Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Does the BJP have a strategy for West Bengal ?

Does BJP have a strategy for West Bengal ? Bengalis want ‘deliverance’ not just delivery

Photo Courtesy - ABP

Article first published in +ABPLIVE (Click here to read)

The Sunday Kolkata newspapers carried a photo of actor turned would-be politician Rupa Ganguly – tripping on a ‘padyatra’. This could be symbolic of BJP’s journey in West Bengal.

After the Lok Sabha polls – the BJP was on a high buoyed by its 17% vote-share and lead in 20 assembly constituencies despite winning just 2 seats out of 42.
This tied in with Narendra Modi’s  “Look East” strategy – by which he wished to hedge BJP’s over-dependence on the Hindi heartland through securing a sizeable presence in Bengal and the North-East. His rhetoric of how – India could not progress by leaving the East behind – resonated well with large sections of the communally not-partisan and ideologically neutral middle-class especially the aspirational youth.

In Bengal, BJP’s overdrive got off to an impressive start with a lot of bluster: the famous ‘3M’ call of Siddharth Nath Singh – the party’s ‘minder’ for the state – threatening to pack Madan (Mitra), Mukul (Roy) and, finally, Mamata behind bars. To follow through, momentum was built over the Saradha Scam - only to fizzle out  all too soon.

The Kolkata Municipality and other local body elections – including some assembly by-polls - were a wash out frittering away the gains of 2014. That BJP central leadership knew little of Bengal was apparent from their choice of the state President. At least Siddharth Nath Singh could boast of having his “sasural” in Kolkata. How Kailash Vijayvargiya and Nirmala Sitharaman were given charge of the state was intriguing. Finally, the RSS seized control by placing its long-time “Pracharak” – Dilip Ghosh at the helm. But, have they got the diagnosis right?

Surely, the RSS may help build a grass-root organization without which elections cannot be won – especially in a state of two strong cadre based parties, namely Trinamool and CPIM. In fact, RSS has been on the job for a while with some success in a few districts of Central Bengal. However, to fight an election purely on anti-incumbency sentiments and backlash against growing communal fault-lines may turn-out to be a shortsighted strategy yielding low dividend.

What Bengal needs is a comprehensive political and economic paradigm shift. This could be a genuine right-wing resurgence – shaking off the hangover of five decades of faux Leftism – that was only a ruse for blatant lumpen-raj. The anger of the middle-class is getting directed at minority appeasement largely because of lack of development in the state. The ethnic Bengalis of West Bengal are pained to see resources of an already impoverished economy appropriated by ‘trespassers’ (read illegal immigrants) – while their own children are constrained to leave home for higher education and jobs in other states. Besides, the beneficiaries of state benevolence do not make any positive contribution to the economy accruing to the benefit of the native population. Instead they are threatening the very foundation of Bengal’s socio-economic value system.

The answer is not an alternative ‘ideology’ but “Vision”. Narendra Modi had raised that hope – but he does not have a leader on the ground (like say Fadnavis or even a Raghubar Das) to translate it into action and the BJP central leadership have no clue about what needs to be done at the state level.

The coming Assembly Election is too close at hand for making any major mid-term course correction. The strategy now should be one of damage control and setting the house in order to avert a complete rout – because it will be so much more difficult to start construction afresh over a heap of rubble.

What Bengalis are looking for is ‘deliverance’ not just delivery. Modi can build confidence on the latter if he performs at the center. However, for the former BJP has to eschew the conservative Hindutva plank and offer a pragmatic alternative with a credible and inspirational face in front – not just an actor with no political experience.

(The writer is Media and Marketing professional who views life and politics from the right. Twitter @SandipGhose)

What's Litfests got to do with reading books ?

Fashion Week of Thinking Socialites

Artcle first published in +DailyO India Today (Click here to read)

Heard the turnout at the Kolkata Book Fair was low this year. But, there was a rush for passes to the three Literary Festivals (Lit-fests) that have become part of the city's winter calendar for the last few years. Of course, the gentry of the lit-fests and the book fair were hugely different.

A few years back I earned the wrath of the luminous organiser of one of Kolkata's Lit-Fest - by calling it a "poor man's JLF". She was riled again this year –at my declining her invite (for which many were willing to give an arm and a leg) saying it is too "elitist" for someone as gauche as me. Being a dear friend I hope she will excuse me over time.

In our age of innocence  - the precarious cusp between school and college - we would go to the Kolkata Book Fair (then held in the Maidan - old Calcutta's equivalent of Hyde Park) for two primary attractions. First, it provided a good cover for meeting girls. Second was, of course, to browse and buy books. While the former was largely a feast for the eyes - the latter was indeed food for the soul. Later in life - when a bit older - was moved to see thousands of people of visibly modest means, who would travel miles in trains and buses from the suburbs to buy books. That they were genuine book lovers was painted on their faces - but those were the days when Bengalis could still afford to believe in "plain living and high thinking".

