The Maahaul of India Shining!

If you are an avid watcher or reader of global commentary, you cannot miss the ongoing spotlight on India and mostly for good reasons.  India seems to be the shining star in what otherwise seems to be a global economy that is still coming to terms with post-Covid recovery and the spiralling effects of the Russia – Ukraine war. The past few weeks have seen a downpour of bad news on the economic front globally. And it is not just from the US which is a prime mover in the global economy but other developed nations as well.

India though seems to be a lonely planet in the universe. The stock markets are on a historic high as we approach the end of this calendar year and despite the global demand situation, the Q2 GDP numbers at 6.3% demonstrate that India is tiding over the global headwinds reasonably well. Therefore, on cue, we have been seeing many opinion pieces, commentaries, and encomiums of late not just within India but globally, saying that this could be India’s decade and so on. I am calling this the “India Shining” sentiment for easy understanding! The point to note is the maahaul of India Shining keeps visiting us every 5-6 years and ebbs off after a while.

The phrase “India Shining” was of course used for the first time by the Vajpayee-led NDA government to project a positive outlook of the country to foreign investors back in 2003-04. The campaign was envisaged by Jaswant Singh as the finance minister. Later on, it took shape of a political campaign for NDA in the 2004 polls. Many expert commentators till today opine that the India Shining campaign was the main reason for its defeat in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. If one does a fine toothcomb analysis of the results, it will be clear as daylight that NDA was defeated due to other issues. We will keep that for another day, another blog.

The campaign did help to improve the image of India worldwide in that period. India was part of the BRICS coinage, a commentary that would have done countries like India, China, Russia, etc more good than any global PR campaign ever did. I remember in that period wherever I went, the BRICS story dominated discussions in board rooms and what followed was a long period of India Shining till the Global Financial Crisis in the form of Lehman shock struck in 2008.  If you recall, the period 2003 – 2008 saw huge investments in real estate and retail with the free flow of “Hot money” to India, all thanks to the positive India Shining sentiment.

The next brief and passive wave of India Shining started in 2014 after Narendra Modi took over as the Prime Minister of a full majority government after 1989. India was the flavour of the world then and this lasted for a few years till 2017.  The stock markets saw new highs with a heavy inflow of FII in this period.

What we are seeing now is the return of the BRICS type hype. The difference is, three of the constituents of BRICS namely Brazil, Russia, and China are no longer in the good books of the world while India continues to be. There are a few things that are going well for India overall now. A politically stable government that is confident in itself and no longer suffering from coalition compulsions.  A government led by a leader whose popularity and credibility among the masses is unprecedented in a long while which helps take decisions without looking over one’s shoulders.  Introduction of structural financial reforms like the GST and IBC that have stabilized and yielding results. India coming out of Covid relatively better off with life and business back to normal. The swift post-pandemic recovery in the economy despite the global headwinds due to the ongoing war. A nuanced management of the economy in the past few years and in a sense better than what the minders of the economy are being credited for, in my opinion.

Countries and Corporations who had conceived the China+1 strategy back in 2013 to de-risk from China are actually getting serious about executing the strategy now by shifting part of production elsewhere. The Covid pandemic and the way China has been handling the pandemic has now morphed the China +1 strategy into ABC (Anything but China) strategy.  These have certainly helped the cause of manufacturing in India as we can see in the exports of Mobile phones out of India now. We are still scratching the surface here and still miles to go before we become a credible +1 in manufacturing.

There is a visible infrastructural transformation that is happening in India as we speak. Highways, Railways, Airports, and seaports are all getting upgraded or added at a speed not seen before. Again, the pandemic derailed the progress for two years otherwise, many would have seen completion by now.

There is credence therefore to the India Shining sentiment that we are witnessing at the moment. Here is where I would like to add a caveat. Developed countries like the US, Western Europe, Japan, and so on look at other countries when their internal situations are not good. That is how China got the benefit of a huge benevolence from the US in the 90’s when the US outsourced almost its entire manufacturing to China.  Similarly, the US Economy is going through a trough presently with the spectre of a recession looming large. The economy is indeed resilient but there are lots of ifs and buts. Commentators call this the “Yes and But” situation.

If you look at India, I would say we are in a “No and But” situation. Living in India, one cannot resonate easily with the India Shining maahaul. Our cities are in a state of perennial under-construction.  Projects, whether they are flyovers or Metros just don’t seem to finish.  Interest rates have become so high that have pushed EMIs over the roof.  IBC has not helped to resolve quickly the issue of bankrupt companies. In Mumbai, bankrupt builders have ditched projects midway spoiling the aspirations of so many middle-class families and filling the skyline with incomplete towers. Jobs and Unemployment data point to a very grim situation for the youth.

But the economy is indeed growing. GST collections have been on a healthy trend. People are travelling and holidaying like there is no tomorrow. Just look at the long queues for check-in and security checks in big airports like Mumbai and Delhi in the early morning hours. Festival and marriage shopping crowds have been unprecedented of late in shopping areas in all cities. Cheap data and bandwidth have transformed our day-to-day lives in more ways than one. The “India stack” is a global case study. Amidst all the negative sentiments globally, there is an air of positivity in India. We have to move to a “Yes and no But” scenario that too as early as possible.

As Shekhar Gupta says in one of his columns, we have a habit of flashing victory signs early.  India as we speak is still a WIP and a lot of work is yet to be done.  From here, what we need is an uninterrupted home run where the economy keeps clocking 7-8% if not more on a year-on-year basis for 20 years.  If that happens, we will not be talking of just a maahaul but an actual India shining!

Pic credits: Alex Fine in The Economist dated 13th May, 2022.

NDTV – A Nostalgic Drive!

In the last few days, social media has been buzzing with the news of the Adani group buying a large stake in New Delhi Television or NDTV as we all know it. A corporate house getting involved in the ownership of a news organization is no longer a strange thing in any part of the world.  So, why is there such an interest in this news of the Adani group buying a large stake or moving to acquire a controlling stake of NDTV? It is because the news company involved here is NDTV, an entity that has been a nostalgic part of the growing up of an entire generation in India. As more and more details of the transaction and what it entails are unfolding, I couldn’t help jog my memory back to the time when NDTV was all that we watched as far as current affairs on TV was concerned.

