Notes from my Lockdown Diary – Part 2

Continuing from where I left in Part 1, the mandatory lockdown continues to introduce us to many “New Normals” – some of which I touched upon in my last post. If you haven’t read that, please read here.

Before this COVID-19, Zoom was one of the widely used tool in companies for conference calls. Now, it has become a house hold name and the most popular App after WhatsApp!  Anyone and everyone these days are on Zoom calls.  On Day #6, the daughter who is now in 8th grade, slowly came up to me and asked to set up a Zoom account for her. After checking and confirming that she has indeed taken the approval from the wife for the same, I set it up for her. What started as sessions for doing work sheets jointly with friends which are being sent every day by the school, have now become Dumb Charades and other game playing sessions over video calls, I am told. I have now become the villain for setting up that Zoom account!

And by now, in almost all households, one round of Zoom meetings have happened with father side family, mother side family and of course one with the immediate family of brothers, sisters and so on.  And as per the hierarchy of WhatsApp groups, friend’s re-union meetings will soon start over Zoom! While on this, I have now ensured that the Video is permanently switched off on my company Zoom account settings so that while on the day long business calls, embarrassing scenes from the surroundings do not get captured.

Like on Day #8, when I was on a review call with my team locked in my room, there were a few SOS bangs on the door. As the bangs got lounder, I excused myself to find out what happened. The daughter while pretending to clean up her room spotted a cockroach which had flew from outside. Now in our flat it has been years since we spotted a cockroach and now this was of the flying variety. You can imagine the scenes involving the daughter and the wife now when they found that the creature had taken refuge under the cot. So, I was summoned in the midst of my ongoing call to fix the cockroach problem.  Just because of killing the cockroaches, bees and other insects which keep creeping in the house now and then, my sin count has multiplied over the years and chances of an entry into heaven for me have been seriously damaged. All this while the family keeps cheering me from the side when I execute the killings!

I asked for a Jhadu to kill the cockroach and I was promptly handed over one. Without realising that I was handed over a “phool jhadu” and that too a new one, I went about the act of killing the cockroach systematically. Soon enough, the creature was killed much to the relief and happiness of the wife and the daughter. But then, wait. Those of you who have used a new “phool jhadu” will know that for a few days it keeps shedding dust and cleaning that is another big job. So, by using a new “phool jhadu” which was handed over to me for killing a cockroach, I ended up filling the entire room with a trail of dust from it! The next half an hour or so went in just clearing the room of the mess. In these times of the Corona virus which affects the throat and lungs, this was an episode that could have been totally avoided, I must say. But then you know the effect, cockroaches have in our lives!

Yesterday being a Saturday, I offered to do the cooking. “Today is weekend no? Why don’t you give me a break and do the cooking?” I knew that this will come and so I did a pre-emptive strike and made the offer myself which was immediately accepted. And as expected a slew of instructions flew!

“In the name of cooking, don’t end up messing up my kitchen!” 

“It is not enough if you just cook. Just clean up the place after the cooking!” 

“Whatever doubts you have, ask now. Don’t keep calling me and asking later!” 

“And try to do something different. Not your usual menu of Tomato Rasam and Potato curry!”

My immediate reaction (obviously in my mind) was “Why did I take up this now?”

Anyway, having committed in the first place, went about the job as meticulously as I can.  First up, as a Pillayaar suzhi, kept a vessel full of water for boiling as we have the practice of boiling the drinking water. Then, just when I was about to keep the rice on the pressure cooker, realised that the handle was loose. My engineering brain while cursing the design, was wondering how come the handle is always loose whenever I try to use the cooker, the answer for which I got very soon. In my quest to show off to the wife that apart from cooking, I am also providing some value addition, I got into the job of fixing the handle.  Within a few minutes, the plastic around the screw gave way and the handle came off completely.

The next half an hour went in erasing all evidence of this mishap lest you know what will happen. While I was engrossed in this, I completely forgot about the water kept for boiling due to which half the water had evaporated. Now, I had another set of evidences to be erased! All my male friends will totally agree that this business of erasing any evidence from the wives is an exercise in futility!   So when the wife dropped by to inspect what is going on, she could immediately notice that the cooker handle was skewed by one tenth of a millimeter in spite of my elaborate cover up attempts.

“Now what did you do to my cooker handle?” came the first arrow.

“I just tried to fix it as it was loose. But when I was tried to tighten it, it broke”, I answered.

“Did I tell you to meddle with it now?

Do I not know that the handle is loose?

Am I not using it for so long?  

Because of the heat from the stove, the plastic loses its tensile strength and gives way easily. That’s why I don’t try to apply pressure and tighten that!  

I am a commerce student and I am aware of all this. And after being an Engineer you still can’t wrap your head around this?”

A barrage of arrows ensued.  My engineering degree continues to be the most attacked feature in my life!

