From Mission Kashmir to Fusion Kashmir!

No one else could have put across what “Status Quo” actually meant, better than Ronald Reagan! He said, “Status quo, you know, is Latin for the mess we’re in”! In the context of Kashmir, this Reagan’s definition fits very aptly! In India, the strategy of successive governments has been to maintain status quo as far as Kashmir is concerned, the cost of which has been quite high.  This, while knowing it very well and doing nothing concrete about the mess we were in.

By now, we all know that this Government under Narendra Modi has an allergy for Status Quoism.  So, we shouldn’t be surprised at all that it went about systematically this week, to nullify Articles 370 and 35A. But, that they put this issue on such a high priority and got it done early into this term, came as a big surprise to me. With this move, the liberal circuit had another melt down – its 2nd, since May 2019 as can be seen from the many pieces one gets to read, since the 5th of August. The commentary on this issue post 5th August are at three levels – wisdom behind the decision, execution of it and hypothesis over cause and effect.

Coming to the wisdom behind the decision of nullifying articles 370 and 35A, liberals see it as India’s betrayal of Kashmiris and going back on the terms of Kashmir’s accession with India.  The original article was indeed a temporary provision and was to be repealed when the preferences of the Kashmiris were to be understood and acted upon. As a country, all along we approached the Kashmir issue with a defensive mind set, as due to various circumstances we failed to find out what the Kashmiri on the street wanted, back then. And this was complicated by the definition of who is a Kashmiri – the one in Jammu or the one in the Valley or the one in the hilly Ladakh!

70 years is a long, long time and much water has flown under the Jhelum Bridge. And much blood too! Now the only objective for any Government should be to stop the flow of blood and let just water flow.  Since successive Governments have been stressing that Kashmir is an integral part of India, it was high time that it was made so. So, doing away with the articles 370 and 35A were the logical steps in embracing Kashmir as part of India. The much tom-tommed about provisions like any Indian from other states being able to purchase land in Kashmir … are in my opinion not the major issues today! Doing away with any constitution within constitution of India and stuff like Special powers, dual citizenship….are. In my blog just in the aftermath of the Pulwama attack, I had written that shedding the historical baggage and moving forward on scrapping all special status to Jammu and Kashmir as an important step (not the only step) towards lasting normalcy in Kashmir.

For those who are asking that, anyway 370 of today is a much watered down provision compared to the original and hence what was the need to nullify now, the answer is simple. Why then have it, if its existence today anyway doesn’t make any material difference to the Kashmiri on the ground?

There has been much criticism and take downs on the Government’s execution part. Why didn’t the Government discuss with “stake holders” and take them into confidence? Why was this done when there was no elected Government in J&K? Scrapping 370 & 35A is O.K. but why division of the state into two Union territories? Why has been curfew and press muzzled in Kashmir? So on and so forth. These questions, coming not so much from the common public but from the liberal intelligentsia have their own pitfalls. When we read such criticisms at times we wonder if liberals live dividing their time between Utopia and some fantasy land!

For decades, we have been wasting time in talking to the so called stake holders without any outcome! “Keep talking” in diplomacy most likely means “Do nothing”! I have lost count of the number of times successive Governments appointed interlocutors to talk to stakeholders. Has anything concrete in terms of a road map emerged out of these engagements? And who are these stake holders? The separatists? The book “Kashmir – The Vajpayee Years” written by Ex-RAW Chief A.S.Dulat gives details of talks L.K.Advani had with separatists, during Vajpayee’s NDA rule.

In the 2nd meeting Advani asked, “What is it that you want?” Not one single Hurriyat leader said anything. Finally, Prof. Ghani said, ‘Next time we will come prepared with our ideas.”

So much for talking and taking these leaders into confidence. Having said that, we must not forget that during Modi’s 1st term, the then Home Minister invited all stake holders for talks and even appointed another interlocutor to engage with sections of Kashmiris with no result!

