Notes from my Lockdown diary – Part 4

Lockdown continues in India and so do my notes. The way it goes, it looks like I can publish a complete book compiling all these notes! Even as the thoughts of publishing a book crossed my mind and I sat to type this blog, the wife somehow got a wind of it. “Instead of torturing people with your blogs, you are now planning for a full book? Of all the negative effects of Covid-19 we have to suffer, this must be the worst!” she pronounced.  The wife is always right. So, the book plan had to commit suicide.  Notes writing gets a reprieve.

(If you have not read the earlier parts, please read here, here and here.)

It seems there is no reprieve though, from doing the household chores for a long time. The other day, our regular household help (God bless her), called up the wife to check if she can start coming, as there was some news of things being relaxed.  She apparently felt bad to just receive her salary without doing her work for the past two months.  I could hear the wife telling her nicely not to worry and though the ghar ka Bhai is not as good as the Bai in work, she could manage with him!  And added in some measure about being Atmanirbhar and all!

It then struck me later as to why the wife made this point to the Bai. Few days ago, after I finished the J and P of BJP (Jhadu and Pocha), I asked the wife, glaring at the somewhat shining floor, “Now your bench mark for a clean and spotless house must have changed, no? And also your expectations from the Bai, no?” I know, there are better ways to fish for compliments. “Benchmark and all I don’t know. What I know is, I have to keep the Bai happy at any cost. She doesn’t break mops within two days, doesn’t finish Vim liquid in one week and finally doesn’t keep showing off her quality of work once done!” the wife quipped.  I should have known this better. Of just doing the work and not indulge in pompous self-praise!  In the married life of men, the adage “Once bitten, twice shy” doesn’t exist. It is always the case of “Many times bitten, and still don’t learn”!

Like a few days ago, looking at the many “Exercise at home” videos flooding the social media timelines these days, I started doing a hundred “Jumping Jacks” in the morning. When I started it itself, the wife warned that the downstairs people may feel like some earth quake happening. Better said in Tamil – ‘Keezha irukaravaalukku Thalai la idi vizharaapola irukkum’! I took it as her another jibe at my bloating weight and went ahead with it. Sure enough, within two days the managing committee members called to warn me of dire consequences if I continued with my indoor exercises. The end result – Not just jumping jack, even a simple pranayam has been locked down!

Last weekend was another case of not learning. Being a Sunday, I declared loudly that I will cook the lunch. The daughter who is the proverbial cat on the wall in terms of taking sides exclaimed, “But Appa, not your usual Rasam and Potato curry!” “Of course not! Today I am going to make Sambhar and thoran” I should have stopped there. I didn’t. In my zeal to impress, I added, “That too not the “podi potta Sambhar, but arachuvitta Sambhar”! Now for the uninitiated, Sambhar though is a common South Indian dish is made differently in each of the states. This arachuvitta Sambhar is a speciality in Palakkad Tambrahm households, where you don’t use the ready-made Sambhar powder but actually add the freshly ground spices and masala. So, obviously the Sambhar made this way tastes much better. It also calls for more skill to get the mix right.

Now here’s the audacity thing. The wife usually makes this arachuvitta Sambhar very well. So at home, that is the “gold standard”!  And though I make the regular Sambhar of and on, so far I have not tried or made this arachuvitta Sambhar before in my life! But then as most of you part of WhatsApp groups would have realised, everybody else is into trying and learning one new recipe or the other and sharing in groups these days! So, I also thought why not try something new and add that as a lockdown learning badge!

I googled for a proper recipe of the arachuvitta Sambhar and got into preparation of the same.  Though the recipe was in simple English, the doubts that emanated were endless, as you got down to work. For every doubt I went to the wife, I was promptly reminded that commenting on cooking is very easy while cooking is not! Did I have choice other than agreeing?  I followed the recipe and the wife’s tips to the “T” and everything was going as per plan.  Or so I thought. Blame the bad light or my reading glass, instead of reading as ¼ TSP of Methi seeds (Vendayam), I read it as 4 TSP of Vendayam, fried the same along with the other ingredients and ground into the paste. And this paste is the most crucial input for the arachuvitta Sambhar! Those familiar with the drill would by now know what will happen if you add 4 TSPs of Vendayam!

While the Sambhar was boiling, I attempted to taste it. I could realise that my first attempt in arachuvitta Sambhar has flopped badly. The Sambhar was bitter in taste thanks to the overbearing taste of Vendayam (Methi seeds)! When it was judgement time, the wife was at her gracious best when she said, “The bitter after taste notwithstanding, it was not bad for a first attempt!” I was relieved on hearing the same before she continued, “Change your blog title from ‘Notes from my lockdown diary’ to ‘Lessons from the lockdown’ and learn from them!

