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Amitava Chattopadhyay

Amitava Chattopadhyay
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What we can learn about brand building from AAP’s stunning performance in the Delhi elections.

The Aam Admi Party’s (AAP) stunning performance has not only left India buzzing and the large national parties—BJP and Congress—dumbfounded, but there is a lot to be learned about brand building from an analysis of their success.

To win an election, one needs to capture the votes of ordinary citizens. As its name suggests, in targeting, the AAP has targeted the “aam admi” or the “common man”.

Turning to the core value proposition it offers or the DNA of its platform, the AAP offered transparency and an elimination of corruption in politics. This value proposition tapped in to a well-spring of desire in the hearts of a disheartened and disinherited Indian public. A public tired of years of corrupt rule by a privileged and dynastic political establishment that simply sought to feather its own nest.

Indeed, this desire to lord it over and serve oneself, rather than serve the public, is so strong among the established political parties and their candidates, that even immediately following the political outcome of the Delhi elections a sting by Cobrapost showed that politicians from across the political spectrum, including members of the BJP and Congress, could not resist accepting bribes of as embarrassingly paltry amounts as Rs. 50,000 (US$ 825), to write a letter recommending a fake oil company from Australia! Thus, AAP offered a clear and differentiated value proposition that spoke to an important yet unfulfilled need in the hearts and minds of the electorate.

It then went about activating against this key value proposition through several interconnected and mutually reinforcing activities.

  • It chose a potent symbol, the jharoo (traditional Indian broom), as its election symbol. This worked on two levels. It symbolized
    AAP Logo: The Jharoo

    AAP Logo: The Jharoo

    the party’s platform of sweeping away corruption while at the same time connecting to the marginalized in Indian society—sweeping being the tool of trade of the “untouchables”. This struck a deeply emotional chord. The party also required its candidates and volunteers to wear a Gandhi cap, connecting itself to Gandhian values, one of which was to uplift and emancipate the common (wo)man, and wash away untouchability.

  • The name Aam Admi Party or the common man’s party mocks the Congresses false rhetoric to be everyman’s party focused on uplifting the common man. In over 50 years of rule it has failed to do so abjectly. The name also reinforces the party’s DNA that the AAP is indeed the common
    AAP Candidate

    AAP Candidate

    person’s party. It further reinforces this idea through its choice of candidates. AAP has attempted to capture fresh new faces, including community workers, “aam admis” if you will, while at the same time turning away those who do not wish to serve the people by requiring each candidate to give up the right to an official car and official residence, should they be elected. It has thus walked the talk through its actions, gaining credibility, rather than through the tired political theatre that the main parties typically indulge in.

  • AAP also had the perfect brand ambassador–one of the party founders and leaders, Arvind Kejriwal. Kejriwal, had been an activist who had been internationally recognized–recipient of the Magsaysay award for Emergent Leadership in 2006–for his efforts and contributions towards drafting and then pressuring the Indian government into passing the Right to Information (RTI) Act in 2005.

    Arvind Kejriwal, National Convenor of the AAP

    Prior to becoming a full-time activist, Kejriwal, a mechanical engineer from IIT (Kharagpur), had in the Indian Revenue Service as a joint commissioner, while also participating in social service in poor neighborhoods. Therefore, Kejriwal  came with impeccable credentials that embodied and  dovetailed perfectly with the party’s value proposition. By personifying its values through its brand ambassador, the AAP is able to build strong and personalized emotional connections with its target audience, the common (wo)manof India.

  • The AAP has also engaged with its target customers building a community around a common cause. It has done so by asking the electorate to contribute towards the party’s election campaign expenses. It is interesting that none of the leading parties has ever tried to tap the electorate for money. It has always been about giving the electorate handouts just before the elections to buy votes. And, the AAP promises to account for every last paisa of the Rs. 200 million (US$3.3 million) th
    AAP's Home Page

    AAP’s Home Page

    at it has collected; something no other political party has ever done before. Importantly, this completely aligns with its anti-establishment, anti-corruption platform.

This is classic brand building. Identify the target segment clearly—in this case the aam admi. Articulate a clear value proposition that is differentiated and which resonates with the target audience. Deliver against this value proposition through all your actions. And, last but not least, build an emotional connect, which the AAP has done through its brand ambassador and its community building engagements.

