The politics behind political Strategists!

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

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

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

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

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

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

The non-compete clause

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

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

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

From in-house campaign manager to professionals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review – 2019 How Modi Won India!

In this 201st post of mine for this blog, I thought of doing a review of the book ‘2019 How Modi Won India’, written by ace newsman Rajdeep Sardesai which hit the shelves a few days ago. This book is almost like a sequel to Rajdeep’s very first book, which he wrote after 2014 General elections. Titled ‘2014: The Election That Changed India’, it was engrossing from start to finish, peppered with personal anecdotes not just about that election but around events that happened right from the time he started his journalistic career way back in the 90’s. So, it is with heightened expectations that one sat down to read this new book to gain insights into the 2019 elections, hitherto not seen in public domain. At the onset, after finishing the book, I must say that I was not disappointed.

As introduction, Rajdeep gives an overview of how Modi managed to win India in 2019. He attributes the victory to 13 Ms (Modi, Machine, Media, Money, Messaging, Marketing, Mobile, Middle Class, Millennials, Majoritarianism, Muscular Nationalism, Masood Azhar and Mahagathbandhan), 2 Ws (Welfarism and WhatsApp) and a GK (Gharib Kisan). Frankly, I think that many of the factors here are double counted and one can actually put it down to set of fewer unique Ms.  For example, Messaging is part of Marketing. Welfarism is linked to Gharib Kisan. Muscular Nationalism can be clubbed with Masood Azhar. Mobile and WhatsApp are basically the same.

Having set the context, the usual method is to go about detailing all these factors one by one. Thankfully, Rajdeep avoids that route as that would have been less interesting and by now, we have read quite a bit about most of these factors. Instead, Rajdeep chronicles in detail, with back stories, the key events right from the swearing in ceremony in 2014 leading up to the last day of polling in 2019, which had some impact on how Modi eventually won India in 2019.  I liked the way Rajdeep segues from one chapter to another with a hook to end the chapter to the upcoming topic, a style which he used very well in his first book as well!

In his 2014 book, Rajdeep had shared many conversations which he had with political leaders including Narendra Modi when he was the Gujarat Chief Minister throughout his career, to drive home his points. However, this book is less anecdotal and more of research and reportage. It has very few references of conversations with leaders from the current political regime except for late Arun Jaitley with whom the author enjoyed good chemistry. Rajdeep makes it a point to inform us that in spite of being a leading prime time anchor, he still spends the mornings often at the Parliament and so one did hope to read more personal anecdotes and conversations with key players. But that is not to be.

The author himself admits with a tinge of regret that he has not been able to speak to the Prime Minister since May 2014 and probably he is now become a persona non grata in the current regime. This sort of re-affirms the now touted model of media management of the Modi regime.  That of cultivating its own set of favourites and maintaining a report card on “positive” and “negative” journalists. Rajdeep says this is very much akin to the “Big Boss” TV Serial style where everything and anything is watched and accounted for. Being tight lipped and catching the media unawares of what’s in the offing, most of the time is also part of this method.

As an example, on Demonetisation, Rajdeep candidly admits that he and his team did not have a whiff of what the Prime Minister was going to address the nation on 8th November, 2016. He had actually lined up a few defence experts for the prime time discussions assuming that the address was related to some strike on Pakistan!  There have been other instances too where, the media did not get a wind of what’s cooking within the Modi Sarkar.

In a chapter wholly on media titled ‘Prime Time Prime Minister’, in addition to detailing how Modi and the government ensures maximum eye balls for themselves, Rajdeep also turns into a strident media critique, a hat we see him don often these days! Rajdeep tears apart his own fraternity which he feels has lost its moral compass and yearns for a time when media would not just be a lap dog for the government in power.

If 2014 was all about a one man army called Modi, in this book, Rajdeep makes a distinction. BJP is now not just about Modi but, Modi and Amit Shah, the Jodi No.1 of Indian politics. Even the cover design of this book drives this point featuring both Modi and Shah prominently.

