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Showing posts with label media. Show all posts
Showing posts with label media. Show all posts

Thursday, January 10, 2013

A new age of unreason

On a television talk show recently in which I was a participant, the question posed was “Have opposition politicians misunderstood the nature of lobbying?” The moderator went straight for the jugular, asking the BJP spokesman to defend the assertion of a senior leader of his party, who had asserted in Parliament that lobbying is illegal in India.

The anchor said his due diligence had satisfied him that lobbying is not illegal. Somewhat disingenuously and with the brash confidence of a man who knows little, the BJP participant contradicted him, saying there is no law that makes lobbying legal. To which the anchor responded: laws make things illegal, not legal. The BJP man was having none of it. “Why are you standing up for a corrupt company like Walmart?” he asked the journalist. “How can the spokesman of a leading political party accuse an international firm of corruption on prime time national TV?” I interjected. The BJP stalwart was undeterred and continued his rant, insisting lobbying is illegal and no different from corruption. It was plain that he knew very little about business processes and public policy apart from a few stray facts he may have picked up from newspapers.

Later, Delhi’s middle classes led by Left-leaning student unions took to the streets to protest the rape of a woman on a bus in the capital. Their demand was for the police chief, the chief minister and the Union home minister to resign. Granted, the police in Delhi are not very high on anyone’s security assurance list, and that one may have reservations about the Congress governments in the state of Delhi and at the Centre. But, the heinous crime was committed by violent psychopaths, like the shooter in Newtown, Connecticut. I didn’t hear any calls for Obama’s head or of the state governor or police chief. Crimes are mostly dealt with in retrospect, except in the Tom Cruise sci-fi film, Minority Report, which is about seers gifted with the ability to look into the future and prevent crime.

Crimes are committed the world over and sometimes law enforcement agencies are able to anticipate and prevent them. Mostly, they simply happen and police hunt down the perpetrators and turn them over to the criminal justice system for prosecution and, if proved guilty, punishment.

Then there’s the massive media hype about Narendra Modi winning a third term in Gujarat. The truth is he won by a smaller margin than five years ago; even his vote share has declined. Yet the talking heads and anchors of cable television and newspaper reporters would have us believe he will be the next prime minister of India. This is an individual who refuses to apologise for the riots that killed thousands in Gujarat when he was chief minister as well as home minister. While he has never been able to shake off allegations that he connived with mass violence, there’s no doubt he should be held responsible because he was the man in charge.

Every time this issue is raised in public, his supporters who are few but loud, raise the issue of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi. Both incidents, 18 years apart, involved a lapse of governance leading to wanton loss of life and are condemnable. Except in the Gujarat case, the riots were followed by the systematic boycott of victims which pushed them into ghettos, a situation that persists to this day. Modi’s triumphalism and communalism is shameless and unapologetic as evident by his reference to Congress member Ahmed Patel as Ahmed mian.

A common thread runs through these narratives: lack of reasoned discourse. Between the media, opposition politicians and sundry activists outraged by some atrocity or corruption, debate has transformed into noise in which prejudice is the norm. The talking heads of television, pundits of print and those who attend exclusive parties in the capital, talk at each other without the slightest deference to reality. Did Walmart bribe government officials? Was Sheila Dikshit asleep when the heinous rape took place? Will Modi be the next prime minister? These are the questions being debated in public. Walmart may well have indulged in corrupt practices; there is an internal inquiry and some executives of the company have been suspended. The Delhi chief minister reacted with powers under her control — and that excludes the Delhi police — by scrubbing the licence of the operator on whose bus the woman was raped. And Modi actually lost ground in Gujarat; he still has a brute majority but his national ambitions have dimmed.

The Age of Unreason is upon us. People who would normally know better, including businessmen, members of the academy, activists, journalists and other groups which influence public opinion, seem to have lost their bearings. Pursuing their own limited agendas, they have put a crimp on Indian modernisation. As a concerned Indian citizen, “J’Accuse”, in the words of French writer Emile Zola. But while Zola complained about anti-Semitism in France, my complaint is about anti-Congressism. It seems to me that the entire political debate in India is focused on this grand old party. Those who hate it have forums to express themselves; those who are voiceless seem to vote for it, even in Gujarat.

The Age of Unreason is what 21st century’s second decade will be called in India. Everyone shouts and postures. And judgment seems to have fled to brutish beasts.

This article appeared in Education world magazine in January 2013 issue.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Neo Middle Classes Protest

High on Aspirations, Low on Talent

Let me just say it straight out. The Delhi protests against the shocking rape of a young woman in a bus were led by students of the Jawaharlal Nehru University and other universities and colleges where underpaid teachers spew their leftist propaganda to taint impressionable minds.. They are high-minded but like all university students in India, somewhat moronic on the organization front. Their post-modern protest, inspired by the leftists of Europe and North Africa, simply didn’t work. They neither have the ideological fervor of their Western European counterparts nor the rage against the machine of their Tunisian and Egyptian idols. What they are confronting is a political system that is bereft of vision beyond electoral calculation, a bureaucracy that is inept and obstructionist, a business class that is free of ethics and morality. And this is not today’s news; the gridlock has been in existence since 1947. How otherwise do you explain the lack of basic infrastructure, not just roads, power, public transport but also the lack of education, public health and social security?