I wish AAP great success in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. Indeed I hope that they are able to compete nationally. Faced with the dynastic and corrupt politics of the Congress on one side and the fundamentalist and no less corrupt but also scary politics of the BJP, on the other side, the AAP offers the only reasonable political option for a future India that we can all be proud of.

Why try former Nazis while ignoring similar crimes committed by colonial administrators?

Another Nazi trial began just a couple of months ago in the Netherlands. While people such Siert Bruins, the man on trial, should be tried and, if found guilty, punished for their crimes, it made me think that while so much time, energy and media space is devoted to the cases of former Nazis and their crimes, no one talks about the crimes committed by the colonial powers in their colonies in roughly the same time period as the Nazis, or the need for punishing the guilty in such cases, or at a minimum, receiving an apology for the heinous crimes that were committed. 

Former Nazi on Trial

Siert Bruins, a former Nazi on trial in the Netherlands

Consider for instance the Jalianwala Bagh massacre in 1919. British Army General Dyer ordered 150 British troops to open fire without warning on peaceful celebrators on the occasion of the Punjabi New Year on April 13, 1919.  According to colonial British Raj sources there were 379 fatalities and about 1100 wounded. Civil Surgeon Dr. Smith indicated that there were 1,526 casualties. The true figures of fatalities are unknown, but are likely to be many times higher than the official figure of 379.

According to historian and British Army officer Horace Swanson, “At six minutes to sunset they opened fire on a crowd of about 20,000 people without giving any warning. Towards the exits on either flank, the crowds converged in their frantic effort to get away, jostling, clambering, elbowing and trampling over each other. Seeing this movement, Brigs drew Dyer’s attention to it, and Dyer mistakenly imagining that these sections of the crowd were getting ready to rush him, directed the fire of the troops straight at them. The result was horrifying. Men screamed and went down, to be trampled by those coming after. Some were hit again and again. In places the dead and wounded lay in heaps; men would go down wounded, to find themselves immediately buried beneath a dozen others.

Entrance to Jalianwala Bagh

Entrance to Jalianwala Bagh

The firing still went on. Hundreds abandoning all hope of getting away through the exits, tried the walls which in places were five feet high and at others seven or ten. Fighting for a position, they ran at them, clutching at the smooth surfaces, trying frantically to get a hold. Some people almost reached the top to be pulled down by those fighting behind them. Some more agile than the rest, succeeded in getting away, but many more were shot as they clambered up.

 20,000 people were caught beneath the hail of bullets: all of them frantically trying to escape from the quiet meeting place which had suddenly become a screaming hell. Some of those who endured it gave their guess as a quarter of an hour. Dyer thought probably 10 minutes; but from the number of rounds fired it may not have been longer than six. In that time an estimated 1000 people were killed, and 1,500 men and boys wounded. The whole Bagh was filled with the sound of sobbing and moaning and the voices of people calling for help.”

General Dyer was never punished.  Indeed the then Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, Michael O’Dwyer had a telegram sent to General Dyer saying ” “Your action is correct and the Lieutenant Governor approves.” Dyer died a natural death in Britain in 1927 after being exonerated by a commission.  The British government to date has not apologized for this horrific official action by the British Army at Jalianwala Bagh.

Or consider the Hoả Lò Prison in Vietnam. The prison was built in Hanoi by the French, with a capacity to hold 460 prisoners, at the tail end of the 1800s, when Vietnam was still part of French Indochina. The French called the prison Maison Centrale, a traditional euphemism to denote prisons in France. It was intended to hold Vietnamese prisoners, particularly political prisoners agitating for independence, who were often subject to torture and execution. The prison was grossly overcrowded and toward the end of France’s occupation of Vietnam, held over 2000 people; with its inmates held in subhuman conditions.  No one has been tried or punished for the inhuman treatment of the Vietnamese, which occurred a full decade after the end of the Nazi era, by the French colonial administration. 

Hoả_Lò Prison in Hanoi

Hoả Lò Prison in Hanoi

Or consider the suppression of the Mau Mau by the British in Kenya, which occurred in the post WW II era. The BBC quotes Solicitor Martyn Day as saying “They were put in camps where they were subject to severe torture, malnutrition, beatings. The women were sexually assaulted. Two of the men were castrated. The most severe gruesome torture you could imagine.”

