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

Tamil Nadu Elections – in “Poll” position!

The country is once again in election mode with the announcement of elections for a bunch of states. Among all the five states that go to polls this season that includes Assam, Kerala, Puducherry, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, obviously it is West Bengal that is grabbing national attention and creating more surround sound because of the tug of war between Mamata Banerjee’ TMC and BJP’s Ex-TMC. Just few days into the campaign, we are already seeing how this script is panning out.  But to me, the most interesting and fascinating election to watch in this lot is Tamil Nadu, for the far reaching impact the result may leave on the players who are going to lose.

It’s been oft repeated by commentators that this election is the first full-fledged state elections that is happening without the leading lights of the respective kazhagams, namely Jayalalithaa and Karunanidhi. While this is true, beyond this there are other aspects which make this election very crucial and a “must win” for almost all the key players involved. A loss here may bring up “The End” card for the top contenders in this state where politics and cinema have been clearly intertwined.

For the ruling ADMK, a loss will lead the party into an existential crisis. The present sort of elastic dual leadership structure of EPS-OPS combine is certain to give way in case of an ADMK defeat.  As of now, the only glue that is holding the party together is “power”. Sans that, it is a question of time before the carefully built edifice starts breaking. It will also bring the debate back on Jayalalithaa’s legacy and so on but without much headway. In the absence of any other promising leader in the horizon, it is imminent that the “two leaves” will eventually wilt!

For the DMK, it is another existential crisis. Not probably for the party. But for the Karunanidhi family leadership. The party has been now in the opposition for ten years. In 2016, it was in a striking distance to power but lost out to Jayalalithaa in the final count. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, the party managed to sweep the state bucking the national trend but it couldn’t leverage on this win in any way as it was in the wrong coalition. So, a win in this election is crucial for the party to re-energise the cadre and its leaders for whom getting back to power is important for many reasons. Also a win is crucial for its leader M.K.Stalin to cement his position within the party as its undisputed leader. Any loss will trigger another round of succession battles with many other family members staking a claim on the party’s leadership. Though Stalin has been leading from the front, the general impression is that he cannot come even close to his father Karunanidhi in terms of political acumen. A loss will further accentuate this impression.  A loss to DMK will also trigger a wave of cross overs to ADMK or for that matter even BJP before the next Lok Sabha polls as that could secure a career for many upcoming leaders who lost out in this election. The family tree may end up collapsing in case of a DMK loss!

The third regional contender awaiting to make an impact in this election is Kamal Haasan’s Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM). I don’t think anybody is expecting MNM to win on its own in this elections. But in his own admission, Kamal is looking at reaching double digits both in terms of vote share and seats. If it doesn’t happen and MNM manages only a vote share of less than 5% as before and few seats here and there, it could be curtains down on Kamal’s future plans for the state in politics. If a party, even a small one like MNM, cannot be of any material influence in a coalition, then it becomes very difficult to sustain and survive. Kamal could very well junk his political journey and resume his cinema career where is future is more secure. From torch light it will be back to arc lights at the sets!

Also, it is my hypothesis that if Kamal’s MNM fails to make any significant impact in this election, it will be curtains down for “Stars” trying a serious hand in politics in Tamil Nadu in future.

Now coming to the key national players – first the Congress. Any loss to the DMK front would mean further erosion of Congress’ political capital whatever is left of that is, in the state.  Not just that, it will further amplify the noise within the party around the Gandhi family leadership in general and Rahul Gandhi in particular. Within the state though, it may just continue in its present hibernation mode and more wrangling of the “Hand” in future.

For BJP, in this elections the stakes are still low, I believe. Whatever it is doing today in terms of focusing on the state is more with keeping 2024 Lok Sabha elections in sight. The party would like to bag up to ten seats in 2024 from Tamil Nadu, which will help in a big way to fill gaps from other states where it did well in 2019. . A loss to the ADMK front would force BJP to start accelerating its growth program in Tamil Nadu significantly on its own. This would obviously mean developing a credible state leadership. I believe for BJP, this election is a trial balloon to test ADMK’s strength in the post Jayalalithaa era, check out the acumen of its freshly minted local leadership and finally to chart its direction in Tamil Nadu. A win for the alliance though will help the party secure 10+ MPS in the 2024 elections and also increase its foot print in the state where it has been slow to grow. For BJP, this election is still like water on the Lotus leaf!

