Did he deliver? “no.”

This morning, I asked whether Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee would step up to the plate and deliver a budget statement which would do anything to try to boost India’s anemic growth performance.

Did he deliver?

The answer seems to be a resounding “no.”

In a speech that lasted almost two hours, Mr. Mukherjee didn’t once mention, as far as I could hear, the phrase “economic reform.” There was a passing reference to opening up multi-brand retail to FDI, a plan that was shelved after opposition from the government’s own allies. But all he said was that the government would consult with the stakeholders and try to build a “consensus” around the policy proposal. That’s a tactful way of saying that nothing is likely to happen.

The central portion of the speech consisted of a long series of spending plans laid out by the finance minister. There’s no two ways about it: this was old-fashioned red-blooded populism, a budget laying out the goodies in advance of what is likely to be a difficult run-up to the elections due in 2014. Normally, governments in Westminster-style parliamentary democracies reserve the pre-election goodies for the year before an election. But given the battering the Congress Party has taken in the recent state assembly elections, still reeling from a string of corruption scandals last year, it’s evident that Mr. Mukherjee has decided to pull out the stops and deliver a pre-election budget this year, fully two years ahead of the expected election date.

Other than new spending, the crux of the budget involves a partial shift away from direct toward indirect taxes. Putative losses on the direct tax ledger, by rolling back personal tax increases, are to be made up by raising excise taxes on the service sector from 10% to 12%. Certain sectors will be exempted, but the entertainment and hospitality sectors are not, and are likely to take a hit. As a matter of economics, indirect taxes are more distorting of the economy, as they create what in jargon are called greater “deadweight costs,” which roughly measure the loss to producers and consumers when any activity is taxed. Direct taxes, such as income taxes, are also distorting of course – by changing the labor-leisure trade-off in favor of working less and taking more time off – but less so than their indirect cousins. So this is not good economics from Mr. Mukherjee, but it may be good politics.

Finally, the finance minister threw in the old chestnut of “sin taxes,” raising taxes on cigarettes and other tobacco products. These are used by governments, despite protests to the contrary, not to promote health, but rather because they’re cash cows. Tobacco and alcohol are “inelastic,” in economic jargon, that is, they don’t respond much to price: so you can raise a lot of money by taxing these commodities.

The political pundits and assorted analysts have been assiduously dissecting the budget on Indian cable news channels, and you’ll no doubt see a slew of editorials and op-eds in tomorrow’s papers.

But you can get the bottom line here first: This budget has nothing at all to push forward the stalled economic reform agenda. Rather, it’s the traditional stew of a lot more public spending and a reshuffling of taxes, none of which will either stanch the flow of red ink or revitalize the stalled engines of growth. On a pass/fail scale, this budget is a gigantic failure. It may, or may not, bring the Congress Party short-term electoral gain (although that’s debatable), but it represents a huge missed opportunity to get the job started. Reforms 2.0 will have to wait for another day, or, maybe, another government.

Secret Diary Of The Yadav Nose


Malavika Sangghvi

Being a nose and quite a prominent one at that has its downsides. Especially when you are sitting right in the middle of the face of UP’s newest and youngest chief minister designate and the media’s latest blue eyed boy,and you’re getting all the attention, hogging the limelight, and getting most of the credit for his electoral success.

I can tell Akhilesh-bhai doesn’t like my prominence one bit.

Trust Door-knob Goswami to sense the conflict right away. “Aha” he said pointing his finger at me in his characteristic accusatory manner on prime time news. “You’re the one who made Rahul’s ambitions nose-dive!”

Before the newly-minted Chief Minister designate of India’s most populous state could give him a bloody nose thinking he was singling me out for the praise, Door-knob, the nosey parker that he is, followed this up with, “But how on earth did you steal Mayawati’s mantle from right under her nose?”

‘Er, easy on the nose references’ I wanted to whisper, but I was whisked away before I could caution the august and shellacked anchor on Yadav’s Pinocchio complex.

Our next TV experience was hardly any better. Current Thappad was interviewing us for his evening slot and he got straight to the point. (The point between Akhilesh’s eyes – which only infuriated him further.)

“Is it true” said Thappad in that slightly sinister way he has of circling around his target before going in to the kill. “Is it true that you sniffed out the failings in your own party because of your legendary olfactory device, and then put your nose to the wheel and came up with an all new face for the Samajwadi party?”

‘Easy boy,’ I wanted to signal, ‘AY’s s nose is his Achilles’ heel,’ but before we knew it, I was in another studio, being interviewed by another star anchor.

