Can the ‘Gem of a scam” become “Gem of an opportunity’??

The debate on privatisation of Public Sector Undertaking (PSU) banks has a habit of rearing its head in public discourse in India with regular frequency. Not so long ago, it was when the PSU banks were hit by the NPA (Non-Performing Assets) crisis embodied by the likes of a fleeing Vijay Mallya. Later, it was when the Government finally took a call on recapitalisation of the PSU banks last year. And now, it is when the Nirav Modi – PNB scam, the latest to hit the Indian shores (and shares) surfaced. Yesterday even Arvind Subramanian, the usually reticent Chief Economic Advisor has joined the debate!

Reformists are of the view that the Government is betraying Winston Churchill again and again who famously said that “Never let a good crisis go waste” in the context of biting the PSU bank bullet. They are of the view that the repeated crises which hit the PSU banks provided a plausible excuse and “Gem of an opportunity” (pun entirely intended) for the Government of the day to privatize PSU Banks and thereby get out of the rigmarole of using tax payer’s money to keep bailing them out. The underlying assumptions being that the PSU Banks are run usually inefficiently and being under sarkaari control are subject to pulls and pressures.  While this is true for almost all PSUs in general, money being closer to the pocket and heart of the public, privatisation topic haunts the banks more. One cannot dismiss the very popular data point thrown in the above argument’s favour which is that the market cap of a relatively younger HDFC Bank which is privately held is higher than all PSU banks put together!

At the core of the argument against privatisation is of course the security it provides to the Aam Admi. Irrespective of what happens around the balance sheets of these PSU banks. The general public does believe that the Government will not let their savings go down the drain come what may. One remembers the furore and angst in WhatsApp groups recently when we were all told that our deposits above 1 lac are not safe if the banks go belly up. So, for any Government of the day, it is a minefield of a quandary to attempt privatisation of PSU banks unless it is completely politically immune to a public outrage and the after effects thereafter!

Be that as it may – the Government’s quandary I mean, the larger issue is the conflict bordering on hypocrisy in the minds of people like us which is – my direct stake in the bank by way of savings/deposits Vs my indirect stake in PSU banks by way of government’s stake which is in effect all our tax payer’s money. In short “My money” Vs “Our Money”! Nirav Modi has just swindled a government bank of few 1000 crores but that still is not “My money” though it is “Our Money!  And largely our outrage has stopped with laughing out loud (or is it laughing like Renuka these days?) looking at jokes, memes and sarcastic jibes on the Government while a smart cookie has “been crying all his way to the bank”! I think as individuals we are more concerned about the safety and security of our savings which we feel is protected if PSU banks remain as is – Government owned.  Even if that means

  • The Government of the day interfering in the day-to-day functioning
  • The Government mandating the banks to carry out populist programmes which may not make commercial sense but may make immense political sense to them
  • Mounting NPA’s due to favouring cronies of the likes of Vijay Mallya
  • The Nirav Modi kind of frauds due to conniving staff
  • Less accountability in the system.

At the end of the day, as along as the banks are Government owned, the only fix for all the above ailments is injecting more capital which is by tapping into tax payer’s money. It’s obvious that the same money if not used for bailing out banks could be put to use for better roads, power, water, electricity or even for that matter the proposed grandiose Health Insurance programme – stuff our country has been deprived of in the last 70 years since Independence.

The 1.6 billion dollar question is whether as tax payers and citizens we are okay and ready to let the government seize the opportunity and privatise the PSU banks? My guess is maybe we are not. And this stems from our socialistic belief that next to God, the Government is the savior and hence must protect us. And the constant fear associated with losing our money if not protected by the government.

