Mr Modi, bad marketing has its costs and the govt will have to pay for it

narendra_modiVivek Kaul

Over the last one month some speaking engagements have taken me out of Mumbai. While travelling, I have spoken to people from different strata of society—from drivers to waiters to economists to businessmen to investment bankers.
There seems to be a great belief among people that the Narendra Modi government is likely to make some difference in the life of an ordinary Indian over the next few years. I maybe merely stating the obvious here, but it will soon become clear why I am doing that.
The marketing and communication that has accompanied Narendra Modi’s ascent to become the prime minister of India has been brilliant. Also, for the first time the message of economic development has been sold to people. The belief that this marketing and communication has created has stayed even after Modi has been in power for close to nine months.
But along the way some bad marketing has also crept in. Take the case of various leaders of the Bhartiya Janata Party(BJP) even taking the credit for bringing down oil prices.
As a recent editorial in the Business Standard pointed out: “The president of the ruling party, Amit Shah, for example, repeatedly took credit on the campaign trail for lower prices, as did the Union home minister, Rajnath Singh. Even the prime minister has mentioned lower fuel prices, though he has specified that it is because of his “luck”.”
In my conversations over the last one month I have realized that many people particularly in the lower strata, seem to believe, that the Modi government has brought down petrol and diesel prices. This is an impact of the bad marketing on part of the BJP. When I put this to a friend who works for a foreign brokerage house, he replied: “you market what sells”. “And if people are believing in it, that means it’s selling.”
Nevertheless that is just one side of the picture. The price of the Indian basket of crude oil on May 26, 2014, the day the Modi government was sworn in, was $ 108.05 per barrel. It fell by around 60% to $43.36 per barrel on January 14, 2015. This was the period when the BJP leaders were busy claiming credit for the fall in oil price, whenever an opportunity presented itself.
What they did not tell people was that only a very small part of this fall in price was passed on to the end consumer through a cut in the price of petrol and diesel. Take the case of price of petrol in Mumbai—the price fell by only 17.05% between end May 2014 and mid January 2015. The price of diesel during the same period fell by around 14.9% in Mumbai.
The primary reason for this discrepancy has been that the government tax collections have not been up to the mark. Take the case of indirect taxes(service tax, customs duty and central excise duty). For the first ten months of the financial year between April 2014 and January 2015, the total amount of indirect taxes collected went up by 7.4%, in comparison to the last financial year. The budget had assumed a 20.3% jump in indirect tax collections. And that hasn’t happened. A little under one third of the indirect tax target still remains to be collected.
This slow growth in indirect tax collections has forced the government to increase the excise duty on petrol and diesel multiple times since October 2014. In the process it hasn’t passed on the total fall in the price of oil to the end consumer.
There is nothing wrong here, a government needs to constantly look at its finances and make decisions accordingly. The trouble is that since mid January oil prices have started going up again. Between January 14 and February 13, 2015, the price of Indian basket of crude oil has gone up by 34.7% to $ 58.43 per barrel.
This increase in price has forced the oil marketing companies to
increase the retail price of petro and diesel by 1.45% and 1.3% respectively, since February 16. If the oil price keeps going up, then the oil marketing companies will have to keep increasing the price of petrol and diesel. And this will put the BJP which had been claiming that the Modi government brought down the price of petrol and diesel, in a tough spot.
Those who believed that the government was responsible for bringing down the price of petrol and diesel, will now ask—if the government can bring down the price of petrol and diesel, it can also ensure that their prices do not go up.
If this belief starts to gain hold, then the government can be forced to hold steady the price of petrol and diesel, and in turn compensate the oil marketing companies for the under-recoveries they suffer in the process. This will lead to a lot of other problems, most of which the country has already suffered during the ten years of Congress led UPA rule.
Indian politicians have not marketed economic reforms ( allowing listed companies to sell a commodity at its right price is also economic reform) at all to the citizens of this country. In fact, the spin that they have given to economic reforms has hurt this country.
Instead of claiming credit and saying that the Modi government brought down prices of petrol and diesel, the BJP politicians should have been telling the country why it is important to sell things at their right price. As Mihir S. Sharma writes in his book
Restart—The Last Chance for the Indian Economy: “India has paid for politicians unable to talk openly about how economic reform is not just necessary, but beneficial, and not just beneficial, but right.”
Such communication isn’t very easy to dumb down, but that does not mean it cannot be done. It’s just that nobody has bothered to try till now. What makes the process even more difficult is the fact that every time a ruling party loses a state election, it gets blamed on economic reforms or the fact that the other side promised freebies, which the ruling party did not.
Take the case of the recent elections in Delhi, where the BJP was wiped out. Political pundits took no time in saying that the BJP lost because the Aam Aadmi Party promised freebies. As Sharma writes: “From [Narsimha] Rao all politicians have inherited the ability to attribute every electoral reversal to economic reforms.”
What we have seen till now is economic reforms by stealth. What is essentially needed is some proper communication on behalf of the government, where economic reforms can be explained in a simple way to the common man. That is the kind of marketing that is needed. And it would be great if the Modi government can get around to doing that.