This time it was Large-deep Stardaytime who had my owner in the hot seat. Large-deep’s manner of an Oxford don who’s just won his first  boat race was less menacing than Thappad’s, but that didn’t mean he turned up his nose at smelling a controversy  and  stirring up more trouble for me.

“Caste politics were expected to sway the electorate” he said in his professorial manner “but it looks like the incumbent’s reputation for corruption did her party in. Undoubtedly a nose by any other name is what mattered.”

Before AY could respond, there was a commotion in the studio and a short sweaty man with very tousled silver hair bounded in, grabbed an interviewee’s chair and proceeded to jab his finger into the camera as he talked nineteen to the dozen. “Jewel Ate is here” one of Akhileshji’s aides whispered to him in awe. “He’s a fixture on Large-deep’s shows and the country’s top spin doctor. Very opinionated, very flashy, and known to tweet his mind.”

“Mr Yadav, I see a problem” said Mr Ate, “jabbing his digit in to Akhileshji’s face like he was playing Hamlet. “You have a problem that’s large and obvious and right in front to you” he said with a flourish.  It’s going to be your downfall and your nemesis Mr Yadav. It will drag you to the depths of despair and be the reason for your annihilation-unless you do something about it” he said theatrically. “Unless you do something very soon.”

‘And what is that?’ whispered my owner looking awed and very frightened.

“It’s simple Mr Yadav,” said Mr Ate, the country’s top spin-doctor and marketing guru “the answer is staring us all in the face: You’ll have to cut your nose to spite your face!”

And that folks is how my nascent career nose-dived.

Malavika Sangghvi

Called a ‘chronicler for social mores’ by the New York Times, Malavika Sangghvi is a leading columnist who’s launched more print trends, newspapers, supplements, and columns than she can (or wants to) remember. Besides supporting a lifestyle she cannot afford by freelancing – she listens to the blues, hangs out by water bodies and watches human beings in hotel lobbies and on mean streets. She’s also an unabashed people-watcher and legendary eavesdropper on random conversations. Be careful around her or she’ll out your secrets.

(courtesy: News Laundry)

Two Coins Of The Same Side: The (Not So) Great Editorial-Marketing Tussle

Indrajit Hazra

It’s that great ‘Balance of Power’ thing that runs its corrugated fingers through the bristly hair of marketing and editorial departments of all media organisations – no matter how grandiose or dinky, regardless of their cash flow or job freeze. The very fact that my fingers hovered over the keyboard just after I wrote ‘marketing’before the word ‘editorial’ in the previous sentence betrays the inherent bias drilled into the DNA of every journo worth his namak (to haram or not at some stage).

The usual contention from our side of the fence – the editorial end, that is – is that we write, package and present content that should, by its very existence, draw readers like bees to honey. That munchkins, isn’t how it is. Especially not in these times when how you present the news and views is thankfully as important as the news and views you’re showcasing. But show me a journalist who thinks that his copy, his editing job, his headline or packaging job is bland, and I’ll show you a freshly-hatched dinosaur who doesn’t think that the bearded man in front of it isn’t its mother.

Unlike news television, which has the relative advantage of being ‘inside’ the TV set for the viewer to choose channels from, the newspaper or news magazine involves the more tricky business of trying to get the reader to first want to see the publication even before he actually gets to see it. Deciding whether it’s worth his while to continue seeing it on a daily, weekly, fortnightly or monthly basis comes much later. In a way, in this highly competitive market, selling your paper is like selling toothpaste to a tiger who doesn’t automatically see the point of having shiny teeth.

Which is where the marketing guys play such an important role. Apart from trying to hook readers by dangling some bait through ads and promotions and various other Pavlovian tricks of the trade – “We cover your neighbourhood like no other paper”, “Discount coupons for cinema tickets exclusively for our readers”, “Award-winning journalism”, “Our readers are the top-end spenders that high-end advertisers have wet dreams about” – the job of the marketing jocks are also about highlighting desirable elements already in the paper that are ‘invisible’.

But surely, that’s something the editorial guys, equipped with heuristic skills of knowing what to bump up and flash around in ‘Hollywood’ sized headlines already do? Right?

The truth is that content is too important to be left to journalists.

Things have thankfully changed in the last decade or so. Editors now increasingly stir brain matter about how to make ‘Make Delhi safe for women’ or ‘Make India Corruption-Free’ campaigns visible after they make them in the first place. They are less snooty about taking on board reader feedbacks and running photos of correspondents as a brand-building exercise.