The author credits the messaging strategy of BJP as one of the key elements that drove its victory. Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar! So we should take it that BJP’s messaging was on point. However, I thought that compared to 2014 when a single point message of Abki Baar Modi Sarkar was flogged and many micro campaigns were woven around this central message, in 2019, BJP dabbled with different messages lime Modi hai to Mumkin hai, Main bhi Chowkidar and so on even till the initial rounds of elections till it boiled down on Phir Ek Baar Modi Sarkar theme.

In the book, Rajdeep claims that the Prime Minister who has a penchant for coming up with interesting acronyms had come up with another one – JAM to convey the coming together of Jan Dhan Yojana, Aadhar and Mobiles. As per me, the phrase ‘JAM trinity’ was first used by the then Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian in the Economic Survey report of 2014-15.  This was then widely adopted by the Government and the media to talk about this phenomenon which was bringing a huge change in the livings of the marginalised.

If you were Rajdeep and one who felt that you have fallen out of favour with this regime, you would be tempted to write a book that is more of an eulogy of the current regime and in particular of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah. After all, Modi, Shah and the BJP did win the elections with an emphatic margin and there were enough reasons to talk high of. To his credit, Rajdeep does a fine balancing act, commending BJP, Narendra Modi and other leaders where required and equally being critical where he feels so. In fact, you get the impression that he has tried hard to present himself as a “Neutral” journalist, a species which is almost extinct these days. So, in the entire book, the writing yo-yo’s between “on the one hand, on the other hand”, “this and having and said that” format!

Far away from what is shown on TV and social media, the book gives fascinating insights of how the BJP election machinery works. The many faceless back room boys who take up tasks in mission mode and ensure they are accomplished, the many micro programmes which the party undertook at booth level and so on to win the 2019 elections emphatically have been outlined in detail. It is clear that it is these micro tactics more often than not are missed by journalists when they do ground reports during election times because of which they get the extent of the ‘hawa’ wrong.

While on this, I would have liked if Rajdeep had spent a chapter on the whole business and dynamics of opinion/exit polls in India. These continue to be an enigma. Even in the run up to the 2019 polls, media kept saying that it was a “wave less” election and it being “a sum total of 545 individual battles”! Most of the opinions based on ground reports suggested that BJP would be short of majority and have to tie up with new allies to form the government. What happened eventually though was a bigger win than 2019 for BJP and NDA which none predicted!

If you are a news buff and a current affairs watcher, ‘2019 How Modi Won India’ is a must read for not just the political stories but the granular detailing on what goes behind an election win in India!

Post Script: While talking of the many M’s that mattered, Rajdeep prefaces this book with the narration of another M – Madison Madness. It’s more like the author’s Mea Culpa (there you go, another M!) for what happened way back in September 2014 when he got involuntarily involved in fist fights with frenzied Modi supporters in Manhattan! (The “M” Madness doesn’t seem to end!)

2019 How Modi Won India

Rajdeep Sardesai

HarperCollins Publishers India

355 Pages, Rs 699

The Making of Modi 2.0!

As the results of the much anticipated Lok Sabha elections in India unfold themselves this day, it is clear that Narendra Damodardas Modi is all set to occupy the Prime Minister’s chair of India once again. In this avatar of Modi 2.0, BJP is looking set to get a majority on its own and NDA as a pre poll alliance is expected to beat its 2014 tally! First things first. This is a remarkable feat for an incumbent to not just return but return with a better performance than the 1st term and so kudos are in order!

As much as the return of Modi as the prime minister was expected to a large extent, the scale and the ease of this victory was not expected till some of the exit polls predicted so. What were we told all this while? “Demonetisation hurt jobs and the poor. GST is still hurting traders. There is agrarian crisis all over. Job creation has hit a historic low. Minority are living under increasing fear. Economy is not growing enough. And since 2014, the Idea of India has been threatened”. And much more. So, in spite of the fact this this government did perform in areas of infrastructure like roads, highways, railways…, asset building in rural areas, reaching electricity to the hinterland,…,… we were told that these were not enough to re-elect Modi again that too with a clear majority.

That being the case, what explains this massive victory? What is behind the making of Modi 2.0? I call it the story of “M”s!

