on as I write this but the broad trends are clear. Since there are pundits galore in theorising on the results, I will skip that for the moment. Instead, in this post, I would like to list a few take aways on the whole elections, not just the results of this round of elections.

Here we go:

  • Anti-Incumbency as the pièce de résistance among theories for explaining a result is passé: In the past, analysts would always just dismiss any defeat of an incumbent government by ascribing to “Anti-Incumbency” as if it was extremely legitimate and acceptable. A few decades ago, it is true that incumbent governments were thrown out 7 out of 10 times. But, that’s no more the case. As we have seen in this round, 3 out of 5 governments have been re-elected. In Bengal, TMC has won a third consecutive term. It all boils down to quality of governance and what people feel about the next best option.  Anti-Incumbency is no more an excuse. And Pro-Incumbency is a virtue.
  • Hawa, Leher, Mahoul exist only in the minds of commentators: This is increasingly becoming the case in social media driven journalism. As we saw in UP in 2017, Karnataka in 2018 and now Bengal this time, mainstream media and social media can create their own “Waves” and “Hawa” that is far away from situation on the ground. So, making predictions and conclusions based on social media trends, Youtubers’ narratives and mainstream media commentary is fraught with a lot of risks.
  • Opinion Polls and Exit Polls are for entertainment only: This we have seen time and again now and doesn’t need much explanation. For almost all agencies, getting the polls right has a huge amount of luck riding on it. If they get it right, it’s their day. That’s all. In a diversified country like ours, statistical samples however scientific they are, have proven to be inconclusive. So, opinion polls and exit polls are a lottery. Even in this round, no agency predicted the scale of Mamata win and almost all predicted a tough fight.
  • Voters vote for Lok Sabha and State polls on their own merits: This is getting very conclusive by every election. In one of my earlier articles for Newslaundry (Read here), I had explained this with quite a few examples. In this round as well, we can see this aspect quite established in Bengal and Kerala.
  • Time for building consensus around One Nation – One Poll: This is linked to my last point as well. Now that we can see clearly that voters are indeed intelligent and vote as per merit in Lok Sabha and state elections, many of the regional parties and even the Congress which have their apprehensions that it will be only “Advantage BJP” if India opts for simultaneous elections, should shed the same and have a re-think for the sake of larger national interest. It is obvious that elections every year or twice a year are a huge distraction for governance. Also it is a drag on the resources for any government. Both the government and the parties can save a lot of money and time if we have simultaneous elections. Of course, it is not as easy as it sounds, but there should be a national debate on the same and a consensus built around this so that at least in the next 10 years we can move in this direction. My personal opinion is, if not simultaneous polls, at least we should move towards “One Nation, Two polls” by having Lok Sabha Polls once and all State polls together after 2.5 years.
  • Limit the number of phases to 3 or 4 for any state: I don’t think there is any country in the world that conducts its elections over two months in eight long phases. The phase wise polling was conceived by T.N.Seshan when he was the Chief Election Commission mainly to counter violence and election related mal practices so that the EC can muster central forces and conduct free and fair polls. But those were the days of ballot papers where the chances of rigging were higher. Also in today’s times of EVMs and of course prevalence of Smart technology, ways and means need to be found for conducting free and fair elections in 3 or 4 phases in any state and eventually one phase.
  • Limit for expenses in an election is a joke: It is high time, the limits are re-visited. Also new limits need be prescribed for self, party and total expenses. It wll be good to take a look at best practices in other democratic countries on this and come up with a model for future.
  • Huge market opens up for political strategists and IPAC type organisations: This is not a new take away based on today’s results. But today’s results cement this proposition beyond doubt. It is no longer enough for parties to depend on their loyal karyakartas to carry our ground work. Parties need strategists and organisations to hold a mirror to them and carry out smart work in the field using data, analytics, technology and tools. It is not that an external strategist or marketing can save a bad product. But even a good product in today’s competitive times need adequate marketing cover. And therefore, the market for political strategists and political consulting companies in India has expanded. So it is as a career for youngsters in election management and related marketing. And Marketing works.
  • Last but not the least, EVMs are not instruments in the hands of those in power: I hope the debate around EVMs is put to rest conclusively now that opposition has also won spectacularly.

