2021 State Elections – My Flash Take aways!

This round of elections in five states is finally over today and India will get a break from being in election mode for a year.  It’s been too long an election process that, everything else took a back seat including our war on Covid.  The counting is still on as I write this but the broad trends are clear. Since there are pundits galore in theorising on the results, I will skip that for the moment. Instead, in this post, I would like to list a few take aways on the whole elections, not just the results of this round of elections.

Here we go:

  • Anti-Incumbency as the pièce de résistance among theories for explaining a result is passé: In the past, analysts would always just dismiss any defeat of an incumbent government by ascribing to “Anti-Incumbency” as if it was extremely legitimate and acceptable. A few decades ago, it is true that incumbent governments were thrown out 7 out of 10 times. But, that’s no more the case. As we have seen in this round, 3 out of 5 governments have been re-elected. In Bengal, TMC has won a third consecutive term. It all boils down to quality of governance and what people feel about the next best option.  Anti-Incumbency is no more an excuse. And Pro-Incumbency is a virtue.
  • Hawa, Leher, Mahoul exist only in the minds of commentators: This is increasingly becoming the case in social media driven journalism. As we saw in UP in 2017, Karnataka in 2018 and now Bengal this time, mainstream media and social media can create their own “Waves” and “Hawa” that is far away from situation on the ground. So, making predictions and conclusions based on social media trends, Youtubers’ narratives and mainstream media commentary is fraught with a lot of risks.
  • Opinion Polls and Exit Polls are for entertainment only: This we have seen time and again now and doesn’t need much explanation. For almost all agencies, getting the polls right has a huge amount of luck riding on it. If they get it right, it’s their day. That’s all. In a diversified country like ours, statistical samples however scientific they are, have proven to be inconclusive. So, opinion polls and exit polls are a lottery. Even in this round, no agency predicted the scale of Mamata win and almost all predicted a tough fight.
  • Voters vote for Lok Sabha and State polls on their own merits: This is getting very conclusive by every election. In one of my earlier articles for Newslaundry (Read here), I had explained this with quite a few examples. In this round as well, we can see this aspect quite established in Bengal and Kerala.
  • Time for building consensus around One Nation – One Poll: This is linked to my last point as well. Now that we can see clearly that voters are indeed intelligent and vote as per merit in Lok Sabha and state elections, many of the regional parties and even the Congress which have their apprehensions that it will be only “Advantage BJP” if India opts for simultaneous elections, should shed the same and have a re-think for the sake of larger national interest. It is obvious that elections every year or twice a year are a huge distraction for governance. Also it is a drag on the resources for any government. Both the government and the parties can save a lot of money and time if we have simultaneous elections. Of course, it is not as easy as it sounds, but there should be a national debate on the same and a consensus built around this so that at least in the next 10 years we can move in this direction. My personal opinion is, if not simultaneous polls, at least we should move towards “One Nation, Two polls” by having Lok Sabha Polls once and all State polls together after 2.5 years.
  • Limit the number of phases to 3 or 4 for any state: I don’t think there is any country in the world that conducts its elections over two months in eight long phases. The phase wise polling was conceived by T.N.Seshan when he was the Chief Election Commission mainly to counter violence and election related mal practices so that the EC can muster central forces and conduct free and fair polls. But those were the days of ballot papers where the chances of rigging were higher. Also in today’s times of EVMs and of course prevalence of Smart technology, ways and means need to be found for conducting free and fair elections in 3 or 4 phases in any state and eventually one phase.
  • Limit for expenses in an election is a joke: It is high time, the limits are re-visited. Also new limits need be prescribed for self, party and total expenses. It wll be good to take a look at best practices in other democratic countries on this and come up with a model for future.
  • Huge market opens up for political strategists and IPAC type organisations: This is not a new take away based on today’s results. But today’s results cement this proposition beyond doubt. It is no longer enough for parties to depend on their loyal karyakartas to carry our ground work. Parties need strategists and organisations to hold a mirror to them and carry out smart work in the field using data, analytics, technology and tools. It is not that an external strategist or marketing can save a bad product. But even a good product in today’s competitive times need adequate marketing cover. And therefore, the market for political strategists and political consulting companies in India has expanded. So it is as a career for youngsters in election management and related marketing. And Marketing works.
  • Last but not the least, EVMs are not instruments in the hands of those in power: I hope the debate around EVMs is put to rest conclusively now that opposition has also won spectacularly.

As you can see half of the points are related to the way elections are being conducted in India. After a round of reforms which Seshan initiated during his tenure, we have not seen much of electoral reforms. It is now time for the country to build consensus around electoral reforms and introduce them to keep our status as a vibrant democracy.

Image Courtesy: Firstpost.

Covid – Contending with the Waves of Uncertainty!

If at all there has been one thing which is consistent with Covid, it is its remarkable inconsistency.  From the time Covid entered our collective lexicon in February last year, every theory or conclusion related to its behaviour has been found to be inconsistent or invalid very soon after.  Like India was never affected by Bird flu or SARS virus, so we will not be affected by Corona virus (See the situation today). India is a hot country and in peak summers, Virus cannot survive (It did hit us through the last summer). India will be spared as we have better immunity for many diseases (Of course India was not spared).  During monsoons in places like Mumbai, Covid is going to create a havoc (There was no specific spike during monsoons).  Masks are required only if you have symptoms but hand washing and sanitising are most important to prevent the spread (Today, it seems it is the other way – Masks are most important and hand washing is not that important).  Once vaccines are found, that will be the end game for Covid (Vaccines were indeed found but the end game is still not in sight).  Once you take the two doses, you are safe (Now the latest theory is, we may have to take vaccines every year!). This was just to list a few theories on Covid which have got negated along the way.