The column originally appeared on as a part of The Daily Reckoning, on Feb 17, 2015

Why Advani must sometimes wish that he was a Nehru-Gandhi

lk advani

Lal Krishna Advani in his dreams must sometimes wish that he should have belonged to the Nehru-Gandhi family. Irrespective of what happens to the political fortunes of the Congress, the Nehru-Gandhis remain at the top.
Even when the party is not under the control of a Nehru-Gandhi, the Congress politicians keep conspiring endlessly till they have managed to install a Nehru-Gandhi at the helm of affairs. This was clearly the case between 1991-1996, after Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated and his widow Sonia refused to take over. Nevertheless the Congress installed Sonia as the president of the party as soon as she was ready.
As Rasheed Kidwai writes in
Sonia – A Biography “Throughout the Narsimha Rao regime, 10 Janpath[where Sonia continues to stay] served as an alternative power centre or listening post against him.” In December 1997, Sonia Gandhi indicated that she wanted to play a more active role in Congress politics. It took the party less than three months to throw out Sitaram Kesri, the then President of the party and put Sonia in charge in his place.
Advani has not been anywhere as lucky as Sonia. In fact, he has constantly been sidelined in the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) over the last five years. And unlike Sonia, who continues to enjoy the spoils of the hard-work of her husband’s ancestors, Advani built the BJP right from scratch.
The final nail in the coffin for Advani was the decision by the newly appointed BJP president Amit Shah to drop him from the 12-member Parliamentary Board of the Party. Advani though has been included in the newly created
margadarshak mandal, where he is unlikely to have any decision-making powers.
In fact,
Advani had to recently go through the ignominy of his nameplate being removed from his room in Parliament (the nameplate was put back later). This after being denied the post of the Lok Sabha Speaker, which he wanted. All this must be too much to handle for a man who is BJP’s senior most active leader, and refuses to retire.
The BJP was formed on April 5-6, 1980, after it broke away from the Janata Party. The Janata Party had been formed a few years earlier in 1977, with the merger of Congress O, Bhartiya Lok Dal, the Socialist Party and the Jana Sangh (the BJP’s earlier avatar), with the idea of taking on Indira Gandhi and her Congress party in the 1977 Lok Sabha elections.
The Janata Party won 295 seats in the elections, with 93 MPs coming from the erstwhile Jana Sangh. But trouble soon broke out and different constituents of the party could not get along with each other. This experiment against the Congress ended in 1980, and the BJP was formed. Atal Bihari Vajpayee became the president of the BJP, and Advani was its general secretary.
Interestingly, the party chose “Gandhian socialism” as its credo. Kingshuk Nag writes in
The Saffron Tide—The Rise of the BJP that a “consensus emerged…on Gandhian socialism being the credo of the new party; in other words, it would fashion itself like the Janata Party.”
Advani explains this in his autobiography
My Country, My Life: “The stress from the beginning was not on harking back to our Jana Sangh past but on making a new beginning.” The new beginning happened primarily because both Vajpayee and Advani had been influenced a lot by Jaiprakash Narayan, who was the main architect behind the Janata Party.
Also, what did not help was the fact that Indira Gandhi in her second avatar as the Prime Minister had in a way hijacked the “Hindutva” agenda, which the Jan Sangha had stood for. “Indira Gandhi had become religious with vengeance after coming to power in 1980 and began visiting temples with fervour. In public imagination, the impression created was that of a Hindu lady seeking the benefaction of the Gods. The policies in her tenure were also interpreted as being pro Hindu,” writes Nag.
This newly discovered “Gandhian socialism” did not work for the BJP in the Lok Sabha elections that happened in December 1984, after the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her bodyguard. The party won just two seats in this election. A committee was formed to try and understand the reasons for the electoral debacle.
As Nag writes “The committee…found a lot of lacunae in the working of the BJP. The committee also commented on the lack of political training of workers on political, economic, idealogical and organizational matters.” Or as a BJP insider told Nag “Basically, the committee politely said the party was going nowhere.”
Vajpayee resigned in the aftermath of the debacle and Advani took over as the president of the party. With Advani at the helm, the relations with the Rashtriya Swayemsevak Sangh(RSS) also improved significantly. In the years to come, the BJP went back to Hindutva and gradually junked “Gandhian Socialism” as its main credo. In fact, in 1990, Advani launched a