As you can see half of the points are related to the way elections are being conducted in India. After a round of reforms which Seshan initiated during his tenure, we have not seen much of electoral reforms. It is now time for the country to build consensus around electoral reforms and introduce them to keep our status as a vibrant democracy.

Image Courtesy: Firstpost.

Covid – Contending with the Waves of Uncertainty!

If at all there has been one thing which is consistent with Covid, it is its remarkable inconsistency.  From the time Covid entered our collective lexicon in February last year, every theory or conclusion related to its behaviour has been found to be inconsistent or invalid very soon after.  Like India was never affected by Bird flu or SARS virus, so we will not be affected by Corona virus (See the situation today). India is a hot country and in peak summers, Virus cannot survive (It did hit us through the last summer). India will be spared as we have better immunity for many diseases (Of course India was not spared).  During monsoons in places like Mumbai, Covid is going to create a havoc (There was no specific spike during monsoons).  Masks are required only if you have symptoms but hand washing and sanitising are most important to prevent the spread (Today, it seems it is the other way – Masks are most important and hand washing is not that important).  Once vaccines are found, that will be the end game for Covid (Vaccines were indeed found but the end game is still not in sight).  Once you take the two doses, you are safe (Now the latest theory is, we may have to take vaccines every year!). This was just to list a few theories on Covid which have got negated along the way.

We must keep this in perspective when we make our judgement on the way the municipal administration or State governments or the Central government or the Prime Minister have handled what is now called as the 2nd wave in India. Let us all be honest. Since the dawn of this New Year, all of us have in some way or other started moving towards leading a normal, pre-Covid life. We started – travelling out of our cities, taking vacation breaks, working from Office, wining and dining out, going to places of worship, having social get togethers, planning for house functions and getting domestic helps back in our houses, to mention a few normal/pre-Covid activities.

All of us were keen to put Covid behind us and lead a normal life. We all understand that it is important for economy to get back to normal which can only happen if consumption in all spheres get back to normal. We were all happy when GST figures reached pre-Covid levels and were delighted when it started exceeding pre-Covid numbers. All this when we also got the news that vaccines were available and we could see some light at the end of the Covid tunnel. We all celebrated and rejoiced about how India came out unscathed on Covid.

What we did at individual levels, companies did at their level as well with respect to businesses. And similarly the administration and Government did at their levels. In this period, we must not forget that farmer protests which in normal Covid times could be super spreader events were going on in most parts of North India. Yet, we didn’t see any spike in Punjab or Delhi or other states where farmers in large numbers were protesting taking limited or no Covid precautions. A full test match was held in Chennai with spectators watching it and there was no spike after that. Looking at these I guess, the Election Commission went ahead with the conduct of the polls in the five states in March and April. Ditto for the Uttarakhand government for the Khumb festival.  We all lowered our guard. Not just the government.

Today, however in India, we have been savaged by a Covid Tsunami. So, what we see all around are depressing news about deaths, sufferings and other collateral issues, all related to Covid. We have been hit by a lethal second wave which none of us saw it coming. This is where the first failure of the epidemiologists, experts and relevant authorities in the administration come into picture. All the while in the 1st Quarter of this year, I only saw experts explaining how India has flattened the curve and how we were moving towards herd immunity.  So, when other countries like the UK, USA and a few European countries were hit by a second wave, why was there no alert from the experts of a potential second wave in India?

In the mid of March, we could see suddenly numbers rising in states like Maharashtra and Kerala without any specific trigger like a super spreader event. When at that time, a few were enquiring with me on what’s happening in Mumbai, I mentioned that it is only a question of time the numbers start going up in other cities/states. And that’s what happened. So, when a person like me without looking at any regression models or analysis could predict that we are up to an imminent spike in numbers, how come the state governments and Central government did not realise that we are walking into a sudden burst if precautions are not put in place immediately.

Even in the 3rd week of March, if the Election Commission had announced strict regulations on campaigning or Khumb was made symbolic as it was done eventually, things would have been different. Or if all states including Maharashtra started what it is doing today in terms of restricting movements, we could have avoided the crisis. This is the second issue.