We must keep this in perspective when we make our judgement on the way the municipal administration or State governments or the Central government or the Prime Minister have handled what is now called as the 2nd wave in India. Let us all be honest. Since the dawn of this New Year, all of us have in some way or other started moving towards leading a normal, pre-Covid life. We started – travelling out of our cities, taking vacation breaks, working from Office, wining and dining out, going to places of worship, having social get togethers, planning for house functions and getting domestic helps back in our houses, to mention a few normal/pre-Covid activities.

All of us were keen to put Covid behind us and lead a normal life. We all understand that it is important for economy to get back to normal which can only happen if consumption in all spheres get back to normal. We were all happy when GST figures reached pre-Covid levels and were delighted when it started exceeding pre-Covid numbers. All this when we also got the news that vaccines were available and we could see some light at the end of the Covid tunnel. We all celebrated and rejoiced about how India came out unscathed on Covid.

What we did at individual levels, companies did at their level as well with respect to businesses. And similarly the administration and Government did at their levels. In this period, we must not forget that farmer protests which in normal Covid times could be super spreader events were going on in most parts of North India. Yet, we didn’t see any spike in Punjab or Delhi or other states where farmers in large numbers were protesting taking limited or no Covid precautions. A full test match was held in Chennai with spectators watching it and there was no spike after that. Looking at these I guess, the Election Commission went ahead with the conduct of the polls in the five states in March and April. Ditto for the Uttarakhand government for the Khumb festival.  We all lowered our guard. Not just the government.

Today, however in India, we have been savaged by a Covid Tsunami. So, what we see all around are depressing news about deaths, sufferings and other collateral issues, all related to Covid. We have been hit by a lethal second wave which none of us saw it coming. This is where the first failure of the epidemiologists, experts and relevant authorities in the administration come into picture. All the while in the 1st Quarter of this year, I only saw experts explaining how India has flattened the curve and how we were moving towards herd immunity.  So, when other countries like the UK, USA and a few European countries were hit by a second wave, why was there no alert from the experts of a potential second wave in India?

In the mid of March, we could see suddenly numbers rising in states like Maharashtra and Kerala without any specific trigger like a super spreader event. When at that time, a few were enquiring with me on what’s happening in Mumbai, I mentioned that it is only a question of time the numbers start going up in other cities/states. And that’s what happened. So, when a person like me without looking at any regression models or analysis could predict that we are up to an imminent spike in numbers, how come the state governments and Central government did not realise that we are walking into a sudden burst if precautions are not put in place immediately.

Even in the 3rd week of March, if the Election Commission had announced strict regulations on campaigning or Khumb was made symbolic as it was done eventually, things would have been different. Or if all states including Maharashtra started what it is doing today in terms of restricting movements, we could have avoided the crisis. This is the second issue.

As some wise man said, “Before, you are wise. After, you are wise. In between, you are otherwise!” In hindsight everyone is God. Anyway, today lock downs have been put in place and I am sure, the numbers will start coming down in the next 4 weeks. Already the numbers in Mumbai are showing a declining trend day by day. But, once we reach a trough, again it will be time for “Unlock 2.0”. When that happens, we may once again at some point of time witness a third wave, unless by that time we have vaccinated a reasonable mass of people.

It is clear therefore that the key to prevent further waves, is vaccination. Or so we hope at this point in time, unless even this theory gets demolished. It is now apparent that the vaccination roll out has been patchy.  Just six weeks into opening up of the vaccination program to public, we have a shortage of both the vaccines.  And I am not joining the chorus of why India exported vaccines when we should have used it for Indians first. The external affairs minister has articulated recently that if we do not support other countries, we cannot expect support from other countries for supply of raw materials. This could be the official line. But the main reason why the government also decided on exports initially was the shelf life, in my opinion. The government cannot give this reason out for obvious reasons.

The shelf life of Covishield is six months from the date of production. As per Serum institute, by the end of December, it had already produced about 50 million doses of the vaccine. I must add here that it had started producing and piling up inventory even before the official approvals. Since the vaccination roll out in India was planned to be in phases starting first with the health and frontline workers for obvious reasons, the stock would not have been consumed before the expiry. Hence, exports meant to serve triple purposes as per me. Consumption before expiry, generation of good will with Vax diplomacy and fulfilment of commercial and licence related contracts for Serum.

A committee under Niti Aayog has been entrusted with the roll out of the vaccination program and it appears that the whole plan was based on “let’s cross the bridge when we get there”. How else can we explain the fact that the Central government had not secured supplies for the vaccine from the two approved sources at least to cover 60% of the adult population right at the beginning? Why is it that the companies were not committed working capital support right at the contract signing stage? If there was a clear plan of sharing of responsibility between Centre and states, it was never made transparent. And today we see that the whole vaccination has been opened up but without ensuring supply. From vaccine hesitancy, it is now a rush for vaccine. It is going to take at least till June for stabilisation of supplies. To me, more than not anticipating the second wave or being lax on taking actions after witnessing the second wave, the ill preparedness of the government on the vaccination roll out is the main issue.

