Pay to forward – the way forward???

Social media these days is on a Meta trip! At least in India, for sure. News in social media is dominated by news about itself.

Day in day out one gets to see news of violence, lynching and even deaths, all in the light of fake WhatsApp messages, Facebook posts and Tweets which get forwarded in no time and whipping up a frenzy. Recently, a report said that WhatsApp based rumours have killed at least 22 people so far in India!

These days we also get to see warnings and threats from the ruling executive to these platforms asking them to mend their ways or face stiff action. This is particularly after the Cambridge Analytica expose.

In response, of late we also see news of these platforms showing increasing concern of the misuse and the resulting lynching, deaths and related violence. WhatsApp recently claimed that they were “horrified by the terrible acts of violence and wanted to respond quickly”.

In short, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and more importantly WhatsApp which are also in the business of disseminating news are in the news themselves, all for the wrong reasons! These platforms which were all conceived with a noble intention of “bringing the whole world together” have ended up being misused by the users and the owners alike. In using the platforms to manipulate public opinion, both the sides are culpable.

From the Government side, we have repeatedly seen threats of action. However one wonders, to what extent they can make the platforms accountable apart from slapping fines which some of the Governments have already done. Can they completely ban these platforms considering the fact that social media is completely intertwined with the lives of people today?

Look at WhatsApp. Apart from being a platform for exchanging messages at a personal level, it has become an important tool in business communication as well. Here, WhatsApp is used efficiently and widely, saving time and money while improving “good productivity” (Like good cholesterol and Bad cholesterol, there is a view that WhatsApp improves and on the other hand affects productivity!)  Even in the medical field, reports are exchanged over WhatsApp to save time and thereby probably lives!

Similarly, a medium like Twitter has become the foremost medium for direct communication by political parties and their leaders. For example, our Prime Minister Narendra Modi can afford not to engage with the mainstream media and still get his views across to the public through his tweets or other social media tools a thing which was unthinkable few years ago. Donald Trump could call of a summit dialogue through social media!

Ergo, it’s almost impossible for the Government to just shut these platforms down. And so the way forward is only to work with these platforms to contain the damage.

In response to the call for action, Facebook and WhatsApp announced a slew of measures recently and these also have been in the news. Post Cambridge Analytica expose, Mark Zuckerberg had said that they were committed not to interfere with the elections in India. They reportedly tied up with Boomliv.in a fact checking site in India to filter out fake messages being circulated through Facebook. However on WhatsApp, Facebook has professed that WhatsApp being an end to end encrypted medium, they cannot pore over messages and filter them.

What is certainly visible is a set of actions they have kicked off in India. Few days back newspapers were splashed with solus ads by WhatsApp educating about the use of the medium to tackle the spread of misinformation. Seemingly on cue, there was a rollout of an optional feature by which only the administrators are allowed to send messages in a group.

All of a sudden on my phone, I could see the label “forwarded” since last week on WhatsApp messages which were actually forwarded. Apparently this is another measure to differentiate if a message is forwarded or not. Frankly, I am not sure how this feature will help in preventing people to do a forward! Of course it helps in some of the groups in which I am there, which have banned forwards!

And more actions have followed since. Like empowerment to individuals to report unwanted messages from a user or block a person. On Friday, WhatsApp announced that it is testing a new feature by which the number of times a message can be forwarded will be limited to five! And also plans are afoot to remove the quick forward button next to media messages!

So far so good. The question is, are they good enough? In WhatsApp, the elephant in the room is the anonymity! As long as a sender can hide under the cloud of anonymity of a mobile number, it is difficult to trace the origins of a designed fake message which goes viral.

I must add here that political parties which are also part of the Government use the same tool to spread fake news when it’s convenient to them.

Vivek Wadhwa, himself a technology entrepreneur, in an interesting piece calls for putting the onus of finding a solution to get over this encryption on the tech platforms. As per him, Facebook must be made liable for deaths that have happened due fake messages spread through its WhatsApp platform. As per him, tech companies have always found a way of solving problems when profits are at stake. I tend to agree with him on this.

So, what could WhatsApp do? My simple and at the same time wild suggestion is make forwards or just group messaging chargeable! As long it’s free, we all have fun and indulge in forwarding without giving a second thought. We endlessly forward messages to the myriad groups we are associated, even sometimes not realising that the message was posted by someone else already!

When it is chargeable, we will think twice before hitting the send button. If it’s for a genuine cause or for a business purpose, we must not hesitate to pay! So truly if one wants to control the monster called WhatsApp, make it chargeable!

Will you pay to forward, going forward?

Postscript: As of now it’s still free. If you like the piece, don’t hesitate to hit the forward button when you see it on WhatsApp!

Image courtesy: Businessday Media online.

Advertisements

Karnataka Political League!