Not a bad idea, isn’t it?

I am learning.

Locking down a tippler!

In India, in the last few days, two set of visuals are making the headlines. One, is the unending stream of pictures of migrants walking along highways trying to reach their homeland. The other is of the long and unending lines of people in cities and towns in different parts of the country in front of liquor outlets. Ever since many of the state governments who couldn’t control their addiction to revenue from liquor (to borrow this fine phrase from Pratap Bhanu Mehta) decided to open up liquor outlets, it has opened up a Pandora’s bottle! Point to remember here is that liquor along with petrol/diesel are out of the purview of GST still and are in the state’s ambit for tax collection. So, not surprisingly most of the states opted for revenue maximisation ahead of Corona minimisation!

In India, the narratives of the so called experts are drenched in Anti Modi’ism. So, in the initial days of Corona, the narrative was around why India is not locking itself down like China did with an iron hand. In a few days into Corona, Prime Minister Narendra Modi did announce a complete national lock down, unprecedented and unimaginable to pull off in a culturally lax country like India. When that happened, the narrative shifted to the lock down not being thought out properly. The pictures of migrants walking along main highways did support this narrative.

During this period, calls from the commentariat including in the opposition were to do a direct benefit transfer to the needy of anything between Rs. 5000 to Rs. 12000 per month so that, many of the poor who have now lost their jobs and income can sustain. Along with this, there was also the call for free distribution of staples. In fact, Nobel laureate Dr. Abhijit Banerjee went to the extent of saying that targeted money transfer be damned and pushed for transfer of cash to the entire bottom 60% of the economy. He felt that targeting at this stage would be costlier and cumbersome.

In a while when the states started getting their act together to reach food to the migrants, the story was about how livelihoods are being lost due to lock down.  In the past few days, many experts tired of the lock down now are veering towards “opening up” the economy, as a complete lock down is no longer sustainable.  And that’s when the decision to open things up, which is now in the hands of the states, was taken by most of the states, who were feeling the pinch of empty coffers. And the key item that got ticked off in opening was the opening up of liquor shops.

And when the liquor shops got opened what happened?

  • In most places, all the gains achieved with so many days of social distancing got neutralised by thronging tipplers who threw caution to the wind.
  • In Bengaluru, on a Monday morning, you could see youngsters’ queuing up to get their stocks of liquor. In their prime, their parents lined up often in front of ration shops to get their share of kerosene, rice, sugar milk and other essentials.
  • In parts of Telangana, in some pictures where you could identify the people as not very rich or even middle class, men were seen lining up in braving dry heat.
  • In Nainital, Uttarakhand, people were seen braving hailstorm to buy liquor at a shop on the day liquor shops were open.
  • In Delhi, a man was seen showering flower petals on people standing in lines outside liquor shops apparently to celebrate them for helping the country’s economy!
  • There was also an invoice from Bengaluru that went viral showing liquor purchases for Rs. 52841 one shot!

Whichever way you look at it, there is something fundamentally wrong in what we saw as an after effect to the opening up of liquor shops. And here’s why:

  • What are the young men and women (who we can assume are working in IT or ITES companies) doing in front of liquor shops in Bengaluru on a fine Monday morning (1st day of the week) when their companies expect them to “Work From Home”?
  • In the other case of poor people crowding the liquor shops, what about their source of money? Did we not hear that many of them have lost their jobs and not getting paid due to lock down?
  • Or is it that they are using the little amounts transferred by the governments to quench their thirst for liquor instead of using it to buy ration and other essentials for their households?
  • Domestic violence reached an All-time high during the lock down period. The sheer number of men in the lines made us think of the women they go back to.

I was disappointed to see once again the media narrative on the above scenario. In the “liberal” worldview, calling for a prohibition is of course untenable. But, at least during these extreme situations of Covid related lock downs, I would have expected a strong questioning of the timing to open liquor shops. Instead what we saw in most media stories were:

  • What happened to social distancing norms in liquor shops? Why did the government not think through this?
    • Really? Even in normal shops, maintaining social distancing is a herculean task. And how can one expect discipline in liquor shops that are opening after many weeks?
  • Instead of opening the liquor shops, why can’t the government arrange for home delivery of liquor thro apps like Zomato, Swiggy, etc.?
    • Yes, the authorities in the midst of fighting the health hazards due to Covid must also spend their time on discussing with Zomatos of the world to ensure efficient door delivery of liquor to nook and corners of India including remote villages. Is it? If such efficiency can be attained in India for booze delivery, why can’t that model be put to use first to deliver essentials to people would be my question!

