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Monday, July 30, 2012

Paid Media Lacks Credibility

In an exclusive interview with Image Management, Rajiv Desai, Chairman and Chief Executive of Comma Consulting, discusses how the PR industry can grow in India, and how it needs to change.

Q. Some industry experts suggest that over 80% of the PR business is split between Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore. How can the industry fuel pan India growth?
To fuel the PR industry’s pan- India growth, we need more business. The next big markets are away from the metros. For example, with Bharti, we worked in teeny- tiny rural areas, because that was their rural push. The next big thrust has actually been in telecom; there are now telecom related businesses in hinterland area. When you have businesses, then you have jobs, and the growth of business fuels the need for PR.  I think that is what can really help – more expansive businesses as opposed to centralized ones. It s not that  India didn’t have a very enlightened policy  because even during the Nehruvian era we had these public sectors mines, steel plants and chemical plants  in remote areas like Chattisgarh. That was enlightenment, but also a sort of forced migration into the hinterland. And without the appropriate the connectivity’s, they became white elephants.
With these modern businesses like telecom, and to some extent insurance and banking, they first built the linkages and then they locate. Whereas, in the earlier one’s you were sort of pushed into it because of the policy decision. That’s the kind of thing that will help. If for example if they stop hindering retail FDI and actually let it happen – this will create a huge rural pan-India growth.
Q. What is the biggest challenge facing the Indian PR industry?

Q. Do you see paid media as a tool or threat to the PR Industry?
If you think that the be-all –and-end- all of PR is to be in the media, then you might find this to be a factor. But it’s not for us. We are in the media because it serves a different purpose. Not just to have someone’s mug in there and make them feel great. So, if the be all and end of your PR campaign is media coverage, we get more coverage. We are a small company but no one generates the kind of coverage we do.
If it doesn’t serve the client’s purpose, then media coverage may not be the thing. If it doesn’t serve the media’s purpose, then you influence the media. Any paid media lacks creditability.
Q. How does Comma Consulting set themselves apart from the other PR agencies in India?

This article appeared on Image Management India Website on July 24, 2012.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

When Rajesh Khanna Dabbled in Politics

“For the last few weeks, the crowd puller on the streets of New Delhi’s official and diplomatic quarter has been Rajesh Khanna, a former film star in a country wild about movies and a Congress candidate for Parliament in nationwide elections that begin Monday,” Barbara Crossette wrote in The New York Times in May of 1991.

Mr. Khanna was pulled in to counter the star power of the “sobersided, meticulously articulate, scrupulously courtly” Lal Krishna Advani, leader of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party, she wrote, who was giving Rajiv Gandhi stiff competition.

“Mr. Khanna is equally renowned for once having been married to an Indian Marilyn Monroe called Dimple Kapadia. When she agreed to show up on the hustings for old times’ sake, the crowds were ecstatic,” she wrote.

Not all of them, though. 
Khushwant Singh, a columnist, author and former newspaper editor, says that the appearance on the Congress Party ticket of Mr. Khanna, whom he describes as “some kind of buffoon,” has made him decide to boycott the election, the first time he has done so since he began voting.
Rajiv Desai, who runs a public affairs consultancy in New Delhi and occasionally writes on politics and the evolution of political campaigning in India, thinks the celebrity candidate is a sign of political maturity.
In an interview, he said that the attraction to politics of public figures of any kind is a sign that the base of the candidate pool is widening and campaigns are becoming more sophisticated. In South Asia — certainly in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh — opposing parties have tended to regard each other as ideological if not mortal enemies, and have found it hard to work together after elections.
“These celebrity politicians don’t treat politics as deathly serious,” Mr. Desai said. “They can look at the other parties as rivals, not enemies.”
“In this election, although Congress is likely to get the largest number of seats, there is a chance that it may have to work in coalition with other parties. It will have to tread warily.
This article appeared on The New York Times on July 18, 2012.

When Rajesh Khanna Dabbled in Politics

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Asleep at The Wheel?

He drank heavily in his prime and still enjoys a nightly whiskey or two at 74. India's leader takes painkillers for his knees (which were replaced due to arthritis) and has trouble with his bladder, liver and his one remaining kidney. A taste for fried food and fatty sweets plays havoc with his cholesterol. He takes a three-hour snooze every afternoon on doctor's orders and is given to interminable silences, indecipherable ramblings and, not infrequently, falling asleep in meetings.