In a country like ours which is evolving and is still a work in progress on many fronts like urbanization, education, social mobility,..,… the fear is mostly legitimate. Coupled with the fact that the private sector has not fully covered itself with glory. But the performance of the new private banks set up since the opening up of the economy in 1993, provide quite a lot of hope. For example, as far as we know, the new private banks are not part of the NPA problem.  Even during the 2008 Lehman shock, when all over the world financial institutions were rocked and many went belly up, in India none of the banks including the private ones were affected so much (though banks like ICICI had exposures to the subprime crisis) due to very strong regulations in India.  So, so far we could bank on these banks!

In summary, my point is may be if not all in one go, the Government could contemplate privatising PSU banks in batches of say 2 starting with the smaller ones. This will give adequate space to watch out for any pitfalls in the process and fine tune the same. This of course with the continued strong regulatory frame work in place.  The smooth completion of the ongoing privatisation of Air India may give the much needed heft to the Government.

With may be all banks out of governmental control in the next 10 years, the frequent exercise of tapping into “Our Money” to protect “My money” may be a conundrum of the past. The moot question remains if this current “Gem of a scam” will be turned into a “Gem of an opportunity” by the Government and that we as public will let that pass!

Postscript: Overheard in a lift: “These jewelers kept telling us that Diamonds are forever. But, they never told us that loans are also forever! Saala vaapas hi nahi kiya!!!

Toon courtesy: Satish Acharya

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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)

Padmini to Padmavati to Padmaavat – The Journey from history to a ballad to Opera to a film!

Finally Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s magnum opus hit the screens in Mumbai last week and I happened to watch it. I liked the film for its making apart from other reasons which make for a good one time watch! No, this is not review of the film, but there are spoilers ahead. In the whole of the long 2 hours and 44 minutes running time of the film, I didn’t find anything even remotely close to bringing dishonor to Rajputs or any others for whom the now infamous Karni Sena is holding brief. The fact that the Sena is continuing to spit venom and wreck violence in the country in spite of this, set me into spending most of the free time this weekend on doing some background research (read as Google search) on the topic. The findings led me to pen this out of turn 2nd post on this topic today.  My 1st post titled “The rise and rise of the Censor Senas” on this (read here) was when the film couldn’t get beyond the censors in November.

Much of what I am writing here traces its origin to what I found on the internet in different sites including Wikipedia. Since the authenticity of a source like Wikipedia is suspect, I hesitate to make this as a presentation of facts but just as some material of interest and intrigue!  I feel that what Bhansali set out to make and ended up making could be two different versions. And here’s why.

It’s only very recently I came to know that Padmavati is the same as Rani Padmini the Queen of Mewar in Rajasthan. I have faint memories of Rani Padmini from the Amar Chitra Katha book which I read as a kid like millions in India. Most of our lessons in history are steeped in volumes of Amar Chitra Katha, I suppose. While I don’t remember the setting and details what I remember is that she committed Sati at the end with many other women. I think even the cover depicted this.

I understand that Padmini became more popular as Padmavati thanks to Albert Roussel, a French composer. After a trip to India and Rajasthan as early as 1909, he came across the story of this beautiful queen and became very interested in it. On his return to France, he styled Padmavati as a French Opera ballet. Written during World War I, it was first performed at the Paris Opera on June 1, 1923. Roussel’s version of Padmavati was drawn from a eulogical ballad titled Padmavat by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, composed in the year 1540 AD.

In this poem, Rani Padmavati is described as coming from ‘Singhal Dweep’ or Ceylon (Sri Lanka). There’s an elaborate explanation of her background. Rawal Ratan Sen, the Rajput King of Mewar kingdom, as Ratan Singh was named by Jayasi, married her in a ‘swyamvar’ in Ceylon, where he goes to after hearing about her beauty from the parrot ‘Hiraman’.

The poem further introduces Alāʾ ud-Dīn Khiljī (1296–1316 the second and most powerful ruler of the Khilji dynasty that ruled the Delhi Sultanate in the Indian subcontinent) who learns about the beauty of Padmavati through a banished courtier of Rawal Ratan Sen who found refuge in Khilji’s court. Khilji lays siege to Chittor from where Ratan Sen ruled. Ratan Sen refuses his demand to surrender Padmavati. Following a truce, Ratan Sen allows the Sultan to enter the fort, where Khilji sees Padmavati’s reflection in a mirror. He then traps Ratan Sen into accompanying him to the foot of the fort, captures him and returns to Delhi.

