Marketing of Politics!!!

Last week’s explosive expose of Channel 4 on the role of Cambridge Analytica (CA), a British political consultancy firm in the Trump campaign has thrown up many questions on the devious marketing ways parties use, to influence voters.  At the outset, it would appear that CA has been doing nothing else but extending time-tested established marketing techniques to the political domain. For years, brands have used psycho graphic profiling of target consumers in addition to the more rudimentary demographic profiling to fine-tune their messaging. Extending this into the realm of political campaigns, particularly with the help of social media would seem to be a very logical thing to do. After all, one of the key attractions of digital marketing viz-a-viz traditional mass media is the possibility to deliver customized, targeted messaging based on individual likes and preferences.

As can be seen from the expose, what CA has been doing all along, is not as straight forward as it appears. It seems apart from profiling voters and using it for targeted messaging, manipulation of news, spreading fake news and playing on people’s fears,… have been part of the game. “Marketing of Politics” has indeed come a long way since 1960 when probably the 1st political mass media campaign was used by John F Kennedy against his rival Richard Nixon in the US elections.  Bruce Newman in his book, ‘The Handbook of Political Marketing’ in fact says, “This was the beginning of the modernization of marketing in political context”. Concepts like “Branding” and “Positioning” which were hitherto considered important in the marketing of consumer goods struck a chord with politicians and leaders during elections and they started “Branding” themselves.  From then to the 2016 presidential campaign with social media as the pivot, US has been leading the way in Political Marketing!

While all this seems plausible in developed and mature countries like the US, UK,… it indeed came as a surprise that a foreign political consultancy firm like CA has been operating in India in different avatars since 2010! In a vast country with voters of diverse social, educational, cultural, economic backgrounds as India, can advance techniques like targeted messaging through Social media be used to influence voting patterns in elections? This question gains added significance particularly when Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook said this week that his organization is committed to upholding the integrity of elections around the world, including India. This statement in itself reveals that there was a possibility that Facebook would have been used to compromise elections in the past. With due respect to Zuckerberg’s intention, I do feel that this statement is more a marketing statement for the brand Facebook!  Be that as it may, the more fundamental question is – “Do Indian’s allow Marketing of Politics?”

As far as my memory goes, I think it was Rajiv Gandhi who brought in to Indian politics the concept of mass advertising campaigns way back in 1984. For the 1984 elections, Congress under Rajiv Gandhi had hired Rediffusion as their ad agency for their campaign which was largely print. In that election Congress, in the aftermath of a massive sympathy wave following Indira Gandhi’s death, got 3/4th majority in the Lok Sabha. So it’s not clear if the Rediffusion campaign around the theme of “Give Unity a Hand” played a big part in the victory. In the following election in 1989, Rediffusion was back doing the Congress campaign. However, the mega Rs. 25 crore “My heart beats for India” campaign couldn’t silence the boom of the Bofors gun scandal! Congress lost and I think it was the last time Rediffusion worked for Congress!

The subsequent elections all saw quite a bit of Political Marketing in India but, I guess that the next tipping point was the 2014 elections and the campaign of BJP in general and Narendra Modi in particular. “Abki Baar, Modi Sarkar” is part of marketing case studies. Piyush Pandey of Ogilvy, the man behind this campaign however admitted that they or the media didn’t create “Brand Modi” and that they only amplified the features of the “Modi Brand” which already existed.

2014 is also when I guess, we saw the advent of professional election strategists like Prashant Kishor (PK) for the 1st time. There were election strategists in the past but they were from the party and subscribed to an ideology.  As we see now, PK is ideology agnostic and basically works with whichever party contracts him. Again looking at the track record of PK it’s been a mixed bag. As an election strategist who worked with Modi in 2014 and then with Nitish Kumar for Bihar elections, Congress for UP, Punjab and Gujarat elections, he has been successful only with a good product in the 1st place.  The old adage of “Great marketing cannot redeem a bad product” holds well in Political Marketing also.  However it’s abundantly clear that election strategists like PK have found their calling mainly with the advent of Social media.

In a country like India, even now traditional Social media vehicles like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram,… remain an urban/semi urban/youth phenomenon.  Having millions of followers on Twitter or FB may not still ensure a victory in the hinterlands of India!  Having said that, it’s obvious that one takes these vehicles seriously as they are part of day-today narrative. I just heard that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, one of the very early hoppers among Indian politicians onto the Social media band wagon, suggested to BJP MPs to be active on social media to communicate the party’s accomplishments. Because, he knows that today, Social media vehicles like Twitter and Facebook feeds off to the conventional media. Conventional media picks up trends from Social media. “Breaking News” happens these days on Twitter. Trump fires his Secretary of State on Twitter! Notwithstanding all these, still using these for targeted messaging may only help brands (including political parties) reach urban, semi urban and youth audience. However there is one exception.