Atal Behari Vajpayee, then, would be an unusual candidate to control a nuclear arsenal. But for four years the Indian Prime Minister's grandfatherly hands have held the subcontinent back from tumbling into war. Despite the fact that he heads the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a constituency stuffed with extremists, Vajpayee has ambitiously pursued peace with neighbor and rival Pakistan, even traveling to the Pakistani cultural capital of Lahore in 1999, vainly hoping to bury the bloody animus of the past and start an era of good feelings.

With 1 million soldiers facing each other at high alert on the India-Pakistan border, those days seem long ago. At the same dangerous time, Vajpayee's stewardship is looking less and less comforting. The frail bachelor seems shaky and lost, less an aging sage than an ordinary old man. He forgets names, even of longtime colleague and current Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, and during several recent meetings he appeared confused and inattentive. After a meeting with a Western Foreign Minister, his appearance was described by one attending diplomat as "half dead." At a rare press conference last month in Srinagar, the Prime Minister tottered to the podium. Indian TV crews are asked to film him from the waist up to avoid showing his shuffling gait to find he had trouble understanding questions, repeatedly relying on whispered prompts from Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani. Even then Vajpayee stumbled over his replies. "He is very alert when he is functional," says one BJP worker. "But there are very few hours like that." Adds one Western diplomat: "We have a lot of conversations about his health. Some of his mannerisms come down to his personal style. But some of it is definitely spacey stuff."

While no one questions that key decisions on national security and foreign policy are still made by Vajpayee, the focus is now turning to the two men behind the throne: Vajpayee's low-key National Security Adviser Brajesh Mishra, and Vajpayee's hard-line BJP colleague of 50 years, 72-year-old Advani. The consensus among observers and diplomats is that the hawkish Advani is preparing to succeed Vajpayee at the next national elections due by late 2004. "There is no doubt he is the Prime Minister in waiting," remarks a diplomat.

In the meantime, Vajpayee has undergone a sudden conversion from peacemaker to warmonger primarily in response to political pressures. This year's standoff on the border shows the dovish Prime Minister has accepted the argument that war or the threat of it works. In comments that set off alarm bells around the world, Vajpayee last month spoke twice of an impending "decisive battle" against India's "enemy." Although he has repeatedly said that he does not want war, the Prime Minister has sound strategic reasons for ratcheting up the rhetoric. Since Sept. 11, he has found the international community more sympathetic to the idea of India waging its own war on terror against jihadis in the contended state of Jammu and Kashmir, where many of them have been inserted by Pakistan. And it plays well for India to keep the pot boiling: New Delhi can claim a victim's solidarity with the U.S., avoid addressing the awkward issue of its heavy-handed rule in Muslim-dominated Kashmir and just possibly get Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf to actually shut down the jihadi industry on his territory, ending what India calls a "proxy war."

Last week, Musharraf told visiting U.S Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage that he was going to put a permanent end to terrorist incursions into India. Vajpayee's government promised in turn some de-escalation measures, though a withdrawal of troops from the border has been ruled out. The big risk, however, is that no matter what Musharraf does, there are enough jihadis already in Kashmir to keep hammering India with suicide bombs and death squads. Four people were killed by terrorists Friday night in Kashmir, even as heavy shelling continued at the frontier and an unmanned Indian spy plane was shot down by the Pakistani air force. Any small spark can still push Vajpayee to deploy his soldiers in some punitive counterattack on Pakistan, which can lead to full-scale war.

Meanwhile, Vajpayee's colleagues carp that he's still not being hawkish enough. "Any Prime Minister that takes action against Pakistan will sweep the elections, but Vajpayee is reluctant and that will definitely damage the BJP," complains BJP hard-liner B.P. Singhal. "As the Prime Minister, for him, national interest is above party interest."

Tellingly, Vajpayee was forced to give up his moderate stance and attend to his party in response to a domestic disaster, not an international crisis. On Feb. 27, a group of Muslims firebombed a train in the western state of Gujarat murdering 58 Hindus. The reprisals against Muslims in Gujarat were fierce, unpoliced, and went on for weeks, killing some 2,000 according to human rights groups. (The official death toll, widely disbelieved, is half this.) On April 4, Vajpayee reacted with revulsion, urging Hindu rioters to rediscover "a sense of unity and brotherhood." Asked the published poet: "Burning alive men, women and children? Are we human or not? Or has a demon taken over us?" His office briefed newspapers on the likely candidates to replace Gujarat state leader Narendra Modi, a member of the BJP who was accused of complicity in the violence, or at least, ineptness in containing it. But scarcely a week later, on April 12, Vajpayee changed his tune. Nothing more was said about sacking Modi. And speaking to an audience in Goa, Vajpayee shocked the country by declaring: "These days militancy in the name of Islam leaves no room for tolerance. Wherever such Muslims live, they tend not to live in coexistence ... they want to spread their faith by resorting to terror and threats."