M for Modi: – Let there be no doubt in anyone’s mind people on this. People have not voted for BJP or the NDA. They have unequivocally voted for Narendra Modi! States like Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan which were lost by BJP are now being swept by them!  Modi has been seen as being earnest in his endeavour to fulfil promises he made. So, even if ALL the promises were not kept fully, people are being kind enough to give another chance. Programmes like Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Demonetisation, Toilet construction, rural electrification and Ujwala Yojana… are being seen as sincere attempts in improving living conditions in India. Though some of the programmes like Demonetisation faltered, people were willing to forgive and forget!

M for Muscular leadership: I will have to narrate an anecdote here to elaborate this point. A day before polling in Mumbai, my 11 year old daughter’s friend asked my wife as to whom she would vote.  My wife asked why she wanted to know that. And her response left me stunned. “Aunty, I hope you will vote for Modi. Because only he can give a fitting response to Pakistan. India in the past never entered Pakistan and hit them. But under Modiji, humne ghuske maara”!  This was the impact a strong leader leaves in the minds of the young.  Critics may call it mindless belligerence when Modi decided to do a surgical strike and follow it up with an air strike. But people want their leaders to show spine in matters of their country’s defence.

M for Mission mode: This is the difference between Vajpayee/Advani era BJP and Modi/Shah BJP. During NDA-1, after forming the government and running a reasonably good one at that for 6 years, BJP did not do anything to widen their base. But the BJP under Modi/Shah is a different kettle of fish. After having won a decisive mandate in 2014, did they keep quiet? They got into “Mission mode” in North East and then later Bengal and the results are there to see. For BJP, if 2014 was UP story, 2019 is Bengal+UP story! In 2019, when it was facing the spectre of the SP-BSP-RJD gathbandan, BJP activated its “Mission mode” to target 300 on its own! This by targeting areas like Orissa, Bengal and North East.

M for Machinery: This is linked to the above. That is of having a plan and executing the plan through an effective machinery. The party machinery under the leadership of Amit Shah works relentlessly in expanding their base within India. Not just during election time. This also means that BJP will now target states like Telangana, Kerala and Tamil Nadu next probably for 2024!

M for last Mile Delivery: It is one thing to announce programs. It is one thing to have a strategy in the board room. It is another thing to ensure last Mile delivery. Whether it is Jan Dhan Yojana or Ujwala Yojana or other Yojanas, Modi Government’s track record on last mile delivery has certainly made a difference to people. This is what has made BJP and Modi to hold on to their leads even in the face of a combined opposition in states like UP.

M for Marketing: The word “Marketing” is often derided upon as if it is a bad word! As a marketing professional myself, I have resented it often. And I have said that Marketing is not a bad thing at all and is a critical element in a product’s success or failure. In political arena, for a leader or for a party, it is not just enough to perform. But it is important to be “seen as performing”! In that sense, BJP as a party and Modi as a leader are miles ahead in terms of marketing themselves.  Some would say that Modi’s success is all about just marketing! I tend to disagree. One should not forget the fundamental mantra that even great marketing cannot save a bad product!  One can write a separate blog on BJP’s marketing but turning the Chowkidar Chor hai slogan of Congress on its head as Main bhi Chowkidar campaign in its favour is one example of some great marketing by BJP!

M for Models: One reason for Modi in the 1st place to earn credibility in 2014 was his famed “Gujarat model”. This credibility is important for people to take your promises seriously. And this is the problem with the opposition today. The main opposition party doesn’t have any credible model to point the people to! If today, the Congress promises “Nyay”, people are reluctant to take it seriously. Because, even in states which are ruled by Congress, they find it difficult to hold on. If Congress has to be taken seriously in future, they need to develop their own “models” which they can positively refer to.

I hear some of you saying that it is all just one “M” which is Modi! No victory is accomplished with one factor. It is usually a combination of factors. I believe that in the making of Modi 2.0, the mantras were the above so many “M”s! Now that Modi 2.0 has been accomplished, it is time to look ahead and focus on the agenda for Modi 2.0.  What should that be? Please look for my next post! For now, M for Mangal!

Pic Courtesy: Rediff

Mood (di) of the Nation poll!

For the past few weeks or so, I am certain that only one question is uppermost in the minds of most Indians. And that is not “Who will become the next Prime Minister”? But it is – “Will Narendra Modi continue as the next Prime Minister?”  Everything else doesn’t seem to matter so much.  As we near the counting day which is still couple of weeks away, the excitement and the suspense is heightening. The excruciatingly long drawn poll schedule extended over some 7 phases has only added to the nervous excitement of most Indians.