Since 12th May, the day when Karnataka went to polls, India has been gripped by non-stop action from KPL – Karnataka Political league. The twists and turns of KPL put IPL completely on the back burner for a week. From the exit poll results to counting day to the see-sawing of fortunes of parties and leaders to the resort games to the confidence vote, we saw it all. In these “Winner takes it all” times, finally JDS emerged the winner at the end of the week! And the people of Karnataka (to whom elections and the rulers actually matter) lost!

For those of us, who have been keenly watching the Karnataka elections and some of the electoral battles since 2014, there are many interesting takeaways which I would like to share:

  • Final election results defy ground reports of journalists and in particular celebrity anchors and Star journos. Karnataka once again confirmed this! They tend to hear what they want to hear and see what they want to see. Ergo, report what they want to report!
  • Restaurants, eateries, dhabas are wrong places to sense any political hawa during elections. Channels, anchors and reporters should find better options to plug eateries in their shows. My unsolicited advice to anchors – “Please do not have politics and elections on your plates!”
  • For a political party being savvy or active on Social media (read as Twitter) and claiming to dominate Twitter trends aggressively is not a passport to electoral wins. Dominating “on the ground” trends is. I have come to realise that what happens on Twitter may just steer conversations on WhatsApp groups or lunchtime discussions in offices. These also help feed off talk points to reporters and journalists. At the hustings, being savvy on Social media particularly Twitter has no impact. As a tool, WhatsApp works better and efficiently in driving opinions.
  • Opinion polls and Exit polls continue to be employment generating machines for pollsters, TRP drivers for channels and entertainment source for viewers. Beyond that, we have now got habituated to see that for every exit poll there is an opposite result exit poll!
  • On TV, the so called experts have their own way of explaining any result. In the run up to the polls when Congress was poised to do well, Siddaramaiah was touted to have mastered the social coalition of AHINDA. On the counting day when Congress for floundering, Siddaramaiah’s AHINDA and the many social schemes were pronounced as “flops”. Same with his Lingayat gamble. In 24 hours, a masterstroke became Siddaramaiah’s undoing!
  • Therefore the important take away for observers like us is not to form our opinions based on experts on TV or social media narratives!
  • If one is weak on Indian geography, start watching pre-election programming where channel after channel will take you through the regional divides in a state with the caste composition in added measure!
  • And the more and more we want our next generation to move away from casteism, experts on TV will keep hammering and reminding us about Vokkaligas and Kappus and Yadavs and Kurmis and what not! If you are a student of journalism, this is the 1st thing to master to become a successful political journalist!
  • Corruption is not really a big issue for the electorate. Impact of governance on the individual voter is. Even if a party or a legislator is corrupt, as long as they manage to meet the expectations of voters in matters of day-to-day governance, they will go ahead and vote for them. This I am talking of voters for whom elections and the rulers matter. I have come to this conclusion not just based on the Karnataka elections but what has been happening for so many years not just in India but even in our neighbourhood like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh,…
  • I think Demonetisation aka Notebandi and GST,… as much as the media and opposition would like to rake them as electoral issues have clearly emerged as non-issues in elections. On the contrary, I feel that opposition parties continuing to raise hell on these issues are yielding them negative returns.
  • Prime Minister Modi clearly has a Pan India and towering appeal today. Talks of a waning Modi appeal are as per me pure imaginations. And it is my belief that even if BJP had lost Karnataka badly and ended up with fewer seats than Congress, come 2019, Karnataka will vote for Modi and BJP in that order.
  • Anti-incumbency is just an excuse to explain poor Governance. Incumbent governments will continue to be under severe scrutiny. However, if the government delivers on at least 50% of its promises and demonstrates its intent to deliver the rest, I think the floating non-core supporter will vote in the ruling party’s favour. (Core voters stick to their parties come what may). As per me, above all other factors, this is one in which BJP has demonstrated a clear edge over Congress. And hence it is able to retain states where it rules and Congress is unable to.
  • Post poll alliance is the biggest charade to afflict Indian democracy. I am not saying this with just Karnataka in mind but seeing what has happened in the past and recently in Goa, Manipur, J&K,… That you fight tooth and nail against each other before elections and then stitch up a post alliance to appropriate power is nothing but a sham! Before elections, 2 parties “come together” for an alliance. After elections, 2 parties “cobble up” an alliance! There is a world of difference in both! In India, now any 2 parties which may seem to be in loggerheads can come together if a situation arises for sharing power! Morality be damned and Ideology be condemned!
  • In India, “Whataboutery” just scaled new heights! “Whataboutery” which has largely been in the domain of party spokespersons trying to defend their positions day in and day out has now become common man’s defence against any argument. No argument/discussion is complete today without reference to “Whatabout that” or “Whatabout then”!
  • For every precedent, there is an opposite precedent!