In the subcontinental context, that kind of statement is a license for the killings to continue. According to diplomatic sources, the burden of the crisis made Vajpayee unwell. Adds Vinod Mehta, editor-in-chief of the Indian weekly Outlook magazine, Advani and his supporters used the illness to gather the party's hard-line core and read him the riot act. "The party basically gave him no room to maneuver," says Mehta. "He knew he could have lost his job and he had neither the spirit nor the physical strength to fight back. So he just gave up his moderate stance and fell in line. Now he's just a party mascot, a puppet of the hard-liners."

With an enfeebled Vajpayee at the helm, the prospect of war with Pakistan becomes more real. "Advani would really like to finish this proxy war, and perhaps do a bit more," says one diplomat. India has none of the checks and balances designed during the cold war to prevent a nuclear launch in anger. (Although India's military is comfortingly professional, nonpolitical and obedient to civilian control. The country's nukes are controlled by government scientists, and deployment orders come from the Prime Minister's office alone.) For his part, Advani denies any undue influence, or even the tag of "hawk" although, characteristically, he describes communal violence under the BJP as "minimal," even after the shame of Gujarat. But asked about the possibility of attacking across the Line of Control in Kashmir, Advani answers that in his view India is already facing an "undeclared war" from the militants. His list of conditions that Musharraf must meet before peace talks can begin is lengthy. "As long as this undeclared war, this training, arming, financing of jihadis, and this infiltration and terrorism and sabotage continues," he says, "then any dialogue will be meaningless." And he hints that the international community has given tacit approval for action. "One major change in the last 10 days has been that the U.S., Britain and other coalition members have said publicly and forcefully that Pakistan should stop cross-border terrorism," he says. "Our Prime Minister took really radical initiatives in the past. There's no question of that now" in other words, of actively looking for peace. An Indian army source adds that unless India detects that promised shift in militant activity and capability in the next five weeks, the military expects an order to attack.

The body on the other end of the seesaw is Mishra, a 70-year-old career civil servant and diplomat, who functions as the equivalent of a White House chief of staff. The fact that Mishra has survived countless calls for his removal he's accused of wielding influence beyond his position is testament to his pivotal role, diplomats say. Mishra is considered to be the brains behind the peace overtures of the past. His influence with Vajpayee these days waxes when the two men get away from the capital and the rest of the BJP. At a regional security conference in the Kazakh capital of Almaty last week, the Prime Minister made a rare and unexpected conciliatory gesture when he proposed joint Indian-Pakistani patrols along the Line of Control to ensure an end to infiltration. All week Mishra was briefing India's national newspapers that the government had decided to tone down the rhetoric. And significantly, when Vajpayee returned to Delhi on Wednesday night, Mishra stayed behind for further talks. But, warns Outlook editor Mehta, Mishra is just an appointed government servant, however close he is to the boss. "Mishra's influence is directly proportional to Vajpayee's position. He has no party base. When Vajpayee goes down, Mishra goes with him."

Observers say that the BJP is hoping to use Vajpayee through the next general elections, but no further. The party currently rules in a coalition, with Vajpayee as the glue that holds it together. If it manages to win an absolute majority, it won't need him any longer. The Prime Minister has largely accepted this gradual decline. His great ambition on gaining office was to do for India-Pakistan relations what Nixon did for China and the U.S.: only a right-winger, went the argument, could take the country into a peace deal with the archenemy. And this Vajpayee wanted to do, to secure a place in the history books. Friends say this ambition is now dead. Much of the Prime Minister's energy is now devoted to the business of weight rather than weighty affairs of state. His staff coaxes the reluctant old man onto a treadmill for 10 minutes every day and encourages him to take short walks. His "family" longtime companion Rajkumari Kaul, who suffered a heart attack in March, and her daughter Namita ensures he is served only boiled vegetables and rice. But Vajpayee still insists on an evening drink or two. In the family cottage in the Himalayan foothills, says an aide, nothing can keep him away from deep-fried trout. "He promises to stick to his diet with doubled rigidity once he leaves," says an aide, "but the trout he must have." On a long flight abroad, Vajpayee compared his menu with other members of the government party. "He was terribly upset when he discovered he had been singled out for special treatment," says the aide, "and tried to browbeat the in-flight staff into serving him the general meal, which was spicier." Meanwhile, tension seems set to continue between India and Pakistan. But as Vajpayee's ability to steer a moderate course diminishes, he's spending the twilight of his political life where he wants to be out to lunch.