As some wise man said, “Before, you are wise. After, you are wise. In between, you are otherwise!” In hindsight everyone is God. Anyway, today lock downs have been put in place and I am sure, the numbers will start coming down in the next 4 weeks. Already the numbers in Mumbai are showing a declining trend day by day. But, once we reach a trough, again it will be time for “Unlock 2.0”. When that happens, we may once again at some point of time witness a third wave, unless by that time we have vaccinated a reasonable mass of people.

It is clear therefore that the key to prevent further waves, is vaccination. Or so we hope at this point in time, unless even this theory gets demolished. It is now apparent that the vaccination roll out has been patchy.  Just six weeks into opening up of the vaccination program to public, we have a shortage of both the vaccines.  And I am not joining the chorus of why India exported vaccines when we should have used it for Indians first. The external affairs minister has articulated recently that if we do not support other countries, we cannot expect support from other countries for supply of raw materials. This could be the official line. But the main reason why the government also decided on exports initially was the shelf life, in my opinion. The government cannot give this reason out for obvious reasons.

The shelf life of Covishield is six months from the date of production. As per Serum institute, by the end of December, it had already produced about 50 million doses of the vaccine. I must add here that it had started producing and piling up inventory even before the official approvals. Since the vaccination roll out in India was planned to be in phases starting first with the health and frontline workers for obvious reasons, the stock would not have been consumed before the expiry. Hence, exports meant to serve triple purposes as per me. Consumption before expiry, generation of good will with Vax diplomacy and fulfilment of commercial and licence related contracts for Serum.

A committee under Niti Aayog has been entrusted with the roll out of the vaccination program and it appears that the whole plan was based on “let’s cross the bridge when we get there”. How else can we explain the fact that the Central government had not secured supplies for the vaccine from the two approved sources at least to cover 60% of the adult population right at the beginning? Why is it that the companies were not committed working capital support right at the contract signing stage? If there was a clear plan of sharing of responsibility between Centre and states, it was never made transparent. And today we see that the whole vaccination has been opened up but without ensuring supply. From vaccine hesitancy, it is now a rush for vaccine. It is going to take at least till June for stabilisation of supplies. To me, more than not anticipating the second wave or being lax on taking actions after witnessing the second wave, the ill preparedness of the government on the vaccination roll out is the main issue.

While it is now clear that we as a country have landed our foot into a second wave land mine, the last thing we should see is politicking over this and the never ending blame game between the Centre and states. It is high time that the Centre and states work together in diffusing the crisis rather than pointing fingers on who is wrong at this stage. This is a collective failure of all of us, the society, the administration, the domain experts, the State and the Central government.  As common public we must now learn to be cautious throughout even if we have taken the vaccine, control our instincts to get back to normal lives soon and learn to deal with what could be waves of uncertainty in the coming months.

Having said that, in terms of accountability, the buck of course stops at the top, which is the Prime Minister. He must now quickly move towards establishing a separate ministry for Covid and have a competent minister and set of bureaucrats to man the same.  This ministry should be tasked with all activities related to Covid as an umbrella entity. Being pro-active should be the core mantra for this entity.  It should be acting on a WAAR footing – Watch – Anticipate – Act – Repeat.

As we have seen, unless we get out of Covid quickly, lives and livelihoods will be under jeopardy – caught in the ensuing waves of uncertainty.

Pic Courtesy: India Today

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

Tamil Nadu Elections – in “Poll” position!

The country is once again in election mode with the announcement of elections for a bunch of states. Among all the five states that go to polls this season that includes Assam, Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, obviously it is West Bengal that is grabbing national attention and creating more surround sound because of the tug of war between Mamata Banerjee’ TMC and BJP’s Ex-TMC. Just few days into the campaign, we are already seeing how this script is panning out.  But to me, the most interesting and fascinating election to watch in this lot is Tamil Nadu, for the far reaching impact the result may leave on the players who are going to lose.

It’s been oft repeated by commentators that this election is the first full-fledged state elections that is happening without the leading lights of the respective kazhagams, namely Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi. While this is true, beyond this there are other aspects which make this election very crucial and a “must win” for almost all the key players involved. A loss here may bring up “The End” card for the top contenders in this state where politics and cinema have been clearly intertwined.

For the ruling ADMK, a loss will lead the party into an existential crisis. The present sort of elastic dual leadership structure of EPS-OPS combine is certain to give way in case of an ADMK defeat.  As of now, the only glue that is holding the party together is “power”. Sans that, it is a question of time before the carefully built edifice starts breaking. It will also bring the debate back on Jayalalithaa’s legacy and so on but without much headway. In the absence of any other promising leader in the horizon, it is imminent that the “two leaves” will eventually wilt!

