Agenda for Modi 2.0!

Dear Mrs. Sitharaman,

First things first. Congratulations on becoming the finance minister of the country. Ever since you have taken over, there has been a flurry of unabated, unsolicited advice on what you should do and should not, in the upcoming budget. I was extremely reluctant to add to that already long list. But then your extremely gracious and earnest tweet the other day, welcoming all suggestions and inputs changed my mind.  Being from Trichy as well, I could see the “Trichy Tehzeeb” in that request!  Hence this piece, with my wish list not just from the budget but overall from the Modi Sarkar 2.0 from an economic agenda point of view.

I am not an Economist. I am just a keen and informed observer of Indian politics and a well-wisher of our country. So, my points may or may not stand the scrutiny of economists but hopefully will pass muster with the readers of this post.   I promise that I am not going to repeat a lot of stuff which has already been suggested by the erudite in their pieces.  So, here we go:

  • First up, the positive effects of implementation of GST and the kicking off of several infrastructural projects from the 1st term will start bearing fruits in the coming 2/3 years. So, I suggest that the 5 year term till May 2024 be divided into 2 parts – First 3 years till 2022 and the second 2 years till 2024. Take all the tough decisions in the 1st part and use the 2nd to stabilise things.
  • Second, in Modi 1.0, there have been quite a few hits but some misses too. In the 2nd term, on the back of a solid mandate, Team Modi should play on the front foot with confidence, while at the same time leaving alone deliveries outside the stumps and negotiating short pitched deliveries and bouncers with alacrity. In governance parlance, this means implementing even the not so populist decisions with confidence and not getting muddled in unwanted distractions.
  • Third, please request the economic ministries to come up with a list of things to be done to rev up the economy which is stuttering. Divide this list into 3.
    • 1 – Low hanging fruits which don’t need legislative backing
    • 2 – Which need bills to be amended, passed in the parliament
    • 3 – which need the states to take action

Get going on this list systematically. Have a target of 60 days to accomplish everything in the 1st list. This will give a clear message to all stake holders that this government is not the one to rest in its electoral success laurels!

