Friday, March 28, 2014

General Elections- The great Indian Saga

It is deemed to be the largest political exercise on this planet involving close to a billion people. It might also be among the most expensive democratic exercise (cost us Rs 846.67 Crore in 2009) and practically a logistical nightmare. The great political tamasha called General Elections in India.

We live today in an age where communication and technology have transformed the coordination process; but I cannot even image the kind of pains Sukumar Sen, the first person to be the Election Commissioner in India, might have gone through. Holding elections in India in 1951-52 and 1957 might have been the most herculean task. A time when 85% of the 176 Mn age eligible voters were illiterate, a time when accessibility of some areas was almost impossible and designing a code of conduct, ballot papers, boxes and the procedures had no references. The worst of it all- registering 176 Mn voters onto a list.

A fitting tribute to his capabilities- Sen was also the Election Commissioner in Nepal and Sudan. Not to mention, there were a few votes cast with his name written on it by some in 1951- I feel people just felt that if one person can orchestrate a process so daunting; he can run a country as well.

Indian’s have always been starry eyed when it came to people they vote for. From the Thakur of a village to a religious head, a union leader to sportsmen, everyone has come under the democratic process at some point or the other. Film actors have a special mention here, as they have always portrayed larger than life characters. So if an MGR was campaigning, his words became the words of the god he played in his last super hit. This trend will only grow as I see it.

Electoral reforms have been coming in throughout the years beyond with change in the rules for political campaigning, propaganda and use of resources- but the Election Commissioner as a person rarely rose to a recognizable figure until almost 40 years after Sen. T N Seshan will possibly be always remembered as a man most responsible for cleaning up the election process- not to mention; feared by politicians and political parties alike. Seshan along with MS Gill and GVG Krishnamurthy was the trio who in my opinion could have also taken up against the Chicago mobs.

I did read that Gill and GVG were brought in by the government in power then to negate Seshan’s one man army by bringing in parallels- but together (along with all their internal disagreements) made the Election Commission a force to reckon with. Any irregularities in the election procedure, suspected malpractices or violations usually resulted in disqualification of the person or the result. The iron fist method was a remarkable success. Gill went on to succeed Seshan as the big boss and successfully brought in the Electronic Voting Machines- which now limit the possibilities of a booth capture or bogus voting to a fair extent. Not to mention, the counting process is now far more efficient and quicker.

One large and significant change that has come to the fore front of every election campaign has been spending of large sums of money on media campaigning. Penetration of radio and televisions across the country was very low till the 80's and the state run network only accessible to the ruling party. The traditional means of mass campaigning remained dominant with the megaphones on jeeps and last minute campaigning with car drop services for voters.

But advent of private television networks post 1991 firstly provided options to a wider array of options to the people. Add to it the rise of music videos and private albums- all contributed to use of new media in elections. It brought with it national debates on channels, opinion polls along with expert opinion panels.
By the time the 1996 elections came around, private media was well entrenched in India and I was also enriched with some understanding of the political parties and their policies. If media had anything to play, I got to see some of the political campaigning of the Rao government trying to push forth their development agenda and liberalization via a songs. What was funny in that song though, was seeing how the destitute couple was uplifted to their smiling glory by a government led by a leader whose frowns became a cartoonist delight.

The by-elections in 1999 were amazing for one reason- every political party had entire Video CD with songs in their praise and criticize the other. I still can’t get over “dauda dauda bhaaga bhaaga sa… Deve Gowda bhaaga bhaaga sa”, and attracting Bollywood singers and directors as the talent. Advertising agencies were running the political campaigns and public relation agencies wrote speeches, designed press releases and managing the public image of leaders to a level where even the dress they wore for a public appearance was orchestrated. Today I can listen to Modi adding in verses to Sukhvinder Singh's 'Saugandh mujhe iss mitti ki' almost 3 times an hour on radio and the 'Shiv Senaaaa' tune playing across Mumbai.  

Mobile phones as a medium of political campaigning came in dominance in 2004 with BJP having a pre-recorded message of Atal Behari Vajpayee playing out to every voter on a reliance network. In 2009, the UPA bought the rights for “Jai ho” and the NDA fought back in mocking them with “Bhay ho”… the latter failed miserably though.