For the DMK, it is another existential crisis. Not probably for the party. But for the Karunanidhi family leadership. The party has been now in the opposition for ten years. In 2016, it was in a striking distance to power but lost out to Jayalalithaa in the final count. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the party managed to sweep the state bucking the national trend but it couldn’t leverage on this win in any way as it was in the wrong coalition. So, a win in this election is crucial for the party to re-energise the cadre and its leaders for whom getting back to power is important for many reasons. Also a win is crucial for its leader M.K.Stalin to cement his position within the party as its undisputed leader. Any loss will trigger another round of succession battles with many other family members staking a claim on the party’s leadership. Though Stalin has been leading from the front, the general impression is that he cannot come even close to his father Karunanidhi in terms of political acumen. A loss will further accentuate this impression.  A loss to DMK will also trigger a wave of cross overs to ADMK or for that matter even BJP before the next Lok Sabha polls as that could secure a career for many upcoming leaders who lost out in this election. The family tree may end up collapsing in case of a DMK loss!

The third regional contender awaiting to make an impact in this election is Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM). I don’t think anybody is expecting MNM to win on its own in this elections. But in his own admission, Kamal is looking at reaching double digits both in terms of vote share and seats. If it doesn’t happen and MNM manages only a vote share of less than 5% as before and few seats here and there, it could be curtains down on Kamal’s future plans for the state in politics. If a party, even a small one like MNM, cannot be of any material influence in a coalition, then it becomes very difficult to sustain and survive. Kamal could very well junk his political journey and resume his cinema career where is future is more secure. From torch light it will be back to arc lights at the sets!

Also, it is my hypothesis that if Kamal’s MNM fails to make any significant impact in this election, it will be curtains down for “Stars” trying a serious hand in politics in Tamil Nadu in future.

Now coming to the key national players – first the Congress. Any loss to the DMK front would mean further erosion of Congress’ political capital whatever is left of that is, in the state.  Not just that, it will further amplify the noise within the party around the Gandhi family leadership in general and Rahul Gandhi in particular. Within the state though, it may just continue in its present hibernation mode and more wrangling of the “Hand” in future.

For BJP, in this elections the stakes are still low, I believe. Whatever it is doing today in terms of focusing on the state is more with keeping 2024 Lok Sabha elections in sight. The party would like to bag up to ten seats in 2024 from Tamil Nadu, which will help in a big way to fill gaps from other states where it did well in 2019. . A loss to the ADMK front would force BJP to start accelerating its growth program in Tamil Nadu significantly on its own. This would obviously mean developing a credible state leadership. I believe for BJP, this election is a trial balloon to test ADMK’s strength in the post Jayalalithaa era, check out the acumen of its freshly minted local leadership and finally to chart its direction in Tamil Nadu. A win for the alliance though will help the party secure 10+ MPS in the 2024 elections and also increase its foot print in the state where it has been slow to grow. For BJP, this election is still like water on the Lotus leaf!

With so much in stake for all the key contenders, the TN election promises to be a very fascinating contest– one that eclipses even the West Bengal battle. And for sure, it is going to be a close fight with winning margins being thin in many seats and the final tally being very close. Even in the past, pollsters had a tough time calling TN elections. This time around, the task is more arduous.

Among all states in India, Tamil Nadu has had the privilege of being in the “pole” position with respect to many social and economic indicators. Now in this round of state elections, it is also in “poll’ position in terms of impact of the results. May 2nd though, could be curtains down for a few prime contenders!

Pic Courtesy: The News Minute

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? 😁

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.

The “Singhamisation” of police!

If the alleged gang rape and subsequent murder of a young girl in Hathras, UP was not terrible enough, the post death handling of the situation by the UP Police was even more horrendous. It is still bewildering, that someone suggested or ordered a midnight funeral for a murdered victim by the police instead of handing over the body to the parents! 

If that was in Hathras, UP, can anyone forget what happened in Sathankulam in Tamil Nadu, few months ago? In a bizarre case, a father and son duo were beaten to death under custody in Sathankulam police station. For what? For apparently violating lockdown rules!