After being rescued from Delhi by his two brave warriors – Gora and Badal, Ratan Sen reaches Chittor to learn that the neighboring king Devpal had sent a marriage proposal to Padmavati. An upset Ratan Sen goes to fight Devpal and the two kill each other in a combat. Ratan Sen’s two wives – Nagmati and Padmavati immolate themselves on his pyre (Sati) before Khilji’s army reaches Chittor and the battle begins. There is neither the mention of ‘jauhar’ or Ratan Sen dying while fighting Khilji.

However Roussel’s version veers towards a different interpretation. Known for his romantic sensibility, his opera focuses on a tale of passion – of an obsessed powerful emperor who fails to conquer a woman’s heart. It also turns the narrative on its head – with the queen Padmavati stabbing her own husband, Rawal Ratan Singh. This is for pleading with his wife Padmavati to give herself up to Khilji to protect his kingdom. Padmavati kills the Raja and then commits Sati to protect their kingdom’s honor from an angry, marauding Khilji. (This climax, I guess is the problematic issue for the cultural police and the senas)

Much before his venturing into making this film on Padmavati, I vividly remember Bhansali doing an Opera musical in France years ago. That was in March 2008 shortly after Bhansali’s film Sawariya bombed big time at the Box office. In his own admission, he was depressed and wanted to be away from India trying out something new.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali remains the first Indian filmmaker who was commissioned by the prestigious Theatre Du Chatelet of France to redirect Padmavati with a current day production values.  So he was in Paris in 2008 to direct the 1923 opera ballet Padmavati, written by Albert Roussel. I understand that the show opened to rave reviews and appreciation.  Being staged in France probably escaped the attention and fury of the Karni Sena way back in 2008.

Connecting the dots, the reasons behind the ruckus even on the 1st day of the shoot, is not difficult to comprehend. The presumption that Bhansali’s present day film Padmavati would also be similar in theme to his 2008 musical and the baggage Bhansali himself carries with his earlier outings like Ramleela and Bajirao Mastani where he was accused of twisting history and historical events to sensationalise his narrative, took their toll this time.

However, Padmavat – the film is a completely different version.  Where Rajputs and their valour are put in a pedestal, though just in oft repeated lofty dialogues.  In this, the Rani doesn’t kill the Raja. So, only when Bhansali writes a memoir few decades hence, will we actually know if this was the film he wanted to make or he ended up compromising his creative instincts. In this journey of a character from history to a ballad to an Opera to this film, there are quite a few elements to conjecture that Bhansali ended up making a different film. If that is actually the case, irony just committed Jauhar!

Postscript: If you find all this too much of heady stuff and just want to laugh out loud, just watch this act by Varun Grover on the origin of Padmavati– Padmaavat & the Parrot!!!

The era of ‘Constant Checkers”!!!

Every decade is characterized by a dominant influence of the times. So, if 80’s was the Doordarshan(TV) era, 90’s the Computer era, the 1st decade of this century – the Mobile phone era, then this decade is certainly the Smart phone era! And this era is afflicted by one significant syndrome.  If you want to understand what it is, it is quite simple. Try answering the following simple questions:

What’s the 1st thing people do, these days after waking up? After brushing their teeth or perhaps even before that?

What’s going on while sipping the morning cuppa of tea or coffee?

What does one do, while waiting at the bus stop?

What do you see most youngsters doing, while travelling in the train these days?

What do people do most of the time, while waiting for their order in restaurants?

What do folks do when they are waiting for the signal to change while driving?

What do you do at airports these days while awaiting the boarding call?

What does one do while waiting in any line?

In a group of friends what do you see most of them engaged in?