Soon enough, the wife, realised that much time has been wasted by me without making much progress on the lunch preparation. So she decided to take charge and my cooking endeavour ended abruptly that day.  I remember reading somewhere that women are far ahead in multi-tasking than men. I decided to agree to that statement 100% from this day.

To be continued…

Postscript: Those of you who wondered about my well-being after the wife read Part 1, I am well and holding up. She indeed read it and laughed it off. Covid-19 has its plus points.

Pic courtesy: Webdunia

Notes from my Lockdown Diary – Part 1

As I write this, India is in a complete lockdown due to Covid-19 and today is Day #5. 16 more days to go.  May be more. Never in our lives have we experienced a lockdown like this.  Neither our parents have.  As Indians, we are normally used to different kinds of curbs that hit our daily lives very often. I am talking of the Rasta rokos, Chakka Jaams, Curfews, Hartals, Bandhs and so on. But this is at a different level.  Even Kashmiris who face the brunt of partial shutdowns would feel the same, I reckon. Even as recently as a couple of weeks ago, when we were hearing of the Corona virus news from China, we wouldn’t have imagined that it will hit home so close and like this which sort of forced the government to shutdown India completely.

This complete India lockdown has brought to the fore the many “New Normals” in our lives. To start with is of course WFH – “Work From Home”, hitherto a kind of privilege enjoyed by the IT folks. In the current scenario, almost everyone is forced to WFH.  Just that in the New Normal, it also implies “Work For Home”. With the entire family spending time within the confines of the four walls, there is no dearth of tragic scenes which are comical and comic scenes which end up turning tragic depending upon which side of the divide you are! In this diary notes, I try to capture some of these scenes for posterity!

In India,  milk for daily use is usually delivered at our doorsteps. Not now. Milk is delivered at the building lobby and you have to collect it. The wife who usually picks the milk from the door has now delegated that responsibility to me to go down and fetch the milk from the lobby. “Anyway you can’t walk and exercise and all. Just consider it as a morning walk and do it” is the wife’s take. “Does that apply only to me” was the immediate question which arose in my mind. For obvious reasons, it remained a mind voice.

As part of the lockdown routine, newspapers also have been stopped. For many men, newspapers play more than just one role. Apart from the obvious one of providing updates on happenings around the world, it also performs the most important function of aiding daily “bowel cleaning”. Without the paper in hand, for many, it is a torture. One had to dip into the old newspaper stock these days to get the day going! In the West, I hear newspapers are filling in for the toilet roll shortage in stores.

“Because of the shutdown, can’t even do my daily exercises! Can’t even do walking within the complex”, I lamented on Day #2. “As if before this you were regularly going to the gym and all!, the wife taunted. “After this New year resolution, I remember, you went to the gym at a stretch for 3 days which is better than the last few years record of two days!”, the taunt continued.

“In my friends group, a gym trainer is sharing day wise simple exercises one can do at home. Let us do it together at home”, the wife declared. “By sharing these videos openly, isn’t the gym trainer risking his future business?  Why is he doing this?” My rather nonchalant question was obviously misconstrued and dismissed with this rejoinder. “That is his problem. Why are you worried? Chalo, let us start”! So thanks to the daily dose of gym trainer’s home exercise videos, we have started doing stretching and exercises at home for the past 3 days. Today being a Sunday, of course I took a break!

In India, if you ask the women who they usually miss the most, it is not the kids or the parents or the husband. It is the maid servant! On returning from office, if you find the wife in a pissed off mood, you can safely conclude that the maid has applied for leave for few days and has not arranged for ‘Badli bai’ (replacement maid)! So these days, one of the most important terms during appointment of maids is she should arrange for ‘badli bai’ when she proceeds on leave for more than 2 days. For less than 2 days leave, the bai herself will tell to manage with the ‘Ghar ka bhai saab’!

Under the lockdown situation both wives and husbands alike miss the maid servant. In the absence of maid servant, the monthly calendar has been temporarily morphed into a scheduler for carrying out BJP activities at home in turns. BJP here is an acronym for Bartan, Jaadu and Pocha! (Vessels, Sweeping and Mopping)

At home, the wife allotted Jaadu on Day #1. The vacuum cleaner which had not been used for years now, had to be first dusted and cleaned before being deployed for action. As I got into my cleaning gear, connected the plug of the vacuum cleaner and switched it on, there was a “dup” sound and off went the power! The next scenes are easy to imagine. “You had to use that vacuum cleaner which you last used when you were a bachelor, today only? You can’t even get an electrician now to fix the power problem”, the wife now donning the “Chandramukhi/Manjulika” avatar, yelled. “Wait, let me speak to the society manager and find out if our building electrician is available here only” I quipped. “Why you have to call the electrician? You are an electrical engineer, no? You can’t check the problem yourself?”  If I have one regret in life about my choice of education, it is the stream of engineering I chose – Electrical and Electronics!