Karnataka Political League might have just ended. But the games parties play will continue. Bernard Shaw said politics is the last resort of scoundrels. These days, “Resorts” have become the 1st resort for politics!!!

Toon credit: Satish Acharya

Facebook – Hook then, Crook now???

Even since Donald Trump became the President of America in 2016, Facebook has been in the news. Almost for all wrong reasons. One being its alleged or now almost certain role in influencing the US presidential elections. On the one hand, is the allegation that Facebook used its staff to curate content on its news feed section so that Pro-Trump content were suppressed. On the other hand, is the role of Russian agents and the now infamous Cambridge Analytica working to promote Trump with targeted posts based on Facebook users’ profiles. In many countries including India, there has been a clamour for Mark Zuckerberg’s head for letting Facebook become a propaganda tool increasingly.

Consequently, we saw Zuckerberg being grilled live during the Congressional disposition over Right to Privacy, misuse of Data, Cambridge Analytica’s role,… What a climb down for a person who was once touted as the founder of the most wonderful thing on earth called Facebook since the Telephone! A platform which helped people across the world connect seamlessly.  A medium to make the world more Open and connected! A platform for sharing content without owning, creating any of it. A major disruption in the way we communicated!

Yet, all that is forgotten now when more and more facts emerge on the way Facebook handles our personal data. Today, Facebook has become one of “mindless disruptions” as someone said! To be fair to Zuckerberg, when he and his friends at Harvard conceived of a platform just to share profiles among Ivy league colleges and then scaled it up to a medium for connecting people, he would not have imagined that a day would come when he would be summoned for questioning by governments on the role of his medium in influencing elections in their countries! This could be added in the list of “What they don’t teach you at Harvard Business School”, by the way! Even in a not so internet savvy country like India, today we are discussing if social media like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp played any role in the recent elections!  How did Facebook a hook then for pulling in and connecting people become a Crook now?

It’s clear that what started off just as a medium for connecting people ceased to be just one. Like other start-ups as Facebook grew, I am sure the usual question – “What’s the revenue model?” became overarching in terms of expanding the scope of the platform and looking at ways and means to monetise the same.  And once the IPO bug bites, as it did with Facebook in 2012, the urge to beat quarter on quarter numbers takes over. Then it becomes a matter of coming up with new ideas like using tools to analyse user profiles and sell to advertisers who can then use that for targeted messaging. And don’t all of them love this? Targeted messaging!

Also many times it happens that a manufacturer or marketer introduces a product for a particular purpose for a certain target Audience while consumers by themselves find other uses for the same. A great example which is part of marketing folklore is Johnson’s baby shampoo. J&J, the company intended its baby shampoo to be mild for use on babies. Research then revealed that the same product was being used by mothers too as they also preferred soft and mild shampoos! Similarly Facebook I’m sure, must not have realised that their platform which was intended for users to share updates in their lives, pictures, personal videos,… will be used for spreading hate messages! Or used to spread fake news. But unlike J&J which I don’t think capitalised on its findings by introducing a mild and soft shampoo meant for adults, probably Facebook played ball. It might have unwittingly or otherwise turned a blind eye to this trend of individuals/groups/organisations with vested interests making Facebook a platform for propaganda!

And we have the language issue! Just in a country like India we have so many languages in which we people converse and write. Can the AI powered bots and tools who keep sifting through terabytes of content isolate fake and propagandist news that keeps appearing on timelines of users?

It’s surprising that Zuckerberg and his team in Facebook waited till shit hit the fan! As users, we all are guilty of the fact that we accept terms and conditions mostly without reading and we don’t care so much to check the privacy settings or any changes thereof. I was surprised to read recently that Facebook has been listening to its users since 2014! And then realised that the microphone setting under Facebook on your phone should be turned OFF if you don’t want Facebook to listen to you!

Having now seen how Facebook deals with our personal data and our activity, should we shun Facebook? Right after the storm, #DeleteFacebook was trending and one saw many announcing to the world that they have quit Facebook. I think just like all aspects of technology, Facebook comes with its pros and cons. Just like say a smart phone. It depends on how we want to use the platform.

Recently Facebook announced that it has tied up with a local fact checking site called Boom live for Karnataka elections. This is seemingly in line with Zuckerberg’s commitment that Facebook will do all it can to “maintain the integrity of elections” in different countries including India.  While this could be a baby step in the right direction, I still feel that in a country like India more than Facebook, its cub WhatsApp is the monster in the room!

I think it makes enormous sense to be discreet on what we are sharing on Facebook or for that matter any social media.  And it doesn’t make sense to click, watch, like, comment or share many of the propaganda videos which keep surfacing in our timelines.

But as far as this piece is concerned you would realise that it’s neither propagandist or manipulative. So please do hit 👍, comment and share in all platforms as much as possible😀😀 Thank you!