In its growing years, the generation I am referring to witnessed the evolution of News broadcasting in India from a staid, single-source sarkari Doordarshan to the opening up of the News broadcasting domain to private, professional and independent options in the mid-80s. As this evolution happened, the credit for being a pioneer in the private news broadcasting space at each step goes to NDTV.

My own tryst with NDTV as with many others in my age group started with “The World This Week” a packaged show on the world outside that was telecast on Doordarshan. So 10 PM on Fridays saw the recreation room with just a single TV in our B-School hostel, being house full with inmates even sitting on the floor and occupying every inch of the room to watch this program. Such crowds in our hostel TV room were reserved for Cricket matches or the Mahabharat serial usually.

The World This Week anchored by Dr. Prannoy Roy and another gentleman by the name of Appan Menon was the first and only source to catch a glimpse of what was happening outside of India back then. With its slickly edited visuals, carefully curated content from across the globe and more importantly accompanied by the clear, concise and measured commentary of Roy, The World This Week became extremely popular and soon Friday evenings meant Chitrahaar/Oliyum Oliyum and The World This Week. I vividly remember the visuals of the “Tank Man” at Tiananmen Square in China back in 1989 shown as part of an episode.

Even before The World This Week, as an anchor Prannoy had already endeared himself to a large section of the English-speaking TV-watching audience in India. That was as the anchor of the first election coverage program on DD along with Vinod Dua (who used to handle the Hindi part) for the 1989 Lok Sabha elections.  The Jodi of Prannoy and Dua speaking alternately in English and Hindi while presenting the trends of the leads and results trends is afresh in my memory. We in fact used the concept of Roy-Dua pair for a college skit and remember getting the second prize! In that pre-EVM, paper ballot box era, counting used to go on 3 days for a Lok Sabha election and the Roy-Dua pair would be on it for hours and hours together analyzing the election results.

As far as I can remember, Prannoy is the pioneer of Opinion polls, exit polls and all kinds of election analysis that we see today. To Prannoy and his team goes the credit for introducing many a few election-related terms that are part of our vocabulary now. Personally, for me, psephology as a subject interested me after I started watching Prannoy’s programs on TV.  Stuff like Anti-Incumbency, TINA factor, Index of Opposition Unity, First past the poll system, Winner’s bump and so on became familiar thanks to Prannoy’s usage of these in his election shows.

The early ’90s was a phase in which India was opening up on many fronts. The News broadcast domain was not an exception. So, when Rupert Murdoch’s Star network started its news channel – Star News, it was NDTV that was contracted to be the content producer. What we saw as Star News was essentially NDTV news with the editorial control totally with NDTV while Star TV was running the channel. While Prannoy has always been the visible face of NDTV, it was only known much later that his wife Radhika Roy played an active role in running the channel.

The NDTV English and Hindi channels which we see today I guess, came into existence after the arrangement between Star TV and NDTV broke up in 2003. The one fact that we cannot ignore is that NDTV as an organization has been a factory of talent in the Indian News broadcast industry. You name any anchor or reporter of heft in India and he or she would have schooled in NDTV sometime in the past. Whether it is star anchors/editors like Rajdeep Sardesai or Barkha Dutt or Arnab Goswami who are all brand names in their own right today or some of the finest reporters in the country, they are all from the NDTV school.  It is to the credit of the Roys that they were able to spot and nurture talent across the country in the News broadcast domain. There is no doubt that in the news media space, NDTV has always been seen as a brand of trust, credibility and professionalism.

It will be interesting to watch, therefore, what the future holds for NDTV with the recent developments. It is a fact that NDTV today is a pale shadow of its past. Blame it on the flight of talent or the financial woes of the Roys or the degeneration of the News broadcast industry overall, NDTV has not been able to maintain its leadership position which it held perhaps in the mid-noughties. Irrespective of what the future entails, I am certain that the legacy of NDTV as a pioneer on many fronts in the news broadcasting space in India will remain and hopefully it will spring back to a fresh beginning in a New Dashing TV avatar!

India @ 75 – Seven and a Half reasons for being proud of!

As I write this blog on the eve of yet another Independence Day, the whole country is in a festive and cheerful mood. This being the 75th Anniversary of our Independence, it is all the more special.  The entire nation seems to be swamped by the Tricolour with the people embracing the Prime Minister’s “Har Ghar Tiranga” call with great rigour. As is for every milestone event, there are Op-eds and articles galore on how India has fared after 75 years of Independence.  And everyone’s outlook is based on if the glass is 50% full or 50% empty.  At 75 years, to me, it seems like it is 75% full and there are seven and a half reasons, we can be proud of as a nation in terms of what we have accomplished. Here we go:

