Packaging of the Package!

In India, in the past few days, most Indians or at least the urban folks have been hooked on to the television by 4.00 p.m. every day. Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a grand announcement of ushering in an Atmanirbhar Bharat with an economic package of Rs. 20 Lac Crore, not just the devil, hope was also in the detail. So, it was left to the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman to announce the details that would not belie the hopes of millions of Indians.

In India today and probably the world over, if one has to depend on the media commentary to make up one’s mind on an issue, it is virtually impossible. On any topic, the tone of the commentary and its conclusion can be guessed without even reading the piece or watching the full clip, by just looking at the author’s name or the medium carrying it. These days, very rarely you get to read a piece that gives a balanced opinion on a topic, the two or more sides of it, the pros and cons and possibly the positive and negative impact.  So, even to the slew of announcements the finance minister has been making, the reactions have been on predictable lines. The pro-government media/authors have been only praising the initiatives while those opposing have only picked up holes in the announcements. Balanced commentary is increasingly becoming as oxymoron.

It is under these circumstances that I feel, any government today needs to be super-efficient in its communication, so that it has the intended impact on people.  The usually communication savvy Modi Sarkar, has been found wanting particularly in these dire times, when it is utmost critical to bring in comfort and then confidence to the public at large. I will explain why and will try my best to provide a balanced view.

  • First up, the intention of the government not to get bogged down by Covid, but use it as an opportunity to re-define strategic priorities for the country is welcome. To that extent, Modi’s speech on the 12th May, was pretty much on point. There was a vision and though delayed, a financial economic package to the tune of Rs. 20 lac crore,  which are both commendable.
  • The details of the package were to be released in the next few days which is what happened in the last few days, beginning 13th Feb and ending today.
  • The announcements do reveal that the government has done a lot of homework and that probably explains the delay in the unveiling of the package. Having said that, there has been issues with the content and form.
  • First the content.
    • The government in its wisdom chose to use this opportunity not to just announce the economic stimulus package but also address long pending reforms and amendments in laws which is appreciable.
    • Globally, there is an Anti-China mood and having a strategic game plan to take advantage of the changing winds is important. So, some of the measures announced I believe, are in that direction which augurs well for the country.
    • While few may understand that some measures are meant for short term remedy and others are meant for long term transformation, most of us cannot make the distinction.
    • It would have been better if the Government had broken down the announcement into two parts.
      • The first one, to just focus on the immediate short term stimulus/support measures that will “comfort” the ailing strata of the society. This announcement was the one which was widely and eagerly expected. So, what is in it for the MSMEs whose businesses have suffered badly, the urban and poor workers who are left without work and wages, and the farmers who have lost their income?  In this regard, some of the initiatives like the expanded MSME credit facility even without collaterals, free ration to the poor including those without ration cards and the Additional MGNREGA allocation are greatly appreciable.
      • There has been all around pressing calls for cash transfer to the poor as the panacea for the migrant crisis that has unfolded. The government’s view is that, it believed in empowerment rather than entitlement as a route to support poor at this stage. Also, there is a view that money transfer may lead to longer lines in front of liquor shops. There are no doubt, merits in these arguments. But, considering the current acute distress situation, it would have been good if, the government opted for cash transfer to Jan Dhan accounts of women for the next six months.  That would have addressed the lack of money and the alcohol problem in one bullet.
      • The second part could have been reforms and parliamentary actions that are more strategic that will give “confidence” to investors – domestic and foreign.  Muddling all these and choosing to announce major and a lot of minor initiatives together, has resulted in a problem of comprehension.
      • On each of the days of announcement, Twitter and WhatsApp groups were buzzing with more questions than answers, as to what all these actually meant the Aam admi. If the urban elite couldn’t make out that, how do we expect the poor who are expecting some immediate succour desperately from the government to comprehend what is in it for them?
      • If restricting the announcement to the top four or five big “new” initiatives would have reduced the stimulus to Rs.15 lac crore or something, so be it. That is better than creating a Shock and Awe with a huge amount and eventually leaving the public to just count the zeroes in it for the rest of the year.
  • Second the form.
    • In India, most of us suffer from what I call as the “More Points in Power point” syndrome. We feel that if there are more points in the slide, it is always better. In the corporate world, this syndrome translates itself into “More strategies”, More Key Actions”, “More priorities”, More slides, More everything!
    • In this case, the government too being a victim of this syndrome, ended up re-hashing many old initiatives, repeating stuff which have already been announced in the last budget. For example, the “One Nation One Ration Card” initiative was first announced if I am right in 2016. Stuff like reforming the Essential Commodities Act etc. have been touched upon in the past budget speeches.

