Saturday, March 31, 2012

Brand Rahul

There is no doubt that behind the creation of the building that is the brand Rahul Gandhi is a huge superstructure. Curious, I googled around on the brand that is Rahul Gandhi to see if there are different phases in the way media has projected the man over the years.

How I did this. The methodology (if you can call it that) is very simple. I went to Google and typed Rahul Gandhi. Then I went to the news section and saw how many articles showed in particular date ranges. And I read through some of them. That’s it. Not rocket science, but a closer look at my assumptions.

The Google news date range starts off in 2006-2008. But this is not the period when the Rahul Gandhi brand machine has started off. So I started off in 2004.

The Lost Phase: The brand machine took off closer to the 2004 date range when Congress won the first of two successive general elections. Google news gives about 932 results for those two years 2004-06. The first steps are small. Stories like “Indias first family rises again”. There are news with Rahul Gandhi, up close and personal.  He had started “mingling with tribals”, “breaking the security cordon”, “Thousands of hysterical supporters cheered and showered Rahul Gandhi with rose petals and pink powder…” starts a piece. Jagadamba Prasad, quoted in this piece, sounds prescient. And since at that time the marketing machine was not really running, newspapers were not shy of sharing personal details as well like his companion then

In this phase of Brand Rahul, there is no real brand building. A few people have reported what they are wont to. This phase of shorn of hype.  But as you can see, there is absolutely no dissent anywhere. Nobody has yet questioned the legitimacy of the dynasty and he is seen more of an elite scion somewhere.  There also does not seem to be too much hope of returning to power either among the family or the media.

From 2004 onwards when the Congress coalition won the elections and formed the government, the brand machine takes a leap. From comparing Rahul to Rajiv, there is news of the impending coronation as Party President atleast. There are notes of Musharrafs son meeting Sonias Son (whyever?).

The Launch Phase: From 2005 to 2006, Google throws up about 681 results.  In 2006, a piece asks, “Has Rahul Gandhis time come?” Some people had decided then itself that he had it in him. Another piece informs us why Rahul Gandhi is not like Rajiv.  “Rahul steps closer to Gandhi throne” informs another piece.
Did you know that Rahul loves Go karting? Even in this phase, the brand machine has not quite sharpened.  “Sources close to the family say that the shy Rahul is unlikely to respond”. A private guard quoted in this piece I suppose sums it up well “Aam aadmi idhar allowed nahi hota hai”. So much for seeing the future. Wonder those who heard his speeches in the future where he talks about interacting with beggars et al have to say about this. Rahuls adventures in Mayaland had begun then itself.  This piece informs us that after much coaxing and cajoling, Rahul is willing to campaign in UP in 2006. “The story emerging out of Amethi is that while Rahul is still the toast of his constituency, he is nowhere near as popular as his mother and sister. In the eyes of the adoring constituency, Sonia Gandhi is warm, affectionate, heroic, and worthy of the highest respect post her rejection of prime ministerial office, while Priyanka Vadra is dashing, Indira Gandhi-like and a natural in politics. (I still wonder which genius came up with the idea of equating Priyanka Vadra with Indira Gandhi – instead of helping her carve out her own brand of leadership.) Yet the same Amethi had exploded in a paroxysm of joy, when the Congress fielded Rahul from the constituency. The people had poured into the streets, spilled out of terraces, and climbed atop trees for a glimpse of the Gandhi heir who was their ticket to name, fame, and prosperity.”  Too long to quote, the above piece is lovely piece of writing for those interested in “how to write about emerging scions of political families”. A Kabul trip is written about as “international exposure” to the budding scion who is now about 36.  The piece starts off with a, by now, predictable “Rahul Gandhi is, for all intents and purposes, being groomed for high office.

This part is the real emergence of Brand Rahul. It focuses on his shyness, reticence, diffidence and also by and large portrays him as a normal human being. Keyword of this phase: Grooming. The shy boy is being groomed for a throne is assumed to be his, but he does not aspire for it, he is reluctant. He is not greedy, just a normal human being who is being offered the throne, but who, like other average human being offered a throne, would vacillate. The first thread of connecting with the common folks, I suppose. Whether it is a Congress throne or a national one.  Again, nobody has questioned anything about it yet. Well, why would anybody? 

