Were we duped by Donald?

It’s been 100 days with Donald J Trump as the 45th President of the United States (POTUS) — a 100 very long days. And while there’s much debate/discussion on the achievements of the orangish president with huge hands across the world — right from his travel ban on Muslims to his dropping bombs on Muslim countries — the Indian state seems to have been caught in a Catch-22 situation. You see, Donald Trump, the billionaire businessman, had raised many hopes of a recharged Indo-US strategic relationship. He Trump Duped India_5claimed himself to be a fan of Hindus, an admirer of Modi, not to mention his takes in Indian real estate market, all these pointed to a rosy future.

But 100 days on, there seems to have been little movement on the ‘dosti’ front. The US continues to be ambivalent on India, there has not been much change in the relationship, be it on the economic or political front. So, the big question is whether India should celebrate the 100 days of President Trump or just clutch its head in despair, like much else of the world is doing?

India-US Bhai-Bhai?

Much as people would like to believe, India has never had a real good “Howdee Pardner” kind of a relationship US. The last time an Indian premier had a great thing going on with the US leadership was when Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru was in office and Jackie Kennedy was in the house, the Whitehouse. But then, Nehruji took a left turn and went all gooey with the Babushka lady from the North. And so, the subsequent American presidents were either ignorant or unsure of India. Also, the fact that our enemy-number-numero-uno (Pakistan, in case you forgot) just happened to forge a strategic tie-up with the Americans against the Hammer-Sickle alliance in Afghanistan, worked much against us. So, while our ageing Mig 21s, and 22s kept flying into the ground (oft times with the pilots still strapped within), the Pakistanis would somehow manage to procure a whole squadron of F16s that too, paid with American aid. Can anyone beat that?

In fact, the US-Paki bromance had reached such a level, that when India had to intervene to stop the genocide in East Pakistan (Bangladesh now), the mighty Seventh Fleet had set sail for the Indian Ocean to aid the beleaguered Pakis. Luckily for India, a tipsy Yahya Khan was the president of Pakistan and took them to their eventual defeat. But the fact remains, the Americans were on the Paki side on this one.

History is replete with instances of how the Americans have not really loved us. Right from Trump Duped India_6denying a place in the security council, to imposing economic sanctions after the nuclear tests; caught between the love of Islamabad and the scepticism of Beijing, New Delhi seemed to have mattered very less. In fact, between the years of 1978-2000, there was not a single US presidential visit to India, from Jimmy Carter to Bill Clinton.

And if our dalliance with the Soviets were not enough, our wily Chinese neighbours were no less. As the economic and military might of Beijing increased, the American was forced to choose the dragon over the tiger. Back in 1965, when the Chinese had attacked India, the Kennedy administration had even contemplated using the nuclear option against the Chinese. Apparently, in one of the meetings, President Kennedy had stated: “We should defend India, and therefore we will defend India.” By the turn of the century, the Americans had to apologize to Beijing to secure the release of a pilot that had been shot down while flying a spy plane over China. That’s how dramatic, the shift was post the Great Leap Forward under Mao Zedong that turned China into an economic powerhouse. The Chinese with their manufacturing might had turned the tables on India. The Great Wall kind of dictated the way US dealt with us.

There was a little thaw in the Indo-US relationship in the 90s though, with the collapse of the USSR and India’s economic liberalisation. With the global MNCs finding a large market opportunity in India, Uncle Sam suddenly seem to be aware of the country’s existence.  But even so, India was never the most favoured nation, say the way the Chinese or the Pakis were.

The Great Manipulator

So, now that was the case till recently;  the US was besotted by China, dating Pakistan, and our best friend Russia in the doldrums. During the tenure of PM Manmohan Singh, there was sufficient movement on the economic ties and Barrack Obama had landed here in Air Force One, it was not hunky-dory yet. And then, Narendra Modi was elected as a prime minister of India in 2014. The Modi Government deliberately moved away from the Trump Duped India_7Nehruvian policies, spurned the Russians and courted the US, openly. Meanwhile, in the US, the American Indian community was also gaining much economic might, with quite a few them in top administrative and corporate positions. As the might of the Indian diaspora grew, so did the importance. The grand show by PM Modi in Madison Square Garden was an indicator of that, a foreign PM filling up a stadium for his speech. Not surprisingly, all the anti-Indian lobbies or the senators went mute.

The US Presidential election in this light was an interesting one.  Over the past many years, there had been an opinion that the Republican Party was good for India (as it was pro-business and so pro-outsourcing) than the Democrats (pro-labour anti-others). The commonest example is how Bill Clinton imposed sanctions and George W Bush signed the Indo-US Nuclear deal. Yet, the Democrats enjoyed much Indian support in the US.  After all, it’s easy to support an illogical candidate, if you don’t have to vote for him and he is not going to rule over you.  Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton enjoyed much support from the community, and hence garnered good funding.

