The Passport called English Medium!!!

Hindi Medium for the uninitiated is a Hindi film that hit the screens last week sans the trappings of the typical Bollywood fare but which holds a mirror to the society with a strong social message. Without any of the leading “Star Khans” but with just Irfan Khan as the lead star, I am not sure how far the film will reach eventually. After 3 Idiots if there was one Hindi film which leaves you thinking as you left the cinema hall about your kid’s education this must be it. In the film, the lead couple go to unimaginable lengths just to secure admission in one of the Top English medium schools in the city.  Because in the lines of the mother, “If the child goes to a Govt. school, she can’t learn anything. If anybody talks to her in English, she will not be able to fit in the society. Hence she will be lonely and will get depressed.”  The extremes the couple stretch themselves to secure that admission in a top English medium school like even trying to transform themselves to poor people to take advantage of BPL quota as per RTE act may sound preposterous.  But the message – that “English medium” is a mandatory passport for one’s flight to success in life is not lost on anyone.

Not just this one, but there were other films like Chetan Bhagat’s novel turned film – One Half Girlfriend and Sridevi’s super hit – English Vinglish dwelling on the theme of the need to master English to get recognized/get ahead in life. Ironically this is not some typical Bollywood fantasy but stark reality of India being mirrored in films.  At workplaces today, one’s command over spoken English is considered essential to rise up the corporate elevator whether you like it or not. There are very few careers I can think of today where one can still succeed without mastering the English language. Probably politics (where being oblivious to the English language can become your calling card) or some creative fields could be those. Otherwise even in medical field the reality is, you feel comfortable of a surgeon’s ability if he is able to explain the diagnosis and treatment course of your patient in eloquent English!!! Narayana Murthy of Infosys once controversially observed in the context of IITs that with Indian politicians “rooting against English”, the task of getting good English speaking students at IITs gets more difficult and that affected their quality .  He was being practical and honest. In urban India the caste system based on Manuvaad is gradually on the wane. But in its place there is a new caste system based on “Medium of Instruction” – English medium being forward caste and any other being backward!!!

However this is not the case in many other successful countries. In Germany you don’t need to master English to head an organization. In Japan, though knowledge of English is an asset particularly in an Export driven economy like theirs, lack of flair in English has never been a liability.  Same is the case with China.  It’s another matter that they probably now realise that if they had imbibed the English language they could have ruled the global commerce not just in Mfg. but even in services!

But then India is not a homogenous state with one culture, one lingo like Japan or Germany. We are “United States of India” where our culture, language, food habits,…,.. keep changing every 500 kms. We sort of got stuck in the middle where we couldn’t have Hindi or for that matter any other Indian language as a universal Pan Indian language due to our cultural diversity. At the same time English being a language imported due to the colonial rule couldn’t achieve the universal reach across the board. Result – we have a language divide. If we have to get out of this situation, it’s too late or virtually impossible to go back to a Japan or Germany universal Indian language model.  So it looks like adopting English language universally in India is only the practical option left with us to go forward from here.

“Universally” is the key. It was the very articulate Shashi Tharoor who once said, “Denial of opportunity to learn English to our children would be tantamount to destroying their future” and I agree. It’s unanimously accepted that India’s command over English has been one of the key attributes to our success in Software business worldwide. So why not we build on our strengths and leverage the same? That is certainly not by keeping English a privilege of few and sowing the seeds for another conflict. Instead a way forward could be to make ‘All” schools in India – English medium schools and phase in English as the universal medium of instruction from a particular year in the very near future. This is not to shortchange our own native languages which still needs to be taught in the same schools but need not be the “Medium of instruction”. We could expect politics to play and outrage factories running on full capacities over this move.  But then have we seen wards of politicians who get educated from Non English medium schools?  By the way in our neighbouring Pakistan in 2013, I heard that Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province took a call to switch over from Urdu to English medium gradually in a period of four to five years!!! This could be a significant reform in the field of education that would ensure English not just being a passport to economic, social and educational advancement universally but a ‘Visa on Arrival” for growth, the likes of Donald Trump notwithstanding!!

This reform may not be “the” only cure for all the ills in our education system but would be a good place to start.

Postscript: While on this, just after the ascent of Mr. Chandrasekharan as the Tata supremo, a picture of him and his 2 brothers has been doing the WhatsApp rounds. It talks of the fact that the 3 brothers are actually are from Tamil medium schools from a village in Tamil Nadu and that today they were head honchos. The message being, one doesn’t need to be necessarily from English medium schools to get to the top. Well, not sure even if Natarajan Chandrasekharan will accept that premise today and forward that to his WhatsApp groups!!!