To all youngsters who come to me for advice on which stream of engineering they should go for, my standard answer is “Anything but electrical”. Only if you are an electrical engineer will you be asked to fix the fan, check the AC and so on at home. I have not seen a civil engineer husband being asked to repair a wall if there is a leakage and all. So all aspiring engineers, do keep this in mind.

Thankfully, it was just a tripping of the circuit breaker due to the overload on the motor of the vacuum cleaner. God that day was kind enough in not subjecting me into further embarrassment and power was back soon. That also meant that the idea of using the vacuum cleaner had to be buried and sweeping had to be done physically with the Jaadu. After that the wife, being her turn, did the Pocha smoothly in 15 minutes flat using the Easy Spin Mop! Why this build up about the mop, you may wonder. Read on.

On Day #2, it was my turn for Pocha. When I got up in the morning, I didn’t realise that my tongue’s Vastu was not alright that day. As I readied myself for the Pocha or the mopping work, I quipped, “How come there are so many deep stains on the floor?”  This was a remark meant to highlight the quality of the work the maid does. But I forgot for a minute that the mopping was done by the wife the previous day! “So, If I am doing lousy work, why don’t you do it properly and remove those stubborn stains today?, the wife retorted angrily, of course. After getting a demo of how to use the engineering marvel called the Easy Spin Mop, I launched myself into the job. It certainly seemed simple when the wife gave the demo.

After draining the water, I took out the mop stick and started mopping. Soon enough I turned my attention to the 1st tough stain which I encountered. Being quite conscious of the fact that the stain needs to be removed of its existence, I started mopping like a man possessed.  Next, I heard was the sound of some plastic breaking which emerged even over the “Ponaal pogattum poda” song from the old Tamil classics playlist playing in the background. The mop stick unable to withstand my sincerity and urge, gave way and broke into two! The wife who doesn’t usually miss these kind of noises in the house, immediately got alerted.  You recall I talked of the Vastu and all.

In the next few minutes, I was given an earful about how the maid was using the mop smoothly for two years and that the mop stick was just replaced two weeks ago and how a simple task cannot be accomplished etc., etc. “These days, the quality of goods is so bad in India. How can Make in India succeed?”, I mumbled in self-defence. “Pottu udakarathayum udachuttu, Quality mela pazhiya podu” (Why blame quality after breaking the stick yourself?)  Little did I realise then, that I will have to now do to the back breaking Pocha for the rest of the days!  The broken mop stick ended up breaking the peace at home which was holding up till Day #4!

To be continued…

Postscript: On day #5 today, as I sat down to pen this blog, the wife said, “During the lockdown at least why don’t you give a break to your blog?”  I put up a brave face and replied, “This week I am actually writing a light piece, not the usual serious stuff!” My BP is now racing upwards as I begin to wonder what will happen when the wife reads the blog.

Pic courtesy: Webdunia

COVID-19: Turning the crisis into an opportunity!

COVID-19 has turned the world upside down. What started off as an outbreak in Wuhan, Hubei province of China is now a pandemic that has spread in more than 130 countries worldwide as we speak. In India too, the number of people who have detected positive has been multiplying by the day. Most of the state governments are waking up to the reality and state after state have been shut down.

In this sombre time, it may not sound so appropriate to talk about tapping opportunities that may arise. But then, one of the key jobs of strategic experts in counties is to always look beyond the obvious, see ahead of today and tomorrow and peep into the future.  In India, if such experts do that, they will see a window to turn this crisis into a long term, game changing opportunity.

Few weeks ago, when Corona virus had not spread like it is today, other than the human calamity, discussions were about how global supply chains have been disrupted due to the outbreak in China. Today, with China controlling the spread quickly using strong arm action and with the virus spreading all over, discussions around supply chain disruption have receded.  The focus today is around containing the spread as country after country have found people inflicted by the virus. However, when the dust and storm around the pandemic settles down in a few months, policy makers and industry experts will start pondering over putting all manufacturing eggs in the Chinese basket. De-risking from China for future would be top in the agenda.  Already, we are beginning to see some noise in that direction.

For countries and manufacturing companies, de-risking from China is nothing new. Many of them started doing it ten years ago when China, in the back of around 10% GDP growth for few years in a row from 2003 to 2011, was on fire as an economy. High economic growth also means increase in wages which shot up from CNY 750 in 2007 to CNY 2420 in 2018! Coupled with raising wages was the non-availability of skilled labour. A factory manager in Shanghai way back in 2012 told me that after the Chinese New year holidays, half the workforce would not return as they would end up joining companies which are located in provinces with higher minimum wages and with more overtime potential. Invariably mobile phones and other high demand product manufacturing units would suck up a lot of skilled manpower leaving other production units to scramble for trained manpower.

