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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The Making of Modi 2.0!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pic Courtesy: Rediff

Mood (di) of the Nation poll!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “There is dissatisfaction for Modi but no hate!”

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

And so on!

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

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

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

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

Picture courtesy:  India Today

In #2019, no TINA but be wary of TAIL!

As 2018 winds down and we step in to 2019, for India, it is just not another new year. Mid of 2019 is when we will have the Lok Sabha polls that will determine if Narendra Modi will get another shot at being the Prime Minister. In my memory, I cannot recall of any individual who has come for so much scrutiny as an elected representative. And whose re-election is being discussed and debated so intensely in the country. First up, blame it all on the social media and its growing tentacles!

The fact that a government’s performance is coming up for such a rigorous appraisal itself, augurs well for our country. It should be like that. I only hope that this appraisal business isn’t selective and not just reserved for Modi Sarkar! If I think as to why this government has come under such a close assessment, I realise that it should blame itself for the same.

Did we have any other government in the past that

Set targets for itself on many fronts?

Which announced the targets and put them out in public domain?

Which tracked the actual delivery against the targets and presented them for everyone to see and comprehend easily that too mostly on real-time basis?

Today we know, not just what this government’s targets are for rural electrification, construction of highways, building targets, opening of bank accounts so on and so forth but also where it stands in terms of achievement. One look at the https://transformingindia.mygov.in/performance-dashboard/ site gives us an update on a real-time basis. It is not that governments in the past did not set targets for themselves. But all these targets were usually in terms of outlays announced in the Annual Budget speeches and seldom one would know what the final outcomes were. Between the outlays and outcomes, the India story remained in tatters. I guess not any more.  So, if people keep remembering the promises made and get disappointed if some of the promises have not been met fully or adequately, blame it on the Government’s efforts of putting out data in the open which makes it possible to compare achievements Vs goals easily.

In comparison to the upbeat mood in 2014 and 2015, today the mood in the country is more sombre. Even the most loyal fans of Modi have realised that probably he chewed more than what he could swallow. Five years are just not enough to turn around and solve all the ills of the country. That too when the global economy is facing one headwind after another! But then, as a country we had our own share of misses. Right when the economy was getting back on track in 2015/16 from the throes of policy paralysis and negative vibes and was poised for a leap, this government let loose the Demonetisation devil on the economy.  This set the economy back by 2 years to get back on track. That we didn’t fully collapse and managed to grow the economy at a slower pace nevertheless, would be a miracle, academicians would pore over in the years to come!

Before the effects of Demonetisation could subside, this government went ahead with the introduction of GST which according me is the biggest Tax reform in Independent India. Irrespective of the critics who take on this government on the “not so perfect” GST, I maintain that it was extremely creditable on the part of Modi Sarkar to launch the GST without further delaying, on the 1st of July 2017. In India, in aspects of meeting deadlines, we Indians follow religiously and rigorously the Theory of Elasticity which says solid materials deform under the application of external force and regain their original shape when the force is removed. So, in the quest of a perfect, ideal GST, if this government had deferred the launch, who knows, perhaps we will still be talking of “introducing the GST” in the upcoming budget!  Against that, today we already have a thriving GST which is now going to complete 2 years! The introduction of GST will remain this government’s biggest achievement when its history is written.

The short term pains inflicted by these 2 moves (Demonetisation and GST) to the small and medium businesses combined with the government’s failure to address the Banking crisis at the beginning of its term have led the BJP to the situation where it is today.  In its strong hold states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, the party’s support base has been dwindling. On the contrary, the Congress which seemingly had no hope of a revival till mid-2017, has smelt blood and is hoping to deprive Modi of a second term and a shot at history.

In India today, in the main stream media and also probably social media, the obituary of Modi Sarkar is being written on a daily basis. As per me, it is too early to write off Narendra Modi in the context of 2019. In spite of his government’s misses in terms of promises and more importantly the delivery of Achhe Din, his personal credibility as a leader who is keen to deliver, is intact. I do believe that there are those who are disappointed with him. But they are still not disgusted with him. Yet.  My personal feeling is that they would like to give him another chance.  The same states which voted out the BJP recently could very well see voting for Modi in the Lok Sabha polls!

