Karnataka Political League!

Since 12th May, the day when Karnataka went to polls, India has been gripped by non-stop action from KPL – Karnataka Political league. The twists and turns of KPL put IPL completely on the back burner for a week. From the exit poll results to counting day to the see-sawing of fortunes of parties and leaders to the resort games to the confidence vote, we saw it all. In these “Winner takes it all” times, finally JDS emerged the winner at the end of the week! And the people of Karnataka (to whom elections and the rulers actually matter) lost!

For those of us, who have been keenly watching the Karnataka elections and some of the electoral battles since 2014, there are many interesting takeaways which I would like to share:

  • Final election results defy ground reports of journalists and in particular celebrity anchors and Star journos. Karnataka once again confirmed this! They tend to hear what they want to hear and see what they want to see. Ergo, report what they want to report!
  • Restaurants, eateries, dhabas are wrong places to sense any political hawa during elections. Channels, anchors and reporters should find better options to plug eateries in their shows. My unsolicited advice to anchors – “Please do not have politics and elections on your plates!”
  • For a political party being savvy or active on Social media (read as Twitter) and claiming to dominate Twitter trends aggressively is not a passport to electoral wins. Dominating “on the ground” trends is. I have come to realise that what happens on Twitter may just steer conversations on WhatsApp groups or lunchtime discussions in offices. These also help feed off talk points to reporters and journalists. At the hustings, being savvy on Social media particularly Twitter has no impact. As a tool, WhatsApp works better and efficiently in driving opinions.
  • Opinion polls and Exit polls continue to be employment generating machines for pollsters, TRP drivers for channels and entertainment source for viewers. Beyond that, we have now got habituated to see that for every exit poll there is an opposite result exit poll!
  • On TV, the so called experts have their own way of explaining any result. In the run up to the polls when Congress was poised to do well, Siddaramaiah was touted to have mastered the social coalition of AHINDA. On the counting day when Congress for floundering, Siddaramaiah’s AHINDA and the many social schemes were pronounced as “flops”. Same with his Lingayat gamble. In 24 hours, a masterstroke became Siddaramaiah’s undoing!
  • Therefore the important take away for observers like us is not to form our opinions based on experts on TV or social media narratives!
  • If one is weak on Indian geography, start watching pre-election programming where channel after channel will take you through the regional divides in a state with the caste composition in added measure!
  • And the more and more we want our next generation to move away from casteism, experts on TV will keep hammering and reminding us about Vokkaligas and Kappus and Yadavs and Kurmis and what not! If you are a student of journalism, this is the 1st thing to master to become a successful political journalist!
  • Corruption is not really a big issue for the electorate. Impact of governance on the individual voter is. Even if a party or a legislator is corrupt, as long as they manage to meet the expectations of voters in matters of day-to-day governance, they will go ahead and vote for them. This I am talking of voters for whom elections and the rulers matter. I have come to this conclusion not just based on the Karnataka elections but what has been happening for so many years not just in India but even in our neighbourhood like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh,…
  • I think Demonetisation aka Notebandi and GST,… as much as the media and opposition would like to rake them as electoral issues have clearly emerged as non-issues in elections. On the contrary, I feel that opposition parties continuing to raise hell on these issues are yielding them negative returns.
  • Prime Minister Modi clearly has a Pan India and towering appeal today. Talks of a waning Modi appeal are as per me pure imaginations. And it is my belief that even if BJP had lost Karnataka badly and ended up with fewer seats than Congress, come 2019, Karnataka will vote for Modi and BJP in that order.
  • Anti-incumbency is just an excuse to explain poor Governance. Incumbent governments will continue to be under severe scrutiny. However, if the government delivers on at least 50% of its promises and demonstrates its intent to deliver the rest, I think the floating non-core supporter will vote in the ruling party’s favour. (Core voters stick to their parties come what may). As per me, above all other factors, this is one in which BJP has demonstrated a clear edge over Congress. And hence it is able to retain states where it rules and Congress is unable to.
  • Post poll alliance is the biggest charade to afflict Indian democracy. I am not saying this with just Karnataka in mind but seeing what has happened in the past and recently in Goa, Manipur, J&K,… That you fight tooth and nail against each other before elections and then stitch up a post alliance to appropriate power is nothing but a sham! Before elections, 2 parties “come together” for an alliance. After elections, 2 parties “cobble up” an alliance! There is a world of difference in both! In India, now any 2 parties which may seem to be in loggerheads can come together if a situation arises for sharing power! Morality be damned and Ideology be condemned!
  • In India, “Whataboutery” just scaled new heights! “Whataboutery” which has largely been in the domain of party spokespersons trying to defend their positions day in and day out has now become common man’s defence against any argument. No argument/discussion is complete today without reference to “Whatabout that” or “Whatabout then”!
  • For every precedent, there is an opposite precedent!