  • Fourth, you are now in Japan and there is a lot we could learn from the Japanese in terms of going about things. One of the things I learnt from working in a Japanese company is “Prioritisation”! As Indians, we tend to focus on 100 things at the same time and spreading ourselves extremely thin. This was one grudge I had on Modi 1.0 which embarked upon so many projects simultaneously like Make in India, Skill India, Stand up India, Digital India, Smart City project, Ujwala programme and so on. If you closely measure the success, it is only the programmes which had focus like Ujwala, Rural electrification, Rural housing that met with success. In Modi 2.0, I would suggest that the Government takes up a maximum of 2 or 3 projects at a time, focus on the delivery with finite timelines and then move on to the next set of 2/3 ideas. This is what Japanese do.
  • Fifth, in India we have been talking of linking outcomes to outlays. But seldom has the same been acted upon. So, in the coming budget presentation on the 5th of July, please do not announce plain outlays but outlays that can be linked to quantifiable  outcomes.
  • Sixth, we usually see that in the budget, there are many outlays which are just carried forward year after year with a % increment or a % cut. For example, since 2013, money from Central Budget has been allocated to Nirbhaya fund to support initiatives towards ensuring women safety. One really doesn’t know how this fund is being utilised and after 5 years what this fund has achieved. This is just one example. In every budget, there are many sundry allocations like this. Please review item-wise outlays in the last 3 budgets,  respective outcomes achieved and allocate outlays in the coming budgets only if they make sense.
  • Seventh, considering the state of the economy, there is a need to mobilise resources to generate income and keep fiscal deficit under check. As Prime Minister Modi has been talking of “Minimum Government and Maximum Governance” one way of mobilising resources is by Government exiting many businesses that are no longer strategic in nature and monetising those assets. In Modi 1.0, in every budget, we had an item called “Proceeds from disinvestment” and this was achieved by making some PSUs like LIC pick up shares from the disinvested PSUs. During NDA-1 under Vajpayee, there was a clear focus on “Real” Disinvestment with a full-fledged ministry and a determined minister like Arun Shourie doggedly pursuing it. UPA did away with this and since then Modi 1.0 included, there has been no serious disinvestment in the country. I suggest that Modi 2.0 take this up seriously. A functional ministry named as “Monetisation of PSU Assets” (since disinvestment is seen as a bad word) should be formed. I also add that the proceeds from this monetisation be parked in a separate account and used for welfare schemes. By this, any criticism of the move can be countered by demonstrating that the proceeds of the same are being used for social welfare. A creative way needs to be found for accounting like this.
  • Eighth, in Modi 1.0, there was a big push towards infrastructure projects like highways and roads which was really commendable. The same should be continued with additional vigour. However, as admitted by Nitin Gadkari the pace of the projects could have been faster but for complex land acquisition issues. This is a big issue even today. In the 1st term, after initial belligerence, the government chickened out of the much needed amendments on the Land Acquisition bill. I remember Modi taking this up with rigour in 2014 basically because all the states identified certain provisions in the existing Land Acquisition bill as impediments for timely closure of infra projects.  Since the states are equal stake holders in this issue, please have discussions with a fresh outlook, strike a consensus and pass the amendments to the bill smoothly in both houses of the parliament. Renaming this as “Land Partnership bill” or something like that instead of the negative sounding Land Acquisition bill will help too to remove the negative connotation around this!
  • Ninth, taxation in India is still complex. GST implementation was a landmark Tax reform. I am sure there is a road map towards further simplifying the same with reduced tax slabs and simplifying procedures. Now, in this term please focus on Direct taxes. I hope that the panel working on overhaul of this will submit their recommendations quickly and your government should adopt the same ASAP. In simple terms, the mantra should be lower tax rates with no or very few genuine exemptions. Some of the exemption clauses we have are weird and defy all logic. For example the current clauses we have for LTA exemptions for salaried. Applicable for 2 years in a block of 4 that being calculated from the year 1986 and so on!!! Someone needs to do a Zero based hard look at all the existing exemptions for personal and corporate taxation and do away with most of them which don’t make sense in this day and age!
  • Tenth and the last one. On the 5th July when you leave your office for the parliament to present the budget, your team will hand over a brand new brown brief case which will have the budget speech. You and your team will pose with that brief case for the cameras and then you will read out the budget speech from the bunch of documents. And here’s what I suggest. Please, please do away with this brief case and the papers. Instead, amble along in style, pose for cameras with your hands “free” and as you rise to present the budget in the parliament hall, download the speech from the ministry’s secure server and project it in a large screen. Doing away with the rambling, long speech that would be just uber cool, while at the same time giving a push towards Prime Minister’s “Digital India” dream!

Pic Courtesy: Livemint

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Mood (di) of the Nation poll!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “There is dissatisfaction for Modi but no hate!”

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

And so on!

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

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

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

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

Picture courtesy:  India Today

Jet Airways – Positioning lessons from its crash landing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daag Acche Nahin Hain!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Narendra Damodardas Trump!

Back to India after a week’s trip from Trump land, one cannot escape the palpable political weather in both the countries. Large parts of the US may be freezing due to the polar vortex but politically, the climate is hot in the US as in India. While India is already in the grip of election fever with the Lok Sabha polls just couple of months away, in the US, presidential elections are due in 2020! Even then, the political chatter is all about if Donald Trump will get re-elected or not! Same is the question in India with Narendra Modi!

Ever since Modi, a rank outsider to what is now infamously called as the Lutyen’s Delhi, became the Prime minister of India in 2014 and Trump more famed as an “Apprentice” politician and a real estate baron became the President of America, comparing both these leaders and bringing out the similarities in them have been favourite pastimes of the commentariat. Probably rightly so! Here are two leaders who have defied many established conventions to chart their own course in governing their respective countries. The similarities in their methods and more importantly the narratives around the personalities are difficult to ignore.

