An Idli a day!

An Idli a Day!

By Anand Kumar R.S

30th March, we were told is being celebrated as “World Idli Day”! Meaning, for the world, 30th March is Idli Day! For South Indians in general and Tambrahms in particular though, every day is Idli Day you see! As Nanu mama said, “Ithellam marketing gimmick! Valentine’s Day, Women’s Day, Mother’s Day madiri! Namakku every day is Idli Day!” And he is probably right. “The” Idli is intertwined so much in the life and IDentity of a Tambrahm!

 A day in the life of a Tambrahm is not complete without a brush with Idli! Usually the day starts with Idli as the breakfast.  Not only that, apart from having Idli for breakfast, I know of households who have again slight variants of the Idli for evening along with Kaapi and then for dinner as palahaaaram.

“Idli steamed o illiyo with no much oil,… Athanaala romba safe!” is the usual refrain which we can hear from Tambrahms who pour scorn on North Indians having oily paranthas for breakfast. “Eppadi thaan kaalan kaarthala ippadi oily itemsaa thingaraalo?? Namakku Idli thaan sari. Vayathukku onnum pannaathu”!

While Idli itself is a plain simple item made of rice, what makes it special is, what it is consumed with.  Tambrahm mamas who usually fuss around too much about food and the lack of variety every day, are more charitable as far as Idli is concerned. As long as Idli is served with different items to go with.

At a basic level, the day when the mami is in no mood to entertain the mama and kids so much, Idli is made and will be eaten with the already made Molaga Podi mixed with nalla ennai aka Gingelli oil! And the nalla ennai is poured over the Idli as well to taste!

At a next level, Idli is taken with Chutney. Here the options are many, starting with white Coconut Chutney, Tomato/Onion Chutney, Green Chutney,..,…

On a particular day, if the mami decides to finish the cooking in the morning early, then one can have the baakiyam of having Idli for breakfast with Sambhar which can be then used for lunch as well with rice!  Idli with Chutney “and” Sambhar is usually the combination for Naallum, Kizhamaiyum!

At many Tambrahm households I know of, Sundays are usually Idli with Chinna vengaaya Sambhar.  I have heard that mamas feel like going to sorgam and coming back when they get an opportunity to eat hot Idlis with hot Chinna vengaaya Sambhar served with dollops of ghee.

Now, here’s the thing as a matter of critical detail. If you eat the Idli dipped in Sambhar served separately in a kinnam, it is Idli Sambhar. But, if you take a bowl of Sambhar and soak the Idli in it and eat, it becomes Sambhar Idli!  Usually left over Idlis of the morning along with left over Sambhar of afternoon – becomes tasty Sambhar Idlis for evening tiffin!

When you see somebody pouring Sambhar over Idli, one gets a doubt if Idlikku thottukka Sambhar aa illa Sambharukku thotukka Idliyaannu!!  And one cannot miss sharp mamas’ quips like, “Paiyyan sambharla paatthiya kattaratha paatha, engineera thaan varuvaannu thonrathu!”

Before the IRCTC era, train journeys or road trips (read as temple visits) were never complete with Idlis being part and parcel of the trips literally, I mean. A separate koodai accompanied these trips with eco-friendly disposable packets of Idlis. And here’s the twist. To save time and the mess of eating Idlis with Chutneys or Sambhar (which may get spoiled in the heat) while on travel, Idlis are usually packed with Molaga podi and ennai already applied on them. So white Idlis become slightly Orangish in colour with liberal dose of nalla ennai. “Konjam ennaiya dhaaralama vittukko, nenja pidikkaama irukanum!” This Idli with pre-mixed Molaga podi becomes “Podi Idli”! Have you ever tried having a sip of hot, filter coffee right after eating this Podi Idli, with the taste of Idli mixed with the Molaga podi still lingering on the tongue?? If not, please try that tomorrow!

“Idli, malli poo madiri irukku!” can be the ultimate compliment which is when the Idli is soft, pure white in colour and has a nice aroma around it!” However ask any mami and she would say, “Aamaam, kudikarathu ennamo Aquaguard thanni. Aana Idli mattum  malli poo madiri irukanum!!!”

Coming to Tambrahm obsession with the Idli, though we eat Idlis probably 365 days of an year at home, when we go out to eat at restaurants,…, the 1st choice of most mamas is most likely to be “Oru plate Idli Sambhar”!