TN, TINA and the lack of Conscience!!!

In May last year, when Tamil Nadu (TN) was in the throes of election I had written a post titled ‘The NOTA Conundrum’ (read here) where I had said that in TN, people have to make a choice when there is actually none.  Between the 2 leading Dravidian parties namely the DMK and ADMK there has been so little to choose from in the last 2 decades. Both the outfits are bereft of any ideology or ideas, are equally corrupt, excel in competitive “freebieism” and have been consumed by family intrigues – one own and the other extended. In that sense TN has been suffering from “TINA” (There Is No Alternative) syndrome. Since NOTA (None Of The Above) was not an option, the people of TN did make a choice of electing ADMK under the leadership of Jayalalitha. (I hate the Amma, Chinnamma sobriquets).  However it would be a grave mistake to conclude that it was a Jayalalitha wave or a massive mandate for ADMK. In fact analysis (read here) shows that DMK actually pipped ADMK in terms of the “Contested vote share” and was actually weighed down badly by the poor performance of its allies. Be that as it may, unfortunately for TN since the elections and the return of ADMK, it has been bogged down by one crisis after the other – the demise of Jayalalitha, the Wardah cyclone, the Jallikattu ban controversy and now the ongoing reality show of Sasikala trying to usurp the reigns of the state. Governance in TN has been holidaying in some “Bay resort” or recuperating in Apollo Hospital for some time now.

That being the case, the question that begs to be asked is what was the hurry for Sasikala to take over as Chief Minister now? After Jayalalitha’s demise, she was able to smoothly appropriate the reigns of the party and became the General Secretary without much ado. In Panneerselvam (OPS) she had a man who has always been pliable and willing to toe the line as long as his interests are taken care of. So the best option for Sasikala was to follow the “Sonia Gandhi model”. Enjoy authority without responsibility by doing back seat driving of OPS from Poes Garden.  If the Government under OPS did well, Sasikala could have still got the credit diverted to her through her sycophant brigade of MLAs and Ministers. And if things went wrong, OPS could have been made the fall guy. This could have helped in moulding public opinion in her favour as a person who listened to her inner voice and made the sacrifice of not going after power. But all this was not to be.

In a very hurried and ill-advised move just when the state was returning to normal after seemingly scoring a win in the Jallikattu issue, Sasikala decided to ascend the throne by de-seating OPS. OPS after initially playing ball decided to run Sasikala out. After his well-choreographed chat with Amma’s Atma for 40 over minutes (not 5 or 10 mins but 40 which was the time needed for the TV cameras to reach Marina beach from wherever they were) spilled the beans on the machinations of Sasikala. He put paid to her ambitions and her so far crafted public image. From being the natural claimant to Jayalalitha’s legacy just a few weeks back to becoming the Villian No. 1, the descent for Sasikala has been steep.  And OPS morphed to becoming a paragon of virtue. Meme factories the best testimonials so far to the Make in India program aided the transition of OPS from a “starter” to being the “main course”!

What explains this Sasikala camp not following the “Sonia Gandhi model”?

Was it the chase for money? I don’t think so. In fact authority sans responsibility is the best way to get a share of the booty while dodging what our erudite CEA Arvind Subramaniam calls as 4cs – Courts, CVC, CBI and CAG which today torment politicians in power!!!

Could it be the lust for absolute power? That narcissist feeling of seeing your name prefixed with Chief Minister when the opportunity is at striking distance is certainly tempting for anybody. So, this could have been the reason though as per me, the headaches that come along may not be worth it. That too when you can still enjoy the fruits of power by wielding the remote control.

I think that there is more to than meets the eye. It is possible that OPS is in the know of the shenanigans of Sasikala in the last few years. So the most plausible reason could be the insecurity that OPS may let the Govt. machinery have a go at the Mannargudi Mafia as it is called now with the sleight of hand of the centre.  This would pose a 24*7*365 check on her aspirations while giving the impression of her wielding power when she is not.  I conjecture that this could be the reason for Sasikala & Co. in deciding to pull the plug on OPS as CM so early. More time could have only cemented OPS’ position.