It is mind-boggling that the protesters and the media, egged on by shadowy political interests, can hold public debate  to ransom over a sordid criminal offence by marginal people like the monsters on the bus. The protest is all about the government and how insensitive it is. The young men and women seemed to be more interested in having major government officials talk to them. The real issue to be debated is what kind of a society has been created in which marginal men from urban slums take not just the law into their own hands but visit terror on hapless citizens. You don’t have very far to look: the outskirts of Delhi, beyond the Lutyens zone, is a free for all. Scofflaws rule the roost. They harass women; drive like lunatics (including city-certified public transport drivers); they also rain chaos and arbitrary violence on unsuspecting citizens. This is a society and culture in which the girl child is killed at birth; those that survive rarely make it past five years of age; the remnant end up being victims of dowry and bride burning. Very few girls born in India make a steady income and or attain social dignity. Dare I say it: if you are born a girl the chances of you having a normal life are minuscule.

These are the issues the heinous rape should have brought forth in public debate. Instead, the neo middle class protesters, egged on by the RSS, Arvind Kejriwal and Baba Ramdev,  focused on the government and its shortcomings. I dare these kids and their mentors to go protest against the “khap panchayats” of Haryana, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, never mind Bihar, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh; or the Maoists in the central spine of India; or the cultural fascists in south and central India. Easiest thing to do, especially if vested interests ply you with funds, is to assemble at India Gate and capture the attention of the marketing-driven media.

Looking at the chaos of cities and small towns and the complete neglect of rural populations, not just this government but going back to 1947, it is apparent the entire governance structure is about privilege and corruption. Even high-minded leaders like Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh are unable to make a dent; their writ simply doesn’t run. As the Singapore Prime Minister said in a recent interview, India is held in thrall by vested interests. What he was saying, in a polite way, is India suffers from a lapse of governance: bad roads, poor street lighting, discontinuous water supply, no sanitation, poor public health facilities, and dysfunctional schools.

In the end, there are two ideologies in India; one, the Congress that has its hands full just running the government peopled by know-nothings and do-nothings. Two, the others are all against the Congress and hoping to run the system, not for change and development; but for personal aggrandizement. What remains is the permanent government, the bureaucracy, and they have been having a ball since Rajiv Gandhi, with 220 seats refused to form the government in 1989. Since then the toadies have emerged from under their stones with caste and communal demands while the vested government officials simply twiddle their thumbs. Or milk their positions for rent in issuing licenses and permits.

So poverty endures in a country that is getting richer by leaps and bounds. No government will pay heed to middle class demands for better governance. The refrain is we represent the poor who have nothing so you should accept an abysmal quality of life. Even the governor of the Reserve Bank, who has succeeded in keeping interest rates higher than anywhere in the world, was quoted as saying, “Inflation is my concern because I represent the poor  people, who are most affected by spiraling prices.” Or some such words; never heard a central banker talk like this.

The cogent way to fight this government apathy and ineptitude, as Mahatma Gandhi did, is through lawful protest and constitutional propriety. The neo middle classes of India, schooled essentially in value-free disciplines such as engineering, management and vocational studies, have no appreciation for that. Their cause is just; their methods are hugely questionable.

An edited version of this article appeared on Times of India website on December 28, 2012.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Breaking News: Drowning Out a Tragedy

Blasts Show Up Television News

What exactly were the television news crews after when they fanned out in the broken precincts of Bombay on the evening of the serial bomb blasts? They were intrusive, unmindful of the privacy of injured citizens and the grief of relatives of dead victims. Screaming and shouting, they collared eyewitnesses to ask them what they had seen. Worse, they tramped into hospital emergency rooms to focus on blood and gore. The result was a jumble of accounts. Piecing the fragments together, the picture that emerged was distorted, like looking at a high definition satellite television picture in a rainstorm.

As the news spread via television, the confusion seemed to grow. The jumbled pictures and stray, disjointed comments from shell-shocked citizens did little to reveal the dimensions of the tragedy. Amid the hysterics, rumors emerged to heighten public anxiety. Emergency services took time to get to the blast sites; police officers at the venues appeared clueless and the government response hesitant.

The next day, July 14, the focus changed completely. News channels seemed to have decided to go a step beyond reporting the news. Instead, they came up with an angle: enough of praising Bombay’s resilience; time to hit out at politicians, bureaucrats and policemen for failing to prevent the attacks. Their reporters waded into trains, scoured the city, looking for the “man in the street.” They ambushed hapless citizens and made them perform to a script.