In Tambrahm households, it is also common for parents to serve Idlis with Thayir and Chakkarai mixed for kids. “Thayir vayathukku nallathu. Eriyaama irukkum!” Our elders were abreast of all this probiotic stuff even then! But what usually starts as a childhood habit continues even after growing up.

Even Doctor mamas have a special affinity for Idlis. Usually, when we used to go to our neighbourhood family doctor for common ailments like fever, stomach upset,..,… the doctor usually advised, “Usual pre-cautions and “Idli madiri safe food da saapadalaam”!

In order to cater to the daily intake of Idlis at home those days, mamis usually arachufied maavu every alternate day even during the pre-grinder days!  In grinder days, more than the effort involved in aruchufying, the effort in cleaning up the grinder after the act was more taxing! Ithukku okkaandhundu araikarathe thevala! But today for the young generation, ready-made, Off the shelf maavu has come as a god sent relief. Only thing is, with the ready-made maavu one cannot be cock sure of the output!  Leading to jibes like this:

Mami:  “Innikku enna aachunnu theriyala! Konjam Idli flataa vanthuduthu!”

Guest Mama: “Idli saaptu naanga flataa aagaama iruntha sari!”

So, with the Idli even small travesties are not tolerated, you see!

The other bigger travesty of the Idli, is the invention of different varieties of Idlis in the name of fast food! From Idli Manchurian to Chinese Idli to Masala Idli to Hara bara Idli, …,… have all mushroomed much to the dismay of the Idli connoisseurs! For them, Idli is only one. Which is simple, steamed and safe! So for them, it’s not “Idli Day” but at least “an Idli a day”!!!

Picture courtesy: Pinterest

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Marketing of Politics!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pic Courtesy: NBC News

Will this “Kamal” bloom in TN?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toon courtesy: Satish Acharya

Budget – The Annual celebration of Outlays!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toon Courtesy: Satish Acharya (Sify.com)

The era of ‘Constant Checkers”!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does one do while waiting in any line?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rajinikanth and creating his own playbook!

“Normal people go to a party on 31st Dec., but Rajinikanth forms his own party on 31st Dec.”! This joke got added to the myriad “legend of Rajinikanth” jokes that storm the internet in regular frequency usually before his film releases. His next film 2.0 is still few months away. But his career 2.0 finally got released.

What were hitherto just signals and hesitant testing of waters turned into a clearly stated commitment on the last day of 2017, when Rajinikanth announced his intent to enter electoral politics in Tamil Nadu. The journey from being a matinee idol, Superstar Rajinikanth to the Thalaivar Rajinikanth has begun in right earnest. It’s clear that Rajini now sees an opening in TN to make an impact amidst the current political vacuüm that has engulfed TN since the demise of Jayalalitha and the virtual retirement of Karunanidhi. And for common people, of what has now become a rudderless Turmoil Nadu, Rajinikanth is their beacon of hope.

Why did Rajini decide to take the plunge now?  If you map Maslow’s hierarchy of needs into Rajini’s life, he is probably past the first 4 needs (Physiological, Safety, Love & Belonging and Esteem) and now he is seeking “Self Actualisation”. Nothing else explains his craving today to jump into politics having been so successful in his film career. The point to note is, if he lived in a state like Maharashtra, probably he would have just walked into the sunset like a Dilip Kumar. But TN has a strong precedent of popular actors trying their luck with politics (with mixed success though) and hence has shown politics to be the path to Self Actualisation for any mega successful actor.  Explains Kamal’s recent fishing in political waters as well.

If you just go by history just in TN, you have examples of stars who succeeded big time in politics and who failed miserably. MGR, Jayalalitha count in the 1st category while Shivaji Ganesan, Vijayakanth and a host of others fall in the 2nd. These tried to emulate the MGR playbook which didn’t work. In another era and environment, to succeed, Rajini needs to create his own playbook today. For which, he needs to know not just his strengths and weaknesses but also limitations of his strengths. Just like how he knew these and managed well in his film career all these years.

Having been an extremely successful actor and elevated to being a legend in the last 20 years, his popularity, charisma and top of the mind recall among the masses in TN are unparalleled. So he starts with this huge advantage of connecting with the youth, women and the underprivileged instantly.

Rajini has thus far a super clean image. He is not known to have cheated people or swindled others’ money. Stories of him returning money to distributors when his films like Baba and Lingaa flopped have only helped cultivate the image of him as a person with high moral values.