In terms of the evident similarities, the liberal media’s scorn in India and the US for Modi and Trump respectively comes first, I guess. For example, all through the time I was in the US, TV news was engulfed by the Government Shutdown due to a budget fight centred on Trump’s demand for $5bn to fund a wall along the US-Mexico border. On TV, the built up narrative showed Trump as the central villain for bringing America to such a crisis. Images and clips of federal employees suffering due to loss of pay dominated most of the screens. In California where I was during that week, on the streets, it was business as usual! I can compare this to the narrative which was played up during Demonetisation in India. Of sufferings, deaths and what not. However, in election after election in the aftermath of Demonetisation, BJP swept the polls! Not surprisingly both Modi and Trump treat the main stream media with contempt. Trump calls channels as Fake news generators, Modi calls them ‘Bazaaru’ media! And therefore, they prefer to engage with the public more actively through Social media.

The other point of convergence is their response to border security. Trump has been vocal about constructing the wall along the Mexico border to prevent illegal migration into his country. In India, along the North East, the introduction of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill by the BJP is touted as a similar action to deal with illegal migration from Bangladesh. Likewise, both Trump and Modi during their respective campaigns had raised alarm over worldwide Islamic terror without beating the bush.

Yet another commonality in Trump and Modi is their approach to external affairs. It is said that Modi being a Gujarati always brings a sense of ‘Dando’ (business) to the table. In the case of Trump too, we have seen so far that he has been running the United States of America as another Trump Corporation! Again, in the context of External affairs and diplomacy, historical legacy and precedents have not come in the way of taking bold initiatives for both Modi and Trump. For example, in India, while we have always treated Israel as our friend for so many decades, Modi has been the 1st Prime Minister to make a historical visit to Israel and set the optics right. Rubbing our friends in the Gulf on the wrong side – a historical reason for not taking our friendship with Israel to the next level was set aside by Modi. Similarly in the US, Trump has been brazenly demolishing some legacy diplomatic hangovers like supporting Pakistan with aid even when it was not doing anything on curbing terror. There are few other examples as well like seeing China into its eye and not withholding the import curbs.

And the other thing I noticed which is quite common in the case of both Modi and Trump is this. While seeing what is said about these two in the media one may get an impression that they are steadily losing ground and are grossly unpopular. However, the reality may turn out to be different. In the US, I noticed that calling yourself a supporter of Trump can make you a social untouchable and therefore, people tend to stay quiet rather than expressing themselves. Like my friend said, he was routinely derided by his pals for riding a “Triumph” bike mistaking it for a “Trump” bike! Similarly in India, seeing the narrative in main stream media, an outsider can get an impression that Modi Is finished and his popularity has hit rock bottom. Those of us with ear to the ground know that the truth is far from that!

Beyond these, there could be more meeting grounds as well for Modi and Trump! Like they are both eternally on “Campaign” Mode”! So, while it is very tempting just to draw parallels between Trump and Modi and call it as the beginning of a new era in political personalities, I do feel that there is a need to pause here. I think beyond the veneer of similarities between Modi and Trump, I do feel that never the twain shall meet for many reasons.

Like, while Modi and his office are active on social media, you can never find one politically inappropriate tweet from Modi. In the case of Trump, we have to search for one which is not!

Though Trump has been active in his direct communication through Social media, he has still respected the traditions of giving interviews and doing press conferences regularly. Modi, on the other hand, has shown high contempt to main stream media and has not addressed one presser since he took office. He has been quite stingy on giving personal interviews as well. His Man Ki Baat can be deciphered by the people through the radio and not through the mouths and writings of journalists!

Unlike Modi, I must say that Trump has shown more commitment to the promises he made during his campaign. Right or wrong, he has been diligently ticking off the promises he made one by one whether it is corporate tax reduction, steps to prevent illegal migration and so on. I would say that his stand on the Shutdown was another visible demonstration of his commitment to his manifesto. In the case of Modi, it has been a case of “Glass half empty”.