This is manifesting across India in offices, in nukkad tea shops, in local trains, in parties, in cabs and most of all in WhatsApp groups where the hotly discussed topic in this hot summer is if Modi will get a second term. For one who has been keenly following Indian politics for more than more than three decades, I don’t remember a previous time when one person captured the imagination of people the way Modi has now. And capturing the imagination in both extreme ways. It’s either you love him or you loathe him.

With the ban on opinion polls and exit polls when the poll process is underway, it is now left to individuals to speculate on what is going to happen. As the election progresses phase wise, we find the whole media caravan moving along with ground reports where star anchors, editors, reporters and other sundry journalists try to decipher how the wind is blowing!

In all these “ground reports” which are based on hopefully random conversations, I do feel that we end up hearing what we want to hear! So if the ground report is from a Modi follower, then it is in full some praise of Modi for the work he had done in the past 4 years in terms of pucca houses, roads, toilets…! And if the report is from a Modi hater, then it will be critiquing Modi for doing nothing. And believe you me, the reports could be from the same towns/villages!

And in an effort to play safe, most of the ground reports by star anchors and editors have ended up saying

“There is no Modi wave but there is an undercurrent!”

 “There is dissatisfaction for Modi but no hate!”

“People are vocally in support of Modi but the silent majority would decide his fate”

And so on!

In putting out these ground reports, will common people be left behind? So, empowered by the powerful vehicle called the “Social Media”, we also have ground reports of “People like Us”!  We also give our conclusions based on random chats with Taxi drivers, maid servants, Chowkidars, Doodhwalas and so on.

After the round of ground reports we will be fed with a surfeit of exit polls, come the May 19th. In India we have seen that even pollsters tend to see what they want to see. In India now, opinion polls, exit polls and psephology have become major revenue streams for channels and pollsters thanks to the multiplicity of national and regional news channels. Though forecasting is considered a science we have seen that the forecast results swing from one end to another and rarely do we see a common band making it a perfect modern art! In modern art you see what you want to see!! Ergo, pollsters and the polling company’s own bias come to play in the prediction. In addition to bhakts, bhakt reporters, bhakt anchors, bhakt channels, welcome to world of bhakt pollsters. Would you believe if I say that for one of the state elections, one polling company had two different exit poll results for two different channels!

Dr. Prannoy Roy of NDTV who can be credited for introducing the concept of opinion polls, exit polls and psephology in general to Indians, in his latest book – The Verdict, covers the aspect of the complexity in Indian elections in great detail. No wonder opinion polls and exit polls and the much touted ground reports have more often than not missed the mark when the actual results are out. Hence in a diverse, pluralistic country like India where nothing is common and for every aspect, the opposite is equally true, if a forecast is correct, it could only be a stroke of luck! And that’s why I feel venturing out to hazard a guess on any election outcome in India and in particular the ongoing Lok Sabha polls is fraught with high risks of getting it all wrong!

As experts do always, it is wiser and certainly easier to attach logical explanations to the results as they unfold on the 23rd. Hence I am curbing my instincts to join the ground reports band wagon.  And will stick to a detailed blog post to give my take on the results post 23rd rather than sticking my neck out today!! Having said that, I go back to where I started. No leader has taken the mind share of Indians as much as Modi in the recent times. When “mood of the nation” poll has become “Modi of the nation poll”, he must be doing something right, right? All of it cannot be just “Marketing” as some rue! After all great marketing has not saved a bad product in history! Or has it? Is Trump winning again? 🙂 🙂

Picture courtesy:  India Today

Jet Airways – Positioning lessons from its crash landing!

On Wednesday last week, as I was queuing up to board an Air India flight to Delhi, I could see the tarmac at the Mumbai airport lined up with idling aircraft of Jet Airways, whose operations was being cut down by the hour. Eventually, by evening the airlines shut down its operations completely, albeit “temporarily” as per the company’s statement. And in a twinge of irony, the last flight was a Jet Connect flight from Amritsar to Delhi that landed in Mumbai in the wee hours of Thursday.  I say “in a twinge of irony” because one of the reasons for the airline to get caught in turbulent weather, was its many experiments in positioning wrongly so, trying to compete with budget/low-cost airlines with Jetlite, Jet Connect and so on, when it hit financial air pockets way back in 2009 and later.