Dynastic succession in India is as normal as an apple falling off a tree. 

Merit? That’s a misspelt brand of sewing machine.

The common factor through this phase is also about hope and no dissent whatsoever. And surely not in the India media – where there is little chance of mainstream dissent. And since the government is in the hands of a “competent” PM, it is hoped that the government will perform and the shine will rub onto the shy scion who is being groomed into the job.

The Hype Phase I: Now we go to 2006-07. That’s about 1590 results now. Hmmm, quantum leap? No? Exponential coverage then? Perhaps the brand machine has started whirring.

Perhaps watching the lackluster performance of the government, In this period, he is slowly pushed as a “pro poor mascot” a great irony in itself. But the story that came out was that he was the man behind the push for NREGA to be rolled out countrywide. This phase is the grooming phase at the next level where the branding goes into his roles as a catalyst that makes things happen when they would not otherwise. Considering the government has not really performed, this seems to be another attempt at a mini makeover. Fawning praise is almost normal. His image as a “pro poor” is now clear. Keywords: Future, pro poor, catalyst, history, grooming. So, from being a shy, reticent boy who is reluctant to rule over us, waiting for the golden era, he is now the catalyst. The catalyst who makes things happen in the background. The catalyst is a recurring theme from here onwards where everything that can happen is attributed to the catalyst. Not unlike cults which ascribe everything to the “magic” of one and only cult head.

In 2008, the brand machine has switched gears. 1670 results on google. The icon of Indian politics continues his love with the media. The star campaigner for many an election. The star campaigner has announced that “we will defeat terrorism”, crowds love the gen-next hero.

The Rahul for PM starts making itself heard slowly in this year.  Karnataka (the election year), Punjab were all stops on his itinerary. Of course, he has also taken on Mayawati in what can be seen as early attempts to build an audience in UP. He has also spoken in favour of the nuclear deal.

He has also been launched as the party mascot or so this piece says which makes for instructive reading.
The word “Yuvaraj” slowly moves out of the lexicon-since he has expressed his displeasure. The Dalit reaching out has begun. He has also turned down a MoS position in PMO. Congress sources, ever helpful in these matters have helped spread the word around about the “young” man’s contentment.
And a new brand of wannabe aspirants in his team. And the dalit tours have begun in right earnest. "Rahul was doing a Rajiv Gandhi, who used to be as carefree and open with his constituents and was known to make unscheduled halts at houses of the poorest of the poor and share a bite with them…” In between a spot of paragliding, support for Kolkata Knightriders is all building the image of the charming youth icon. Charm is the keyword. No dissent whatsoever. Media everywhere reports Congress sources dutifully, but rarely asks a question.

The fact that the Gujarat polls were a dampener barely finds a mention. The brand juggernaut rolls on building imaginary landscapes of charm and awe. All photos show him waving and smiling or smiling and waving or smiling or waving. There is no bad news associated with the man, at all. Notice that? Over all these years?

The Hype Phase II: In 2009, the UPA comes back into power comfortably. Meanwhile, his sister gives him a certificate.  And of course, his much hyped “poverty tour” with Britain foreign secretary David Milliband.

Lots of hopes that the man would be a minister in his second term, but he is content with his party post and leaves all the governance and ministry in the hands of someone else. So, in Manmohans second term also the country misses the man at its helm. Indeed he gives a “Certificate” to MMS as well. And there is talk of a Rahul Gandhi layer in the Congress leadership in Karnataka

Those photo opportunities are coming thick and fast. The heir apparent is ready to become PM one day, not PM the other day, but it is all his to choose. As the country waits, the brand machine rolls into our heads, smiling, waving and a blow by blow account of all those farcical tourism. All this while he is building the party while refusing a cabinet berth, he has come of age, visiting the poor for a meal,  a quiet revolutionary, lead campaigner.

By the way, how long did that austerity drive last? AS long as the photo opportunity, I suppose.

The sources always give the right news, observe. No source will ever say anything wrong. As you can see thus far, the man has made no mistake, he is like the proverbial Midas touch – with retrospective effect. Everything he touches has turned to gold and whatever has turned to gold already is because he has touched it. Never mind that which did not turn to gold – that is their problem. The case of sour grapes is slowly showing up, but only for those who care to see it. The media juggernaut, otherwise rolls on.