Internet and social media has taken political campaigning to a whole new level. BJP and AAP are amongst the most prolific users of this media with dedicated teams working overnight. Youtube videos are helping voters excited. Websites are updated on daily basis and even a “Mann se hai Mulayam…” can become the talk of the town in minutes. Anything said in any form cannot miss the public eye and the person involved cannot get away saying he was misquoted.

Well, so the stage has been set for the next big saga to unfold… all that remains is how all the media and popularity transforms the political landscape of this country. 

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Roti, Kapda aur Mobile

If I wanted to sum up the changing fabric of India over the last 20-25 years, this is what I would say.  While roti and kapda have been popular political slogans right from the 60’s as basic and essential needs for a population, mobiles have become a key requirement for people. And why not; calling rates in India are cheaper than in comparison to any place in the world, handsets and even smartphones are available within budget and tower penetration has been improving. One big reason for this is the advantage of a large population base; the numbers compensate for operating revenues.

Mobile phones have changed the way India has functioned over the last 20 years of its existence in India. It started off as a luxury which only the super-rich could afford. No ordinary Indian could afford a handset resembling a brick costing above Rs 5000 and paying Rs 16 the moment they said hello. But this was an era when number of networks were few and competition had not set in yet. Orange

The first winds of change came in from Reliance which came in with its captive low cost handsets and lowest calling rates for the day. They targeted corporates and roped in the biggest names with their massive employee strengths to come through with corporate offers that gave them scale as well as steady clientele.

The next boom came around early 2000s when Airtel was launched and came in with a sweeping offer of free SMS every month. This was revolutionary in terms that mobile phones unlike fixed lines were no longer for voice alone and SMS was the choice of communication which was most analogous to an internet messenger. And as always, even at times when a call would cost Rs 1, an SMS was free.

This coinciding with cheaper handsets entering the market which set the trend for mobile phone rising higher in the must have list. Finally, when TRAI scrapped the free SMS schemes and limited discounting, some felt was there scope to innovate beyond calls and SMS at 50p. Enter Tata Docomo and its game changer per second billing. In reality, this is not discounting at all… in fact this is expensive that what other players offered; but the perception of value won the game.

Running parallel to this was the handset market with Indian market flooded with low cost options through joint ventures with East Asian companies. Between 2008 and 2010; there were a total of 26 handset companies which entered India. Everyone had a phone; the maid, the watchman. The neighbourhood vegetable vendor now took orders on the mobile phone and delivered on the door step. You could now call a taxi cab as the driver had a phone. STD calls were now dropping as migrants could call their relatives in rural India at places where power and water may be a problem, but telephone networks were always present.

During this time, I used to avidly follow the blog of an ex-Nokia guy; Tomi Ahonen. In my view, he was among the first guys who had predicted how the mobile phone screen would be the next big thing. At first, the idea seemed a distant dream considering India was still in the WAP days with abysmal subscriptions. But how right he was. In the next few years, the personal space of the telephone screen was doubling faster than the traditional computers and with the advent of smart phones is almost looking to replace takeover the market completely. Mobile based internet access has been increasing ever since. Today there is more revenue being generated through mobile based internet services as compared SMS. Just a few numbers- 185Mn mobile internet users in India alone. It kind of justifies the reason why an internet platform like facebook has bought a small mobile social App like Whatsapp. 

Blackberry was considered a serious business phone until BBM became a college hangout. It was now a scenario where a business person carried a top of the line Blackberry and a collegian had a low end model with almost every functionality as the top end. Dedicated widgets for applications were a rage when launched. But all this was just a phase as we see it today.

The rules of the game have changed and the biggest game changer has been Android. The open software platform and Apps for android rendered Symbian as an ancient relic and Android, Windows and iOS became the mobile softwares by choice. Today, it is not surprising for me to find people from modest backgrounds flaunt a high end phone as a combined effort of low tariffs, cheaper handsets and a host of free Apps to cater to everyone. It is astonishing to find that globally, 24% of all internet access is through Android (phones and tablets), 18% is iOS (all devices including PC) and Windows is only 9% (all devices including PC).

Where will we go next is anyone’s guess. But one thing is for sure, what is the ordered of the day, will be a page in history soon. What Motorola and Nokia were once; Samsung and iPhone are today. Mobile technology is changing so rapidly that the jump from iPhone 4 to iPhone 5 has been about 6 months. Mobile phones are now a need and it won’t be long when nomophobia (phobia of having no mobile connectivity) will be as prevalent as common cold.