Before the advent of the smart phone, giving a pertinent answer for all these questions would have been difficult as they can be quite diverse.  In the smart phone era though, the answer to all those questions in all probability is just going to be one which is “Checking the phone”!!! Welcome to the era of “Constant Checkers”! I read some time back that the American Psychological Association (APA) after conducting a study on the behavior of people of late, has come up with this term called “Constant Checkers” for those who constantly are checking their phones for e-mails, Twitter feeds, Facebook updates, WhatsApp messages, video clips and so on.

Being a “Constant Checker” and having them around have become the new normal! So, when I saw a poster at my friend’s place which read “I saw a guy at the Coffee shop today. No phone, No tablet. No laptop. He just sat there. Drinking Coffee. Like a Psychopath!”, I wasn’t amused. The days are gone when one visits a coffee shop to just enjoy the coffee!  In the pre-smart phone era, parents used to worry that their kids suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder. Because of their lack of focus or concentration on one activity and their constantly wavering moods. However these days, I reckon that it’s the opposite. With most kids getting addicted to the smart phone in their teens of late, they suffer from “Attention Abundance Disorder” as most of the times they are hooked on to the phone with single minded attention!

Those days, when guests come at home, they are put to ease first by offering a glass of water. These days – it is by providing the Wi-Fi password!!! “Constant Checkers”, aside from checking their timelines constantly on social media, also keep “checking in” somewhere and announcing to the world of their whereabouts. More than visiting a place, announcing to others that you have visited that place is the order of the day! On our annual holiday last year at a hill resort, when the manager at the reception informed the guests that there was no Wi-Fi in the rooms, the disappointment was palpable. So, in the entire resort which had a swimming pool, reading room, play courts, recreation centre and the works, the busiest place was the “Activity centre” which had Wi-Fi!  Airplanes which used to be one place with no connectivity, have also started providing connectivity. Yesterday’s news says that even in India, we soon will be able to browse midair!  So, for a “Constant Checker” being on a plane is no excuse for not checking nowadays!

In line with the adage, “What goes up must come down”, I guess soon we will see the burnout of this syndrome or so I hope. And the signals are visible somewhere in the horizon.  In the many WhatsApp groups I am part of, I saw few of my friends exiting the groups as part of their New Year resolutions to be less hooked on to WhatsApp.  They claimed it to be a temporary measure and wanted to try it out. As stress levels go up due to the constant checking, “Digital Detox” is getting popular. I see online status messages which read: “On Digital Detox, please don’t disturb” more often than before.  However the jury is still out on if the detox helped or created serious withdrawal symptoms! I also see a sense of fatigue setting in of seeing the same messages of frivolous nature being circulated in different groups with a result, one just chooses to ignore the chats in most groups and focuses on just a select few. “Constant checking” also invariably becomes a bone to pick for wives with their husbands or vice versa.

With WhatsApp being actively used for serious business communication nowadays, “Constant Checking” has become unavoidable at one level.  As in most aspects of life, the challenge is to strike a balance while taking advantage of what technology can offer. The same is true for “Constant Checking” as well, I fathom till another disruption emerges.

Post Script: At a Chennai restaurant in what is a bold move, they ask the patrons to leave their mobile phones behind in a locker. And I’m told that the place is getting popular with the wives and Girlfriends!!

For Congress, time to have a Punjab Model!!!