With so much in stake for all the key contenders, the TN election promises to be a very fascinating contest– one that eclipses even the West Bengal battle. And for sure, it is going to be a close fight with winning margins being thin in many seats and the final tally being very close. Even in the past, pollsters had a tough time calling TN elections. This time around, the task is more arduous.

Among all states in India, Tamil Nadu has had the privilege of being in the “pole” position with respect to many social and economic indicators. Now in this round of state elections, it is also in “poll’ position in terms of impact of the results. May 2nd though, could be curtains down for a few prime contenders!

Pic Courtesy: The News Minute

Ram Mandir and the Positioning battles!

“Positioning” in my book is one of the most important and enduring concepts of marketing. How you position your brand in the minds of the consumer, leads you to all the other elements of the marketing strategy. Any lack of clarity or misstep mid-way on how your product is positioned in the minds of the consumer, is usually reflected on the poor or waning market share of the product. Why am I referring to the concept of positioning which is already well known, in the context of the Ram mandir?

In the run up to the Bhumi Pujan for the Ram mandir at Ayodhya which took place this week on the 5th of August, it is interesting to see how most of the mainstream political parties fared in the positioning battle. I would group them as winners, losers and neutral based on how the parties reacted to the event.

In the positioning battle, the foremost winner is of course the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The party had made the Ram mandir its existential issue in the 80’s with which it could rally the Hindu vote.  Now in power for the second consecutive term in government, the party got a golden opportunity to make good the promise to build the mandir by way of a favourable Supreme Court verdict.  It must be noted that though the temple construction was made possible due to the Supreme Court verdict, in the minds of the party’s voter base, it is the Narendra Modi led government which has made it possible after such a long wait.

Therefore, it was expected that the Prime Minister Narendra Modi would lead from the front in being a part of the historical Bhumi Pujan. For those who scorned at the leader of a secular country being present at a Hindu religious event, the answer lies at the core of BJP’s positioning strategy. That is of the only party in India to represent and protect the “Hindu Hith” (Hindu interests).  So, why would Narendra Modi let go of an opportunity like this being a ardent Hindu to be out there to leverage on the positive public sentiment emerging out of the Mandir construction?

There were also those who felt that a spectacle like this could have been avoided when the country is fighting a huge pandemic. I feel that from the party’s point of view, re-scheduling the event or making the event low key due to the pandemic would have dented its Nationalistic positioning. “When the time is considered to be the most auspicious for starting the work of the Ram temple, why should we dilute the importance of it due to a virus? That too a virus of Chinese origin?” would have been the thinking among the stake holders.  And not to forget the urgency to complete the temple construction and throw it open before the end of the term in 2024.

In my opinion, it would not have done any damage if the party had somehow got its Ram mandir mascot Lal Krishna Advani to attend the function at Ayodhya. In fact, the presence of Advani alongside Modi on the stage would have added  heft  to the event.

If BJP was the foremost winner, the foremost loser in this battle is obviously the Congress. After having positioned itself as the bulwark of secularism in the country, what did it do now? One by one, its party leaders on cue talked about Bhagwan Ram, Ram Rajya and so on. Starting from Priyanka Gandhi to Rahul Gandhi to other leaders like Kamal Nath, Manish Tiwari, Digvijay Singh, there was a virtual stampede to appropriate Lord Ram and even take credit for the temple construction. In the voter’s mind, the “Hindu” space is clearly occupied by the BJP. By trying to be a political “Me Too” (borrowing the phrase from Barka Dutt) in that space, can Congress ever be able to woo the Hindu voter base? On the contrary, it might have ended up alienating its Non Hindu voter base. How will that section of the voters trust Congress now to be their saviour? In fact, this re-positioning could lead to Congress being neither here nor there. In my opinion, Congress should have just said that it respects the SC verdict and happy that it is being implemented.

The other prime loser is the Shiv Sena. Shiv Sena has been in the forefront of the Ram mandir movement from time immemorial.  Its leader, the late Bal Thackeray was positioned as the “Hindu Hriday Samrat” for the longest time. So, here was the chance to cement its positioning as a party that stands for Marathi interests locally and Hindu interests nationally. And accordingly, its leader Uddhav Thackeray should have pulled all strings to be there on the stage at Ayodhya on the 5th August.  Even if that was not possible, the party should have at least been generous in supporting the event. Instead, it chose to make a “sour grapes” statement denouncing the conducting of the event in the midst of Covid!