The fall out of this untimely and stupid decision is there for us to see. Mumbai has rolled back the decision. In Tamil Nadu, Kamal Haasan headed outfit along with few others challenged the decision in the court and obtained a stay on selling liquor for now. The state has now knocked at the doors of the Supreme Court! Few states have slapped very high taxes, which I don’t know will make any difference.

It is not very clear as to which is more dangerous? People’s addiction to liquor or the Governments’ addiction to revenue from liquor? And who has to give up the addiction first? My personal view which could be an unpopular one too is, it is high time governments view this issue in perspective. That is, to look at the so called revenue from Liquor and tobacco versus the money spent on health care to take care of ailments related to smoking and drinking. And when that is done over a longer period of 20-30 years along with the cost of social ills, it will be as clear as daylight that, in a country like India, prohibition in “some form” is essential. Which answers my question as to who should give up the addiction first. It is the State.

Winston Churchill apparently said, “I have taken more out of alcohol than alcohol has taken out of me!” in reaction to those who critiqued him for depending too much on alcohol. It will be however wise to realise that in the case of governments, it is the otherwise.

Notes from my Lockdown diary – Part 3

We are in the last few days of this total lockdown in India. Shortly, we will know if the same will be extended by a few more days. Already, the weariness is beginning to manifest.  Fuses at home are in the verge of blowing up.  Patience is in short supply.  And more importantly, menus are getting repetitive.

“In this situation, be happy that you are getting at least something to eat. Aren’t you ashamed of demanding this and that to make?” This was the wife to the daughter who was asking her to make Pizza for dinner.  I quietly thanked my stars as I was just about to ask her to make ‘Verumarisi adai’ for dinner, when my daughter pipped me.  “Verumarisi adaiya? Verum Adi thaan kidaikum”, probably would have been the retort! I am not at all surprised, when I read that domestic violence during the lockdown has increased by leaps and bounds.  Like how they say that we will have to wear masks while going out, may be, men should be advised to put a plaster across their mouths, while staying at home during lockdowns, I think.

Among the BJP (Bartan, Jhadu and Pocha) activities, many asked me why I haven’t written about the bartan activity in my 1st two parts. (If you haven’t read those, please read them now, here and here).  Yesterday, while doing the vessels, the wife said, “I think, we should buy a Dishwasher now” to which I replied, “Why? We already have a Dishwasher at home. I am there no? “This joke is worse than the regular bad jokes you crack” she replied and then added, “By the way, we then have two Dishwashers at home. One good and the other which just wastes Vim liquid! In the last 15 days, 2 litres have literally gone down the drain!”  Go back to the last line of the last para!

“Can you just come here and check what has happened to the printer? It’s not printing!” shouted the daughter to the wife. “I am busy now. Call your dad. He is supposed to be the “printer expert”, the wife replied, wriggling out of the situation. “WFH means Work From Home and not Work For Home”, I yelled, while being engrossed in a spread sheet submission. For long, we never had a printer at home. Whenever that topic came, I used to give “insider” gyan that a printer is like a white elephant and that whenever we want, we will just get printouts done from a jobber. But finally, I relented when the needs of the school increased exponentially and we ended up purchasing a printer at home few years ago. Little did I realise then, that my background in printing industry will become like my Electrical Engineering background!

Whenever the printer shows some error and those of you who have used inkjet printers at home will agree that it happens very often, I am usually summoned to check the printer.  It is ink related issue at times, Wi-Fi related issues sometimes, and print quality issues some other times but, paper jam issue most of the times! And invariably after trying my hand a bit in vain, my counsel will be to call the technician, so that I don’t end screwing up the printer for good. This will be followed by “You can’t fix a simple problem in the printer? You are supposed to be a printer industry veteran!” jibe which I am now quite used to. And then you know what happens? The wife will saunter in, switch Off and On the printer and remove the paper if stuck slowly and then pronto, the printer starts working! This almost happens every single instance! Now you understand the connection between my Electrical Engineering and printing industry backgrounds!

With the shops and general market being shut, I am eagerly waiting for the Amazons of the world to start operations soon. The mop stick which broke in Week#1, needs urgent replacement. For few days, we were managing with the same but now it is completely broken. So, the leg has become the mop stick and you know how tedious it is to wipe the floor with your leg!