As the Republican candidate, Donald Trump was aware of the power and the influence of the Indian Diaspora and hence courted them openly. Remember the “Ab ki baar, Trump sarkar” campaign, or how Ivanka Trump celebrated Diwali at an Indian temple, the Republican campaign was decidedly pro-India.

But can you guess what excited Indians the most? It was not Trump’s love for India but the animosity to China. He promised that among the first things, he will do as a president was label China as a currency manipulator and impose trade sanctions. Now, wasn’t it Kautilya, who had stated that the enemy’s enemy is a friend. Trump was thus thought to be a great friend of India, so what if the world found him to be a fiend.

Good ol’ Trump was supposedly right-winger, and PM Modi was decidedly right-wing. Two ‘rights’ would always add to one big one. Right?

Apparently NOT.

The U-Turn President 

Any serious assessment of Trump’s first 100 days in office, would invariably throw up a cropper. From the Wall to Obama care, from a list of controversial appointments to an endless barrage of non-sensical statements on Twitter, there’s precious little for Trump to show in his report card. While none of that should be of concern to India, there’s actually one thing that does, or let’s make it two things. One is a U-turn and the other is a No-turn.

Let’s talk about the No-turn first. Among the many things that Trump promised in the run up to the presidency, one dealt with H1B Visas. Thanks to these special category of work Visas, thousands of Indian workers have got employment opportunities in the US. The Trump Duped India_4Indian IT industry especially has benefitted much, deploying scores and scores of low-paid software workers on highly-paid consultant jobs. This has been largely responsible for the boom in the $150 Bn Indian IT Services industry. With the Trump administration tightening the bolts on the H1B regime, the IT industry will be badly wounded. Little wonder then that ever since Trump has taken office, the stocks of Indian IT companies from Infosys, TCS, and even Wipro have been in the reds. Rather strangely, of all the promises made by Trump, the only one he is delivering on, will hurt India much, economically. He recently signed of an executive order on the issue and has promised more on that front. So much for Trump Sarkar!

Contrast it to the way Trump has capitulated in front the Chinese. Forget about all his threats of labelling China as a currency manipulator or imposing trade sanctions, Trump is going all goey-goey with Chinese President Xi Jinping, playing golf and eating chocolate cake at Mar-a-Lago. In return for support on dealing with North Korean Kim Jong Un, Trump has done a complete ‘un’ on China. The dragon is back in the picture and the tiger is in hibernation.

If that was not enough, India also has to deal with a rather grumpy Russia. The Kremlin is not apparently happy in the manner in which India courted the Americans in the past decade, as the Russian influence declined. With a ‘Thou Brutus‘ kind of an approach, the Russians have been doing lambda with the Chinese. Like ex-flame, there’s a streak of revenge not too hard to discern.

Sadly for us, the counterweight to Russia has vanished. The US under Trump is a vacillating state, if not a vassal one.  Thus there’s a sort of ménage-a-trois of America, China, Russia which is kind of working against us. The funny part is, we can’t do a sh*t about it.

In the end, for all the euphoria the high profile “Indian” appointments, like Amul Thapar to top judicial post, Seema Verma as administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Trump Duped India_2Medicaid Services, Nikki Haley as US envoy to the United Nations, President Trump has been copiously silent on the several attacks on Indian nationals and Americans of Indian origin in the US in the recent past with two people killed in suspected hate crimes.

The Trump administration even crossed the laxman-rekha on Kashmir, when it offered to mediate between India and Pakistan, something that India has strongly objected to in the past and has so again.

In spite of all the acrimony in past (denying him Visa), there was a palpable bonhomie between Barrack Obama and Narendra Modi. Something that seems to be completely missing between Modi and Trump. They might exchange pleasantries on Twitter or platitudes on telephone, but the warmth in the relationship is just not there.

At the culmination of these 100 days, Indians should wake up and smell some kadak-chai. We need to bolster ourselves like the American citizens for some 1300 more days of Trump.  Probably, Modi should now hold more stadium shows in the US, possibly even think about lending Amit Shah to the Republican Party to help them win the elections, they are so bound to lose. We need to do something, and it better be out of the box.  Else, going by the way these past hundred have, one thing is sure, they will be anything but “huge, tremendous and dangerous”. Let’s start praying to our gods people, if not anything else!

Indian Railways: Doomed for Disaster

Around 150 people died in the recent train accident near Kanpur. The passengers of Indore-Patna Express were in deep slumber, when some 14 coaches of the train were derailed, apparently due to a rail fracture. It is one of the worse rail accidents of recenttrain-accident times, almost equally in casualties as that of Gyaneshwari Express in which some 150 had died in 2010, when the train had been derailed by Maoists in West Bengal. The scale of deaths and injuries makes the current accident, one of the worst in the history of Indian Railways. Sadly, going by the things as they are, this accident won’t certainly be the last “major one” in India’s transport sector.

