BBC, Bollywood, Bans and Boycotts!

It’s pouring Bs in Bharat. In the news, I meant. BBC, a long-venerated medium in India is in the news these days for all the wrong reasons. A two-part documentary on India namely India: The Modi Question has put a question mark on BBC’s objectivity and has come under fire from the Government of India. The Government has used emergency powers to ban the documentary from being “viewed” in India.

I just watched the first couple of minutes of the documentary, so I am in no position to comment on the veracity of what’s being said in the same. However, from all reports, it seems that the documentary has tried to once again raise the question of Narendra Modi’s role during the Gujarat riots in 2002 when he was its Chief Minister. Notwithstanding what has been shown in the documentary, the banning of the same has invoked sharp reactions and has split opinions right in the middle.

On the one hand, you have the liberal group who have labeled the ban as undemocratic and unbecoming of a liberal society.  But the fact is, this is not the first time that a ruling government in India has gone after BBC content. Mark Tully, the iconic representative of BBC in India for years has listed many instances in the past from the days of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi when a story was asked to be pulled down or was banned. So, it is not unique to this government to resort to such aggressive actions when faced with uncomfortable content. On the other hand, there is the group that supports the ban and claims that in “New India”, we will no longer tolerate a hit job on India that too coming from BBC, a foreign media with its colonial hangover.

From what I saw in the first few minutes, I could make out the intent and the purpose of the documentary which I feel is to tarnish the image of India and more so Modi who is riding a huge popularity wave in India and outside. Therefore, in a way, I feel that the anger and opposition to the documentary are fully justified. However, is banning the same the right reaction? I reckon not for the following reasons.

First, in today’s age of the internet and technology, is a ban practically implementable? Even now as we speak, it is possible to look up this “banned” documentary and watch it. Second, “Answer to a book is another book”. This was a quote by Atal Bihari Vajpayee when he was a tall opposition leader of course. So, the answer to a BBC documentary that is peddling a particular agenda is another documentary to counter it. Third, the banning of stuff fearing an adverse reaction within the country is all “Old India” stuff.  As a country now confident of its status in the world, “New India” should not resort to banning that only gives an impression of having a soft underbelly. The 2002 subject has been flogged in Indian media for two decades now and frankly, I feel that the country has moved on from it.  There is nothing new that this documentary is going to tell that is already not known in the public domain. So why fear a backlash now?

Fourth, the Streisand Effect. As per definition, this is a phenomenon in which an attempt to censor, hide, or otherwise draw attention away from something only serves to attract more attention to it. We are already seeing this in India where, in states that are not ruled by the BJP, the film is being shown on large screens on campuses with a vengeance.  The curiosity to find out what is in it that resulted in banning it draws in more people who otherwise are least interested in the subject. By the way, the Streisand Effect is named after American singer and actress Barbra Streisand, whose attempt to suppress the California Coastal Records Project’s photograph of her cliff-top residence in Malibu, California, clicked to document California’s coastal erosion, inadvertently drew greater attention to the photograph in 2003.

Now coming to the second B – Bollywood. Bollywood which actually means Hindi cinema made out of Bombay has been also in the news for all the wrong reasons of late.  A string of flops even of big star films and more off-screen controversies kept Bollywood on its toes the whole of last year.  This year has started with the release of the SRK starrer Pathaan on the big screen. Amidst social media calls for boycotting the same from right-wing groups, the film has managed to do well at the box office in the first four days, as per reports.

From this, it is clear that a film does not do well mostly because of poor content or reach and not necessarily due to boycott calls on social media.  One of the purported victims of the boycott saga last year was Aamir Khan’s, Lal Singh Chaddha.  I had watched the film and felt that film was a stretch. In my opinion, the film bombed due to bad reviews from critics and more importantly bad word-of-mouth feedback from those who watched it on the first weekend.  Despite being made very well, the content failed to connect with the audience that watched it. Therefore, it failed, and not just because of boycott calls. The same holds good for other films like Shamshera, Ram Setu, Dhakkad, Samrat Prithviraj, Jersey, and so on.

I haven’t watched Pathaan and hence I have no views on the film. From what I hear, it is a commercial action entertainer that has been made well though, it is from the same spy thriller genre that is being flogged in Indian films of late. Concluding that “Bollywood is back” because of Pathaan being a hit is also a simplistic view. By and large Indians like films and the big stars and would love to watch them on the big screen provided the content manages to engage with their sensibilities. There is no rocket science beyond this, in my opinion.  It is good to see the Prime Minister exhorting his party men not to waste their time going after films and calling for boycotts.  He should extend the same logic to bans on documentaries and other content as well.

Next week, the country will move to discuss another B – the Budget and hopefully, it will set the tone for what is said as “Bharat’s Decade”!

2022 State elections – Takeaways from Takeaways!

Another round of state elections just got over last week in India and though it was a mini-round with just two states, we are already neck-deep into many analyses and takeaways from the results from commentators and experts of all hues. I don’t want to add to the clutter. However, in this post, I would like to talk about a few points that are flawed in my opinion, or totally skipped the attention of experts. Here we go:

  1. Anti-Incumbency is not a given: More often than not, the starting point for most experts in India when they forecast a party’s performance if in power is “Anti-Incumbency”. In India now, in the past so many years, many elections have shown that people just don’t vote out governments just because they are incumbent. People reward governments too by voting them again. BJD in Orissa, AAP in Delhi, TMC in West Bengal, and BJP in UP, Uttarakhand and Gujarat are all examples. However, it is only in the case of the Congress that Anti-Incumbency becomes a starting point. Recent history has shown that Congress has not been able to retain states based on their performance. (Punjab, Karnataka…)
  2. Picking the right previous vote share as a starting point: The starting point for any assessment of a party’s chances is its vote share in the previous election. Considering the fact India now votes differently for Lok Sabha and State elections (Read my post here), an apple-to-apple comparison for the 2022 Gujarat state polls must be the 2017 state polls. However, for Gujarat and in the present circumstances, I would like to make a logical exception. In Gujarat, whether it is the Lok Sabha polls or the State polls, it is Narendra Modi who is on the ticket. So, the starting point should be the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. In that election, BJP got 62.21% vote share and won 26 out of 26 seats. Specifically for Gujarat, my point is, BJP started with a very high vote share of 62% in the 2019 polls. With that background, considering the situation presently in the state concerning governance issues and so on, a drop of 10% vote share as we saw in the state polls is explainable.
  3. From the last elections to now, the situation is not static: For Gujarat, almost all experts predicted that BJP will return to power. But most “varisht partrakaar” I heard said that in the peak of the Modi wave in Gujarat in 2002, BJP could win only a maximum of 127 seats and in each election from thereon, this has come down. So even in this election, they kept saying that BJP will get more seats than in 2017 but cannot go beyond 127. And as per them, this was because in Gujarat there is a core Congress voter base that does not get diminished. However, what is being forgotten conveniently here is that between 2017 and now, Congress almost neglected Gujarat, 12 of their MLAs shifted to BJP, and many more leaders moved out thereby shrinking the party’s base. And other parties do work to expand their base like what AAP or BJP did in the tribal areas.
  4. Berozgari and Mahangayee are not election issues: I have said this before also. This time, it gets reinforced. Commentators and experts who visit the state and talk to people before elections keep saying that there is anger among people due to Berozgari (Unemployment) and Mahangayee (Price rise) and hence the government will be thrown out. Well, from the time I started following elections in India in the 80s, these have always been issues that bother people. However, the question is, are these the issues based on which they vote? I doubt it very much. I feel that people now know that Unemployment and Price rise are issues all the time and the governments of the day cannot do much about them. Just like investors in the stock market, voters nowadays vote based on what the future holds for them with a party. Therefore, it becomes important for any challenger to not just highlight the flaws of the ruling government but present an alternate governance vision.
  5. AAP beats Congress easily and not BJP: If you look at AAP’s successes so far which are Delhi and Punjab, it beat the Congress and came to power. Where they challenged the BJP like in Goa or now in Gujarat, AAP has not been successful.
  6. PK may be desirable, but not essential for winning an election: In recent times based on the last few polls, a narrative was built that parties win elections because of PK and his services. This round demonstrated that it may not be true.
  7. Municipality polls are not of National relevance: Just because TV channels and media whip up a mad frenzy, a Delhi MCD poll day or a Mumbai BMC poll tomorrow are not of National relevance.

Post Script: In this election in Gujarat, BJP beat the record of the Congress for the highest number of seats which was 149. It is said that this was due to Madhav Singh Solanki’s KHAM ((Kshatriya-Harijan-Adivasis-Muslim) strategy. If it was KHAM for Congress, BJP beat this record this time with the MOM (Modi-Only-Matters) strategy!

Image credit: The Tribune

The Maahaul of India Shining!

If you are an avid watcher or reader of global commentary, you cannot miss the ongoing spotlight on India and mostly for good reasons.  India seems to be the shining star in what otherwise seems to be a global economy that is still coming to terms with post-Covid recovery and the spiralling effects of the Russia – Ukraine war. The past few weeks have seen a downpour of bad news on the economic front globally. And it is not just from the US which is a prime mover in the global economy but other developed nations as well.

India though seems to be a lonely planet in the universe. The stock markets are on a historic high as we approach the end of this calendar year and despite the global demand situation, the Q2 GDP numbers at 6.3% demonstrate that India is tiding over the global headwinds reasonably well. Therefore, on cue, we have been seeing many opinion pieces, commentaries, and encomiums of late not just within India but globally, saying that this could be India’s decade and so on. I am calling this the “India Shining” sentiment for easy understanding! The point to note is the maahaul of India Shining keeps visiting us every 5-6 years and ebbs off after a while.

The phrase “India Shining” was of course used for the first time by the Vajpayee-led NDA government to project a positive outlook of the country to foreign investors back in 2003-04. The campaign was envisaged by Jaswant Singh as the finance minister. Later on, it took shape of a political campaign for NDA in the 2004 polls. Many expert commentators till today opine that the India Shining campaign was the main reason for its defeat in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. If one does a fine toothcomb analysis of the results, it will be clear as daylight that NDA was defeated due to other issues. We will keep that for another day, another blog.

The campaign did help to improve the image of India worldwide in that period. India was part of the BRICS coinage, a commentary that would have done countries like India, China, Russia, etc more good than any global PR campaign ever did. I remember in that period wherever I went, the BRICS story dominated discussions in board rooms and what followed was a long period of India Shining till the Global Financial Crisis in the form of Lehman shock struck in 2008.  If you recall, the period 2003 – 2008 saw huge investments in real estate and retail with the free flow of “Hot money” to India, all thanks to the positive India Shining sentiment.

The next brief and passive wave of India Shining started in 2014 after Narendra Modi took over as the Prime Minister of a full majority government after 1989. India was the flavour of the world then and this lasted for a few years till 2017.  The stock markets saw new highs with a heavy inflow of FII in this period.

What we are seeing now is the return of the BRICS type hype. The difference is, three of the constituents of BRICS namely Brazil, Russia, and China are no longer in the good books of the world while India continues to be. There are a few things that are going well for India overall now. A politically stable government that is confident in itself and no longer suffering from coalition compulsions.  A government led by a leader whose popularity and credibility among the masses is unprecedented in a long while which helps take decisions without looking over one’s shoulders.  Introduction of structural financial reforms like the GST and IBC that have stabilized and yielding results. India coming out of Covid relatively better off with life and business back to normal. The swift post-pandemic recovery in the economy despite the global headwinds due to the ongoing war. A nuanced management of the economy in the past few years and in a sense better than what the minders of the economy are being credited for, in my opinion.

Countries and Corporations who had conceived the China+1 strategy back in 2013 to de-risk from China are actually getting serious about executing the strategy now by shifting part of production elsewhere. The Covid pandemic and the way China has been handling the pandemic has now morphed the China +1 strategy into ABC (Anything but China) strategy.  These have certainly helped the cause of manufacturing in India as we can see in the exports of Mobile phones out of India now. We are still scratching the surface here and still miles to go before we become a credible +1 in manufacturing.