For the Grand Old Party of India – the Congress, yesterday the 16th of Dec, 2017 was a historic day. Or that’s what the Congress and the media made us to believe. A day in which their long waiting scion, Rahul Gandhi was finally crowned as the President of the party a post held by his mother, father, grandmother, great grandfather and great great grandfather in the past. While it was a very natural event which needed to happen one day or the other, Rahul takes charge at a time when an arduous task lies ahead.  That of pulling the party from the woods which it has got into since 2014. But for Punjab recently, electoral successes for the party have been far and few between. But, all hopes are not lost. The ruling behemoth called the BJP may be clinically executing its mission of a “Congress Mukt Bharat” and coming close to achieving it as well. But that doesn’t mean that in a country like India, Congress is out for ever. As the “once party with a difference” – BJP grows, it cannot escape afflicting itself with the trappings of power and the downsides that come along with it. As the principal opposition party with a national footprint, the Congress can certainly hope for its time to come.  And Rahul Gandhi being the current heir of the “Gandhi turned Nehru parivar”, can also hope to become the Prime Minister of India, one day. I am not saying that this could happen in 2019 or even in 2024. But for a 47 year old, Rahul can certainly count on his chances sometime in the future.

Having said that, just counting on his chances or luck will not be enough to resurrect the party and become the PM of India. Not in these times. Certainly not with a competitor who is developing a sense of invincibility by the election. Tomorrow is the counting day for state elections of Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat and by this time, it will be clear if Rahul’s stars are in the upswing or they continue to betray him. The exit polls have not been kind. Anyway, irrespective of the final results, Rahul Gandhi needs to have a game plan for the next 20 years for his party. First, to become a formidable opposition to BJP and then to become a credible party of governance.  At a time when Rahul takes up the new mantle, this piece aims to provide some unsolicited advice in this direction to the Grand Old Party. That also means that this has nothing to do with what is going to happen with the Gujarat results. The advice is irrespective.

Now that the Congress has a clear face by way of Rahul Gandhi, it needs its own “Model”. While it can continue to attack NarendraModi and the BJP for all their fallacies, the question in the mind of the “unattached” voter is, what does Congress stand for today?  It’s my view that in general, core voters are loyal to their own parties, come what may. It’s the non-core voters who determine the swing and accordingly the winner. Today, the non-core voters are usually the urban middle class, women in general and the youth who have got into the voting net in the last few years. I have found that these groups are Ideology agnostic and make up their minds based on what is it for them as individuals. The youth of today are not aware of what Congress did or did not when it was in power for most part of 70 years in Independent India. Modi and the BJP have been very effective in reminding these voters of the omissions and commissions of the Congress. Hence, Congress needs to have a positive narrative of what they could do now, if they come to power which is different from the past and from what BJP is doing. The easiest thing is to showcase this in one state first. Take up a state where you are in power. Nurture an effective leader. Focus on governance. Do all what you feel BJP is not doing. Finally, Deliver, Deliver and Deliver. Make this a showcase. In short make this state a Model! And effectively “market” this model!

Today, the biggest issue with Congress is its credibility. There is no state which can be shown as a success story for the Congress. Congress had a great chance when it wrested back Karnataka from the BJP 5 years ago. But it has squandered its chances there with some lacklustre performance. As Karnataka goes to polls in 2018, Congress has its back against the wall.

Having missed the opportunity in Karnataka, the next bet for Rahul is to focus on Punjab, a state which Congress wrested from the SAD-BJP combine in 2017. With more than 4 years to go for the electoral test there, time is ripe for the Congress to demonstrate its capability and come up with its own “Punjab model”. It has nothing to lose and in fact everything to gain. It has just come to power in the back of severe anti-incumbency and promise of better governance. It has got a Chief Minister who I am told is an effective leader (Only time will tell) and who has a mind and brain of his own. Punjab is not a Bihar. It has been one of the wealthier states in the country. Agriculture and Industry have been thriving. So, for Congress to focus, identify the gaps in governance and focus on plugging them should not be difficult. In fact, Rahul should summon the entire might of the Congress in supporting the CM and ensure by 2022, the state is No.1 in terms of economic growth, infrastructure and social indices. And go for re-election with the narrative of its own “Punjab model”! 

In marketing, we often talk of a concept of “One-Three-Five-Many” by which we first successfully launch a product in one market, make it a success and then take it to three, five and then many other markets. I see no reason why Congress cannot follow the same. After making a success of Punjab, Congress then can focus on capturing few other vulnerable states in 2023 like MP, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan,.. which by then in all probability would be inflicted from severe Anti-Incumbency and fatigue. Having 3-5 major states in the pocket is when Congress will be in any serious position to take a shot at the Centre.

