Media Response and Labor action in a deregulated economy?

I am aware that labor strikes are contrary to middle class sensibilities in India, and take them as relics of a pre 1991 India which everyone in the media is keen to relegate to the confines of history as if Reliance Jio launch is the stuff of history rather than an archaic national strike. Welfare protection in a deregulated economy where credit card is cool rather than a non existent medical insurance.

In an era where labor bargaining and protection is akin to foul language in our media and every day discourse, we have something a miss. In the papers and on the TV, the strike was dismissed as a failure in which unions that are a relic of the past were defeated. If we do not get paid for three months, like Kingfisher, or if a TV channel shuts down, where will these corporate EMI slaves run to for redressal ? Understand the politics behind the discourse, do not buy it at face value.

Indian Media’s Poverty of Imagination

The recent media discourse on Kashmir and also the run up to the Punjab and UP Polls, fundamentally articulate that there are no apparent issues in India apart from Navjot Sidhu joining AAP and that Kashmir has issues because of one person who was killed. The Bundelkhand droughts was never covered in the same vain. And the release of Kabali is not a story of national importance, please get a life.

We seem to reside in the ‘Desert of the Real’ as Baudrillard had written about. No one seems to bother what are the real issues about which are such as speaking to the Kashmiri  who differ with your nationalist narrative, take a tough call on the drug menace in Punjab and the conversation about improving community led agriculture in Bundelkhand. Get Real, Media as it seems like every one else you are rotating on your own axis.

Activists as Entrepreneurs: Boot Strapping to Fund Raising

Activists are pejoratively called ‘professional dissenters’, who do not create ‘value’ by the business community at large. In fact, to invert the lens, they are intellectual entrepreneurs who are bringing their thoughts to life. An idea is undergirded by tangible resources to last a while. Activists are traditional organizations in a very corporate sense. The bottom line lies somewhere else, only the quarterly reporting format differs. Ask any fundraising manager for a non-profit the reality and he would be speaking the same lexicon as a corporate manager. Boot-strapping for scaling is the forte of an activist, working on scant resources, long before the term became cool in contemporary literature. Hiring the correct talent becomes as headache as cash is often in short supply unless it is an INGO such as the International Rescue Committee which can hire David Miliband as its CEO. There is no Series A Funding round for an activist, as the funding rounds are perennial.

All social movements need resources and are limited by the same variables which start-ups are limited. Non-profits need war rooms to coordinate efforts for large scale projects. ‘Blitz scaling’ as coined by Venture Capitalist Reid Hoffmann (HBR April 2016) is performed out by mobilizing the common spirit of the times. #FeeltheBern or the Sanders presidential campaign is classic example of reaching out to small donors and scaling a movement. A performing social movement like a political campaign for elected office, serves a purpose. Activism such as selling a product is also selling an idea. The idea becomes the basis of the product cycle. The campaign for the food security legislation in India took decades to be written in to law, but the ground work intellectually started many years back by activists such as Aruna Roy, Jean Dreaze and Amartya Sen.

Activism needs the same skill set as an entrepreneur as the buy in is needed. The product being a normative idea makes it a very challenging sell in comparison to a FMCG product. Let us have the humility and listen to these struggles as lessons to learn.

Why Mr Pai is Wrong?

The JNU+FTII+HCU episode is an attempt to reduce students as ’employees’ and ‘consumers’ and not nurture citizens who should understand and aspire for a better polity. Anyone with activist leanings is labelled as ‘non-employable’ borrowing from Mr Ratan Tata as his/her spirit needs to be subjugated to the majoratarian narrative in order to work. The contrarian spirit is essential for innovation. Make in India needs ‘ignited minds’ in the words of late President APJ Abdul Kalam.

This sentiment connects with the entirely bogus conversation on liberal arts majors being not market worthy and wasting taxpayer rupees/dollars. In the words of Mr Mohandas Pai in a NDTV article, activist students waste money and the subsidies are for education. According to Mr Pai students are supposed to treat their opportunity at JNU as a social elevator and train themselves to be call centre workers. Tax payer cash is not only the perogative of supposedly more productive STEM majors, who will be ‘Bangalored’ for fulfilling headcount for North American IT Outsourcing Project. 

The average student at JNU would not be able to pay the fees at Manipal Education which he is chairman at. Kanhaiya, an aaganwadi workers son, was reading his PhD as Umar. JNU is very competitive to enter, and fortunately not the same as Manipal and as competitive as an IIT/IIM. Mr Ratan Tata, as per his logic should shut down TISS, one of the best social science institutions that bears the Tata brand. The positive from this episode is raised conciousness regarding nationalism and identity.