There is a visible infrastructural transformation that is happening in India as we speak. Highways, Railways, Airports, and seaports are all getting upgraded or added at a speed not seen before. Again, the pandemic derailed the progress for two years otherwise, many would have seen completion by now.

There is credence therefore to the India Shining sentiment that we are witnessing at the moment. Here is where I would like to add a caveat. Developed countries like the US, Western Europe, Japan, and so on look at other countries when their internal situations are not good. That is how China got the benefit of a huge benevolence from the US in the 90’s when the US outsourced almost its entire manufacturing to China.  Similarly, the US Economy is going through a trough presently with the spectre of a recession looming large. The economy is indeed resilient but there are lots of ifs and buts. Commentators call this the “Yes and But” situation.

If you look at India, I would say we are in a “No and But” situation. Living in India, one cannot resonate easily with the India Shining maahaul. Our cities are in a state of perennial under-construction.  Projects, whether they are flyovers or Metros just don’t seem to finish.  Interest rates have become so high that have pushed EMIs over the roof.  IBC has not helped to resolve quickly the issue of bankrupt companies. In Mumbai, bankrupt builders have ditched projects midway spoiling the aspirations of so many middle-class families and filling the skyline with incomplete towers. Jobs and Unemployment data point to a very grim situation for the youth.

But the economy is indeed growing. GST collections have been on a healthy trend. People are travelling and holidaying like there is no tomorrow. Just look at the long queues for check-in and security checks in big airports like Mumbai and Delhi in the early morning hours. Festival and marriage shopping crowds have been unprecedented of late in shopping areas in all cities. Cheap data and bandwidth have transformed our day-to-day lives in more ways than one. The “India stack” is a global case study. Amidst all the negative sentiments globally, there is an air of positivity in India. We have to move to a “Yes and no But” scenario that too as early as possible.

As Shekhar Gupta says in one of his columns, we have a habit of flashing victory signs early.  India as we speak is still a WIP and a lot of work is yet to be done.  From here, what we need is an uninterrupted home run where the economy keeps clocking 7-8% if not more on a year-on-year basis for 20 years.  If that happens, we will not be talking of just a maahaul but an actual India shining!

Pic credits: Alex Fine in The Economist dated 13th May, 2022.

Agnipath and not Agnipast!

“Change is the only thing that is constant” is an oft repeated phrase that has now become a cliché! In a real world that is not Utopia, the only thing that is constant is resistance to change. “Where are the big bang reforms?” This was a familiar question from the commentariat in the first few years of the Modi Sarkar. Then when the Sarkar started implementing reforms of the big bang variety, the question changed to “Why is this needed now?”. We saw this when the much-needed reforms in the agriculture sector were introduced. Finally, the government had to roll back the same. In my blog (read here) when the farm bills were repealed after protracted agitations, I had written on the lessons for the Modi Government in bringing in reforms. There are more lessons coming up!

Here we are, again in the same boat. The Government announced Agnipath, a scheme that brings about radical changes or reforms in the recruitment of jawans for the armed forces. And post the announcement, we have been seeing the same scenes playing out in terms of agitations and approach of the government. Literally speaking Agnipath has set parts of the country on fire, and this is extremely unfortunate.

Most commentators and domain experts acknowledge the need for these reforms. Yet, the section of the population which is supposed to benefit from these have an angst towards these. The result is what we see playing out on our respective screens.

From whatever I have seen and heard on this issue, the biggest issue around the proposed Agnipath program is the timing.  For the past 2 years, due to Covid, recruitment to Armed forces through recruitment rallies have not happened. The process is at different stages and the candidates are going through an agonising period of prolonged suspense, frustration and at the end of the day some hope.  Aspiring candidates are at different stages in the process – some awaiting their medical, some awaiting the final letter, some at different rounds and so on. So, all the while they have been forced to keep themselves fit and ready for the process to come to an end now that things are getting back to normal post Covid.  All along the candidates have been given the reason of Covid for the delay in the process.

Now comes the announcement of Agnipath which totally puts paid to their hopes of not just joining the services that will ensure a settled life but, a 3/4th probability of getting out of the services and start all over again in 4 years. What we see as raucous demonstrations are a result of the pent-up frustration in the first place due to last two years of agonising wait and second now finding that the game has changed.

If one must look at the causes therefore for this unrest, they can be summarised as follows:

  • First the timing.  As I have mentioned before, the proposed changes have come at a time when recruitment has not happened for two years.
  • Second, the proposed changes have made some of the candidates ineligible due to the age limits. They feel slighted.
  • Third, there is an element of uncertainty because of the 25% absorption clause even for those who get selected. Therefore, this is seen as a harbinger of struggle in life if one misses the bus!
  • Fourth, the probability of getting selected even if this is a short tour of duty has reduced since the overall recruitment numbers has been reduced. In general, around 60,000 get selected in a year. Now that has come down to 40,000 of which only 10,000 will get absorbed after four years. This is my understanding. So, the reduction in intake is drastic and therefore the probability of getting into a settled job with the forces has also reduced for the aspirants drastically.
  • And finally, the sudden drastic communication of the rolling out of the program.

Having said all this, since the proposed reform packaged as the Agnipath scheme is much needed for reducing the average age, reducing the pension budget, shifting the allocation from boots on the ground to weaponry, technology and sophistication, the government must stay the course but probably with a few course corrections.  Here’s what the government could have done in rolling out this program and probably it could still do:

  • Over to Overlap: In businesses, when we try to bring in some changes that tend to disrupt long standing processes, we deploy a tactic called “Overlap”. I strongly feel that in this case also, the government could have brought in this new program with an overlap clause. This means, the existing recruitment program will continue as it is for 2 or 3 years while the new program will be introduced in phases. This of course increases the overall intake for two years but that is a smaller cost for bringing in a reform that has benefits in the long run. The candidates who are part of the ongoing process would not have felt slighted. The new candidates would come in knowing fully the contours of the new program. This would have taken care of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th issues mentioned above.
  • Float the trial balloon: Now coming to communication and therefore getting feedback before implementing the same, the government could have used a time-tested technique of leaking parts of the program to select journalists. When key elements of the program appear in the media quoting “as per sources”, it gives a window for the government to own/disown parts or the program in full depending upon the feedback. In this case, the government could have easily got an idea of the ground level feedback and therefore timed it better. Also, aspects of the program which the government is now making changes like the one-time extension of age limit and other ministries bringing in notifications for absorbing Agniveers could have been built into the program itself by floating this trial balloon.

