“Chinpressions” – Impressions from another of my China visit – Part 3!!!

It was about 3 years ago that I made my 1st visit to ChinaShanghai and wrote the 1st part of Chinpressions. Read here. In between that and my last visit this week, many more visits to China happened. Ergo, 3 years hence what are my impressions?

The visit this week coincided with Narendra Modi’s another foreign tour – this time to China. So obviously India was in the news. As is the wont these days in our PM’s abroad visits, he was in “Rock star” mode in China as well with local Chinese craving and crowding to take selfies with him. It’s obvious that in the last 1 year Modi has single handedly changed the perception of India for the better outside of India.

I had mentioned that in my last post that Shanghai was devoid of emerging market symptoms like touts at the airports,… I realized now that it’s not the case. There were the touts on arrival at the airport chasing you for taxi/hotels,… just that they were of the “suited and booted” types 😜 😜. Similarly I had the impression that Taxis were on meters always. Well, yes most of the times. But not always. This time much to our chagrin, we realized that beyond 10 p.m the cabbies were upto fleece passengers demanding 4 to 6 times the normal fare!!! While on cabbies, I couldn’t understand why the driver was always enclosed in a cubicle of sorts making it difficult to communicate with him/her even in sign language. (Trying to communicate in English is a horror left unsaid :( :( )

For all the heavy duty infrastructure and the investment led growth strategy Chinese government has been adopting all these years with a fair degree of success, it is now clear that the growth is stuttering.  A 7% growth is being touted as the new normal. Print media is agog with articles questioning if the world’s 2nd largest economy is heading towards a protracted period of subdued growth.  China has now become the latest example to explain the Economics theory of the Middle Income Trap”

It’s clear that despite the pretensions of the Government taking China to being in the league of developed nations, it is still haunted by a few trappings of developing/underdeveloped countries. Which the people are yet to shrug off it appears.

  • Like the locals not caring about courtesy to others and smoking to glory in public washrooms.
  • Like the drivers continuing to smoke while driving in cars inspite of requesting them not to. (Blame the language)
  • Like invariably the noisy scenes you get to see in restaurants when Chinese get together to dine and drink. (Something like we Indians I must say).
  • Like the rounds of bargaining one has to do some times starting with 10% of the quoted price to purchase stuff mostly the imitations at the fake markets hawking branded stuff from I phones to watches to bags to clothes to everything. China’s tryst with IP regime may prove to be its Achilles heel sooner or later. Just couple of days ago while in China I read the news that top brands like Gucci were suing Alibaba the E-Com giant for sale of counterfeits through its marketplace.Like getting to see touts trying to sell I Phones at US$100 around to gullible passengers even inside the Shanghai’s Pudong airport terminal!!! I was surprised to see these guys inside the airports after the Check-in Area moving around looking for their customers!!! (This doesn’t happen in India even)
  • Like being amused to see empty chairs placed in sides of the road meant as parking lots. Something like placing the chair to reserve that lot. Reminded me of our Indian habit of placing towels/kerchiefs,.. in buses to block seats :)
  • Like for all the fascinating sights at “The Bund” at Shanghai (Clean, colourful, Hawker free,..,…) the urinals are still the old world style not seen even in towns in India these days.
  • Like finding grills in windows in residential apartments a la India type just that they were more uniform and still not spoiling the elevation of the building unlike in India where grills of all types and sizes spoil the frontage of most buildings.

Most of the above fall in line with the definition of “High Context Culture” as defined by Edward T. Hall in his seminal work – Beyond Culture, I feel. So not surprising.

But, these are just symptoms waiting to disappear soon I guess. Despite the current ills like ever rising labour costs, China continues to be the factory of the world. Global companies don’t have an option but to court the Chinese. Like Apple’s Tim Cook was attempting to do when he was in China last week logging on to “Weibo” – the Chinese microblogging site akin to Twitter. (Modi did the same on his run up to his China visit). The ever increasing aspiring class is a segment of the world’s largest population that just cannot be ignored.  But one thing which continues to amaze me in China even after being the world’s largest populous country is – Where are its people?? For example in Shanghai the world’s most populous city – you don’t get see crowds in the roads, in the malls, in super markets, in train stations,.. So where are they???

Let’s see if that mystery unravels in the next visits.

3 years hence, the impressions are still very good but may be the shine has worn a little bit.