On the question of jobs, Trump has a better record to show certainly. A recent report said that US created 304,000 jobs against 170,000 expected just in January smashing all expectations. In India, the question of job creation is a mystery with no clear answers. As Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar points out in his Sunday TOI column, “An employment crash of the catastrophic sort indicated by the NSSO and CMIE typically occurs only in terrible, deep economic depressions. But India has been averaging over 7% GDP growth, and is the fastest-growing major economy in the world. Never in history has a miracle economy, growing at over 7%, witnessed a collapse of employment.”

A big difference between Modi and Trump has been the way they handle their teams. In India, Modi has his own handpicked team in his PMO. Most of them are from his erstwhile Gujarat cadre or with a stint in Sangh parivar backed Vivekananda foundation. They have stayed with him so far and we have not seen any public dissent against Modi. However in the case of Trump, we have lost count of his team members who have either quit or got fired! I don’t think any of the original staunch supporters of Trump are still sticking to him in his close circuit. I don’t think Modi will fire a subordinate over Twitter!

Another important point to add here is the influence of the family. In the case of Modi, his family has been kept at a far distance with no one occupying any real or virtual posts of power. In the case of Trump it is exactly the opposite. His daughter Ivanka and son in law Jared Kushner have been in the thick of policy making. Morality around conflict of interest has been thrown out of the window. And this I feel may return to haunt Trump for a long time when his term gets over!

I mentioned earlier about what the common public thinks of these leaders. Even the staunchest opponents of Modi would not venture to label him as a clown. But, in the US, calling Trump names – “Clown” and “Joker” being popular in that is uber cool! Similarly, Trump’s earlier escapades with women have routinely surfaced in regular frequency to embarrass him. Modi has a clean record on this score.

Above all, if there is going to one lasting difference between Trump and Modi, it is going to the legacy they leave. In today’s business parlance, “Disruption” is a virtue and “Disruptors” are visionaries. However, Trump as a disruptor is likely to lead America to paying some heavy price in the future. Many of his moves though in the short term have paid dividends politically and are seemingly smart for America today, may not be, in the long term. In that sense, I reckon that the legacy he leaves may be of the disruption in the real sense. On the other hand, Modi has been very circumspect in disrupting anything. He has believed in what I call as “Improved continuum”! I believe for a country like India, his legacy may be a more positive one. From that point of view, I do feel that talking of Modi and Trump in the same breath may just be a good academic exercise and therefore “Narendra Damodardas Trump” may just be a good click bait title for a blog. Just.

From Quota politics to a “Quota for politics”!

In India, they say the wheels of the Government usually move very slowly. Not always. When there is a political will, the same wheels can attain humongous velocity just like how it happened few weeks ago. The Cabinet approved a proposal for introducing a 10% quota for economically weaker section of the society on the 7th Jan. And by 9th Jan, the bill to amend the constitution for the same was passed by both the houses of the parliament! The quota bill was done and dusted in flat 3 days!

During the debate over the quota bill, almost all parties mouthed the usual platitudes – not on the proposal per se but on the timing. The coming together of the ruling and opposition for this cause demonstrated another aspect of “Unity in Diversity” in India. That is, on the issue of reservations which has high impact on electoral fortunes, almost all parties think alike. Herein lies the irony.

 “A quota for the economically deprived sections of the society” sounds logical and seems a significant forward step in our country which for a long time has been having quotas based on caste. As a step which doesn’t differentiate based on religion… it is high on optics.  But then, as they say the deadly devil lies in the details. This 10% is over and above the existing 50% as mandated by the Supreme Court for caste based reservations (with the exception of Tamil Nadu which has 69% reservations).

Before venturing into another quota based on economic class, I think that there was a need for an assessment of how the caste based reservations have performed in India in the so many decades since they were introduced, against the desired objectives. Based on what I have seen in Tamil Nadu in very close quarters, I have no doubt in my mind that the caste based reservations have helped in emancipation of a generation of people. Thanks to the quotas, many of the deprived sections could get access to decent higher education and then jobs. Which in turn have helped a generation of families to be part of mainstream India. This could not have been possible by another poverty alleviation programme, I believe. Having said that, the important issue to define now is how we will close the tap on this affirmative action.