Though some of the commentators particularly from the services feel that this should not be seen as an employment generation program, the fact of the matter is, in India there are districts in states like Bihar, Eastern UP, Bundelkhand, Haryana to name a few, where getting into the forces at the sepoy level is a primary source for employment for the youth. This explains the reason for the skewed nature of the protests and outbursts as far as geographic spread is concerned.  The irony is, what probably started as spontaneous outbursts which resulted in destruction of public property at will has now turned into a more orchestrated campaign to create unrest in the country.  Nupur Sharma issue is now history!

By going full fledged with the announcement, the government has put itself in a quandary and the program in jeopardy. Now coming out of the hole and still roll out Agnipath even with some changes will be a real Agnipariksha for the government! Hope this doesn’t go down as “Agnipast”!

Where is the “India Story” headed?

  • World over, inflation is at an all-time high.
  • Oil prices are shooting up.
  • There is a shortage of Wheat and other food items.
  • China has shut down its major cities in pursuit of its “Zero Covid Policy”.
  • Experts expect China to be in some kind of a lock down till 2023.
  • Supply chain disruption which started with Covid in 2020 is still on.
  • US GDP growth rate this year is likely to surpass China’s after four decades.
  • The World’s love affair with China is over.
  • Russia’s Ukraine war is dragging on without an endgame in sight.
  • US companies have pulled out or shut operations in Russia.
  • Affinity for Globalisation is now fraught with “Conditions apply”.
  • Almost all nations are seeking “Atmanirbharta” in some form or other without saying so explicitly.
  • A Unipolar world with US as its vertex that existed for two decades since the end of Cold War has now withered.

So, if one looks around, the picture is not very rosy. Where does that leave with the much touted “India Story”?

I think that this phase of 2/3 years is most crucial for India that can make or break the India Story. And the reasons are as follows:

  • Globally companies who had invested heavily in manufacturing in China are looking at de-risking from China. As a country with a huge population and therefore a source for cheap labour, India can fill in, if we get our act together quickly.
  • We are largely English speaking in business and our systems are integrated with the world unlike China which has strong firewalls in place for integrating all systems.
  • India has already proven its prowess in IT and IT services worldwide.
  • We have a functioning democracy that provides inherent checks and balances where transfer of power happens smoothly as per the will of the people.
  • We have a stable government in place now for the past 8 years at the Centre with a leader who is acknowledged and regarded worldwide.
  • India is back on its feet after two years of Covid.
  • With a large consuming domestic population, it is an attractive market for many corporations.
  • India can be the magnet for attracting manufacturing investments in areas where we have core competency like Auto, Pharma etc.
  • India maintains friendship and strategic relationships with big powers like US, Japan, UK etc…

In short, reasons which are all obvious and which we are all mostly familiar with.

For a world that is looking at options, India can be that next best choice if we get our act together quickly. And that is a big IF. Why is it so?  History of India is replete with missed opportunities. Opportunities missed at times due to external geopolitical reasons but largely thanks to internal politics.  Can this time be different?

I believe keeping aside what happened in the past, as an eternal optimist, things can be different if we played our cards differently.  Towards this, I am suggesting a three-point agenda:

  • Put economic prosperity and therefore growth at the top of the country’s agenda. Think, breathe, and act basis the same.
  • This means that at the Centre, States and local level including WhatsApp groups, we must put a stop to all divisive agenda items. The country must focus single minded on issues related to economic growth. Today, at these crucial times, we are spending our time and attention on issues like origins of temples and mosques. I think we all know the origins of the temples and we don’t need to further spend time and resources to establish the facts.  This is a needless distraction at this point of time for us.
  • Centre and states must work towards this goal of economic prosperity as a team. Unfortunately, today, there is an atmosphere of Centre-state friction for which I believe both the Centre and States are responsible. On the other hand, if Centre and states co-operate and work together, I am sure the pace of growth can be fastened. Let me cite two examples to demonstrate my point:
    • In Mumbai, one of the crucial Metro line projects is now in limbo because of the tussle between Centre and State over the location of the Metro car shed/depot. This is clearly unfortunate and there seems to be no sign of a solution to break the impasse.
    • Last week, at the World Economic Forum at Davos, many of the states from India had individual booths along with a strong contingent to pitch for investments. This is indeed appreciable. But, what if, instead of states fighting among each other to attract investments, the Centre and states had worked a joint plan? What if we had a common India pavilion at a much larger scale with separate booths sector wise with participation from concerned states? I feel this would have made a much larger impact and will also ensure joint ownership in execution once a project is landed.
      • Labour is indeed a state subject. But it is high time a common acceptable labour code is thrashed out between Centre and states and implemented asap. A GST council type labour council be set up asap to arrive at a consensus on this. I believe that such a labour council will also help to wade off local political opposition to changes in labour laws for all political parties.
      • One of the key issues for attracting investments for manufacturing is making available land at reasonable prices. Again, a consensus among states and Centre needs to be arrived at for changes in the current land acquisition bill and implemented asap.
    • In essence between the Centre and State what is needed is Co-opted federalism and not Competitive federalism. Dwelling too much on semantics like “Union Government” Vs “Central government” is just a sheer waste of time.

Author and Columnist T.N.Ninan in a recent piece in The Print says, “For India, economic disorder is a reality to be reckoned with, but it also presents an opportunity” and I agree completely.  If we blow this opportunity, I am afraid that the India story will turn to be a Saas-Bahu type soap where the end doesn’t matter as long as there is some drama every day.

Not PK, Congress needs an AK!

Notwithstanding the poor performance in the recently concluded state elections, Congress managed to hog the headlines in India for the past 2 weeks. And the reason for that was the imminent roping in by Congress of Prashant Kishor (PK), who has now clearly made a mark as a master election strategist in India.  After his very successful stint with TMC for the Bengal state elections where he had openly challenged the BJP on its final tally and won that round, PK had announced that he is moving on from being an election strategist for a party. Instead he said he will be associated in politics in a different avatar.