 Postscript: Heard that the PM’s baggage on foreign tours will now have a “Selfie stick” 😜 😜

OK, No more – Mani!!!

My first reaction after watching Maniratnam’s latest outing OK Kanmani was “Man, Mani should now call it a day”!!! Okay_Kanmani_film_poster

After feeling disappointed the last few times over (Guru, Raavan, Kadal), it was with much trepidation that I ventured to watch what was Mani’s 21st film without even bothering to look at reviews. Ofcourse the teasers and trailers communicated loudly that Mani was in his familiar territory. Youth, Urban, Romance, Rebel,…,… Like somebody said there was virtually a sympathy wave this time around for Mani and more than himself, his fans wanted this movie to work. And there are enough reasons for this kind of sympathy and empathy.

After all, in Tamil cinema which is usually driven by the “Star Mania” (Puratchi thalaivar of yore to Thala of today not to forget the Nadigar Thilagam, Super Star, Ulaga Nayagan, Ilaya Thalapathy in between) – there has been little scope for a Director to make his mark and make people throng the theatres just for his direction. Maniratnam did that. Again and again for a long time. Up until recently. Not that he was the 1st to do so. From Bhim Singh to Sridhar to Balachandar to Bharathiraja and briefly Bhakiaraj all of them did exactly that. But what made Maniratnam stand apart from others was he removed “Drama” from Tamil films and that was a welcome change. Rooted in “casualism”, his movies shunned lengthy dialogues, over the top acting/overacting, emotional hathyachaars,… in short what I call as “Drama”. And brought in an overdose of cool quotient –female leads with a rebellious streak, Staccato dialogues, matter of fact acting and ofcourse with a lot of emphasis on the technique (Cinematography, Storytelling style, Background score, Music, Sound engineering, Song picturisation,…) And appealed to the Nextgen. Having said that, he was careful not to tread the path of an Adoor Gopalakrishnan (the ace Malayalam Film maker whose movies were rooted in realism – so rooted that they failed to break into the mainstream mould and remained favourites of film festival hoppers). Mani was smart to remain mainstream while pursuing an alternate film making path for himself.

It was about 3 decades ago when we were in our 2nd year Engineering that Mani’s 4th film (Mani was just another upstart director then and not the Mani Sir) Mauna Ragam silently got released. Those were days when we use to watch almost every film to hit the theatres for want of alternate source of entertainment. When we came out of the single screen theatre after watching Mauna Ragam, our usual group which usually get into slicing and dicing any movie on our return to the hostel for few hours, this time was silent. Silenced and stunned by an all new freshness hitherto unseen in Tamil movies. So much so we hit the theatre to watch the movie the second time soon. And then the analysis of the film followed for few days over. The lines Revathi (main female lead) speaks to her mom after marriage just before the 1st night were the kind unheard of in Tamil cinema before. Karthik’s characterisation in a cameo role made boys wonder why they are not like him. And I came across a MBA HR Manager (Mohan – the male lead) for the 1st time in a Tamil film :) :)

After Mouna Ragam, when Nayagan hit the screens, Maniratnam had arrived and there was no looking back since. I can devote an entire post on Nayagan which I will keep it for another pertinent occasion. For now I will just leave it with – “In Tamil cinema there was an era before Nayagan and one post that”!

In an interview when somebody asked him as to what was the secret behind his films’ connect with the audience – Mani said that all his films are about relationships which people relate to. And generally not from out of the world.  But when I look at his body of work, there are 2 types. One set of films just about relationships (Mauna Ragam, Agni Natchathiram, Idayathai Thirudathe, Anjali, Alai Payuthey and lately OK Kanmani) and the second set is about relationships but in a political/current affairs/worldly backdrop – Nayagan (Bombay Tamils), Roja (Kashmir issue), Bombay (Post Ayodhya riots), Dil Se (NE turmoil), Kannathil Muthamittal (Srilankan strife), Aayutha Ezhuthu  (Student politics), Raavan (Maoist problem),…  He has appealed to us and made a success of both the genres by and large. But what comes naturally to him I guess is when he talks to us in an Agni Natchithiram or an Alai Payuthey lingo.