  1. Armed Forces: Throughout these 75 years, our Armed forces have shown exemplary character and have stood for the country in times of need. Whenever there is no other option, the armed forces are called in and they have always done the job. More importantly, they have always stuck to their boundaries and have not ventured to diminish the civilian authority in a democracy like ours, even when situations have been ripe. The Armed forces have functioned as a disciplined force and have discharged their responsibilities ably all the time.
  2. Cricket: One would easily mistake Cricket to be the National sport of India. It is not even a sport that is native to our country. It is a sport that was bequeathed to us by the British. Yet, it is a game that we lord today. India dominates the game of Cricket both on and off the field. Period.
  3. Democracy: When you think of it, that India is a chaotic but functioning democracy may surprise even many of us. But the fact is, it is. It’s really amazing how in the past 70 years since the first election, power has smoothly segued from the loser to the winner without a single instance of any hiccup. Across the country, there are many examples of leaders who have risen to the top as Chief Ministers, Prime Ministers and Presidents who all started as common men and women, all thanks to a vibrant democracy.
  4. Diversity: This is a thing about which we within India do not attach much significance. Ask any foreigner and she would always be overwhelmed by the diversity India as a country offers whether it is religion, culture, ethnicity, food, language, landscapes, weather, customs and even clothes. After Independence, many naysayers felt that this diversity will do India in. Yet, here we are, alive and kicking as a democratic nation. We are so diverse that for everything that we say of India, the opposite is also true!
  5. Election Commission: Among all the bodies of the Government, easily the Election commission comes on top as the most professional, efficient and dependable body. One should give credit to T.N. Seshan for this who as the Chief Election Commissioner brought in reforms that changed the way the EC functioned. The good thing is even after Seshan, the EC has continued to maintain or rather better its efficiency.
  6. IT Industry: If you have to choose one brand ambassador for India which helped in elevating the image of India outside, it has to be the Indian IT Industry. Today, there is no part of the world where we don’t have IT professionals who spread some message about India on a day-to-day basis. But more importantly, within India, the IT Industry helped to create a self-confident Middle class that flaunts its purchasing power and drives consumption. Also, most of the path-breaking governance initiatives like the India stack are all a by-product of the IT power of India.
  7. IRCTC: Ease of railway booking must count as the earliest visible and tangible improvement in the delivery of a government service in India. Today we are used to other efficient services like the UPI, GEM and so on. But in my opinion, IRCTC continues to be the trailblazer.
    • Yoga: This is the last half reason for us to be proud as a nation. I am saying “half reason” because we seem to have woken up late in claiming our true legacy in this field. When the whole world is moving from health to wellness, Yoga as a practice has the potential to fill this gap. And being the birthplace of Yoga, India has all the credentials to do what it did with IT.

There are other reasons for us to be proud of India, but these come as top of the mind for me as I pen this post to commemorate India @ 75!

Wishing all the readers a Happy and proud Independence Day! 7.5 stars for India @ 75. Now showing everywhere in world!

LOC for FOE!

Freedom of Expression is in the news these days. Not just in the news, but also in social chatter. Young followers of this chatter may begin to wonder if in India there is Freedom of Expression at all. Of course, there is. Article 19 of the constitution provides for it clearly. Well, almost.  Article 19 of the constitution says “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” This is very clear. The devil as they say is in the details. Here it is in Clause (2) of the same article. Clause (2) of Article 19 of the Indian constitution enables the legislature to impose certain restrictions on free speech under following heads:

  • security of the State,
  • friendly relations with foreign States,
  • public order,
  • decency and morality,
  • contempt of court,
  • defamation,
  • incitement to an offence, and
  • sovereignty and integrity of India.

Therefore, I really wonder where is the confusion. The law and its provisos are very clear. Freedom of Expression does exist. But comes with its own riders. Why is it so difficult to understand this even for the liberal intelligentsia?

What is missed out in the above which is what is the grey area in the whole thing is the Right to offend in the garb of Freedom of Expression. Does Freedom of Expression come with the Right to Offend? Certainly not.

Let us look at the most recent case in India involving this Freedom of Expression which was the release of a poster for a documentary film that depicted a smoking Kali, a goddess revered by the Hindus in India.  As a film maker, Leena Manimekalai has the freedom to say what she wants in her films.  As some people now try to say – the poster very well could be depicting a character in the film playing the Kali role in a play and smoking during breaks. Many of us have seen actors in their make ups smoking at the back stage. Now the question is, what is the need to put up this one scene in the marketing collaterals for the film?

As we have seen the director’s further reactions to the uproar, it is obvious that the choice of the poster was not by chance. It was by intent. An intent to exercise her Right to offend – in this case, a section of the Hindu faith. Therefore, no one should complain if there is an uproar and start questioning the existence of Freedom of Expression in India.

At the same time, is there a need to arrest her and put her in the jail for this? I don’t think so. Right to outrage cannot be a response to Right to offend. By calling for her arrest, one is falling into the trap of fuelling the promotion of the film.

This was followed by TMC MP Mahua Moitra’s comment which again sparked condemnation and call for her arrest. This is stretching it too far. While condemnation is also exercising the Freedom of Expression, calling for her arrest is not. Her comment certainly does not fall under any of the reasons mentioned in Clause (2) of Section 19 that warrants a legal action.

One can see the pattern. Before the Kali poster controversy, it all started with the comment made by BJP’s Nupur Sharma on TV on the Prophet. As a spokesperson of the ruling party, she did cross the line by dragging the Prophet in the TV discussion. Not surprising that it invited condemnation from the Muslim countries and India had to handle the diplomatic fallout. Again, the call for her arrest and killing is totally not acceptable and condemnable.  In the same lines, the daylight killing of Kanhaiya Lal in Udaipur for a Facebook post in Udaipur is deplorable. This Action – Reaction cycle is going to be endless.

In all this, it is clear that one can exercise his or her Freedom of Expression openly while in private or in the known circle. But when you are in the public space, there is a need to exercise restraint and control. Because as some wise counsel said, “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins”. This can be stretched quite well to the issue of Freedom of Expression as well. While expressing in public, one should clearly be aware as to where the other man’s sensibilities lie.

Therefore, there is a need for drawing one’s own LOC (Line of Control) on FOE (Freedom Of Expression) while in public domain. In my opinion, one knows very well, when the Line of Control is being crossed. So, it is not that difficult to exercise control along the LOC.  This is not just applicable to individuals but to politicians and creative people as well.

Image Credit: Indianprinterpublisher.com

Agnipath and not Agnipast!

“Change is the only thing that is constant” is an oft repeated phrase that has now become a cliché! In a real world that is not Utopia, the only thing that is constant is resistance to change. “Where are the big bang reforms?” This was a familiar question from the commentariat in the first few years of the Modi Sarkar. Then when the Sarkar started implementing reforms of the big bang variety, the question changed to “Why is this needed now?”. We saw this when the much-needed reforms in the agriculture sector were introduced. Finally, the government had to roll back the same. In my blog (read here) when the farm bills were repealed after protracted agitations, I had written on the lessons for the Modi Government in bringing in reforms. There are more lessons coming up!