There are two problems with this: one, can journalists in reporting an event come to it with a premeditated slant? Can editors accept their reporters passing off opinions as facts? Man-on-the-street interviews are useful as local color but they can’t be the story. Or chasing celebrities for their views on the tragedy? This latter approach can only be in pursuit of ratings.

Two, what does it mean when you say Bombay is resilient? A city can have a character and Bombay certainly does have a business-like approach to life. Residents of this city carry on efficiently despite crumbling infrastructure, slums, the underworld, housing shortages, milling crowds and a general sense of decay. That is resilience but it is on display everyday, not just at times of crisis.

It appears that the day after the blasts, the channels decided that “resilience” was an old bromide with no traction among viewers. You would have thought they would have upbraided their reporters for hyping the tragedy. Instead, they sent them, armed with a line, to barge into the tragedy once again: hectoring citizens to read from their script. The crews set out afresh to interview citizens in different parts of the city, asking leading questions. The story angle was clear: left to its own devices, resilient Bombay was angry.

“This city has been the victim of many terrorist blasts. Aren’t you angry and tense? Aren’t you tired of being called resilient and left to fend for yourself? Aren’t you tired of being taken for granted by the government?” The questions flew thick and fast as did the changing headlines on television screens. “Resilient, tired, angry,” they screamed. The television news channels seemed to have decided on the line; their field reporters goaded citizens into “confirming” the story in front of the cameras.

The journalistic practices of the television news media could be the subject of scholarly analysis some distance from “breaking news.” What is of immediate concern is that such ambulance-chasing tactics stoked public insecurities. Television reporters instigated citizens to berate the government in prime time.

This is not to suggest that criticism of the government is unacceptable. Indeed, authorities must be held answerable if they fail or are slow to respond. To do this, reporters need to ferret out hard facts. The analysis can only be effective at some distance from the events. Instant judgments spread fear and rumor at a time when public anxiety is running high.

Where they had a chance to calm things down, bring people together in the face of a major terrorist attack, the news channels took a lowly road. They hyped the events and indulged in the worst kind of speculation and rumor. Sensationalism reigned supreme.

In the face of shrill attempts by news channels to show up its inadequacies, the government response was restrained. The home minister and the prime minister winged their way to Bombay within 24 hours of the incidents. The prompt steps by the leadership blunted the edge of the media’s hysterical coverage.

Finally, Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan made an appearance on all major channels and made some candid remarks about the strengths and limitations of government. His bravura performance took the wind out of media hysterics. His direct manner did much to defuse the media hype. His comments went much further than anyone in the Congress or the Opposition reckoned. Chavan was a refreshing voice on television. He spoke with a sincerity that has never been seen before. He appeared at once humble and fully in control, candid and unafraid to speak his mind.

Finally, it is a matter of some irony that the media hype may have actually denied the perpetrators of the Bombay blasts their day in the sun. Maybe India has found a way to deal with terrorism: bury it in hype, trample it in public debate. If only real people didn’t die or get injured!

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Short History of Public Relations in India

Growing Importance, Declining Values

Speech at Communications Unplugged

A TEDX Event

MICA, Ahmedabad, Gujarat

February 26, 2011

Good morning.

Many thanks to the organizers for this opportunity.

I’d like to talk to you this morning about the history of public relations consulting in India.

My perspective is unique.

The firm that I founded in 1987 was the first of its kind in India.

So the history of the business intersects with my own experiences in the business.

Coincidentally, it also is a history of economic liberalization in India.


Does anyone know how old the business is?

Well, it dates back to biblical times.

The first PR consultant was with Moses, when he led the Jews out of Egypt to escape the Pharaoh’s vicious rule.

Thousands of Jews followed Moses as he led the march to freedom in the “promised land.”

The flight came to a stop at the edge of the Red Sea. With the Pharaoh gaining on, his followers turned to Moses, praying for help.

“Don’t fret,” Moses told them. “I will part the sea and we will simply walk across.”

Everyone was awestruck; religious fervor rose to fever pitch. They hailed Moses as the Messiah. They swore loyalty and fealty and praised the Lord.

Among them was this public relations consultant, who spotted a huge opportunity. He went up to Moses.

“Look chief, if you pull this off, I can get you 10 pages in the Old Testament.”


By comparison, PR is relatively young in India; but the issues are similar: about right and wrong; ethics and morality.

Let’s take a closer look…

In 1988, when I had just launched IPAN, India’s first PR consulting firm, I was asked by a journalist from The Economic Times to explain the essence of public relations.

I held out two identical pencils. “The one in my left hand is made by Tata; the other by Reliance. Which would you pick?”

Guess which one the journalist picked?

Today, he may have picked neither; then he picked the Tata pencil.

Asked to explain the reason for his choice, the journalist said it was because Tata has a better reputation than Reliance.

Since neither company did much by way of corporate advertising, focusing instead on product advertising, it is clear that Tata did all kinds of things that got noticed and met with public approval.