Karnataka Political League might have just ended. But the games parties play will continue. Bernard Shaw said politics is the last resort of scoundrels. These days, “Resorts” have become the 1st resort for politics!!!

Toon credit: Satish Acharya

Advertisements

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

For Congress, time to have a Punjab Model!!!

For the Grand Old Party of India – the Congress, yesterday the 16th of Dec, 2017 was a historic day. Or that’s what the Congress and the media made us to believe. A day in which their long waiting scion, Rahul Gandhi was finally crowned as the President of the party a post held by his mother, father, grandmother, great grandfather and great great grandfather in the past. While it was a very natural event which needed to happen one day or the other, Rahul takes charge at a time when an arduous task lies ahead.  That of pulling the party from the woods which it has got into since 2014. But for Punjab recently, electoral successes for the party have been far and few between. But, all hopes are not lost. The ruling behemoth called the BJP may be clinically executing its mission of a “Congress Mukt Bharat” and coming close to achieving it as well. But that doesn’t mean that in a country like India, Congress is out for ever. As the “once party with a difference” – BJP grows, it cannot escape afflicting itself with the trappings of power and the downsides that come along with it. As the principal opposition party with a national footprint, the Congress can certainly hope for its time to come.  And Rahul Gandhi being the current heir of the “Gandhi turned Nehru parivar”, can also hope to become the Prime Minister of India, one day. I am not saying that this could happen in 2019 or even in 2024. But for a 47 year old, Rahul can certainly count on his chances sometime in the future.

Having said that, just counting on his chances or luck will not be enough to resurrect the party and become the PM of India. Not in these times. Certainly not with a competitor who is developing a sense of invincibility by the election. Tomorrow is the counting day for state elections of Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat and by this time, it will be clear if Rahul’s stars are in the upswing or they continue to betray him. The exit polls have not been kind. Anyway, irrespective of the final results, Rahul Gandhi needs to have a game plan for the next 20 years for his party. First, to become a formidable opposition to BJP and then to become a credible party of governance.  At a time when Rahul takes up the new mantle, this piece aims to provide some unsolicited advice in this direction to the Grand Old Party. That also means that this has nothing to do with what is going to happen with the Gujarat results. The advice is irrespective.

Now that the Congress has a clear face by way of Rahul Gandhi, it needs its own “Model”. While it can continue to attack NarendraModi and the BJP for all their fallacies, the question in the mind of the “unattached” voter is, what does Congress stand for today?  It’s my view that in general, core voters are loyal to their own parties, come what may. It’s the non-core voters who determine the swing and accordingly the winner. Today, the non-core voters are usually the urban middle class, women in general and the youth who have got into the voting net in the last few years. I have found that these groups are Ideology agnostic and make up their minds based on what is it for them as individuals. The youth of today are not aware of what Congress did or did not when it was in power for most part of 70 years in Independent India. Modi and the BJP have been very effective in reminding these voters of the omissions and commissions of the Congress. Hence, Congress needs to have a positive narrative of what they could do now, if they come to power which is different from the past and from what BJP is doing. The easiest thing is to showcase this in one state first. Take up a state where you are in power. Nurture an effective leader. Focus on governance. Do all what you feel BJP is not doing. Finally, Deliver, Deliver and Deliver. Make this a showcase. In short make this state a Model! And effectively “market” this model!