Questioning the status quo for the better is nationalism.

‪#‎Vemula‬ ‪#‎JNU‬

India-Singapore Relations: Time to move beyond Infrastructure and Finance?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits Singapore on the 23rd November for a State Visit to Singapore in a longer follow up visit to earlier on this year when he visited the island city state to join other world leaders after the founding father of Singapore, Mr. Lee Kuan Yew passed away. The general discourse around India-Singapore relations is a prosperous Singapore as an investor in a booming BRIC country market. This narrative driven by the business media is however under-nourished. The Singapore Model of Development pioneered by the late Mr. Lee Kuan Yew which brought the city state global fame in transforming itself from ‘The Third World to First World’ has undoubtedly inspired the 100 Smart City program of the Modi Government. The new Greenfield capital of Andhra Pradesh: Amravati is being designed by Singaporean Urban Planners and has cemented the relationship of Singapore as a symbol of urban excellence1. Singapore is the largest source of Foreign Direct Investment in India2 and testament to this unique fact is the recent visit of Finance Minister Arun Jaitley and a team of bankers including the Managing Director of the State Bank of India to lure institutional investors in to India.  The commercial relationship is a deeply symbiotic one. State Bank of India and ICICI Bank along with others have retail banking licences in Singapore.

Many Indian Start Ups move to Singapore for easier access to capital and regulatory clarity. In the past Spice Group moved base to Singapore. Singaporean Water Technology Major Hyflux has picked up Desalination Projects in Modi’s Gujarat; Singaporean Banks and Sovereign Wealth Funds are increasing their investment footprint in India. Hyderabad based Environmental Infrastructure group Ramky maintains parking lots as a Facilities Management firm all over Singapore.

These examples are however fleeting reflection of the Singapore-India Relationship which shares a deep historical diasporic bond. Singapore is home to a large minority of people of Indian Decent with Deepawali a public holiday and Tamil an official language. There is a significant presence of minsters of Indian decent in the Singaporean Cabinet including Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanamugaratnam. The Indian expatriate community makes its presence felt from blue collared work to the heads of Multinational Corporations including the CEO of DBS Bank, Piyush Gupta, a former Indian National.

The truth is India does not give Singapore the same diplomatic attention as the USA, UK or Canada where there are similar large Indian diaspora communities. Singapore was the first country to embrace enthusiastically India’s ‘Look East Policy’ in the early 1990’s with then Singaporean Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong visiting Narsimha Rao and his ministerial team.

Last week, the Chinese President visited Singapore to mark 25 years of diplomatic relations and signed a range of agreements including the third joint industrial park in western China and macroeconomic agreements3. Singapore is majority ethnic Chinese but its relationship with China is layered. Singapore has been an ally of the USA from the Cold War era and has hosted American Military Ships in the past. Pragmatic Singaporean policy has nurtured a close relationship with China from the 1970’s since Chairman Deng Xiaoping visited Singapore and opened up the economy after visiting it. The writer does not sense the same intensity in the relationship between India and Singapore at the diplomatic level. The gap however is more than adequately filled up by Indian community organizations and people to people contact. The same story is repeated in Oman, where I grew up.

The Narendra Modi visit has generated a lot of buzz among the Indian Community in Singapore, with community organizers taking the lead to arrange for the logistics for his ‘Madison Square Garden’ style address at the Singapore Expo4. However, only Indian Nationals are encouraged to attend the event as per media reports.

The major language in the Indian diaspora here in Singapore is Tamil and with Narendra Modi’s predisposition with Hindi, how much of it cut will ice with the same community that he is attempting to touch base with, is of question at the present juncture. There has also been a contradictory voice in the Singaporean media in the run up to the visit when Indian American Academic at the National University of Singapore Prof Mohan Jyoti Dutta wrote an opinion piece in the Straits Times on the contemporary politics of identity based on beef and the crackdown on activism in India in the present Modi regime5.


“The violence on the margins of Indian society is accompanied by the quick spread of a chilling climate, with a number of prominent rationalists being attacked and/or murdered, allegedly by right-wing religious groups.”