Apart from the BJP, the other winner in my eyes is Asaduddin Owaisi and in turn his party, the AIMIM. And here’s why. His is a party with a core Muslim voter base back in Hyderabad. So, in line with this positioning he stuck to his guns of strongly condemning the Prime Minister for being a part of such a Hindu religious event in a secular country. This would keep his positioning among his voter base intact and in the absence of alternatives, can help his base expand outside of Hyderabad.

Apart from these winners and losers in the positioning battle in the aftermath of the Bhumi pujan at Ayodhya, I would say there were parties who didn’t gain or lose. These are parties like the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu (just issued a statement congratulating the PM for the foundation stone laying ceremony), Mamata’s TMC (Issuing a plain “Unity in Diversity” message), Janata Dal (United) in Bihar (keeping silent), Mayawati’s BSP (crediting Supreme Court for paving the way for the temple construction) and DMK in Tamil Nadu (remaining silent). In doing what they did, they chose to remain consistent with their respective party’s positioning in the minds of their voters.

Like for brands, being consistent with its positioning is crucial for political parties as well. A mid-course correction in positioning can be undertaken as a strategy but, the new positioning cannot be a poor “Me too” of the market leader. This is what Congress is attempting and in doing so, is walking straight into to the trap “positioned” by the BJP!

Cartoon credit: Satish Acharya

NEP 2020 – Not a T20 in the making!

Two weeks ago, when I wrote a post that “Marks do matter”, I didn’t realise that a New Educational Policy (NEP) was soon going to be unveiled. The post was purely for the season.  If you haven’t read it, please read here. There was an overwhelming response to the blog with many readers agreeing to my proposition that, in the present scheme of things in India at least, marks do matter. I also understood that it is rather a grudging acknowledgement under the circumstances and not a wholehearted endorsement with glee. Most of us, having been on the rough end of the mark stick some time or the other in our lives, have been yearning for a different system of evaluation for the longest time.

Ergo, when the NEP was announced by the government last week, my primary interest was to see how it handles the “marks” conundrum. NEP has been in the works for a long while. I am aware that even among the sympathisers of BJP and Narendra Modi, there was a tinge of regret and disappointment about the government not making any progress on the education front during its first term. Frankly, I haven’t read the full policy document and have just read the highlights few times over. It is quite technical and without the domain knowledge, I haven’t managed to fully comprehend the implications of some of the proposals in the long term. But from what I read, see and hear, seems it is a well-intentioned policy framework and if followed through with meticulous execution, our country may be a different place in the next two to three decades.

Having said that, I would like to focus on few issues which bother me as far as education system in India is concerned and how this NEP tackles them. First, the issue of many education boards.

“Your daughter is in which class?

6th Std.

Which board?

CBSE. What about your son?”

This conversation must be very familiar to many. The latest class divide in urban/semi urban middle class society these days is manifested in the board of the schools in which children study. In the 70’s and 80’s, when I was growing up, this was not a talking point at all. Most of us were going to schools affiliated to State board with some going to CBSE board schools. However, post liberalisation and rise of aspirations and income levels in general, there is a clamour to put children in schools which are not State board schools. So, while CBSE and ICSE board schools are the ones which are sought after, the newest craze in town are the IB (International Board) schools. I am aware of the scorn State board students are subjected to, when they go for higher studies. The question is “Do we need different boards” that sow the seeds of a divide and discrimination in the society. Is there a case for a country wide uniform system of education whereby all students go through the same system without differentiation?

This is a tricky question to answer. At the outset, it may seem that the answer is obvious i.e. to have a uniform system that doesn’t differentiate and doesn’t end up discriminating students. In Japan, the Japanese rue the very standardised and uniform education system they have in their country. One of my Japanese friends use to say that their schools and colleges were like assembly lines. The output in terms of specifications are exactly similar because of which there is no diversity of thinking or ideas in Japan. So, the answer I believe is not in just one common board which has a standardised syllabus across the country. But continuing the existing system of different boards with a wide gap in standards and levels may not be the answer as well.