Today, the biggest issue with Congress is its credibility. There is no state which can be shown as a success story for the Congress. Congress had a great chance when it wrested back Karnataka from the BJP 5 years ago. But it has squandered its chances there with some lacklustre performance. As Karnataka goes to polls in 2018, Congress has its back against the wall.

Having missed the opportunity in Karnataka, the next bet for Rahul is to focus on Punjab, a state which Congress wrested from the SAD-BJP combine in 2017. With more than 4 years to go for the electoral test there, time is ripe for the Congress to demonstrate its capability and come up with its own “Punjab model”. It has nothing to lose and in fact everything to gain. It has just come to power in the back of severe anti-incumbency and promise of better governance. It has got a Chief Minister who I am told is an effective leader (Only time will tell) and who has a mind and brain of his own. Punjab is not a Bihar. It has been one of the wealthier states in the country. Agriculture and Industry have been thriving. So, for Congress to focus, identify the gaps in governance and focus on plugging them should not be difficult. In fact, Rahul should summon the entire might of the Congress in supporting the CM and ensure by 2022, the state is No.1 in terms of economic growth, infrastructure and social indices. And go for re-election with the narrative of its own “Punjab model”! 

In marketing, we often talk of a concept of “One-Three-Five-Many” by which we first successfully launch a product in one market, make it a success and then take it to three, five and then many other markets. I see no reason why Congress cannot follow the same. After making a success of Punjab, Congress then can focus on capturing few other vulnerable states in 2023 like MP, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan,.. which by then in all probability would be inflicted from severe Anti-Incumbency and fatigue. Having 3-5 major states in the pocket is when Congress will be in any serious position to take a shot at the Centre.

Immediately after BJP’s rousing win in UP this year, Omar Abdullah in part jest and part irony tweeted that the opposition should forget 2019 and start planning and hoping for 2024. Developing a marketable “Punjab model” by 2022 could be that plan and hope.  Or else, wait and watch for BJP to implode, Ram Bharose!!!

Postscript: While on this, cannot avoid but sharing this joke:

Congress worker: Sirji, for us to come back to power, we need a successful Punjab model.

RaGa: Why just one? We always have many successful models from Punjab:) 🙂

Mersal, Mitron and the New India paradox!

For those outside of South India, a week ago, the word Mersal would have called for a detailed introduction. Today it doesn’t. The leaders of BJP in Tamil Nadu with their outbursts against Mersal, have ensured that the film became a National hashtag! I watched Mersal and frankly my take was that it was a regular masala pot boiler meant strictly for the actor Vijay’s fans.  Towards the end, Vijay gets into a monologue against the corrupt medical system in the country looking into the camera lens.  In between, he also trashes the recently introduced GST with what are clearly illogical and false arguments. Somewhere in the beginning of the film there is an innocuous line taking a dig at Demonetisation as well!

In Mumbai where I watched the film, there was no applause or whistle for the GST lines. Probably there were, in other parts of the country particularly Tamil Nadu. Enough for the TN wing of BJP to take offence and call for muting of these lines in the film. Some other leaders of BJP went further.  They dragged the religion to which the actor Vijay belonged – apparently Christianity and pointed out that, it was the reason there was another line in the film where his character says it is better to build a hospital than a temple in the village!

Inane arguments and counter arguments occupied national prime time in the week following Diwali and at the end Mersal, which would have been anyway a super hit became a super-duper hit. I’m certain that remaking rights in other languages will go at a fancy premium now. One can only get Mersalled (meaning “Amazed” in colloquial Tamil) looking at these developments!  The particular clip with the GST lines went viral that too with English Subtitles and what was just meant for Tamil Nadu is now being consumed by people all over!

The same last week we saw another “Mersalling” development. A short clip of a mimicry artiste by name Shyam Rangeela went viral on WhatsApp. In that clip, you can see Shyam doing an immaculately close mimic of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This act was originally part of a Star TV show – The Great Indian Laughter Challenge. But after the clip attained gigantic viral velocity, the producers decided to edit off this portion. I watched the clip and was “Mersalled” by the talent of this guy. His act of Modi was spot on, with liberal throw ins of Mitron and Bhaiyon Aur Behenon,..  just like how Modi does in his speeches.  After this development, I am sure his phone must be ringing endlessly and he has already become a mini celebrity in the highly competitive 24*7 sound bite seeking world!