Increase the Soft Power Lens

Singapore is a major mercantile port hub in Asia and a few months back an Indian Coast Guard Vessel on a South East Asia goodwill tour docked at Changi Naval Base, with many of the young sailors in white seen shopping in the Little India Area in Singapore. India competes for influence in the South East Asia region with Asia, where China has a natural advantage with influential diaspora communities who are better connected to structures of power. India’s engagement with Singapore and the region is more effective at an informal business and community level. The overseas Indian Intelligentsia is based here in Singapore with plenty of think tanks at the National University of Singapore and the Nanyang Technological University focused on research themes based on India such as Institute of South Asian Studies. Thousands of Indian Students study in Singapore, and some of them will head back to India to work with the knowledge imbibed in Singapore. Indian Films and TV series have been shot in Singapore since the 1960’s including the Hrithik Roshan starrer ‘Krrish’ which had frames shot in the Business District in Singapore. Indian films both Tamil and Hindi are screened in theatres here as soon as they are released in India, and run to packed houses. The extent of cultural inter-weaving is dense, and the key pillar in the Singapore-India relationship.

The writer hopes that this state visit by Prime Minister Narendrabhai Damodardas Modi would take the Singapore-India Relationship deeper by engaging the non-elite diaspora who send back remittances and leveraging common areas of strength such as a shared understanding of culture missing from the realpolitik world of diplomacy.


  2. .


Reimagining the Left of Centre in India

With the triumphant win of the Narendra Modi campaign and the Right riding home with an absolute majority; the Political Right in India has gauged the pulse of the nation by moving away from faith based politics and riding the wave of the strong rhetoric of development and muscular leadership. In contrast, the Left of Centre- the motley bunch of the semi-national players that brandish themselves by secularism, regional pride and somewhat pragmatic definition of secularism were marginalised. AIADMK, TMC and BJD as regional behemoths expanded their space, but the once mighty Congress and the traditional left (read CPM) and quasi-socialist actors in form of the SP, BSP, JDS, JDU, NCP all had to eat humble pie (or halwa for all that matter). The alternative political discourse offered by the Aam Admi Party was silenced by the Tsu-NaMo that wiped it off in the political landscape of Delhi. The indecisive leadership and aborted governance story of Kejriwal was a damp squib. 

The Left of Centre is rudderless such as the BJP after the 2009 polls under an uninspiring campaign under Mr. Advani. The youth factor of Rahul & Co + State Welfarism (i.e Jairam Ramesh administered MNERGA) won the day for UPA. Then it went into self destruct policy paralysis mode and with all the mega scandals time was ripe for a strong decisive leader which the Sangh and the BJP capitalized on. The mood of the nation mandated a message of salvation. A message which was communicated well.

So, What lessons can the Left of Centre political continuum derive to drive its politics in the Modi Age. A few pointers are stated below:

Congress: Rahul Factor was ineffective. With 44 seats, Congress needs a reboot. Priyanka has more charm and will help a lot more. It would be great to have a Jyotiraditya and a Shashi to lead the party region wise, dismantle dynastic high command culture and project a strong leadership orientation. Secularism is a hackneyed horse. Pluralism and Inclusive Growth are values that still resonate. More empowered Regional Leaders and an aspiration oriented message is the need of the hour. In short, wake up or Congress as we know will be history as TMC, NCP and YSRC have more muscle and overpower them.

AAP: A ground up self organised urban movement that had a lot of energy and lost its way in the quest to spread itself thin. Message for AAP; Let Kejriwal be the anarchist and the organizer, and have a Yogendra Yadav lead the political face of the party. Aspirational, Educated, Urbane. Concentrate on a few geographies and expand such as Delhi, Punjab and Haryana where they still have purchase.

Left Front : Ideologue named Prakash Karat is as charismatic as a brick wall. The left is decimated in Bengal and a marginal entity in Kerala. Tripura is a dot on the map with two MPs.  Needs an energetic Young Leader with a national catch phrase. Learn from your ideological cousins in Beijing comrades!

SP, BSP, NCP, JDU : The quasi-socialist gang have exhausted their caste and minority appeasement card. The nation wants a clear cut development agenda. Caste Cauldrons of UP and Bihar have voted for development. Re-structuring of the political message needed.

Values of pluralism and inclusiveness are treasured in the intellectual fabric of the Idea of India. The Demographic youth bulge has spoken. Jobs and Services are tangibles that are political weapons in the gladiatorial theater of Indian Electoral Democracy.

The Left under reformist Buddhadeb won 35 of 42 seats, won urban Bengal in 2004 polls and Left dictated terms for 4 years until the Indo-US Nuclear Deal Fiasco. International Ideological positions over rode energy security. Lessons from History are to be learnt. If the BJP can, i hope the opposition can too.

Why it is a good idea for India to have a Temasek Holdings of its own?