I looked at the NEP for its take on the boards. Education being in the concurrent list, first of all there cannot be a single National umbrella structure that can be implemented across the country. So, the NEP talks about the need for each board to ensure equivalence of academic standards and text books with a common core material and supplementing with local flavour and context and so on. I believe it is a via media solution to retain diversity with some commonality. In addition to this, one key point according to me, is the compensation of teachers and staff in State board schools. In order to ensure there is no discrimination in output (quality of students), there should not be discrimination in input (salary levels of staff).

The second issue is regarding the medium of instruction in schools. The NEP proposes that the medium of instruction until 5th standard and preferably till 8th standard and beyond will be preferably home language/Mother tongue/local language. It was later clarified that it is not a mandate but is left to the states to imbibe this guideline. English medium Vs regional language in today’s aspirational India is again a symbol of class divide in the society. In one of my earlier posts (Read here) I had argued that it is time to make English the common medium of language across the country. English may be a foreign language but it is the unifying language in India today. Like it or not, English has become the door opener for opportunities. While I agree that it is good to ensure a child’s proficiency with her mother tongue, making it the medium of instruction may be counterproductive.

And lastly, coming back to the “Marks system”, the NEP doesn’t seem to provide any alternatives but for changing the grading system so that the final board exam is not a make or break effort for the student. It says, “Board exams will be made easier, as they will test primarily core capacities, competencies rather than months of coaching or memorization.” It also talks about a more comprehensive and multi-dimensional approach to student assessments.  This is very good in intent and I think all parents and children would be keen to see how this works in real life.

Based on what I have comprehended so far, the New Education Policy signals a clear intent to bring in a paradigm shift in education in India.  It aims for a long term directional shift and so is a test match and not a T20 in the making!  Now, the devil is in the execution.

Pic credits: The Hindu

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The politics behind political Strategists!

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

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

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

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

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

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

The non-compete clause

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

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

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

From in-house campaign manager to professionals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to bid good bye to the Budget!

Just yesterday, Finance Minister of India, Nirmala Sitharaman presented the Union Budget for the upcoming fiscal year 2020-21 in what was a very long speech. The length notwithstanding, it was short on material required to  lift the sagging mood in the country with respect to the economy. The markets tanked big time by the end of the day. If one goes by the commentaries in the media and expert opinions in social media, it seems that the budget has disappointed one and all.  As one expert on TV put it, the reaction was about what could have been done rather than what has been done.

The reaction to the last budget by the same minister in July 2019 was almost similar. Right after the big victory and into a second consecutive term, everyone expected a bolder budget with a road map for tough reforms from the Modi Sarkar. That didn’t happen.

If you go back further to the last few budgets, the story is similar.  In the pre-budget season the air is thick with expectations of all kind. Expectations of big bang reforms, of new big ideas, of a vision for the country and of course of income tax rate cuts! And post the budget speech, the reactions have been similar. “What is the one big idea in the budget?” “Where are the big bang reforms?” “There is no vision in the budget!” and so on.

The last time the media hailed the budget generously was P. Chidambaram’s way back in 1997. It was termed as the “Dream Budget” when it presented a road map for economic reforms in India and included lowering income tax rates, removal of the surcharge on corporate taxes and reduced corporate tax rates. But ever since the budget presentation became a media spectacle post the explosion of 24*7 News media, I don’t recall any budget (of any government) being hailed as a visionary budget or a great budget. Most of the times, the budgets have only disappointed people.

Today, there is a big disconnect between the expectations from the budget speech and what it can deliver. And increasingly, the scope of what the budget speech can deliver is reducing day by day thanks to reforms and change in governance models.