Marketing of Politics!!!

Last week’s explosive expose of Channel 4 on the role of Cambridge Analytica (CA), a British political consultancy firm in the Trump campaign has thrown up many questions on the devious marketing ways parties use, to influence voters.  At the outset, it would appear that CA has been doing nothing else but extending time-tested established marketing techniques to the political domain. For years, brands have used psycho graphic profiling of target consumers in addition to the more rudimentary demographic profiling to fine-tune their messaging. Extending this into the realm of political campaigns, particularly with the help of social media would seem to be a very logical thing to do. After all, one of the key attractions of digital marketing viz-a-viz traditional mass media is the possibility to deliver customized, targeted messaging based on individual likes and preferences.

As can be seen from the expose, what CA has been doing all along, is not as straight forward as it appears. It seems apart from profiling voters and using it for targeted messaging, manipulation of news, spreading fake news and playing on people’s fears,… have been part of the game. “Marketing of Politics” has indeed come a long way since 1960 when probably the 1st political mass media campaign was used by John F Kennedy against his rival Richard Nixon in the US elections.  Bruce Newman in his book, ‘The Handbook of Political Marketing’ in fact says, “This was the beginning of the modernization of marketing in political context”. Concepts like “Branding” and “Positioning” which were hitherto considered important in the marketing of consumer goods struck a chord with politicians and leaders during elections and they started “Branding” themselves.  From then to the 2016 presidential campaign with social media as the pivot, US has been leading the way in Political Marketing!

While all this seems plausible in developed and mature countries like the US, UK,… it indeed came as a surprise that a foreign political consultancy firm like CA has been operating in India in different avatars since 2010! In a vast country with voters of diverse social, educational, cultural, economic backgrounds as India, can advance techniques like targeted messaging through Social media be used to influence voting patterns in elections? This question gains added significance particularly when Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook said this week that his organization is committed to upholding the integrity of elections around the world, including India. This statement in itself reveals that there was a possibility that Facebook would have been used to compromise elections in the past. With due respect to Zuckerberg’s intention, I do feel that this statement is more a marketing statement for the brand Facebook!  Be that as it may, the more fundamental question is – “Do Indian’s allow Marketing of Politics?”

As far as my memory goes, I think it was Rajiv Gandhi who brought in to Indian politics the concept of mass advertising campaigns way back in 1984. For the 1984 elections, Congress under Rajiv Gandhi had hired Rediffusion as their ad agency for their campaign which was largely print. In that election Congress, in the aftermath of a massive sympathy wave following Indira Gandhi’s death, got 3/4th majority in the Lok Sabha. So it’s not clear if the Rediffusion campaign around the theme of “Give Unity a Hand” played a big part in the victory. In the following election in 1989, Rediffusion was back doing the Congress campaign. However, the mega Rs. 25 crore “My heart beats for India” campaign couldn’t silence the boom of the Bofors gun scandal! Congress lost and I think it was the last time Rediffusion worked for Congress!

The subsequent elections all saw quite a bit of Political Marketing in India but, I guess that the next tipping point was the 2014 elections and the campaign of BJP in general and Narendra Modi in particular. “Abki Baar, Modi Sarkar” is part of marketing case studies. Piyush Pandey of Ogilvy, the man behind this campaign however admitted that they or the media didn’t create “Brand Modi” and that they only amplified the features of the “Modi Brand” which already existed.

2014 is also when I guess, we saw the advent of professional election strategists like Prashant Kishor (PK) for the 1st time. There were election strategists in the past but they were from the party and subscribed to an ideology.  As we see now, PK is ideology agnostic and basically works with whichever party contracts him. Again looking at the track record of PK it’s been a mixed bag. As an election strategist who worked with Modi in 2014 and then with Nitish Kumar for Bihar elections, Congress for UP, Punjab and Gujarat elections, he has been successful only with a good product in the 1st place.  The old adage of “Great marketing cannot redeem a bad product” holds well in Political Marketing also.  However it’s abundantly clear that election strategists like PK have found their calling mainly with the advent of Social media.

In a country like India, even now traditional Social media vehicles like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram,… remain an urban/semi urban/youth phenomenon.  Having millions of followers on Twitter or FB may not still ensure a victory in the hinterlands of India!  Having said that, it’s obvious that one takes these vehicles seriously as they are part of day-today narrative. I just heard that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, one of the very early hoppers among Indian politicians onto the Social media band wagon, suggested to BJP MPs to be active on social media to communicate the party’s accomplishments. Because, he knows that today, Social media vehicles like Twitter and Facebook feeds off to the conventional media. Conventional media picks up trends from Social media. “Breaking News” happens these days on Twitter. Trump fires his Secretary of State on Twitter! Notwithstanding all these, still using these for targeted messaging may only help brands (including political parties) reach urban, semi urban and youth audience. However there is one exception.