The result is that, the Finance Minister ended up making her third budget speech for this year, the only difference being, it was in tranches. From the government’s point of view, this would have helped in deflecting the headlines for a week from the migrant crisis and other related bad news. But, I am not sure if the budget speech type announcements have helped in either “Comforting” the needy or building “Confidence” among the business community!

When marketing Guru Philip Kotler first talked of the P’s of marketing, he just referred to 4 P’s – Product, Price, Place and Promotion.  As marketing evolved, more P’s like Positioning, People and Packaging got added over a period of time. In the modern retail world, packaging got a lot of prominence due its influencing role at the point of sale. In today’s era of political communication too, I believe, even an economic or a stimulus package needs to be “Packaged” properly to reach its desired outcome.

Lest we forget, Narendra Modi has been the maiden recipient of the Philip Kotler Presidential Award.

Cartoon credit: Satish Acharya

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.

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.

Romanticism of Student Activism!

As the rage over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register for Citizens (NRC) spread across many parts of the country in the last week, few things became apparent. In India, we do not know to protest peacefully. Any protest quickly goes out of control and ends up inflicting colossal damage to public property. Second, parties try their best to tap into the raw energy of the students to further their own cause. In India, many of our campuses are already highly politicised. Campuses are clearly identified with one political front or the other.  And political parties use these as fertile grounds to advance their agenda.

The enduring images of these protests this week, apart from the burning buses are the ones where we saw students participating in big numbers in these protests in big cities. Commentators of the liberal variety have been gleefully talking of the heralding of “New India” when they saw students in the forefront of an agitation in many parts of the country, otherwise normally restricted to Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).  To me, this is not a very reassuring sign. As a nation still trying to battle huge problems of poverty, I firmly believe that the youth have got better things to do apart from taking part in political street battles.

A rebellious streak usually runs among all, in the college student age. And along with that naiveté too! And we all have been through this. An opportunity to bunk arduous classes, meet like-minded groups & carry out endless animated discussions, create posters, carry placards, burn candle lights, shout anti-establishment slogans and participate in symbolic processions has a ring of romanticism around it. And going further, taking selfies & groupies, posting on Instagram & other social media accounts and watching the mounting of likes, comments & Emoji’s, leave in oneself a sense of some great achievement. And in these times of societal approval by social media among youngistan, the temptation is high not to miss such occasions, whether you understand the cause and effect properly or not. Whether you believe in the cause or not.

A short clip of a young girl (probably a NRI) is going viral on social media where she talks of being there in Azad Maidan in Mumbai to protest against the CAB which she felt was discriminatory using her liberty, freedom etc….and when she is asked to explain how the Act is discriminatory, she just smiles off and excuses herself. At least that’s what the clip reveals. I feel sorry for the girl for being trolled like this for her ignorance. I don’t think she should be singled out like this. There would be many others who in spite of living in India having limited knowledge on the Cause and Effect of CAA. Therefore, just picking on her is a bit unfair.

In India, particularly if you are from the middle class which is a big pie in itself, your only calling card for a better future is education. One’s stepping stone for jobs is the degree what you have. There could be exceptions of few individuals who made it big “without taking shelter in schools/colleges even during rains” to use a popular Tamil cliché. But that’s not the rule. I can bet that most of the students  have a better lifestyle than their parents only because their parents studied well, helped themselves with good careers and reached a stage where they could afford a better life for their wards.