All of you must have realised by now that lockdown teaches you many life lessons. In my case, the technique of mopping the floor is one. The first day, when I started wiping the floor with my leg, I finished the job and as I was about to sit, the daughter quipped, “Mom, is it Krishna Jayanti today?” The wife replied, “No! How will Krishna Jayanthi come now?  To which, the daughter replied with a wry smile, “Look at the floor”! Sarcasm runs in our family blood, I thought. She was referring to few marks on the floor of my feet that remained after I did the mopping. “Krishna’s feet were small. This looks like that Kamsan’s”, the wife joined the fun fest.  Not just blood. Sarcasm is part of our family body fat as well, I learnt.  Also, the important lesson and fundamental principle of mopping. While mopping, you will have to go on the reverse, if you have to avoid the Krishna Jayanthi jibe every day!  By the way, for the uninitiated, on the Krishna Jayanthi day, South Indians celebrate the arrival of the birth of Krishna, among other things by drawing rangoli of pairs of mini feet on the floor from the door to inside.

As I mentioned in the beginning, the weariness of reading my lockdown notes must have also started to show up amongst you, I guess. So, here I am, signing off on this weekly despatch of my lockdown notes. Of course, will continue with my regular posts!

Disclaimer:  All characters and situations in these posts are fictitious. Resemblance to any real person and real events are purely coincidental.

We breathe sarcasm in the family!

Pic credit: Webdunia

Notes from my Lockdown Diary – Part 2

Continuing from where I left in Part 1, the mandatory lockdown continues to introduce us to many “New Normals” – some of which I touched upon in my last post. If you haven’t read that, please read here.

Before this COVID-19, Zoom was one of the widely used tool in companies for conference calls. Now, it has become a house hold name and the most popular App after WhatsApp!  Anyone and everyone these days are on Zoom calls.  On Day #6, the daughter who is now in 8th grade, slowly came up to me and asked to set up a Zoom account for her. After checking and confirming that she has indeed taken the approval from the wife for the same, I set it up for her. What started as sessions for doing work sheets jointly with friends which are being sent every day by the school, have now become Dumb Charades and other game playing sessions over video calls, I am told. I have now become the villain for setting up that Zoom account!

And by now, in almost all households, one round of Zoom meetings have happened with father side family, mother side family and of course one with the immediate family of brothers, sisters and so on.  And as per the hierarchy of WhatsApp groups, friend’s re-union meetings will soon start over Zoom! While on this, I have now ensured that the Video is permanently switched off on my company Zoom account settings so that while on the day long business calls, embarrassing scenes from the surroundings do not get captured.

Like on Day #8, when I was on a review call with my team locked in my room, there were a few SOS bangs on the door. As the bangs got louder, I excused myself to find out what happened. The daughter while pretending to clean up her room spotted a cockroach which had flew from outside. Now in our flat it has been years since we spotted a cockroach and now this was of the flying variety. You can imagine the scenes involving the daughter and the wife now when they found that the creature had taken refuge under the cot. So, I was summoned in the midst of my ongoing call to fix the cockroach problem.  Just because of killing the cockroaches, bees and other insects which keep creeping in the house now and then, my sin count has multiplied over the years and chances of an entry into heaven for me have been seriously damaged. All this while the family keeps cheering me from the side when I execute the killings!

I asked for a Jhadu to kill the cockroach and I was promptly handed over one. Without realising that I was handed over a “phool jhadu” and that too a new one, I went about the act of killing the cockroach systematically. Soon enough, the creature was killed much to the relief and happiness of the wife and the daughter. But then, wait. Those of you who have used a new “phool jhadu” will know that for a few days it keeps shedding dust and cleaning that is another big job. So, by using a new “phool jhadu” which was handed over to me for killing a cockroach, I ended up filling the entire room with a trail of dust from it! The next half an hour or so went in just clearing the room of the mess. In these times of the Corona virus which affects the throat and lungs, this was an episode that could have been totally avoided, I must say. But then you know the effect, cockroaches have in our lives!

Yesterday being a Saturday, I offered to do the cooking. “Today is weekend no? Why don’t you give me a break and do the cooking?” I knew that this will come and so I did a pre-emptive strike and made the offer myself which was immediately accepted. And as expected a slew of instructions flew!

“In the name of cooking, don’t end up messing up my kitchen!” 

“It is not enough if you just cook. Just clean up the place after the cooking!” 

“Whatever doubts you have, ask now. Don’t keep calling me and asking later!” 

“And try to do something different. Not your usual menu of Tomato Rasam and Potato curry!”

My immediate reaction (obviously in my mind) was “Why did I take up this now?”