Among the social media vehicles, literally the elephant in the room or rather hand is WhatsApp. I believe that more than FB, Twitter, Instagram and Blog sites if there is one media which has the most exponential and explosive reach, it is WhatsApp. With anonymity part of its structure and design and primarily being accessible from a Smart phone, it can be conveniently used for spreading News, views and stuff masquerading as News. Today, I find that even educated and informed people get swayed by propagandist material doing the rounds on WhatsApp and do their bit by “forwarding as received” to their near and dear! Imagine the effect of this among more gullible voters in rural India!  And therefore, it has become the most potent medium for spreading fake news.  One cannot realistically expect one and all to do due diligence before forwarding something which they feel as interesting!

Therefore, it is not surprising that when Cambridge Analytica and the subsequent Facebook stories erupted, tremors could be felt in the political circles in India with parties scrambling to distance themselves as much as possible and blaming each other.  Social media, in particular vehicles like WhatsApp can today be used to deliver targeted messages that can easily influence voters. With the proliferation of WhatsApp groups, you have a set of people who have a certain common denominator.   And hence spreading an appealing message to them is cheap, quick and effective. Hence in the elections to come, unless regulated, I have no doubts in my mind that a medium like WhatsApp will be the most sought after during political campaigns.  It already is as we saw recently in Gujarat!  Marketing of Politics that too with Social media as the mainstay is here to stay!

No wonder then Marketing of Politics has now led to Politics over Marketing!!!

Pic Courtesy: NBC News

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Budget – The Annual celebration of Outlays!

It’s just about a week since the Annual Union Budget – supposedly the most important policy statement for any Government in power, was tabled in the parliament in India.  In these days of extremely limited attention span, the news and noise around the Budget are already done and dusted. The media has already moved on from analyzing the Budget to debating if an MP’s loud cackle is acceptable parliamentary behavior and if the PM’s witty riposte to that, will pass the test of a Nehru or a Vajpayee in parliamentary decorum! The only remaining nugget about the Budget I see in the media in the last couple of days is, as to who won the TRP war on the Budget day! For the television media, the annual Budget presentation is another TRP generating event in the annual calendar and hence the whipped up frenzy and hoopla around it.

For the past 20 years, I have also been a victim of the annual cacophony called the experts’ analysis of the Budget and in the same breath, culprit in doing my own analysis and critique. Over the last few years, it started dawning upon me that slicing and dicing the Budget and trying to evaluate the same as good, bad or average is an exercise steeped in foolhardiness. And so, this year apart from a cursory look at the highlights in the evening of the Budget day, I spent little time in that direction.

This distancing has nothing to do with this year’s Budget and its contents but on the way “we”, as a country carry out the discourse around the Budget. When I say “we”, this includes the Government, the Opposition, the political parties, the media, the Industry, the commentators and folks like us.  For years, I have been seeing that the reactions to the Budget proposals have become extremely predictable. The ruling party members give a huge thumbs up to the Budget and usually follow it up with head line making epithets. (Path breaking/Visionary,…)  While the finance minister is presenting the Budget, any announcement of outlay which is seemingly bigger than that of last year is welcomed with huge thumping of the desks by the treasury benches. The Opposition parties usually criticize the Budget calling it Inflammatory (if taxes are raised), Anti poor (if subsidies are cut), “What about implementation?” (If outlays are increased) and so on! And for other political parties, the famous Mile’s maxim applies – “where they stand on the Budget depends on where they sit” in the parliament. The Industry usually in front of cameras always give a 12 out of 10 to any Budget!  The media provides a ball by ball update on the stock markets as the Budget presentation goes on, as if the entire nation’s well-being depends on how the stock market reacts to the Budget on that day!  And we all know that the stock market yo-yos on the Budget day, without proper understanding of the provisions and settles down few days later.  The media commentators present a typically “On the one hand, on the other hand, having said that,..” analysis replete with clichés and Budget equivalent of Shastri’sms the next day in their columns. And with the advent of social media, Budget day in India is a Kaun Banega Economist? competition with you and me donning the hat of economists to hail/trash the Budget based on the outlay proposals and our own prejudices!  All this repeated itself this year as well.