But this part of the brand campaign shows a certain tiredness. How long can he be groomed? Or be a catalyst, behind the scenes? Not that anybody asks a question, but it is worth a thought that it is becoming a tad repetitive with all those photo opportunities and prepared campaign speeches.

Thus ended 2009.

The Reality Check Phase: Searching for news in 2010 gives us about 3520 results. Phew. That’s a lot. Through the brand building phase, this year is where the brand began to show its first cracks. Remarkable, considering that most of the cracks came not from Indias media, but from wikileaks. As far as local media was concerned, it was the photo opportunities.

The year is all about reaching out to people, whether in Bihar, slum dwellers in Mumbai, warning US about Hindu terror while they were busy attacking the wrong religion for terrorism. And of course, wikileaks told us this, not Rahul.

The world of photo opportunities unlimited continues its momentous tour. And of course, he snubbed the Shiv Sena by taking a Mumbai Local train (did he take a ticket, I don’t know). And that made front page news almost everywhere.

He has told us that Bihar was not shining while not ruled by his allies (while the similar case of why India remains in dire straits despite 50 odd years of one family ruling us was never asked nor told) and of course he kept answering to us as why he was still not obliging to rule us.

Meanwhile, his mentor in chief has appeared magically and taken to making dubious statements, which count as news (surprise, surprise) in an apparent bid to drive votes to his mentee, but not too many have bit the bullet.

By now discussion of his breakfast menu, lunch menu were par for the course for every photo opportunity. And then of course after his patbhreaking meeting with students in Gujarat, he did not meet students ever again, preferring to meet just the illiterate.

Slowly, the reality checks started coming in. For one, 2010 was the year of the “There are two Indias” speech. Interestingly, perhaps for the first time in a mainstream journal (or was it in a blog), the Economist asks a question of Rahul Gandhi. The piece whose byline says  “Though no spring chicken, Rahul Gandhi has a lot to prove before he takes over the family business” is worth a read because no Indian media outlet has till this date carried anything remotely similarly worded.

2011 was no different from 2010, but with more questions being asked, though with velvet gloves in general. 2012 saw a huge take off followed by a fizzle – which in reality completes the reality check phase. Watch out for the next steps.

What I want you to think about is the nature of coverage over all these years.

Now look at this. Our so called prime minister in waiting has yet to give a simple coherent interview to the media. A simple press conference where he answers our questions. A simple conference where we know what is there, if anything, on his mind. All we get to see are photo opportunities, whats on his menu and all his campaign speeches.

And see through these nearly 6 odd years of media coverage. All vapourware. Not a single article of substance. And yet, every fawning media outlet worth its Padmasri has speculated when he will lead us. And he cannot answer a simple question from college students credibly.

Ask yourself, why does the media treat him with kid gloves (or mittens)? Why is he never ever asked a tough question? Why this obsequiousness media? Fearless Indian media, pick up that mike and hold a conference that is broadcast live. We want to know what the prime minister in waiting really thinks about us without having to go through the fog that is his mentoring and campaigning team.

Can we see that? Soon?

(X Posted in CRI)

Thursday, March 29, 2012

A fable on corruption

There is an old saying, taken from the title of this book, "The Fox in the Chicken Coop".

The traditional approach for corruption is putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop. Usually the fox himself somehow gains this position and helps himself to the chicken. Putting the corrupt in charge is an old way to make money in the process. But over the years, this has become obvious. And in general people who indulge in corruption are not looked upon very kindly by commoners who have to slog for their daily meal and then some.

There is however a contrarian approach as we have seen lately.

Imagine that there is a treasury with a lot of wealth. And there is suspected looting from the treasury. The queen places a head guard who is seen to be honest. And assuage the unwashed masses that "we have placed this guard with unimpeachable integrity" and therefore there is no corruption.

So, there is guard standing in the front, ceremonial headgear and all that, while there is suspicion that looting happens from the back door, side door and many other entrances and exits. Over time it is proved that despite putting a honest guard in there to guard the treasury, looting happens and there is no respite whatsoever. Each time a commoner complains to the queen, she tells him that there is a great head guard there, and he is doing his best. And besides what better sign do you want than an honest head guard that we are serious about tackling the looting?