As a college student, if you are not well off, if you are not dependent upon your educational credentials to find a career and if you are not wanting to become a career politician, it doesn’t really make sense to ignore your studies and waste time indulging in campus politics and activism. One would site examples of a Sitaram Yechuri or a Brinda Karat or a Arun Jaitley as role models who made it big in politics after being student activists. But for every successful Arun Jaitley there are at least ten other nameless individuals who fell by the way side without completing their studies in time.

There are other issues as well. It just takes one provocation for what seemingly starts as a peaceful protest to turn violent. Even if you are a peace loving dove with no intentions of fermenting trouble, you could get in the thick of action involuntarily, beaten up black and blue and even locked up. One police entry on the wrong side is enough to deny you a passport. In these days of prying camera phones, you may just get captured randomly by random people who share these pictures in social media. And who knows? You could be the next viral sensation but for all wrong reasons!

And this is exactly what happened to two young girls from Kerala – Ladeeda Sakhaloon and Aysha Reena who are studying in Delhi and participated in the anti-CAA protests. When the pictures of them protecting their male friends from the menacing lathis and standing up to the might of the police went viral, they were hailed as “Sheroes” by the ever over- enthusiastic media, only to climb down in a few days when their now deleted social media profiles revealed their radical faces! I am quite certain that in a country like India, this episode would shadow them where ever they go.

At the risk of sounding extremely conservative, the point I am trying to drive at is – if you are a college student from poor or middle class, just focus on activities that will enhance your employability. That would mean studies and probably other creative pursuits. I know of bright students who got distracted by campus politics and ruined their lives. And for once no one should think that I am saying all this keeping the current CAA/NRC student protests in mind. I held the same view during the Chennai Jalli kattu protests as well.

Its’ good to be politically aware and have an opinion as a student. But taking it to street every time for a political cause sounds romantic. And that’s about it.  Unless you are a wannabe Kanhaiya Kumar who wants to be a career politician. Which makes sense.

Howdy Economy?

“Howdy” is in the air in India these days! With Prime Minister Narendra Modi set to address the global Indian audience from the NRI platform at Houston, which has been branded as “Howdy Modi”, this American slang has got into the Indian vocabulary!  But, in India, ever since the 1st Quarter poor GDP results were out, the commentariat has been asking just one question “Howdy Economy?” Because, Indian economy is believed to be in ICU where the Chief Doctor was not giving much attention!

In India, the time tested tradition has been to undertake reforms when there is a crisis. Economist and Author Shankkar Aiyyar explains this beautifully in his book – “Accidental India” with back stories behind every single historic economic initiative of post independent India. The bottom line being, we take such drastic steps only when push comes to shove!

It looks like the latest decision of the government to slash corporate taxes drastically in one go from 30% to 22% is one such initiative which will have a lasting positive impact on the economy but which was taken when the answer to Howdy Economy question was very, very feeble. Naysayers notwithstanding, simplifying the tax structure, eliminating the myriad exemptions and having a reasonable low rate is a welcome move. It will make the industry competitive, make it more profitable, attract both foreign and domestic investments thereby have a trickle-down effect on the economy.

I saw some commentary that, this is more of a long term treatment and not an answer to the short term woes. Indeed yes. There is no silver bullet that can get the economy growing at 8% and more. It needs a combination of measures that are short term and long term. My belief is that, irrespective of the condition of the economy, a simple and low corporate tax structure was anyway required to grow the economy from the 8% levels we were couple of years ago, to 10%. With the economy struggling at 5% levels, the crisis like situation galvanised the government into action. Finally, the progressive reduction in corporate tax from 30% to 25% which was promised by the then Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in the 2015 budget has been executed by his protégé Nirmala Sitharaman. She has done it in one stroke and has gone a step further reducing the rate to 22%.

