Marketing of Politics!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pic Courtesy: NBC News

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One upon a time, “the Nation wanted to know”!

The year was 2007. When in my erstwhile company we decided to go for a brand campaign on TV for the 1st time, being in the business of business and enterprise products, we had English News and Business channels in mind. Our original idea was to spend much of the budget on NDTV 24*7, then an established leader in the category and some money on CNN-IBN, a challenger. Our creative agency and its media buying arm strongly suggested to add to the media mix Times Now, an upstart which had gone on air a year ago in 2006. I was hesitant and my 1st question was “Who watched Times Now?” I was told that Times Now with its firebrand anchor and All in All Arnab Goswami had the fastest growing viewership. Over and above that were willing to give an excellent deal. I gave in and we decided to put some money on Times Now as well for the campaign. Till then I never used to watch Times Now and was basically an avid NDTV and at times CNN-IBN watcher. To catch up with the campaign on Times Now during prime time, I started watching Times Now on and off in end 2007, mainly due to work compulsion!

For most Indians though, their tryst with Arnab started probably a year later in November 2008 when the dastardly terrorist attack on Mumbai happened. With rival channels beaming the entire counter operation live much to the exasperation of those carrying out the operation, it was Indian News Channels’ worst face palm moment in history. Being head quartered in Mumbai unlike other English channels which beamed from NCR, Times Now could deploy the maximum resources during the 3 day non-stop coverage of the attacks on Mumbai and garner the most eye balls of eager citizens wanting to know what was going on. For Arnab and Times Now, the 26/11 Mumbai attacks did what the 1991 Gulf war did for CNN!

I reckon that during this period, Times Now  became a serious player on prime time and in fact started boasting of TRPs ahead of NDTV 24*7 and CNN-IBN. There was no looking back since. The heady days of UPA-II offered much opportunity for Arnab to take the Government to the cleaners with scam after scam. The CWG scam, the 2G scam, the mining scam and the “Anna movement” all came in handy for Arnab. From here on, it is my belief that he ceased to be a News anchor or a journalist and started morphing into being the very righteous and highly moralistic “vigilante” leader! And the Nation lapped him up!

At 9.00 pm every night, Arnab was no more reading news. He was not even anchoring a news show. He was actually giving his “Address to the Nation” to gullible Indians for few minutes followed by debates where participants were literally “pigeon holed” and harangued. Those not on his side were interrupted, insulted and were handed over sermons. He became the advocate, prosecutor and the judge every night.  But in all this, he was doing well for himself. Arnab became a brand. In fact, became larger than the channel itself. Times Now became an undisputed leader in its category. For the middle class English news watching public, he was a hero who could question and tear apart a politician on live TV without fear. They kept goading him with more TRPs and he became unstoppable. So much so, in 2014 during the election season, when Rahul Gandhi wanted to give an interview and the Congress party decided to go with NDTV and Barkha Dutt, Arnab challenged them with facts and figures and ensured that the only interview Rahul gave was “Frankly speaking with Arnab”. And we all know how much that interview contributed to the Rahul folklore on social media! In the same token, in the run up to the election, the only English Channel to which Narendra Modi gave an interview was Times Now for Arnab!

While being on top of the game and world, Arnab decided to leave Times Now and he started his own channel named Republic TV which went on air in May 2017.  Here again, he has continued his vigilante model – only that his vigilantism is being applied only against the opposition party! Republic TV continues to rake up scams supposedly pertaining to the UPA era and at times even of the Rajiv Gandhi era! The Bofors story keeps popping up, not surprising as the original Bofors story architect, Chitra Subramaniam is associated with the channel. With the channel being funded mainly by Rajeev Chandrasekhar who is now been given a Rajya Sabha ticket by the ruling BJP, Republic TV’s loyalty is no more a secret. It never was. But now even that translucent mask is off!

