Ram Mandir and the Positioning battles!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cartoon credit: Satish Acharya

Lal Krishna Narayana Murthy!

On the 18th of August, just as trading in the bourses started in India, Vishal Sikka, CEO and MD of Infosys decided to extend his working day sitting in San Francisco till late hours to announce his resignation. Within minutes, his farewell note to his staff found its way to the media and a more detailed and emotional post was up on his personal blog. The “Moving On” post happens to be his first post in 15 months!!! The Infy scrip which was faring well the last few days in anticipation of the “buy back” announcement on the 19th, took a battering and ended up 10% down by end of the day. And during the course of the day, Infy Board stood behind Sikka and sort of blamed N.R.Narayanamurthy (NRN), for his dogged, open insinuations in the last few months which it claimed eventually led to Sikka’s exit. In the end, the self-proclaimed Kshatriya warrior capitulated as conspiracy theorists would add in good measure “to Brahminical dogma”!!!

Following this, water cooler conversations in offices and WhatsApp discussions were around this story as if the whole of India is invested on Infosys. But then, why not? For long, Infy was the bellwether for the Indian IT Industry. For Indians, It was a proud success story in post liberalization India.  In the success of Infy, there were many sub texts. The arrival of India in the global scene as a software power. The rise of Bangalore as another Silicon Valley. The ascent of the Indian Middle Class. The revenge of the Brahmins post the “Mandalisation” of India and so on. Some of these sub texts – real and some just façade as time would tell later!

Those were heady days for the Indian Software Industry and Infy was its leading beacon. There was not a single day in my memory when there was no positive news about Infy in the pink papers. Infy led the way and other IT companies followed. Visit of world leaders to India were not complete without a Tee off at the Infy golf course in Bangalore. Same for head honchos of global corporations.  A visit to the impressive campus in Bangalore was part of the itinerary for the chairman of Brother Industries, Japan – my previous company on his maiden visit to India. I heard later that his positive impressions in that visit hastened Brother’s investment plans in India. As Infy basked in that glory, NRN was inseparable. Slowly and steadily, beyond his business and his association with Infy, he became the conscientious voice for the country.  So much so, when UPA was searching for a successor for Abdul Kalam as President of India, an opinion poll threw up NRN as a strong candidate.

Though Infy was a story of 6 middle class entrepreneurs, the story of NRN was most visible. As the senior most founder he ensured his imprint was ubiquitous in Infy. When he sacked the other Murthy (Phaneesh) – till then the highest paid employee in Infy and head of Global sales on grounds of sexual harassment of a female colleague, NRN’s personal stock went up. “The day flying Business class reaches me to my destination 5 minutes earlier, I will shift from Economy to Business!” – This was NRN’s response to the question on why he continued to fly Economy on business trips at the top of his career at Infy.  NRN’s decree that the founders will not hang in and will hang up their boots at 70 was seen as a revelation in India Inc, where founders seldom retire. And when he soon walked the talk by stepping down as CEO for Nandan Nilekeni, it was seen as one of a kind of move. Till this point NRN had not made one wrong move. But after yesterday’s story, most of the ire got directed on NRN.

I was skeptical to the extent of being cynical when NRN chose to return to Infy briefly that too with his son in tow. Later, after anointing Sikka as the CEO and MD after an extensive search, when NRN stepped down from Infy for the second time, one expected that he would walk into the sunset quietly. The events in the last few months where NRN almost behaved like an activist shareholder frequently venting his ire on the affairs of Infy through the media shows that he too is a mere mortal. To be fair, I am certain that NRN would have tried to represent the concerns of employees and shareholders over corporate governance at Infy privately to the board before going public. That he chose to resort to the media means that there is more to this than meets the eye.

Cut to Goa, June 2013. The BJP National Executive was meeting in what was not another routine Executive meet. In the meet, it was clear that the path will be cleared for the then Gujarat CM Narendra Modi, to become BJP’s PM candidate for the 2014 Lok Sabha polls. Lal Krishna Advani, BJP’s tallest leader and architect of its growth till then, chose to skip the meeting.  He then subsequently sent in his resignation letter when Modi was chosen to lead the party’s campaign. Ironically it was the same Advani who played a stellar role in shielding Modi on his role in handling post Godhra riots in the very same Goa in 2002! Even after the spectacular victory of BJP in the 2014 polls, Advani did not have one word of wholesome praise for the chief architect of the win namely Modi but chose to credit “All party kaaryakarthas”!!! And in many public appearances along with Modi in the last 3 years, he hasn’t displayed too much benevolence in accepting Modi as “the” new leader for the BJP.  When the history of BJP is written, Advani will certainly occupy a significant space unless otherwise he chooses to become a footnote with his continued petulance.

That brings us to the point of the “Art of letting it go”!

Whether it is NRN, Advani, Mulayam or Ratan Tata it demonstrates the fact that stepping down, giving it up and walking away into oblivion doesn’t come so easy for humans.  But for forced reasons like health or regulations, can and do leaders walk into the sunset gracefully and remain there? Pranab Mukherjee, the recently retired President of India when asked what kind of legacy he would like to leave he said, “Don’t want to leave a legacy.  Will melt into the mass”!! Hope Lal Krishna Narayana Murthys of the world heard that.

The “Art of letting it go” is certainly fading and it’s time we make it a “Science”.