Frankly when I saw Roja way back in 1992, I was a tad disappointed. First of all I couldn’t accept that Mani can do a film and make a good one at that without Ilayaraja and P.C.Sreeram. And then a Mani film with a serious issue like Kashmir strife as a template was something unimaginable and not expected. But gradually the film grew on you. (So did Rahman’s music). And when the dubbed version of Roja got a wide appreciation in Hindi, I guess Mani’s ambitions took wings. Then after he started writing Tamil films but for a national audience.  So a sense of indulgence started creeping in as it does for most creators who initially create work without any burden of expectations and then have to, to live upto their own reputation.

Even at that stage I thought he was still making brilliant films. I for one still couldn’t understand why a Dil Se flopped (perhaps for the contrived climax I later concluded). But with Alaipayuthey in 2000, he went back to his original style- a film about relationships without any forced backdrop. And just for the Tamil audience. And about Urban youth. And with P.C.Sriram. And just when we were relieved, Mani Sir went back to his second type with a series of films like Kannathil Muthamittal, Aayutha Ezhuthu, Guru and Raavan. I liked KM and AE but only in parts. I forced myself into liking Guru though not fully convinced. I gave Raavan and Kadal a miss after not so charitable reviews. But quite obviously they were disappointing and couldn’t help questioning Mani’s sync with the times.

And then OK Kanmani happened. The urban coolness is back. Staccato lines are back. The rebellious streak is back. And P.C.Sreeram is back. The relief in us is back. Mani is back :) :) :)

And that’s precisely why I feel that he should now call it a day. After all it’s better to sign off on a high and not after he is forced to, post a string of flops trying to explore relationships with Nepal earthquake some ISIS territory as backdrops :( :(

It’s not my contention that Mani should stop experimenting and keep making Agni Natchithiram/Alaipayuthey/OK Kanmani type films for ever. I am sure he has still within him for a few more movies and good ones in that. Just that anxiety as an admirer of Mani’s craft that his upcoming movies mustn’t fail and he mustn’t fall from that high pedestal he is positioned himself in.

M_Id_97352_mani_ratnam

Postscript: No, as an afterthought, maybe he should do one more film. With Ilayaraja and Rahman to do the Music honours in a co-operative effort. That will be path breaking and be in sync with Mani’s credentials😜 😜

Aam Aadmi Petti!!!

It is that time of the season in Mumbai typically the onset of summer (Apr-Jun or the AMJ Qtr for those in sales 😉) when I equip myself with higher liquidity than normal. The equities get sold, the many mutual funds get redeemed, some dead wood furniture and the like gets sold (in OLX ofcourse 😉 😉) in short except for the immovable assets which essentially means the roof above my head and the 4 wheeler I use to commute get liquidated to raise cash. As much as possible. Even the previous 3 months (ending March) which is “taxing times” for salaried class, somehow gets managed without reaching out for assets disposal. But come April and if you want to enjoy the Aam (Mango) season that too the pedigreed variety like the Alphonso one doesn’t have any other choice but to cash the assets 😜😜

AAM

 If one year the prices of the Alphonso mangoes are high because of supply constraints owing to draught in Maharashtra, then next year it is higher due to supply constraints due to excessive monsoon. Another year, the prices are high due to excessive supply as the producers had to incur additional expenses in proper storage and transportation!!! Last year when the EU banned the exports of Indian Alphonso Aams I was one among many Aam Aadmi who had our Schadenfreude moment – gloating that the glut in the market due to the ban will lead to falling prices. But little did I realise that Alphonso is not called King of Mangoes for no reason – It defies all applied laws of economics. Supply and Demand rules can go to hell 😒😒

Even after spending so many years in Mumbai (20 years though in parts the wife usually the one who is good at dates, years, names,…in the house reminds 😄) I am yet to come to terms with the Mumbaikar’s unending obsession with the Alphonso! In the initial years in Mumbai I used to be flummoxed when train conversations in summer would invariably veer around the Happoos (another name for the Alphonso) next only to customary antics of the Sena or the diatribe of its leader the previous day in some interview/public meeting. Frankly speaking, when I tasted Alphonso for the 1st time I couldn’t fathom why this Aam (common) Aam was revered so much. Having spent most of my childhood years in Trichy, a small city in Tamil Nadu, the fuss about Alphonso was too much to bear.  Trichy apart from being popular for the many famed temples (Rockfort, Srirangam, Thiruvanai Koil,..) also used to house a place called Mambazha Chalai (Mango farm) where private owners cultivated Mangoes. These farms called Thathachariar Gardens spread around many hectares were embodiment of horticultural experiments around Mangoes in those days itself. So every year, new cross breeds use to hit the market – bettering the previous year in terms of size, taste and also price! My memory deceives me now preventing the recap of the names of the species though I can remember vividly one called Imam Pasand (whoever said Tamils hate Hindi 😄).  Apart from this, we also used to get a flood of stocks from nearby towns like Salem which had its own varieties like Malgova, Neelam, Banganapalli,…  Many people (other than Mumbaikars ofcourse 😄😄) who have tasted the Neelam variety have confessed that it tastes very close to the Alphonso and in fact a tad better. And I agree. The only problem is you find insects inside the mangoes more often than not.  So I realized that the Alphonso became the King of Mangoes because of better marketing, reach and better managed supply chain while the others just preferred to stay as local satraps.