Rajini’s other important and I would say deliberate approach has been to stay away from controversies. Being just an actor so far he has not felt the need to give his opinion about all matters under the sun. Also he never threw his weight around in matters which are unconnected with films and thereby managed to remain unattached. This has earned him more sympathisers than adversaries!

But succeeding in politics and becoming a ruler of a state needs more than just a charismatic leader. You need a grass root organization with credible leaders who will be connecting and engaging with people on a day-to-day basis. Here’s where I would like to bring in Rajini and a seemingly far fetched BSNL analogy.

In India, when BSNL got the license in the 2nd round for offering mobile phone services, it started off with a distinct disadvantage. That of, competing with established private players who had a head start in the market. However compared to the other private players like Airtel, Tatas who also got into the market late, BSNL had one great advantage.  The private players had to put up a cellular tower network in their respective regions from scratch, right from identifying location, incurring high capex in real estate, setting up towers,…  BSNL however, already had their established base of offices for landline phones in the nook and corner of the country. So BSNL had to just put up cell phone towers in their own office buildings and do the roll out. This explains the fact that even today when you travel to remote rural areas, Airtel/Vodafone,.. fail miserably while BSNL provides great connectivity. I notice this every time I travel to my native place in Kerala!

Akin to BSNL’s offices in the nook and corner of the country, Rajini, though new to politics, has his established organizational network of Fan clubs in the entire TN. This network needs to be activated to become what we call in Marketing as “Touch points” for people. And from the announcement speech, it appears that this is what is Rajini’s first task going to be! I.e. of organizing the fan clubs into political shaakas!

Tapping into the BSNL analogy again, in spite of having such an advantage in terms of an established infrastructure, BSNL did not manage to set the cellular phone market on fire. While in rural areas, BSNL could hold fort thanks to the superior coverage, in urban India it couldn’t match the nimble footedness of private players. The “sarkari” image and the sloth experience customers got to experience in BSNL’s touch points in urban centres didn’t at all help in getting users to try BSNL. As Rajini tries to activate the fan clubs across TN, it is important for him to give a different flavor for these fan clubs in rural and Urban TN to appeal to the different sensibilities.

This is where it is important for Rajini to have the right set of advisors around him. Those who will be able to translate his intent into set of initiatives that will impact the people. Here, he can go back to his model what he has been adopting in his film career. As far as his films go, Rajini had a very clear but simple approach. That is of selecting the right script and choosing his directors very carefully. Apart from bringing his personal heft behind the project and picking the director, he didn’t do much in terms of influencing the script or choosing his technicians and the cast,…,… beyond a point. Here he is very different from Kamal Haasan or even other top Tamil stars like Vijay. Surya, Ajit,… who I understand involve themselves in the film beyond just being the hero. Similarly, with a right team in place and a winning script in the form of a vision for the state of TN, Rajini should let the team carefully craft the roll out of the policy, programs and promises.  Having a right team is also critical as, in the world of competitive politics, Rajini, (an ageing star turned politician at 68 with health concerns) has to be “seen” on top of issues 24*7. This can only happen if he has a good team to lean on. The current set of ‘Fan club” leaders may not fit the bill entirely.

In marketing, Brand positioning is considered to be the most crucial element in the whole mix. How one positions the brand in the minds of the consumer differently with respect to competition defines the way the brand is remembered and adopted. And here I feel, Rajini has thoughtfully come up with a unique positioning i.e of “Aanmeega Arasiyal” (Spiritual politics). While we have heard of Secular politics and Developmental politics and politics of all hue, this is unique. In TN, Dravida parties and their variants for decades have professed Atheism, Care for the oppressed and all such lofty ideals but have practiced exactly the opposite. I feel that this positioning will resonate well with the urban middle class segment which has been enduring the hypocrisy of the Dravida parties for quite some time.  Having cracked the positioning bit, it’s important to live it up and be consistent around this positioning as time goes by.

If one would have noticed, since the 31st Dec, when he made the announcement to join electoral politics, Rajini has managed to remain in the news. Instead of doing everything on one particular day and keeping quiet subsequently (a la Kamal), Rajini has been carrying out his activities in tranches. Thereby remaining on top of the news clutter. A smart approach so far.

Rajini has thus far created his own playbook and has played his cards well. But politics is a long game. It will be interesting to watch his next moves and the outcomes. Whether this playbook helps him to succeed, only time will tell.

Usually when so called “Good people” join politics with a promise to bring a change, they end up changing themselves. But here, “Politics has joined Rajinikanth”. Hopefully politics gets a makeover. Or so many pray!

Pic courtesy: AFP