If Kashmiri politicians of the like of Abdullahs and Sayeeds are part of stake holders, the less said the better. There can be no other clan of politicians which has been more ambiguous on their stand viz a viz Kashmir than the Abdullahs. For long, the Abdullahs carried the tag of being on the India side. But when they had the opportunity, Farooq earlier and more recently Omar did not use their political heft to take Kashmiris into confidence once for all and get them to gravitate towards India. They, for their own political reasons kept their ambivalence of keeping one leg here and one leg there going! Do you see any other state political leader calling and addressing the Central Government as “New Delhi” or “Delhi”??? And we know very well what Mehbooba Mufti and her party were up to in helping to bring normalcy in Kashmir when they were in power! So, I don’t think the Government could have engaged with such stake holders and made any progress!

The brains of liberals are wired to react to ideal situations and that explains why they are up in arms against the way the Government went about this. But the situation in Kashmir was never ideal or normal in the 1st place. Ergo, it required out of box solutions executed in an out of box manner. If everything was normal and was a question of another state bifurcation, I am sure that the Government would have followed the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) as prescribed in the text book.  So, using the Governor’s rule to revoke the powers of Article 370 and dividing the state into two Union Territories are all par for the course.  In short, an issue which is festering without a solution for decades cannot be handled with standard approaches. The only pitfall I see is the “tyranny of precedence”! Future Governments may opt to follow this as SOP even when the situation is normal showing this as precedence!

In today’s viral age, social media would be easily misused to just create a panic by circulating fake news and pictures. So, clamping down on internet services till situation settles down makes sense. But, was there a need for a control on the press from covering?

For those coming down heavily on the Government for the clamping down and heavy deployment of forces… if these were not done and trouble erupted on the streets, the same commentariat will rip apart the Government for not learning from past episodes in Kashmir like during Burhan Wani’s death!

And finally coming to the cause and effect. It is certain that all will not be happy in Kashmir over the changes that has been foisted on them. Vested interests who have been taken off guard by the move may not keep quiet. Pakistan may crank up their covert channels to fester trouble in India.  But then, all these are not new. Even while we were trying hard to maintain status quo in Kashmir, all these were in play.  I am sure that the Government is more than aware of all the risks before they moved deftly on these moves. Let us hope better sense prevails among the Kashmiri youth for whom the best chance is to be aligned with a prosperous India than an Azad Kashmir!

I have been reading that this is Modi’s Mission Kashmir! But I think Mission Kashmir has been the one earlier governments have been trying all along which failed. This is Modi’sFusion Kashmir” and let’s hope this succeeds in its attempt to break the status quo!  After all status quos are made to be broken!  The time is now and the ball is in the court of Kashmiris!

Pic Courtesy: Businesstoday.in

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Resorts as the 1st resort!!!

How many still remember Jaspal Bhatti? If you are from the Doordarshan generation just like I am, you will not have any problem in recalling him. Jaspal Singh Bhatti was the 1st known political satirist on Indian Television. Through his shows Ulta Pulta and Flop show in the 80’s and 90’s, Bhatti took pot shots on what was happening around us in the political scene and we eagerly looked forward to his shows. A clip from one of those shows where Bhatti dons the role of a “Buyer and Seller of MLAs” for political parties who lose MLAs to defection, landed as a WhatsApp forward few days ago. Someone recalled that episode and circulated it to remind us of Bhatti’s foresight looking at what is happening in Karnataka and Goa in the last few days! If Bhatti were to be living amidst us today, I am not sure if he would be proud or feel ironical of his prescience!

In India, what’s happening these days make a mockery of the famed “Anti Defection Bill” which was introduced in the late 80’s by Rajiv Gandhi to put an end to the Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram routine that was common in those times! For some time, one felt that we found an anti-dote to defections once for all. But then, we Indians are reputed to find innovative solutions to any problem. So soon, a loop hole in the Anti Defection law was found and exploited. Which is – the bill only prevented individuals from defecting but did not mind splits and mergers of parties with 1/3rd of members! So Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram has now given way to “Aaya Toli, Gaya Toli”! Or like what is happening in Karnataka, legislators just resign as MLAs bringing down the strength of the house and thereby of the party/front in majority!

What is common among Goa and Karnataka? These are states where the polls threw up a fractured verdict.  No single party got an absolute majority. Even a pre-poll arrangement could not garner majority. A government could be formed only by cobbling up a post-poll alliance! In a democracy, there are inherent problems with such post-poll alliances. The parties don’t face the electorate with such a premise. And when voters cast their votes, they for sure do not expect those who fought bitterly against each other during the campaign to come together as allies and conjure up a government! This is exactly what happened in both Goa and Karnataka!