While it is now clear that we as a country have landed our foot into a second wave land mine, the last thing we should see is politicking over this and the never ending blame game between the Centre and states. It is high time that the Centre and states work together in diffusing the crisis rather than pointing fingers on who is wrong at this stage. This is a collective failure of all of us, the society, the administration, the domain experts, the State and the Central government.  As common public we must now learn to be cautious throughout even if we have taken the vaccine, control our instincts to get back to normal lives soon and learn to deal with what could be waves of uncertainty in the coming months.

Having said that, in terms of accountability, the buck of course stops at the top, which is the Prime Minister. He must now quickly move towards establishing a separate ministry for Covid and have a competent minister and set of bureaucrats to man the same.  This ministry should be tasked with all activities related to Covid as an umbrella entity. Being pro-active should be the core mantra for this entity.  It should be acting on a WAAR footing – Watch – Anticipate – Act – Repeat.

As we have seen, unless we get out of Covid quickly, lives and livelihoods will be under jeopardy – caught in the ensuing waves of uncertainty.

Pic Courtesy: India Today

Tamil Nadu Elections – A Battle of Known Unknowns!

In this week’s blog post, I continue my focus on Tamil Nadu state elections which is turning out to be a fascinating battle as the polling date comes closer. West Bengal elections and the results therein may be interesting for the commentariat for the sheer noise value around it because of the time and efforts being invested by BJP and Modi-Shah combine. But, I do feel that West Bengal is a simple and straight contest between TMC and BJP and the unknown in terms of result is only the margin of victory for the TMC and the extent of rise of the BJP in West Bengal.  In Tamil Nadu though, as it stands now, even with just few weeks for the poll date, the water is still muddy.

The reason for the same is there are many known unknowns in these elections that could impact the results in either way. What are those?

  1. Anti-Incumbency: Is there an Anti-Incumbency? The answer it seems depends on to whom the question is posed.  For a DMK supporter, there is an obvious anti-incumbency wave against the present EPS-OPS government. However for an ADMK supporter, there isn’t. There is a version which says even if it is, it is not strong enough to swing votes away from the ADMK. And finally there is one which says that few months ago there was but now there isn’t.
  1. Consolidation of Hindu vote: Will there be a consolidation of the Hindu vote in favour of the ADMK/BJP front? This is the first election in TN where BJP is making a serious attempt to make its presence felt. And it has been at it systematically in the last few months. In social media, there are orchestrated campaigns by BJP to make the Hindu vote count by appealing to the Hindu voters to reject the DMK based on its leaders’ past public utterances against Hindus and Hindu Gods. Yet, it is unclear if the campaign will lead to a consolidation of the Hindu vote and help the ADMK front.
  1. Kamal Haasan effect: Is Kamal Haasan’s party the Makkal Needhi Maiam going to split the ADMK votes or the DMK votes? It is clear that Kamal Haasan and his party are creating a buzz in the air this time. Targeted at those who are fed up with the Kazhagams in general, it is aiming to be an AAP in Tamil Nadu by being a third alternative. But it is obvious that it has not penetrated enough to form a government on its own and will lend support to one of the fronts in a post poll scenario. While the earnestness and honest image of Kamal are not questionable his personal ideology is. As an atheist and a non-believer, he is seen closer to the DMK ideology. At the same time, by calling himself as MGR’s ‘vaarisu’ he tries to appeal to the MGR’s supporters and legacy in the ADMK. It is also said that the youth are more drawn to Kamal. So, which section is he going to impress? Is he going to cut into DMK’s share or ADMK’s share or a bit of both? It is unclear.
  1. Freebies: In the battle of freebies and cash for votes, which side is showing more “catching” power? Tamil Nadu which usually has a paucity of rains, in election season shows a huge propensity for downpours. This season also, it is raining freebies from all sides. Whether the underprivileged and deprived class cast their vote depending upon the freebies being provided is a question which is unanswered. And there is also the phenomenon of distribution of cash to turn up to vote. Can the distributed cash provided an “aadhaar” proof of vote cast is a big question.
  1. Battle of narratives: On the one side from the DMK front, the narrative built is of a threat perception. Of Tamil Nadu succumbing to the Centre or BJP if the ADMK front is voted to power. On the other side from the ADMK front, it is the threat of handing over TN to one family which has always benefitted whenever it ruled. Between these two narratives – the first pegged around identity politics and weak leadership and the second around nepotism and corruption, which has more potential to gain ground?
  1. Leadership question: The last is the leadership question. This is the full first state election in Tamil Nadu without strong and charismatic leaders in both sides. Between Stalin and Palaniswami, is there a voter preference based on their leadership skills? Or is leadership an issue at all in this election?

All these known unknowns make the upcoming Tamil Nadu elections a tough one to call and a fascinating one for any political observer.  But one thing is clear. The stakes for not losing are quite high for all the main contenders except one. And you know which that one is. And that is a known known.

Graphic courtesy:  The Hindu Business line

Nothing Private about this!

Ever since, WhatsApp informed all its users of its new update on the privacy terms with an option to accept or “else”, debates and discussions have been happening on whether to move out of WhatsApp or just agree and continue. Irony lost its privacy when all these discussions have been happening predominantly over WhatsApp itself!

In the meantime, rival platforms like Telegram and Signal have seen a huge traction in terms of new users. WhatsApp has been trying to put out the fire through full page ads in mainline newspapers insisting that the new changes are not of any material consequence. And finally, it took a call to put off the effective date for the new policy till at least May which was earlier the 8th of Feb. Hopefully the chatter on this issue will reduce in the coming days. For the rival platforms and media companies though, in these tough times, this has become a bountiful New Year present from the Facebook Corporation.