What would have been a smooth transition had OPS played his usual submissive self, has turned into a pitch battle now. The “Game of Thrones” is now playing out on our TV screens for the past 1 week putting reality shows to shame.  Herding and hiding of MLA’s in luxury resorts an idea contributed to Indian polity by Chandrababu Naidu I think is past its prime. MLAs one by one jumping ship from Sasikala to OPS on an hourly basis only brings to the fore the need for a “Conscience vote”. In India, the Anti defection law originally meant for stopping the Aaya ram gaya ram politics of the 80’s has put a lid on the conscience vote totally. Today a MLA or an MP has no option but to toe the high command line lest he/she will be disqualified under the Anti Defection law. This has effectively stymied dissent in democracy. Though the lack of conscience vote is not an issue in the ongoing TN saga, I reckon lack of conscience is.

I feel that if our legislators are allowed to vote with their conscience confidentially on all issues may it be related to internal democracy (like electing their leader) or voting on a bill, our country will be a better place. Till such time, those honest people wanting to enter politics may have to wait.

ops-sasiPic Courtesy: Indiatoday.in

Savour the Achhe Din!!!

In these largely agonizing days in India, a call to savour the Achhe Din would seem highly preposterous, isn’t it??? Well, wait a minute!

  • New Delhi, Oct 1984 – The then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi is assassinated by 2 of her own body guards. Over the next few days, thousands of Sikhs get killed and their property burnt in Delhi in a violent reaction.
  • Chennai, Dec 1987 M.G.Ramachandran, the charismatic actor turned Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu died after prolonged illness at his residence. His death sparked off a frenzy of looting and rioting all over the state. Shops, cinemas, buses and other public and private property became the target of violence.
  • New Delhi & Parts of North India, Aug 1990 – The then VP. Singh Government decides to accept Mandal commission report which recommended 27% reservation for OBC candidates at all levels of Govt. services. Large scale protests erupted mainly in North India including self-immolation bids by students against co-opting the report.
  • Mumbai, Jan 1993 – Following the Babri demolition in Dec, 1992, what started as peaceful protests escalated into large scale communal riots in Mumbai between Dec 1992 and Jan 1993 where thousands of people died, properties looted and destroyed.
  • Thane, Mumbai, April 2001Shiv Sena Leader Anand Dighe dies in Singhania Hospital, Thane at a relatively young age of 50 following a cardiac arrest. As soon as the news of Dighe’s death broke, irate Shiv Sainiks went on a rampage in the premises of Singhania Hospital and set on fire the hospital.
  • Bengaluru, Sep 2016 – Supreme Court orders Karnataka to release of 15000 Cusecs of Cauvery water to Tamil Nadu. Immediate violent reactions erupted with burning of TN registered vehicles and destruction of public and private property.

In all the above, one can notice that while the provocations are different – from a leader’s killing to another leader’s own demise to a political move to demolition of a religious symbol to an adverse Supreme Court judgement that too in different parts of the country, the reaction of the people followed a pattern. Violence, looting, mob fury, vandalism,…,…. leading to many deaths and large scale destruction of property.

This proves that as Indians we are a bunch of gullible emotional people. We can get easily provoked into carrying out what are supposedly unlawful activities that bring disrepute to the country and also affect us economically.

In any country’s timeline there are defining moments. Moments which change the destiny of the country for the good or worse. Our country’s history since Independence also is replete with such defining moments – some of them which we can be proud of and others which push our heads down.

I reckon that the Demonetisation call of 8th Nov, 2016 would be such a defining moment in our country’s history when it’s scripted later. I am not here to pronounce this based on the economic benefits of Demonetisation. The erudite are already doing it with media abound with pieces hailing and trashing the move in same breath. And frankly it is early days yet. However something else that is monumental is happening in the country which is what this post is on.

Going back to what I elucidated in the beginning of the piece, in our country we get easily provoked. And the result of the same is there for all of us to see. In this context let’s look at what’s been happening since that eventful address to the nation of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 8th November:

  • Bulk of currency in circulation was withdrawn and we were told to go Banks/Post offices to withdraw/exchange the old currencies before Dec. 30th
  • Since then there has been serpentine lines in front of banks.
  • Banks have been woefully short of currency as RBI’s supply chain right from printing to distribution has not been able to cope up.
  • Banks when they had currency only dispersed high value 2000 rupee notes.
  • ATMs have not been mostly functioning and if working for few hours, could give us just 1 note of Rs.2000.
  • The rules of withdrawal and exchange have been changing by the hour and have been the butt of new WhatsApp jokes by the minute! In fact the exchange goal post of 30th Dec. has been brought forward.
  • Both the TV and print media have myriad stories of how Demonetisation has affected the common man in urban and rural areas.
  • There have been many deaths attributed to Demonetisation in many parts of the country. Every day there are updates on the death toll in the media.

demon-toon

It’s almost a month now and still the situation is fluid. As one can see that this Demonetisation gamble by the Govt. has presented to us – public many, many opportunities to get provoked.  But the one difference is we that have not got provoked. At least up until now. And I hope I have not spoken too soon.