From then on, we have been hearing about his rounds of discussions with the Congress leadership to work with them for future which ultimately culminated last week with an announcement of a breakdown of discussions between Congress and PK. Except for BJP which was PK’s 1st assignment in working with a party in a poll campaign, the other projects that were successful were when PK and his organisation were signed up by a regional party. These regional parties had supreme leaders and PK had access straight to the top. PK’s package was absorbed and implemented by and large without dissent and he could show results. Even during the 1st assignment, PK was working for and with Modi and not for BJP per se.

Secondly, PK’s wins have been where he has been riding winning horses. I still would say his value addition must have helped in bringing a method to the madness of campaign management, data analytics in candidate selection and culling, innovation in campaign tools and last not but the least, handling a monster called the Social Media with deft. Yet, when it was not a winning horse on the race as we saw recently in Goa (TMC) or in UP in 2017 (Congress), PK’s magic didn’t work.

For PK therefore, working with the Congress comes with a substantial risk.  Congress is an elephant of an organisation and in its weakest form presently.  Yet his keenness to work with Congress and help them win by even joining the Congress comes as a huge surprise and circumspection. Now, with the announcement of PK not accepting the invitation of the Congress to join its Empowered Action Group, it seems it is back to square one for the Congress.  So, how does Congress pick up the threads from here and try to win?

There have been suggestions, ideas and models galore from political commentators in the past few weeks for the Congress that include fixing the leadership issue, building the organisation at the grass roots and of course coming up with a credible narrative against the ruling BJP.  In fact some of these have been detailed in the leaked power point deck of PK which he made to the Congress last year. So, I will skip repeating the same points here.

In my opinion, what Congress needs is not a PK but an AK i.e. an Arvind Kejriwal. And I will tell you why.  Among many, I would like to pick up 2 aspects:

  1. To become leader of the ruling party, you should first become and excel as a leader of the Opposition. Today, though Congress is the single largest opposition party, it has singularly failed in being an effective opposition party. How did AK become what he is today – A sitting two time CM and the leader of the party which is emerging as a credible challenger for the BJP? The answer is simple. It all started with AK launching the Anti-Corruption movement in India which shook the nation thereby taking on the ruling party – Congress in 2011. If you recall, the key aspects of that movement were
  • Picking up a subject (Corruption) that touched all citizens irrespective of caste, creed, religion, class, geography and demographics.
  • Having a credible face for the campaign (Anna Hazare).
  • Garnering support from mainstream media that produced a multiplier effect and clever use of social media.

The campaign propelled AK as an effective activist which he used well to launch a party and win Delhi.

In the past 8 years, can you recall an Opposition campaign spearheaded by the Congress or any of its top leaders on a country wide basis?  Whether at the Centre or at the states where Congress is the principal opposition party, the only place it chooses to take on the ruling party is Twitter. Tweets do not win elections by themselves.  If Rahul Gandhi wants to challenge Narendra Modi for the post of Prime Minister, first he should prove himself as an effective and credible opposition leader.

  1. Once AK became the CM of Delhi, he has made a mark by having his own “Arvind Kejriwal model of governance” with its impetus attached to Education, Health care and cheaper utility bills for the Aam Admi. This model has got a thumbs up from the people as seen by his re-election in Delhi with a massive one sided mandate in 2020. Now this model has also got acceptance in another state namely Punjab where AAP recently swept the Congress out of the state.

Herein lies the next ironical tale of the Congress. In some many years of governing so many states, Congress still doesn’t have a model state to boast of as the “Congress model of governance”! What is stopping Congress from adopting all its professed good ideas in states where it rules and turn into a model? Unfortunately, Congress has been struggling to hold to states where they get an opportunity to rule (Punjab, Karnataka, Andhra, Kerala for example)

A consultant like PK can come and only show the mirror to the Congress. But the weight lifting at the political arena has to be done by the Congress leadership, for which you need be an AK. At the Centre, be a credible opposition leader. And in the states ruled by Congress, show case a model of governance, for starters.

Image courtesy: Outlook India

Wanted: Swachh Bharat Abhiyan 2.0!

After about 24 long months, we are finally seeing a relief from Covid! I am hesitating to say that we are seeing the end of Covid yet, looking at the past propensity of the virus to take different shapes and names to haunt us.  In India now, we see normal life returning. Children have gone back to schools putting an end to the tyranny called “Online classes” at least for now. Employees have started working, meaning working from offices except of course those who continue to follow a hybrid model. Shoppers have started thronging the markets and malls. Cinema halls have started seeing crowds. Events of all hue are back. Travel for pleasure and work has re-started. Traffic is back on the roads with a vengeance.  And garbage, filth and littering on the roads are also back!

Flash back to the day when Narendra Modi announced the kicking off of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, a Clean India mission during his Independence Day speech in 2014, few months after taking over as the Prime Minister.  He said, “A Clean India would be the best tribute India could pay to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150 birth anniversary in 2019!” On the 2nd Oct, 2014 on Gandhiji’s birth anniversary, Swachh Bharat Mission was launched. I vividly remember the excitement it created immediately. There was a buzz around Swachhata in the following days in the whole country.

Everywhere I went, I could see and hear people talking about a Clean India. Politicians led “photo op” sessions to clean their neighbourhoods.  Celebrities followed suit. Social workers led actual sessions to clean their neighbourhoods.  Children followed suit.  Dustbins started making their presence felt all of a sudden in public places. Administration started spending money on keeping towns clean. Tourist places started to become cleaner. Railway stations, Bus depots sported a cleaner look.  Making cities, towns and villages “Open Defecation Free” became part of this program. Construction of toilets got a fresh impetus.  Even Bollywood appropriated the fever when a film titled Toilet Ek Prem Katha was made with Askhay Kumar in the lead with toilets for women as the theme. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan had arrived.