The travesty is that after every such incident, a set of actions/reactions follow almost in an autonomous mode. The opposition will bay for blood, the experts will decry the state of railways, the media will highlight all the unfulfilled promises and commitments, and the rail minister will set up a committee to investigate, promising strictest action possible. As the days pass and the dust settles down, the accident will become a statistic, invoked only in times of similar accidents, largely as an illustration of how “no lessons are ever learned”.

But then running Indian Railways is by no means an easy task. Sample these stats; indian-railways-1railways have a network of more than 64000 kms in length. It runs around 7000 commuter trains; 12000 long-distance trains and 6000 freight trains this network daily. Around 22 million passengers commute over the network each day. That is the sheer size and scale of this network. Given, the sheer scale, an accident like this in a few years should not raise much eyebrows, after all even Six Sigma allows you a few faults in a million, doesn’t it? But it does and should, because the faults in Indian Railways system can have ghastly repercussions. Imagine, it was a rail fracture in the Kanpur accident (a crack that is a few inches wide on the metal track) that killed so many and injured so many more. Faults on railways are always a killer. Thus, there is just no excuse for them.

Realising the dire state of the railways, the minister Suresh Prabhu had proposed to invest ₹ 1,27,000 crore over 2015-19 in safety work, which includes track renewal. In addition to ₹1,02,000 crore to be spent on the locomotives, coaches, etc. And such steps were not the first ones. The previous government had appointed a committee under Anil Kakodkar to enhance railway safety.

Yet, in spite of all the ‘supposed’investment in safety and all the great plans, the real problem lies in the very manner in which the railways is run. The way the organisation (for a want of a better term) is structured, it is doomed for disaster and going bust in the days indian-railway-budgetto come. Indian Railways (IR) is right now like a patient that is afflicted with tuberculosis, the symptoms are all there. But if we only concentrate on the manifestation and ignore the ailment, the patient is going to eventually die. The prognosis for IR is similarly dour. And here’s why:

IR is living beyond its pockets — for every 100 bucks that it earns, the transporter is actually spending some 114 bucks. A deficit of straight 14%, that’s crazy isn’t it?

And can you guess what the biggest reason for this business anomaly is, it is the bloody manpower. Don’t get it? Sample this: Continue reading

Thousand to Zilch: Why Indians are rejoicing the #WarOnBlackMoney

It is extremely rare for an Indian Prime Minister to make an address to the nation. Usually, when he (or she) does, something seriously is amiss. The last time, I recall, a Prime Minister making “an address to the nation” was in 2014, where a serious looking PM Manmohan Singh bid adieu to the nation. Thus, a PM’s address is a bad omen. Not surprisingly then, when PM Narendra Modi did the same on 8th November, you knew something was up, it was his first “address” in over 2 years in office. And sure it was. A modi-address-759dour looking PM then in the 20 mins made an announcement that sent the whole country in a tizzy. He announced a war on black money with almost immediate demonetization of 500 & 1000 Rupee notes. “The arrangement of buying and selling through existing 500 and 1000 notes will not be available. These will be just worthless piece of paper”.

Never before in the history of modern world, 86% of currency in circulation was turned into worthless in a matter of 2-3 hours. And this was done with absolute planning. The decision came out at 9 pm, and the 500 & 1000 notes ceased being a legal tender at 11.59 pm. In this time, the black money hoarders could do precious little to convert it into another assets like gold or other precious metal. While the government would circulate a completely new (500 & 2000) denomination notes, the banks would be closed for a day, there would be limits on withdrawals, and so many other dos and donts. Come to think of it, there was hardly another way to bring about such demonetization, it has to be hard and it had to be sudden.

Immediately after the announcement, people hit the streets trying to exchange the ubiquitous 500 and 1000 bucks, by making small purchases or things like that. But as the shutterstock_388023334word spread, the exchange stalled. No one was ready to touch the currency with a barge pole. Shopkeeperrs would smile indulgently on being offered these notes. Outside ATMs, there was a huge queue of people, withdrawing 400 bucks at a time. Ditto, long queues at petrol pumps, as people tried to use the notes to tank up their vehicles. Even on the television, you could all these people standing outside ATMs and petrol pumps trying to lay their hands on whatever 100 or 50 they could lay their hands on. People across the board were confused, irritated, and even angry at the way their Tuesday night had been laid waste. But yet, almost all were in agreement that it was a bold, necessary and welcome move by the government. There was hardly a soul on the road, who did not support or complement PM Modi on this move.

So how is that when so many people were troubled and disconcerted with a policy action, yet they seemed to be happy and glad for it? Continue reading

The World is Round — Again!