The resultant emotional outbursts leading to violent reactions for events mentioned in the beginning are sometimes quite spontaneous (though it is still difficult to explain the reactions so very violent) but many times orchestrated to further political interests. In this case (Demonetisation) also we have seen few political parties trying their best to spin things out of control and bring the Govt. on its knees. But just that this time around, few things have been different:

  • The common public of all hue – have not taken to damaging of banks, burning of empty ATMs, attacking Bank officers, setting on fire currency vans,… even when they have been driven to heights of frustration.
  • There have not been blackening of faces of BJP leaders or burning of effigies of PM or the RBI Governor!
  • For the 1st time in my memory, political parties had to go a large length to explain that they were not supporting any Bharat Bandh supposedly after reading the citizens’ Anti bandh mood!
  • For the 1st time again in my memory, no political party has given the Demonetisation move a communal colour so far. Otherwise in our country any decision from awarding a Padma Shri to constructing a hospital is given a communal tint by commentators and vested interests very convincingly.

For the above reasons I would like to believe that the benefits or otherwise of Demonetisation notwithstanding, this move will emerge as a defining moment in India’s history – where the public of India completely toed the line of its Prime Minister, shunned the rhetoric of others, remained unprovoked and went through the grind.

I am not sure if we as a country will display such great maturity in reacting to unfavourable events in the future. But for now, let’s savour the Achhe Din!!! Shoba De in her today’s column calls 2016 – Annus horibilis! No, Ms. De – for this significant change in our public reaction, 2016 is in fact Annus mirabilis!!!

Toon Courtesy: Satish Acharya

Also read my other post on Demonetisation – “Cash Mukt Bharat” here!

#GST is done, now work on GST-II

Finally the GST (Goods & Services Tax) in India is done if not dusted yet after being in the works for a decade.  From a foreign investor perspective, GST and FDI in Multi-brand retail are the initiatives that bracket India as a perennial “Work in Progress” economy.  Now is the time I believe to give a crack on another GST – “Good & Smooth Traffic” that is.

Traffic 2

Consider the situation in all the key cities of India today. In Delhi/NCR as I personally experienced last week, it just took one shower for an hour or so to bring Gurgaon oops Gurugram on its knees.  From the Delhi airport to the end of Gurugram took me 4 hours on a week day evening that too when it was supposedly against the traffic. I was lucky. The subsequent days it took more than 6 hours I was told. The CM had to do an aerial survey to understand the gravity of the jam!

In Mumbai these days you have traffic jams everywhere. In the so called freeways, Expressways, main roads, arterial roads, streets, gallis,.. everywhere.  Yes, in the air too. Flights departing out of and landing into Mumbai post 6 pm are routinely delayed due to air traffic congestion! And as I found today, even supermarkets are not spared of mammoth traffic. The space between racks are choked with oversized trolleys and sea of people that negotiating your way out is worse than Mumbai roads. I see this routinely in the neighbourhood supermarkets every weekend and sometimes on weekdays even. (Based on this, one is inclined to believe that “Achhe Din” have indeed arrived for the Great Indian Middle Class!!!).  Year after year during monsoons in Mumbai, the city resembles a Moon’s surface. May be it rains potholes!! For the Aam admi, every day it is “one small step becoming a giant leap” (as the pot holes are so big, deep and wide). For the city of Mumbai, Niantic the company behind the latest craze in town – Pokemon Go is better advised to go with a modified version “Pothole Go” which could be a runaway hit but slowed by traffic jams.

Ease of commute to work has become the single biggest hygiene factor these days for candidates when they seek a job. So much so, recently in a job interview the candidate asked me if we would anytime shift the office from current location and if yes, will it be still in the vicinity!! It is completely understandable I guess. With commuting and whatsapping sapping a lot of one’s time these days, “me time or family time” is on the shrink.

In India’s Silicon Valley and IT capital, “going live today” has a different meaning these days which is – atleast moving ahead in traffic while on the road. In peak hours it doesn’t matter where you are going and from where. Couple of hours on the road is a given. Columnist and now MP Swapan Dasgupta once tweeted “The unending journey from the airport to anywhere in Bangalore…” I would replace the words “the Airport” to “anywhere” now. The city missed a few crucial years in development when IT was on fire. Today, it is facing the heat of that miss.