The logical option was to expand facilities out of China, if not to shift the entire production. Many Japanese companies who had put up factories in Thailand, Malaysia and later in China went and invested in Vietnam. It was a golden opportunity for India to have tapped that wave in that period. But we missed. Vietnam in spite of not boasting of very high skilled manpower but with relatively low labour cost managed to take advantage of the Japanese expansion plans. I was told that companies used to travel to interior Vietnam provinces and literally call out in the streets with microphones like in the feudal days as part of recruitment drive for factories!

India with its low labour cost and abundance of skilled manpower, still couldn’t feature in the agenda of companies looking at de-risking from China. And there are many reasons for the same.

It’s a myth that foreign companies just go by low labour cost when they try to invest in manufacturing facilities outside of their existing country bases. What they look for is whether the entire manufacturing eco-system is in place. China showed the world as to how to put that kind of eco-system in place that includes availability of low cost land in plenty, abundant skilled and low cost labour, low interest rate regime, tax benefits/holidays, access to ports, high quality infrastructure in the form of roads, highways, airports and sea ports, access to vendor base (this is particularly critical for Electronics and Automotive production) and more importantly what I call as the “hygiene factor”.  And this is the comfort factor which expatriates develop for the country where they want to set up production.

In India, we do not attach much importance to this while planning but, in my experience this becomes the key, tilting factor when choosing between options. If the team of expats who spend time in the country looking at options, do not feel comfortable about being able to lead a decent quality of life, they would never recommend that country. We should not forget that when a large production facility is set up, there will be hordes of expats who will be spending time during the project set-up phase and also later at supervisory/managerial roles when the unit is up and running.

That’s why I would not squabble if our governments spend money and resources to put their best face forward when foreign leaders visit here. For, many a times, there is a delegation of corporate chiefs who accompany these leaders and it is important that they carry a good impression of India as a country when they visit. In a Japanese company I worked earlier, the decision to invest in India which was lingering around for a while was finally taken when the group Chairman visited India and got impressed seeing the campus and Golf course of Infosys in Bengaluru!. I am talking of 2005 and fortunately the traffic situation then wasn’t as bad as it is today!

Coming back to the hygiene factor, this includes availability of good international schools, safety for women, availability of their country cuisines and even stuff like “Not a dry state” or “No Beef Ban”…!

In the wake of COVID-19, it is my belief that India must put its best foot forward in pitching itself as a robust manufacturing destination to the world which is looking at options.  And for this the government must move on a “Mission” mode quickly and activate “Make in India 2.0”!  We may not be able to scale up the economies of scale of China but then we are not looking at China completely. Our pitch must be to position India as an augmenting base.

Compared to the 1st decade of this century when India missed the opportunity when companies were de-risking, I believe that we now stand a better chance overall and hence it’s worth taking a shot now. Our roads and highways infrastructure is getting better though it’s a work in progress. We can now boast of world class airports in all the metro cities. The ports infrastructure have improved leaps and bounds and our customs clearance processes have smoothened.  We could still do much better on the “Ease of Doing business” front, though!

Ergo, I do believe that with a focussed approach towards getting companies to invest in setting up production facilities in India, India can be a good option for companies contemplating to de-risk from China. For India, which is in desperate need of a boost to the economy, nothing works like expansion in manufacturing as it increases direct and indirect jobs.

Author and Economist Shankkar Aiyyar in his book, The Accidental India has documented how in India every landmark game changing event since independence happened as a response to a crisis. Going by that track record, we are in the throes of another crisis with COVID-19 and hopefully we will come up with a response that is game changing!

The last booster shot for the Indian economy came in the beginning of this millennium and that was due to a global threat of a bug! The Y2K phenomenon opened the flood gates for the Indian Software industry and helped erect a pillar for our economy called the “Services”! Twenty years hence, now, a virus could provide the booster shot for the economy if India gets its act together. That of getting the manufacturing ecosystem in place and tap the opportunity which could present itself in the coming months. It’s not easy. But then its not impossible either.

A New Decade Resolution for India – Moving on from being WIP!

When you are neither here nor there, you are Work In Progress (WIP). As a country, India has been that. A Work in Progress. Now for a long while!

Since Independence, we probably had the tag of an “Under developed” country till the 80’s. From then on, we moved on to be called as a “Developing” country. Since then, it is now 5 decades but, we still continue to be a developing country. An emerging market. A Work in Progress.

Personally for me, from the time I started my career in 1991, India has been a developing country. Even today it continues to be. After close to 30 years.

Just look around and you can notice that almost everything around us is Work In Progress.

Our public transportation in all cities is still evolving.

Roads and highways are perennially under construction.

Health care is floundering but getting better day by day slowly and is Work in Progress.

To just cite a few areas.