Among the social media vehicles, literally the elephant in the room or rather hand is WhatsApp. I believe that more than FB, Twitter, Instagram and Blog sites if there is one media which has the most exponential and explosive reach, it is WhatsApp. With anonymity part of its structure and design and primarily being accessible from a Smart phone, it can be conveniently used for spreading News, views and stuff masquerading as News. Today, I find that even educated and informed people get swayed by propagandist material doing the rounds on WhatsApp and do their bit by “forwarding as received” to their near and dear! Imagine the effect of this among more gullible voters in rural India!  And therefore, it has become the most potent medium for spreading fake news.  One cannot realistically expect one and all to do due diligence before forwarding something which they feel as interesting!

Therefore, it is not surprising that when Cambridge Analytica and the subsequent Facebook stories erupted, tremors could be felt in the political circles in India with parties scrambling to distance themselves as much as possible and blaming each other.  Social media, in particular vehicles like WhatsApp can today be used to deliver targeted messages that can easily influence voters. With the proliferation of WhatsApp groups, you have a set of people who have a certain common denominator.   And hence spreading an appealing message to them is cheap, quick and effective. Hence in the elections to come, unless regulated, I have no doubts in my mind that a medium like WhatsApp will be the most sought after during political campaigns.  It already is as we saw recently in Gujarat!  Marketing of Politics that too with Social media as the mainstay is here to stay!

No wonder then Marketing of Politics has now led to Politics over Marketing!!!

Pic Courtesy: NBC News

One upon a time, “the Nation wanted to know”!

The year was 2007. When in my erstwhile company we decided to go for a brand campaign on TV for the 1st time, being in the business of business and enterprise products, we had English News and Business channels in mind. Our original idea was to spend much of the budget on NDTV 24*7, then an established leader in the category and some money on CNN-IBN, a challenger. Our creative agency and its media buying arm strongly suggested to add to the media mix Times Now, an upstart which had gone on air a year ago in 2006. I was hesitant and my 1st question was “Who watched Times Now?” I was told that Times Now with its firebrand anchor and All in All Arnab Goswami had the fastest growing viewership. Over and above that were willing to give an excellent deal. I gave in and we decided to put some money on Times Now as well for the campaign. Till then I never used to watch Times Now and was basically an avid NDTV and at times CNN-IBN watcher. To catch up with the campaign on Times Now during prime time, I started watching Times Now on and off in end 2007, mainly due to work compulsion!

For most Indians though, their tryst with Arnab started probably a year later in November 2008 when the dastardly terrorist attack on Mumbai happened. With rival channels beaming the entire counter operation live much to the exasperation of those carrying out the operation, it was Indian News Channels’ worst face palm moment in history. Being head quartered in Mumbai unlike other English channels which beamed from NCR, Times Now could deploy the maximum resources during the 3 day non-stop coverage of the attacks on Mumbai and garner the most eye balls of eager citizens wanting to know what was going on. For Arnab and Times Now, the 26/11 Mumbai attacks did what the 1991 Gulf war did for CNN!

I reckon that during this period, Times Now  became a serious player on prime time and in fact started boasting of TRPs ahead of NDTV 24*7 and CNN-IBN. There was no looking back since. The heady days of UPA-II offered much opportunity for Arnab to take the Government to the cleaners with scam after scam. The CWG scam, the 2G scam, the mining scam and the “Anna movement” all came in handy for Arnab. From here on, it is my belief that he ceased to be a News anchor or a journalist and started morphing into being the very righteous and highly moralistic “vigilante” leader! And the Nation lapped him up!

At 9.00 pm every night, Arnab was no more reading news. He was not even anchoring a news show. He was actually giving his “Address to the Nation” to gullible Indians for few minutes followed by debates where participants were literally “pigeon holed” and harangued. Those not on his side were interrupted, insulted and were handed over sermons. He became the advocate, prosecutor and the judge every night.  But in all this, he was doing well for himself. Arnab became a brand. In fact, became larger than the channel itself. Times Now became an undisputed leader in its category. For the middle class English news watching public, he was a hero who could question and tear apart a politician on live TV without fear. They kept goading him with more TRPs and he became unstoppable. So much so, in 2014 during the election season, when Rahul Gandhi wanted to give an interview and the Congress party decided to go with NDTV and Barkha Dutt, Arnab challenged them with facts and figures and ensured that the only interview Rahul gave was “Frankly speaking with Arnab”. And we all know how much that interview contributed to the Rahul folklore on social media! In the same token, in the run up to the election, the only English Channel to which Narendra Modi gave an interview was Times Now for Arnab!