In Chennai, if the Govt. spends one tenth of the money the parties spend on posters on building flyovers over key junctions, the city will be a different place to live. I am told that a 30km stretch of OMR (Old Mahalipuram Road) has only 11 signals!!.  Besides the myriad engineering college buses and IT companies transport vehicles, you will be lucky if you get some space to move your humble two wheeler.

In all these cities, the common story is of exponential growth with infrastructure not keeping pace at all. More often than not, a project planned today with certain expected growth in traffic becomes obsolete by the time it is commissioned as it usually takes 3 times longer time than planned. A very good case in point is the Chembur-Santacruz Link road in Mumbai which was opened amidst much fanfare and talk of smoother East- West connectivity and how one can reach the airport from Ghatkopar in 15 mins. 3 years after commissioning its already bursting at the seams. And in all these cities, there is very limited scope for road widening or expansion anymore. So this naturally calls of holistic planning with alternative modes of transport (like Metro) and also project conception and execution today with 25 years hence traffic in mind.

Ease of Traffic which essentially means less time on commuting has to become a National charter now. It won’t be too far when along with Bijli, Sadak, Paani and Bandwidth – Roadwidth gets into the National discourse during elections. So from a political perspective as well, focusing on less traffic on roads will become a game changer in the future. And the party which appreciates that and works on the same gets to reap the dividend. So I urge that the present Govt. to start work on “GST-II” asap. Just like how the central govt has to work jointly with the states for a smooth roll out first and then implementation of the GST reform, on the traffic also the Central Govt. must work with the states to give this a high priority work to a plan in all the key cities.  And like how “One nation, One tax” is becoming a reality considering India’s highly complicated historical tax regime, “Single nation, Smooth traffic” will soon become the need of the hour if not it is already.

I am not sure if the Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari’s children are politically inclined. I would presume so. If he starts work on this idea of a GST-II bill now, most likely it would become a reality during their time!!!

Marketing of “Acche Din”!!!

No other phrase has caught the imagination of the public – intelligentsia and others as this Acche Din” (Good Days) in recent memory in India. The only others I could think of are – Big B’s ‘Lock Kiya jai??’ during the heydays of KBC (Kaun Banega Crorepati). For few years post KBC-Season 1, we Indians were only “Locking” instead of “confirming” or “making sure”😃 . More lately, when Aamir Khan insisted on “All izz well” in Raju Hirani’s 3 Idiots, “I am fine”, “Sab teek hai”,.. got paraphrased by “All izz well”. (“All” being pronounced as “aal” ad nauseum😠)  So similarly these days, it’s raining Acche Din!!! Our Prime Minister has turned out to be so good in marketing that his Twitter bio could very well read – “Narendra Modi. Prime Minister of India. And a Marketing Maven”.

And this is exactly what has set the discourse in the media in a wrong track. Once again. “Your Government is all about marketing and packaging” is a refrain the NDA ministers were subjected to in all the interviews they gave around Modi365. The anchors were different, the channels were different, and the language was different. But the shrill accusation was the same. That this Government indulges itself in Marketing and loud at that.

As if “Marketing” in itself is a crime inflicted on society. And this notion is not something which has sprang up with the advent of Modi Sarkar. In general there is this subtext that marketing is nothing but a con job!! That marketing goes well with people with the Gift of the gab!!! And that marketing is all jazz and no mass.

For a long time I used to wonder where this impression came from! Gradually, I got the answers. First, in general Marketing and Direct selling (one to one selling) are often used interchangeably. That selling or sales is just one aspect of Marketing is a lesson which gets drilled in the first few pages of Philip Kotler. However in real life, people who are in say selling of Insurance policies or vacuüm cleaners or Time share holidays on one to one basis are often called as “Marketing” people. In direct selling situations more often than not we end up buying the product just to ward off the salesperson’s thollai/parishan (torture)😞😞. And the thought keeps lingering for quite some time that he/she has conned us into buying.  And hence the belief that marketing is just that – A royal conning!

Second, Marketing is also equated to Advertising. Even in B-schools many aspire to join marketing stream with a delusion that they will be associated with creating ads all the time in their career. In reality, advertising is just one part of marketing. When we keep seeing ads of toothpastes which promise “Crystal White teeth” in 45 days or commercials for Nutritional drinks which promise to grow children tall automatically in few months and nothing close to those anyway happen – we conclude that “Marketing” is all about taking people for a ride.