I am of the view that it’s high time we do away with this annual over hyped British era relic of a budget speech which focuses on outlays for the following reasons:

  • Leaving aside the Aam admi who doesn’t follow or understand the language of the budget, increasingly everyone expects the budget speech to actually lay out the “Governance vision and strategy” rather than increase or decrease of allocations. Essentially people are expecting the government to talk the corporate language. Of Vision, Mission and Strategy for the coming year/years.
  • For the budget speech, the FM takes inputs from other ministries on their key initiatives for the coming year and then announces outlays for the same. In a sense the FM is talking on behalf of her/his colleagues. There is little review of outcomes of the past outlays and the focus is more on the future outlays.
  • In the past, one of the areas of interest for the common man from the budget is to know what gets costlier and what gets cheaper. The finance ministry adjusted the tax and excise rates to balance revenue collections for the budget. In the present GST regime, the GST rates are decided by the GST council. The GST council meets as per their charter and decides the change in rates when required. Ergo, the budget speech doesn’t have details of prices going up and down. The exception being any reduction or increase in basic customs duty for imported goods. As we have seen in the recent past, the finance ministry has taken to these announcements whenever they want.
  • Coming back to yesterday’s budget speech, the common feeling was that there was no big announcement that would assuage the struggling economy. If one remembers, the same Finance Minister Sitharaman, had announced an unexpected corporate tax rate cut in September 2019. One must remember that this was not done in the budget speech of July 2019.  This was announced out of the blue, in an out of turn announcement as a counter measure to prop up the economy, then. So my point is, measures that are required to be taken can be and should be taken and announced when needed. One doesn’t have to wait for the budget speech to actually make such announcements.
  • Again if one closely analysed the budget speech, many of the initiatives announced by the Finance Minister can reach its logical conclusion only with last mile delivery by the states. In the sense, these are more like nudges to the state to perform better to get more outlays.
  • Till 2016, there was another media spectacle called the Railway budget. The Modi government took a wise call to do away with this ritual and merged with the Union budget. Except for the reason that it was a British era custom that was followed, it seemed there was no reason for just one of the many departments of the Government of India to have a separate budget presentation day! We don’t have any empirical evidence of any deterioration in the ministry’s performance since then.
  • As I see, there are just a handful of countries in the world who still follow this Annual budget presentation ritual!

Considering all of the above, my submission is, it’s time to bid Good Bye to this all-encompassing Annual Budget Speech by the Finance Minister. Instead, this should be replaced by an address by the Prime Minister in the lines of the State of the Union Address (SOTU) in the US. In this address, the PM should take stock of the situation in the country, the issues on hand and present a vision, road map and the priorities for the coming year. This should be followed by debates in the parliament to understand the views of the other parties and opposition. In the same session, key ministries must present the outcomes of the previous year against the outlays and the plan, initiatives for the coming year in line with the vision, priorities outlined in the PM’s speech. By this, along with the Prime Minister the entire cabinet will be made responsible for their achievements and misses in their ministries, every year.

Narendra Modi, who has a penchant for leaving a legacy has a golden opportunity here. By replacing the budget speech ritual with PM’s Annual Vision Address!

Pic Courtesy: Bloomberg

Rajini and Modi – The Twain meets, again!

In a post way back in 2016 after Rajinikanth’s Kabali released, I wrote about the strange coincidences between Rajini’s Kabali and Modi Sarkar @ 2 years. You may want to read that piece here. Strangely again, now in 2020, post Rajini’s latest film release – Darbar and few months into Narendra Modi’s 2nd term, I find both of them in the same rocking boat!

Darbar, which released to huge expectations last week is still raking the moolah at the box office. As per various reports coming in, just like Rajini’s few other earlier movies, this one also may set records for collections. However, popular opinion is spilt down in the middle. While the film has endured itself to Rajini fans, it has not impressed the more discerning movie viewer. For them, Darbar has been a huge let down.

Now hold this thought on Rajini and Darbar and let’s look at what’s happening with Modi and his government now. Ever since it passed the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill, popular opinion is split vertically down the middle in India. The core voter base of the BJP has hailed the Act as one which has been long overdue. On the other hand, the more liberal and non-core supporters of Narendra Modi are of the view that CAA and the proposed NRC are divisive and should have been left alone. This group which probably voted for Narendra Modi for the 2nd term too, is a trifle disappointed with Modi Sarkar’s priorities.

In the case of Darbar, film critics have panned the film almost in unison. Most of them felt that the film lacked coherence and A.R. Murugadoss, the director was trying hard to pander to the fan base of Rajini. As a result of which he lost sight of the screen play and ended up wasting Rajini.

Similarly, the media has been extremely critical of Modi and his government the last few weeks ever since protests erupted all over the country against CAA and NRC. The narrative is similar. That the Modi Government is pandering to its Hindu fan base and attempting to bring in legislations that are bound to alienate Muslims.