We all understand that the originally envisaged time frame of 10 years for caste based reservations in India is impractical. Now that we crossed 68 years with reservations which typically means it has benefited two generations, where are we in terms of social equality and equity? Do we know? Do we measure? Who will bell the cat in terms of suggesting the sunset clause?  Do the offspring of those first two generations of people who could get access to higher education and government jobs need the same level of quotas as their parents and grandparents? In addition to quotas, what else is required for bringing down the class divide which still exist in the society? These are few important questions which arise.

The second issue is, the definition of the economically weak for the purpose of this bill. The provisions like a household income of under Rs. 8 lacs or owning less than 5 hectares of land seems to be extremely liberal when you look at all angles possible and government’s own definitions in other contexts.  In one stroke, above 95% of the populace has been covered under this ambit!  So, I join the naysayers who question the effectiveness of such a quota. From the total population, if you remove those who are already beneficiaries under the earlier quota regime (roughly 70% of the population), this new 10% quota is applicable for the economically needy among the balance 30% population.

The third issue is, there are different points of view if this will finally stand judicial scrutiny. As per the Government, the 50% cap was only meant for “Caste based reservation quota” while there are others who say that the cap applies to all reservations!

Finally, Affirmative action by definition means policy intervention for favouring individuals who are known to have been discriminated for various reasons in the past. Will economically deprived but not marginalised by caste, come under the category of those who were discriminated in the past? While the concept of helping those economically deprived is indeed noble, why not provide scholarships for higher education and assistance for business ventures instead of quotas?

You can question our netas on their intellect but we cannot under-estimate their political instincts at all. Not surprising that almost all the parties voted for this quota bill in both the houses of the parliament.

In the upcoming election season, the ruling NDA will certainly go to town for ushering this new direction on quota politics in India. However, even in the Hindi belt, I feel it will have minimum resonance. The opposition by playing ball on this, has in a sense blunted the political rewards what the BJP/NDA can reap. Imagine the situation had the Congress/UPA and others had opposed this move. So, all have played their moves smartly.

The bottom line is, a quota for economically deprived is as I said, provides for excellent optics and is sound politics. I do feel, like how the Supreme Court has put a cap on the quotas on reservation, we should have a cap on the quota for playing politics for every political party when in power. We cannot expect them to stop playing politics completely but, what about a Quota for politics?

Cartoon courtesy; Times Of India

Semi-finals and the many Confusing Signals! Part – 2

In my last post (read here), I had written about the recently concluded state elections in 5 states with focus on Rajasthan. In this, I intend to cover Madhya Pradesh and Telangana and try to drive home the message of the confusing signals coming out for an election strategist and watcher.

In MP, in an evenly poised, see-saw battle, Congress eventually scraped through and has now formed the government with support from other parties, having just fallen short of the half way mark. At the outset, it would appear that for BJP’s performance wasn’t that bad considering that it has been in power in MP for the last 15 years. The question is – “Is it par for the course for voters to get tired with a party which has been in power for more than 2 terms?” I don’t think so. Hence brushing aside a defeat owing to just “Anti-Incumbency factor” may not be correct. There could be and usually there are other factors at play which make people ring in a change.  Considering the fact that eventually BJP ended with the same vote share as Congress with just few seats less, it doesn’t look like as if a severe Anti-Incumbency wave swept away BJP or Shivraj Chauhan.

To be fair to the BJP and Shivraj Chauhan, MP has seen a sea change on the positive side during the last 15 years. It is no longer cursed as part of the “BIMARU” states of India! Those who have visited the state in the last 10 years can see the visible improvement in the road infrastructure not just in the cities but the connecting towns. 87% of rural roads in MP are surfaced (road laid with bitumen or tar), which is higher than the national average (64 %)!  Similarly the progress on the electricity and water supply fronts are visible.

Bijli, Sadak, Paani as far as I heard, were no longer the issues in MP! So what were? Have the voters punished a government even after showing visible vikas?