While being on top of the game and world, Arnab decided to leave Times Now and he started his own channel named Republic TV which went on air in May 2017.  Here again, he has continued his vigilante model – only that his vigilantism is being applied only against the opposition party! Republic TV continues to rake up scams supposedly pertaining to the UPA era and at times even of the Rajiv Gandhi era! The Bofors story keeps popping up, not surprising as the original Bofors story architect, Chitra Subramaniam is associated with the channel. With the channel being funded mainly by Rajeev Chandrasekhar who is now been given a Rajya Sabha ticket by the ruling BJP, Republic TV’s loyalty is no more a secret. It never was. But now even that translucent mask is off!

Arnab is today a metaphor for the aggressive, noisy, angry, rooting for nationalism type of journalism. And the success of Arnab has led to a spawning of Arnab Goswami wannabes in channel after channel! From Rahul Shivshankar to Navika Kumar to Bhupendra Chaubey to Rahul Kanwal to Gaurav Sawant to Anand Narasimhan we have a parade of angry men and women masquerading as news anchors in every channel!  And night after night one can see them howling at guests who for whatever reason choose to appear on their shows!

Similarly the success of Times Now and now the apparent popularity of Republic TV within a short span has led to every channel following the shouting match formula on prime time! Among channels, with the exception of NDTV 24*7 which has chosen to stay away from debates on prime time, there is hardly any product differentiation! In fact, Times Now seems very much a clone of RepublicTV in almost all aspects – the stories of the day, the editorial line they take, the boxed debates, the profile of guests, the doorstepping of reporters, the Arnab like anchors in Rahul Shivshankar (an Arnab protégé) and Navika Kumar and even in the harebrained hashtags they come up with every evening! No wonder Arun Shourie, known for his penchant for one liners, came up with the sobriquet of “North Korean channels” for both!

9 pm prime time news has been my every night fixation for years. Not anymore. I have stopped watching Republic TV.  Rarely do I watch Times Now. And more importantly, I just give a fleeting glance for not more than 5 minutes of even the other channels.  Results from unscientific polls conducted with my folks over WhatsApp reveal similar trends. That of die hard news consumers shunning Arnab and his ilk in particular and English news channels in general.  Now this trend is not reflecting on the viewership data at least for now. But then, methodology adopted for opinion polls and collecting viewership data in India are as unscientific as they can get and hence I treat them with the same contempt.

News today is more noise. And hence it is nothing but entertainment.  Soon news channels will fight for being classified under General Entertainment category. If a finger has to be pointed on one person for this degeneration of the News TV genre in India, it should be on Arnab Goswami. There was a time when the entire “Nation wanted to know” from Arnab. Every night. Not anymore.

Postscript:  Malayalis tend to pronounce “News Anchor” as “News Anger”! Time for the nation to follow Mallus on this one!!!

Will this “Kamal” bloom in TN?

In his films, Kamal Haasan is not usually satisfied with wearing one hat or donning just one role. While his peers in the Industry were happy with double roles or at best triple roles, Kamal, in one of his own production – Dasavathaaram as the title suggests, took up 10 roles. And roles as varied from an elderly widow to a Sardar to a CIA Agent to a Japanese Ninja and even George Bush! So donning many roles comes to him easily. In the big screen, that is. However, I don’t recall Kamal playing the role of a full-fledged politician in any of the films but for that short gimmicky role as George Bush and I may be wrong here!!! So, it came as a surprise when all of a sudden from the year 2017, Kamal started making political noises initially as feeble as tweets! Gradually the tweets got louder culminating with the announcement of the formation of his own party this week in Madurai.

Surprise stems from not just this. Kamal has had a long and worthy career in films not just as a fantastic actor but also as an accomplished film-maker in Tamil Nadu. Unlike many other stars and also rans in TN who invariably ended up in politics, Kamal stayed far away from it. He has been repeatedly saying that the only thing he knows in life is films and nothing else but films. He is quoted to have said often that he has been extremely fortunate in life for getting “Karumbu thinna kooli”, a euphemism for having been possible to pursue his passion as a paid profession! And he is also quoted as being unfit for life in politics full of machinations and hypocrisies. While he claimed to be socially aware, he was happy to serve people in his own way rather than wearing the garb of a Neta.

Actors who take up politics seriously, do it in their twilight of their career when the lights around them start fading away. Though Kamal’s last few films failed miserably at the box office, as an actor or a film-maker few would dare to write his obituary yet. He still displays the passion for making meaningful cinema and as we speak, has 2 if not 3 films on the floor vying for his attention.

The sudden turn in Kamal’s life led to the forming of Makkal Neethi Maiam (Centre for Justice for people) early this week. In the last few months of twists and turns in the politics of “Turmoil Nadu”, this is the latest. As a film-maker he is known to be indulgent. He has also been an avid risk taker in the choice of some of his scripts. At many points he has risked his wealth and probably his career by throwing his weight behind risky subjects – his Vishwaroopam project being a prime example. So, the question is – “Is Kamal once again indulging himself and taking his biggest risk yet by jumping into the murky world of politics?”