Those who are tuned to the FM Station Radio Mirchi would be familiar with their very popular satire show “Mirchi Mitron”. In this satirical program again, there was a voice which could be identified with Modi having conversations on current topics with different people. Though this was popular, in a surprising move, this section went off air since early this year.

In all this, there is a clear pattern. Political satire in India is on a ventilator where pulling the plug comes easily. It looks like it’s no longer cool to take pot shots at the ruling party or its leaders. Either the party will take strong exception and flex its majoritarian muscle to come down heavily on the perpetrators of these satire (the Telugu version of the film Mersal is still languishing at the censor table) or eerily the creators develop a sense of self-censorship and exercise restraint (Like in the case of Star TV and Radio Mirchi). In any case, these don’t augur well for a New India!  Has New India’s leadership lost its sense of humour? Is political satire so damaging??

In the “Old India”, political satire was thriving and flourished peacefully. In Tamil Nadu, where BJP made a ruckus about few lines against the Government, one gentle man by the name of Cho Ramaswamy used to shred parties and their leaders with his sharp wit, that too for 60 years till his last breath last year. Being a man of multiple talents, he used multiple platforms – from Theatre to films to Magazines to TV to take his political satire to people. In his heyday, he didn’t spare any of the ruling party or its leaders. And naturally Indira Gandhi and her Congress party for most of his life were at the receiving end of his relentless jibes. Never to make a personal attack on his adversaries, Cho used wit, sarcasm and comedy to drive home the point. Later on, he trained his guns on the Dravida parties. The magazine Tughlaq was popular when he edited the same. His TV shows gained high TRPs among middle class Tamils. His plays were usually sold out. And the irony starts here. In spite of Cho’s continuous attack, Tamil Nadu was among the handful states in the country that withstood the Anti-Indira wave in the aftermath of the Emergency in the 1977 Loksabha elections. So, the people of Tamil Nadu enjoyed Cho’s satire but made smart, practical choices while voting in the elections! They used to vote for Congress at the centre and one of the Dravida parties at the state!  My point is that people by and large don’t take these political satire seriously. They do enjoy the same but make their own smart choices.

We keep hearing that the New India is about being confident, looking ahead and keeping insecurities aside.  But, it looks like the leaders in BJP do not think so. While I am not sure if the Prime Minister is himself against satire trained against him or his party, it is clear that in his party there are those who send clear signals to that effect. And that doesn’t augur well for the New India which the PM is persistently pitching for! So why not he openly invite Shyam Rangeela to perform the Mitron,… act in front of him in a public meeting in his next Man Ki Baat address???  That could be his best tribute to Cho, undisputedly one of India’s best political satirists whom Modi himself considered as one of his mentors and well-wishers!

Postscript: This is now part of folk lore. R.K Laxman had just caricatured Jawaharlal Nehru after the 1962 war against China in his own inimitable style. Did the TOI editor get a call from the PMO to demand an apology the next day? Well, Laxman got a call from Nehru himself the next day where he told him, “Mr. Laxman, I so enjoyed your cartoon this morning. Can I have a signed enlarged copy to frame?”

Bahubali, Kattappa and some political lessons!!!

With over an estimated 30 mill. people having reportedly watched the film Bahubali 2: The Conclusion, I can safely conclude that most of those who are reading this blog by now would have! This post is not a review of the film or about how the film has broken all collection records in the country either. But about a character called Kattappa and the political lessons it holds for the principal opposition party in India namely the Congress. In the film, apart from the lead characters, Kattappa is the one who evokes much recall and sympathy – a situation very similar to what Congress (which has its own few Kattappas) finds itself today in India.  Kattappa in Bahubali and Kattappas in Congress??? Let me attempt to join the dots.