In advertising parlance, these are known as “below the line” activities.

That, I told the journalist, is the essence of public relations.

The job of a public relations man is to persuade his client to do good things, ensure they get noticed and thus win the public trust.


One of the 20th century’s foremost public relations men was Mohandas Gandhi. As such he did not have a client but a higher cause.

His “Satyagraha" was a shrewd strategy that attracted media attention: whether he was burning passes in South Africa or making salt in India.

Familiar with the British press, parliament and courts, Gandhi knew instinctively which buttons to push.

He used the press and the courts to stir British Parliament.

Just how sophisticated was this strategy!

Gandhi figured that non-cooperation would force the colonial government to respond with violence and incarceration.

This made the front pages of British newspapers and forced Parliament to act.

In the end, Indian independence came when the differences between Parliament in London and the colonial government in Delhi became irreconcilable.

It’s too bad that India has deified Gandhi. One of the titans of the 20th century is now worshipped when he deserved to be studied.

But I digress…

I want to trace for you the growth of the business since I founded the first PR consulting firm in 1987.

PR consulting started out with a bang.

The company I founded, IPAN, was first off the block.


One early client was Pepsi that had struggled for more than two years to secure government approval to set up operations in India.

When we arrived on the scene, Pepsi had become the butt of negative stories in the press and questions in Parliament.

Beleaguered, the American company changed partners and roped in Voltas and the Punjab Agro-Industries Corporation.

From January 1988, we went to work, trying to beat back the disinformation spread about the company in the media and in Parliament.

At the time, the soft drinks industry in India was small, dominated by one player, Parle that had 80 percent of the market.

A check with the media and various politicians told us the campaign against Pepsi was orchestrated by Parle.

Our strategy then became not to reply to the negative stories but to show that the entrenched soft drinks lobby was behind the negative publicity.

We also showed that the soft drinks industry in India simply could not meet the demand and that there were huge quality issues.

Then, we highlighted Pepsi’s commitment to Punjab; that they would help farmers build a value-added business of growing potatoes and tomatoes.

Thus, we were able to demonstrate that entry of Pepsi was in the public interest.

We were able to do that once we convinced the press and the parliamentarians that the campaign against Pepsi was simply a market manoeuvre.

It took until September when the government okayed the Pepsi project.

In the flush of victory, many people told me it had to do with my equation with Rajiv Gandhi.

In fact, Voltas had a “resident director,” Anil Shastri, who went on to become the minister of state in the finance ministry.

Neither of us brought up the subject in our interactions with Rajiv.

No, the approval for the Pepsi project did not result from influence peddling.

What we did was change the focus of public debate.

The domestic sector had raised all kinds of from pseudo nationalistic issues.

We said it was just plain commercial rivalry.

We said it often and with great conviction.

Once that message sank in, we were able to tell the Pepsi story and how it would benefit India, Punjab and soft drinks industry.

Today you know how Pepsi has gone on to become a youth icon.

The company has created thousands of direct and indirect jobs, not just in bottling and distribution but also in advertising, pr and other ancillary businesses including the paanwallahs and various others in the “unorganized” sector.


A year later, there was Citibank. Its local management was charged with introducing the global consumer to India.

At the time, the sector was monopolized by public sector banks that were charged with “social banking.”

There was no sense of consumer banking: no credit cards, no ATMs, no mortgages, and no car loans.

Citibank had applied for licences but was stumped by the government banks and the Reserve Bank.

The idea was to prove to the government that the lobby against foreign banks was sheer ideological bias.

We conducted a survey that showed among the regulatory agencies, there was perceptible bias against Citibank.

Our counsel was to highlight the fact that Citibank that had done business in India since 1902 was very much part of the national agenda.

To this end, we persuaded Citibank to make a strong pro-India statement in response to the US Trade Representative’s decision to name India as an unfair trader under a new law called Super 301.

The bank’s New York public affairs unit submitted an affidavit to the USTR saying their experience was that India is a fair trader.

We gave the story as an exclusive to India’s most credible economics writer.

It made a huge splash and rapidly changed perceptions about Citibank.

In the event, the Indian government gave Citibank permission to set up their consumer operations in India.

The rest is history: what we take for granted now—credit cards, auto loans, mortgages, consumer financing—had their origins in the campaign by Citibank.

Over the years, millions of people in India were empowered: to buy cars, appliances, vacations and homes and also stocks and mutual funds and insurance.


In 1991, a young English guy came and talked to me about a pie-in-the-sky venture called Satellite Television Asia Region, now known as STAR TV.

Promoted by Richard Li, a twenty-something from Hong Kong, the satellite television venture ran into predictable opposition from the information and broadcasting ministry that had a monopoly on television.

By creating a business opportunity for small and medium enterprises, cable operators and equipment manufacturers, we advised STAR TV to challenge the government monopoly by rallying these newly-minted businesses to support them.