I personally have been trying to wrap my head around what’s the brouhaha about and what should I do. Privacy is indeed a major issue. But the moot question remains as to where do we draw the line on it. With the advent of technology first in the form of computers, internet, Networks, the Mobile phone and now Apps for anything and everything under the Sun, it is clear that life has become more convenient. At the same time, it is also clear that all these invade a lot into our privacy.

The last time when the issue of privacy entered the drawing room discussions in India was when the Government of India was pushing Aadhaar linking to bank accounts, mobile phones, IT returns and so on. The move was challenged in Supreme Court and post the verdict which sent mixed signals, we don’t see so much push on the Aadhaar front these days in terms of linking with anything and everything. Aadhaar has now been relegated to just being one of the requirements for identity proof.  This is unfortunate because, when Aadhaar was envisioned by Nandan Nilekani and his team, the scope was to use Aadhaar for delivery of many of the Government services. There was also a talk of a virtual Aadhaar Bank. All those big ideas lost their way now due to the battle which a few launched on the privacy front against Aadhaar.

I was then of the opinion that all those who use mobile phones, who are active on social media, who use tools like Google search and maps and so on should never complain about privacy. As part of their functioning, they anyway track the users. So the question of privacy doesn’t arise. The only way to protect one’s privacy is not to use them at all. Even the congressional questioning which took place in the US against Facebook, Google etc.… did not lead anywhere because, at the end of the day, as users we choose to use the tools and accept the conditions that define the usage of these tools. We all have the choice not to use them at the expense of convenience in life.

My position around the new changes in WhatsApp and the next steps, veers around the same points.  If you are a user of Google search, Maps, Mail and the works, anyway a lot of your activity is tracked and shared across platforms. And today, I came to know that our off Facebook activity say in other Apps are being shared with Facebook by the Apps for which we have signed up and accepted the terms of usage! It’s ironical that many who complain about the new update in WhatsApp continue to post “Check in” and “Check Out” status on Facebook!

I also realised that more than the issue of actual privacy, the inhibition towards WhatsApp’s new policy has come from “Big Corporate phobia”. I remember reading in Philip Kotler’s Bible on Marketing that large corporates and market leaders are always prone to becoming victims of negative public reactions frequently and so the Marketing team in such large companies should be equipped to pro-actively sense this and strategize accordingly. Had this privacy update notice come from a smaller player, the response would have been muted. But because it was from WhatsApp which is this humungous communication monster today that too owned by another monster called Facebook, the noise became louder.  And looks like the marketing team there hasn’t read Kotler!

I feel a bit lazy and hassled to ditch WhatsApp now and start using another messaging App say like Signal knowing very well that Signal could be acquired by Google or Facebook tomorrow. And what stops the rival Apps from changing their privacy policy tomorrow? And also even after moving to another App for some group activities, if I have to continue with WhatsApp for other groups, it is a pain to dabble in multiple platforms, not to mention of the erosion in the available memory space on the poor mobile phone.

WhatsApp has turned out to be one of the most convenient mode of instant communication today and has become ubiquitous. So ubiquitous that WhatsApp has become a verb. You don’t send a picture over WhatsApp but you just WhatsApp it! It is indeed convenient and it has been free all along. It has broken all kinds of class barriers. It will take a while to completely sign out of this presently. Not that it is not probable. (Remember Orkut?)

Back in 2014, when Facebook acquired WhatsApp for a staggering US$19bn, the first question that came up in our minds was, what all will Facebook do to monetise WhatsApp? What’s been happening of late with WhatsApp is part of the answer to that question. The launch of WhatsApp business accounts, WhatsApp Pay and probably a virtual WhatsApp Bank are all steps to add revenue streams to the company.

It appears that there are two options now. One, if I am so concerned about my privacy, I have to ditch my smart phone, become smart myself, stay away from social media and stop using all the convenient Apps. It’s like going back in time to another era altogether.

The second option is not to get so concerned about the privacy threats and continue to use technology but be conscious of what we do and what we share on Apps and platforms and hope and pray that all’s well that ends well. For now, I have chosen the 2nd option. What about you?

If you like this post, do share among your WhatsApp groups or any other platform you have taken to of late. Thank you.

Pic Courtesy: NBC News

Thank God It’s a New Year!

In all these years so far in my life, never have I seen such wholesome relief in people on the passing by of a year. Year 2020 has been one of a kind. Not that there have been bad years before. But in the past, a year would have been labelled annus horribilis probably due to a natural calamity, a sad event/s, an economic bad spell and so on. Also, it so happens that a year turns out to be worse for some regions/countries in the world and better for others. But 2020 turned out to be a disaster for almost most part of the year due to the Corona Virus which did not spare any part of the world. The same time last year, as people ushered in another New Year with the usual sense of happiness and glee, none saw it coming. By April, the world was scrambling to lock itself down to save itself from the raging pandemic. Even as I write this, the pandemic is not behind us fully.

Any New Year usually brings in a ray of hope. A hope for better things to come.  2021 I guess, has been mankind’s most anticipated milestone. And people have not just been looking forward to a ray of hope but a landscape of hope. One just wanted to leave behind the horrors of living through a pandemic year and lead a normal life.  By the end of 2020 if you had asked me to name the phrase I hated the most, it was ‘New Normal’.  It still is.