Apart from this factor of Modi’s personal charisma, there is another important factor at play. People like to call it the TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor. I don’t believe that there are no alternatives to Modi. In fact, we have many. We have the spectre of a Rahul Gandhi becoming the Prime Minister, if a Congress led UPA front emerges as the biggest. Or else it could be toss between a Mamata Banerjee or a Mayawati or a Chandrasekhar Rao or any other leader depending upon how many seats they win, as part of a coalition which will be cobbled together post the elections. In all these cases, a leader of the party with 30-40 MPs would head the coalition of 10-15 parties with each party playing the “I am indispensable” card!

This Mahagathbandan where, parties will oppose each other in one state but will come together in another state is only a Maha”cut”bandhan who want their share of power and the perks that come with it. I believe that people are smart enough to understand and realise that Modi Sarkar might have disappointed but will still probably vote for him not because of TINA but being weary of TAIL – The Alternative Is Lousy!

In the past, we saw many Accidental Prime Ministers as we didn’t sight TAIL properly! Hope 2019 is different. On that hopeful note, wishing India a momentous 2019!

Cartoon courtesy: Satish Acharya

Single party majority sarkar or Coalition sarkar?

Last week, parts of a speech of our National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval made headlines. Speaking at the Sardar Patel memorial lecture, Doval said that India needs a strong, stable and decisive government for the next 10 years. He also predicted that weak coalitions will be bad for India.

While I was reading this, I was reminded of another speech made by Y.V.Reddy, Former Governor of RBI some time in 2017. “Interestingly, the highest growth in India from 1990 to 2014 was really during coalition governments… So, in a way it is consensus based… in Indian situation, a coalition probably produces better economic results than a strong government,” Mr. Reddy told a Washington audience on September 27.

From the two specks of wisdom, we can assume that while the former spoke from security point of view, the latter did from economic point of view.  While I don’t remember many reactions to Y.V. Reddy’s opinion then, Doval’s speech has triggered a lot of rebuttals, primary one being, this piece from The Print’s Shekhar Gupta where he has argued that majority governments in the past including that of Rajiv Gandhi’s in the 80’s and the present one of Narendra Modi have not been better off significantly than the few coalition governments we had in between!

Without going back too much back in time, I would like to focus on the present majority government of the BJP in this post. By the evening of 16th May, 2014 when it was clear that BJP against all expectations and pre-poll predictions, was hitting the half way mark on their own, there was euphoria all around. Even among the non-BJP loyalists, there was visible excitement of how a majority government can decisively take the country forward without having to constantly look over its shoulders. By nature, coalition governments formed mostly through post poll alliances come with the spectre of instability. So, here was a government finally which had the numbers on its own and a two third majority with its allies. So, can’t blame the public at large including the author if they thought that Acche Din finally arrived for India!

In India, we have had a long history of taking one step forward and few steps backward. Unfortunately this did not change even with a single party government with a decisive leader at its helm as we found soon enough in 2014. We soon found that adequate majority in Lok Sabha is not enough and that the government needs numbers in Rajya Sabha also to be effectively called as a “true majority Sarkar”! And for that, the wait needed to be longer – another 5 years or so!

As per me, the virtues of a single party majority Sarkar got exposed when this government failed to get the amendments in the Land Acquisition Bill passed. In his 1st meeting with the Chief Ministers, Narendra Modi was reported to have got the feedback from most of the CMs (including of the Congress) that the tough and impractical clauses in the Land Acquisition Bill presented the single biggest challenge in getting many infrastructure projects off the ground.  The government went about making changes in the provisions and tried to pass the bill. But couldn’t get the bill passed through in Rajya Sabha where the Congress and the Left blocked it effectively. The majority government then tried to use the Ordinance route many times but finally gave up, coming under the cloud of Rahul Gandhi’s Suit Boot Sarkar jibe! As we speak, in spite of this Government’s intent and drive towards kicking off many infrastructure projects, land acquisition continues to be the biggest impediment in meeting deadlines for large game changing projects!