Here we are, again in the same boat. The Government announced Agnipath, a scheme that brings about radical changes or reforms in the recruitment of jawans for the armed forces. And post the announcement, we have been seeing the same scenes playing out in terms of agitations and approach of the government. Literally speaking Agnipath has set parts of the country on fire, and this is extremely unfortunate.

Most commentators and domain experts acknowledge the need for these reforms. Yet, the section of the population which is supposed to benefit from these have an angst towards these. The result is what we see playing out on our respective screens.

From whatever I have seen and heard on this issue, the biggest issue around the proposed Agnipath program is the timing.  For the past 2 years, due to Covid, recruitment to Armed forces through recruitment rallies have not happened. The process is at different stages and the candidates are going through an agonising period of prolonged suspense, frustration and at the end of the day some hope.  Aspiring candidates are at different stages in the process – some awaiting their medical, some awaiting the final letter, some at different rounds and so on. So, all the while they have been forced to keep themselves fit and ready for the process to come to an end now that things are getting back to normal post Covid.  All along the candidates have been given the reason of Covid for the delay in the process.

Now comes the announcement of Agnipath which totally puts paid to their hopes of not just joining the services that will ensure a settled life but, a 3/4th probability of getting out of the services and start all over again in 4 years. What we see as raucous demonstrations are a result of the pent-up frustration in the first place due to last two years of agonising wait and second now finding that the game has changed.

If one must look at the causes therefore for this unrest, they can be summarised as follows:

  • First the timing.  As I have mentioned before, the proposed changes have come at a time when recruitment has not happened for two years.
  • Second, the proposed changes have made some of the candidates ineligible due to the age limits. They feel slighted.
  • Third, there is an element of uncertainty because of the 25% absorption clause even for those who get selected. Therefore, this is seen as a harbinger of struggle in life if one misses the bus!
  • Fourth, the probability of getting selected even if this is a short tour of duty has reduced since the overall recruitment numbers has been reduced. In general, around 60,000 get selected in a year. Now that has come down to 40,000 of which only 10,000 will get absorbed after four years. This is my understanding. So, the reduction in intake is drastic and therefore the probability of getting into a settled job with the forces has also reduced for the aspirants drastically.
  • And finally, the sudden drastic communication of the rolling out of the program.

Having said all this, since the proposed reform packaged as the Agnipath scheme is much needed for reducing the average age, reducing the pension budget, shifting the allocation from boots on the ground to weaponry, technology and sophistication, the government must stay the course but probably with a few course corrections.  Here’s what the government could have done in rolling out this program and probably it could still do:

  • Over to Overlap: In businesses, when we try to bring in some changes that tend to disrupt long standing processes, we deploy a tactic called “Overlap”. I strongly feel that in this case also, the government could have brought in this new program with an overlap clause. This means, the existing recruitment program will continue as it is for 2 or 3 years while the new program will be introduced in phases. This of course increases the overall intake for two years but that is a smaller cost for bringing in a reform that has benefits in the long run. The candidates who are part of the ongoing process would not have felt slighted. The new candidates would come in knowing fully the contours of the new program. This would have taken care of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th issues mentioned above.
  • Float the trial balloon: Now coming to communication and therefore getting feedback before implementing the same, the government could have used a time-tested technique of leaking parts of the program to select journalists. When key elements of the program appear in the media quoting “as per sources”, it gives a window for the government to own/disown parts or the program in full depending upon the feedback. In this case, the government could have easily got an idea of the ground level feedback and therefore timed it better. Also, aspects of the program which the government is now making changes like the one-time extension of age limit and other ministries bringing in notifications for absorbing Agniveers could have been built into the program itself by floating this trial balloon.

Though some of the commentators particularly from the services feel that this should not be seen as an employment generation program, the fact of the matter is, in India there are districts in states like Bihar, Eastern UP, Bundelkhand, Haryana to name a few, where getting into the forces at the sepoy level is a primary source for employment for the youth. This explains the reason for the skewed nature of the protests and outbursts as far as geographic spread is concerned.  The irony is, what probably started as spontaneous outbursts which resulted in destruction of public property at will has now turned into a more orchestrated campaign to create unrest in the country.  Nupur Sharma issue is now history!

By going full fledged with the announcement, the government has put itself in a quandary and the program in jeopardy. Now coming out of the hole and still roll out Agnipath even with some changes will be a real Agnipariksha for the government! Hope this doesn’t go down as “Agnipast”!

Where is the “India Story” headed?

  • World over, inflation is at an all-time high.
  • Oil prices are shooting up.
  • There is a shortage of Wheat and other food items.
  • China has shut down its major cities in pursuit of its “Zero Covid Policy”.
  • Experts expect China to be in some kind of a lock down till 2023.
  • Supply chain disruption which started with Covid in 2020 is still on.
  • US GDP growth rate this year is likely to surpass China’s after four decades.
  • The World’s love affair with China is over.
  • Russia’s Ukraine war is dragging on without an endgame in sight.
  • US companies have pulled out or shut operations in Russia.
  • Affinity for Globalisation is now fraught with “Conditions apply”.
  • Almost all nations are seeking “Atmanirbharta” in some form or other without saying so explicitly.
  • A Unipolar world with US as its vertex that existed for two decades since the end of Cold War has now withered.

So, if one looks around, the picture is not very rosy. Where does that leave with the much touted “India Story”?

I think that this phase of 2/3 years is most crucial for India that can make or break the India Story. And the reasons are as follows:

  • Globally companies who had invested heavily in manufacturing in China are looking at de-risking from China. As a country with a huge population and therefore a source for cheap labour, India can fill in, if we get our act together quickly.
  • We are largely English speaking in business and our systems are integrated with the world unlike China which has strong firewalls in place for integrating all systems.
  • India has already proven its prowess in IT and IT services worldwide.
  • We have a functioning democracy that provides inherent checks and balances where transfer of power happens smoothly as per the will of the people.
  • We have a stable government in place now for the past 8 years at the Centre with a leader who is acknowledged and regarded worldwide.
  • India is back on its feet after two years of Covid.
  • With a large consuming domestic population, it is an attractive market for many corporations.
  • India can be the magnet for attracting manufacturing investments in areas where we have core competency like Auto, Pharma etc.
  • India maintains friendship and strategic relationships with big powers like US, Japan, UK etc…

In short, reasons which are all obvious and which we are all mostly familiar with.