Arnab is today a metaphor for the aggressive, noisy, angry, rooting for nationalism type of journalism. And the success of Arnab has led to a spawning of Arnab Goswami wannabes in channel after channel! From Rahul Shivshankar to Navika Kumar to Bhupendra Chaubey to Rahul Kanwal to Gaurav Sawant to Anand Narasimhan we have a parade of angry men and women masquerading as news anchors in every channel!  And night after night one can see them howling at guests who for whatever reason choose to appear on their shows!

Similarly the success of Times Now and now the apparent popularity of Republic TV within a short span has led to every channel following the shouting match formula on prime time! Among channels, with the exception of NDTV 24*7 which has chosen to stay away from debates on prime time, there is hardly any product differentiation! In fact, Times Now seems very much a clone of RepublicTV in almost all aspects – the stories of the day, the editorial line they take, the boxed debates, the profile of guests, the doorstepping of reporters, the Arnab like anchors in Rahul Shivshankar (an Arnab protégé) and Navika Kumar and even in the harebrained hashtags they come up with every evening! No wonder Arun Shourie, known for his penchant for one liners, came up with the sobriquet of “North Korean channels” for both!

9 pm prime time news has been my every night fixation for years. Not anymore. I have stopped watching Republic TV.  Rarely do I watch Times Now. And more importantly, I just give a fleeting glance for not more than 5 minutes of even the other channels.  Results from unscientific polls conducted with my folks over WhatsApp reveal similar trends. That of die hard news consumers shunning Arnab and his ilk in particular and English news channels in general.  Now this trend is not reflecting on the viewership data at least for now. But then, methodology adopted for opinion polls and collecting viewership data in India are as unscientific as they can get and hence I treat them with the same contempt.

News today is more noise. And hence it is nothing but entertainment.  Soon news channels will fight for being classified under General Entertainment category. If a finger has to be pointed on one person for this degeneration of the News TV genre in India, it should be on Arnab Goswami. There was a time when the entire “Nation wanted to know” from Arnab. Every night. Not anymore.

Postscript:  Malayalis tend to pronounce “News Anchor” as “News Anger”! Time for the nation to follow Mallus on this one!!!

Will this “Kamal” bloom in TN?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toon courtesy: Satish Acharya

Budget – The Annual celebration of Outlays!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toon Courtesy: Satish Acharya (Sify.com)

Padmini to Padmavati to Padmaavat – The Journey from history to a ballad to Opera to a film!

Finally Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s magnum opus hit the screens in Mumbai last week and I happened to watch it. I liked the film for its making apart from other reasons which make for a good one time watch! No, this is not review of the film, but there are spoilers ahead. In the whole of the long 2 hours and 44 minutes running time of the film, I didn’t find anything even remotely close to bringing dishonor to Rajputs or any others for whom the now infamous Karni Sena is holding brief. The fact that the Sena is continuing to spit venom and wreck violence in the country in spite of this, set me into spending most of the free time this weekend on doing some background research (read as Google search) on the topic. The findings led me to pen this out of turn 2nd post on this topic today.  My 1st post titled “The rise and rise of the Censor Senas” on this (read here) was when the film couldn’t get beyond the censors in November.

Much of what I am writing here traces its origin to what I found on the internet in different sites including Wikipedia. Since the authenticity of a source like Wikipedia is suspect, I hesitate to make this as a presentation of facts but just as some material of interest and intrigue!  I feel that what Bhansali set out to make and ended up making could be two different versions. And here’s why.

It’s only very recently I came to know that Padmavati is the same as Rani Padmini the Queen of Mewar in Rajasthan. I have faint memories of Rani Padmini from the Amar Chitra Katha book which I read as a kid like millions in India. Most of our lessons in history are steeped in volumes of Amar Chitra Katha, I suppose. While I don’t remember the setting and details what I remember is that she committed Sati at the end with many other women. I think even the cover depicted this.

I understand that Padmini became more popular as Padmavati thanks to Albert Roussel, a French composer. After a trip to India and Rajasthan as early as 1909, he came across the story of this beautiful queen and became very interested in it. On his return to France, he styled Padmavati as a French Opera ballet. Written during World War I, it was first performed at the Paris Opera on June 1, 1923. Roussel’s version of Padmavati was drawn from a eulogical ballad titled Padmaavat by Malik Muhammad Jayasi, composed in the year 1540 AD.