Being generally a Mango fan (like most Indians I suppose) in the initial few years I avoided the Alphonso due to the heavy prejudice I had against it. But with the Imam Pasands, the Malgovas and the like ruling many kilometers away, had no choice but to become a dutiful citizen of the Alphonso. That’s when I realized that like you do your cash flow planning for so many life events, one has to do the same for “Aam season” also plus prepare yourself for the unique Happoos experiences 😜😜

  • Like when I lined up before the crowded fruit vendor and insisted on buying varieties other than Happoos – I could hear few ladies nonchalantly asking the vendor – “Aajkal ye saada aam bhi koi leta hai kya???” (“Does anyone buy these ordinary type mangoes these days???”)
  • Like the first time when I asked for the price of Happoos and the vendor dutifully replied as Rs. 400. He almost came to blows with me when I piously told him I was asking price for 1 kilo and not 5 kilos. That’s when he did the brahmopadesam of the 1st lesson in Happoos buying. That while other mangoes are sold by weight Happoos is sold in numbers usually a dozen or in Pettis (boxes of 2 dozens).
  • Like when I insisted that I want to buy only few and not in dozens – I could hear him telling his chela – “Aajkal mandi chal raha hai na, shayad naukri chala gaya hoga”. (These days recession is going on no? May be he has lost his job!!!) Its o.k, give him in loose. And then the parting shot, “Saab, jab naukri mil jayegi – petti hum se hi kareedna’!! (“Sir, when you get the job, please come to me only and buy in dozens!!”)
  • Like when I see exclusive Happoos outlets springing up suddenly in hitherto empty gaalas (shops) in the season all over Mumbai with prominent boards saying “Credit Cards accepted and ATMs next door”. I think to myself – “Smart move”!!!
  • Like when I found that a group of friends did a road trip all the way to Ratnagiri – the Happoos town just to search for the organic variety and buy a truck load of the same for consumption for a few days.
  • Like few years ago in a summer season, while waiting for the luggage to arrive at the baggage belt at Changi (my baggage invariably arrives last :( ) was watching the bright yellow/Orange coloured petti after petti of Alphonso mangoes doing the rounds and the owners tearing their hair to identify their own ones!!
  • Like when I see brands fuelling this passion for Alphonso with hotties like Katrina year after year. I must say that the Slice’s AamSutra campaign is not an Aam Ad, me thinks its Jakaas!

“This season, Alphonsos beyond Aam Aadmi’s reach” is a headline which newspapers get to copy and paste year after year. But still the rush to savour this King of Mangoes continues!! If only the Thathachariar family is listening and doing something to break this monopoly! Or we may have no option but to appeal to our PM to bring in a new “Aam subsidy” through direct cash transfer ofcourse to tackle the increasing price of Alphonsos year after year 😜😜.  Not a bad idea for the PM who can beat his rivals AAP and Congress in their own game no???