For a world that is looking at options, India can be that next best choice if we get our act together quickly. And that is a big IF. Why is it so?  History of India is replete with missed opportunities. Opportunities missed at times due to external geopolitical reasons but largely thanks to internal politics.  Can this time be different?

I believe keeping aside what happened in the past, as an eternal optimist, things can be different if we played our cards differently.  Towards this, I am suggesting a three-point agenda:

  • Put economic prosperity and therefore growth at the top of the country’s agenda. Think, breathe, and act basis the same.
  • This means that at the Centre, States and local level including WhatsApp groups, we must put a stop to all divisive agenda items. The country must focus single minded on issues related to economic growth. Today, at these crucial times, we are spending our time and attention on issues like origins of temples and mosques. I think we all know the origins of the temples and we don’t need to further spend time and resources to establish the facts.  This is a needless distraction at this point of time for us.
  • Centre and states must work towards this goal of economic prosperity as a team. Unfortunately, today, there is an atmosphere of Centre-state friction for which I believe both the Centre and States are responsible. On the other hand, if Centre and states co-operate and work together, I am sure the pace of growth can be fastened. Let me cite two examples to demonstrate my point:
    • In Mumbai, one of the crucial Metro line projects is now in limbo because of the tussle between Centre and State over the location of the Metro car shed/depot. This is clearly unfortunate and there seems to be no sign of a solution to break the impasse.
    • Last week, at the World Economic Forum at Davos, many of the states from India had individual booths along with a strong contingent to pitch for investments. This is indeed appreciable. But, what if, instead of states fighting among each other to attract investments, the Centre and states had worked a joint plan? What if we had a common India pavilion at a much larger scale with separate booths sector wise with participation from concerned states? I feel this would have made a much larger impact and will also ensure joint ownership in execution once a project is landed.
      • Labour is indeed a state subject. But it is high time a common acceptable labour code is thrashed out between Centre and states and implemented asap. A GST council type labour council be set up asap to arrive at a consensus on this. I believe that such a labour council will also help to wade off local political opposition to changes in labour laws for all political parties.
      • One of the key issues for attracting investments for manufacturing is making available land at reasonable prices. Again, a consensus among states and Centre needs to be arrived at for changes in the current land acquisition bill and implemented asap.
    • In essence between the Centre and State what is needed is Co-opted federalism and not Competitive federalism. Dwelling too much on semantics like “Union Government” Vs “Central government” is just a sheer waste of time.

Author and Columnist T.N.Ninan in a recent piece in The Print says, “For India, economic disorder is a reality to be reckoned with, but it also presents an opportunity” and I agree completely.  If we blow this opportunity, I am afraid that the India story will turn to be a Saas-Bahu type soap where the end doesn’t matter as long as there is some drama every day.

Not PK, Congress needs an AK!

Notwithstanding the poor performance in the recently concluded state elections, Congress managed to hog the headlines in India for the past 2 weeks. And the reason for that was the imminent roping in by Congress of Prashant Kishor (PK), who has now clearly made a mark as a master election strategist in India.  After his very successful stint with TMC for the Bengal state elections where he had openly challenged the BJP on its final tally and won that round, PK had announced that he is moving on from being an election strategist for a party. Instead he said he will be associated in politics in a different avatar.

From then on, we have been hearing about his rounds of discussions with the Congress leadership to work with them for future which ultimately culminated last week with an announcement of a breakdown of discussions between Congress and PK. Except for BJP which was PK’s 1st assignment in working with a party in a poll campaign, the other projects that were successful were when PK and his organisation were signed up by a regional party. These regional parties had supreme leaders and PK had access straight to the top. PK’s package was absorbed and implemented by and large without dissent and he could show results. Even during the 1st assignment, PK was working for and with Modi and not for BJP per se.

Secondly, PK’s wins have been where he has been riding winning horses. I still would say his value addition must have helped in bringing a method to the madness of campaign management, data analytics in candidate selection and culling, innovation in campaign tools and last not but the least, handling a monster called the Social Media with deft. Yet, when it was not a winning horse on the race as we saw recently in Goa (TMC) or in UP in 2017 (Congress), PK’s magic didn’t work.

For PK therefore, working with the Congress comes with a substantial risk.  Congress is an elephant of an organisation and in its weakest form presently.  Yet his keenness to work with Congress and help them win by even joining the Congress comes as a huge surprise and circumspection. Now, with the announcement of PK not accepting the invitation of the Congress to join its Empowered Action Group, it seems it is back to square one for the Congress.  So, how does Congress pick up the threads from here and try to win?

There have been suggestions, ideas and models galore from political commentators in the past few weeks for the Congress that include fixing the leadership issue, building the organisation at the grass roots and of course coming up with a credible narrative against the ruling BJP.  In fact some of these have been detailed in the leaked power point deck of PK which he made to the Congress last year. So, I will skip repeating the same points here.

In my opinion, what Congress needs is not a PK but an AK i.e. an Arvind Kejriwal. And I will tell you why.  Among many, I would like to pick up 2 aspects:

  1. To become leader of the ruling party, you should first become and excel as a leader of the Opposition. Today, though Congress is the single largest opposition party, it has singularly failed in being an effective opposition party. How did AK become what he is today – A sitting two time CM and the leader of the party which is emerging as a credible challenger for the BJP? The answer is simple. It all started with AK launching the Anti-Corruption movement in India which shook the nation thereby taking on the ruling party – Congress in 2011. If you recall, the key aspects of that movement were
  • Picking up a subject (Corruption) that touched all citizens irrespective of caste, creed, religion, class, geography and demographics.
  • Having a credible face for the campaign (Anna Hazare).
  • Garnering support from mainstream media that produced a multiplier effect and clever use of social media.