(And there is a third one which I get to see these days often. I.e using the word marketing for “going to the market for shopping”😜😜)

Thanks to the above fallacies, Marketing has got a bad name. In truth, Marketing is not hard selling. Is not advertising or for that matter shopping!! But is a more complex process of creating, communicating, and delivering something that have value for customers. (Ouch, that was a gyan overdose😜). Even a damn good product requires damn good marketing of the same.  In political context, the 1991 reforms which are now seen as the game changer for India now, were never marketed that time. So much so, even among the Congress there was such a backlash that Manmohan Singh, the then finance minister had to claw back on the reforms push. If the benefits of the reform programme were marketed well the phrase “Economic Reforms” in India would never have taken a negative connotation. Same is the case with NDA’s disinvestment programme during Vajpayee regime. So this brings to the fore the importance of “Good Marketing” (like the need for good cholesterol – for the sceptics) in politics for Pro bono.

Hence to a large extent, I am glad to see the present Government and the PM going all out to “market” their initiatives whether it is Make in India, Jan Dhan Yojana or Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.  Or for that matter packaging the 1st year achievements as ‘Saal Ek Shuruaat Anek’. As long as the PM and Government are good at last mile delivery of the products as they are in marketing of the same, I am certain Acche Din are round the corner for India. And I am also certain that the PM is also aware of the repercussions otherwise. That Abki Baar Modi Sarkar would be branded as Abki Baar Jumla Sarkar the next time around😆😆

Acche Din toon

Postscript: My apologies if the title made you to believe that this post is another post mortem of the 1st year of Modi Sarkar.  There has been 100’s of that in the last few days! So didn’t want to add to the clutter. On the other hand, Perception management is one part of Marketing. I thought Marketing itself needed a dose of perception management 😆😆

Cartoon credit: Satish Acharya

Indian Elections – Truly Sensational!!!

On a day when one has been busy following the results of what has been touted as “Semifinals” i.e. the elections in few states of India, one cannot but feel happy/proud at the way the whole election process works in India. Elections in India today, whether they are the state elections or the Lok Sabha elections happen in a very smooth manner, well almost. The Election Commission (EC) which is an independent constitutional authority is responsible for conducting elections in India under the frame work of the Representation of Peoples Act, 1951. From the time the elections are called till the results are announced after counting and governments are formed, the entire process rolls out like a well-oiled machinery.  There are very few parallels in India to the EC if you talk of “Sarkari” offices discharging their duties so efficiently.  However it was not the case for quite some time since Independence.

The way elections in India are held can be categorized into 2 eras – the BS and AS era just like the “Before Christ (BC)” and Anno Domini (AD)” era.  For the uninitiated, BS is “Before Seshan” and AS is “After Seshan”.  Tirunellai Narayana Iyer Seshan, popularly known as T.N.Seshan took over as the 10th Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) in the year 1990 and elections in India since then have never been the same. He was in office till 1996 before he retired.  If today one views the office of the CEC and its incumbents with some reverence, it is certainly after 1990. In the time before 1990 which is the BS era, the office of the CEC was another sedate, sober one carrying out the job of conducting elections in the country in a very routine manner. Though the position was an independent one, till Seshan came in the CEC almost functioned as an office reporting to the Government of the day.  But the same office transformed itself since 1990 when Seshan took over and has become what we see as one of the most efficient departments of the Government of India. We hardly remember the names of the CECs before Seshan. On a day when Seshan must be watching the election results sipping hot filter Kaapi from I guess Chennai, it will be good to recall few of the landmark changes he brought into the election process:

  • Today, the moment elections are announced the political parties come under the purview of what is known as “Model Code of conduct”. As per this, among other things, the Government of the day cannot announce any luring sop or launch any program which can influence the voter once the elections are announced.  In addition to this significant point, there are other mandatory requirements as well. Mind you this Model Code of Conduct is not any law under the statute but an ingenious intervention by Seshan to make the elections free and fair.  Since then this Code of Conduct has been refined to include many other clauses as well and is today an established drill followed with discipline.
  • In the BS era, on a polling day with much less media coverage and almost no or low security – it was free for all leading to rigging, booth capturing, fraudulent voting and what have you.  It was common for voters to find their votes already cast when they go late in the day.  Today it is not as bad due to
    • the elections being conducted in a phased manner (and not in a single day as it used to be in the 80’s) so as to ensure sufficient police and security forces being made available across the state. When Seshan announced his plan of conducting elections in phases for the 1st time, it took everybody by surprise and there were many who questioned his wisdom evoking fears of keeping the ballot boxes safe,.. But he stuck to his guns and now, phased conduct of Lok Sabha elections and elections in larger states has become the norm and no EC even thinks of conducting elections in a single day. That he was in the Home Ministry earlier helped him to assess the logistical challenge for the troops movement. The model he came up for scheduling phased out elections is part of the EC’s Standard Operating Procedure.
    • The introduction of the Voter’s identity card:  One fine morning in Aug 1993, a maverick he is – Seshan announced that no more elections will be conducted in India without voter identity cards which have the photo and other details of the voters. It was an exercise of gargantuan proportion to issue a photo I-Card to all eligible voters and this call certainly put the Government in a quandary as to how the same could be implemented. Seshan thumped his foot down on this (as he always did) and got the Government to allocate funds in the budget and got this project underway. He relented only a bit in terms of time frame but ensured that the Government commits itself to this cause. I must add that for a complex country like India such a project needs a better project implementation rigour. Due to the very aggressive posturing of Seshan, the project got implemented though in a hap hazard manner (lot of mistakes in the cards, Duplication, Inadequate coverage of the entire population,…). Nevertheless the need for a Voter ID got in vogue in the country and still is.

    Indian Elections

    • Enforcement of spending limits by candidates: The existing limits for spending for candidates always appear to be some kind of a joke when you actually see the kind of money which gets spent oops “invested” in elections.  State funding of elections has been an idea which has been going the rounds but which needed legislation.  In the meantime, Seshan introduced the concept of having officers going around the length and breadth of the electorate and filming/recording activities the candidates carry out in the garb of electioneering.   With this initiative there have been very many instances where candidates have been disqualified post their victory under charges of unfair practices. Though money power is still omnipresent it is not as obvious as before.
    • Timing and scheduling of elections: It is an established fact that Mrs. Gandhi used IB (Intelligence Bureau) to gather ground intelligence about the way the political wind was blowing and dismissed elected governments under some pretext. She then got the then EC to time the elections suitably. Not so in the AS era. Now the EC decides on the timing and scheduling based on various factors some as per the constitutional provisions and others as per need to conduct free and fair elections (weather, school holidays, religious festivals, …,…)
    • Cancelling/Ordering Repoll in case of mal practices: Seshan was quick to make assessment of any reported mal practices which happened on the polling day or before and order re-poll in those constituencies. This became an effective barrier for such activities.

Now when he brought in all these changes did the Government of the day keep quiet? Well not at all. It did its bit to clip his wings by making the EC a multi member body with one Chief Election Commissioner and 2 Election Commissioners. (Earlier it had just one CEC). Fortunately this change didn’t affect the functioning of the EC and may be made it more robust.  Since Seshan, India has been fortunate to have some illustrious officers who served as CEC and continued the autonomous working style and authority of the EC. But to Seshan’s credit it must be said that we have not seen many substantive changes or game changing ideas since his departure. The EC has been by and large following the broad template Seshan had evolved for conducting free and fair polls in the country.

Seshan is reported to have famously said that men from Palghat were either great cooks or classical musicians or good bureaucrats. So as per him, that he was a good officer was because of where he hailed from. That was a very simplistic self-assessment of a man who was not known so much for his humility but certainly reputed for cleaning up Indian elections once for all.

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 Postscript: If there is one area where the Chinese feel envious of India it is the fact that we choose our leaders through elections that too of the free and fair type which people like Seshan ensured over a period of time. Can China get an “Aam Admi Party“??? Truly senSeshanal isn’t it??? On that note, 3 cheers 🙂 🙂 🙂

Now running successfully worldwide – “India Sorry”

In the corporate board rooms of many multinational corporations the “India Story” which was weaving itself has now given way to “India Sorry” with accompanying pathos.  The overwhelming feeling is of a wholesale deprivation of the aspirations of the talented Indians by their political masters. “Incredible India” is desperately ‘in’ need of a ‘credible’ script, actors, technicians and the works. Flash back to the 2003-06 time frame, thanks to the easy money flowing in from the developed markets to emerging markets that included India, the markets were on fire. Pundits and others claimed that a GDP growth of 7-8 % is the base line rate of growth, come what may and if Govt. and administration did its bit (and If China gets to host events like Olympics 🙂 ), we could head towards 9 – 10 % growth.  The party was briefly interrupted by “the Lehman shock” the tremors of which shook the world – developed, developing and others. I say briefly because within a year or so markets like India and China not only recovered but were again breathing fire. This time the stimuli announced by developed countries like the US, Germany,… injected funds into the monetary system and once again easy money found its way here.  This was when the “India Story” was running full houses worldwide.