While the reduction in corporate taxes is a supply side reform, steps are required in the demand side as well. With the transition to the GST regime, the government has less flexibility to announce stimulus like in the past where excise duty or Sales tax cuts used to be announced to boost demand and consumption. In the present GST regime, the GST council has to take a call on the same and make those adjustments. Some of the announcements on GST rate reduction on hotel tariffs are in this direction.

With the reduction of corporate taxes, there is a loud clamour for reduction on the personal taxes front. Experts keep saying that this will put more money in the pockets of the salaried class which will make them spend more. I am not too sure of this. In the past, whenever there has been some personal income tax slab changes and effective rate reduction, we hardly came to know of the savings or reduction. And I don’t think anyone then consciously went to spend the money saved! Of course, it is more of a mood lifter and gives a feel good effect to the salaried class. Beyond that, I am not sure if a personal income tax rate reduction will boost the consumption in the short run which is what experts claim!  Nevertheless, as I have opined in the past, simplification and reduction of tax rates is essential.  This will also remove the peeve that there is now too much gap between the corporate and personal income tax rates!

One positive signal from the last few weeks is that the Government is listening.  In today’s world, any government of the day can choose to ignore the mainstream media. However, it cannot afford to ignore popular opinion which manifests in social media. As someone said, in India, we have as many economists as we have cricket experts! But the good part is, thanks to social media, apart from the secluded voice of the commentariat, there is an opening for “People like us” to give our opinions.

Ever since the tax cut announcements, there has been much discussion and debate as to whether it is right, whether it is sufficient, whether it is too little – too late, if it is pandering to corporates and so on. And if things can turn around quickly? With the festive season coming up in India, it is all about signalling and lifting the spirits and mood. When there is bad news which usually reaches us through the media, even if we are not directly connected to it, we all start talking about it, isn’t it? I refer to this as the economy suffering from “Headlines syndrome”! So similarly, when there is positive cheer emanating from even a single but important decision like this, it has a ripple effect. So, I hope this corporate tax cut move leads to such positive ripple effect in the coming days! And the answer to “Howdy Economy?” becomes loud and cheerful in the coming days!

Postscript:  In my earlier posts, I had said,

As a purely short term stimulus, any capacity building in manufacturing industry by way of new factories, expansion of plants,.. should be provided with tax relief”

And

With respect to taxation, “In simple terms, the mantra should be lower tax rates with no or very few genuine exemptions

Glad both these found resonance with the government and have been implemented!

From Mission Kashmir to Fusion Kashmir!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pic Courtesy: Businesstoday.in

Calling it a Day!

It’s sad when someone takes his own life.

It’s sadder when the person is relatively young!

And even more sad when he is known to be a successful entrepreneur, a role model and founder of an iconic home grown brand!

As news started trickling in on Tuesday of the missing of Café Coffee Day’s (CCD) founder VG Siddhartha, leaving behind a letter purportedly written by him, a sense of foreboding loomed large.  When news of his death by suicide was confirmed the next morning, there was a pall of gloom, even among those who didn’t know him personally. That the brand he created touched many a lives across the country was enough to trigger a wave of emotions in the media, social media in particular.

In general, people who have interacted with Siddhartha talked high of him as a gentleman who knew his moorings well. And who didn’t have an air of himself even after reaching a reasonable peak in his career quite early in life.  In his interviews which surfaced after this tragedy, he can be seen talking passionately of taking his brand to the high streets of the world. There is no much evidence of him being a corporate bully or as a person who grew too much for his shoes or as one who wanted to grow by hook or crook!

In the letter which surfaced on Tuesday, Siddhartha basically talks of three reasons which sort of forced him to call it a day! Pressure from investors, high debt and finally bullying by tax authorities. The narrative that followed this unfortunate incident had two extreme tones mostly picking up threads from the letter and joining the dots. One painted Siddhartha as a victim. In this version, people slammed the Government of the terror it unleashed on hapless businessmen like Siddhartha in the name of Tax compliance. “Tax Terrorism must stop” was the clarion call.  The other narrative painted Siddhartha as a businessman who took advantage of his political lineage and used it to grow while crushing others.  This narrative sort of led to the conclusion that he was no more a crook in a nice pinstripe suit.