The campaign propelled AK as an effective activist which he used well to launch a party and win Delhi.

In the past 8 years, can you recall an Opposition campaign spearheaded by the Congress or any of its top leaders on a country wide basis?  Whether at the Centre or at the states where Congress is the principal opposition party, the only place it chooses to take on the ruling party is Twitter. Tweets do not win elections by themselves.  If Rahul Gandhi wants to challenge Narendra Modi for the post of Prime Minister, first he should prove himself as an effective and credible opposition leader.

  1. Once AK became the CM of Delhi, he has made a mark by having his own “Arvind Kejriwal model of governance” with its impetus attached to Education, Health care and cheaper utility bills for the Aam Admi. This model has got a thumbs up from the people as seen by his re-election in Delhi with a massive one sided mandate in 2020. Now this model has also got acceptance in another state namely Punjab where AAP recently swept the Congress out of the state.

Herein lies the next ironical tale of the Congress. In some many years of governing so many states, Congress still doesn’t have a model state to boast of as the “Congress model of governance”! What is stopping Congress from adopting all its professed good ideas in states where it rules and turn into a model? Unfortunately, Congress has been struggling to hold to states where they get an opportunity to rule (Punjab, Karnataka, Andhra, Kerala for example)

A consultant like PK can come and only show the mirror to the Congress. But the weight lifting at the political arena has to be done by the Congress leadership, for which you need be an AK. At the Centre, be a credible opposition leader. And in the states ruled by Congress, show case a model of governance, for starters.

Image courtesy: Outlook India

Takeaways on the takeaways from the 2022 election results!

The long election season in India came to an end last week and the results are in line with my forecast in all states except Goa where I thought that BJP will be shunted out this time.

We have been fed with a surfeit of analyses and takeaways by commentators of all hue by way of articles, videos and podcasts. I don’t want to further add to that cacophony by posting my takeaways on the election results.  However, I am unable to resist listing my key takeaways on the takeaways of the experts themselves. And here we go:

  1. “Switch” Bharat Abhiyan doesn’t stick: Just before the elections were announced in the UP, we saw a big number of defections mostly from the BJP to SP. These were interpreted by pundits as a pointer to the way the political wind was blowing.  In the end however, out of the 21 turncoats who shifted from BJP to SP just before the polls, only 4 won.  The big name among this was Swami Prasad Maurya who hogged headlines for at least a week. He lost his own seat. So, the message is, when leaders leave a party just before polls claiming to have not been given justice blah, blah, the reality could be different.  They might have sensed that the party may drop them from the contestants list due to their poor performance.  We saw this in Bengal also when few leaders jumped from TMC to BJP and they all mostly lost. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan may still be a work In progress but, this “Switch” Bharat Abhiyan is mostly still born!
  1. Differentiate between “Voting” public and “Vocal” public: Reporters doing ground reports often get carried away by the “Vocal” electorate and come to a conclusion for the entire “Voting” electorate. Here, I would like to give an analogy from marketing. When a product or service doesn’t meet the consumer’s expectations, it is very common for him/her to put it out on social media or talk to others about it. But, when the product or service is good and meet the expectations, consumers seldom talk to others or post a review. Negative WOM (Word of Mouth) always trumps positive WOM. It is the same case with voters, I feel. There could be those voters who are not happy with a party and hence tend to be vocal in front of the camera. But, there could be a larger section of voters who could be happy with a government and don’t bother to say anything to reporters. Coming to a conclusion in favour of the vocal public like many commentators did in the recent UP elections is fraught with a high probability of going wrong.
  1. Covid is not Government’s creation: In the run up to the polls and even later, we kept hearing experts talking about how UP government mismanaged Covid and how people will vote out the incumbent BJP government because of that. My point is, if Covid was mismanaged, it was mismanaged by all countries, all states and all administrations all over the world. I don’t think there is any administration that came out covering itself in glory in managing Covid. Even in India, if UP mismanaged Covid, so did Delhi, Kerala, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and so on. But commentators were rifle focussed in talking about Covid mismanagement only in UP while not referring to the same in other states. And the larger point is, the common public did not think that Covid was a creation of the Modi Government at the centre or for that matter any state government. Even in West Bengal elections or in Bihar elections, at the peak of the first wave, people did not punish the incumbent governments over Covid. I think there is a clear resignation among public that Covid was a pandemic not created by the governments and that the governments were trying to do their best with their backs against the wall.
  1. Pro-Incumbency doesn’t mean Anti-Incumbency is over: Since BJP won 4 out of 5 states in this round and sort of retained power in all these states, there is an opinion that the time of Anti-Incumbency is over and it’s the time of Pro-Incumbency. Well, this is only partially true in my opinion. Anti-Incumbency is over only if the incumbent is not Congress. The Congress still manages successfully to succumb to Anti-Incumbency in the states they rule. I am not saying this just because Congress lost Punjab this time where it was incumbent. In the recent past, Congress managed to lose power in states like Pondicherry (2021), Karnataka (2018), Tripura (2018), Himachal Pradesh (2017) and so on.  Yes, other parties have learnt to overcome Anti-Incumbency by mastering the art of governance and delivery like TMC in Bengal (2021), LDF in Kerala (2021), AAP in Delhi (2020), BJD in Odissa (2019), BJP in Gujarat (2018) and now in four states to sight a few examples.  But not the Congress. There is not a single state where Congress has managed to retain the state by demonstrating good governance and thereby projecting a case for Pro-Incumbency. The antithesis from here is that unlike in the past when Anti-incumbency was peddled as an acceptable excuse for losing power by an incumbent government, presently, Anti-Incumbency cannot be an acceptable ruse for a defeat.
  1. Marketing works only if the product is half good: In the beginning of the UP campaign, commentators were talking of how Priyanka Gandhi was running an exceptional campaign in UP with women at the core of the pitch. ‘Ladki hoon, lad sakti hoon’ (LHLSH) was hailed as a brilliant campaign. We now know the outcome of that campaign. Even during the campaign, key women faces of the program jumped ship. Any great campaign cannot save a poor or an average product.  So, I was surprised that commentators were getting carried away by the LHLSH slogan and were expecting Congress to make an impact. To me, it was of no surprise that the campaign lost steam midway.  Same can be said of TMC in Goa where the marketing muscle and resources couldn’t muster a single seat.
  1. In Election Arithmetic, 1+1+1 is not 3: Too many commentators have this habit of summing up individual party’s vote shares in the previous elections to forecast the vote share of an alliance in future elections. As we have seen repeatedly, 1+1+1 need not be 3. It can be 4, if the alliance is on the right side of winning and can be 0.5 if it’s the wrong side of winning. For example, just because RLD tied up with SP this time, the entire JAT vote didn’t shift to SP combine as we were told by experts.
  1. Day-today issues Vs Electoral issues: Increasingly I am seeing that reporters and experts talk to people on the streets on their issues and tend to conclude that they are key “electoral” issues based on which voters would eventually vote for a party. For example, in UP, commentators were talking of “stray cattle” as a big poll issue going against the BJP government. It is obvious to anyone as daylight that BJP as a party will never get punished for an issue like “stray cattle” that too when Yogi Adityanath who has been a votary of Cow protection is the Chief Minister. Also, can anyone tell me when Mehengayee (Price increase) and Berozgaari (Unemployment) have not been issues in India? These have been perennial issues in India and at least in the last 30 years, voters have not started voting for or against a party on these issues.  These issues are taken as given and voters weigh in their mind as to which party can provide them with more opportunities to get over these issues rather than tackle these issues per se.  