Coming to India specifically, the year 2020 indeed turned out to be bad. Yet, I would reckon that we as a country came out of it relatively unscathed.  Of course the economy took a humungous hit. Of course lives were lost. Of course the common man had to go through hardships. Of course senior citizens had a tough time coping up. Of course people lost jobs. Of course migrant labour had to migrate without a hope. Of course earnings of people took a beating. Yet, if one looks at the situation now, we should consider ourselves fortunate to have bent the curve decisively, got away with fewer deaths per million compared to many other countries and be in a position where life seems to be getting back to the “Old Normal”!

Leaving aside data and statistics, there are other reasons that made me say that as a country we came out relatively unscathed.  First our size. We are a population of 1.3 billion. Second, most of the cities and towns in our country have a very high population density. Also, much of the population does not have the luxury of space. Third, our general civic standards though improving by the day, still has a long way to go.  Fourth, our propensity to not follow rules and not be disciplined overpowers our propensity to follow rules and be disciplined. Fifth, our overarching credo of ‘Chalta hai’ has ingrained in us an attitude to take things lightly without getting overly concerned. And finally, the lack of adequate medical infrastructure in the country. All this doesn’t at all augur well for a country like ours to handle a pandemic like Covid. Add to this, the complexities of being a democracy and a federal democracy in that where, a central writ cannot run across the country! Throw in the fact that this is the first time that a Covid like pandemic of this scale has stuck India because of which we don’t have established SOPs or tribal knowledge to handle the situation. All these are recipes for nothing else but social tension and unmitigated economic disaster.

The reality as it panned out has not been so bad.  There has been no visible social tension in the country. The only tension we see these days is “Social media tension” between those who support Prime Minister Narendra Modi and those who oppose him. In fact, the not so privileged have shown tremendous resilience in dealing with the crisis. During the last few months, I have been in constant touch with a cross section of common people who touch our lives and who would have been the most affected due to the extended lockdowns. They have all taken the unfortunate fallout of the pandemic in their stride and have got back to their normal lives now. None of them blamed the government for what it did or what it didn’t do. They all politely refused any offer of support and claimed that they were managing fine. This picture is totally opposite to what one gets to read in columns of the commentariat where the Modi Government’s lock down is being pilloried for what it would have inflicted on the poor.

Further, as an economy we seem to be bouncing back quicker and better than expected. To quote economist and famed columnist Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar from one of his recent columns, he says, “First, India has proved far more resilient than expected after the terrible first quarter of Covid. Second, India has been resilient despite having among the smallest fiscal stimuli among major nations.” Again, we have managed without actually doling out cash support which was what was touted as the silver bullet for stimulating the economy by almost all the top economists except those who were advising the Government.  Looking back, unlike a country like US where people like to spend, Indians are conservative in nature and would like to save for the rainy day. So, in a pandemic situation, I feel that people would not have spent even if money was transferred to their accounts. Instead, it would have only been kept aside for savings, which in the final run would have been detrimental to the cause of stimulating the economy. In that sense, the approach of the Government in providing free food grains to the needy or loan support for small businesses etc. seems wiser steps for a country like India.

The New Year has been rung in India with the best possible news of the approval of the vaccine for Covid.  Based on the last few months trend, it is clear that the manufacturing and allied industries are on a re-bound. With the dip in numbers and the availability of vaccine, hopefully, the services sector like Travel, Hospitality, Tourism, Food & Dining and related verticals will also see a quick recovery after which, we can say that we are reaching a “Normal” state.

As we segue into a New Year, my wish has become more grounded and guarded. As one exults “Thank God It’s a New Year”, here’s wishing one and all a New Year 2021 which will be just Normal and that will turn out to be an Annus Mirabilis!

True Biopic Vs Inspired by

This Diwali, Soorarai Pottru meaning ‘Praise the Brave’, a much awaited Tamil film finally reached the audience. With theatres barely opening up few days ago amidst myriad Covid restrictions, the makers took an early call to go for an exclusive OTT release instead of a mega theatrical release. The film is based or rather inspired by Capt. Gopinath’s book Simply Fly which is his autobiography. However it is not a true biopic on Captain Gopinath whose calling card has been that of being the pioneer of low cost Aviation in India. The book Simply Fly which I just quickly glanced through in the last couple of days traces his life as a diligent child to his brief stint with the forces and then turning an entrepreneur with Deccan Helicopters and finally achieving his dream of building an affordable airline for the masses by launching Air Deccan. In the book, he outlines the travails in this journey which is certainly inspiring.

Unlike films that are released in theatres where the reception could be gauged by the Box Office numbers, for OTT releases, one has to just go by the buzz the film creates in the media and in particular Social media. So by that gauge, one must say that Soorarai Pottru has opened to positive reviews from critics and a rousing welcome overall from general audience.  At the same time, it has also drawn a huge flak particularly on Social media.

The brickbats for the film are around the way Captain Gopinath’s role is portrayed which has triggered a social media storm, if I may say, in the tea cup. The major angst is over portraying the main protagonist character played by actor Suriya not as an upper caste Brahmin which Gopinath is. In the film, the character goes by the name Nedumaaran Rajangam and is shown as belonging to the under privileged class.  The question which has been raised is, why twist the facts while basing the story on a real life individual, Captain Gopinath in this case. What’s wrong in show casing the story of a struggling upper caste individual, is the follow up question.

Here’s the thing. A biopic by definition is a film that shows the life of a person typically a public or a famous figure. A biopic follows the true life of the individual and the screen play is around actual events that took place in the person’s life. This means that such a film portrays real characters of not just the main protagonist but also others who were part of his or her life. The names are real, the time lines are accurate and reflect true events. Examples of biopics are Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi and in the recent past M.S.Dhoni based on the popular cricketer.