Immediately after BJP’s rousing win in UP this year, Omar Abdullah in part jest and part irony tweeted that the opposition should forget 2019 and start planning and hoping for 2024. Developing a marketable “Punjab model” by 2022 could be that plan and hope.  Or else, wait and watch for BJP to implode, Ram Bharose!!!

Postscript: While on this, cannot avoid but sharing this joke:

Congress worker: Sirji, for us to come back to power, we need a successful Punjab model.

RaGa: Why just one? We always have many successful models from Punjab:) 🙂

The rise and rise of the Censor Senas!!!

Acclaimed film maker Sanjay Leela Bhansali has again been engulfed in a controversy. This time around his soon to be released magnum opus Padmavati, which has enraged a section of people in North India –   Rajputs in particular, who have threatened to behead Bhansali, maim the lead actress Deepika Padukone apart from stopping the screening of his film. A few years ago, Bhansali had faced the ire of some religious groups over his film Ram Leela over the title. Bhansali then rechristened the film to Goliyon Ka Raasleela – Ram Leela and managed to get away. And his last movie, Bajirao Mastaani met with similar pre-release blues when activists from Maharashtra claimed that Bhansali was distorting history in the name of creative freedom. The film was finally released after Bhansali claimed that it was a fictional work. So, with all his rich experience in handling similar crisis in the past, hopefully Bhansali will get over this as well, even as I hear that the producers have deferred the release of the film.

Bhansali is not alone in this. In the past, quite a few filmmakers have gone through the harrowing experience of their film being threatened to be stopped. And the reasons varied from “hurting religious sentiments” to ‘distorting history” to “disrespecting past leaders” to “using Pakistani actors” to “hurting a particular community” to “against Indian ethos” and so on. Almost every month we have a film which gets caught in such a controversy at the time of release. Conspiracy theories abound that filmmakers often play with fire to stoke these controversies as a means to promote the film. In these days, where a film’s financial fate is decided on the opening it gets, one cannot dismiss these theories. Controversies help to “hashtag” the film for a few days and help to raise interest levels!  And then the producer gets into a “compromise” with the fringe groups in return for a safe passage for the film! And one cannot blame the producer for the same as few million bucks ride on each of these films!

These days, some fringe group or other raises a stink even before they have seen the film suspecting to hurt their sentiments just by going by the trailer and promotions. In the case of Padmavati, Bhansali got into trouble just as he commenced shooting when a group called the Karni Sena vandalized the sets at Kolhapur earlier this year. What perplexes one is how could they conclude that the film is going to hurt their sentiments even before the shooting commenced? Did they get to see the script? The Karni Sena chief admitted recently that though he not seen the film he had a “hunch” of what the film is about. Well, if only if we can find a way of utilizing their skills of prescience better like in weather forecasting,… we may be better off!

In effect, what we see is fringe groups taking the mantle of the censor board and becoming “Censor Senas”! Karni Sena, which was originally formed for securing the interests of Rajputs against discrimination, seems concerned only about the image of their clan as depicted in films as can be seen the last few times they shot into limelight – like before release of Ashotosh Gowarikar’s Jodha Akbar! During the release of Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam, I had opined that filmmakers may have to get their films certified by fringe groups on whom the film is about!  But it appears that not just fringe groups, but filmmakers may have to seek approval even from news anchors as we saw yesterday when the producers of Padmavati had an exclusive screening of the film for a few news anchors! So, Arnab Goswami apart from being the Prime time Prosecutor cum Defense lawyer and Judge now has turned a “Super” Censor Board member as well!  As things stand, in India, film makers may have to show their script, may be add a few scenes to glorify and take blessings from the “Censor Senas” and then commence shooting!