Here, I feel that a coalition Sarkar of the stable type as NDA-1 run by Vajpayee or the UPA-1 run by Manmohan Singh, would have handled this differently. By engaging with the respective oppositions through dialogues and agreeing to give and take on a few provisions. Since many Congress CMs were on board on the changes to the Land Acquisition Bill, dialogues with the Congress party leadership through some of these CMs would have probably done the trick leaving the Left isolated on this.  As we all know now, in the initial days of this government, its single point agenda was to isolate the Congress. What if the government had given the status of the Leader of Opposition to the Congress in the Lok Sabha as a quid pro quo to getting their support to a few important bills in the Rajya Sabha? Machiavelli or our own Chanakya would have been proud, isn’t it?

In spite of this initial setback though crucial, I do believe that the Modi Sarkar was flying high in that period. From bringing Swachh Bharat to national discourse to bringing back India at the top of investment destinations worldwide, Modi Sarkar could not make a single false move, but that was till November 2016! With the confidence in the Indian economy back and aided by windfall gains from low crude prices, one thought that the Universe was finally beginning to conspire to make India successful.  Again that was still November 2016!

In November 2016, Modi Sarkar took on the Universe and went ahead with Demonetisation. What seemed a master stroke initially to suck out black money, soon turned out to be an ill-conceived and ill – executed move that set the economy back by a year or so.  The much lauded ‘Jugaad’ mentality of Indians came to party, the result of which we could finally get to see.  As much as 99.3% of the junked 500 and 1,000 rupee notes returned to the banking system!! While it is to the credit of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi that his government came out unscathed with its credibility intact or grown even after this very huge miss-step, I wonder if a major decision like this could have been taken without taking the coalition partners into confidence if it was a coalition government. And in the same token, I do feel that the collective wisdom of a coalition cabinet would not have let this move go at least without proper checks, balances and preparations!

I certainly would not add the introduction of GST as a miss-step of this government as many are doing, as I firmly believe that GST was a long-awaited reform and in the introduction of the same, Modi Sarkar learnt its lessons and behaved like a coalition government in listening to and taking all parties on board. The result is there to see. GST is a reality now and after initial hiccups as can be expected from any path breaking reform, the benefits are trickling down with the GDP showing clear signs of recovery in the past few quarters.

A majority government led by a decisive leader provides for great optics particularly from foreign countries’ point of view. And that has its own benefits as major powers would like to believe that the Government/leader they are engaging across the table has the backing of the popular mandate. However, in practice, I have now come to feel that a coalition government led by a party with a fair share of numbers led by a decisive leader may be ideal for a diverse country like India. In that, we do get the advantage of the collective wisdom of alternate views while, the virtues of the decisive leader are also not missed out.

Or going a step further, a majority government with a decisive leader which behaves like a coalition government by not taking key, strategic decisions without passing by the collective wisdom of alternate brains!  In short, institutionalizing the “GST Introduction model” for all key decisions!

So going back to the speeches of Y.V.Reddy and Ajit Doval, both may be correct. In parts! Just that like in many aspects in India, the ideal situation may be somewhere in between!

Sabarimala and the “Tradition” Conundrum!

As soon as the Sabarimala verdict was out a few days back whereby, the court pronounced that women of all ages can now be allowed to visit the Sabarimala temple, a childhood friend of mine asked me for my reaction to the verdict. He posed the question to me because, I was basically from Kerala and having known that I have been visiting Sabarimala since childhood. My view on the verdict was that as times change, situations change, ground reality changes. Time for traditions, culture etc. etc. to keep evolving with the times. And hence I was for the verdict.   Of course this was a simplistic view of a complex case the verdict of which, is now threatening to disturb the pluralistic, multicultural and accommodative fabric of our Indian society.

 

My view on the verdict was based on the premise that the reasons, (though may be valid at one point in time) for not allowing women in the menstruating age to visit Sabarimala, may no longer be valid in this day and age. And hence this ban doesn’t make sense any more. And I was also of the view that any condition set by force is fundamentally against principles of freedom and is discriminatory. And more importantly, I felt that if my teenage daughter asks tomorrow why she cannot visit the Sabarimala temple, I thought I had no tenable answer.