Last year, in Hyderabad, the police killed the suspects involved in rape and killing of a vet in an early morning encounter which seemed like a scene lifted straight out of a Rohit Shetty (Hindi) or a Hari (Tamil/Telugu) film!

Add to this, the Sushant Singh Rajput case which was hogging media headlines till recently where the police of one state has been in logger heads with another.

Welcome to Singhamisation of Indian police. What is common in all these and more is the crying need for police reforms in India, a long neglected issue by any government of the day.

In our country, the commentariat often talks of the demand for reforms of all types – Economic reforms, labour reforms, judicial reforms, education reforms and so on. But seldom do we get to see the demand of police reforms in the same intensity. And I have always wondered why. As per a data point, roughly 9% of GDP is lost every year on account of poor law and order!  And if you remember, GST as a tax reform was introduced because it was believed that it will improve the GDP by up to 3%! And here we are talking about three times that!

In India, maintenance of law and order hangs in between the clichés of “Law and Order is a State subject” and “Law will take its own course”!  Law and Order which is one of the deliverables of the police is a state subject. States are run not just by ruling party at the centre. Few states are under the main opposition party, few by smaller opposition parties and many are ruled by regional parties. This situation exists at any given point in time. So, every party worth its salt has a stake in maintaining law and order and therefore interest in keeping the police under its thumbs.

I really don’t know when the last time a government seriously intended to initiate police reforms in the country. Even the Supreme Court directive of implementing the Prakash Singh recommendations in Prakash Singh Vs Union of India case in 2006 I believe has not been heeded to. The fact is no Indian state has fully complied with the recommendations. In irony we can say that police reforms is one subject in which all political parties are on the same page!

I believe that the cornerstone of any police reform needs to be “Independence” and “no Interference”. Unfortunately, the institution of police has been used by the ruling class as an instrument of exercising power and control. So much so that in any government the Home Minister, under whom law and order and therefore the police comes, becomes the De facto No. 2. Not the finance minister or the minister holding any other economic portfolio.  The big question is, will any party coming to power would ever give up on keeping the police under their thumb? If our armed forces can be reasonably independent though reporting to a civilian government, why not the police?

The next key focus in police reforms I believe, must be around recruitment, training and compensation. We must not forget that people in the police force have not been dropped from heaven. They are all from the same society as we are. And they read the same WhatsApp forwards as we do. So their world view is shaped and influenced in the same manner as ordinary people. And hence they have their own biases. We saw how this kind of biases come in the way of effective policing even in a developed and mature society like America.  I am talking about the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis when a police man was kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes even when Floyd was pleading for his life. The key is proper recruitment and training where one’s personal biases do not come in the way while discharging public duty.

Though policing is a highly stressful and high pressure job in India, the police are inadequately compensated. And that’s a major reason for not being able to attract bright people to join the force.  Adequate and attractive compensation will also reduce the menace of corruption that exists even at low levels. So, the combination of reformed recruitment, proper training and attractive remuneration will go a long way in the police discharging their duties in a more professional way.

Coming back to Singhamisation of police, whether films depict life or life follows films is an unending debate. The reality could be a mix of both. If you see Indian films, there was a time long ago, when they usually featured bumbling cops who will reach the scene at the end when everything was over. Then there was a phase where cops were usually of the corrupt variety who will be siding the villains.  Presently it is the Singham era, where cops are this macho super heroes and “Naan Police illa, porukki” types. They deliver justice in their own way and if that means taking law in their own hands, so be it.

And this is what we see in real life as well which is what I call the Singhamisation of the police. Incidentally, the common man in the street who is just interested in timely delivery of justice and not necessarily in the method, loves this. But the point is, if we have to prevent another Hathras or a Sathankulam, police reforms is the need of the hour and not Singhamisation.

Incidentally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi while addressing a bunch of IPS probationers recently, told them not to be influenced by films like Singham. After having initiated bold reforms in agriculture and labour, the time has come for Modi to take up police reforms as well. Then he doesn’t have to worry about Singhamisation of police!

The Social Media monster!

What is common between CU Soon and The Social Dilemma that have hit the OTT platforms in September in the space of few weeks in India?