Can you spot loopholes in this theory?

Did I hear you say, but if the guard is of high integrity, why will be allow the loot to take place? The theory goes that he makes no personal money in the process. Hmmm, but isnt that dereliction of duty? As a guard of so called unimpeachable integrity, isn't looking the other way also a sign of his rather pliable integrity?

And is it enough if he makes noises that he hears noises in the night? And that there are people who seem to get into the treasury without his approvals?

And if his integrity was being used a cloak to loot, would he not have the balls to stand up and say dont use my integrity as a cloak to loot?

And if all this is true, would you really call the head guard a person of unimpeachable integrity?

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Books browsing

I used to be a books browser once upon a time – picking up and reading books at random. But as time progressed, I figured that all that serendipity was not really leading anywhere and I changed the way I purchase books.  Instead of my own serendipity, I depend on the serendipity of others. Second, I joined a library to explore my serendipity.

The first part first. Instead of browsing through books and reading a bit to pick up a book, I ask my friends for recommendations. Secondly, there are recommendations at work coming in as well. And then there is the internet  - and quite a few very good blogs out there. I use a combination of these to zero in on what I want to buy and order it online. My thought on this is that mostly the good books find their way to the top of this pile. Triangulating between these three streams of choice gives me a good reading list to pick from.

The second part – why buy books which I don’t enjoy reading? Why read books which I wont finish and just skim through? And why not preserve and buy those books into my collection – which I would really like to read? And there is my use of the library - of which many new business models have sprung up in Bangalore - which is nice. I have signed up with one of them. And through them, I have browsed through books which I would not invest money in otherwise. (Of course, books are an investment, except that the returns are in kind, not cash.) But the best part of the library has been that it has made me add a lot of books to my collection. Some those serendipitous reads become interesting and then I find a need to add them to my collection – as a book I would like to go back and refer and I build a far more robust collection of books. Something that I will keep going back to again and again.

So, in this entire experience, I would rather shop online – browsing through a few blogs, reading reviews rather than be distracted by quite a few “junk” and “celebrity” books that are not selling. So, it is online book shopping for me!

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Hello Bookstore

I went to a bookstore after a longish while. Though once upon a time if you asked me where I would like to spend my time - the answer was inevitably, book store. But these days, especially after Flipkart, I dont visit book stores too often. First you to to drive, then find parking and all in all it becomes quite a carbon intensive book. Even if take a book, it is just not worth it to go all the way for a book. But this time, I had a gift voucher to use so I thought, this would be a good time to catch up on some books.

I had to go away from my house – nearly a 40 minute trip to reach the place and while the place had a lot of books, it did not have what I was looking for. Being different and Breaking India both by Rajiv Malhotra. I have read the former and thought it will be nice to add it to my collection. Having read it, I wanted to read the latter, but it was out of stock. My trip seemed to be a waste. So I mindlessly browsed through the space and my way of buying books is a little different. That made it all the more difficult to for me enjoy the process.

But I finally found one book which I thought I might be interested and then walked around a little more searching for some music and some other things.  A good hour later, I saw my shopping basket and it looked I had curated a bunch of items (except for the book) which I really did not need. Sigh.

Finally, I got something which I had wanted for a long time – a nice toy which I thought me and the little one would enjoy building. So much for serendipity.

So, what can a store do, really?

Well, lots if you ask me.

For one, almost all books on sale were sad books which no one would read.

Second, there was no search function. If I had to search, I had to walk up the helpdesk and converse with some disinterested assistants who were happier in their own conversations. And the machine that hosted the search was running at a glacial pace.

The staff were barely knowledgeable – this I understand – to staff book stores with people passionate about books is not easy – perhaps they think costs would go through the roof. But why not hire college interns or retirees – who are knowledgeable and pay them in books – atleast for the stores busy season – which I presume is weekends.

Why not hold up other bestsellers list than their own? Why not a bestsellers list for teens, women, boys, kids and what not? Why should the stores be themed by section? Why not in some other way? Why not have a corner where people pick books they thought they liked and did not buy – I think this will be really interesting corner. Create a small reading section? With coffee?