In a biopic, it is assumed that the makers have done enough research to portray true events based on the individual’s life and therefore must be ready for factual scrutiny. There is little or no room for creative liberties on facts that matter. Even here, based on real life incidents, film makers do resort to a bit of dramatization for effect.

On the other hand, a film like Soorarai Pottru is NOT a biopic on Captain Gopinath. It is a film that is based on his life as depicted in his book – Simply Fly. That’s all. Like how, many films are based on novels, this one is based on this book. Having bought the filming rights for the book, the makers do have the right to exercise their creative liberties to flesh out a script that can be made as interesting as possible.

Cinema is commerce. Film making apart from being an individual’s artistic pursuit, it is also business. It is an industry where there is investment and Returns On Investment. So, naturally the makers would like their films to get a reach that is as wide as possible and make them blockbusters. In that pursuit, if showcasing the protagonist to be from an under privileged class makes it more dramatic and more relatable to a wider audience, I don’t see anything wrong. Again my point is, this is justified if the film is not a biopic and is just based on some one’s life. Mani Ratnam’s Guru is loosely based on or inspired by the life of Dhirubhai Ambani but it is not a biopic on Dhirubhai. And hence we saw the many deviations and added drama in the script.

Recently, there was a Hindi film by name – Gunjan Saxena – The Kargil Girl that was released and had its own share of controversies. This film is based on the real life of Gunjan Saxena an Ex-IAF pilot. Here the problem was, the makers while calling it a biopic took too much creative liberties whereby the IAF was shown in poor light. The film also was not factual in its depiction in many aspects. So, the panning of the film was justified.  The case of Soorarai Pottru is different from Gunjan Saxena in my opinion.

Inserting a card that the film is inspired by true events and any resemblance to real life characters is purely coincidental is the maker’s way of taking anticipatory bail from probable trolling.  But, even that didn’t help in the case of Soorarai Pottru.  The makers over marketed the Captain Gopinath aspect while they completely changed the story. I also feel that they should not have used the brand ‘Air Deccan’ in the film.  But for these small issues, I don’t think the outrage over the film by section of the audience over twisting the facts regarding Captain Gopinath when it is not a biopic, is justified. Soorarai Pottru is the story of Nedumaaran Rajangam BASED on the life of Captain Gopinath and NOT the story of Captain Gopinath himself. And that’s a huge difference.

Post script: Captain Gopinath himself watched the film and he seemingly did not have any problem in the way the film has come out.

Pic Courtesy: Times of India

Tanishq Ekatvam – Anatomy of the Campaign!

When you read this, I am sure you will be familiar with the latest product of the “Outrage factory” in India. Tanishq, Tata’s crowning jewel other than TCS provided the raw material this time. The outrage was around an ad which was put out to kick off its new Ekatvam campaign. The company soon pulled down the ad bowing down to the social media outrage but not before it went viral and divided popular opinion.

As a standalone ad, (see here) I personally liked it. The story is consistent with the purported theme of the campaign, where “the beauty of oneness” was being promoted. Oneness in this case was conveyed through the coming together of Hindu and Muslim faiths after a marriage between a Hindu woman and a Muslim man in this case.

There was predictable outrage following the ad where many questions like “Will they show a marriage of a Muslim girl and a Hindu boy?” and “Why are they showing as if the Muslim parents were doing a favour by following the girl’s traditions” and so on. I am certain that if the ad was shown as above, there would have been exactly opposite questions. Newton’s third law – “For every action is there is an equal and opposite reaction” and Whataboutery are the cornerstones of today’s outrage factory.

My take on the ad itself is that it was a well thought out plan. The campaign was launched during IPL just ahead of the festivals which is peak season for brands like Tanishq. And during this period and particularly during IPL, it is important to cut the clutter. One way of doing it is to make a nice commercial but with a contrarian story line. It helps the ad to stand out and also ensures it goes viral. That’s what happened with the Tanishq ad. Today for most marketers, the starting point of a campaign is to make it “Go viral” and if it does, it is the ultimate take away for the bucks spent.  So, kicking off a controversy through the ad is one established method of making it go viral. Many companies in the past have done that and Tanishq is no exception. I had written about this in one of my earlier posts “Stir up to sell” and if you haven’t read that, please do read here.

It is unfortunate that the company decided to pull down the ad. At the same time, it is easy to criticize the Tatas for succumbing to social media pressure in taking that decision. But I believe that it was a pragmatic choice. Already the business is reeling under the after effects of Covid with showrooms just being opened up. And the peak season is just ahead of the company. At this time, it makes no sense to do grandstanding risking the safety of its retail staff and properties.

At the same time, due to the heat the ad cranked up, the ad went viral and more people have seen than probably originally envisaged. The ad and the brand have become talking points for weeks over and even this blog would not have been written if the ad showed a plain vanilla oneness story!

This post though is not about the journey of that particular ad. I wanted to use the window the ad provided to look at the strategy behind the campaign itself.

As I mentioned earlier, the campaign titled Ekatvam has been kicked off by Tanishq just ahead of its biggest season. In North India, the festive season around Navaratri and in particular Diwali/Danteras are peak seasons for buying gold jewellery. And any serious brand would not like to miss out on this high stakes season.