In India, elections come sooner than IPL. Just as we finish this round, we will have the next round of state elections towards the end of the year. And if you just kept hearing that UP is the most crucial test for BJP in the last few months, you will soon start hearing that Gujarat is the ultimate test for BJP and Modi in the run up to 2024. And the question, “Is 2024 a done deal for the BJP?” will keep coming up till the exit polls of 2024!!

Cartoon credit: Manjul

Annual Budgets and Annual Reactions!

In the days following the Annual budget last week, I saw a clip going viral on WhatsApp which had Uddhav Thackeray, the Shiv Sena Chief and Chief Minister of Maharashtra speaking in a CNBC function to felicitate Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. This clip (watch here) must be couple of years old. In the clip, Thackeray in a very self-deprecating manner, talks about his tryst with giving budget reactions. He says that for few years he tried to understand what’s in a budget but by the time he could do so, it was time for the next budget! But, since as the party chief he had to give some reaction to the budget, he developed a template response which was “This is a budget which will make poor poorer and rich richer” and more often this response for every budget landed well with his constituency. You would notice that even today, this response has a lot of owners among politicians! In today’s article in the Times of India, columnist and now a MP Swapan Das Gupta has mentioned that Vajpayee while in opposition had a stock reaction to any budget which was “Garib ke pet lat” (Kick in the stomach for the poor)!

If there are Annual budgets, there are equal and opposite Annual reactions! It’s therefore clear that one cannot go by the reactions of politicians on the budget to conclude how the budget has been. If leaders of parties and politicians cannot figure out what’s there in the budget how can we expect the common man to understand how it is going to impact him? While we all know that provisions in the budget have a huge impact on the livelihood of millions of people in the country who remain below the poverty line, during the budget week what we hear is only responses of people to whom budgets don’t matter. Those who are impacted by the budget are not in a position to comment because it is beyond their comprehension.

Here’s where I feel that the Budget presentation and the speech needs to be simplified if we want the common man to fully appreciate the implications of announcements being made by the FM on behalf of the government of the day. And here is my wish list on some of the changes I would like to see in my lifetime (I might have articulated some of this before also):

  • Articulation of what matters: In the run up to this year’s budget, the buzz was on jobs. We all know that in the last two years of the pandemic jobs got hit badly. In a double whammy, the pandemic led to a cut in existing jobs and slow addition of new jobs. Human/Contact facing service industry faced the worst hit. So, the expectation was that there will be clear actions to revive the job market. However in the budget speech, there was no explicit mention of job creation. In the post budget interactions, the FM and her team took pains to explain that the government has taken the route of propping up growth by spending which will lead to job creation. For example, they said that the huge 35% increase in outlay towards infrastructure and capital expenditure is a step towards reviving consumption in sectors like steel, cement etc. and jobs. This is logical.  Yet commentators continue to mention about the lack of focus on jobs in the budget.  And Aam Admi obviously feels the same.
    • Now considering that there was an overall anxiety and expectations about jobs among common people particularly those below the poverty line, what if the speech mentioned the estimated number of jobs that would be created due to the outlay? For example, “National Highways network to be expanded by 25000 km in 22-23 resulting in an estimated number of “X” jobs during the year”! 100 PM Gati Shakti Cargo terminals for multimodal logistics facilities which is expected to create “Y” number of jobs!
    • The same outlay but with a clear articulation of what matters like “jobs” this year, I think would generate a lot of confidence and comfort to the people for whom these announcements matter.
  • Putting out Outcomes of last year outlay before announcement of new outlays: During the entire budget speech the FM keeps announcing crores and lakhs of Rupees as outlays for different initiatives much to the loud cheers of the party MPs. But as public, we don’t get to know what was achieved with previous year outlays for the same initiatives to appreciate the new outlay.
    • For example, the health sector has been allocated a 16% higher outlay of Rs. 86200 Crore in this budget compared to last year outlay of Rs. 72931 crores. Now we don’t get to understand details of how the outlay of RS 72931 crores was spent and what was achieved. Another example – During the UPA regime, after the horrific Nirbhaya incident, an announcement was made of a “Nirbhaya fund”. I have no idea if that fund still exists and how the same is being put to use.
    • If we understand that, then we will be in a better position to appreciate the increased outlay for the next year.
  • Articulation of what went wrong: In the budget speech we never get to hear of anything that went wrong on the outlays or the outcomes in the previous year.
    • For example, the targets for disinvestment have been missed for few years now. But we don’t get to understand what went wrong and why those numbers were missed. It could be the procedural delays or timing issues (Bull Vs Bear market) or it could be pandemic related delays. This could be a very utopian thought but if the government of the day articulates the reasons for the miss, it will go in a long way building credibility in the budget process.
  • Articulation of how taxes work: Present a summary of how the taxes that have been collected have been put to use in the current year.
    • Many years ago, on a trip to Colombo, I saw at the heart of the city, some major repair work was going on with the roads and traffic was diverted. There I saw a board which said “Take Diversion. Your Tax money at work”! This was in the early 90’s. The fact that I still remember it and recall it here says about the impact of such earnest disclosures from the government side. What if at the beginning of the speech the FM says, “With the taxes collected last year, we could lay X kms. of roads, build Y number of new hospitals, open Z number of Colleges and schools and so on just focussing on the physical assets created with the taxes this year? Don’t you think that this kind of commentary will once for all remove the clamour for income tax reduction or slab changes or rants for paying taxes year after year?
    • I firmly believe that the common people who earn and can afford to pay the taxes must be co-opted in the nation building process. Such small gestures of earnest disclosures, I believe will go a long way in this.
  • Keep the jargons for The Economic Survey: The speech and announcements are supposed to pick up threads from the Annual Economic Survey. My suggestion is that Economic Survey being a reference document prepared by economists can and should use jargons like “Crowding in”, “Virtuous cycle”, “Animal Spirits of the economy” and “JAM Trinity” etc. while the budget speech should be left simple free of lofty jargons and acronyms.