This article appeared at Time.com on June 10, 2002.
Asleep at The Wheel?

Friday, July 6, 2012

‘I’ve maintained high standard of integrity in my conduct’

PM Manmohan Singh tells HT that never before have so many steps been taken in such a short time to bring in transparency. Here’s the full text of his written replies to an HT questionnaire.

On economy: We will bring clarity on all tax matters. We want the world to know that India treats everyone fairly and reasonably and there will be no arbitrariness in tax matters.
On charges of corruption: ...Bills such as Whistleblowers Bill, Lokpal Bill, Judicial Accountability Bill etc, which if taken in totality, will raise the standards of integrity at all levels of government.

On his legacy: I have tried sincerely throughout my life to make India a better place to live and work in ...We have an unfinished agenda. I will leave it to history to judge whether I was successful.
Q1. How do you see the economic situation today and why have we come to this pass?

We are certainly passing through challenging times economically. This did not happen overnight. A lot of it was due to developments in the global economy. The developments in the Eurozone have been a major dampener of global economic sentiment, till the Eurozone leaders hammered out an agreement a few days ago. Europe is the most important destination for our exports and any turbulence there will certainly affect sentiment here. We then had the oil price rise. For a country which imports nearly 80% of its oil, this badly hurt our trade balance. In fact, a major portion of our trade deficit is accounted for by oil imports. There were domestic factors as well.

Q2. What are the top five challenges to the economy in the year ahead?

The India Growth Story is intact. We will continue to work, as we have been doing for 8 years, to keep the story going. Measures which I intend to focus on, in the short run, are:
  • Bring complete clarity on all tax matters. We want the world to know that India treats everyone fairly and reasonably and there will be no arbitrariness in tax matters.
  • Control the fiscal deficit through a series of measures which my officials are working on and on which we will build consensus in the government.
  • Revive the Mutual Fund and Insurance industries which have seen a downturn. Absence of investment avenues has pushed Indian savings into gold. We need to open new doors so that savings can be recycled into productive investments that create jobs and growth, not into gold.
  • Clear major investments in the pipeline awaiting FIPB approval. Investors should feel that we mean business. We will also work towards improving the response time of government to business proposals, cut down infructous procedures and make India a more business friendly place.
  • Most importantly, we have given a major push to infrastructure, particularly through PPP. A lot of investment avenues are opening up in Railways, roads, ports and civil aviation. The doors are open for the world to strengthen our hands and contribute to these vital sectors which will give a further push to the economy.
Q3. How do you see coming elections in the states and the Centre affecting policies? How do you guard against populist measures, given the size of the deficit?

I am largely satisfied about the way we have progressed over the last 20 years. The fact that governments have changed many times in between but economic policies have continued means that the direction that has been set is seen to be the correct one by all parties. That is a source of satisfaction also.

However, there are a few issues that come quickly to mind when it comes to what else needs to happen. Firstly, we have yet to settle down to a stable institutional framework to manage an open economy. Our institutions are still evolving and it will take time till we see mature institutions in all sectors as we see them in advanced economies.

Secondly, the logic of an open economy and its benefits are still not widely understood among the general public. Public discourse still sees markets as anti-public welfare. The instinctive reactions of many, both in the political class and in the public at large, is to revert to a state controlled system. There is no realisation that a reversal to an earlier era is neither possible nor desirable. Even a neighbour like China has understood the logic of an open economy and is developing the institutional framework which is required for this. It is necessary that we change the discourse from a critique of an open economy to a critique of what is needed to make an open economy work better for the welfare of the people.

Lastly, there is the issue of distribution. We have lifted millions out of poverty. But, I worry that the fruits of an open economy will be increasingly captured by fewer people. I worry that a large segment of our population will be left out of the benefits of economic growth. We need to correct that fast.

Q4. Foreign investors have been rattled by events such as the tax row with Vodafone. How do you intend to set their minds at rest?