Thomas Friedman is a journalist/author who is not really an exceptional journalist or an exceptional author. He has won a few Pulitzer prizes, but he is not popular because of them. His claim to fame is a rather elementary named book, titled, ‘The World is Flat’. Published in 2005, it is world-is-flatquite a simple book talking about the state of affairs of the world, especially in connection with globalization. The book speaks of how the world is coming together as one big place from Denver to Dalian to Bangalore. It was meant to be a chronicle of our times, and a sort of prognosis of the things that are yet to come. Friedman reaped rich rewards from his book, traveling across the globe, giving talks and discussing the subject.

When the book came out, there was much fanfare around it. The book seemed to propose a hypothesis, no less significant, than say E=MC²  or better still, like the discovery of New World by Msieu. Columbus.

The book spoke about a new globalized inter-connected world where information, people, money and even ideas moved across at breathtaking speed. It was a world where, kids in the US had to be wary of growing up in a world, where kids in India or China could easily replace them. The world was being progressively flattened, and there was little to do to prevent the eventuality.

It has been a decade since Friedman came up with book and much water has flown in the Mississippi River or the Yangtze or even the Ganges since then to erode the beautiful facade of ‘flatness’. I recall listening to all a talk by Friedman, which he gave in Mumbai at NASSCOM summit. In it, he spoke about how times had changed from the past, when American kids would leave food on the plate and their parents would chide them, “spare a thought for the hungry millions in India”. And now, when the kids are disinclined to study, the current parents warn their kids, “be scared of the learning millions in India”. Honestly, my heart swelled with happiness at the prospect of living in a world where nationality did not dictate your destiny. We could be anyone, we wanted, so long as we wanted it hard enough. The future indeed seemed rosy and bright, during such times.

Cut to today, and I chanced upon the latest vitriol by Republican presidential nominee (and possibly — god forbid, would-be American President) Donald Trump, wherein he blamed India, China shutterstock_299401883and Mexico for the “greatest jobs theft” in the history of the world. According to him, Indians and other nationals were gobbling up American jobs. Indians were no more a threat, but rather scheming thieves that stole and cheated. Now how could that narrative change so quickly? What happened to that ‘flat world’ that was meant to be equal for all Continue reading

Dear Uber, do you really ‘love’ the taxi-riders in Mumbai?

Recently, the Maharashtra government put forth a set of draft rules for regulating the taxi industry. These rules have been in the works for some time as various taxi-operators (especially in the city of Mumbai) have been demanding “uniform code” for the industry. The chorus for such rules has come from the lower-end (kaali-peeli taxi-wallas and the autorickshaws) and the upper end (radio-taxi operators like Meru and TabCab) as well. And yet, the funniest part is that there is already a stringent set of laws that regulate the functioning of these operators. So why the hell are they asking for more?shutterstock_345346703

Actually, they are not. These taxi stakeholders are demanding something more mundane, something basic. Something that spells as parity in business. The crux for any business to function normally is that all the players in the sector will be treated same. Simple to say that rules and regulations should be the same for all the players. So, what is good for the goose, should be good for the gander. Right? Apparently not, when the gander is a multi-billion ride share MNC that goes by the name of Uber.

In fact, Uber has raised a stink regarding the Maharashtra government’s draft, opposing it with all the muscle that it can muster. The US-based cab aggregator has decried the rules, calling them restrictive and archaic. It even launched a high-octane public petition, seeking the lay citizen to sign-up and fight against the restrictive norms. The petition paints a rather gloomy picture, namely, if the rules are implemented, it “will mean an end to the Uber I know and love today”.  Rather than talking just logic, or talking about the facts that are hurting competition, the petition tries to tug the emotional chords, love, shove and the works.

Now that seems to be taking things a tad bit-bit too far, like a Karan Johar movie with Anurag Kashyap dialogues. You see, taxi-riders in Mumbai don’t really love Uber or Ola, but yes they do seem to hate the kaali-peelis and autorickshaw-wallas. After decades and decades of suffering the indifferent and condescending attitude of these monopolistic ruffians, they have finally found deliverance at the hand of these cab aggregators. This welcome shift started with start of Meru in the city, and blossomed with Ola and Uber. To put it rather bluntly, the taxi-riders in the city like the convenience of a no-nonsense service that is way cheaper than the kaali-peelis. I mean Rs. 6 per km is even cheaper than taking your own car out. That is secret behind that “love” that Uber claims it receives. Yet, this incentivised love is usually not monogamous, the denizens will shift to anyone that offers a bigger bonanza. I mean, if there was a cab operator that offered Rs. 3 per km ride, of course, more would ‘love’ it than any Uber or Ola. There’s no emotion in economics? Continue reading

Get some ‘Balls’, Bollywood!