For Rajini, the film before Darbar was Petta. A film in which he went back to playing a youthful Rajini after a gap of few films like Kabali and Kaala. A film which was touted as an ode to the Superstar of yore full of Rajini-isms. For a change, people and critics alike accepted the film, notwithstanding the overdoing of Rajini-isms!

Before Modi Sarkar ventured into the controversial CAA-NRC territory, just within few months into the 2nd term, it made some big bang moves like nullifying Article 370 and passing the Triple Talaq bill. Notwithstanding the process followed in nullifying Article 370 and notwithstanding the fact that Triple Talaaq bill was targeted at conservative Muslims, these moves were hailed as stuff which were long overdue.  And Modi was hailed as a solver of long standing issues which needed fixes. To a large extent even by the liberal media, perhaps reluctantly!

One thing that was found common across all critical reviews of Darbar was how Rajini came unscathed. The unanimous view was that Rajini tried his best with his usual charm, style, energy and wit but without a strong script, the film failed to deliver. So the ire was reserved for the Director and his team.

Similarly in spite of the missteps of the Modi Sarkar around the economy and CAA and NRC issues, Modi’s image still seem to be intact among the common man. He is still seen as this hard working Prime Minister who is working round the clock with unbridled energy to fix India’s problems. And so the ire is targeted towards his team and the bureaucracy which is not measuring up!

Over a period of time, people who liked Rajini’s films expanded significantly beyond his core base who just adored him for his style, his mannerisms, his swag,.. in short, what I call as Rajini-isms. In few films, Rajini demonstrated that beyond these ‘isms” he can also pack a punch and seriously act. Today, there is a base of film watchers who yearn to see that side of Rajini, who will choose a script, a director and do a film, going beyond the Rajini formula and template!

In the same vein, for Narendra Modi in the run up to the 2014 elections, there were people from outside the BJP core base, who preferred Narendra Modi as the next Prime Minister. This group saw the work he did as Chief Minister in Gujarat and wanted to give a chance to him at the National level. Today, this non-core supporter group wants Narendra Modi to go beyond his “isms” which are basically the Sangh Parivar agenda items!  

In that sense, the conundrum before Rajini and Modi are similar. Whether to just keep the core fan/supporter in mind and continue to pander to his fancy. Or look at the larger group who have supported them over the years and have made them the icons they are today?

While I have attempted to put Rajini and Modi at the same pedestal here, it’s a very simplistic view. The stakes involved are of course completely different. For Rajini, it is just the fate of his films at the box office and his own legacy. However, for Modi, the stakes involved are much higher. Modi is presiding over the fate of millions of people who expect him to deliver the promised Acche Din!

For Modi, the next release of consequence is the Union Budget. For some time now, I had begun to believe that the Budget is an over rated event in India. But this year, considering the perilous state we are in as far as economy goes, I do feel that the Budget 2020 gains enormous significance. Outside of India, among foreign investors, there is frustration over India’s continuing “Work in Progress” status. And clearly there is disappointment over India’s “1 step forward, few steps backward” economic progress. So, for Narendra Modi who always keeps an eye on the legacy he leaves in whatever he does, this is a good opportunity. To make Budget 2020 as significant or more than Budget 1991!

Just like the non-core fan base of Rajini who wants the Superstar to move beyond Rajini-isms and deliver a mega hit betting on a strong script, characterisation and acting skills of Rajini, the public of India also would like Modi to keep aside the “majoritarianisms” and focus on the Economy in the coming months to deliver a turn around.  For becoming a 5 trillion economy Modi must “Chumma Kizhi”!

Picture credit: indiatoday.in

Romanticism of Student Activism!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CAE of CAB/CAA!!

In the last one week, what was known as CAB (Citizenship Amendment Bill) got passed in both the houses of the parliament and became CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) when the President put his stamp on it. However, as we have been seeing in the last few days, the CAE (Cause and Effect) of this has been different in different parts of the country and among different sections of the society.

In Delhi and in states like West Bengal, Kerala and even parts of Uttar Pradesh, the opposition to the Act stems from the point that the act is discriminating against Muslims. This was what was being echoed by the opposition in parliament and by and large by liberals in the media. The narrative here is that the Act goes against the “Idea of India” as enshrined in the constitution which is “Secular” in not singling out a religion on any ground.  On this pretext, as expected there is a large resentment among Muslims and of course among political parties who depend upon their votes and among liberals. So we see huge street protests in Delhi, Kolkata and in Kerala. As I write this, the protests have gone violent and turning into a mob fury!