It would appear to seem so, if one looks at the odds ahead of Kamal. I believe that for Kamal, there are battles to be fought within, before looking at the battles outside. Kamal has had an Ultra clean image thus far in terms of probity in public life. He is not known for entering into shady deals for the purpose of commerce and has been an honest tax payer. But being honest is only a necessary condition but not a sufficient condition to succeed in politics.  Secondly, as a film star and a film maker he has not displayed enough permanence of purpose. In the sense, he is known to announce grand projects and junk them mid-way and move on.  Cutting losses as a strategy may work in films or business but certainly not in politics where one expects a deeper commitment to a cause. Whether Kamal will show enough resilience to stay put and continue to fight the political battle even if there are initial setbacks is a big question.

As a film-maker he has never hidden his left leanings and public posturing towards atheism. Left as a philosophy is in the ICU worldwide and India is not an exception. Unless his left leanings are more reformed and tuned to the times we are in today, he will find it difficult to move beyond surging crowds in his rallies. Similarly in TN, atheism has of late become a matter of daily WhatsApp humour, thanks to the famed Dravida parties and their leaders reaching out to Gods in private! So, for Kamal to make these personal beliefs cornerstone of ideology of his new party is fraught with imminent risk.

Coming to external battles, there are many and are similar to any new comer trying to make a mark in politics. it is clear that Kamal is trying to fill a gap which presented itself after the death of Jayalalitha and her legacy. If one looks at history, MGR was successful as he could seamlessly morph his fan base into his loyal political base. No other actor in TN so far could manage that feat. Whether even our Superstar Rajini will be able pull that off remains to be seen. In the case of Kamal, in his prime days as an actor he was not a fan of Fan Clubs himself. So, how he will organize and use his Fan Clubs to be part of his political story will determine if the climax will have a happy ending or not!

Kamal has a good marketing bent. That comes across very well the way he has been able to create big hype over some of his films which turned out to be lemons. Hyped up films ending up as duds is not limited to Kamal only.  Just that in the case of Kamal, all the marketing ideas are his and only his. His marketing acumen could be seen through in his party launch event as well. The crowds were impressive. The media attention he could garner was even more impressive. However, I am extremely skeptical if these will lead to more fingers at the EVMs in the next election.

In the event, Kamal was idealism personified. He had Arvind Kejriwal by his side. And Pinnarayi Vijayan by the video link. The irony of the old and new symbols of Communism in his new avatar couldn’t be missed. His party’s flag displayed six hands which apparently were referring to the six southern states including Pondicherry. That showed that Kamal’s political ambitions are not limited to just TN. However what intrigued me was if that is the case, will a Tamil name for the party make sense in Telangana or Karnataka?  He should very well remember that even his Tamil film Indiran Chandran became Indrudu Chandrudu in Telugu!

While it is no denying that Kamal is a well-read man and an idealist with good intentions, his sudden decision to jump into politics raises many questions. As I had mentioned in one of my earlier posts, is Kamal on the path towards achieving Self Actualisation as per Maslow’s hierarchy of needs?  It seems Kamal said “Except for the two films which are coming out, there will be no more films for me,” in a recent interview. Well if that’s the case, it will be filmdom’s loss!  And nobody’s gain!

The original “Kamal” in politics of India namely the BJP though successful in other parts of the country is yet to bloom in TN.  Will this new Kamal bloom in Tamil Nadu? I have my own doubts. I have no doubts of Kamal stealing the show in Michael Madana Kama Rajan – II though!

Postscript:  Kamal got his 1st National award for Moondram Pirai, a film in which his co-star Sridevi was expected to walk away with the honours. However she didn’t, much to the disappointment, agony and sorrow of cinema followers in TN. Today, that sorrow pales in comparison to the news of Sridevi’s untimely, sudden and shocking death, 54 vayathinile!  Padma Sri Sridevi – RIP.

Budget – The Annual celebration of Outlays!

It’s just about a week since the Annual Union Budget – supposedly the most important policy statement for any Government in power, was tabled in the parliament in India.  In these days of extremely limited attention span, the news and noise around the Budget are already done and dusted. The media has already moved on from analyzing the Budget to debating if an MP’s loud cackle is acceptable parliamentary behavior and if the PM’s witty riposte to that, will pass the test of a Nehru or a Vajpayee in parliamentary decorum! The only remaining nugget about the Budget I see in the media in the last couple of days is, as to who won the TRP war on the Budget day! For the television media, the annual Budget presentation is another TRP generating event in the annual calendar and hence the whipped up frenzy and hoopla around it.