In all these years, one thing constant has been that we hold promise. Promise of future potential.

We have had goal posts by way of Vision 2020 etc. in the beginning of this century. In the many versions of those vision documents, by 2020, India was supposed to be an economic Super power.  Supposed to be the 3rd largest economy ahead of Japan or some such thing. As we speak we are still the 7th.

For India in the last few decades, it’s been a case of missed opportunities. We never miss to miss an opportunity. Once missed, it’s a question of living in futuristic hope. If one thing that has kept this country going in the last many years, it is hope. Hope others have on us. More than what we have on ourselves.

In the past, whenever we seemed to have caught the economic growth train, we have quickly derailed it ourselves.

Beginning of every decade is touted to be India’s decade. And we have belied that systematically.

As we step into another new decade, can we actually turn it into being India’s?

What is stopping us from realising our potential? Is it “We the people”? Is it the Government? Is it the politics? Is it the bureaucracy? Is it our attitude? Is it our capability? Is it the population? Is it our chosen path of democracy? Probably it is a combination of all these. And so the answer is complex.

I think the first and foremost need is to put “Economic growth” at the centre of our National discourse and put everything else in the back burner for the next ten years.  For the government, for the media and for the citizenry. There could be and probably there are other unfinished businesses. But it is time to prioritise. And prioritising Economic growth over everything else has obvious beneficial effects on peoples’ quality of life. Has a direct effect on many social issues. It also promises a placebo effect on issues.

It’s not that governments have not been focussing on economy in the past decades. They have, but only intermittently. The question is – was it or is it a single minded focus? As people, did we make Economic growth the single issue while voting?  Politics is driven by electoral results. If parties get the message that if they don’t deliver on economic growth, they cannot win, there will be difference. Today, this is not the case.

A new year is always a time for personal resolutions. This is not just a new year. A new decade beckons. Hope on India is still high. At least as of now. So time for a new decade resolution for India as a country. A resolve to put the Economy first.  Not just first. Just that. For the next ten years.

And move on from being a Work In Progress, come 2030!

On that note, here’s wishing you a busy and exciting decade. Working to Progress.

Image courtesy: Yourstory.com

 

 

Time to shoot the messenger?

“Don’t shoot the messenger” is a cliché often used to decry when someone criticizes the media which is the bearer of bad news, instead of the one who was responsible for it. In the context of what’s been happening in India in the last few days, I am tempted to relieve this cliché of the word ‘Don’t”! We all now know that, media all over the world in general and India in particular is only headed towards abyss! And what we saw in India in the past few days only put a stamp of confirmation on it!

In the wee hours of 26th, India conducted a daring air attack deep inside Pakistan targeting some terror camps on what was touted as a retaliation to the Pulwama attack when over 40 CRPF jawans were killed by a suicide bomber of the Jaish. When we started hearing the news, incidentally first through cryptic tweets from the Pakistani side, journalists of all hue starting dialling up their sources and putting out more details – some true and rest hearsay accounts. In just a few hours, mainstream media and social media were engulfed with a tsunami of nationalistic pride over the attack, even when the Government or the forces never came out with the details in public. #Indiastrikesback, #Surgicalstrike2 and other hashtags started trending on social media and not to mention of the myriad memes taking pot shot on Pakistan!

There was a visible difference on the Indian response to Pak terror attack this time. Unlike in the past (particularly in the aftermath of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks) when India played the “responsible” card, this time the “Mirage” was for real (pun intended). Notwithstanding the valour and the efficiency of the armed forces in carrying out this attack, make no mistake, it was possible only because there was a go ahead for such a daring action from the political leadership of the day.  Unfortunately, in these days of a divided polity, opposition leaders like Rahul Gandhi, Mamata Banerjee, Mayawati and the like chose to be petulance personified as seen from their tweets! They all congratulated the IAF and chose to remain silent on the intention of the Govt. forgetting the fact that in situations like these, if there is no political will, there is no way! I am not sure, if BJP was in opposition under the same circumstances, they would have acted differently. Be that as it may, given that this is election season in India, the way media and some of the star anchors and journalists handled this was baffling.  In some of the channels, it was nothing but war mongering. War sets and props, anchors in army fatigues, prime time was unambiguously playing to the gallery. The pro-Govt. journalists had a field day frothing on TV, spitting venom on their social media handles without any responsibility.

The next day i.e. on 27th Feb, Pakistan now chose to retaliate just as their Prime Minister Imran Khan had warned. For many hours, it was not clear what exactly happened as the news trickled in bits and pieces. But soon it emerged that while we were able to put down one Pakistani F16, one of our pilots unfortunately ended up in Pakistan’s custody. Just as news of this emerged, the whole commentary in the media changed. The liberal commentariat which was cooling its heels the previous day came out with their daggers open, now blasting the Indian Govt. for war mongering and sacrificing its brave men with its mindless actions. As #SayNotoWar started trending, our country’s soft underbelly got exposed once again. During the Kandahar hijack, the same thing happened. And further when Imran Khan made a peace dove like statement in their Parliament that they were freeing our officer the next day, the exposure was complete, in my opinion.