It is tiresome to repeat - today's generation hardly read and even those who do rarely visit bookstores - preferring the easier and cheaper option of downloading from the net. Knowledge is now consumed on-line - which, per se, isn't as bad as it is made to sound. Granted there are still many dinosaurs like me who love visiting bookstores – just for the look, feel and smell of books but our tribe is diminishing as fast as the Zoroastrian population of India. We too are increasingly turning to Amazon or Flipkart – for ordering books. But, Lit-fests have arrived as fashion shows for ‘thinking socialites’.

There is an emerging new genre of writers – who may be called the “Lit-fest” authors. Thy can be broadly divided into two categories. The first are established writers – who spend the recess between writing books attending Lit-fests. Then there are others who write only to be invited to lit-fest and mingle with the fashionable literati with champagne flute in one hand and cigarette in the other.

Be that as it may, there is definitely a growing market for such shows out there. Or else, Lit-fests won’t be sprouting like the infamous “Congress Grass” (parthenium) in every city from Bombay to Begusarai and Kolkata to Karachi without any apparent revenue model other than sponsorships. Some explain this as the “Cook-Book Phenomenon”. As eating out is the order of the day with cooking becoming almost extinct – more and more people are turning to reading recipes (and watch "Big Chef" on Television) for vicarious gratification of the dormant cook within them or, perhaps, assuaging a subconscious guilt.

There can be another hypothesis. As attention spans are shrinking in a digital age – reading books is increasingly becoming a challenge even for the born bibliophile. Increasingly, therefore, the talkative Indian is being seduced by the spoken word for intellectual stimulation. This, perhaps, explains the popularity of TV Chat shows and prime-time debates on News Channels. Lit-fests, probably, cater to the same appetite in more sophisticate settings and esoteric company.

Last year I happened to be in Jaipur towards the end of JLF. Truth be told – I quite enjoyed the experience not as much for the book reading sessions or panel discussions – but nursing a single-malt in the crackling weather listening to live band performances by motley groups of young musicians from different parts of the country. Quite a change from the Egg Roll, Fish Fry, Lemon Tea and Rabindra Sangeet routine at the Book Fair. I intended to return this - This year - despite but couldn’t make it much to my disappointment. Asked a friend in Delhi, who used to be a regular on the Lit-fest circuit – if she was going to Jaipur? She shot back indignantly “Me and Lit-fests? Oh they’ve become so passé now only the wannabes go for them”. Thought-fests (especially in salubrious Goa) are the place to be in these days - she told me.

While I was secretly relieved for having given it a miss – it set me thinking if Lit-fests yet another marketing fad - of publishers and event companies - that is going to blow over soon?

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Pathankot Attack

Is Pathankot Doval’s Second Kandahar?

Article First Published in +ABPLIVE (click here to read)

Just on the eve of the New Year – a retired intelligence officer who had accompanied Ajit Doval on the Kandahar rescue mission – recalled in a tweet its 15th anniversary and what a New Year celebration it was for them on return. In sharp contrast, 2016 – opened with the Pathankot attack.

The sister publication of this channel – Ananda Bazar Patrika, the highest circulated Single Edition Daily, had a tongue-in-cheek headline “Doval-ee Doba-len Pathankot-e”. Though the nuance of the pun is lost in translation – roughly it meant: Doval “goofed up” Pathankot. A day ago – the group’s English Daily – The Telegraph, Calcutta – carried a well-researched account of how the Pathankot counter operations were mishandled and raised numerous unanswered questions over the attack and its subsequent handling. The refrain has been similar across large sections of mainstream media.

As expected in this day and age of Social Media, the cacophony of rival choirs – one singing accolades for Doval and the other running him down–filled the airwaves and choked intellectual bandwidth. The mysteries and gaffes apart – there was no doubt that Pathankot – was a phenomenal attack on a defence base, just as Mumbai 26/11 was on civilians. What set apart Pathankot even more was – the almost simultaneous assault on the Indian Consulate in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan. Discerning analysts who are not caught up in jingoistic crossfire on TV and Op-eds - were quick to pick up the distinguishing features of the latest denouement. First, the chinar-leaf of Kashmir has been dropped and now it’s a no-holds bar attack on India. There was none of the customary denials of where the attackers came from and the control station of the operations. Finally – parallel opening of the Afghan front was a loud and clear signal for India – to stay-off Pakistan’s backyard.