Undoubtedly, among the current breed of Indian actors, Shahrukh Khan (SRK) is one of the most articulate ones. He is well-read and can hold a conversation on quite a few topics that his colleagues will go blank on. SRK also has an immense capacity for self-depreciating humour. And while there is no doubt that he floats a few inches over the ground thanks to his superstar status, there are still moments when he comes out every bit like the combative Delhiwalla that he portrayed in one of his recent movies. Not surprisingly, SRK at times lets go of diplomacy that is so much a part of modern-day success and speaks his mind in a candid manner.

It was in one such moment of rush, back in 2010, that SRK spoke of the pressures faced while managing his IPL team, KKR. Back then, tensions between India and Pakistan were at a high due to border skirmishes, and by thumping his support for Pakistani players, SRK had put his Leg Before the Wicket. There was an immediate outcry over his “unpatriotic act”, and as the impending release of his movie “My Name is Khan (MNIK)” neared, the clamor only got louder.

Not surprisingly, Shiv Sena, a political party prone to petty provocations, immediately took offense. The party mouth-piece Saamna dubbed SRK “unpatriotic” and called for a ban on the screening of his film. As the release date of MNIK got closer, the tensions escalated. Theater owners were warned not to screen the film, and there were numerous protests all over, accompanied with the regular burning-and-stamping-the-effigy-in-front-of-the-newschannel-camera moments.

But when all this didn’t work, political activists attacked several cinema halls that were to screen MNIK. Hoodlums entered halls and damaged screens of the Metro theater in south Mumbai and the Huma Cinema at Kanjurmarg. Meanwhile, there were the other set of goons that pelted stones and broke the glasses of Mehul cinema in suburban Mulund. This was typical intimidation strategy at work.

In all this melee, the Congress government backed SRK to the hilt, providing heavy police cover to theaters screening the film, putting some 1500 Shiv Sena party workers in my-name-is-khan-banpreventive custody, and even warning Uddhav Thackeray of dire repercussions. The battle lines were drawn, a defiant SRK refused to apologise, whereas the Shiv Sena would have nothing less than it. As the battle progressed, the saffron party seemed to lose steam and was looking for a way out of the imbroglio, with its leader talking about a “public apology” as an acceptable truce. That did not come though, and the film was released among heightened tensions. As is the case with quite a few SRK movies, MNIK earned its crores, got all the awards, and was declared a hit.

The ban, the threat and all that, just fell apart like a phuski bomb (what we call in Mumbai) or like a dud. This was one of the rare times, when Bollywood had stood up to political hooliganism and prevailed, like they do so much in those pot-boilers.

Yet, the odd bit here was not about how SRK was attacked, but the fact that almost no one from Bollywood came to his aid. Even as the attacks on him were mounting, none from the film fraternity spoke publicly in his support. Of course, there were those conciliatory and my-name-is-khan-ban2diplomatic mumbo-jumbo, here and there, but these were largely from the smaller actors, the ones people call character artists. The big shots of Bollywood were dumb-founded, much like their likeness that represents them at Madame Tussauds and elsewhere. The Khans, the Kapoors and even the Bachchans, kept mum. Bollywood, the big family of superstars, was more like a petrified herd of goats. The kind that will retreat into the barnyard at the sign of first trouble.

It has been six years to that confrontation. and precious little seem to have changed. This time round, there is another SRK movie that is caught in the political grind, but not because of his utterance but rather the temerity on the part of the film makers to cast a Pakistani actress in it. And just like, in 2010, we are again having trouble with Pakistan at the borders, and people are yet again baying for the blood of artists and singers from that nation. But this time, SRK is not alone, he has his good friend Karan Johar (KJo) for company. With KJo’s film “Ae Dil Hain Mushkil” featuring Pakistani actor Fawad Khan nearing for release, the time for political haymaking is reaching a crescendo. Continue reading

Why the Indian Science Congress needs be Banned — For its Indianness

Imagine, Shiva, the lord of destruction, being hailed as the greatest and the first environmentalist of the universe? Sounds like a plot from a latest Amish Tripathi type of fiction doesn’t it? And then you have a theory that by blowing a conch shell, one can exercise rectal muscles, prostrate, urinary tract, lower abdomen, diaphragm, chest and neck muscles. No wonder all those warriors during the times of the Mahabharata, and thereon were in excellent shape, after all, they blew a lot of conch back then.

Had this sort of discussion (of Shiva the Environmentalist and Conch as rectal reliever) taken place at some mythology or some religious conference, or programme running on448408-lord-shiva-700-1 Astha TV, all would have been rather fine. But instead, these points were thrown up at the prestigious annual science congress event that took place in Mysore this year. The event is an annual jamboree that travels from one Indian city to another, apparently to promote scientific temperament within the country. Yet, the only thing that this event seems to doing is promote psuedo-relegiousness of the worst kind. Science, the empirical discipline, has taken a back seat to mythology and religion, which has no relation whatsoever with empiricism.