CU Soon is a Malayalam feature film that is streaming on Prime Video. The film has opened to positive reviews for its novel screen based way of presenting a thriller. In the film, most of the time what we see is characters talking to us through chats and video calls. The film poses as a love story but is essentially a thriller revolving around illegal flesh trade.

On the other hand, The Social Dilemma is an English documentary film which is streaming on Netflix now.  The film traces the evolution of social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, Google and the likes from being “useful” tools in the beginning to becoming the “monsters” they are today! The film talks through a bunch of people who were associated with these social media platforms in the past but now horrified to see the monster they have let loose into the society.

Coming back to the question of what is common in these seemingly disparate films, it is the feeling you get once you have finished watching them.

In CU Soon, Fahadh Fazil who is the one who helps in cracking the mystery of this mysterious girl, is actually a software geek. Just by spending hours and hours in front of his computer screen and by tracking the digital foot print of people concerned in various platforms.  When the film is over, you get a frightening sense of the digital footprint one leaves behind these days! In the chase for likes, comments and shares there is a whole trail of personal happenings, dates, pictures, videos, check ins, check outs, our personal likes, dislikes, dispositions, our political leanings that we leave behind for anyone to track.

In The Social Dilemma, we are told how we are manipulated without us being aware. That social media platforms use our habits and preferences to monetise, is now a well-known fact. But what is chilling is when these come out as insider accounts as a well thought out strategy.  Of how these companies which started off well with noble and pious intentions of “Connecting people” have gradually moved away to “making us the product”. Of how they simultaneously straddle between “utopia” (doing good things, bringing people together, connecting in times of crisis and so on) and “Dystopia” (pushing selective stories and fake news that feed off your preferences)

“It’s a disinformation for profit business model” says one of the interviewees referring to the social media behemoths. “It’s a marketplace that trades in human futures” indicts another. Being a documentary, the narrative is in the format of many interviews where the interviewees deliver many “Shock and Awe” moments through quotable quotes like these. And at the end of which all, you get a sense of betrayal and a bitter taste in the mouth.

After watching these, how many of us would shut down our social media accounts after knowing well the ills?

 How much of social media is too much?

I don’t think there is too much of a problem if Facebook props up ads of stuff we would like to buy based on our preferences we have professed through our likes and comments. After all, advertising has been a source for revenue in conventional media as well and we are used to that. Of course the digital platforms allow for customised, targeted advertising based on our profiles. And ultimately purchasing something after watching an ad is a personal choice.

However, the recent increase in the angst against social media platforms I believe, has got to do with how they have taken the role in shaping the political destinies of nations. As it is shown in the documentary, these platforms push stories without realising if they are fake or genuine by just feeding into our beliefs and choices. As it is, psychologists say that humans suffer from “Confirmation bias” and as per dictionary it refers to the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories. For a platform like Facebook or Google, it becomes very easy to sense one’s leanings and feed appropriate stories to build in on this confirmation bias. The stories could be fake as well.

The traditional media like TV, Radio or Newspapers also feed stories by way of opinion pieces, news clippings and so on which also play a role in influencing our thought process. But the key difference is, here it is a one way process. In social media vehicles, it is a two way process. Meaning, everything happens in a customised fashion based on our likes and dislikes on what we transmit. As per those Ex-team members who were interviewed as part of “The Social Dilemma”, in social media platforms, manipulation is by design and not by default.

What is the way out? As mentioned in the documentary, you cannot put the genie back into the bottle. But I do believe if nations come together with a political will, these platforms can be made to stay away from politics. And as social media users, it will keep us in good stead if we ourselves do not depend on these platforms for consuming political news and stop sharing anything and everything of politics that come our way without putting our own fact check filters.  The positives of social media have been well documented. Now those are being overtaken by the negatives, it appears.  The bottom line is, the Lakshmana rekha needs to be drawn by us for ourselves.

Now that I have watched this documentary The Social Dilemma on Netflix, I have just received a mail from Netflix prompting me to watch “The Great Hack” – another documentary that unravels the manipulative power of social media!

The New Age Circus!

Circus – as we know it traditionally as a form of entertainment, may be on the decline. But a new age Circus has taken centre stage now and is threatening to overtake all forms of entertainment on offer. And that’s the TV News media circus.  Ever since the explosion of satellite and cable TV in India, there has been an explosion of TV channels in India in general and the News variety, in particular. A Wiki entry says that there are 400+ TV channels just for News in India presently, all clamouring for a share of the viewership pie.