The tamasha doesn’t end there after the Government is formed, as we have been seeing in Karnataka! Every other day we find the Government on the throes of a crisis of survival. Governance be damned because it is a question of “Return on Investment” (ROI) for many! One group is not complaining though! The resort owners! They don’t have to worry about their ROI! Every now and then a political party suffering from a threat of group defections hordes their MLAs to resorts in other states, usually the friendly ones, to firewall them from offers and counter offers. Horse trading is the term used for this in popular lexicon. Frankly I feel that it is an insult to horses! Another rhyming word though a bit unparliamentary would make a better fit as we are talking about seats and chairs here!

“Resort politics” which was invented originally by Devi Lal of Haryana in the 80’s has now been internalised perfectly by most of the parties. Hotel Viceroy in Hyderabad became a sort of a tourist attraction after Chandrababu Naidu used it to house his MLAs during the infamous coup he staged against N.T.Rama Rao. What does it speak of the MLAs who are supposed to be people’s representatives who allow themselves to be hoarded from one city to another and lodged in resorts?

It is not very difficult to imagine the trade-offs in these situations. In Goa, 3 of those who defected from the Congress have been made ministers with one – Chandrakant Kavlekar, even being made the Deputy CM of the state! Not to forget that he was accused of running shady businesses and land deals not so long ago by BJP! Similarly, the MLAs who have resigned in Karnataka would not have done so without Quid pro quo deals! What does all this say of Democracy? We cannot claim to be one of the world’s largest and best performing democracy by just routinely conducting free and fair elections! Elections are of course important through which, people get to elect their own representatives. However, Democracy I believe, is not just about this aspect. It should also be about deriving desired outcomes from the electoral process! From this point of view I feel our current democratic process is flawed and need serious reforms!

First up, the Anti – Defection law needs a re-look. If a candidate has gone to the voter and obtained votes as “A” party’s candidate he should not be allowed to defect to party “B” after becoming a legislator. Period. Similarly an “Independent” candidate should clearly indicate his allegiance to a front or his true non-allegiance to any front before the elections based on which he should seek votes from people. Once the candidate does that and becomes a legislator he should not be allowed to switch allegiance post the elections. In short, there can be Zero defections once an election is over.

Second, which I have written before as well (Read the post here) is on the veracity of “Post poll alliances” in a democracy. I sincerely feel that the concept of Post poll alliances is actually a fraud being inflicted on the voting public. More often than not, even the so called liberal commentators are fine with governments being formed through post-poll deals under the premise of “Politics is the art of the possible”! I really don’t know in which context Otto Von Bismarck, the German statesman made this statement! But it has been imbibed very well in Indian politics. Under the current circumstances, I would like to make a small change to that philosophy to read as “Politics is the art of the plausible”! Plausibility adds that credibility bit.

If the above are implemented, it will put an end to this tamasha of “Resort politics”! It was George Bernard Shaw who famously said, “Politics is the last resort of the scoundrels!” If he was alive, Jaspal Bhatti in his own inimitable style would have made it sound like – “Resorts are the first resort of politicians”!

Postscript: The term “Horse trading” owes its origin apparently to the notorious shrewdness of Horse traders who are involved in long drawn mostly dis-honest negotiations while buying and selling horses! (Courtesy: TOI)

Image courtesy: Asianetnews

When Social media becomes Antisocial!

For the uninitiated, Sudha Raghunathan is an accomplished Carnatic vocalist from Chennai. She is a Sangeeta Kalanidhi – a revered title awarded by the Madras Music Academy. She is a Kalaimamani – an award given by the State government of Tamil Nadu to illustrious artists. She is a Padma Shri. She is also a Padma Bhushan. She has been one of the leading Carnatic vocalists of the country.  And has been in the fore front of spreading this art form world over, for decades now.

All these don’t seem to matter anymore. If you go by what you see on Social media these days! In the past few days, Social media has been flooded with posts and forwards, all centred on the upcoming marriage of Sudha Raghunathan’s daughter to a Christian. It all started with the appearance of the marriage invitation card on Facebook and Twitter which then found its way to myriad WhatsApp groups!