Anyway, having committed in the first place, went about the job as meticulously as I can.  First up, as a Pillayaar suzhi, kept a vessel full of water for boiling as we have the practice of boiling the drinking water. Then, just when I was about to keep the rice on the pressure cooker, realised that the handle was loose. My engineering brain while cursing the design, was wondering how come the handle is always loose whenever I try to use the cooker, the answer for which I got very soon. In my quest to show off to the wife that apart from cooking, I am also providing some value addition, I got into the job of fixing the handle.  Within a few minutes, the plastic around the screw gave way and the handle came off completely.

The next half an hour went in erasing all evidence of this mishap lest you know what will happen. While I was engrossed in this, I completely forgot about the water kept for boiling due to which half the water had evaporated. Now, I had another set of evidences to be erased! All my male friends will totally agree that this business of erasing any evidence from the wives is an exercise in futility!   So when the wife dropped by to inspect what is going on, she could immediately notice that the cooker handle was skewed by one tenth of a millimeter in spite of my elaborate cover up attempts.

“Now what did you do to my cooker handle?” came the first arrow.

“I just tried to fix it as it was loose. But when I tried to tighten it, it broke”, I answered.

“Did I tell you to meddle with it now?

Do I not know that the handle is loose?

Am I not using it for so long?  

Because of the heat from the stove, the plastic loses its tensile strength and gives way easily. That’s why I don’t try to apply pressure and tighten that!  

I am a commerce student and I am aware of all this. And after being an Engineer you still can’t wrap your head around this?”

A barrage of arrows ensued.  My engineering degree continues to be the most attacked feature in my life!

Soon enough, the wife, realised that much time has been wasted by me without making much progress on the lunch preparation. So she decided to take charge and my cooking endeavour ended abruptly that day.  I remember reading somewhere that women are far ahead in multi-tasking than men. I decided to agree to that statement 100% from this day.

To be continued…

Postscript: Those of you who wondered about my well-being after the wife read Part 1, I am well and holding up. She indeed read it and laughed it off. Covid-19 has its plus points.

Pic courtesy: Webdunia

COVID-19: Turning the crisis into an opportunity!

COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. What started off as an outbreak in Wuhan, Hubei province of China is now a pandemic that has spread in more than 130 countries worldwide as we speak. In India too, the number of people who have detected positive has been multiplying by the day. Most of the state governments are waking up to the reality and state after state have been shut down.

In this sombre time, it may not sound so appropriate to talk about tapping opportunities that may arise. But then, one of the key jobs of strategic experts in counties is to always look beyond the obvious, see ahead of today and tomorrow and peep into the future.  In India, if such experts do that, they will see a window to turn this crisis into a long term, game changing opportunity.

Few weeks ago, when Corona virus had not spread like it is today, other than the human calamity, discussions were about how global supply chains have been disrupted due to the outbreak in China. Today, with China controlling the spread quickly using strong arm action and with the virus spreading all over, discussions around supply chain disruption have receded.  The focus today is around containing the spread as country after country have found people inflicted by the virus. However, when the dust and storm around the pandemic settles down in a few months, policy makers and industry experts will start pondering over putting all manufacturing eggs in the Chinese basket. De-risking from China for future would be top in the agenda.  Already, we are beginning to see some noise in that direction.

For countries and manufacturing companies, de-risking from China is nothing new. Many of them started doing it ten years ago when China, in the back of around 10% GDP growth for few years in a row from 2003 to 2011, was on fire as an economy. High economic growth also means increase in wages which shot up from CNY 750 in 2007 to CNY 2420 in 2018! Coupled with raising wages was the non-availability of skilled labour. A factory manager in Shanghai way back in 2012 told me that after the Chinese New year holidays, half the workforce would not return as they would end up joining companies which are located in provinces with higher minimum wages and with more overtime potential. Invariably mobile phones and other high demand product manufacturing units would suck up a lot of skilled manpower leaving other production units to scramble for trained manpower.

The logical option was to expand facilities out of China, if not to shift the entire production. Many Japanese companies who had put up factories in Thailand, Malaysia and later in China went and invested in Vietnam. It was a golden opportunity for India to have tapped that wave in that period. But we missed. Vietnam in spite of not boasting of very high skilled manpower but with relatively low labour cost managed to take advantage of the Japanese expansion plans. I was told that companies used to travel to interior Vietnam provinces and literally call out in the streets with microphones like in the feudal days as part of recruitment drive for factories!

India with its low labour cost and abundance of skilled manpower, still couldn’t feature in the agenda of companies looking at de-risking from China. And there are many reasons for the same.