India had not become a Singapore but there was a movement in the right direction. But down the line somewhere, the goal post got shifted. Somehow the government made “Open Defecation Free” (ODF) by 2nd October, 2019 as the only goal of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. Parameswaran Iyer, who had resigned from the IAS earlier was re-drafted as Secretary of the Ministry of Sanitation and Drinking Water and was tasked with achieving the ODF goal. He made the unthinkable happen.

As of November 28 that year, some 10.14 crore individual household toilets were constructed under the programme. And as per the concerned minister’s statement in Rajya Sabha, the sanitation coverage in the country, which was 38.7 per cent as on October 2, 2014 had increased to 100 per cent and all the 5,99,963 villages of the country had declared themselves ODF.  Therefore, while this goal of achieving universal sanitation through toilet construction was achieved, which in itself is not a mean achievement at all, the original objective of a “Clean India” got buried somewhere in the garbage dump perhaps. I am not yet clear as to when the goal post got shifted.

With the return of the Modi Sarkar in 2019 in the back of a historic win in the elections where toilet construction also played a part, the original Swachh Bharat Abhiyan seemed to have vanished from the collective memory of the nation. Then of course by March 2020, Covid struck and everything else lost focus and priority.

It is therefore I feel, now that we have a reprieve from Covid and things are getting back to normal in India, it is time to put Swachhata on the National agenda again. I read that in October 2021, Modi launched the second phase of the Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban (SBM-U) and the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) stressing that these missions were aimed at making India’s cities garbage-free and water-secure. So it looks like the program is in place. However, I don’t recollect (probably it could be due to our pre-occupation with Covid way back in October 2021) the launch of this second phase.

October 2nd, 2019 has come and gone and three more years have gone by. It is time to go back to the original idea of “A Clean India”. In my earlier posts on Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, I had mentioned that if this program fails, it is not because of Modi. It is because we as public failed the program. I see now that people are back to littering on streets. Paan spitting and “painting the city red” never even paused. I pity the municipality workers who are given the job of cleaning road dividers time and again of the paan stains only to be painted red just in a few days. Men peeing on highways has become a common sight again. Those toilets which were put across highways have somehow vanished! Garbage is overflowing from the bins on to the streets. Public places like municipality parking lots in Mumbai and Pune (which I have seen first-hand) are reeking of squalor like in the past.

There is hope still. When one sees for example, the Ghats in Varanasi or the Railway stations these days, they are squeaking clean. Just that the awareness about Clean India has to be brought back as a National obsession.  India needs Swachh Bharat Abhiyan 2.0.

As I wrote before, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan is not about cleaning but eliminating or reducing the need for cleaning in the first place. The onus of that of course lies with us, the public of India not the municipalities, not the State Government, not the Central Government and certainly not Narendra Modi.

Pic Courtesy: Swachh Bharat Mission website

Takeaways on the takeaways from the 2022 election results!

The long election season in India came to an end last week and the results are in line with my forecast in all states except Goa where I thought that BJP will be shunted out this time.

We have been fed with a surfeit of analyses and takeaways by commentators of all hue by way of articles, videos and podcasts. I don’t want to further add to that cacophony by posting my takeaways on the election results.  However, I am unable to resist listing my key takeaways on the takeaways of the experts themselves. And here we go:

  1. “Switch” Bharat Abhiyan doesn’t stick: Just before the elections were announced in the UP, we saw a big number of defections mostly from the BJP to SP. These were interpreted by pundits as a pointer to the way the political wind was blowing.  In the end however, out of the 21 turncoats who shifted from BJP to SP just before the polls, only 4 won.  The big name among this was Swami Prasad Maurya who hogged headlines for at least a week. He lost his own seat. So, the message is, when leaders leave a party just before polls claiming to have not been given justice blah, blah, the reality could be different.  They might have sensed that the party may drop them from the contestants list due to their poor performance.  We saw this in Bengal also when few leaders jumped from TMC to BJP and they all mostly lost. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan may still be a work In progress but, this “Switch” Bharat Abhiyan is mostly still born!
  1. Differentiate between “Voting” public and “Vocal” public: Reporters doing ground reports often get carried away by the “Vocal” electorate and come to a conclusion for the entire “Voting” electorate. Here, I would like to give an analogy from marketing. When a product or service doesn’t meet the consumer’s expectations, it is very common for him/her to put it out on social media or talk to others about it. But, when the product or service is good and meet the expectations, consumers seldom talk to others or post a review. Negative WOM (Word of Mouth) always trumps positive WOM. It is the same case with voters, I feel. There could be those voters who are not happy with a party and hence tend to be vocal in front of the camera. But, there could be a larger section of voters who could be happy with a government and don’t bother to say anything to reporters. Coming to a conclusion in favour of the vocal public like many commentators did in the recent UP elections is fraught with a high probability of going wrong.
  1. Covid is not Government’s creation: In the run up to the polls and even later, we kept hearing experts talking about how UP government mismanaged Covid and how people will vote out the incumbent BJP government because of that. My point is, if Covid was mismanaged, it was mismanaged by all countries, all states and all administrations all over the world. I don’t think there is any administration that came out covering itself in glory in managing Covid. Even in India, if UP mismanaged Covid, so did Delhi, Kerala, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and so on. But commentators were rifle focussed in talking about Covid mismanagement only in UP while not referring to the same in other states. And the larger point is, the common public did not think that Covid was a creation of the Modi Government at the centre or for that matter any state government. Even in West Bengal elections or in Bihar elections, at the peak of the first wave, people did not punish the incumbent governments over Covid. I think there is a clear resignation among public that Covid was a pandemic not created by the governments and that the governments were trying to do their best with their backs against the wall.
  1. Pro-Incumbency doesn’t mean Anti-Incumbency is over: Since BJP won 4 out of 5 states in this round and sort of retained power in all these states, there is an opinion that the time of Anti-Incumbency is over and it’s the time of Pro-Incumbency. Well, this is only partially true in my opinion. Anti-Incumbency is over only if the incumbent is not Congress. The Congress still manages successfully to succumb to Anti-Incumbency in the states they rule. I am not saying this just because Congress lost Punjab this time where it was incumbent. In the recent past, Congress managed to lose power in states like Pondicherry (2021), Karnataka (2018), Tripura (2018), Himachal Pradesh (2017) and so on.  Yes, other parties have learnt to overcome Anti-Incumbency by mastering the art of governance and delivery like TMC in Bengal (2021), LDF in Kerala (2021), AAP in Delhi (2020), BJD in Odissa (2019), BJP in Gujarat (2018) and now in four states to sight a few examples.  But not the Congress. There is not a single state where Congress has managed to retain the state by demonstrating good governance and thereby projecting a case for Pro-Incumbency. The antithesis from here is that unlike in the past when Anti-incumbency was peddled as an acceptable excuse for losing power by an incumbent government, presently, Anti-Incumbency cannot be an acceptable ruse for a defeat.
  1. Marketing works only if the product is half good: In the beginning of the UP campaign, commentators were talking of how Priyanka Gandhi was running an exceptional campaign in UP with women at the core of the pitch. ‘Ladki hoon, lad sakti hoon’ (LHLSH) was hailed as a brilliant campaign. We now know the outcome of that campaign. Even during the campaign, key women faces of the program jumped ship. Any great campaign cannot save a poor or an average product.  So, I was surprised that commentators were getting carried away by the LHLSH slogan and were expecting Congress to make an impact. To me, it was of no surprise that the campaign lost steam midway.  Same can be said of TMC in Goa where the marketing muscle and resources couldn’t muster a single seat.
  1. In Election Arithmetic, 1+1+1 is not 3: Too many commentators have this habit of summing up individual party’s vote shares in the previous elections to forecast the vote share of an alliance in future elections. As we have seen repeatedly, 1+1+1 need not be 3. It can be 4, if the alliance is on the right side of winning and can be 0.5 if it’s the wrong side of winning. For example, just because RLD tied up with SP this time, the entire JAT vote didn’t shift to SP combine as we were told by experts.
  1. Day-today issues Vs Electoral issues: Increasingly I am seeing that reporters and experts talk to people on the streets on their issues and tend to conclude that they are key “electoral” issues based on which voters would eventually vote for a party. For example, in UP, commentators were talking of “stray cattle” as a big poll issue going against the BJP government. It is obvious to anyone as daylight that BJP as a party will never get punished for an issue like “stray cattle” that too when Yogi Adityanath who has been a votary of Cow protection is the Chief Minister. Also, can anyone tell me when Mehengayee (Price increase) and Berozgaari (Unemployment) have not been issues in India? These have been perennial issues in India and at least in the last 30 years, voters have not started voting for or against a party on these issues.  These issues are taken as given and voters weigh in their mind as to which party can provide them with more opportunities to get over these issues rather than tackle these issues per se.  