Recently there has been talk of India having its own Sovereign Wealth Fund. The idea espoused by TV 18 Founder Raghav Bahl has attained additional intellectual fuel by Economic Thinker Arun Shourie’s backing of the idea. A Sovereign Wealth Fund for India will be a holding company for the profitable public sector enterprises, and will be a ‘National Champion’ in French parlons extrapolating National Power overseas such as an Alstorm or a Arcelor. According to policy research, the locus of the corporate headquarters helps the organization to leverage national assets in a globalized marketplace of ideas and assets. In short it is an extension of foreign policy and state capitalism. Temasek Holdings and GIC, the Sovereign Wealth Funds of the Republic of Singapore have been vehicles of this meritocratic City-State to help it punch above its weight class in the international financial community. Singaporean Sovereign Wealth Fund’s were one of the biggest investors in the 2008 financial depression. The Changi Naval Base in Singapore regularly hosts US Navy ships.  Financial and Economic might go hand in hand. Recently, Singapore has emerged as the largest offshore trading hub for the Chinese Yuan.

Qatar Holdings is one of the world’s most aggressive sovereign wealth funds snapping up assets across the globe. Although Qataris are incredibly affluent with an absolute monarchy, its prominence in the domain of state craft is a case in point.  A country such as India should not compare with these islands of affluence. China, Brazil, Indonesia and Mexico are probably better examples to draw a comparative. As a prominent media commentator from Singapore quipped on my Facebook discussion thread on the same theme as this post,  that India missed the competitive resource nationalism bus vis-a-vis China long time back but an ONGC Videsh would have found it much easier to compete with a CNOOC if India had an over-arching SWF to back it in the international financial markets.

A muscular foreign policy needs the cash of an SWF to enforce its talk. The ability to raise capital and acquire assets at will is crucial towards projecting strength. A good idea whose time is ripe, actually long over due.


Urban Infrastructure- Its about Politics Stupid!

Indian Cities are expanding, by leaps and bounds. The National Capital Region and The Greater Mumbai Region are urban agglomerations which are power centers of our economy. Every second tier Indian City is growing to accommodate the aspirations of the Indian with access to Google and hence the window to the world on their Nokia Asha’s and Micromax’s. Folks from the lower socioeconomic strata take selfie’s on their Chinese made Xylo phones in the Delhi Metro. The Smart Phone is a symbolic totem of an aspiring India and a powerful force multiplier. The Naya Raipurs and Greater Raigad’s are the future of urbanization in the country. The ten odd nodes of the Multi-Billion Dollar Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DIMC) driven new smart cities off a fresh template mirroring the Pudong-Pearl River Delta model of the early 1980’s made China the factory of the world. The DIMC Development Corporation is led by Amitabh Kant, a dynamo of a civil servant which shatters the stereotype of a sarakari babu. Aggressive Visionary Leaders make a world of a difference. Narendra Modi has put the Dholera node of DIMC in Gujarat near Amdavad on steroids with the work progressing on a firm footing.

A BJP led administration from May 2014 would be an enabler for creating urban infrastructure as its voter base is the urban middle class, while in contrast the Congress was welfare scheme oriented as its target consumer oops voter was different.  The Urban Voter is being taken seriously finally with Modi and Kejriwal vying for their vote.  Kejriwal and the Aam Admi Party have been paradigm shifters for bringing the focus back on the urban voter. Prof. Yogendra Yadav from Gurgaon and an Ashutosh from Chandani Chowk would be a welcome add to  debates in the Lok Sabha. The Candidature of IT Visionary Nandan Nilekani from Bengaluru South is a sign that Indian Politics is finally accepting the urban professional.

The Urban voterscape is a myriad canvas of actors.   Gurgaon is about a Chakkarpur and Cyber City equally. The Aam Admi Party has a strong appeal for the urban poor in the National Capital Region and Kejriwal’s antics have delivered them the message that we can have a voice in the Vidhan Sabha too.  Urban Governance is ultimately about equitable access to public services. The Quality of Life has to improve. The Urban ecosystem is complex with multiple stakeholders with different stakes in the game.  Urban India can win only if they vote in the forthcoming polls.

Press the Button, gently.

‘Tapri’ Tales: Conversations over Cutting Chai

Tapri can be identified as a humble rambled neighborhood corner tea stall which sells you a smoke, biscuits and snacks. Its significance as a locus of community engagement goes beyond the unimpressive physical confines which it depicts.  This urban street corner joint is a great social leveler in which the office boy interacts with the MD as both share a crackle over a smoke, whether it is a chota gold flake or Rothmans (brands are insignificant as it is the nicotine kick that counts, right?). In aping the west, the Glitzy office blocks are non smoking zones, and even the overseas educated snobs are compelled to share the space with mundane workforce cousins of the office complex.  I do not have a negative bias against smoking as I understand that it is a lifestyle choice as much as a drink at a pub on a Saturday evening.