It’s a myth that foreign companies just go by low labour cost when they try to invest in manufacturing facilities outside of their existing country bases. What they look for is whether the entire manufacturing eco-system is in place. China showed the world as to how to put that kind of eco-system in place that includes availability of low cost land in plenty, abundant skilled and low cost labour, low interest rate regime, tax benefits/holidays, access to ports, high quality infrastructure in the form of roads, highways, airports and sea ports, access to vendor base (this is particularly critical for Electronics and Automotive production) and more importantly what I call as the “hygiene factor”.  And this is the comfort factor which expatriates develop for the country where they want to set up production.

In India, we do not attach much importance to this while planning but, in my experience this becomes the key, tilting factor when choosing between options. If the team of expats who spend time in the country looking at options, do not feel comfortable about being able to lead a decent quality of life, they would never recommend that country. We should not forget that when a large production facility is set up, there will be hordes of expats who will be spending time during the project set-up phase and also later at supervisory/managerial roles when the unit is up and running.

That’s why I would not squabble if our governments spend money and resources to put their best face forward when foreign leaders visit here. For, many a times, there is a delegation of corporate chiefs who accompany these leaders and it is important that they carry a good impression of India as a country when they visit. In a Japanese company I worked earlier, the decision to invest in India which was lingering around for a while was finally taken when the group Chairman visited India and got impressed seeing the campus and Golf course of Infosys in Bengaluru!. I am talking of 2005 and fortunately the traffic situation then wasn’t as bad as it is today!

Coming back to the hygiene factor, this includes availability of good international schools, safety for women, availability of their country cuisines and even stuff like “Not a dry state” or “No Beef Ban”…!

In the wake of COVID-19, it is my belief that India must put its best foot forward in pitching itself as a robust manufacturing destination to the world which is looking at options.  And for this the government must move on a “Mission” mode quickly and activate “Make in India 2.0”!  We may not be able to scale up the economies of scale of China but then we are not looking at China completely. Our pitch must be to position India as an augmenting base.

Compared to the 1st decade of this century when India missed the opportunity when companies were de-risking, I believe that we now stand a better chance overall and hence it’s worth taking a shot now. Our roads and highways infrastructure is getting better though it’s a work in progress. We can now boast of world class airports in all the metro cities. The ports infrastructure have improved leaps and bounds and our customs clearance processes have smoothened.  We could still do much better on the “Ease of Doing business” front, though!

Ergo, I do believe that with a focussed approach towards getting companies to invest in setting up production facilities in India, India can be a good option for companies contemplating to de-risk from China. For India, which is in desperate need of a boost to the economy, nothing works like expansion in manufacturing as it increases direct and indirect jobs.

Author and Economist Shankkar Aiyyar in his book, The Accidental India has documented how in India every landmark game changing event since independence happened as a response to a crisis. Going by that track record, we are in the throes of another crisis with COVID-19 and hopefully we will come up with a response that is game changing!

The last booster shot for the Indian economy came in the beginning of this millennium and that was due to a global threat of a bug! The Y2K phenomenon opened the flood gates for the Indian Software industry and helped erect a pillar for our economy called the “Services”! Twenty years hence, now, a virus could provide the booster shot for the economy if India gets its act together. That of getting the manufacturing ecosystem in place and tap the opportunity which could present itself in the coming months. It’s not easy. But then its not impossible either.

Covid-19 in the world and Comvid-20 in India!

Since the advent of Social media, “Going Viral” is considered the ultimate thing! As we speak, the world in general and India in particular are reeling from something that literally went viral. The Corona virus pandemic which is now being called by WHO as Covid-19 which started from the Wuhan region in China, has now been spreading rapidly across the globe.

In China where it all started, we understand that things are getting under control. The new cases are reportedly fewer which is a key indication of the virus not spreading further. The Chinese government has been swift in taking tough decisions including shutting down towns and cities in a bid to arrest the spread very early.

As one can expect in a globalised world as it is today, while the situation is getting better in the origin (China), there are other countries where Covid-19 is taking a huge toll. First Italy, then Iran and now Korea have been under the onslaught of the Corona virus in the last couple of weeks. And those who have visited the affected places like Italy and those who came as tourists from these countries into other cities have become silent carriers of the virus. So, countries like America and India have also come under the affected list. Though the numbers are low at this point in time relatively, considering the population in these counties and the viral nature of the contagion, the risks associated cannot be dismissed away.