In all this, what comes under very close scrutiny is what the Govt. of the day does or doesn’t do in such circumstances. In this, no party has covered itself with glory. While our constitution has enshrined the Freedom of Speech and Expression as a fundamental right, as far as political parties are concerned it often is secondary. What is more important to them is the political impact of exercising that freedom. And they take umbrage under “Whataboutery” of such incidents of the past! I am certain that if the ruling govt. makes its intent clear right from the beginning that once the Censor Board clears the film for release they will ensure that they will provide the necessary support, the threats of stopping the film will lose its sting. But, usually it’s not the case. The party panders to the community overtly or covertly as per their electoral clout and plays to the gallery. Just like what the BJP government in Rajastan has done in the case of Padmavati or what the AIADMK Govt. did for Vishwaroopam. Then it is left to the filmmaker to broker peace with the protesters either financially or by tweaking content. Either way it doesn’t augur well for our country which often talks of promoting its soft power!

“Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins” is a quote often made in the context of freedom of expression. So, the argument is that no creator has any business of hurting sentiments of others and hence they should stay off topics like religion, community, biography of leaders, depiction of history, Indian culture,…,… If that is the case I am afraid that the only way out for filmmakers is to become a Rohit Shetty and churn out capers of the Golmaal variety!

On a serious note, while in a country where people are emotional and argumentative, aspects of religion occupy an important space in one’s lives, I do agree that it is important to respect the sentiments of others. However, any act of disrespect or alleged disrespect cannot be judged by people themselves. It was our former PM Vajpayee who once said “An answer to a book is another book!” in the context of banning a book! Similarly the answer to a film one doesn’t like, is to stay away from the film and not threaten to stop the film or vandalise the theatres!

Ergo, I feel that the role of the Censor Board becomes crucial while certification. As per its charter, the CBFC (Central Board for Film Certification) can refuse to certify a film on many accounts including some of the concerns espoused like disturbing communal harmony,… Once the film is certified for release by the Censor Board in its due wisdom, it should become the responsibility of the State to support the filmmaker with its release, if the situation warrants. With such an onerous responsibility, it also becomes crucial for the Board to have the right people as its members.  Here again, instead of treating Censor Board as a place for rewarding loyalists, considering the sensitivity involved, the Government of the day should pack this with eminent people from different walks of life who can carry out the job without prejudice.  At a time when as a country we are in the throes of “Arriving” in the world scene, we need minimum distractions.  Threat to Freedom of Expression must not be one. Time for the Censor Senas to Rest in Peace!

Postscript: This is my 150th post! A big thank you for reading, liking, commenting and at times sharing my posts! Your encouragement has always been a big driver!

Pic Courtesy: Amul 

A BMW formula for Indigo!!!

Earlier this week, a video clip of 2 staff members of Indigo Airlines manhandling a hapless passenger on the tarmac made news headlines and occupied Prime time news in India. As expected, the clip also went mega viral on social media quickly. Since then, there has been no end to various jokes and memes, all at the expense of Indigo Airlines.  Even the usually reticent Air India joined the party with their ads trolling Indigo for their high “handedness”! An ad on behalf of Jet Airways floated too which later was disowned by Jet Airways themselves as fake. In short, it was Indigo’s unfortunate “United” moment!

The response of Indigo to this incident which apparently happened in the mid of October seemed bewildering. They had sacked the employee who had shot the incident and probably released to the media. The media portrayed this as Indigo being vindictive of a whistle-blower! To be fair, they tendered a public apology to the wronged passenger. And submitted a detailed letter to the Minister of Civil Aviation giving their side of the story. The letter indicated the reasons as to why the two employees who were involved in the manhandling incident were let off with warning while the so called whistle-blower was sacked.  However, by this time the damage had already been done!  Whether this incident and the bad mouthing that followed will make passengers re-think about flying with Indigo is a moot question.  Flyers being fare conscious may still fly Indigo if their fares are lower than others.  But, everything being same, one may tend to tick another airline at least in the short run. So, the pressure will be on Indigo to keep their prices down all the time particularly with the year-end peak holiday season coming up.