From purely Optics point of view, there is no doubt that Imran Khan made most of the situation. While it was well known that they had no choice but freeing a POW, by doing that swiftly, Imran Khan won the perception battle. But to designate and celebrate him as an apostle of peace, just how some of the media personalities were doing on Thursday, was gross injustice to the 40+ jawans who lost their lives just few days back! Back then, the same Imran Khan did not have the courtesy to either condemn or regret the dastardly attack and just mouthed the same “show proof” rhetoric! Now this time it was the turn of the media which is against the BJP/Modi to pursue their agenda and were having their field day!

Neutrality in journalism is now passé. In addition to this agenda driven journalism which now we have learnt to live with, the behaviour of the politicians from both sides was equally regressive and repulsive.  While the ruling party taking this issue to the polls is not avoidable and partially understandable, counting the seat chicken before the border tension hatches as some BJP politicians were doing is highly condemnble.

So in India, we swing from one extreme to another so easily.  From one day shouting from the rooftop of “using our right to attack” in the verge of a terrorist attack to pushing for de-escalation and pull back the moment one of our officers get caught the next day, we proved that we are indeed a country of weak hearts.

Amidst all this, if we have to take lesson on response to these kind of situations, it must be from our defence forces. The same day evening when Imran announced that our officer Abhinandan would be returned to India, there was a presser by the armed forces team which I thought was brilliant, thoroughly professional and to the point. Even when prodded to respond to the so called “good will gesture” of Pakistan in returning our officer, Air Vice Marshal RGK Kapoor stuck to the fact that it was just an “act” which any country was supposed to do and that the IAF was happy to have the officer back. Period. And the whole presser had lessons for journalists and social media warriors on reporting facts, not giving own interpretations and not getting into matters which was not their domain. It is now part of folklore on how the officer Abhinandan behaved under custody. The training and upbringing certainly showed!

The big difference in the media today in situations like these is the arrival of the monster called Social media. Social media not just gives a platform to all of us to express ourselves, it also becomes a platform for professional journalists to display their loyalties and show where their heart lies. It is indeed great to note that our Govt. didn’t buy into the canard of those putting out their own opinions based on their loyalties this way or that way and stuck to their actions in this situation.

As Social media commentary feeds off into main stream media and vice versa and with government functionaries actively present in the social media these days, one gets concerned if governance becomes a prisoner of media’s whims and fancies. And if that begins to happen, time to “Shoot the messenger, folks!

Cartoon courtesy: Amul

Narendra Damodardas Trump!

Back to India after a week’s trip from Trump land, one cannot escape the palpable political weather in both the countries. Large parts of the US may be freezing due to the polar vortex but politically, the climate is hot in the US as in India. While India is already in the grip of election fever with the Lok Sabha polls just couple of months away, in the US, presidential elections are due in 2020! Even then, the political chatter is all about if Donald Trump will get re-elected or not! Same is the question in India with Narendra Modi!

Ever since Modi, a rank outsider to what is now infamously called as the Lutyen’s Delhi, became the Prime minister of India in 2014 and Trump more famed as an “Apprentice” politician and a real estate baron became the President of America, comparing both these leaders and bringing out the similarities in them have been favourite pastimes of the commentariat. Probably rightly so! Here are two leaders who have defied many established conventions to chart their own course in governing their respective countries. The similarities in their methods and more importantly the narratives around the personalities are difficult to ignore.

In terms of the evident similarities, the liberal media’s scorn in India and the US for Modi and Trump respectively comes first, I guess. For example, all through the time I was in the US, TV news was engulfed by the Government Shutdown due to a budget fight centred on Trump’s demand for $5bn to fund a wall along the US-Mexico border. On TV, the built up narrative showed Trump as the central villain for bringing America to such a crisis. Images and clips of federal employees suffering due to loss of pay dominated most of the screens. In California where I was during that week, on the streets, it was business as usual! I can compare this to the narrative which was played up during Demonetisation in India. Of sufferings, deaths and what not. However, in election after election in the aftermath of Demonetisation, BJP swept the polls! Not surprisingly both Modi and Trump treat the main stream media with contempt. Trump calls channels as Fake news generators, Modi calls them ‘Bazaaru’ media! And therefore, they prefer to engage with the public more actively through Social media.

The other point of convergence is their response to border security. Trump has been vocal about constructing the wall along the Mexico border to prevent illegal migration into his country. In India, along the North East, the introduction of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill by the BJP is touted as a similar action to deal with illegal migration from Bangladesh. Likewise, both Trump and Modi during their respective campaigns had raised alarm over worldwide Islamic terror without beating the bush.