In this poem, Rani Padmavati is described as coming from ‘Singhal Dweep’ or Ceylon (Sri Lanka). There’s an elaborate explanation of her background. Rawal Ratan Sen, the Rajput King of Mewar kingdom, as Ratan Singh was named by Jayasi, married her in a ‘swyamvar’ in Ceylon, where he goes to after hearing about her beauty from the parrot ‘Hiraman’.

The poem further introduces Alāʾ ud-Dīn Khiljī (1296–1316 the second and most powerful ruler of the Khilji dynasty that ruled the Delhi Sultanate in the Indian subcontinent) who learns about the beauty of Padmavati through a banished courtier of Rawal Ratan Sen who found refuge in Khilji’s court. Khilji lays siege to Chittor from where Ratan Sen ruled. Ratan Sen refuses his demand to surrender Padmavati. Following a truce, Ratan Sen allows the Sultan to enter the fort, where Khilji sees Padmavati’s reflection in a mirror. He then traps Ratan Sen into accompanying him to the foot of the fort, captures him and returns to Delhi.

After being rescued from Delhi by his two brave warriors – Gora and Badal, Ratan Sen reaches Chittor to learn that the neighboring king Devpal had sent a marriage proposal to Padmavati. An upset Ratan Sen goes to fight Devpal and the two kill each other in a combat. Ratan Sen’s two wives – Nagmati and Padmavati immolate themselves on his pyre (Sati) before Khilji’s army reaches Chittor and the battle begins. There is neither the mention of ‘jauhar’ or Ratan Sen dying while fighting Khilji.

However Roussel’s version veers towards a different interpretation. Known for his romantic sensibility, his opera focuses on a tale of passion – of an obsessed powerful emperor who fails to conquer a woman’s heart. It also turns the narrative on its head – with the queen Padmavati stabbing her own husband, Rawal Ratan Singh. This is for pleading with his wife Padmavati to give herself up to Khilji to protect his kingdom. Padmavati kills the Raja and then commits Sati to protect their kingdom’s honor from an angry, marauding Khilji. (This climax, I guess is the problematic issue for the cultural police and the senas)

Much before his venturing into making this film on Padmavati, I vividly remember Bhansali doing an Opera musical in France years ago. That was in March 2008 shortly after Bhansali’s film Sawariya bombed big time at the Box office. In his own admission, he was depressed and wanted to be away from India trying out something new.

Sanjay Leela Bhansali remains the first Indian filmmaker who was commissioned by the prestigious Theatre Du Chatelet of France to redirect Padmavati with a current day production values.  So he was in Paris in 2008 to direct the 1923 opera ballet Padmavati, written by Albert Roussel. I understand that the show opened to rave reviews and appreciation.  Being staged in France probably escaped the attention and fury of the Karni Sena way back in 2008.

Connecting the dots, the reasons behind the ruckus even on the 1st day of the shoot, is not difficult to comprehend. The presumption that Bhansali’s present day film Padmavati would also be similar in theme to his 2008 musical and the baggage Bhansali himself carries with his earlier outings like Ramleela and Bajirao Mastani where he was accused of twisting history and historical events to sensationalise his narrative, took their toll this time.

However, Padmaavat – the film is a completely different version.  Where Rajputs and their valour are put in a pedestal, though just in oft repeated lofty dialogues.  In this, the Rani doesn’t kill the Raja. So, only when Bhansali writes a memoir few decades hence, will we actually know if this was the film he wanted to make or he ended up compromising his creative instincts. In this journey of a character from history to a ballad to an Opera to this film, there are quite a few elements to conjecture that Bhansali ended up making a different film. If that is actually the case, irony just committed Jauhar!

Postscript: If you find all this too much of heady stuff and just want to laugh out loud, just watch this act by Varun Grover on the origin of Padmavati– Padmaavat & the Parrot!!!

The era of ‘Constant Checkers”!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What does one do while waiting in any line?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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