At the outset, Ekatvam seems to be a brand building exercise to build on its core values of “Trust” etc. So far so good. After having seen the ad that sparked the controversy, I went to Tanishq’s website which also showcases the Ekatvam campaign. And here’s the thing! It says “Tanishq presents Ekatvam – the beauty of Oneness!” It says the “thought” being, “Beautiful things happen when people come together. But today, we’re asked to stay apart, keep a distance and be safe. While we continue to do this, through compassion, empathy, hope and care, we’ve come together when it was needed the most.” And goes on further. “The beauty of oneness. One as humanity. One as a nation. Ekatvam. A confluence of India’s finest craft forms, intricately knitted into one stunning collection, bought alive by our skilled Karigars, where similarities and differences all become one!”

Beautiful thought and an excellent copy. However, if this is the Ekatvam (confluence of India’s craft etc.) Tanishq wanted to promote, where does this aspect come out in that ad? It is common marketing wisdom that when a company launches a campaign, it is showcased consistently across media platforms may it be Print, TV, Web site, Digital etc. I don’t see that being followed here. While the website talks of the campaign being a noble effort to bring together different craft forms and craftsmen, the TV commercial tries to convey oneness by bringing faiths together.  If you look at the print ads, the one in North India (see below left) is consistent with the theme in the web site. However, the print ad in South (see below right) doesn’t explain anything about Ekatvam beyond the tag line of “the beauty of Oneness” and looks more like a “Sales promotion” ad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

So, this brings back to my original hypothesis that the controversial ad was part of a game plan to “Stir up to sell”. The brief it seems was to deliberately bring in the Hindu – Muslim angle and showcase the oneness. And probably the company sort of expected the backlash. In any case, backlash or not, the ultimate objective was to make it go viral and maximise the bang for the buck. The outrage factory in my opinion completely missed this point and effectively contributed in making the ad and the brand top of the mind for few weeks.

What the controversial ad would do to sales would be an interesting thing to watch in the coming weeks. While some commentators feel that it may affect the retail sales a bit, I reckon it may not do much damage.

In final summary, just as you shrug off a lean business period after lock down and get into a peak season phase, why would you launch a CSR kind of corporate campaign of Ekatvam?

Post script: Another innocent question to the makers of the ad. When you wanted to showcase Hindu-Muslim confluence, why would you choose a Kerala family as a backdrop when the ad is in Hindi and aimed at festival season (Diwali) in North of India?

The Social Media monster!

What is common between CU Soon and The Social Dilemma that have hit the OTT platforms in September in the space of few weeks in India?

CU Soon is a Malayalam feature film that is streaming on Prime Video. The film has opened to positive reviews for its novel screen based way of presenting a thriller. In the film, most of the time what we see is characters talking to us through chats and video calls. The film poses as a love story but is essentially a thriller revolving around illegal flesh trade.

On the other hand, The Social Dilemma is an English documentary film which is streaming on Netflix now.  The film traces the evolution of social media networks like Facebook, Twitter, Google and the likes from being “useful” tools in the beginning to becoming the “monsters” they are today! The film talks through a bunch of people who were associated with these social media platforms in the past but now horrified to see the monster they have let loose into the society.

Coming back to the question of what is common in these seemingly disparate films, it is the feeling you get once you have finished watching them.

In CU Soon, Fahadh Fazil who is the one who helps in cracking the mystery of this mysterious girl, is actually a software geek. Just by spending hours and hours in front of his computer screen and by tracking the digital foot print of people concerned in various platforms.  When the film is over, you get a frightening sense of the digital footprint one leaves behind these days! In the chase for likes, comments and shares there is a whole trail of personal happenings, dates, pictures, videos, check ins, check outs, our personal likes, dislikes, dispositions, our political leanings that we leave behind for anyone to track.

In The Social Dilemma, we are told how we are manipulated without us being aware. That social media platforms use our habits and preferences to monetise, is now a well-known fact. But what is chilling is when these come out as insider accounts as a well thought out strategy.  Of how these companies which started off well with noble and pious intentions of “Connecting people” have gradually moved away to “making us the product”. Of how they simultaneously straddle between “utopia” (doing good things, bringing people together, connecting in times of crisis and so on) and “Dystopia” (pushing selective stories and fake news that feed off your preferences)

“It’s a disinformation for profit business model” says one of the interviewees referring to the social media behemoths. “It’s a marketplace that trades in human futures” indicts another. Being a documentary, the narrative is in the format of many interviews where the interviewees deliver many “Shock and Awe” moments through quotable quotes like these. And at the end of which all, you get a sense of betrayal and a bitter taste in the mouth.

After watching these, how many of us would shut down our social media accounts after knowing well the ills?

 How much of social media is too much?

I don’t think there is too much of a problem if Facebook props up ads of stuff we would like to buy based on our preferences we have professed through our likes and comments. After all, advertising has been a source for revenue in conventional media as well and we are used to that. Of course the digital platforms allow for customised, targeted advertising based on our profiles. And ultimately purchasing something after watching an ad is a personal choice.

However, the recent increase in the angst against social media platforms I believe, has got to do with how they have taken the role in shaping the political destinies of nations. As it is shown in the documentary, these platforms push stories without realising if they are fake or genuine by just feeding into our beliefs and choices. As it is, psychologists say that humans suffer from “Confirmation bias” and as per dictionary it refers to the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories. For a platform like Facebook or Google, it becomes very easy to sense one’s leanings and feed appropriate stories to build in on this confirmation bias. The stories could be fake as well.