I recall seeing and hearing of many multinational companies having their Board meetings in India that time. Expansion plans for global companies seldom excluded India. Forex reserves were booming whether it was thro FDI or FII money. If you look at it now, that kind of over the top India focus and fuss became detrimental to India’s future. For, the rulers(UPA-I) started imagining and talking of India which is “decoupled” from the world without realizing that if structural reforms are not put in place, the “India Story” will turn apocryphal when the flow of easy money stops. And that’s exactly what happened. This is explained beautifully in Ruchir Sharma’s book –“Breakout Nations – In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles”. While he analyses many emerging markets and gives his verdict, as far as India is concerned his verdict is a 50:50 chance for India to breakout. I suspect that his own patriotic “Indian at heart” feeling came in the way of saying that the chances are pretty dim for India to become a breakout nation. Ruchir also says that we will have to get used to the “New Normal” of Pre 2003 GDP Growth which is 5.5-6%.

My own sense is that if India had focused on Governance, the situation would not have been as bad as it is now inspite of the global liquidity party getting over long while ago.  However in India the politics of economics is a deadly game. So instead of focusing on Governance, the Govt. headed by a Cambridge educated Economist was economic in Key decision-making and thereby introduced “policy paralysis” in the lexicon of the opposition/Industry and corporate reviews. Many observers are in unison when they point out that the Union budget presented by the present President of India in the year in the year 2012 as finance minister was the tipping point that led to world relegating India as a foot note in their strategy documents. Pranab Mukherjee amended the Income Tax Act, 1961, to impose a retrospective provision for tax on some types of global mergers, including Vodafone’s 2007 acquisition of Hutchinson’s assets in India. Even for a lay man it is difficult to fathom how somebody in the Govt. can think of passing an amendment with retrospective effect when companies have taken decisions to invest based on prevailing laws of the land.  That this controversial provision passed through the FM, the bureaucracy and even the PM is till today a shocker for me.  From then on it’s been a downward climb with downgrading of ratings, pulling out of money, slowdown in investments, falling off the Rupee,..,..  India got demoted while Pranabda got promoted 😦 😦 To compound to the situation, delay in environmental clearances for new projects, banning of mining, Telecom imbroglio, corruption charges all this made Indian investors to look for avenues outside of the country to invest.

As a rearguard action, Chidambaram was brought in as the Finance Minister to succeed Pranabda and frankly speaking he has been trying his best. The decision-making wheels in the Govt. have started moving. The “Rajan effect” has been just short of magic. From the time Raghuram Rajan was made the Governor of RBI, there has been some great things happening in the economy the most important being the strengthening of Rupee.  But the “Sir Newton effect” has been overpowering. Newton said “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction”. So the reaction from the world now is of a wait and watch.  With the Government in the December of its term, it makes little sense to investors and others alike to jump into the fray. For them it makes more sense to wait and see if India presents a credible and durable “Change” come 2014.

And it is not just the world which is looking for a change in India but even within India the mood is the same. Though it is still not clear what the opposition’s clear economic agenda is, Narendra Modi the PM candidate for BJP is attracting attention all over.  This can only be due to an overwhelming yearning for change. If that change happens, it will be interesting to see how they tackle the economy differently. Yashwant Sinha an Ex and potential finance minister in his book calls himself a “Swadeshi Reformer”. As oxymoronic as it sounds, except for opposing what the Govt. is doing, even he has not yet spelt out clearly BJP’s stand on key economic reforms.

Shankkar Aiyar a reputed columnist in his book “Accidental India” says and I quote “It would seem that everything the country has achieved has arrived by accident, catalyzed by calamity”. Turning points in the country like the liberalization of 1991,.. as per him “were not the result of foresight or careful planning but were rather the accidental consequences of major crises that had to be resolved at any cost”. For quite some time now I was of the same opinion but dismissed it as a streak of a cynical Indian. But reading this fantastic book has confirmed my worst fears around policy making which is by nature reactive rather than proactive.  As the country is in the throes of another economic crisis if not collapse, we await another “accident” which will bring the “India story” back to the global theatres. Till then it looks like there is no escape (velocity) 🙂 🙂

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Also pls. read my earlier post on reforms “The Politics of Reforms” written in Sep 2012 –  http://wp.me/p1dZc2-bQ