Yet another commonality in Trump and Modi is their approach to external affairs. It is said that Modi being a Gujarati always brings a sense of ‘Dando’ (business) to the table. In the case of Trump too, we have seen so far that he has been running the United States of America as another Trump Corporation! Again, in the context of External affairs and diplomacy, historical legacy and precedents have not come in the way of taking bold initiatives for both Modi and Trump. For example, in India, while we have always treated Israel as our friend for so many decades, Modi has been the 1st Prime Minister to make a historical visit to Israel and set the optics right. Rubbing our friends in the Gulf on the wrong side – a historical reason for not taking our friendship with Israel to the next level was set aside by Modi. Similarly in the US, Trump has been brazenly demolishing some legacy diplomatic hangovers like supporting Pakistan with aid even when it was not doing anything on curbing terror. There are few other examples as well like seeing China into its eye and not withholding the import curbs.

And the other thing I noticed which is quite common in the case of both Modi and Trump is this. While seeing what is said about these two in the media one may get an impression that they are steadily losing ground and are grossly unpopular. However, the reality may turn out to be different. In the US, I noticed that calling yourself a supporter of Trump can make you a social untouchable and therefore, people tend to stay quiet rather than expressing themselves. Like my friend said, he was routinely derided by his pals for riding a “Triumph” bike mistaking it for a “Trump” bike! Similarly in India, seeing the narrative in main stream media, an outsider can get an impression that Modi Is finished and his popularity has hit rock bottom. Those of us with ear to the ground know that the truth is far from that!

Beyond these, there could be more meeting grounds as well for Modi and Trump! Like they are both eternally on “Campaign” Mode”! So, while it is very tempting just to draw parallels between Trump and Modi and call it as the beginning of a new era in political personalities, I do feel that there is a need to pause here. I think beyond the veneer of similarities between Modi and Trump, I do feel that never the twain shall meet for many reasons.

Like, while Modi and his office are active on social media, you can never find one politically inappropriate tweet from Modi. In the case of Trump, we have to search for one which is not!

Though Trump has been active in his direct communication through Social media, he has still respected the traditions of giving interviews and doing press conferences regularly. Modi, on the other hand, has shown high contempt to main stream media and has not addressed one presser since he took office. He has been quite stingy on giving personal interviews as well. His Man Ki Baat can be deciphered by the people through the radio and not through the mouths and writings of journalists!

Unlike Modi, I must say that Trump has shown more commitment to the promises he made during his campaign. Right or wrong, he has been diligently ticking off the promises he made one by one whether it is corporate tax reduction, steps to prevent illegal migration and so on. I would say that his stand on the Shutdown was another visible demonstration of his commitment to his manifesto. In the case of Modi, it has been a case of “Glass half empty”.

On the question of jobs, Trump has a better record to show certainly. A recent report said that US created 304,000 jobs against 170,000 expected just in January smashing all expectations. In India, the question of job creation is a mystery with no clear answers. As Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar points out in his Sunday TOI column, “An employment crash of the catastrophic sort indicated by the NSSO and CMIE typically occurs only in terrible, deep economic depressions. But India has been averaging over 7% GDP growth, and is the fastest-growing major economy in the world. Never in history has a miracle economy, growing at over 7%, witnessed a collapse of employment.”

A big difference between Modi and Trump has been the way they handle their teams. In India, Modi has his own handpicked team in his PMO. Most of them are from his erstwhile Gujarat cadre or with a stint in Sangh parivar backed Vivekananda foundation. They have stayed with him so far and we have not seen any public dissent against Modi. However in the case of Trump, we have lost count of his team members who have either quit or got fired! I don’t think any of the original staunch supporters of Trump are still sticking to him in his close circuit. I don’t think Modi will fire a subordinate over Twitter!

Another important point to add here is the influence of the family. In the case of Modi, his family has been kept at a far distance with no one occupying any real or virtual posts of power. In the case of Trump it is exactly the opposite. His daughter Ivanka and son in law Jared Kushner have been in the thick of policy making. Morality around conflict of interest has been thrown out of the window. And this I feel may return to haunt Trump for a long time when his term gets over!

I mentioned earlier about what the common public thinks of these leaders. Even the staunchest opponents of Modi would not venture to label him as a clown. But, in the US, calling Trump names – “Clown” and “Joker” being popular in that is uber cool! Similarly, Trump’s earlier escapades with women have routinely surfaced in regular frequency to embarrass him. Modi has a clean record on this score.