With that kind of competition, survival needed a re-engineering of the News broadcast model. And that’s when most of the channels modelled their News programming to present wholesome entertainment. Today, if there are different options in channels like GEC (General Entertainment Category), Sports, Children entertainment, Religion & Spirituality and so on, for the grown up man, (I am not being sexist here. Just that I believe more than women, men tend to relish the entertainment on offer on News channels) News channels are a new category of entertainment that can be called as NEC (News Entertainment Category).

For the past several weeks now, this category has been buzzing with activity after the unfortunate death of Sushant Singh Rajput. Much has been written about how the goal posts in this case have shifted from suicide to abetment of suicide to murder to financial fraud to nepotism to drug consumption with the latest being Bollywood’s connection with the drug mafia. This unravelling of the story has been partly driven by a vigilante TV media which is conducting its own trial every night during prime time. It’s unfortunate that the TV media and not the investigating agencies has been in the forefront of setting the agenda of this case and every turn has been a result of some expose or other by the TV media.

As a result, what we see today is a competition among channels through orchestrated leaks and PR stunts to set the agenda for investigation.  Today, the Rajput case which was just pursued by one channel or media house in the beginning has now become an obsession for most channels/media houses. The result is a full blown war among channels, media houses and its star anchors and them taking sides depending upon what suits them and their TRPs. So, when Rhea Chakraborty gives interviews to a few channels, the other channels label it as a PR stunt to extricate herself from the case. And when Kangana Ranaut talks to few channels on nepotism, other channels label it as a distraction exercise and so on.

There are those who are integral part of the media but not part of the Rajput saga who have been critical of the tamasha going on in News channels. And they have also blamed the viewers of their choices which as per them is responsible for the degeneration of TV News channels. As per me, they only reflect the “these grapes are sour” sentiment. If they had got an opportunity to be part of the saga, the commentary would have been different.

There is no doubt that the Rajput case has heightened interest on TV news for many in India, going by the BARC statistics before and during the Rajput saga. A channel like Republic Bharat has managed to become Number 1 in Hindi News category dislodging Aajtak just during the Rajput saga! I do not watch Republic TV these days. But many do. And that’s why it is the leader in English News category by far. As kids, we liked watching a Circus. And as adults, many enjoy watching TV News which is increasingly resembling a Circus.

In this News age Circus, the reporters are like the poor animals which are paraded to perform certain items in front of the crowd. Today, the reporters are pushed by their bosses to get sound bites and capture sensational visuals which are put on a loop on TV.  Some of the guests in debates are akin to Jokers or buffoons in a Circus who are there to provide comedy relief.  At times from across the border. They are routinely insulted and howled upon. The spokespersons of the parties are according to me like the trapeze artists in a Circus.  They do the fine balancing act irrespective of the situation, swinging from one position to another as per the need and continue to “hang in there” during the heated debates.  The anchor is the ring master who is often seeing cracking the whip.

What I am trying to say is, as viewers we have long before concluded that News is another form of entertainment and is consumed as such. So, if a particular channel or show is high on ratings, it is because it is considered more entertaining than others. This doesn’t mean that we like that style of journalism. For consuming actual News or for high quality journalistic insights we have our own other sources in the media.

TV channels are sustained by TRPs – Tamasha Rating Points, I mean. And in every genre, the clamour for TRPs has brought in a big shift in programming content. In General Entertainment, from sober family value serials to “Saas Bahu” sagas and Big Boss shows, in Cricket from classical test/One day matches to T20s, in Children entertainment genre from pious Tom & Jerry cartoon types to High Octane adventure shows, in Music category from concerts to Reality shows filled with drama. The genre of News is not an exception. Hence the change from staid reporting of events of the day with visuals to noisy and sensational shouting and screaming matches around events.

The traditional Circus may be on the wane and struggling. But the New Age Media Circus is alive and kicking. And you get to watch that every day, 24*7 that too from the couch of your drawing room. And as a viewer do not have any other pretense about it.

Nate Silver, an American writer and editor famously said, “A lot of news is just Entertainment masquerading as News”.

How wrong he was!

All News is just Entertainment masquerading as nothing!

Cartoon credit: Satish Acharya