The traditional media like TV, Radio or Newspapers also feed stories by way of opinion pieces, news clippings and so on which also play a role in influencing our thought process. But the key difference is, here it is a one way process. In social media vehicles, it is a two way process. Meaning, everything happens in a customised fashion based on our likes and dislikes on what we transmit. As per those Ex-team members who were interviewed as part of “The Social Dilemma”, in social media platforms, manipulation is by design and not by default.

What is the way out? As mentioned in the documentary, you cannot put the genie back into the bottle. But I do believe if nations come together with a political will, these platforms can be made to stay away from politics. And as social media users, it will keep us in good stead if we ourselves do not depend on these platforms for consuming political news and stop sharing anything and everything of politics that come our way without putting our own fact check filters.  The positives of social media have been well documented. Now those are being overtaken by the negatives, it appears.  The bottom line is, the Lakshmana rekha needs to be drawn by us for ourselves.

Now that I have watched this documentary The Social Dilemma on Netflix, I have just received a mail from Netflix prompting me to watch “The Great Hack” – another documentary that unravels the manipulative power of social media!

The New Age Circus!

Circus – as we know it traditionally as a form of entertainment, may be on the decline. But a new age Circus has taken centre stage now and is threatening to overtake all forms of entertainment on offer. And that’s the TV News media circus.  Ever since the explosion of satellite and cable TV in India, there has been an explosion of TV channels in India in general and the News variety, in particular. A Wiki entry says that there are 400+ TV channels just for News in India presently, all clamouring for a share of the viewership pie.

With that kind of competition, survival needed a re-engineering of the News broadcast model. And that’s when most of the channels modelled their News programming to present wholesome entertainment. Today, if there are different options in channels like GEC (General Entertainment Category), Sports, Children entertainment, Religion & Spirituality and so on, for the grown up man, (I am not being sexist here. Just that I believe more than women, men tend to relish the entertainment on offer on News channels) News channels are a new category of entertainment that can be called as NEC (News Entertainment Category).

For the past several weeks now, this category has been buzzing with activity after the unfortunate death of Sushant Singh Rajput. Much has been written about how the goal posts in this case have shifted from suicide to abetment of suicide to murder to financial fraud to nepotism to drug consumption with the latest being Bollywood’s connection with the drug mafia. This unravelling of the story has been partly driven by a vigilante TV media which is conducting its own trial every night during prime time. It’s unfortunate that the TV media and not the investigating agencies has been in the forefront of setting the agenda of this case and every turn has been a result of some expose or other by the TV media.

As a result, what we see today is a competition among channels through orchestrated leaks and PR stunts to set the agenda for investigation.  Today, the Rajput case which was just pursued by one channel or media house in the beginning has now become an obsession for most channels/media houses. The result is a full blown war among channels, media houses and its star anchors and them taking sides depending upon what suits them and their TRPs. So, when Rhea Chakraborty gives interviews to a few channels, the other channels label it as a PR stunt to extricate herself from the case. And when Kangana Ranaut talks to few channels on nepotism, other channels label it as a distraction exercise and so on.

There are those who are integral part of the media but not part of the Rajput saga who have been critical of the tamasha going on in News channels. And they have also blamed the viewers of their choices which as per them is responsible for the degeneration of TV News channels. As per me, they only reflect the “these grapes are sour” sentiment. If they had got an opportunity to be part of the saga, the commentary would have been different.

There is no doubt that the Rajput case has heightened interest on TV news for many in India, going by the BARC statistics before and during the Rajput saga. A channel like Republic Bharat has managed to become Number 1 in Hindi News category dislodging Aajtak just during the Rajput saga! I do not watch Republic TV these days. But many do. And that’s why it is the leader in English News category by far. As kids, we liked watching a Circus. And as adults, many enjoy watching TV News which is increasingly resembling a Circus.

In this News age Circus, the reporters are like the poor animals which are paraded to perform certain items in front of the crowd. Today, the reporters are pushed by their bosses to get sound bites and capture sensational visuals which are put on a loop on TV.  Some of the guests in debates are akin to Jokers or buffoons in a Circus who are there to provide comedy relief.  At times from across the border. They are routinely insulted and howled upon. The spokespersons of the parties are according to me like the trapeze artists in a Circus.  They do the fine balancing act irrespective of the situation, swinging from one position to another as per the need and continue to “hang in there” during the heated debates.  The anchor is the ring master who is often seeing cracking the whip.

What I am trying to say is, as viewers we have long before concluded that News is another form of entertainment and is consumed as such. So, if a particular channel or show is high on ratings, it is because it is considered more entertaining than others. This doesn’t mean that we like that style of journalism. For consuming actual News or for high quality journalistic insights we have our own other sources in the media.

TV channels are sustained by TRPs – Tamasha Rating Points, I mean. And in every genre, the clamour for TRPs has brought in a big shift in programming content. In General Entertainment, from sober family value serials to “Saas Bahu” sagas and Big Boss shows, in Cricket from classical test/One day matches to T20s, in Children entertainment genre from pious Tom & Jerry cartoon types to High Octane adventure shows, in Music category from concerts to Reality shows filled with drama. The genre of News is not an exception. Hence the change from staid reporting of events of the day with visuals to noisy and sensational shouting and screaming matches around events.

The traditional Circus may be on the wane and struggling. But the New Age Media Circus is alive and kicking. And you get to watch that every day, 24*7 that too from the couch of your drawing room. And as a viewer do not have any other pretense about it.

Nate Silver, an American writer and editor famously said, “A lot of news is just Entertainment masquerading as News”.

How wrong he was!

All News is just Entertainment masquerading as nothing!

Cartoon credit: Satish Acharya

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