Unlike this generation, people born before the pre-liberalisation took their 1st flights when they started working! So did I. Way back in the early 1990’s for the initial few years, it was all Indian Airlines for work related trips. Though Indian Airlines in that period wasn’t bad, when Jet Airways burst into the scene, post opening of the sky along with other private airlines like East-West, Damania, Modiluft and so on, it brought in a whiff of fresh air. I remember vividly those times. The airports with inadequate infrastructure to handle the explosion of airlines and traffic, by and large resembled railway terminus’s and bus stations with multiple loud announcements of arrivals, departures and boarding calls.  “Chaotic” was an oft-repeated description of airports, then.

Amidst all the initial slew of private players, only Jet survived. It is clear that Naresh Goyal, the original promoter of Jet Airways had mastered the one core competency that mattered to excel in business in India – that is of “managing the environment”! But, I must admit that apart from managing the environment, Goyal could get another aspect of business right. That is of managing customer needs and experience well.

In those initial days, –  I am referring to the mid 90’s, Jet Airways experience was really out of the world,  particularly for frequent flyers. You could tele-check in and get your favourite leg space seats without much of an issue. Upgrade vouchers could actually be used to upgrade to business class even at the airport while checking in. There was a wide variety of meal options apart from just Veg and Non Veg. In fact for breakfast, in Vegetarian, they used to have South Indian and North Indian choices!  Dinners were 3 course meals. Hot and cold towels were provided even to Economy passengers! You could redeem your award tickets without much fuss and disappointment. In the initial few years, one needn’t pay even the taxes for award tickets (That changed pretty soon). With fares almost same as of other airlines, there was no reason unless otherwise the flight was full, to look at alternative airlines! I can say that from a user perspective, it was truly a golden era for Jet Airways!

The golden run for the airline continued in the 1st decade of this century, but with conditions attached. This was when it became a market leader by way of market share and leadership pangs started catching up. But still, due to its superior service and its On-time record, it was business travellers’ first resort.

The advent of low cost or budget airlines in the scene in India somewhere around 2006, must be one watershed moment in the history of Jet Airways. Captain Gopinath, the founder of Air Deccan redefined airline business in India with his no frills, low-cost offering exemplified by R.K.Laxman’s “common man” as the brand mascot. By lowering air fares to the extent of making it cheaper than train fare, Gopinath ushered in a whole set of middle class travellers into flying. In doing so, Gopinath with Air Deccan became of subjects of case studies in B-schools. The whole landscape of air traffic changed so fast in that period that, Air Deccan with its mindless pricing strategy, ended up disrupting itself and few other airlines on the way.

The global recession of 2008 and the cost consciousness that ensued among corporates world over, brought the curtains down on the party of the expensive, premium priced, full service airlines. In India, it meant Jet and Kingfisher who were truly premium, full service airlines at that time. This is where, I feel Jet was caught in the wrong foot. When it started losing market share to low-cost air lines and new entrants like Indigo, Go Air, Spicejet… Jet decided to pursue its own “budget airline” strategy which in my mind was a big mistake. Extending the brand is a trap which many companies fall into, with their eyes wide open.  Here, Jet Airways, hither to a market leader with a full service offering and impeccable service reputation, decided to extend its brand and launch a budget airline called Jetlite and then later Jet Connect. At the outset, it seemed like a smart strategy to prevent losing market share to the newly launched low-cost carriers, that too in those prevalent muted global economic conditions.

In the process, what happened was a systematic dilution of the brand equity of Jet Airways and all it stood for. In the name of cutting costs, service offerings were trimmed. It was no longer a frequent flyer’s delight. Service started falling apart. I started seeing the writing on the wall sometime in 2011/12. You could never get a seat of your choice even when you web checked in early! Choice of food became limited. For a flight taking off at 7.30 pm, instead of dinner, a snack meal was beginning to be served! Even the After mint (post meal mouth freshener) which was served in Jet Airways in the beginning, which became so popular that it was sold in super markets and stores as Jet Mukhwas suddenly disappeared from the in-flight meal. Here, I must add that I have seen many passengers asking for extra sachets of the same and hoarding them to their homes!  Award ticket redemption process now online, became a farce. There were just few seats for award tickets in a flight and you would never get them. If you redeem award tickets for your family, seldom you will get confirmation of the same while you book. Upgrade vouchers became just pieces of paper because upgrades were limited to few fares.