In India, elections come sooner than IPL. Just as we finish this round, we will have the next round of state elections towards the end of the year. And if you just kept hearing that UP is the most crucial test for BJP in the last few months, you will soon start hearing that Gujarat is the ultimate test for BJP and Modi in the run up to 2024. And the question, “Is 2024 a done deal for the BJP?” will keep coming up till the exit polls of 2024!!

Cartoon credit: Manjul

Decoupled and Modi Sarkar!

For the uninitiated, Decoupled is an Indian web series that premiered on Netflix last month. It is written and created by Manu Joseph, one of India’s most interesting columnists/authors. The show is mostly in English and features Madhavan and Surveen Chawla in the lead.  It’s a light hearted take on the life of a rich, urban couple and the struggles with the institution called marriage.  But beyond this very common story line, what takes the cake is the way Manu weaves in day today happenings around us, using every opportunity to call out hypocrisies of the privileged and the opinionated.  If you haven’t watched it yet, I would recommend it.

Now the overall response to the series has been interesting to see.   Almost all the critics or of what I saw, sort of panned the show in unison.  When I saw Decoupled, I quite liked it.  The series quickly hit the top spot on India trends on Netflix.  With whomsoever I checked in my circle, they all loved it.  In social media, the series is now being celebrated for its refreshing take on life. Some of the clips and lines from the series in fact have been going viral on WhatsApp, a sure indicator of a show’s success if I may say. In short, common viewers like you and I just loved it while the critics hated it.

In my opinion, the critics hated Decoupled most likely because it was from Manu Joseph. For long now, Manu has been holding contrarian views on issues that challenge the common opinions of expert commentators. And that he could present his arguments in a very articulate and convincing manner that are not so easy to counter, makes him more reviled among his peers.  Week after week, Manu in his weekly columns of late, sets the cat among the pigeons with his compulsive, against the flow takes that rattle status quoists on the one hand and instigate what Manu himself calls as asparagus eating liberals, on the other hand.  For example, when the entire commentariat was taking on the Modi government for its push on Aadhaar quoting privacy concerns, Manu’s take was and I quote, “Absolute privacy is a right that people have given up when they chose not to live in forests”! So, he has this knack of hitting well pitched yorkers out of the park.

I therefore feel that the image Manu acquired of being this rattler through his columns or non-fictional writing, came to the fore when critics watched Decoupled which is his work of fiction. One of the reviews alluded Decoupled to be “a vessel to communicate creator Manu Joseph’s most divisive thoughts to an audience that normally wouldn’t care about them”.  For critics, this was an opportunity to give it back to Manu for what he does week after week through his columns.

Now, this dichotomy is something we are getting familiar with. And a very common parallel to this which comes to my mind is the reaction Narendra Modi gets in India.  And this where the twain of Decoupled and Modi Sarkar meet and I will explain how. Majority of Aam admi in India like Modi. But the critics and the liberal intelligentsia hate him from his Gujarat days and for growing to this stature in spite of their writings against him. So whatever Modi does, the liberal commentariat tends to find ways and means to critique them, while the common man keeps lapping them up.

I can quote so many examples in the past 7 years since Modi became the Prime Minister, when the so called experts chose to critique his ideas or find fault but, which resonated well with the people by and large.  I found it amusing when this government launched the Toilet construction programme in villages, some critics were asking about water availability! Similarly, when free LPG connections were provided, the question was who will pay for the refills!