This is the ace cartoonist R.K.Laxman’s cartoon way back in 1989 post the budget!

This could very well play out the same way even today. The only way to change the same is to simplify the budget speech and ensure that the common people are co-opted into the budget comprehension process.

Decoupled and Modi Sarkar!

For the uninitiated, Decoupled is an Indian web series that premiered on Netflix last month. It is written and created by Manu Joseph, one of India’s most interesting columnists/authors. The show is mostly in English and features Madhavan and Surveen Chawla in the lead.  It’s a light hearted take on the life of a rich, urban couple and the struggles with the institution called marriage.  But beyond this very common story line, what takes the cake is the way Manu weaves in day today happenings around us, using every opportunity to call out hypocrisies of the privileged and the opinionated.  If you haven’t watched it yet, I would recommend it.

Now the overall response to the series has been interesting to see.   Almost all the critics or of what I saw, sort of panned the show in unison.  When I saw Decoupled, I quite liked it.  The series quickly hit the top spot on India trends on Netflix.  With whomsoever I checked in my circle, they all loved it.  In social media, the series is now being celebrated for its refreshing take on life. Some of the clips and lines from the series in fact have been going viral on WhatsApp, a sure indicator of a show’s success if I may say. In short, common viewers like you and I just loved it while the critics hated it.

In my opinion, the critics hated Decoupled most likely because it was from Manu Joseph. For long now, Manu has been holding contrarian views on issues that challenge the common opinions of expert commentators. And that he could present his arguments in a very articulate and convincing manner that are not so easy to counter, makes him more reviled among his peers.  Week after week, Manu in his weekly columns of late, sets the cat among the pigeons with his compulsive, against the flow takes that rattle status quoists on the one hand and instigate what Manu himself calls as asparagus eating liberals, on the other hand.  For example, when the entire commentariat was taking on the Modi government for its push on Aadhaar quoting privacy concerns, Manu’s take was and I quote, “Absolute privacy is a right that people have given up when they chose not to live in forests”! So, he has this knack of hitting well pitched yorkers out of the park.

I therefore feel that the image Manu acquired of being this rattler through his columns or non-fictional writing, came to the fore when critics watched Decoupled which is his work of fiction. One of the reviews alluded Decoupled to be “a vessel to communicate creator Manu Joseph’s most divisive thoughts to an audience that normally wouldn’t care about them”.  For critics, this was an opportunity to give it back to Manu for what he does week after week through his columns.

Now, this dichotomy is something we are getting familiar with. And a very common parallel to this which comes to my mind is the reaction Narendra Modi gets in India.  And this where the twain of Decoupled and Modi Sarkar meet and I will explain how. Majority of Aam admi in India like Modi. But the critics and the liberal intelligentsia hate him from his Gujarat days and for growing to this stature in spite of their writings against him. So whatever Modi does, the liberal commentariat tends to find ways and means to critique them, while the common man keeps lapping them up.

I can quote so many examples in the past 7 years since Modi became the Prime Minister, when the so called experts chose to critique his ideas or find fault but, which resonated well with the people by and large.  I found it amusing when this government launched the Toilet construction programme in villages, some critics were asking about water availability! Similarly, when free LPG connections were provided, the question was who will pay for the refills!

In fact in some of the cases, I thought that the ideas were criticized just because they were from the Modi Sarkar and probably they would have been appreciated by the critics if they were from say a Congress government.  The whole revamping of the old Parliament building for any logical person, is an idea whose time had come many years ago. Instead of not appreciating this government for taking the lead in creating the New Central Vista, the intelligentsia is only finding holes in the proposal by clutching on to straws of history.  I am yet to come across one common man who had any problems with it, though.  The same is likely hold true for the latest idea of shifting or merging the Amar Jawan Jyoti as well.  The problem is not the idea itself but that it is has been initiated by Narendra Modi during his regime. Just like the problem being not with the web series Decoupled itself but with its writer and creator – Manu Joseph.

We are living at a time when though the message may be right, it will be called out as wrong if the messenger is not liked by some masters. It’s high time that the commentariat realises that its credibility is at its nadir and if this practice of shooting the message depending upon who the messenger is not stopped, it will deteriorate further.

The best part is, in fine arts writers and artists gain recognition from readers and viewers, and not just from critics.  And so is in a democracy. All eligible citizens vote and not just the commentariat.  Thank God for small mercies.