In a final bid to retain its monopoly, the government introduced the confused Cable and Satellite Regulation Act in 1993 with view to curb the threat to its monopoly.

We helped STAR TV rally support from cable operators and equipment manufacturers to fight against the bill’s unreasonable strictures on the cable and satellite business.

Today, there are still many flaws in the cable business, which got taken over by thugs and political goons, and has therefore languished in technological backwaters.

In the event, cable has been surpassed by organized satellite broadcasters. And we have global quality direct-to-home television.

In freeing the television business, STAR TV created thousands of jobs not just in their direct operations but in associated businesses.

Though I must add the boom in television broadcasting is not all to the good.

The news element is beset by shrill incompetence.

The entertainment business has revived all manner of traditional practices that have no place in a modern society.

On the whole, though, it has been good for the country.


These three case studies were about success in challenging monopolies.

One of the things we prided ourselves on was our involvement at the very cutting edge of change in India.

As India evolved rapidly into a consumer market, we were there.

Pepsi Citibank and STAR TV changed everything.

The Indian citizen, always beset by a scarcity mindset and a make-do culture, now had choice and abundance.


The next case study is one of which I am very proud.

In 1993, Manmohan Singh, then finance minister, was about to announce a path-breaking budget that dissolved the licence-permit raj.

The previous December, we were retained by the Indian Soaps and Toiletries Manufacturers Association to help their campaign to bring down taxes.

They told us the government was ready to slash taxes on the sector but it was important for ISTMA to handle the “fallout.”

Toiletries and cosmetics were treated as somehow not in sync with tradition.

The sector also was treated derisively by policy makers and their academic fellow travellers.

“You talk about lipstick and perfume when there so many millions in the country who can’t get a square meal.”

This was a typical rejoinder from high-minded mandarins in the bureaucracy and in the academy.

But Singh saw the merit in the ISTMA argument that reduced taxes could help the sector boom and provide jobs and additional revenue from increased sales volumes.

Our effort to handle the “fallout,” began with the prejudice issue; we asking well-known women across the country to sign a petition that said toiletries and cosmetics were in fact a part of the Indian tradition.

On the taxation issue, we made common cause with many economists who showed how lowering rates could boost tax revenues.

Finally, we worked with consumer groups such as Common Cause to highlight how high taxes bred spurious and pilfered products that posed a hazard to consumers.

It was with great satisfaction that on budget day 1993, we found the finance minister had used lines from our petition to announce a huge cut in tax rates on the sector.

Since then, as we all know, the toiletries and cosmetics business boomed.

And the boom energized the beauty sector and made India into a super power, winning back to back titles in the various contests such as Miss World and Miss Universe.


In recent times, we’ve dealt with the commissioning of the Bandra Worli Sea Link.

You may know that there were several contentious issues that swirled around the project that was built by HCC, a Bombay-based infrastructure company.

One was about delays and cost escalation.

Another was about the sustained opposition from so-called activists.

By positioning the bridge as the icon of 21st century Bombay, we gained support from the media, political leaders and prominent citizens.

Tools included a National Geographic documentary that highlighted the state-of-the-art technology.

Also the bridge was offered as a backdrop to a Times of India promo featuring Amitabh Bachchan.

We also helped the company set up an experience center at the site.

This became a good way to educate media and others about the project.

On June 30 2009, when the project was officially commissioned, political leaders, bureaucrats and prominent citizens literally fell over each other for an invitation to the function.

The Bandra Worli Sea Link is a boon to Bombay’s frazzled commuters and is an indispensable part of the city infrastructure.

It is well on the way to replacing the colonial-era Gateway of India as the icon of 21st-century Bombay.


In “breaking news,” our most recent project is the Lavasa Hill City that is coming up near Poona.

The first of its kind in independent India, Lavasa is a new-age concept that uses the principles of the “new urbanism” in which urban areas are planned so that people can live, work and play there.

Under assault from Luddite groups and an ambitious union minister, the project is currently stranded.

I can’t tell you much more than that.

Except the Lavasa project has challenged the notion purveyed by various activist groups that all development is bad.

That in fact, development is a carefully considered choice in which growth and environment need to be balanced.


In the nearly 25 years of its existence, the public relations consulting business has grown in importance.

In the early years, it played mainly an advocacy role, helping international and domestic companies pioneer new businesses in India.

Later, it became an adjunct to corporate marketing departments, focused mainly on media relations.

Now it has assumed a management function, helping newly empowered corporate communications department meet the growing demands for advocacy, media relations, media monitoring, training, cyber PR, government relations, recruitment, and CSR.


There is however a darker side to our discipline.

And it needs to be addressed squarely else we lose credibility as a 21st century discipline.

As it has grown in importance, professional values and ethics have become somewhat blurred.

This has become painfully evident in recent months.

I refer here to the telecom scam and role played in it by a PR consulting firm and its chief executive.

It is amazing that a single person, with no previous experience in the field, climbed to such dizzy heights using influence peddling techniques.