In the Bahubali series, Kattappa is an able warrior and sort of a leader of the forces of the Kingdom of Mahishmati. In terms of characterisation, Kattappa is shown as an extremely loyal, most faithful and a trustworthy soul who will do anything to protect his master – the ruler of Mahishmati in this case. He doesn’t mind others alluding him to a dog scornfully – a creature known for being utmost loyal to its master among all pets. At the same time, repeatedly he is depicted to be a prisoner of his own choice he has made in terms of being loyal at any cost. In the film there are 2 crucial mistakes he commits as a result of putting his loyalty ahead of being truthful. First, he lets the Queen announce Bhallaladeva as the King setting aside the earlier announcement of Amarendra Bahubali without making any attempt to clear the air in the Queen’s mind about the right and good intentions of Amarendra in wanting to marry Devasena. He makes no attempt to let the Queen know that Devasena likes and prefers only Amarendra to be her life partner. Second, he carries out the order of the Queen to kill Amarendra though he knew very well of the conspiracy of the Bhallaladeva camp to create misunderstanding and confusion in the Queen’s mind. These crucial mistakes deprived the people of Mahishmati the governance of a benevolent leader like Amarendra and instead were at the mercy of an unkind and autocratic ruler like Bhallaladeva.

Well, that’s what happened in the 2 part film that helped the Director weave an interesting story of palace intrigues in a huge canvas unseen so far in Indian films and create history!  But what has Congress to do with this?

Today in India, the Congress party is in crossroads and may be at its lowest ebb. The climb has been downhill since 2014 when it was reduced to an all-time low in the Lok Sabha. The string of defeats in most of the state elections since then have been catastrophic. The principal ruling party in India namely the BJP is systematically moving forward on its slogan of making Bharat – Congress Mukt. Apart from Congress there is no other party which can be called truly a Pan Indian political outfit. Under these circumstances for a democracy to be one, a truly credible opposition party with an alternate narrative is a must. Any ruling party must have at least one if not few other parties breathing down its neck any point in time for its own checks and balances. Not to mention of the country’s. And that’s why a revival of the Congress party from where it is today is a must.

Congress led UPA had their chances in changing and developing India for 10 years since 2004. I am for the moment ignoring the 50 years they had, prior to 1998.  Congress had and in fact has quite a few Kattappas in their ranks. Experienced, Able politicians and administrators who I believe had answers and solutions to the many ills the country faced when they came back to power rather providentially in 2004. However all of them ended up being true Kattappas who only put loyalty to the rulers (Gandhi family in this case) as their priority and did what served the family well rather than the country more often than not. The result – in spite of the benefit of global tailwinds helping the economy till 2010, UPA couldn’t change things much on the ground in their 2nd term and lost the elections to BJP in 2014.  The many new ideas their leaders had, got intertwined in turf battles between ministries and never were implemented with rigour. Coming back to the present, the Kattappas of the Congress continue their old ways the string of bad news at the hustings for the Congress notwithstanding. The able leaders still remain so loyal to the Gandhi family that even today they are reluctant to come out with their honest prescriptions to revive the Congress. They all make the “right” noises in public but being “right” is seldom being “honest”! The Congress today suffers from a uninspirational leadership in the Gandhi family. However the very able and even intelligent Kattappas of the Congress party continue to labour paeans on the Sonia-Rahul leadership without ever being critical of some of their moves since 2014.

My view is that unless the Congress party’s leaders come out of their loyalty web and challenge the strategy and some of the decisions of the party’s leadership thereby leading to some churn in the thinking of the party, the drive may continue to remain downhill for some time.

Coming to think of it, it took us 2 full years since Bahubali 1: The Beginning for us to comprehend the ill effect of Kattappa’s mindless loyalty to the rulers. It’s already 3 years now for the leaders of Congress to realise the ills of theirs. And if they are among the 30 million to have watched the film, it may be good to take some political lessons from the on screen Kattappa!!!

P.S: In the above piece, one can “find” Congress and “replace” with AAP and I guess most of it will hold good as well!!!

Deciphering the cAAPital Verdict!!!