On the domestic front – with Doval taking most of the ire and flak – to an extent spared the Prime Minister of a frontal attack by the opposition and media. But, does this also indicate a weakening of Narendra Modi’s -“leveling” as it were – in one area where he was head and shoulder over his predecessors and contemporary Asian leaders?

In a previous article – this author had himself argued that however stage-managed and choreographed the stop-over at Lahore – was necessary to apply soothing aloe-vera over the blisters that Pakistan had surely developed after display of camaraderie in Kabul. But, as it turned out, the bon-homie with one Sharif (Nawaz) probably left the other Sharif (Army Chief, Raheel) smarting – just like Musharraf was miffed after Vajpayee’s Lahore bhai-chara.

Was there a miscalculation in choosing the hug and holding hands photo-shop moment – prompted as it might have been by common friends in  Washington - preceded by a well-publicized meeting between the two NSAs on neutral ground (Bangkok) ? Certainly – hyping it up as “unconventional” and “out of the box” diplomacy was premature. By now, both Modi and the Indian establishment should have realized that dining with Nawaz Sharif was as futile as Modi having “Chai-pe-Charcha” with Sonia Gandhi. Neither want him to succeed.

Clearly – the PMO (meaning the NSA) and the Foreign Office should have better anticipated the mood and tested the ground in Lahore before letting the Prime Minister make an unscheduled landing there. As one redoubtable commentator has pointed out –Nixon’s China Visit came after months of preparation by Kissinger.

The subsequent blabber over Pakistan’s action (which some TV anchors eloquently called “back-stabbing”) ranging from remonstrations to restraint (the ‘talks must carry on’) reveals confusion in India’s Af-Pak policy that is akin to what one sees on issues of the economy and reforms at home. Coming after the Bihar setback – as it does – it may not augur well from the Prime Minister’s standing in the balance 3 odd years of his term.

The trajectory of Modi’s tenure seems to be trailing that of Obama. First disappointments on the domestic front – followed by setbacks in foreign policy. Already one sees RSS increasing control over by appointing “Pracharaks” at the helm at many places – West Bengal, Rajasthan – now probably UP and Bihar too. Though far from being a ‘lame-duck’ Prime Minister by any stretch of imagination – there is need for some strong rear-guard action – not just to stop the slide and check the drift but recover lost ground and put Modi back in the driver’s seat once again.

But, Pathankot like Kandahar will hang around Mr. Doval’s neck like a cross for a long time to come – unless neutralized in a short time.

Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Ronju (Pradeep) Dutt - an uncelebrated legend

Pradeep (PK) Dutt - Guru of Marketing Gurus passed away in Calcutta

Article first published in The Economic Times (click here for link)

An IIT Kharagpur Civil Engineer - he landed at the Backbay Reclamation Office of Hindustan Lever for an opening of Marketing Manager - after changing some 7 jobs (as per his own count) including trying his hand in Transport Business (when he couldn't see his own face on the mirror at night - because of the malpractices in the trade). The great raconteur that he was - Pradeep Dutt (PKD to his colleagues and Ronju to friends) would regale young Management Trainees with the story (perhaps made up) of how the topic of group discussion at the HLL interview was "The Rising Trend of Mini-skirts" - when he stunned the panel by asking whether it meant "Mini-skirts were getting shorter, or more and more women were taking to wearing mini-skirts". This piece of witticism he claimed clinched the job for him among many MBAs in the group.  It is this touch of humour and large-heartedness that set him apart from many of his peers and protégées - some of whom went on to do much better than him professionally.

His rise at Hindustan Lever was almost meteoric. As they say success has many fathers - so while a lot of people claim credit for the launch of Liril Soap and Fair & Lovely - PKD had a major role in both. Though the latter ('FAL' as it was called in Unilever parlance) - is a "politically incorrect" product to talk of now  - PKD (in early 80s) proudly displayed in his room a letter of thanks from someone living in a remote Tamil Nadu village, who thought had it not been for Fair & Lovely his daughter would not have found a good match. From there, Pradeep Dutt went on to become the youngest ever Managing Director of Lipton India - sitting in their old Weston Street Office in Central Calcutta and was the lead player of the company's turn-around story.

It is at Lipton, PKD touched the lives and shaped careers of many. Always a bon-vivant - he was arguably the most magnanimous of the Lever's Marketing doyens - perhaps, with the sole exception of the legendary Shunu Sen. But, ironically, it was also at Lipton's PKD met his professional "waterloo" in the launch of Tree-top - a tetra-pack range of drinks - and '21' an Ice Tea clone - which were perhaps much ahead of their time. But, PKD had the old world leadership values of backing his lieutenants to the hilt - and then taking the blame upon himself if things went wrong - a quality that has gone missing in today's corporate world.