In the din, what is completely missed is an analysis and report of the outcomes of the previous year Budget outlays. Budget after Budget, finance ministers announce crores and crores for initiatives and programmes. But as a tax payer, we never get to know the outcomes of those outlays. 13 years after the then finance minister P. Chidambaram spoke of “outlays versus outcomes” in his Budget speech of 2005-06, no mechanism is still in sight to measure the same. Take for example one such announcement in the last year Budget, which I clearly remember. The finance minister had announced that allocation under MNREGA was being increased to Rs. 48,000 crore from Rs 38,500 crore which was meant to be the highest ever allocation in all these years. And this was supposed to provide rural jobs, alleviate poverty in rural areas by improving rural incomes and at the same time end up building assets as well. One year hence after this historically high outlay, maybe I missed, but do we know exactly know what happened to this Rs. 48,000 crores? And this is just one outlay. A regular Budget speech is replete with outlays like this and more.

Another glaring example is the Nirbhaya fund. Announced among thunderous thumping of desks in the 2013 budget by the then UPA Government following the heinous Delhi incident, over 90% of the funds remain unused. Does that mean that rapes against women have declined? This is a classic case of an outlay not yielding the desired outcome and still being provided for, year after year!

My disenchantment with the Annual Budget exercise stems from this gap. Of celebrating outlays without knowing what the outcomes were! In the finance minister’s Budget speech a review of the past year is usually limited to the GDP growth rates and projected fiscal deficits against the targets. Even these get revised when the actual numbers come out some time in May/June and very few of us take notice.  The Annual economic survey does cover some of the trends but I don’t think even that covers specifically the results of the previous year’s outlays.

For a developing economy like India, we need more transparency. We should not be pushed to use instruments like RTI to just understand outcomes and expenditures!  And hence here are my suggestions:

  • In the start of the Budget session, before the Budget for the next year is presented, have a day to present the outcomes for the previous year’s outlays. Tell the people what worked and what didn’t. This will help to justify increase or cut outlays for the next year.
  • Typically our parliament has 3 sessions. In these sessions, have each of the ministry provide an update on the progress of the initiatives, programmes, outlays and status of outcomes announced in the year’s Budget. If not for all, have this mandatory for all key industries.

In Delhi circles, I hear that this government of Narendra Modi is a “Dashboard” government. In the sense, the PMO expects weekly/monthly/quarterly dashboard on their ministry’s accomplishments from all the ministries.  Why not extend this “Dashboard” governance to the parliament and get ministers to showcase their ministries’ performance to the people?

Even the media and the commentariat must devote time to analysing outcomes of previous outlays and bring it to the fore rather than just talking of the new outlays!

Thumping of desks by MPs and celebrating outlays on the Budget is passé.  Aim must be to let people celebrate outcomes by voting for you at the hustings!!!

Toon Courtesy: Satish Acharya (Sify.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mersal, Mitron and the New India paradox!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kumarakom yesterday, Vagamon tomorrow!

If there is one state in India, which has almost got its act together on tapping its tourism potential, it must be Kerala. I say, “almost” and mention Kerala in relation to other states of India. For a relatively small state, Kerala boasts of varied choices for a traveler from beaches to hill stations to back waters to Ayurveda to Culture and more.  In a strange twist of irony, for a state which still has its ideological moorings firmly tilted to the “Left”, it is “smart marketing” that has played a great part in positioning the state as ‘God’s Own Country’ over the years. To its credit, certain gaps notwithstanding, Kerala does live up to this tag line to this day.

I’m certain that there are other states which are bigger in size in India that can provide a better offering than Kerala to tourists. Karnataka, for example. And some of them have now realized the potential, tourism as an industry offers and are boarding the bus, though late.  The tourism circuit of Kerala over the years has evolved from just back waters of Kochi and hills of Thekkady in the 80’s to now Kumarakom, Alleppey, Munnar, and spots in Malabar area like Wynad, Bekal,… Outside of this circuit are a few places that are in the verge of earning their stripes. Of them is Vagamon, a hill station in the Idukki district and closer to Kottayam in terms of access, which I had the opportunity to visit last week.

Being a native of Kottayam, I have had the chance to visit Kottayam many times. It was the default summer vacation option while growing up. And with family roots still entrenched there, social visits have been a regular.  Though Vagamon is just 40 Kms from our place in Kottayam, we never thought of exploring this location in the past. Not just familiarity, but proximity also at times breeds contempt isn’t it?  Having been hearing of this place as an emerging hill station, we decided to visit Vagamon and spend a night there during this trip.