As such, she was entrusted with the responsibility to manage corporate communications for India’s two largest conglomerates.

It is even more amazing that the heads of both these behemoths heeded the advice of an untrained and inexperienced person.

The 2G scam dented many individual and corporate reputations.

My concern here is to make a clear distinction between the practice of professional public relations and the kind of influence peddling that was revealed in the scam.

We need for the profession to embrace some sort of a pledge like the Hippocratic Oath in which, among other things, the practitioner pledges “first, do no harm.”

Thank You

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011

Monday, March 7, 2011

A Thoughtful Budget

Media Don’t Get It

Except for The Wall Street Journal and the very thoughtful program anchored by Prannoy Roy on NDTV, the budget got short shrift everywhere else in the media. The general assessment was it was a mediocre or bad budget. Which is as far from the truth as Alaska is from India.

Hours on television and pages in the newspapers were full of meaningless analyses. Some said there were no major reform announcements; others moaned about the tax provisions. One particularly egregious businesswallah, member of the tribe that shows up on television each February 28, ranted about the tax on “centrally air conditioned hospitals.”

The growth brigade was out in full force lamenting this, that and the other. The Left and jholewallahs also dismissed he budget as a continuation of the neoliberlal conspiracy to sell India to the West. The BJP, its credibility waning by the minute, made its usual noise.

The media, “civil” society groups, the Left and the Hindu nationalists couldn’t have got it more wrong. The media are ill-informed and incompetent. The activists are naysayers; the Left works on a discredited economics model and the BJP, aka the Hindu nationalists, are clueless.

Consider the following ten points taken straight out of the finance minister’s speech:

1. Food prices are high despite improved availability. The finance minister said this was because of shortcomings in the marketing and distribution system. Held in thrall by the government and random retailers and middlemen the marketing and distribution system is a problem. So the signal is they will open up to organized retail marketing.

2. Inflation management calls for a focus on agriculture. The need is to improve productivity. The finance minister’s message was to improve the quality of inputs including mechanization, nutrient-based fertilizers and biotech applications.

3. Also addressed in the budget was the need to remove bottlenecks in value-added farming, including horticulture, dairy, poultry and meat. This is of a piece with the findings of the S S Johl committee that was formed in the 1980s and recommended that at least 20 percent of farm land be given over to value-added crops.

4. The finance minister announced the formation of a public debt management agency. The idea is to depoliticize debt and curb populist spending.

5. Disinvestment of public sector units is a huge problem. Calling it the need to increase people’s ownership of these government owned companies, the minister said the government looked to raising 40,000 crore from the sale of their shares in the stock market.

6. Amendment of the banking regulation act is a major announcement. In its purview, private sector banks will be allowed to open more branches. As such, the so-called aam aadmi will not have to battle for banking services that are a problem in the nationalized banks.

7. Also announced was a plan to modernize the stamp and registration administration and the setting up of a central electronic registry for immovable properties. It is a strike in the heart of darkness because real estate is the major source of black money.

8. This is perhaps most important. The government will now do direct cash transfers to people below the poverty line. It’s a brilliant move to stop leakages from welfare schemes.

9. On the taxes front, the finance minister has left most levies untouched but has given a break to the bulk of taxpayers by increasing the exclusion amounts.

These are a few, and there are many more, of the budget’s highlights. It is abundantly clear the government knows what it’s doing.

The budget is beyond is beyond partisan politics and is a sophisticated response to the globalization of India’s economy.

It is clear that this government understands the issues and the problems. It is, as the finance minister said, a transition to a more transparent and result based economic management system.

I think it is a great budget for an increasingly sophisticated economy.

What do you think? Write me.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2011

Saturday, November 27, 2010

American Life 7

The Media Wedding

N 42° 19.241 W 071° 03.438.

Those are the GPS co-ordinates of the Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta Church in Boston’s historic Dorchester district, a working class neighborhood which the locals call “Dot.” Thing about Dot is that is this is the district where Boston Police have paid special attention with a view to combating crime. Among other initiatives, they have implemented a project called CAT, combating auto theft. Dot is not exactly on the tourist map but the church is lovely, well worth a visit. It has the first sculpture I’ve ever seen of Mother Theresa.

We were at the church on November 6 to celebrate the wedding of my favorite guy, my nephew Nikhil, a member of the Pereira family into which I married many years ago. The reason why the ceremony was held there, I think, is because Mother Theresa visited the Pereira home in Ahmedabad, India in 1983, when I was a mere child of a few…never mind! Just let’s say I was younger then than the groom, in his wedding regalia in 2010.

At that hallowed venue, Nikhil pledged his troth to Jillian, whose Sherlock family is like the Pereiras, large and fun loving. Slightly hung over from the party the previous evening, we filed into the church and took our appointed places. As the ceremony proceeded, I couldn’t help but marvel at the idea of a Goan-Irish wedding. Nikhil is Goan and Jillian comes from strong Irish stock. And it clicked as it did naturally; Goa stands in the same relationship to India as Ireland does to mainland Britain: similar culture, different lifestyles.