IMG_1357Modi loses capital” screamed the headline in The Economic Times the day after the historic victory of Aam Admi Party (AAP) in the Delhi state elections. Not only the ET, but across the board the post-mortem narrative in the media by and large has NOT been about AAP winning but Modi getting thrashed. It almost seemed like for a man who cannot do anything wrong since Sep 2013, suddenly it is rigor mortis. Since the ascent of Narendra Modi as PM, for the main stream media, even a local body election has been a referendum on Modi’s Central Govt.  Even after wading through the muddy waters in Haryana, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and even J&K fairly successfully, the “Blow to Modi” war cry finally returned when the AAP Tsunami hit BJP in Delhi.  There is no empirical evidence to show that Delhi voted for AAP as they didn’t like Modi’s performance so far at the centre. But then media’s narrative in India is seldom based on logic or ground realities. The only empirical evidence we have ( a post poll survey conducted by CSDS for India Today group) actually points to the fact that though Delhi voted overwhelmingly for AAP, more than 60% still gave a thumbs up to Modi as PM and his Govt..  For the media it is almost unfathomable that Delhi could vote smartly by opting for “Modi + Kejriwal Combo”!!!  In fact this sub text emerged during opinion polls in Delhi during Lok Sabha Elections as well, but that got drowned in the overall din. While all criticism of Modi and his Govt. of 9 months are not all misplaced, some of it are clearly over the top. Let us look at some of the uncharitable ones:

  • “This verdict is against “Hubris” of Modi and the Modi Govt.

In leadership, it’s only a thin line which separates arrogance and being decisive. In the last 10 years, we took our earlier PM, Dr.Singh to the cleaners for being an epitome of indecisiveness. If one reads Sanjay Baru’s ‘Accidental Prime Minister’ – a tell all tale of India under UPA-1, it’s clear why and how “policy paralysis” as a result of Dr. Singh’s tentativeness pulled the economy down to the rubble. In the last few months we have seen this Govt. taking a lot of firm decisions (like transfer of secretaries, calling off talks with Pakistan,…) and they if viewed through a cynical prism may seem arrogant. It’s still not clear on how many occasions Modi or the Govt. have taken decisions which were supercilious. If this conclusion is because of things like the ordinance route the Govt. took to pass some legislations, then there is another way of looking at it. This has also sent a strong message all concerned of the Govt.’s intent and urgency to get things moving on the mining sector and land acquisition,… which have been issues impending economic activity in the country. While on this, I would agree with critics that the Govt. could have been more benevolent and offered the Leader of Opposition post to Congress instead of being churlish and probably could have given the Hubris tag a miss!!!

  •  “Modi has been focusing too much on foreign affairs”

It is a well-known fact that since the slapping of the retrograde retrospective tax, India had fallen off the foreign investors’ radar.  Far from being a potential “Break out” nation, we suddenly became a “fallen BRIC”! So for any new Govt. seeking to put India back on a high growth path, it was imperative to turn around the sentiments and send a signal that “India Means Business”. And that can happen only if the top leadership is seen making the commitment. Critics also say that he should focus on getting the confidence of the Indian investors first rather than those outside. Once again, it will be worthwhile remembering that the flow of the Rupee follows the flow of the Dollars.  If foreign investors starts investing in India, the Indian ones start following the script.  For instance,when the Carrefours, Walmarts, Metros, Woolworths started pouring dollars in organized retail in 2007/08, all the Big Indian groups like Birlas, Ambanis, Tatas,.. followed suit.  So it made absolute sense for this Govt. to reach out to the bigger economies like Japan, China and the US with a sense of urgency to showcase the climate change. And to a large extent it has succeeded. At the World Economic Forum in Davos in Jan, the buzz around India was back after a hiatus.

  • “This Govt. is all about “Show-baazi”

If one is talking of the hype around programmes like Make In India, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, Jan Dhan Yojana,.. then the critique is utterly misplaced.  Any programme has to be conceived well, communicated well and implemented well. Make no mistake. It’s just one word which separates “Hype” and “Hope”. From a positive hype, emerges a hope for results. And believe you me, the strong messaging around these programmes is what started giving hope of a Govt. which functions. It may well happen that some of the programmes may fail or may not yield all the desired results. But then you cannot blame the Govt. for not trying. At the end of the day, the Govt. has to function and more importantly it has to be seen as functioning.