In the midst of all this, Jet’s financial woes only multiplied. A mistimed acquisition of Sahara Airlines only worsened the situation. Few quarters back, realising its original mistake of taking the budget airline route, Jet jettisoned its low-cost brands and decided to stick to just its full service offering. Considering the fact that global economy had revived, I thought that it was a wise move and hoped that Jet will soon be back to its glory!  Well, it did not. The low-cost hangover continued. The pricing was of full service. But the service was of budget airline! Can you imagine as recently as in Feb, on a 5 and a half hour flight from Mumbai to Singapore, there were no personal screens and one had really sleep through to kill time? And my co-passenger who requested for a glass of water got it after reminding the crew for the same at least 3 times! And of late dinner served in Jet Airways resembled more like junk street food! And I can only say that Jet’s frequent flyer programme – Jet Privilege which was once upon a time really world-class, is a pale shadow of its former self! Jet Privilege was such a strong brand that Goyal hived that off as a separate entity and monetised it. Even that infusion didn’t help to improve the user experience, though. Keeping the financial troubles aside, I was of the opinion that Jet was sinking as a brand anyway! And the culprit was its positioning! Was it a full service airline with offerings of a budget airline or was it a budget airline that was overpriced??

What if, had Jet continued to stay the course of a full service airline?

What if, in that period when low-cost airlines were mindlessly cutting prices, had Jet focused on “business value flyers” and on superior service?

What if, had Jet went after bottom line instead of preserving market share in that turbulent economic period?

So many what ifs! As I said, in hindsight, pontification is easy. But this hold lessons for companies for the future. After all, business cycles repeat themselves.

Having said that, singling out Jet is also a tad unfair. Airline business globally is a tough business to wade through. One that requires continuous infusion of Capex and which sucks up huge Opex. Only airlines that have thrived are those protected by state monopolies or those who have got their positioning and cost efficiencies correct. In India, the woes of Airline industry have been compounded by high taxes, fluctuating fuel prices, high interest rates and crony capitalist policies. In the history of Airline Industry, Jet is only the latest to bite the dust. Before, we had East-West, Modiluft, Damania, Air Deccan, Sahara, Kingfisher, Alliance Air and myriad other smaller airlines which all exited the scene in one pretext or the other! And we all know how Air India has managed to pull through while being in ICU for so many years.  And it is also clear that the other airlines are all clutching at straws and managing to stay afloat. That must really beg some critical policy related questions among the policy makers in India. While on the one hand trying to expand air travel to smaller towns in India, is the current Aviation policy regime really business friendly?

Seeing an Indian brand, which was once upon a time close to world-class fold up, is really unfortunate. Hope wisdom and luck prevails and we soon see Jet get its Jetwings of yore!

Image courtesy: https://www.thenational.ae

Daag Acche Nahin Hain!

Just as I was checking my Twitter feed this Sunday morning, I saw the #Surfexcel trending. Initially I ignored attributing it to some sponsored marketing campaign. But when I saw a whole bunch of individuals from the Right to the Left tweeting on the same, I decided to check it out. There, I could see other hashtags calling for a boycott of Unilever products and so on. The reason for the furore being, this ad (watch here) which Hindustan Unilever (HUL) has made for Surf Excel for the upcoming Holi. I watched the ad and I thought it was a brilliant ad though the theme has got a bit repetitive particularly with HUL these days!

People calling for a boycott of Surf Excel and Unilever products though, had a different take. They questioned the need for the company to pick up on a Hindu festival (Holi) to push their product. Few also quizzed if Unilever would do an ad around any Muslim festival. There were also many other tweets with images of Muslim festivals photo shopped with Surf Excel and its now famous tag line – ‘Daag Acche Hain’!  Notwithstanding all this, the ad achieved the purpose of creating a buzz and finally going viral.