But there are still those editors who believe that they understand marketing better than the bops in ties holding on to PPT-addicted laptops. The inherent belief that journalists have a superior understanding of how to make their products more attractive for a cash-imparting rabble out there peculiarly has many votaries in the marketing departments themselves.

Part of the journo’s myth about the journo being a Bob Woodward-Rupert Murdoch rolled in one – he believes he would have done the marketing himself if he had the time after getting off the phone with his home ministry source – is the stupid belief that everything that grabs the attention of the reader is bakwaas journalism. That itself is bakwaas.

Well-written stories about how Akhilesh whipped Rahul in UP with nuggets of solid information can be best-selling stuff if they are seen. News about vampiric parking attendants is as important a story as NREGA seepages (which, if presented in a plain, doleful manner is far less important as news no matter how important it may really be). And unlike toothpaste – strange how that’s the favourite metaphor used to differentiate media publications from other consumer products – the best advertisement for a newspaper is the newspaper itself.

Which is why we also have editors who tend to over-compensate by playing up stories of skimpets breaking up with some celebrity, or fixating on only (as opposed to using as supplementary tools) what random readers have to say about the Kudankulam nuclear power plant. They are the ones who immediately play down a ‘heavy’ story, say, about caste violence or Russian elections or a generic cancer drug being available in India – no matter how engagingly the story is presented – citing (“What’s the ‘reader connect’?) that the only things that readers are interested in is missing manhole covers and Sachin’s 99.99th hundred. Something that the marketing boys may not inherently agree with (especially if they’re out to get Tier A reader-loving advertisers).

There are, of course, areas where the two sides do face genuine conflicts of interest. An article or news story that isn’t too gushy about that pony-tailed set of teeth called Arindam Chaudhuri, the Dumbledore of IIPM, can, for instance, get the marketing boys to come in scratching their heads, saying something about what the point is running the story especially when there’s the matter of full-page ads that could needlessly be yanked off. I have heard stories about the sound of Ratan Tata’s crackling knuckles echoing in the brains of media marketing people each time a not so gee-whiz story on the Nano appears.

But then, it’s not as if a media company is a Binayak Sen corporation. It needs to make money without bad branding itself. (If a good story on Arindam Chaudhuri’s dental care or an exploding Nano appears in other papers, readers will choose them over the ‘coy’ one. It’s pretty simple really. Actually, they’ll choose a paper that’ll give them freebies every week too.)

Let’s, however, be honest hombres. These ‘conflicts of interest’ are far less and few between than what Press Club gossip make them out to be. Most times it’s not about confronting ethical dilemmas, but about bad journalism. So there will be journalists who will be quick to blame made-up ‘marketing pressures’ for their extremely soporific and pointless copy on a BJP press conference not making it to the pages.

Instead of realising that they are bad presenters of news, some editorial boffins will come to the conclusion that ‘no one reads politics’ or that the marketing guys don’t want politics in the paper. Hell, the marketing guys would love an exciting edition with the news of the Great Hadron Collider if it’s well packaged. They’ll even try to sell it with a free edition of a Bejan Daruwlla ‘Ganesha Says…’ horoscope booklet. Or that’s what the editorial guys should suggest to make their Great Hadron Collider story make the paper stand out.

So why aren’t those on the journalistic side of the rickety fence friendlier towards those marketing folks on the Dark Side? And by friendly I don’t mean chugging a few beers at the United Coffee House and then bitching about them once we’re back with our pack. I mean working towards a common interest: bringing the stuff that the bright sparks (sic) provide in terms of ‘content’ to the maximum number – or, at least, the maximum targeted number – of readers as possible.

I suggest that every media organisation make it mandatory for mid-level editors to work for a year in the marketing department and the marketing johnnies do the same in the news operations coven. Either this will lead to a grand and exciting chapter in the Indian media landscape where ‘good journalism’ will no longer be a byword for ‘papers that no one reads’. Or there will be some extremely bitter ex-editors out there who will meet at Press Council of India chairperson Markandey Katju’s house every evening to moan about how journalists have become lackeys of evil marketing departments – all the while, of course, quoting Emile Zola to prove beyond doubt how they understand news and the media bisnesssssss.

Indrajit Hazra is a journalist by profession, but his book The Bioscope Man confirms what others have suspected for long – that he needs a day job. Currently the deputy executive editor of Hindustan Times, he’s in charge of the paper’s Comment Page, the weekend Book Reviews Page and the fortnightly music column Rock’n’Roll Circus. He also heads the editorial-writing team and writes the sometimes satirical, sometimes not satirical at all, Sunday column Red Herring. When no one’s looking, he writes in other publications too.

(courtesy: News Laundry)