In some states like Tamil Nadu for example, the disapproval to the Act is because, it has only included persecuted minorities from three countries namely Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan while leaving out Tamils from Sri Lanka who are minorities there. The opposition on this count is less intense and is mostly restricted to TV debates, newspaper columns and not much on the streets.

The third category is how the Act has been seen in the North Eastern states like Assam and Tripura. Here, the reaction has been more virulent with fire spreading on the streets with little signs of slowing down. And the cause for the same is completely different from what it is in say, West Bengal. The fundamental issue is that people here see this Act as going against the spirit of Assam accord by opening up the states to foreign illegal refugees of all religions. The opposition here is more about protecting regional identity and space and less about Nationalistic considerations.

And then there are other parts of the country where the reaction is muted and thereby letting one to deduce that the people are neutral on the Act.

In Engineering and Quality Management, “Cause and Effect Analysis” is an oft repeated technique to look at all possible causes for a particular effect. This technique was pioneered by Kaoru Ishikawa, a Japanese professor who later came to be renowned as a Quality Guru. The corner stone of this technique is to brainstorm with as many relevant people as possible and list up all possible causes (Man/Material/Method…) that could lead to a Quality problem.

In the case of CAB/CAA, at the outset it could be argued that probably the Act was required to correct a historical festering issue. However, from the kind of reactions which have emerged, it is clear that the government has not thought through the ramifications of the Act in different parts of the country. Hence I would conjecture that the government has not done a proper “Cause and Effect” analysis on the issue by involving a cross section of domain experts to list up what could be the reactions to the Bill.  It is extremely surprising that on a crucial move like this, perhaps in the interest of confidentiality, the government did not discuss the bill and its implications enough before bringing it to the parliament.

The kind of homework and alacrity the government had shown when it went about annulling of Article 370 is clearly missing this time. Otherwise, Assam and parts of North East where BJP has its own governments would not be burning today. Today, the home minister is busy assuaging one and all that the government will address all genuine concerns of the North East states.  And I believe that a roll back is in the offing soon as the government goes about dousing the fire.

Loyalists to the government argue that CAB was clearly part of the BJP manifesto and hence now that it has got the mandate, it is only going about ticking off items one by one from the manifesto. While one cannot pick too many holes in this argument, one cannot avoid asking if this was really a top priority at this point in time.

Ever since May 30th 2019 when this government took over the reins for the 2nd time, two ministries have hogged the headlines, for different reasons. First, the home ministry under a very aggressive minister – Amit Shah, has been busy with issues around Kashmir. Annulling of Article 370 and 35A, splitting of the state of Jammu and Kashmir and then handling the fall out of these moves have kept the home ministry under constant attention. Second, the finance ministry under Nirmala Sitharaman has been on the receiving end of the media, opposition and the industry due to the tanking economy. Quarter after Quarter the GDP has been touching new lows, not to mention of other economic indices as well, except perhaps the Sensex!

To be fair, the finance minister who is considered a green horn in the ministry has been earnest. Though she comes across as haughty, truth be told, she has been busy meeting a cross section of opinion leaders in trying to understand what needs to be done to fix the economy. It is perhaps her bad luck that she was thrown in to the circus ring when the Indian economy was on a decline. Some steps have been taken but they have not yielded any visible results.

Having seen the versions of many economists who have been critical of the economy, one thing is clear. The experts are split down the middle as to whether the problems in the Indian economy are structural, cyclical or a bit of both. So, it would be good for the finance minister to first do a detailed Cause and Effect analysis of the Economy on top priority, understand the causes first and then go about fixing them.  If these are not addressed before the next budget time frame, once again the fabled “India Story” will miss the bus as it did many times in the past!

That is why, it is time the government also goes about ticking off the manifesto points on issues related to the economy on SOS basis instead of just focusing on home affairs. Here, I feel that the finance minister needs political heft which can be provided only by the Prime Minister. And it is time he does that. What was that? “Modi hai to mumkin hai”, right???

Pic courtesy: Indiatimes