For long, Vagamon was mainly known for its milk – Vagamon milk is popular in the surrounding areas. Like all hill stations of India, though the British were the ones who discovered this place, I understand that it is the Christian missionaries in Kerala who developed Vagamon and among the first to live there. A Dairy farm that still exists was the early business activity to flourish and hence the popularity of Vagamon milk!  So one can say that it is a place where honey and milk literally flows! The road leading to Vagamon from Kottayam is patchy having been battered by the recent heavy rains. For a Mumbaikar used to pot holed roads resembling craters of the moon, they were still bearable, but then Mumbai is no bench mark for a tourist destination! As you near the place, the scenic beauty of the place and the accompanying chill weather just enthrall you.  The views on the way give you an idea of what to expect.

The resort where we stayed (Treebo Adrak Summer Sand Resort) is right at the heart of the town and has fantastic views. Located next to the Pine Valley which is one of the places of tourist interest, is neat, clean and very well maintained. The property is great and picturesque. However, for such a nice property, the staff is inadequately trained and is marred by slow and laidback service. We see this dichotomy in many small towns in India.

All places of visitor’s interest are in a span of 5 Kms which include breathtaking viewpoints, idyllic Tea estates, the Dairy farm, the Pine Valley,… and could be covered within few hours. Being a fledgling tourist destination, the infrastructure is just developing. One of the popular viewpoints has now become a paragliding point where frenzied construction activity is going on. I realized that as of now, Vagamon is more of a one day outing place for those nearby during holidays and long weekends.  The result – all the points of interest were overcrowded and vehicles parked alongside the narrow roads clogging the approach. The Prime Minister’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was tottering, with people who bring food along eating alongside roads and littering the place with plates, cups and left over food! This was sad for a state which I always thought was in the forefront of Swachata. Though declared a plastic free zone, plastic could be freely seen strewn in places where people thronged.

The 3.5 hour drive back to the Kochi International Airport, half of which is through hilly terrain is quite scenic. Airtel 4G connection of mine failed the test, as in many places my phone was out of coverage. On the other hand, our cab driver’s JIO connection passed with flying colours when we need to access Google maps. Not to mention of the equally effective cell phone coverage of BSNL in those far off areas! The drive through also gives an insight on why the “Left” is so well entrenched in Kerala.  Red flags flutter in regular frequency in a gap of 10-15 Kms even in those remote areas.  Even in a non-election season like this, there was a nukkad meeting going on being addressed by a spirited leader with at least a 100 keen listeners!  But one cannot dismiss the flowering of the Lotus here and there.  In fact, the day we were leaving Kochi, BJP was kicking off its “Project Kerala” in Kannur with Modi as the main face in posters alongside the Kerala BJP President Kummanam Rajashekaran, who incidentally resembles Modi in some angles. Yet, it will take years of labour to dislodge the Left from probably its last bastion in India!

With Nature in abundance, Vagamon has immense potential to be the next Munnar or Kumarakom of Kerala. Additional place of interest for Westerners is a place called Bharananganam which is on the way from Kottayam to Vagamon. It is the abode of Sister Alphonsa who was the first woman of Indian origin to be canonized as a Saint by the Catholic Church.  But, to get into the God’s Own Country circuit, Vagamon needs to be developed in terms of its infrastructure. Incidentally, the same day I saw a quote of the new Central minister for Tourism Alphons Kannanthanam who hails from Kerala, talking of Vagamon in the same breath as Munnar as an area to focus for tourism development.

The jury is still out as to whether development happens first and then tourism picks up or the other way about. But there is always a tipping point. Like for Kumarakom, when in the last week of December in the Year 2000, the then Prime Minister Vajpayee decided to ring in the New Year at Kumarakom.  The musings of Vajpayee from Kumarakom still reverberate in the air! Similarly, another event that catapulted Kumarakom to its today’s glory was Arundati Roy’s Booker prize winning novel “The God of Small Things”. Set in the village of Aymanam which is at a calling distance from Kumarakom, the novel made many Western tourists include Kumarakom part of their itinerary!

May be Prime Minster Modi, who in his last Mann Ki Baat address called upon people to explore new destinations in India to boost tourism, could emulate Vajpayee and take a break at Vagamon during Diwali! Who knows, in that calm, cool and scenic setting far away from the political nerve centre of Delhi he may discover some new ideas to bring back John Maynard Keynes’ “Animal spirits” of the country!!!

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!

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”.