For the past 20 years, I have also been a victim of the annual cacophony called the experts’ analysis of the Budget and in the same breath, culprit in doing my own analysis and critique. Over the last few years, it started dawning upon me that slicing and dicing the Budget and trying to evaluate the same as good, bad or average is an exercise steeped in foolhardiness. And so, this year apart from a cursory look at the highlights in the evening of the Budget day, I spent little time in that direction.

This distancing has nothing to do with this year’s Budget and its contents but on the way “we”, as a country carry out the discourse around the Budget. When I say “we”, this includes the Government, the Opposition, the political parties, the media, the Industry, the commentators and folks like us.  For years, I have been seeing that the reactions to the Budget proposals have become extremely predictable. The ruling party members give a huge thumbs up to the Budget and usually follow it up with head line making epithets. (Path breaking/Visionary,…)  While the finance minister is presenting the Budget, any announcement of outlay which is seemingly bigger than that of last year is welcomed with huge thumping of the desks by the treasury benches. The Opposition parties usually criticize the Budget calling it Inflammatory (if taxes are raised), Anti poor (if subsidies are cut), “What about implementation?” (If outlays are increased) and so on! And for other political parties, the famous Mile’s maxim applies – “where they stand on the Budget depends on where they sit” in the parliament. The Industry usually in front of cameras always give a 12 out of 10 to any Budget!  The media provides a ball by ball update on the stock markets as the Budget presentation goes on, as if the entire nation’s well-being depends on how the stock market reacts to the Budget on that day!  And we all know that the stock market yo-yos on the Budget day, without proper understanding of the provisions and settles down few days later.  The media commentators present a typically “On the one hand, on the other hand, having said that,..” analysis replete with clichés and Budget equivalent of Shastri’sms the next day in their columns. And with the advent of social media, Budget day in India is a Kaun Banega Economist? competition with you and me donning the hat of economists to hail/trash the Budget based on the outlay proposals and our own prejudices!  All this repeated itself this year as well.

In the din, what is completely missed is an analysis and report of the outcomes of the previous year Budget outlays. Budget after Budget, finance ministers announce crores and crores for initiatives and programmes. But as a tax payer, we never get to know the outcomes of those outlays. 13 years after the then finance minister P. Chidambaram spoke of “outlays versus outcomes” in his Budget speech of 2005-06, no mechanism is still in sight to measure the same. Take for example one such announcement in the last year Budget, which I clearly remember. The finance minister had announced that allocation under MNREGA was being increased to Rs. 48,000 crore from Rs 38,500 crore which was meant to be the highest ever allocation in all these years. And this was supposed to provide rural jobs, alleviate poverty in rural areas by improving rural incomes and at the same time end up building assets as well. One year hence after this historically high outlay, maybe I missed, but do we know exactly know what happened to this Rs. 48,000 crores? And this is just one outlay. A regular Budget speech is replete with outlays like this and more.

Another glaring example is the Nirbhaya fund. Announced among thunderous thumping of desks in the 2013 budget by the then UPA Government following the heinous Delhi incident, over 90% of the funds remain unused. Does that mean that rapes against women have declined? This is a classic case of an outlay not yielding the desired outcome and still being provided for, year after year!

My disenchantment with the Annual Budget exercise stems from this gap. Of celebrating outlays without knowing what the outcomes were! In the finance minister’s Budget speech a review of the past year is usually limited to the GDP growth rates and projected fiscal deficits against the targets. Even these get revised when the actual numbers come out some time in May/June and very few of us take notice.  The Annual economic survey does cover some of the trends but I don’t think even that covers specifically the results of the previous year’s outlays.

For a developing economy like India, we need more transparency. We should not be pushed to use instruments like RTI to just understand outcomes and expenditures!  And hence here are my suggestions:

  • In the start of the Budget session, before the Budget for the next year is presented, have a day to present the outcomes for the previous year’s outlays. Tell the people what worked and what didn’t. This will help to justify increase or cut outlays for the next year.
  • Typically our parliament has 3 sessions. In these sessions, have each of the ministry provide an update on the progress of the initiatives, programmes, outlays and status of outcomes announced in the year’s Budget. If not for all, have this mandatory for all key industries.

In Delhi circles, I hear that this government of Narendra Modi is a “Dashboard” government. In the sense, the PMO expects weekly/monthly/quarterly dashboard on their ministry’s accomplishments from all the ministries.  Why not extend this “Dashboard” governance to the parliament and get ministers to showcase their ministries’ performance to the people?

Even the media and the commentariat must devote time to analysing outcomes of previous outlays and bring it to the fore rather than just talking of the new outlays!

Thumping of desks by MPs and celebrating outlays on the Budget is passé.  Aim must be to let people celebrate outcomes by voting for you at the hustings!!!

Toon Courtesy: Satish Acharya (Sify.com)