India usurped Goa from the Portuguese in 1961 without much fuss; Britain could only hold the northern part of Ireland and still faces problems. But the Sherlocks are from the Jersey shore; they’re as American as apple pie. Our family, which includes my wife, the sister of Nikhil’s dad, and our daughters, well-known fun lovers, certainly understands how to melt into the American pot. We lived in Chicago, where the Irish have held sway for decades; we even dye our river green, drink green beer and march in an embarassing parade on St Paddy’s Day.

So there we were at the church, absorbed in the solemn ceremony that affirmed the Nik and Jill union. There was no choir but a priest, who sang in the voice divine. (Didn’t get your name, reverend, but if you ever give up your day job, you could be on the opera circuit.) It was all too beautiful, as the anthem to getting high sang in the sixties. Mind you, nobody, as far I could tell, had done spliffs; but then what do I know!

Not to digress …so the ceremony came to an end and I walked out the church door, there to be confronted by a battery of television crews, still photographers, reporters, cops and a general array of bystanders.

“Huh!” I said to myself. “I never notified the media. But how cool is this!” For the record, I run a public relations business and write columns for newspapers and magazines and Res Gestae, my blog, from whence this comes to you.

Anyway, so there I was, confronted by all the television cameras and what have you. My first instinct, honed from years in the media business, was to go up to them and say, “At this time, we have no comment.”

Actually, I didn’t say that because I had no idea what was going on until someone told me that a crazed psycho, brandishing a gun, had hijacked the bridesmaids’ limo. (So much for the Boston Police’s anti-auto theft program CAT.) For all my training as a journalist and my standing as veteran public relations professional, all I could say was: “Say what? Really, really, really?” So much for smooth articulation!

Crisis communications is for what I charge clients substantial sums of money; I train them to respond with gravitas and assuredness. And “Say what? Really, really, really?” is not among the responses I recommend. Also not “Jeez!” Or “What the **ck!” (That’s “heck.” Don’t want this piece to be “Banned in Boston.”)

The wedding made all the channels on the evening news and featured in all the major newspapers in Boston the next day; it even made the Daily Mail in London and, I’m told, the Guatemala media. I googled it to see if my smooth and suave response was quoted; mercifully the media had not picked up on my insightful comments.


Copyright Rajiv Desai 2010

Friday, May 21, 2010

We Are Also Part of India’s Democracy

Keynote Speech at the Exchange4Media PR Summit
The Oberoi Hotel, New Delhi
May 21, 2010

Good morning,

Thank you, Anurag and your team, for organizing this PR Summit. I hope that over the years it grows and becomes a major platform for dialog within our profession.

I have titled my remarks: “We Are Also Part of India’s Democracy.”

I have stated my SOCO up front. As PR professionals, we are as much a part of India’s democracy as we are of its economy.

But PR is also about telling stories. So I’m going to tell you a story that I hope will give you a perspective on how our business has grown and developed and the challenges it faces.

Many years ago, when I came to India to set up IPAN, I used to tell the story of how PR became the world’s second oldest profession. We all know what the oldest profession is.

It has to do with Moses, who led the chosen people out of Egypt with the Pharaoh hot in pursuit. They found themselves stranded on the banks of the Red Sea. This was a huge problem. So Moses got his core strategy team together to look at the options.

There seemed to be none. His defense guy said they should stand and fight. His finance guy, who understood the salubrious impact of money, suggested the possibility of buying them out. But in their heart of hearts, his key advisers knew only a miracle could save them.

“Don’t worry,” said Moses, “I will part the sea and we will walk across to liberty. At that point, his PR guy spoke up, “Sir, if you can do that that I will get you ten pages in the Old Testament.”

So Moses performed the miracle and got his ten pages in the Old Testament.

I told this story 20 years ago, when PR consulting was a little known business. Times were simpler but mindsets were rigid. The press (and it was just the print media those days) did not entertain any releases or information from the corporate sector. For its part, the corporate sector saw PR as a free advertising.

Meanwhile clever operators like the public sector and some private sector firms managed to play the press like a fine-tuned fiddle. Just think, the public sector delivered very little but no questions were asked. It was the holy cow. I can remember the PR strategy of a Calcutta-based public sector firm: “Kill the story and I’ll get you two tickets on the Rajdhani.”

Some private entrepreneurs also cultivated friends in the press to oppose liberalization and reform. The notorious Bombay Club fought tooth and nail against foreign investment and against any changes in the license-permit raj.

Fast forward two decades and we find that the media are friendlier; our profession is recognized in its own right and is a significant player in the fast growing economy.

Recent developments have however cast a shadow that could affect our standing. I am referring to the current media attention on the role of PR firms in influencing choices in public policy. It is not at all surprising that the telecom sector is the source of stories about corporate sleaze and government corruption.