Postscript: My apologies if you thought that this post is my usual rant/rave about Aam Aadmi Party and got misled. Aam Aadmi Party may be the flavor of the season, but nothing to beat the tastes of the Aam Petti in the summer. 😋😋

The Cup ended, not the cup of woes!!!

watch-cricket-world-cup-onlineOne of the supposedly grand event of Cricket – the ICC One Day World Cup ended today in a whimper. What was built up as an epic clash between the 2 Trans Tasmanian teams – Australia and New Zealand in the finals today turned out to be a boring one sided match with the Aussies ruthlessly grounding the Kiwis depriving them of their maiden World Cup win. And for us Indians, post our rather meek surrender to the Aussies in the Semifinals, today’s final was more of a side show. Not just the match today, but If you look back at the rather drearily long World Cup in the last 40 odd days, right from the league stages to the knockout there were hardly 4-5 matches which were exciting. The Semifinal match between South Africa and NZ must count as one of those matches which brought viewers to the edge of the seat I would reckon. Most of the other encounters were either one sided or falling to a predictable pattern. And more so, all the India matches were drab affairs though as long as the team was winning we had no qualms of the same.  But as an avid cricket enthusiast, for a major ICC event as the World Cup, there were very few matches which would be subject to post mortem again and again during water cooler talks in offices and paan shops in the coming days!!

I guess this trend has not just started with this World Cup. Over the years, the One Day format though extremely popular has been slowly entering a coma. But the just concluded World Cup I reckon has sort of hastened the Rigor mortis. It will be interesting to look at the possible causes for the same:

  • As a format, is it getting stuck between the Classic Test Match and the glamorous T-20? Test match cricket has its own old world own charm. A battle between the bat and the ball looks more engaging in a Test match. Even today, while a cricketer can earn by being a T-20 specialist, he still have to yearn for recognition until he proves his mettle in Test Cricket. On the other side T-20 with a soccer kind of format demands less time, is fast paced and throws open enough mauka (in this season how can I miss a mauka to use this term?😜) for innovations. In this – is the One Day Game with its tiring predictability losing its charm? You could just watch the last 10 overs of the 1st inning, then may the last 15 overs of the 2nd inning and still would not have missed the gist of the match!
  • Is the ICC in its quest to popularize Cricket killing it? Today we have a clear Class divide among the teams. One bunch are the established teams which are strong. Then we have the other bunch which are the “Associate nations” which are the emerging teams. They don’t get to play competitive games often and are a deprived lot. When both the groups are bunched together, most of the league matches turn drab where the established walk over the emerging. While it is true that the weak teams must get exposed and get opportunities to play the stronger teams often, in a World Cup most of these matches are boring affairs. One solution could be to have a pre-qualifying stage league matches among the Associate nations and get the top 2 to be a part of the established teams and go through with the league and knockout phases.
  • As in many other games like Tennis for example, Cricket is also going the “Powerplay” way! Ofcourse this has nothing to do with the format. But increasingly in the One Day format – the domination of bat over ball due to sheer power has left everything else redundant. So the team batting first routinely amasses 300+ scores these days and walks away with the match. That also means that the skill of Cricket is pushed aside by the captain’s skill of calling the coin right at the toss. Well, most of the times. (Like in the India Vs Australia Semifinal match in this World Cup, the loss of toss by Dhoni turned to be the 1st nail in the coffin). One can argue that in the Test match format there is still room for a batsman with elegance, a spinner with guile and players with skill but in One Day and the T-20 formats – increasingly it is “Power” which is at “Play”. So the urgent need for may be bowler friendly conditions and an even-steven contest between the bat and ball.
  • It’s a no brainer that any game becomes interesting if the course of the game and its outcome are unpredictable. But frankly today in the One Day format the only unpredictability is when there is rain and the two gentlemen Duckworth and Lewis come into play 😄😄. The D/L method is so intriguing that it many times it has turned a docile match on its head and turned it interesting. It’s another matter that my friends from South Africa will have a different view on this 😄.
  • To be fair to ICC, they have been introducing a few innovations into the One day format like Batting Powerplays, Bowling Powerplays… to bring in some twists to the game. But just that these are few and far between and have not been able to shift the dial.

So for the ICC, the “Cup” must have ended but when they do an honest assessment of the recently concluded World Cup, they would realise that their “Cup of Woes” has just begun.  Which is to find ways and means make the next World Cup really engaging, interesting and exciting and not a 2 month long dull and drab affair with very few “rewind worthy” moments!!! And make (One Day) Cricket live up to its original cliché of “A game of glorious uncertainties!!!”

Postscript: After reading this, if you felt a “No, no, these grapes are sour” sense omnipresent in this piece after India’s #Wont Give It Back became history last Thursday– it is purely coincidental 😜😜

“Viral” fever and the Marketing “mauka”!!!