And it isn’t just a one-year thing. Last year, was even more awesome, as there was a paper presented by one of the researcher, a certain Captain Anand Bodas, who spoke about the “science” of Vimanika Shastra, and how ancient India had flying aircrafts, long long before, Leonardo da Vinci had even imagined anything similar.  Or if that was not enough to amaze you, there was another paper based on the Sushruta Samhita, titled “advances in surgery in ancient India”, which described surgical instruments and claimed plastic and reconstruction surgeries were performed more than 3500 years ago!

Sadly this is what our Indian Science Congress has become in the past few years, an event of pseudoism and stupidity. With everything in it, except possibly science. Little wonder CYAbJE-UMAAtMzX (1)then, Indian-born Nobel laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan dubbed the event as  “circus where very little science was discussed“, stating that he will never ever attend it.

In the light of such howlers, does it really do us justice to carry on this sham? Should not the Indian Science Congress be banned for good, disbanded till it finds its feet and soul back? Why waste so much money on a “science event”, where there is so little science? Continue reading

If it’s FREE, then why is Facebook spending 100 crores over it?

There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch,” was an adage that was popularised by economist Milton Friedman back in the 1960s. The core contention of the advice being that everything in life everything has a cost; be it upfront or hidden. But it is always there. Nothing is available for free.

Hence, when Facebook launched the Free Basics with much fanfare and excitement, presenting it as a do-goody social thingy, not everyone was able to swallow it. Not many, and not someone like me.

To be fair to Facebook, any corporate entity in the world exists only for one single purpose, namely, maximisation of shareholder’s value. This is the primary (and often, the only) reason why most company exists. Thus, if Facebook is trying to hook significant number of users that will join the cyberspace in the years to come, it is not something that we should hold against the company. After all, growing its numbers is the only way it can ensure its profitability in the days to come.

But sadly, that is not the way Free Basics is being promoted or pushed. By talking about the poor and the downtrodden, who can “at least, enjoy the limited and curtailed internet”, Facebook is sounding quite like those proselytising missionaries of yore, that would defend the harvesting of pagan souls, because at least they were better off now than before. By masking the whole program in the garb of philanthropy, Facebook has only put itself in the spot.

And then to make things worse, Facebook is now using its huge financial and marketing muscle to push things through. By some accounts, the “What’s on your mind?” company has earmarked some $20 million to promote (read educate) Free Basics in India. It is using all the mediums that are available for the battle, print, TV, digital, offline. Rather than having an open and fair discussions on finer aspects of net neutrality, Facebook is now seeming like those corrupt politicians who have been proven to be corrupt, but then try to correct their image by glitzy campaigns and doing some charity work.

freebasicsad1The reason that Mark Zuckerberg is going ballistic this time in India, is because of the manner in why Facebook had been splattered with a cake on its face, the last time round. In fact, it had been just some 6 odd months back when Free Basics in its earlier avatar as Internet.org faced immense resistance by the public at large, and thus was stalled by the Telecom Regulators. At that time, Facebook was taken aback by the power of the collective, by the sheer virality of things. So this time, it kind of came prepared, it repackaged the offering (giving it a kinder overtone), gave the offering an emotional spiel, had the creatives in place, and even Zuckerberg, who is on a paternity leave, is now writing blogs defending the offering. Continue reading

Native ADvertising; or should it be Native EDvertising?

To be honest, the term ‘native advertising’ is a tough one to define and explain. From the plethora of definitions that are available, the one most plausible is that it is any sort of content that has been paid for by a corporate entity or even an individual. But yet, native is very much unlike the advertorials that we used to have in the past, which used to specifically peddle a product or service, trying to mask it as an editorial. Remember those “Impact” Features in India Today magazines, the ones that we were attuned not to read or pay any whatsoever attention to?

Thus in a manner of speaking, native advertising are basically advertorials, but not as we know advertorials to be.

So what is this native advertising? Is it more of editorial or advertising? Are there not ethical issues associated with creating such platforms? Is it any more successful than traditional content marketing platforms?

There are many such queries that thrown up, whenever there is a discussion on native advertising. For someone who has been involved in the creation of some of the biggest native advertising platforms at India’s biggest business portal, let me attempt to give an insight on what native advertising is, and essentially what it actually is not. Just a few disclaimer before I begin, since I have much of the last few years in the digital space, so when I say native advertising, I very much mean “digital” native advertising. Secondly, the instances that I use in this piece are my personal choices, not reflective in any manner of the brands they belong to, or the platform they were published on.

So, now that I have the necessary asterisk in place, let me begin with what Native Advertising is actually not?