This comes closely in the heels of another ad from the same company created during the Kumbh Mela! This ad (Watch here) for their Brooke Bond Red label Tea literally kicked up a storm in the social media tea-cup! . Though extremely well made, it is clear from the ad that the product and its attributes were secondary while the primary objective was just to ride the buzz around the Kumbh. While the commercial went viral on many WhatsApp groups as a great ad, on Twitter though, folks derided the company HUL for hurting the religious sentiments of Hindus. The supers that appeared at the end of the ad said, “Kumbh Mela is the largest religious gathering in the world. At this holy gathering, many elderly are abandoned by their families”!

I am not sure what kind of research went behind, to make a statement like this.  Nevertheless, the ad, I repeat very well made and executed, came across as a botched attempt where just to bring in the “Kumbh” story, you build a very touchy and probably insensitive narrative. I would rather prefer the approach by Fevicol in a similar context for the Kumbh where, they weaved a positive story (watch the ad here) around the event while plugging the attributes of the product effectively.  In the Red label ad, the product got thrust upon in the story at the end. With the massive uproar about this ad in social media, I am told that the company decided to take down the same. However, it didn’t stop it from going viral on social media platforms where it got trolled heavily.

These days, companies when they brief the agency for their commercials, I think must be outlining their 1st objective as “It should go viral”! As I had written in my earlier posts, “Stir up to sell” is an old ploy in marketing and advertising.  Achieving the objective of getting ad go viral is of late falling into very predictable tropes like Hindu – Muslim unity sentiment, Indo – Pak emotion and so on.

The larger point I am trying to put forward though, is different.  Few days back, I received as a forward on WhatsApp a clip which, I then gathered was a trailer for an upcoming web series titled ‘Metro Park’. Watch it here. I watched it, had a hearty laugh and forwarded the same to few other WhatsApp groups as is the wont these days. Little did I realise that, even for what I perceived as a routine comedy clip, I would receive some critique questioning, if the makers would dare to make fun of any other religion’s practices in a similar way!

A few years back, the Surf Excel Ad and the Red Label Kumbh ad would have just got beamed across homes through your television sets and the agencies would have just walked away with awards galore. But today, there is no such getting away easily. Though personally I thought that the Surf Excel Holi Ad is a brilliant one which weaves in the product attributes into the Holi story, while at the same time talking of Hindu-Muslim brotherhood… the extreme reactions against the ad actually conveys something else. That of bringing to the fore the fault lines that exist/existed all along in our society.

First of all, the repeated emergence of these themes in ads is itself an aberration in my view. A Unilever company in another country say in the US or in Europe I feel, will not take pains to come up with an ad promoting Hindu-Muslim unity in the guise of promoting their product. After over 70 years of Independence and declaring ourselves as a secular nation, if we have to keep clutching at straws (read as films and TV Commercials) to promote self-belief as a secular nation, something has gone wrong somewhere. Secondly, the extreme reactions a TV commercial promoting harmony evokes among us, also is worrisome.  While social media playing the role of a watch dog is good, more often than not, it is barking up the wrong tree.

‘Daag Acche Hain’ (Stains are good) may be a good tag line for a detergent.  However, “Communal”, “Bigoted” as tags are stains. And as a country we could do without such stains. Kyunki woh Daag acche nahin hain!

Kaala, Sarkar and being “Social media Ready”!

What is common between Kaala and Sarkar – both Tamil films released in the past few months? Many. But, beyond the obvious like both films featuring mass heroes with political ambitions, storyline with a political thread etc, etc. there is an important commonality. Both Kaala and Sarkar show Social media playing an important role in the scheme of things of the respective protagonist to take on his adversaries. In Kaala, when pushed to a corner by a scheming politician over usurping common man’s land in the name of slum rehabilitation, the hero (Rajinikanth) takes his fight to Social media and brings entire Mumbai to its feet. All the galvanising of people and spreading of message happen through Facebook videos, Tweets and WhatsApp forwards! Sarkar goes a step further. Even with just couple of hours remaining for voting, the hero (Vijay) is shown attempting to garner support among the remaining voters through Facebook live videos! Before that, he uses tweets strategically to set the narrative. As a non-conventional politician who is thrown into the thick of political action all of a sudden, Vijay and his young team’s “Go to Market” is basically Social media in the film!