Around the same time - PKD lost his wife Padma to cancer - who was really the anchor of his life. It his from here that his personal and professional world began to fall apart. If one call it hamartia - it was the blind faith he had on colleagues and subordinates. This, many friends and admirers believe, was also the cause of his next professional setback in a multinational company - which he had to leave in a somewhat forgettable circumstances.

His later years were spent between Calcutta and Santiniketan (where he took pride in saying his regular rickshawallah also double up as a boot-legger) - until he sold of his house there. At Calcutta - he was a regular at the Clubs. Always surrounded by friends - he was never spared himself on food, drinks and cigarettes. But, that neither dimmed his wit or took the edge off his sharp marketing mind. Many former colleagues would turn to him for advice on Brands - which he would dispense freely. Anyone else in his place - would have made a fortune out of it. But, PKD was too proud to do that. The outpourings on Facebook - at the breaking of the news this morning is a testimony to the popularity of the man as was the large gathering of friends and associates at the crematorium.  One elderly gentleman who came for the last rites - was carrying a bottle of mineral water. A friend quipped - you haven't come to Ronju's funeral with just plain water but mixed some gin into it - else he wouldn't forgive you. That in a way sums up the man that was PKD.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Can Modi afford to dump Jaitley ?

By attacking Arun Jaitley, Modi opponents trying to isolate him

Article first published in +DailyO India Today (Click here to read)

Delhi was rife with rumours about Arun Jaitley's imminent shift from the finance ministry before Budget making starts. Post the Bihar debacle as talks of a Cabinet reshuffle subsided - the chances of Jaitley's removal also receded. After all, with Amit Shah cut to size he remained the prime minister's strongest ally both in the party and the government. It is, perhaps, for this very same reason - Modi's detractors and Jaitley's foes took it upon themselves to do what Modi himself couldn't afford to at this juncture.

Much is being made of the prime minister's "will come out in flying colours" remark comparing Jaitley with Advani. Whether it was a subtle hint at resignation or not - it is significant that the PM broke his customary reticence on such matters. He has reasons to be worried - because the attackers were coming too close for comfort. After Shah and Jaitley, they could next take on Modi directly - as with these two strong lieutenants politically neutered - he would be quite lonely in Delhi. For all his moral grandstanding, Jaitley himself looked rather rattled - knowing he was directly in the line of fire. This is apparent not just in his filing the defamation suit against Kejriwal, but also in his accusation that Kirti Azad met Sonia Gandhi.

Although the ire of the BJP "old guard" and the "fallen-by-the-wayside" was at the collective entity that Arun Shourie called the "Trimurti" - it was Jaitley who they thought was the illegitimate usurper - even after losing his maiden Lok Sabha bid from Amritsar. It was a view that found support even from Modi supporters who felt Jaitley was the Lutyens' surrogate in NDA coming in the way of bold actions. Now, with Amit Shah having been eliminated by his own self-goal in Bihar, Jaitley was easy for the picking.

It may not be a coincidence that the three major scandals to rock the Modi government - that put Sushma Swaraj, Vasundhara Raje and, now, Jaitley, in the life of fire - had something to do with cricket. Vasundhara and Sushma could have been targeted on many issues, but for Jaitley, cricket is, perhaps, the Achilles Heel that opponents were smart enough to latch onto.

The rivalry between Jaitley and Swaraj is one of Delhi's worst kept secrets and has been well documented by some senior journalists. Many, therefore, believed "Lalit-gate" could have been inspired by the Jaitley camp to put Swaraj and Raje on the mat. Lalit Modi didn't pull his punches even then.

Like many in the BJP today Jaitley owed his rise in BJP to Advani - who had appointed him party spokesperson that gave him a national profile. However, post Advani's Jinnah faux pas, he was quick to jettison him and also one of the early Delhi entrants into the Modi camp. While Advani's protégée - Sushma Swaraj - was dithering to accept Modi as PM candidate, Jaitley had decidedly crossed the Rubicon.

The interesting pattern that is emerging now is the anti-Jaitley axis, which seems to be cutting across party lines in reverse trajectory from AAP to Congress and now finally coming home to Advani's residence. It's easy to dismiss this as transient opportunism, though irony dies when Congress spokespersons and Kejriwal accuse BJP of lacking inner-party democracy and shooting the messenger. The truth could run deeper. The "enemy" may have penetrated the inner ranks of the BJP. By eliminating Jaitley and Shah they are hoping to isolate Modi, forcing him to fend for himself. This may be a high-risk strategy - as one can't predict how Modi will react.

So one is waiting with bated breath to see what Modi does on his return from Russia and Afghanistan - whether he'll choose to cut his losses by jettisoning Jaitley or declare war by consolidating his ranks for a fight to finish.