My view, that the Hindu traditions, religious practices and beliefs have never been cast on stone and have always steered their way along conveniences of mankind, has been consistent with my reaction to the Jallikattu controversy or the more recent controversy around Carnatic singers singing Christian songs. In the Jallikattu issue, I opined that Jallikattu in its present form is certainly cruel to the animal and needs to be reformed. In the interests of preserving tradition and culture a total ban is uncalled for but, certainly safeguards need to be put in place to prevent unethical and unhealthy practices.

However, in the past few days post the verdict I have been seeing some arguments against the verdict, some making sense and some completely off the mark. And the sensible arguments have sort of made me change my mind on my reaction to the verdict.

In Kerala, a state with almost 100% literacy and social indices far ahead of the other states in India, the women have been leading the fight back against the verdict. One of the pieces I read against the verdict said that women don’t feel discriminated at all in being allowed to visit Sabarimala. And it is a question of respecting a tradition which has been in place for so many years.  This set me thinking and this piece is the result of the churn in my mind, I guess.

What sets Sabarimala to be different from other temples in Kerala or for that matter in India, is the process of visiting the temple itself. One cannot visit Sabarimala just like that, though these days it is much easier and is more accessible. First of all, the temple is not open 365 days for pilgrims.  Even in the present times of increased travel comforts, the journey is comparatively arduous and one needs to make the last 6 kms. of hilly stretch from the Pamba river base to Sannidhanam by walk.  (“Dolly service” to carry people up this stretch is available). And there has been the tradition which most men follow of observing a Vratham for 41 days before you travel observing certain practices including celibacy during the period. As part of the rituals, you carry what is known as Iru mudi kettu and carry that all along the trek. And till now, women in the menstruating age have not been allowed. So all these traditions are what that finally make Sabarimala different and what it is today. Of course the practices have gone through their own evolution as I mentioned before, in tune with the times and available technology!

Sans these traditions and beliefs, Sabarimala will be like another temple, where one can visit whenever. If the Government wants, it can lay motor able roads right up to the Sannidhanam so that one doesn’t have to do the physical labouring from Pamba.  So, that brings to the main issue. If the following of these traditions is what eventually makes Sabarimala special, why to tinker with them now? If majority of women in Kerala and outside have not been concerned about being discriminated and were #readytowait where is the issue?

Just like this practice in question in Sabarimala, if one digs in deep, there are countless such beliefs, traditions and practices being followed in many places of worship all over India. Some of it may push the borders of one’s freedom, may seem discriminatory and even downright hypocritical. But which make those places of worship unique and special in their own way. It is important for us to pick the right battles to fight which have larger social ramifications rather than pick on potentially harmless issues.

Therefore, I now tend to agree with the lone dissenting voice and ironically the lone lady voice in the Supreme Court Bench – Justice Indu Malhotra, who said that it is not for courts to determine which religious practices are to be struck down except in issues of social evil like ‘Sati’.

Having said that, I am not buying some of the other frivolous arguments against the verdict being bandied upon bringing in false equivalence around practices being followed in other religions like Islam,..  It’s up to those faiths to pick up their fights!

If India as a country is sort of unique in the world, it is because of our strong roots, culture rooted in traditions and our unwavering belief in “Faith”! So in matters of “Faith”, it will be ideal if the interested parties deliberate among themselves and bring in the reforms when needed rather than throwing the ball to the Courts which necessarily have to pronounce judgments keeping aside traditional beliefs and the underlying emotions involved. And as a society, I do believe that this judgement has opened up a Pandora’s Box and could set a precedent for many an issues involving “faith”, all of it may not have a peaceful pass as this one!

Kallum Mullum,.. – Kaalukku Methai,…” is one among the many slogans you raise to spur yourself while walking up the hill of Sabarimala barefoot. It means stones and thorns are like bed (of roses) to the feet. For an ardent Sabarimala devotee, the judgement though, is seen as a bed of stones and thorns in his hitherto peaceful journey! Having been conflicted on this one for a few days, I do believe that I have a plausible answer to give to my daughter on this “tradition” conundrum!

Image courtesy: Scroll.in

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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