More than advertising — Native platforms are not pitches for products or services like we see them traditionally

Not about lead generation — Native platforms are essentially not lead-gen or sales platforms that will give you a list of prospective buyers and potential clients

Not about customer servicing — Native platforms cannot be customer servicing or sales, or anything like that. Continue reading

Were I the Brand Head at Snapdeal; this is what I would have done

Defining what is a brand is quite like tying up yourself in a knot. Brands (and we are not talking of the material here) are defined by perception than physical attributes of it. As one of the greatest advertising gurus of all times, David Ogilvy had famously said, “brands are the intangible sum of a product’s attributes.”

As an article in Forbes put it beautifully;
“Put simply, your “brand” is what your prospect thinks of when he or she hears your brand name.  It’s everything the public thinks it knows about your name brand offering—both factual (e.g. It comes in a robin’s-egg-blue box), and emotional (e.g. It’s romantic).  Your brand name exists objectively; people can see it.  It’s fixed.  But your brand exists only in someone’s mind.” 

Thus, while Snapdeal, one of India’s biggest online retailer is a company, an organization and so on, which can be defined in material terms. It is also huge in terms of the Snapdeal_Krishab786intangible, a brand that people like, associate or even hate. And in the past couple of days (specifically 2), the edifice of the brand, built with time and money, has developed a crack and all because of an event which was totally not in their hands.

It all started with a brand ambassador they had so ‘heartfully’ integrated in their campaign; namely Aamir Khan.  A little ‘dil ki talk’  by Aamir proved very costly for Snapdeal. It all started with Aamir Khan talking of how his wife had discussed the possibility of leaving India at an award show. Within a short span of time, the social universe burst into a storm of backlash against the Bollywood Star. There was resounding condemnation of the actor and shortly the hashtag #AamirKhan was the number one trend in India. People across the spectrum were pillorying the actor for his indiscretion. And in this maelstrom Snapdeal became a collateral victim. In a little time hashtags like #AppWapsi, #BootSnapdeal became a trend. Since there was no direct way to express anger, uninstalling and giving the Snapdeal app poor rating, demanding the company to remove him as its brand ambassador in the comments section became a legit way of vent their angst.

To be fair to Snapdeal, there was possibly little that they could have done in the maelstrom. Even as the barrage turned into a flood, Snapdeal seemed to be numbed. The Aamirkhan1hyper active twitteratis were devising ways coordinating attacks on the online retailer, who just dug the head in the sand waiting for all to blow away. Sadly like those hurricanes in the gulf of Mexico, this one only got stronger. As of penning this piece the app had received some 92000 negative ratings. Then there was the supposed uninstall of some 6 lakh by users, and claimed loses of some 100 crores.

Every big brand or a corporate these days has a ORM (Online Reputation Management) policy in place wherein they listen and react to things in the online space. While, there is a limitation to how much listening and reacting one can, dependent largely on the tools, team and consultants that are engaged, great brands need always be prepared for disaster management of this sort. Just like in our offices, we keep having this fire-safety drill, wherein we are mentally prepared to react in case of a fire, similarly companies need to have a roadmap ready when things fail.

This is where I believe Snapdeal faltered; it had not prepared itself for an event like this. The company went quiet, and hence suffered terribly. There are a whole lot of steps that it could have undertaken, from big to small to present it’s side, to reach out to the people. To give an idea, here is a small set of things I would have done, were I the brand head at Snapdeal. Honestly, these steps have been arrived at deliberation with my friends in the industry, who have a lot more knowledge and experience in this domain. Thus, the “I” here is a just rhetorical tool, to evince interest and connect with the reader. So here goes my little list of things that should have been done:

 

React
The phrase ‘nip in the bud’ is a rather evocative one, but is a maxim of much strength. As soon as the negative trends started showing up on my dashboard, I would have Screenshot_2015-11-25-12-48-58immediately constituted a task force with the sole objective of listening and reacting. Thus even as messages on Twitter were going all over, there would be an erudite set of copy-commandos trying to diffuse the situation.
Secondly, I would immediately carry a statement from the company on all the social media logins/handles. The message would be brief and succinct, stating that these are personal comments by the star and we are not associated with it. This would have been immediate.
Third I would also mask all the communication that would be featuring Aamir Khan. I mean, if so many people are pissed at him, why would I still maintain his face on the FB cover, on the App front-end, on Twitter cover and so on. Immediately, there would be a generic poster/cover, featuring a Tricolor or something, or Wishing people a happy Guru Nanak Jayanti, just to diffuse the scenario.
Continue reading

Before #SupportDigitalIndia should look at #StrengthWithinIndia

There is this beautiful and candid moment in the Discovery of India, when Jawaharlal Nehru (the author of the book) breaks into an inquiry as to what really is India. In a passage, he poses a series of questions that dig at the very essence of nationhood —

What is this India, apart from her physical and geographical aspects? What did she represent in the past? What gave strength to her then? How did she lose that old Digital-India 6strength? And has she lost it completely? Does she represent anything vital now, apart from being the home of a vast number of human beings? How does she fit into the modern world?