 Office Gossips and petty plans are concocted over a cutting chai in the five minute post lunch walkabout downstairs.  A node of interactions with peers beyond your office floor; a quick eye to eye  glance with the latest eye candy in the block, adds those microseconds of joy to ones dreaded cubicle slavery.

I do not smoke but I have been a passive smoker over the last few years of my life due to my friends who enjoy a drag. I can sense the kick which esteemed bosses have when they substitute their Cappuccino at Costa for a 6 rupees wala cutting chai. 8% of the cost, 8 times more kick with a chota gold flake.  Tapri as they call the significant social institution in Mumbai sells you poha or samosa for breakfast or a quick bite in 15-20 rupees where a normal meal at a registered eatery will set you back by at least 50-70 bucks (kindly excuse the hygiene levels please). For the invisible urban underbelly that keeps our homes, offices and communities functioning at equilibrium- the tapris are a lifeline in these times of inflation and economic uncertainty.

In Delhi and in general the NCR, Tapris offer a lot more on the plate (pun intended) in terms of the fare they serve. It is cold currently in the height of the winter in Delhi, it serves one eggs, maggi and sometimes steamed chicken dumplings (momos) that makes one warm.  It is a mini eatery on wheels in a way.  The tapri owner is a walking talking yellow pages of the services available in the area. Well, sometimes all kinds of services, which a decent boy next door really does not need to know off.

The pulse of a community can be gauged from frequenting the tapri, whether it is the sentiment over Arvind Kejriwal dharna at Rail Bhawan or Katrina Kaif in Malang.  I was pleasantly shocked that the tapri next door sells the Indonesian cigarette Godam Garam and it pretty popular I have unscientifically observed during winter. Although the barely literate tapri owner is aware that it is an ‘imported’ cigarette, it is the embodiment of how globalization has reached the urban classes in India.

The joy of a cutting chai, pani kum or strong tea cannot be equated with the inorganic finesse of a CCD.  Truly a lot more happens over a chai 🙂


The Post ‘Sickularism’ Age is finally here

Today Modi rocked Mumbai. Being a Mumbaikar I felt the energy of Bandra Kurla Complex through the airwaves in far away cold Gurgaon. I felt the gap in Left of Centre Politics in India as well. The syntax can be termed as Leadership which is not aloof. The High Command Culture of Lutyens Delhi was breached earlier this month by a civil society activist Kejriwal. Kejriwal’s politics is very much left of centre especially its economic populism. But there is a difference- Kejriwal’s vocabulary consists of a connect with the urban poor. He won the trophy constituency of New Delhi beating Sheila Aunty by a large margin.  The Aam Admi Party is scripting a new narrative for urban metropolitan politics in this country. Accountability, Inclusive Governance, Proactive Leadership are adjective-verbs that are currently appropriated by the Right in India and now by the Aam Admi Party. The ethos of a strong technocratic Developmental State is the edifice of Modi’s Politics. Raman Singh’s Chhattisgarh uses Welfare very effectively too. The core plank of Congress’s Politics is Welfare centric. I am a supporter of Entitlement Legislations as it is often the last resort of the extreme poor.  But Welfare needs a robust infrastructure to deliver value to the costumers. We live in the era of a Client-State Relationship. The legislations have to deliver on the ground. Ofcourse the lessons of governance are iterative, they take time for the results to emerge on the central dashboard of the media monitors.  The loss in Rajasthan has shown that Welfare is not a magic bullet. Strong Leadership matters in the atmosphere of policy paralysis.

Congress’s other political Killer App is secularism. Unfortunately, this is a pejorative word with a negative connotation. This means minority-ism and vote bank politics. The introduction of the communal violence bill is not the reform legislation that’s top priority anyways. The Lok Pal Act is a victory for the civil society and not for Rahul ji as it was a reactive measure. 

Secularism isn’t panacea. The Politics of Pluralism has a wider appeal. Arun Shourie should take a workshop for the friends from the Left. Regional Leaders are strong leaders. A Nitish and a Jayalalitha ji are perceived as leaders who have a mass base unlike a Scindia.

The Liberal Left has to realise that Developmentalism and Strong Leadership is the need of the hour rather  rhetoric on communalism. Modi and Kejriwal are metaphors for clean and development based politics. The Congress needs more Jairam and Pilot than Gehlot and Jogi.

A Pluralism+Development+StrongLeadership approach. Is it that difficult Rahulji?