Like in most situations these days, the truth could be somewhere in between.  I don’t know of Siddhartha personally.  So, I don’t have personal likes or dislikes of him. I don’t own CCD shares either. Though, I like some of the CCD outlets, as a once upon time filter coffee connoisseur, regret to say, I am not a fan of the CCD coffee!! Ergo, I do believe that I can have a very detached view of this situation.

First up, I do not want to buy the victimhood argument which is being bandied about. In his own admission, Siddhartha has admitted to some financial misdealing. It is the tax sleuth’s job to go after suspects in the way they have been trained to. There is no record of this particular IT officer having singled out Siddhartha for harassment without evidence. On the other hand, what would have been the reaction if the story was slightly different? Had Siddhartha not taken his life but taken a flight out to Cayman Islands under the cloud of debt, tax evasions and investigation trail, what would have happened?  The same commentators would be today slamming the Government and the authorities concerned of letting go of Siddhartha just like Nirav Modis and Vijay Mallyas of the world! Here the angle of Siddhartha’s Father in law, S.M.Krishna being a BJP sympathiser now will be put to use to flog the argument further.

Secondly, that he built an iconic brand that employs 30,000 people cannot be brought forward again to defend his omissions and commissions. Any entrepreneur as far as I know, doesn’t start out with a mission of giving jobs to people. Most probably the larger objective is to build a successful business. When the business grows, people are obviously employed to attain or manage that growth.  So this argument is a non-starter.

Thirdly, the overwhelming victimhood narrative is also because the brand Café Coffee Day touched the lives of many people all over the country and so many had their own CCD stories to share. Of businesses that were “started up” over coffee meetings, over jobs that were landed, over romances that blossomed, over handsome deals that were stuck and so on. My question is, what if Siddhartha did not build Café Coffee Day chain but, a nondescript but equally successful business that supplies components to a global car manufacturer that employed 30,000 people in his factories?  I bet the emotional outbursts in favour of this Siddhartha would be far lower!  It must be also remembered that apart from CCD, Siddhartha ran a slew of businesses from Coffee Estates to Hotels to real estates to being an angel investor!

My point is that in the absence of clear details, it is too early to curse the tax authorities or the Government of pushing Siddhartha literally over the brink!

At the same time, in the absence of full facts, it is also not correct to paint Siddhartha as a villain! In the aftermath of the tragedy, WhatsApp University started spreading unnamed posts of how Siddhartha evaded tax through a complex web of dubious transactions. As they say, there is no smoke without fire or in this case there is no coffee without the bean!  In fact, activists like SR Hiremath have been raising noise about Siddhartha’s dealings as early as Aug 2015!

Be that as it may, it could very well be that as Siddhartha himself admits in the letter, he committed grave mistakes. The point is, if at the end of the day his assets outweigh his liabilities, what was the need to take such an extreme step? He could have very well faced the law, paid up his dues and still walked tall. This is where there seems to be more than that meets the eye, certainly.

In life, Siddhartha imparted many lessons for wannabe entrepreneurs on how to build a successful and adorable brand in such a short time. In his unnatural “Calling it a day” as well, he has imparted a few key lessons!

In Sanskrit the word Siddharth means “One who is in possession of all desirable things”! Yes, VG Siddhartha also was in possession of all desirable things except peace of mind. Most likely.  May his soul find that peace in this journey!

Image Courtesy: TheNewsMinute

When Social media becomes Antisocial!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The whole episode raises a few serious questions and concerns.

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

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

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

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

Image courtesy: Milapfest

Mood (di) of the Nation poll!

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

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

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

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

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

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

 “There is dissatisfaction for Modi but no hate!”

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

And so on!

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

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

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

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

Picture courtesy:  India Today