These queries can also be termed as the core essence of the book itself, as Nehru takes us on a long journey to “discover” and uncover India. Somehow, I seemed to recall these words from the very 1st Prime Minister of India, even as the 15th Prime Minister roamed across the plains of the United States, exhorting companies and individuals to partner in his vision of a digital and developed India.

‘Digital India’ is now well and truly a global buzzword, it is already trending on Twitter and Facebook and everyone seems to be talking about it. The program launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi back in July 2014, seems to have come a long way with Digital india1even the CEO of Facebook sporting a DP in support of Digital India. Google in the meantime announced that it will provide free Wi-Fi at 500 railway stations; Microsoft is planning to take broadband connectivity to 5 lakh villages. There is now so much excitement and so much euphoria around the idea, that one feels that there is nothing that can now come between us and our tryst with digitisation. No power on this planet can now stop us from being Digital India. Yeah! Yeah!

But before we turn into a digital society, or even embark on being one, there is an important aspect that we see to be missing upon, namely, defining what digitisation is, its need and its challenges, its relevance and its impact on Indian society. While it is really a no-brainer that digitisation is required and necessary, the core question that arises is whether we have thought out before, is there an end goal that we are moving towards or is it just a relentless journey that we will keep moving on? How will all this digitisation impact the life of an average Indian? What would be the termed as success or failure? What is the gamut or the sphere of the program? There is much excitement indeed, but is there much sense

Quite like how Nehru had started his journey with a whole lot of definitive questions, should we not too proceed in a similar manner? Say begin with something like: What is this Digital India, apart from the technical and fundamental aspects?

A cursory search on Google throws up the following definition: (Wikipedia)

Digital India is an initiative of Government of India to integrate the government departments and the people of India. It aims at ensuring that the government services are made available to citizens electronically by reducing paperwork. The steps to Digital India program can be jotted as such:

  • Creation of Digital infrastructure
  • Delivery of services
  • Digital literacy

In fact there is a whole website (http://www.digitalindia.gov.in/) that has been created to communicate the goals of program, it has Prime Minister Modi’s image all over, and lot of content on this and that. Yet, there is precious little on the site to show in terms of details of work that has been done, or work that will be done. Since, the devil apparently lies in the details, there seems to be no details whatsoever provided on the website.digital-india2

And so that gets us back at the essential question, a program that is supposedly worth Rs. 125 crores, how come there is no detailed plan for it.  In fact there is not even a special body that has been created to monitor or drive it. The program currently falls under the ambit of the Department of Electronics and IT (DeitY) is leading it forward, and it is headed by a “Monitoring Committee on Digital India under the Chairpersonship of Prime Minister” and a “Digital India Advisory Group headed by the Minister of Communications and IT”. So essentially this is a baby of the PM and his ICT minister. Continue reading

Its not Meat, it’s Modi — Stupid!

Frankly speaking the war over the ban on meat in Maharashtra is not just a matter of palate or choice, but is a political war with currents that run much deeper. In fact, the meatban3The controversy over the meat ban in Maharashtra, has less to do with Meat more to do with Modi. outrage against the ban has more to do with Narendra Modi as the PM, than the availability of chicken-koliwada on the streets of Mumbai.
Ever since, Modi has ascended to the top seat in Delhi, there has been much discomfort in Maharashtra, as to how to really deal with him. You see, for a very long time Chief Minister Modi of Gujarat was a big time rival of Maharashtra, and he made no bones of it. On a typical day, he would wean away the corporates with his Vibrant this and that, tom-tom ‘the 24 hours’ of power availability in state (as against load shedding in Maharashtra), or talk about how farmers are thriving in Gujarat (while committing suicide in Maharashtra). Since, there was a Congress Government all the while Modi ruled in neighbourly Gujarat, he invariably always attacked Maharashtra, to showcase how well Gujarat was doing. He was like the schoolboy who spoke most and shone brightest, while the rest sulked, especially Maharashtrians.
meatban5Historically too, Maharashtra and Gujarat were rivals for a long time (even though they did not really exist back then). There is an economic history behind it. The Britishers first established their ‘factory’ in Surat, which essentially was a trading place for Indian goods to be exchanged with those of the British. This made Gujarat (especially Surat) the financial hub. So much so, that when Shivaji was running short of money, he ransacked the city (then under Mughal domination) and made off with much booty. That was essentially the first clash, but it send the agenda for subsequent interactions. When Bombay came into being as a trading post, it were the Parsees from Gujarat that took the lead. When the state of Maharashtra was being created from Bombay Presidency, the Gujjus, especially Morarji Desai opposed it. He had even advocated creating Bombay as a union territory. The rivalry, so, is not really a new one.

Continue reading