Well, I know…book stores wont survive in the current milieu for long but they can be reinvented for sure! Ask me!

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Difficulty of Being Good

I picked up "The Difficulty of Being Good" on the recommendation of a colleague. And I had no idea what the book was about. But two people recommended it in two days and coincidentally, I found it in my library – all of which was too much of a universal coincidence for me to ignore. So, I picked it up. 

The book is a take on the Mahabharata.

What impressed me first was the scholarly levels that Gurcharan Das has gone to before writing this book. I was really impressed that he took early retirement, learnt Sanskrit at a US university and went through the Mahabharata and different versions of it and wrote this book. *Respect*

Gurcharan does a fantastic job of the book. The book goes character by character rather than by chapter. Each of these chapters has gems in them – gems of both what the Mahabharata says and what the author interprets it as. Minor quibble, I wish the Sanskrit original were there as well – but that’s minor, really.

At the end of each character, one needs to pause and reflect as to whether they were good and bad. Turns out, it is not that simple. Was Duryodhana was really bad and was Yudhisthira really good? Was Krishna all good in his goodness and Arjuna was great through and through? Karna, well, is one of the better loved characters as the underdog, but he has his shades of grey as well, as does the venerable Bheeshma.

Few words that will ring in my mind.  “Dharma is subtle”. “Action is better than Inaction”. Also coming close on the heels of "Being Different", this book also has some of the Dharmic traditions and differences that "Being Different" spoke about. Gurcharan lays out similar arguments - though not expounded at length as in Rajivs book. Thats a win too.              

Also, I personally thought that the comparison of the past to the present broke the line of thought in the book. 

The title ultimately also seems to be the answer of the book – which is that “It is difficult to be good”. In my interpretation, it is more “It is impossible to be perfect”, but even with those imperfections there is a path to right and ethics and dharma is my take on it.

I like the fact that books like these are being written - I had recently read Being Different as well. Both of these fall in the category of writing of making our dharmic traditions more accessible to people like us.And in turn inspire us to do better as well...

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Being Different

Being Different is a book by Rajiv Malhotra. This book is truly different - I would go so far as saying in contemporary literature, it is one of its kind.

Until now, there have been books on Hinduism or the Indic civilization written by Indian authors or Western Authors (from an Indian or a Western lens and it is not necessary that this flows from the nationality of the author). There are many books like that - written by authors across centuries. This book is one of its kind - that throws light on Western civilization from an Indic lens. About time that such a book was published - and it is amazing to think that such a book was neither conceived nor published at any point in time (that I am aware of atleast).

Also, the book avoids the familiar trap of the greatness of Indian civilization by hiding in rhetoric - and this is where Rajiv Malhotra scores - he uses hard data points to throw light on the Western civilization - the appendix is voluminous in itself for those interested in further research.

A couple of sentences and lines of thought that really made me stand and think...

One that, western civilization is rooted in history - they need a historical start date before which everything that happened is negated - whereas in Indic tradition, there is a difference between Itihaasa and Puraana and none of them can really be relegated to either history or mythology - the closest words in English as it were. And Indic traditions are comfortable with multiple versions of Itihasa - as is mostly the case - so by nature we are instinctively pluralistic.

Second, that Indic traditions believe that self realization can come from within - in the Abrahamic religions, it is usually external - by an afterlife in heaven - which results from obedience to a particular code. And which is again why mystics are part and parcel of Indic traditions and not in the others (or even if they are, they are not particularly encouraged by the hardliners).

Third, and I quote this sentence "Hindus intrinsic belief in pluralism means that many of them are blissfully unaware that their sentiments are not at all reciprocated by the Abrahamic religions, which not only reject every other deity, but also consign Hinduism to paganism and the worship of false gods".

Fourth, take the example of Satyam-Shivam-Sundaram - which is the trilogy of Truth-Good-Beauty where it is that Truth is above good and good is above beauty and each of them can exist without the other. There are many such concepts in the Indic traditions that give a fuller explanation of the cosmic connection of which we are all ultimately, but a small part of.

These are just a few teasers out of the book, but if you have any interest in Indic civilization this book is a must read.

Being Different, by Rajiv Malhotra.