rath yatra in which he wanted to travel in a motorized van from Somanth in Gujarat to Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh.
But before he could enter Uttar Pradesh, Lalu Prasad Yadav got Advani arrested in Bihar. As Advani recounts in his autobiography “My 
yatra was scheduled to enter Deoria in Uttar Pradesh on 24 October. However, as I had anticipated, it was stopped at Samastipur in Bihar on 23 October and I was arrested by the Janata Dal government in the state then headed by Laloo Prasad Yadav (sic). I was taken to an inspection bungalow of the irrigation department at a place called Massanjore near Dumka on the Bihar-Bengal border [Dumka now comes under the state of Jharkhand].”
Even though Advani could not complete the
yatra it was a huge success and Advani was greeted by huge crowds wherever he went. “At some places, charged-up followers applied tilak to the Ram rath while at other places, those moved by the movement smeared dust from the path of the rath on their forehead,” writes Nag.
Advani went around building the party on the ideology of hardcore 
Hindutva, taking the number of seats that the party had in the Lok Sabha to 85 in 1989 and 120 in the 1991. This fast rise of the party was built on slogans like “saugandh Ram ki khaate hain mandir wohin (i.e. Ayodhya) banayenge” and “ye to kewal jhanki hai Kashi Mathura baaki hai”. As Advani went about his job, Vajpayee took a back-seat for a while.
Nevertheless, Advani soon realized that temple and Hindutva politics could only get the party to a certain level. He also realized that he was looked at as a Hindu hardliner and as long as he led the party, it would never be in a position to form the government. Hence, in November 1995, at the end of his presidential address at the BJP national council meet held in Mumbai, he announced that “We will fight the next elections under the leadership of A.B.Vajpayee and he will be our candiate for a prime minister…For many years, not only our party leaders but also the common people have been chanting the slogan, “
Agli baari, Atal Bihari”.”
This was a political master stroke. At the same time it needs to be said that not many people would have been able to make the decision that Advani did, if they had been in his position. It is never easy to build an organisation right from scratch and then hand it over to someone else, to lead it.
With Vajpayee at the helm, other poltical parties were ready to ally with the BJP. The BJP led National Democratic Alliance first came to power in 1998. They were in power till 2004, when they lost the Lok Sabha elections. After the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, Vajpayee gradually faded from the limelight.
In these years, the spin-doctors of Advani had managed to tone down his image as a Hindu hardliner. This can be very gauged from the fact that Nitish Kumar had no problem with being in alliance with an Advani led BJP, but he wasn’t ready to work with a Narendra Modi led BJP.
The NDA fought the 2009 Lok Sabha elections under the leadership of Advani and lost. And from then on, the stock of Advani has constantly fallen in the BJP. The decision to drop him from the Parliamentary Board of the party, as mentioned earlier, is probably the last nail in the coffin of his political career.
Interestingly, Narendra Modi was also handpicked by Advani to play a greater role in the BJP. As Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay writes in 
Narendra Modi – The Man. The Times “From the beginning it was evident that Modi was Advani’s personal choice and he was keen to strengthen the unit in Gujarat because the state was identified as a potential citadel in the future.”
Advani also mentored Modi during his early days in politics. “It was Advani who mentored Modi when he virtually handpicked him into his team of state apparatchiks after recommendations from a few trusted peers in the late 1980s. Advani also gave Modi early lessons in how to convert the mosque-temple dispute into one of national identity,” writes Mukhopadhyay.
But in the recent years while Advani’s stock within the BJP and the RSS has fallen dramatically, Modi’s stock has been on a bull run. The
shishya has become the guru. The trouble is that the guru does not want to retire, and is probably still itching for a one-last-fight.
But there is not much that he can do about it. Advani’s side-lining is an excellent lesson of what happens when one overstays one’s welcome in politics as well as life. There is a time to work. And there is time to retire and move on.
To conclude, Advani’s one remaining political ambition would have been to become the prime minister of India. But that somehow did not happen. As Salamn Rushdie aptly put in
Midnight’s Children “This is not what I had planned; but perhaps the story you finish is never the one you begin.”
The article originally appeared on on August 29, 2014

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)