Why do I say it is not surprising? Let me digress a little: to the early 1980s, when I lived in the US. We had formed a group called India Forum that met weekly to consider developments in India. All of us were struck by the emergence of Rajiv Gandhi. In the event, many of us including my good friend Sam Pitroda took our first tentative steps to engage with India.

Our focus was on telecom because that was Sam’s field. At the time, the sector was in a primitive state. There were not enough phones and existent phones rarely worked. It was a project to make long distance calls, impossible to get connections. In fact, it was said that the entire telecom bureaucracy made money from providing out-of-turn connections.

We took the matter up with Rajiv Gandhi. The task was to convince him that the sector was vital to economic growth and to change political mindsets that held telephones to be a luxury. As such, Rajiv put his heft behind our recommendation that India should go in for digital rather than analog technology.

The rest is history. But the baggage is still there. The telecom sector seems to be a magnet for sleaze and murkiness as the recent controversy shows. And our profession risks being stigmatized unless we make some forceful interventions.

In a recent email interview to a leading financial paper, I was asked about lobbying and what the reporter saw as concomitant sleaze. She did highlight my responses in her front-page story and I believe I may have even helped her re-look at the lobbying controversy in which it was alleged that a PR firm tried to influence the choice of telecom minister and subsequently telecom policy.

There is nothing wrong in trying to influence public policy. Indeed, in a democracy, everyone has the right, nay the duty, to challenge wrong-headed legislation or to advocate for new policies to deal with changing situations. Over the years, I have chalked up many, many case studies in which we actively influenced government decisions in areas as diverse as consumer products; financial services; cable and satellite television; power generation; water management; public health and primary education.

Our strategy was to win media support, raise the debate in various public forums and to seek out articulate spokesmen and credible third-party endorsements.

To ensure that our profession does not get besmirched by the dirt and corruption of illegal methods, we need to make the following assertions:

1. Lobbying is a legitimate activity. It does not mean the exchange of money and favors to achieve a desired outcome. Bribery and corruption are illegal.

2. Lobbying is not relevant in India because of the sheer lack of transparency in government and politics. Legislators do not have backup policy staff; bureaucrats are too control-minded to be open to legitimate suggestions.

3. An advocacy strategy may be the most effective way to influence public policy. This involves working with the media and other influentials to advocate our views to policymakers.

4. The claims in the media are wildly exaggerated. I find it difficult to believe that a PR executive can influence the selection of cabinet ministers.

5. The gratuitous remarks by civil society activists about the pernicious impact of lobbying should be dismissed out of hand. They are themselves power brokers and fixers. Their prescriptions have crippled the economy, especially in the areas of infrastructure and agriculture.

On the other hand, the media also have much to answer for. You would think triviality is the first as in the sad spectacle of Sania Mirza; Shashi Tharoor; Lalit Modi; the IPL. Obsessed with trivialities, the media and their concomitant sources, the pr guys, tend to hijack the public debate.

There are other issues such as the nexus between the marketing people of corporations and the “brand managers” in the media. Just recently, The New York Times ran a story about how the major media are selling editorial space and time.

What’s happening is a travesty. If you undermine Indian democracy, you take away a major advantage we enjoy in the world.

On the economy, while I lament the Leftist thinking that still dominates intellectual life in India; I have to say that rampant commercialism is a bad thing. If we acquiesce in “treaties” and “packages,” we are selling our profession short, making it the equivalent of advertising.

It’s not just these subversive agreements, we are all called upon to measure our contribution in terms of advertising spends.

Our profession has its roots in Mahatma Gandhi. He used an advocacy strategy in which he staged events to influence the press and the government and petitioned the courts to in order to assert his rights under the law. That defeated first, the racist government in South Africa and then the colonial British government in India.

His SOCO: it is possible to change things.

I know there is a deep-rooted cynicism in the public debate that the only way to get things done in India is to bend rules, pay bribes or resort to blackmail.

Of course, these things happen. But if we are ever going build our profession as a legitimate part, not just of the economy but of India’s loud and raucous democracy, we have to stand for skepticism not cynicism; debate and negotiation, not surrender and compromise. Above all, we must stand for transparency.

This may sound impractical given the fact that media are willing to sell editorial space for a consideration. But then, I for one did not come to India to spark the PR consulting business only to see it flounder in murk and opacity.

I repeat: our business is squarely rooted in the Gandhian tradition. This sounds so idealistic that many of you would be blameless if you think I am naïve. Thank whatever Gods there be, our founding fathers who wrote our Constitution were not cynical. Else, we would have been like Pakistan, or Iran or any of the multifarious countries who are called the developing nations.

Remember the SOCO; our profession is as much a part of our democracy as it is of the economy.

And by the way, the term SOCO was invented by my team at Hill & Knowlton in Chicago in the early 1980s.

Copyright Rajiv Desai 2010