 

Whether society mirrors films or films mirror society is still an open debate.  However, it is clear that the respective film makers of Kaala and Sarkar drew inspiration from the Jallikattu protests which happened in Tamil Nadu in the year 2017! Much to the surprise of all, Social media played a very important role and engineered a revolution in Tamil Nadu or so it is widely believed. For the first time, politicians came up to this rude awakening that their opponents can be just some faceless Twitter accounts and trending hashtags and not necessarily the conventional microphone wielding, venom spewing opposition faces!  As it happens normally, writers and film makers take their own creative liberties of what they see around themselves and do a bit of indulgence.  So is the case in these 2 films!

In India, we are already in election mode. Come May 2019, we have the Lok Sabha polls coming up where Narendra Modi is seeking a historic re-election. The moot question is, like how they show in films these days, can Social media be the game changer for parties in their quest to win in 2019? Like in these movies, can politicians and parties win by just harnessing the power of Social media?

I remember way back in 2008, it was Barack Obama who first demonstrated the power of Social media tools like Facebook and Twitter for his presidential campaign. Since then, Social media has been drafted into political campaigning everywhere and it’s been gaining ground slowly and steadily.  So much so, we saw how companies like Cambridge Analytica were exposed attempting to influence swing voters by just targeted messaging over Social media like Facebook.  In India, I guess the early ones to hop on to the Social media bus were Narendra Modi in 2014 and Arvind Kejriwal for 2015 Delhi elections. They used Face Book and Twitter effectively to communicate to the young and urban voters that time! Today, my guess is that almost all parties have a backroom of Social media warriors across the country/state to manage their presence in Social media! And lo, new careers and job options have opened up – Social media managers, Data Analysts, Hashtag managers, video editors and so on!

While Twitter and Facebook have been prominently used in in the past for campaigning, I feel that in India for 2019, WhatsApp will hold the key. With over 200 million users of WhatsApp in India (as of Feb 2018) which is 4 times of what it was in 2014, WhatsApp is easily the fastest growing medium available. Combined with the rapid growth in smart phone adoption and data consumption thanks to cheap data plans, one doesn’t have to look further to deliver targeted messages. So move over SMSs and recorded voice messages!  WhatsApp forwards are here! Even the main stream media feeds on what is happening on WhatsApp these days!

One logical question would be if Social media remains an urban phenomenon and hence will it have any impact in rural India at all?  The growth in internet access and WhatsApp penetration have been traditionally higher in urban India than rural India. However rural India I’m sure is catching up. As per a survey conducted by Lokniti-CSDS in mid-2017, “One-fifth, or 20%, of rural respondents said they used WhatsApp daily as compared with 38% of urban respondents. But the growth in the share of active WhatsApp users has been sharper in rural India, doubling in a year’s time.”

With the adoption and usage of smart phones and WhatsApp being the highest among youth, targeted political messaging becomes easy, quick and probably cheap with WhatsApp! And as election approaches, WhatsApp groups are all busy engaged in political debates usually triggered by a forward message or a news clip! And this is how narratives will be set moving forward.

I am not for a moment saying that as they showed in Kaala and Sarkar, candidates and parties can win over the voters by just using Social media alone! Real life is more complex. However, a smart party/candidate would not ignore the potential of smart phones, Social media and WhatsApp in particular in their media mix for 2019. And would rather focus on the same seriously.

I understand that BJP is already making itself “WhatsApp ready” for 2019. Traditionally the party has been depending on its “Panna Pramukhs” to do booth level mobilisation of voters and they will be now replaced by “Cell phone Pramukhs” it seems! Whether being “WhatsApp ready” will take them ahead of the others in the elections remains to be seen, but it is clear that they have a head start and it can be crucial in close contests!  In 2019, it could very well be Abki Baar WhatsApp ki Vaar!

Kaala and Sarkar may be ordinary films but the makers have provided worthy lessons for political leaders and parties on the importance of being “Social media ready” to take on their opponents. The question is when will parties become “Social media ready” to address common man’s issues? To see that day, like many fellow Indians – “I am waiting”!!!