I have been a fan of Indigo’s marketing for a while now. Their marketing messages have been crisp, humourous and quite creative. For a company which had a well-crafted, clean image thus far, this incident has lent a heavy blow.  Having said that, this can happen to any professionally run organization in any line of business. Companies, particularly in the service delivery business, do spend man hours in imparting training to employees to develop their soft skills. Still, a bad product or a bad mood or a moment of indiscretion of an employee on a wrong day can spoil the carefully cultivated image of a company.  Here’s where companies need to have a clearly laid out “Recovery” strategy whereby you not just contain the damage but also look to benefit from a bad episode.  A Recovery model which follows what I call as the “BMW” formula. Nothing to do with the brand BMW but meaning “Be repentant, Make Amends quickly and Wow the customer!

Let me narrate a recent example of my good friend Adinarayanan’s experience with ID Fresh Foods, a company which is a case study in itself for a successful startup in India these days. Adi purchased a packet of ID Parota and to his surprise found only 4 pieces instead of 5 as mentioned in the packaging.  He reported this to the company thro e-mail on the customer care id mentioned in the packaging. Within 2 hours, he got a response over e-mail, where they acknowledged the problem, apologized for it and assured resolution of the same.  And within a day or two, he indeed received a fresh packet of Parotas. The story didn’t end there. Along with this, he also received a packet each of other products of Id Foods!!!  So, my friend more than being just satisfied with the company’s gesture of making good his complaint, was now delighted. He wrote about this in a detailed post on Facebook (by which I came to know) which must have been seen my many of his friends as well!  Since he tagged ID Foods in this post, the post would have reached more than just his FB friends!  ID Foods also ended up doing a small publicity for their other SKUs by this gesture. Many birds with one stone! Not to mention of this narration in this blog post!

If you analyse this, ID foods followed the “BMW” model quite diligently. They responded with an apology, didn’t try to be defensive and hence were “Being repentant”. By sending a fresh product and that too within 2 days, they quickly Made amends. And finally by sending a packet of their other products, they Wowed the once disgruntled customer.

Going back to the Indigo episode, Indigo stopped with Being repentant. They didn’t attempt to Make Amends, forget trying to Wow the customer. As soon as the company learnt of this episode, its President Mr. Aditya Ghosh admittedly called and apologised to the passenger. Great gesture of Being Repentant. Now imagine if they had sent the staff who manhandled along with a senior manager to the passenger’s residence with a bouquet of flowers and a Sorry card. And for safety sake, got this video graphed. And imagine further what would have happened if the irate passenger gets a free travel voucher from Indigo the next day delivered at his residence?

Following the whole BMW Recovery formula would have costed less than Rs.5000 to Indigo but would have earned them an elated customer who probably would talk about what the Airline did later rather than the original manhandling.  Now in spite of all this, the original clip would have still been leaked to the media and would have still created havoc. But having followed the BMW formula religiously, I believe the damage would have been much less. The company in response can also use the same social media to release the clip of their visit to the passenger’s house to mollify him.

Having a well laid out BMW formula where the employees are empowered to take suitable calls I believe, is critical to handle unfortunate bad experiences of customers.  In this whole Indigo episode, lies another important lesson for companies – “To have satisfied customers, have satisfied employees first.”

Postscript: The topic of “having a recovery strategy” is also one which usually falls under “What they still don’t teach you in Harvard (any) Business School!” However, I clearly remember our marketing professor Mr. Tarun Gupta painstakingly talking about this while covering ‘Services Marketing” which till this day echoes in my mind. TG who is revered as a Marketing Guru in Pharma circles with a trail blazing career in companies like Glaxo, Ranbaxy,… passed away on the 31st October at the age of 78. This post is my humble tribute to him. May his soul Rest in Peace.

Pic Courtesy: Amul