The approach of the countries to the pandemic is also a reflection of these societies. In highly disciplined and if I may add, regimented countries like China, Korea and Japan for example, the governments moved fast, enacted tough strictures and the public fell in line. The results are there to see. On the other hand, in flexible and If I may say, slack societies like Italy, the government has been slow in action and reaction. It’s only today that we read of Italy taking a call to shut down parts of the country which have been affected. The damage is already done.

From the perspective of economy, it’s already been well documented as to how the global supply chains with its epicenter in China and in particular Wuhan have been disrupted globally. It is believed that Covid-19 will impact global GDP by over 2% negatively in 2020 and this is huge.  As the Corona virus signalled the first decline in demand of oil, Saudi and Russia decided to pump more oil in a battle of market share! Result – Price crash to the extent not seen in 25 years! The chain of events have led to the carnage in the stock markets worldwide. After a long while, we saw the circuit breaker being triggered at NYSE yesterday!

Apart from manufacturing industries affected by Covid-19, the other worst industries are those that deal with people. Travel, Hospitality, Tourism and Events sectors will see an impact worse than the Lehman crisis time! It would be sad if the next summer Olympics being planned in Tokyo in July 2020 is called off due to the Corona virus. As can be only expected, Japan has been super ready for the event for a  few months now and will be a pity if all those efforts go down the Corona drain!

After the Lehman shock of 2008, Covid-19 is the next best example of a globalised world rising and perishing together in ironic harmony. There are very few countries which are immune to this today. The synchronised interest rate cuts by the Central banks a few days ago, I am not sure will help. Because what we are seeing is a supply side disruption and constraints arresting human movement. This is a not a demand problem or a capacity building issue where capital infusion could do the immediate trick. Of course any softening of interest rates is welcome! While the world struggles to get into terms with the aftershocks, I do believe that China from where it all started, may recover faster than expected. Already people have started going to offices after a long break since Chinese New Year and factories have started brimming with activity from last week. Again, at the risk of being repetitive, being a disciplined and a regimented society which China is, we should not be surprised if China gets back to normal by June while other affected countries still continue to struggle to get back to their feet!

Coming to India, along with Corona virus, we had another thing which has been going viral in the past many weeks – the “communal” virus” or Comvid-20! Ever since the Citizenship Amendment Bill got passed and became an Act followed by the government’s “chronological” intent to take up NRC (National Register for Citizens) all over India, the country has been on the edge.

The CAA protests also took almost the same route as a virus spread.  What started off as peaceful protests in different parts of the country essentially college campuses, soon spilled over to the streets. A hitherto unknown entity to those outside Delhi – Shaheen Bagh, entered the daily vocabulary and a subject of Prime time loud debates. And finally culminated with full blown communal riots in Delhi in the 1st week of March.

For Modi Sarkar which prided itself of not facing a communal riot in the country for 6 years since 2014, the Delhi riots have come as a huge blot on its image. That the riots happened in the first place, that too in Delhi which is the capital of India with its heavy security apparatus and when a big diplomatic event that of the US President Donald Trump’s visit was in progress, is an embarrassment. The coverage of the Trump visit therefore turned “split screen” globally with beaming faces of leaders and burning streets of Delhi, side by side!

That today, Social media has a huge role to play in spreading this communal virus is unmistakable!  Images and counter images, Videos and counter videos were just going viral in what I call as a battle of narratives! In sum, even today, we are yet to get a final answer as to who lit the spark first. And in spite of all the media and social media explosion, we may never get it, in our lives! Everything that went viral finally did their bit to mobilise mobs, fuel frenzy and finally celebrate madness.

Covid-19, with the world putting its might behind it may soon get a vaccine and a cure! However, Comvid-20 with its epicenter in India and to do with the majority community Vs minority community wrangle ingrained in our minds for decades, may not get a vaccine soon. Unless, we become a truly secular society where religion is personal and ceases to be a vote bank. Welcome to Utopia!

The politics behind political Strategists!

(This piece was written for the news website thenewsminute.com and was first published on the 14th Feb, 2020 and can be read here:

https://www.thenewsminute.com/article/when-poll-strategists-jump-party-party-why-isn-t-there-non-compete-clause-118196

In the business of building political brands in India, Prashant Kishor or PK to many, has now emerged as the undisputed numero uno. In a short period of under ten years, since he started his career with then Chief Minister Narendra Modi for the Gujarat state election in 2011, he has indeed come a long way.

The ease and manner with which he and his organisation Indian Political Action Committee (I-PAC) have managed to segue from one political party to another irrespective of ideology and geography is now a subject of shock and awe.