It’s not my intention to turn this post to an unending paean on Modi and his Govt.. There indeed have been few false steps which could have been clearly avoided.

  • “Failure in controlling food inflation”

Though the head line inflation as per pink papers has come down, for the aam admi, price of vegetables and food items has never come down. And so far I have not seen any serious attempt by the Govt. to do anything about this. Supply side bottlenecks continue. In fact, the PM must have taken this as a mission and gone after this from day 1. In the coming days till the economy takes off, this will be a nagging issue in the minds of the public.  To give an analogy, in Tamil Nadu, inspite of the fact that the Govt. is being run through remote control, there is visibly less disgruntlement (atleast for now). One big reason being the opening of ‘Amma Canteens’ which disperse food at economic prices. I don’t think there is any other state in India today, where one can have a decent full day meal for under Rs.20. In TN, you can, if you choose to eat in Amma Canteens. So much so, the Saravana Bhavans and their ilk had to cut their prices in order to compete and maintain their market share. Some food for thought this.

  • “Ghar Wapsi of Kaala Dhan”

In the run up to the Lok Sabha elections, I tweeted – “We will ensure India wins the World cup in 2015 – The only promise Modi has not made so far”!!! Among the slew of promises Modi made in rally after rally, bringing back Black money stashed abroad was one significant and at the same time silly I reckoned.  This business of Black money stashed abroad in banks illegally,.. is mired in a complex vortex of Global Drug mafia, Arms trade, High level political Corruption, Tax evasion,…,… in which many countries and their Govts. are willingly complicit. So the SIT and Enquiry commissions will keep spending months together (as they have been doing in the past) without getting anywhere. On the contrary, the Govt. could have focused on the Black money racket within the country. I would be surprised if the people in the Govt. don’t know that the Real Estate business in India is a haven for black money! Why not a regulator for that sector in the lines of IRDA or TRAI or SEBI first instead of going after Ghar wapsi of Kaala Dhan in vain?

  • PM not reigning in the fringe elements of the Parivar

It was completely expected that when BJP came to power with a majority, it will see the emergence of the fringe elements sooner than later. What is surprising is that the PM who tactfully handled and silenced these in Gujarat didn’t anticipate and have a pro-active plan this time. Like for example, identify the louder elements and put them on some activity trap like “Spreading the values of Vivekananda”,.. in countries abroad using some NGO front organization. They will also feel important to roam around in exotic locales abroad and at the same time you are silencing them in the country. This will ensure that there are minimum distractions. Otherwise a distraction a day will keep the Govt. at bay! We saw this during the last parliament session.

Outside of the few blips I have outlined, there has been a lot going for the PM and his team. Like getting the right people in Key ministries unlike Dr. Singh who was constrained on this, being different and creative in his approach like getting the state CMs to attend the meeting of Mission heads recently pushing Mission heads to focus on getting Dandha for the country, setting up NITI AAYOG,…,…. So it is my opinion that it is utterly malicious for the commentariat to see the “cAAPital Verdict” as a manifestation of the dissatisfied voice of the Nation! This argument can’t get more specious!

When quizzed about this Govt. in Dec I think, Arun Shourie quoting Akbar Allahabadi said, ‘Plateon Ke aane ki Awaaz toh aa rahi hai, par khaana nahin aa raha!!!’ (The sound of the plates can be heard, but the food doesn’t seem to be coming!!!).  One hopes that in the Budget and the days after the Govt. puts the Delhi shock behind and stays the course on its Pro-Growth promises made so that people get to smell and eat the food as well.  That will keep the mouths of the critics busy in chewing the food rather than spitting venom on the Govt.!

Postscript: Same time last year, when Arvind Kejriwal resigned as CM, I wrote this piece – “The loud Wake AAP call”. Read here. Looks like both the aam admi and the AAP heard the wakeup call loudly that time and today are out of bed and on their way to office while the BJP, got up and hit the snooze button. Well, the Congress has not yet heard the wake up thud and has adjourned itself Sine Die!!!

Na Tired,… Na Retired,…!!!