The investor community had concerns on some tax matters. The finance ministry, over the last three months, has been issuing clarifications and working with the investor community to bring greater clarity on the matter. However, there has been a slowing down of capital flows which normally would have covered the current account deficit.

That does not mean things have turned very bad. Coca Cola has announced to invest $ 5 bn in India just a few days ago. IKEA plans to invest a billion dollars. The pessimism in the media and the markets is far more than reality. Consumer spend is holding up and this has not been affected by interest rates. The Chairman of GE captured the picture correctly when he said "the mood in the market is worse than the mood on the ground". I agree with that.

Q5. There is also a perception of drift, of policy paralysis. You have used the term “coalition compulsions” is this the main factor? How do you dispel the impression of drift? Do you intend to communicate more often with the nation?

I think it is a matter of perception. We worked under far greater constraints under UPA 1. However, there were a lot of things which had been done under the previous government which we had to undo. We had to bring a healing touch to the nation, make minorities feel secure and included, and give emphasis to the needs of the common man who had moved to the background in the Shining India of the NDA rule.

The biggest achievements of UPA 1 were the healing touch which we managed to bring in and the focus on inclusive growth. We did this with widespread support across the spectrum of parties supporting us.

But difficulties existed then as they do now. Parties are entitled to their differences then and now. There were differences on the US Nuclear deal and there are going to be some differences now also. I do not think that the political landscape is radically different now as compared to 3 years ago. What has changed is public expectation. Now that the immediate problems caused by the NDA government have receded into the background, other issues are coming to the fore. This is but natural. That is the way of democracy.

As for speed, look at the way we responded to the 2008 crisis. We rolled out a stimulus package which ensured that we came out of its effects rapidly. We are passing through a similarly challenging situation and I am confident, we will roll out measures to restore economic growth once again.

Q6. In your role as finance minister what do you see as the roadmap for key pending reforms such as pensions, insurance and banking reform, the goods and services tax and the direct taxes code?

Firstly, legislation is not the bottleneck to economic growth. Barring an issue here and there, most economic steps that need to be taken do not need legislative action.

More important is that we need political consensus in the government on some policies. These are genuine differences in opinion. So, in a democracy, consensus building is the key to long term economic success and we are steadily moving ahead in doing that.

Q7. Can we expect some of the young ministers of state becoming cabinet ministers soon?

You have to wait for a while for that question to be answered.

Q8. When will you go to Pakistan? What are the ideal circumstances that would make such a visit possible?

I am looking forward to visiting Pakistan. No dates have been finalised for the visit. As you know there have to be suitable outcomes for such a visit.

Q9. How do you react to charges of corruption during your Prime Ministership?

Never before in the history of India have so many steps been taken in such a short time to bring in transparency into the functioning government, make government accountable to the people for its actions and bring in measures to control corruption. The Right to Information is a landmark Act for which the Congress Party and its President will be remembered for generations. In fact, this single act has done far more to bring down corruption and bring in accountability than any other measure. It is the information flowing out as a result of this Act which is bringing a lot of corruption to light which would otherwise have been hidden.

We have introduced a Public Procurement Bill which brings in far greater transparency into government procurement and severe deterrents for wrongdoing. This would remove a major source of corruption.

A number of other bills are there such as the Whistleblowers Bill, the Lokpal Bill, the Judicial Accountability Bill, etc. which if taken in totality, will raise the standards of integrity at all levels of government.

Coming to the personal criticism, not only have I maintained a high standard of integrity in my conduct, I have endeavoured to raise the levels in the system as well. All these measures are a reflection of our party’s will to tackle corruption. As for criticism by media, that is their job and I compliment them for doing it effectively.

My only request to them is to exercise some balance and retain a sense of proportion in their coverage of issues. Just as the pessimism over the economy is more in the markets and less on the ground, even in the case of corruption, I do not think there has been any explosion in corruption under my watch.

Q10. What is that one thing that you would like to be remembered for?

I have tried sincerely throughout my life to make India a better place to live, work and lead a fulfiling life. In some ways, I contributed to this as a Finance Minister. As Prime Minister, I have had a larger remit. I have worked on the same lines but on a larger platform. We have tried to build a peaceful, harmonious, secure, friendly, prosperous India where every citizen can aspire for the best in life. We have an unfinished agenda. I will leave it to history to judge whether I was successful.

This Interview appeared in Hindustan Times on July 08, 2012.
I've maintained high standard of integrity in my conduct'