Farm crisis is one reason which has been talked about. Here again, there are missed signals. Madhya Pradesh has reported the best agricultural growth in India over eight years and yet there is widespread farm unrest. It’s clear that BJP has lost in rural pockets with a seat share drop from 67% to 42% in 2018 Vs 2013. However surprisingly in Mandsaur which was the epicentre of the farmers’ agitation few months back, BJP retained its tally of 3 seats! Similarly in Neemuch district, BJP retained all its 3 seats!

Coming to urban centres, BJP’s major losses came from here unlike Gujarat where it was saved by urban Gujarat! As mentioned before, there has been visible development in urban centres like Bhopal, Indore, Gwalior,..  In fact, Indore has been ranked the cleanest city as per the Swachh Bharat survey in 2018 for the 2nd consecutive year. Bhopal came in 2nd!  Even then, BJP major losses in this election came from the urban pockets! The seat share fell from 90% in the urban areas in 2013 to 55% in 2018!

It looks like BJP in MP has been felled by the weight of expectations and not on its standalone performance which has not been so bad. The expectations could be with respect to the State’s progress from what it has achieved so far and also of the Centre’s promises to usher in the Achhe Din! In his column – “No proof required”, Dr. Surjit Bhalla calls the election results – “The Revolution of Rising expectations”! It is possible that in spite of the local BJP Government under the leadership of the “Mamaji” – Shivraj Chauhan delivering governance, the people expected more. More in terms of jobs, more in terms of disposable income and finally “Yeh Dil maange sub kuch more”!

In MP, the other factor is BJP lost 10 seats with a narrow margin of under 1000 votes!  Again, if you look at the swing of votes against BJP which is at 4%, it is not a big swing but reduced BJP’s number of seats from 165 to 109, a drop of almost 1/3rd of the seats! What does this say of BJP’s famed booth level management tactics and WhatsApp outreach programmes??? What happened to the “Panna Pramukhs” this time?

The fact that BJP lost 10 seats by a margin which was lower than the NOTA votes polled in those seats would lend credence probably to a simmering anger among a section of loyal BJP voters to teach a lesson to the party!  It would be interesting to see if this anger is temporary or permanent enough to afflict a damage to BJP’s fortunes in 2019 Lok Sabha polls!

Coming to Telangana, the TRS (Telangana Rashtriya Samithi) party under K. Chandrasekhar Rao(KCR) successfully saw off the Anti-Incumbency and managed to not just win, but win by a landslide! I have not looked at Telangana closely but as far as I saw, TRS planned out the 5 year period well.

In the 1st 3 years, KCR’s son K.T.Rama Rao was in the forefront of pitching the state to get investments. In this effort, they rolled out the red carpet to industrialists and companies in India and abroad with a promise of industry friendly policies. In the centre’s ranking of states for “Ease of doing business”, Telangana consistently came 2nd with its not friendly neighbour Andhra Pradesh coming 1st. The previous year, Telangana and AP had jointly topped the charts!

In the last 18 months though, Telangana has been focussing on welfare initiatives. Free housing for the poor, Direct cash subsidy for farmers,.., all right at the nick of time in the last year of the rule!  It ended up spending more than on Agriculture, Irrigation,… than the Rest of India.

It looks like KCR’s government divided the 5 year period into 2 halves. In the 1st half they focussed on long term, reformist initiatives, while the 2nd half closer to elections they came out with short term, populist welfare schemes that would give electoral results. A closer analysis of how this pans out probably may provide a working model for all those seeking to beat Anti-Incumbency. That of balancing long term with short term by focussing on reforms and structural changes in the 1st 2/3 years of the rule and resort to populist, welfare programmes in the last 2 years closer to elections.

With the many confusing signals emanating from these results, it becomes all the more difficult for an election strategist particularly of the BJP to come up with a winning formula for 2019! But here, one must not forget, that India has begun to vote differently between state elections and National elections. Therefore one should linearly extrapolate the trends from these Semi-finals to the finals at their own peril. However, it is safe to conclude that with these crucial wins in the Hindi heartland, Congress has got its mojo back and BJP is on the back foot. The next few months will be interesting to see how the final narrative for the 2019 elections unfolds.