Above all, if there is going to one lasting difference between Trump and Modi, it is going to the legacy they leave. In today’s business parlance, “Disruption” is a virtue and “Disruptors” are visionaries. However, Trump as a disruptor is likely to lead America to paying some heavy price in the future. Many of his moves though in the short term have paid dividends politically and are seemingly smart for America today, may not be, in the long term. In that sense, I reckon that the legacy he leaves may be of the disruption in the real sense. On the other hand, Modi has been very circumspect in disrupting anything. He has believed in what I call as “Improved continuum”! I believe for a country like India, his legacy may be a more positive one. From that point of view, I do feel that talking of Modi and Trump in the same breath may just be a good academic exercise and therefore “Narendra Damodardas Trump” may just be a good click bait title for a blog. Just.

Demonetisation and it’s after”math”!!!

Ever since the RBI released its Annual report 2 weeks ago, Demonitisation (DeMo) is back in the news. And with its eminent Ex-Governor Raghuram Rajan now in India to promote his book, DeMo continues to hog the headlines and Op-Ed pages. The analysis of DeMo swing from scathing criticism of being a “big mistake” by the likes of Ex-Economic Advisor Kaushik Basu to calling it a “huge success and a course correction” by the likes of Gurumurthy, the veteran commentator on public affairs. So, as it happens in most issues these days, “for every spin there is an equally effective and opposite counter spin”! And where you stand on an issue depends on where you stand on the ideological divide.  On social media, it was a hashtag war between #DeMomenisationsuccess and #DeMonetisationfailure!

Ten months on, based on all the data available (99% of DeMo notes coming back to the banks) it seems that DeMo has not helped in sucking out the black money. In retrospection, I wonder how the government expected anybody in India to give up their prized possession (currency notes in this context) at all in the first place. In my own experience, when coming out with marketing promotion programs for the trade, we usually take twice the time for foolproofing the program compared to conceiving the program itself. This is from the wisdom of previous programs over the years where, we found that the Indian brain works over time always to find loop holes/gaps in any program announced. So, in a sales promotion program for example the trade will end up earning the incentives while you never achieve the increased sales objectives!

This is what happened in DeMo as well. If you remember, the day DeMo was announced, the chattering class’ verdict on WhatsApp group and dining area discussions was that it was a “Master stroke”! While the middle class and upper middle class folks who didn’t have unaccounted cash had to just find ways of beating the lines to exchange their notes, the ones who had, started cranking their brains. The result was the everyday tweaking of the rules and adding more terms and conditions for currency conversion. The then Economic Affairs Secretary Saktikanda Das became a celebrity overnight, thanks to his daily media briefings on what else – change in rules!

By now, it is clear that notwithstanding the anti-DeMo commentary of economists, there was overarching, tacit support for the DeMo move from common public. Inspite of loss of business for traders, loss of jobs for casual workers and loss of income for farmers the Note Bandi didn’t evoke much unfavourable mood towards the BJP so far. I am not sure if it will, from now on. What explains this paradox?

Many of the commentators have alluded to the human trait of Schadenfreude to explain this. That the poor were happy because this was one move which affected the rich and privileged and that the Prime Minister Modi had the guts to do so. This is a good possibility. But there could be more to this as well.  Within days of the DeMo announcement, the initial despair among people who were caught unawares with a lot of unaccounted cash turned into a relief, when they found ways and means to deposit the same into the bank. Among many ingenious ways, one was to tap into their own staff and workers to distribute the cash and get them deposited into their bank accounts. A report said that by Dec, the deposits in Jan Dhan Accounts peaked to Rs.74,609 crore! As of Sep, it was just 4,273 crore! The number of Jan Dhan accounts itself went up 5 times in this period!  My guess is that, in this process of conversion through the conduit of using others’ accounts, there must have been a cost.  The government must have lost an opportunity to earn taxes on the unaccounted income but those who had a lot of unaccounted cash ended up incurring a “conversion tax”! And I am certain that those who were witness to the rich incurring this tax felt certainly happy that DeMo was an equalizer of sorts. And not just being a witness, there would have been many who would have benefited from the sudden largesse of their masters as well and got their share of the “conversion tax”. So, instead of the government collecting taxes from the haves and distributing to have-nots by way of welfare measures did DeMo make it as a Direct Benefit transfer from the rich to the poor without the government in between?  Probably.

It’s evident now that the DeMo move has been a rocking political success for the government. On the economic front, though the objective of sucking up the black money has not been achieved directly, certain fringe benefits have accrued. Like reduction in cash circulation, increase in Digital transactions, and increase in bank deposits,…  These may leave the country in good stead in the future.  In the short-term however, the country skipped its GDP beat.

So when one does the after”math” of DeMo, it may well be like the popular “Elephant and the Blind men” story. For some, it’s a failure. For some, it’s a success. For some, it’s a partial success and for some it could be a partial failure. I would like to go with Rajan’s assessment that the short-term economic losses far outweighed the long-term benefits.  In hindsight, one is always wise. Other times – otherwise!