In fact in some of the cases, I thought that the ideas were criticized just because they were from the Modi Sarkar and probably they would have been appreciated by the critics if they were from say a Congress government.  The whole revamping of the old Parliament building for any logical person, is an idea whose time had come many years ago. Instead of not appreciating this government for taking the lead in creating the New Central Vista, the intelligentsia is only finding holes in the proposal by clutching on to straws of history.  I am yet to come across one common man who had any problems with it, though.  The same is likely hold true for the latest idea of shifting or merging the Amar Jawan Jyoti as well.  The problem is not the idea itself but that it is has been initiated by Narendra Modi during his regime. Just like the problem being not with the web series Decoupled itself but with its writer and creator – Manu Joseph.

We are living at a time when though the message may be right, it will be called out as wrong if the messenger is not liked by some masters. It’s high time that the commentariat realises that its credibility is at its nadir and if this practice of shooting the message depending upon who the messenger is not stopped, it will deteriorate further.

The best part is, in fine arts writers and artists gain recognition from readers and viewers, and not just from critics.  And so is in a democracy. All eligible citizens vote and not just the commentariat.  Thank God for small mercies.

HNY to HNQ??

As I sit to pen my first blog for this year in the early days of another New Year, I am reminded of my first post for the last year which was titled “Thank God it’s a New Year”! That time (1st week of 2021) we were just coming off what appeared like a terrible year. The entire world was disrupted by the global pandemic in a scale not seen or heard in many, many decades.  But then by January, we already were recovering and started gradually getting back to pre-Covid way of living. Lockdowns were over, travel started and so on. So, the theme of my piece then was that the worst was behind us and we must thank God that we are in a New Year and raring to go.

In the year 2021, we did finish the first quarter on a high. There was optimism all-around of a sharp turn around. But then, just in a few weeks, the world in general and India in particular was mauled by the 2nd wave.  I shudder to recount the horrifying things which were happening around us in the months of April/May/June/July. Enough to say that the cursed tentacles of the virus were still spreading all over spelling doom on all recovery predictions.  Drawing room conversations were all around the availability of vaccines and the time when vaccines will provide an eventual shield for the virus.

If we recall, by the third Quarter of 2021 however, things on the ground started changing rapidly. The vaccination pace picked up dramatically with better availability of vaccines by August. And we were talking about flattening the curve for the second time. Through the festival season in the months of October/November the mood was upbeat and we could start seeing the recovery even in “Contact sensitive sectors” like travel, tourism and so on.

Things started dramatically changing again with the discovery of the Omicron variant in South Africa in early December. And towards the end of December and as we speak now, we are witnessing another rapid spike in cases and preparing ourselves for the inevitable third wave!  If you have been following the IMF predictions for the global economy and specific countries through the pandemic, you will realise that they have been changing their forecasts every quarter up and down. Now, what am I trying to drive at here?

With such an uncertainty in the world triggered by a virus and its variants today and it could be something else tomorrow what does it leave for long range planning for a country /company /household etc.?  It is tough. To elucidate this point let me talk about the way Indian government handled the economic support during the pandemic versus some of the larger well to do countries. When the pandemic struck in March 2020, big economies like the US, Canada and European countries who could afford, opted for cash transfer to its people to pump prime the demand and therefore the economy. Some of the Non-resident Economists of Indian origin of the likes of Dr. Raghuram Rajan, Dr. Kaushik Basu and Dr. Abhijit Banerjee also advocated this route for India and were extremely critical of the Narendra Modi government for not going the whole hog and opting for a more calibrated “Drip support” approach.

In this approach, instead of direct cash transfer, the government opted for free supply of rations to the needy and generous support of working capital to ensure that the businesses stay afloat. There were also moratoriums on loan repayments for most part of the year 2020. The logic of the economic think tank that included the likes of Dr. Bibek Debroy (Chairman – PM’s Economic Council) , Sanjeev Sanyal (Principal Economic advisor in the Finance Ministry) and Dr Krishnamurthy Subramanian (Chief Economic Advisor) was to take one step at a time when how the virus situation will pan out was uncertain, uncertainty being the key word. The time period for which any support was to be provided was not clear. Also another important thing, during the pandemic induced lockdowns, the issue was in the supply side largely. People stopped going to salons during the pandemic not because they didn’t have money. The same logic can be extrapolated to other service sectors as well. So, the idea was to keep the powder dry for eventualities in the future. As per IMF’s Dr. Gita Gopinath, large economies including the US have no more leg room left to keep supporting the economy and hence are facing an imminent challenge if the virus continues to hold sway. I must say therefore that the Indian think tank certainly stand vindicated on this account when we had to contend with the second wave and now the third wave.

My point therefore is, are long term planning or Annual plans relevant anymore? Things on the ground change so dramatically and drastically these days that any assumption for the better or worse of the future happenings is proved wrong very quickly. Since in India we understand similes from Bollywood easily, let me give an example. RRR is the next film after Bahubali from the ace director Rajamouli. This is also a magnum opus that has been made in multiple languages. Obviously due to the huge budget involved, it had to opt for a theatrical release and was planned for a release in January. The entire team was seen doing mega roadshows in different cities as part of the promotion for whole of December. But then, I see today that they have taken a call to postpose the release due to the like increase of restrictions in many cities due to the Covid surge of late! So it is a matter of few weeks for things to change for the fate of a film that was on the works for five years!

Even in the context of business in the pre-Covid times, I have not been a big fan of rigorous annual planning as, over a period of time, I have seen that assumptions and market conditions change drastically leaving the annual plans as an academic exercise. Now in the post Covid New normal, I feel that time has come to focus on QSQT (Quarter Se Quarter Tak).  While an overall Annual plan can be made for directional purposes, the drilling down of everything to quarters and months and weeks is a wasteful exercise in my opinion. In the sense does it make sense to assume that Omicron is not going to impact the economy so much and plan expenses accordingly for the coming fiscal year? Or we in any position to comment the recurrence of any new waves in the future? Instead in the current situation, whether it is the country or corporation or housing society or our own house hold we may be better off to keep the horizon of three months and take it from one quarter to another. On that note, wishing you all a Happy and contented New Year or should I say Happy New Quarter (HNQ)?

Image courtesy: Kat Millar.com