As India kicked off its campaign to defend the Cricket World Cup with a high-octane league match with its arch rival Pakistan, for Star Sports it was a perfect ‘mauka’(opportunity) to milk the moment. And how it did!!! With a very interesting commercial which is now part of marketing folklore showing a Pakistani fan eagerly waiting for the mauka to celebrate a Pakistani win in vain in the last 5 world cup encounters. The ad had all the ingredients to make it “viral worthy”. Soon the commercial indeed went viral and is even today much talked about. Newspapers wrote about the ad, online editions carried the link, In YouTube the ad got a few million hits, the ad got shared in social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp,… and also got written about in innumerable blogs,… No wonder the makers decided to spin the one ad to a ‘Mauka Mauka’ series as seen thro’ the eyes of the same Pak fan for all India matches so far. If you notice, while the 1st spot (the India-Pakistan) one was shown again and again, the subsequent ones were just aired few times just enough to carry the story further. Because by now the Mauka fever had become viral and you, me and all of us became Star Sports’ unpaid brand ambassadors by sharing the every new ‘Mauka’ spot as soon as it was aired!  And that is the point I am trying to drive in this post. For a marketer trying to promote his/her brand it makes sense to make the commercial “viral worthy”, sit back and relax as consumers multiply the reach of the brand.

Mauka

For small brands with limited budgets, this approach comes as a panacea to achieve high share of voice with low ad spends. And for big brands this gives the potential to get more bang for the buck! This (to make their ads viral worthy) seems to be a very simplistic and obvious solution in front of marketers. However a casual review of the TVCs which we see day in and day reveals that this approach may not be so obvious. In a typical day except for 1 or 2 TVCs which are viral worthy the others are mostly the usual drivel. For example, on the same day of the Ind-Pak match there was just another ad which was viral worthy. That was the one for Fevi kwik – again smartly playing with emotions coinciding with the Ind-Pak encounter while at the same time driving home the brand’s promise – ‘Todo nahi, Jodo’. Brilliant stuff.

So what makes an ad go viral?? My take:

And the best part is some of the good viral worthy ads spawn off spoofs (as seen in the Mauka series) and other versions (did you know a slow motion version of the Ind-Pak fevikwik ad was created and uploaded by somebody which is really funny) as well which keeps the brand top of the mind for extended periods!

For small/start up agencies/production houses one such viral campaign is enough to leap frog them to stardom. Who had heard the name – Bubblewrap Films before the Mauka, Mauka campaign?? Or for that matter who knew Vishal Malhotra the model who is the Pakistani fan in the campaign a month ago?? Now I do!!

In the pre social media/smart phone/internet days a good ad will be just talked about may be by a few people who are interested in the subject. In these times, they don’t get talked about but they get shared, and shared many times over across many platforms.

So a new brand, limited budget with mass offering??? A smart idea would be to spend time and resources to create an ad that is spot on viral worthy, have a few releases with the limited budget and then make sure to leak the links in all social media platforms. (Ironically, even a day after the Ind-Pak Fevi kwik ad was released, its link was not uploaded on YouTube!!!) And then follow it up with plugs in the media about germination of the Big Idea, making of the commercial,…,…

Just one note of caution. It’s not just ads which are viralling today. Songs, documentaries, jokes and so many sundry stuff. So, soon it will become a battle to win in the viral space as well.

And once I finish this post I am going to share this in different platforms not missing the ‘mauka‘ to viral this post!!! (And contributing to the viral velocity of the ads ofcourse!!!)

Postscript: It’s another matter that an Ind-Pak encounter that too in a World Cup doesn’t need promotion at all. But Star Sports had to promote it due its obligation/commitment to its sponsors, advertisers,.. I guess. Having said all this, I do feel that the Mauka, Mauka campaign is now getting a tad boring. What was natural in the 1st 2/3 spots seems artificial now and is losing steam!!! So there the other lesson – Even a What an Idea, Sirji when over flogged becomes – What a boring idea, Sirji!!!

One has now lost count of the ‘Mauka’ spoofs hitting YouTube every day now!!! And they seem better than the Star Sports version of the Mauka ads being released now :( :(

Sir, a Plus budget!!!