Shock because, till he was recently expelled from Janata Dal (United), a BJP ally, PK was its serving Vice President and that didn’t stop West Bengal Chief Minister and Trinamool Congress leader Mamata Banerjee from hiring him to help her to fight BJP in her state. And awe because, PK’s client list reads like the who’s who of Indian politics from national parties like BJP and Congress to regional parties like Janata Dal (United), Trinamool Congress, Aam Aadmi Party and the like.

And very recently, in the south, after YSR Congress (YSRCP) in Andhra Pradesh, DMK has become the second party to sign up I-PAC and in effect, PK as its political strategist for the Tamil Nadu Assembly Elections in 2021. This news was made public via a tweet by the DMK President Stalin recently. Welcome to the era of commoditization of Indian parties where ideology takes a back seat while marketing, brand positioning, catching eyeballs, mindshare retention and at the end winning, reign supreme.

The non-compete clause

This brings us to the central issue of this piece which is the politics of political strategists. And then there is the question of conflict of interest arising out of aligning with parties with competing ideologies, who are rank competitors. In the business of advertising, brands/companies sign agreements with non-compete clauses with advertising agencies and other strategic consulting companies. Under these agreements, agencies cannot sign up with brands/companies in the competing space not just during the currency of the agreement but also for a mutually agreed cooling-off period. The reasons behind signing such agreements are obvious. No company in this highly competitive era can afford any leak of trade secrets. A brand communication partner would have knowledge of the current and future road map of their clients, their strengths and weaknesses and hence no agreement is complete without non-disclosure clauses and non-compete clauses.

Such clauses have been part of hiring contracts of senior executives as well. Even in the highly competitive world of sports and games, similar clauses exist. I doubt if a coach of one IPL team in a season can sign up as a coach for another team the next season without a cooling-off period. The same holds good in the world of showbiz too.

I have nothing personal against the likes of PK or his organisation but cannot stop wondering why in India’s political space, there is no such non-compete clause while signing on election strategists, looking at the way election strategists have moved on from one party to another. A political party today is akin to a corporate entity and its leader to a brand. So, while companies are so protective about their brand strategies and rightly so, how come, in India we don’t see such sensitivity among political parties and their leaders while collaborating with political strategists?

From in-house campaign manager to professionals

In media interactions, PK has maintained that I-PAC, an organisation which he founded, is on its own now and his role is limited to mentoring and giving wise counsel when needed. This was when someone questioned him on the possible conflict of interest when he became a full-time member of Janata Dal (United) while I-PAC was working with other parties. Now that he has been expelled, it is not known if he is back in I-PAC on a full-fledged role. The I-PAC website carries quite a few references of PK and his work for different political outfits under its own umbrella.

It’s not just PK who is involved with competing parties in the same space. John Arockiasamy, who was associated with PMK in 2016 under the aegis of JPG-PAC, then went on to work with the Congress in Karnataka in 2018.  Reportedly, he has been in discussion with AIADMK in Tamil Nadu to be its political consultant.

Before the advent of PK as a professional election strategist, parties mostly relied on in-house talent for running their campaigns. And they used to work largely with advertising agencies for executing the campaigns in a conventional style just like any other product. For Congress, Jairam Ramesh used to be their election war room manager for years. For BJP, Pramod Mahajan and then Arun Jaitley used to play these roles. So, the possibility of poll strategies getting leaked to rival camp or an espionage operation was limited.

I guess that it is after the advent of digital and social media that we see the outsourcing of campaigns to external agencies by political parties gaining traction. Data analytics is the buzz word today in all fields and so too in election management. This needs specialists and hence parties have no choice but to engage with professional organisations who provide end to end election management solutions from strategy conception to last-mile execution. Execution involves back room warriors who work 24*7 on social media and feet on street who do the booth-level mapping and campaigning.

The potential of social media vehicles like WhatsApp, Twitter and Facebook to enable stories to go viral in no time is unparalleled today. This is a boon and at times a bane. Political consulting firms who have worked with rival political parties have access to a lot of insider information on these parties. And hence there is a real risk of such sensitive information getting leaked online and going viral in no time. Also, I wonder how demographic and psychographic data collected as part of one party campaign is firewalled and not used for another party later on. Memories of Cambridge Analytica, the famed British political consultancy firm that got caught adopting unethical practices have not faded away.

Hence, it is all the more intriguing that political parties in India so far have not considered incorporating non-competing clause while signing up consulting firms. In this politics of political strategists, what are we missing?

Post script: In Tamil Nadu, where films follow politics and vice versa, two big films of last year – LKG and NGK featured election strategists in key roles. A clear sign that these external poll strategists are here to stay.