I like Jaswant Singh. I think he was arguably India’s best External Affairs minister in the post Nehruvian era. I cannot think of another politician in that time who could have handled the diplomatic fall out of the Pokhran tests during the Vajpayee regime better than him. When I recently read his book – ‘A Call to honour-In Service of Emergent India’ where he elucidates the complex negotiations he had with the US leading to the relaxing of sanctions much earlier than the world expected, my respect for him went up a few notches. So it was extremely sad to see the same Jaswant Singh last week waging a lonely battle of sorts with his party for not nominating him from the seat of his choice. When the party wanted him to retire gracefully, he wanted to retire after a last race!!! He was visibly tired. Even the vocal energy was missing. Those grandiose articulation skills which helped him stave off many a diplomatic challenge didn’t come of use in his own turf battle. Diplomacy they say is “an art of give and take” or rather “appearing to give and take”. Jaswant Singh nor the party leadership was in any mood for even appearing to give in. The result – Mr. Singh had to throw in the turban in the election ring as an independent and has been expelled from the party. While the curtain on his career is certainly down if he loses, I am not sure if the climax will be anything interesting even if he wins. With this episode, has he become a foot note a petulant one in that in the party’s history?? History will judge.

It’s not just Jaswant Singh. We have leaders across the spectrum of parties in India for whom a “graceful exit” is an alien concept. At an age of 87, one would expect a patriarch to provide abundant blessings, plentiful advice and be a fatherly figure. But, here we have Mr. Advani throwing fits about where he will contest for the next Loksabha elections. When his tenure ends he will be 92 – not an age one expects to have the energy to energize the nation of a burgeoning youthful population. Giving him illustrious company is the “Kalaignar” from South – Karunanidhi who at 90 is doing all what he can to prevent the “Rising Sun” from sinking. The visuals of an immobile leader being wheeled from meeting to meeting his mastery over Tamil language notwithstanding are hardly inspiring.

knidhi

Is it just politicians?? Nope. In sports too, we have enough examples of exits happening only when push comes to shove. It was my humble opinion that even God aka Sachin Tendulkar called his retirement a couple of years late. In the context of retirement, a very used cliché is – “One must exit when people ask why now and why not?” However if one surfs through history of legends, it is mostly of the “Why not” variety. Whether it was Kapil Dev or Saurav Ganguly. That’s why a Sunil Gavaskar who stepped down from captaincy after a World Championship win or retired from tests after one of his best knocks is still respected and that’s why a Rahul Dravid who decided to hang up at the 1st sight of self-doubt will be spoken with high regard.

This disease has plagued industrialists who run empires as well. I know of a group where the Chairman who in his late 80’s still tries to be active in running the business. He used to say that he will stop attending office the day his son (in late 50’s) starts acting responsibly which is when he attends office on time!!! And his son used to claim that he will be in office on time the day his dad has confidence in him and stops attending office!!!

Hence in this “I will not give up” atmosphere, one was pleasantly surprised to see Jairam Ramesh of the Congress declaring that in his party, leaders must retire at 70. It’s another matter that his party soon disowned his lofty comment as a personal lament.

Let me for the moment limit this issue of “No Voluntary Retirement” to the sphere of politics as that is of public importance. It can be safely concluded that but for extreme bad health nothing else stops politicians from trying to be politically active. Are physical strength and mental alacrity not critical in matters of governance? Jairam Ramesh also added “People unfortunately in India don’t know when to exit. That is why most mentors become tormentors”!!! Is this “not stepping down graciously” an “Indian” thing? For want of adequate information, I am unable to conclude. Is it time to amend laws to stipulate upper age for contesting in elections? Will the leaders who hang around themselves will ever come together to bring about this legislation?

Only time will tell. Till such time, as Atal Bihari Vajpayee a man with a liberal gift of the gab once said “Na Tired, Na Retired” will be the overarching theme for our netas. “Young nation with Very Old leadership” is what looks like is preordained for our country. But I think the time has come for a national debate on this.

“Hello!

 Is this Mr. Kejriwal speaking,…???”

 Cartoon credit: www.cartoonistsandeep.com