For the conservative South Indian society in general and for followers of Carnatic music in particular, it is as if the earth quaked! “How can the daughter of the venerable Sudha Raghunathan marry a Christian?” was the initial reaction. What started as a general lament on the affairs of the youth these days (of studying abroad and marrying out of community and religion) soon turned into a barrage of vitriol and bile targeted at the singer.

One may recall that few months ago, a few Carnatic vocal singers were caught in a controversy over singing songs on Jesus set in Carnatic ragas.  Singers like O.S. Arun, Nithyashree Mahadevan and few others were targeted for agreeing to sing Carnatic music based songs on Jesus and participating in Christian events. There was a loud call for a ban on these artists and finally the controversy blew over when the concerned artists clarified that they are not going to participate in such events. The issue was also attributed to the Church’ larger design of promoting Christianity by appropriating native culture. Conservative and orthodox followers of Carnatic music hadn’t forgotten that story or forgiven those artists, when this issue of Sudha Raghunathan surfaced now.

In Social media, attempts have been made to explain this as a part of the larger “Missionary project” of evangelisation. In line with this presumption, a fake narrative was also propagated that Sudha Raghunathan and family were getting converted to Christianity religion to facilitate this marriage.

While the news of the marriage along with the invite went viral, there was another audio clip which went viral too! This was of a telephone conversation between Raghunathan (Sudha’s husband) and one Ramanathan belonging to the Rashtriya Sanadhana Seva Sangham. Some have mistaken it for the RSS but this organisation has got nothing to do with the RSS.  In the course of the call, Ramanathan almost questions Raghunathan as to why they are letting the marriage happen. In the entire call, Raghunathan is almost apologetic and tries to explain the situation around the fake news of them converting into Christianity and so on. The height of absurdity is that along with the audio clip, the phone numbers of both Raghunathan and Ramanathan were circulated as well!  This is the same Ramanathan who had called O.S. Arun during the earlier controversy, bullied him over phone, recorded the phone conversation and put it out on social media!  Raghunathan is also heard as saying he has been in the receiving end of many such calls in the past few days!

The matter didn’t end here. Another picture of Sudha Raghunathan and her family ostensibly clicked in some wedding reception started doing the rounds with a caption –“National Integration, Unity in Diversity”. The claim was that, Sudha’s son had married a Muslim before and now her daughter is marrying a Christian! This was again a fake narrative and even if it was true, how did it matter?

In Social media, many were of the opinion and rightfully so, that this was purely a personal matter and not of concern to the music lovers. It is good to see that for every nasty comment, there are equal and opposite comments condemning extreme reactions to the wedding news. However, the virulent reactions of many, including that of calling for a boycott of Sudha Raghunathan, the Carnatic exponent, exposed the faultlines that exist today in our society.

The whole episode raises a few serious questions and concerns.

  • That a public figure and a respected artist is just turned into a much hated figure over night by guardians of culture and religion just because the public figure or his/her family member exercised his/her personal freedom.
  • That any self-proclaimed protector of the Hindu religion can call and bully a public figure over a matter of personal choice!
  • That such calls can be recorded and put out on public domain without an iota of concern or respect over individual’s privacy!
  • That an artist’s credentials can be buried overnight and his/her career stunted over issues not concerning the art form!

It’s high time we as a society realise that it is none of our business to comment or express concern on purely a personal matter involving any public figure.

When Social media arrived in the scene we all rejoiced at the empowerment it gave to all those who wanted to express themselves.  Narrative building was no longer the privilege of a few or so we thought.  However, in the recent times, we have been witness to the ugly face of social media more often than not. This incident involving Sudha Raghunathan and her family is an example of how Social media becomes Antisocial!

One of the most popular renditions of Sudha Raghunathan is the song “Brahmam Okate…”! This song is one of the best compositions of Saint Annamacharya in which he describes the universal truth of Oneness! It’s time we as a society understand the profound meaning of the lines of this song and spare the likes of Sudha Raghunathan, this hate on what is clearly a non-issue!

Image courtesy: Milapfest

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

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!