In India, come Feb, it’s time for the release of the mother of all blockbusters – “The Union Budget”. While even the blockbusters of the Khans are just in the vicinity of few 100 crores, this one flies in the space of thousands and hundreds of thousand crores. Isn’t it interesting, that the whole nation awaits with bated breath to find out how the Govt. of the day is going to spend “it’s collective” money in the next 1 year??? So too I was yesterday, when Arun Jaitley the Finance Minister rose oops sat down to present what I would think as one of the most significant budgets in recent years for our country.

budget

Since yesterday afternoon, we have been fed with hours and hours of programming in all current affairs channels with experts dissecting the budget. After having gone through these boiler plate stuff for so many years, I get a feeling that the reactions are mostly pre-determined irrespective of the content of the budget. As in, the verdict on the budget is along expected lines. Panelists from the ruling front sing panegyric paeans on the budget while those from the opposition usually sing the “disappointing” tune rather petulantly :(. Also for experts. For those with leanings towards the Govt. of the day, it is a transformational budget and for those in the other side of the divide it is “trashformational”!!! And for CII – any budget is a 9 on 10 budget!!! This satirical piece – Budget Criticism 101 from The Unrealtimes I feel is not a satire at all but the Annual reality :) :) . So I thought why not analyse the budget through a normal aam admi prism devoid of any ideological/political tilt?

As a responsible tax paying citizen of the country, I look for the foll. In the budget:

  • Does the budget spell out initiatives which can fuel growth in the Indian economy? Overall Economic growth brings in investments, increases jobs for all, raises salaries,…,…
  • Is there any transformational/game changing idea (or is it Big Bang) which has longer term impact for the country? – Like De-licensing, Gram Sadak Yojana, Aadhaar, GST,…,…
  • India is notorious for its archaic regulations and laws. Is the Govt. doing anything to make life simpler for doing business – local or foreign?
  • What’s in it for the poorer sections of the people – which is still significantly big in our country?
  • Finally what are the signals being sent by the Govt. of the day?

Looking at the Modi-Jaitley budget from the above perspective, my sense is that they have presented a “Smart” budget. They know very well that the expectations of all sections of the people are very high and had to do the balancing act to appease everyone. At the same time, elbow space for tough decisions is only available in 2015 and 2016. Beyond that the Govt. gets into re-election mode.  It appears to me that, from whole lot of things they need to do (which they have promised) they clearly prioritized the ones which needed to be attended to in this budget. And put off a few for the future. And I feel that’s the way to go.

  • The budget indeed brings in focus back to economic growth without being apologetic about it. Focus on infrastructure, Corporate Tax cut, Job creation,.. signal that.
  • Though there are no new transformational ideas in this budget – to be fair to Modi – he didn’t wait for the budget to announce a few. Ideas like the Jan Dhan Yojana, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and Make in India – all transformational ideas were kicked off last year itself. This is a welcome sign. Finally GST gets a final deadline.
  • Cleaning up gets a lot of attention. Whether it is Swachh Bharat, Clean Ganga or for that matter Black money cleansing!!!
  • The Universal Social security net for all Indians is an interesting initiative. That it is through the insurance route comes as a relief. Otherwise India could end up suffering like most of the European economies with very high long term liabilities.
  • The Govt. has clearly for this year atleast prioritized on domestic investors rather than foreign if one looks at the introduction of SETU fund …and no major FDI relaxations.
  • The pandering to salaried class interests with more income tax cuts or other gimmicks have been I guess postponed for years closer to 2019!!!
  • Again things like flowing money to Smart Cities, Digital India are on hold in this budget. Means could tap the private route for these initiatives or will be taken up in the coming years when tax collections are more buoyant with better economic growth.
  • I see a lot of critiques on the increase of Service tax rate from 12.6% to 14% which will overall shrink our wallets. But I think this is a clear attempt to prepare all of us for the introduction of GST which will be at a higher rate of may be 16%!

Any budget proposal will have its share of misses. And there were a few in this too. However overall, I think it is a Smart, Working, Balanced budget which sets the tone for the economy to grow in the coming years. Taking up a few important issues and implementing them is better than announcing a slew of initiatives and outlays and messing up the outcomes. So in that sense Sir, it is a Plus budget!!! And I guess the FM scored well if not a centum!!

Budget2

India has indeed reached a sweet spot. We must now be in a hurry to change its status from #WorkinProgress to #JustArrived!!!

Deciphering the cAAPital Verdict!!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • “Failure in controlling food inflation”

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

  • “Ghar Wapsi of Kaala Dhan”

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

  • PM not reigning in the fringe elements of the Parivar

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

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

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

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