Thousands of Mau Mau suspects were detained in prison camps

Thousands of Mau Mau suspects were detained in prison camps

“A lot of the officers involved were white, they were controlling the violence against these Mau Mau. It wasn’t just isolated individual officers. It was systematic. The whole purpose was to break the Mau Mau.”

The BBC goes on to report that “The UK says the claim is not valid because of the amount of time since the abuses were alleged to have happened, and that any liability rested with the Kenyan authorities after independence in 1963.”

I wonder at this asymmetry.  Why are the atrocities committed by individual Nazis during the Second World War worthy of so much greater attention than these other atrocities? True the Holocaust is particularly heinous not only in modern history, but in history per se, but the individual actors, aside from the architects of that atrocity, generally had no more blood on their hands than the likes of General Dyer or the French adminstrators of Hao Lo Prison.

The answer I think lies in the fact that the Nazi trials are about the death of white Europeans; not brown, yellow, or black people. Why do I say this?  One only has to look at the pronouncements of the colonial powers to see this mindset.  For instance, the Portuguese government in Lisbon, the overseas empire was a matter of national interest, to be preserved at all costs. And, a  Portuguese delegate to the International Labour Conference in Geneva in 1919, less than 100 years ago, is reported to have said: “The assimilation of the so-called inferior races, by cross-breeding, by means of the Christian religion, by the mixing of the most widely divergent elements; freedom of access to the highest offices of state, even in Europe – these are the principles which have always guided Portuguese colonisation in Asia, in Africa, in the Pacific, and previously in America.” (Humbaraci, Arslan and Muchnik, Nicole (1974), Portugal’s African Wars, New York: Joseph Okpaku Publishing Company, p. 99-100). Clearly, non-white citizens of the colonies were seen as inferior, in need of cross-breeding like cattle to raise them to an equal status with their European masters by the Portuguese!  One hears the echoes of same racism in the works of celebrated British author and Nobel Laureate in literature, Rudyard Kipling.  He portrayed Indian characters and other colonized people as being incapable of surviving without the help of Europeans. His works refer to “lesser breeds without the Law” in “Recessional” and “half-devil and half-child” in the poem “The White Man’s Burden”. 

These racist views have not changed. They have merely been suppressed due to their perceived political incorrectness in today’s day and age.  One only has to look at the frequent instances of abuse hurled at non-white players during European football matches, or the treatment of North Africans in France, or…, to see that this view still lives on, albeit mainly under the surface on in peoples’ unconscious minds.  This is why, I am suggesting that former Nazis are aggressively pursued for their crimes, but the crimes committed by European colonists are swept under the rug!

Indian politics has a leadership vacuum!

As I read the news this morn­ing on the BBC web­site, over break­fast at the New Delhi hotel I was stay­ing, I came upon a news item about Chi­nese lead­ers dis­cussing reforms. It made me think of the news about polit­i­cal hap­pen­ings in India, as the nation gears up for par­lia­men­tary elec­tions that must be held dur­ing the first half of 2014. In con­trast to the BBC arti­cle about dis­cus­sion of pol­icy among China’s top lead­ers, the Indian polit­i­cal debate lead­ing up to elec­tions seems to be more about indi­vid­ual char­ac­ters and char­ac­ter assas­si­na­tion. Thus, one report in the Times of India a cou­ple of days ago ran the head­line “Rahul will be around even if Cong loses, but not Modi: Jairam Ramesh” — Mr. Ramesh is a par­lia­men­tar­ian from the Con­gress Party.


Another report yes­ter­day, in the same news­pa­per, reported that, Mr. Narendra Modi, the BJP prime min­is­te­r­ial can­di­date for the com­ing elec­tions, at a rally in UP, said that “Those in power could not defeat me in three con­sec­u­tive elec­tions in Gujarat. They know that they can­not defeat me through elec­toral process, hence they have deployed CBI and Indian Mujahideen against me”. These com­ments from across the polit­i­cal spec­trum show the depths to which polit­i­cal debate has sunk in India.

With the econ­omy slow­ing, one would have expected the polit­i­cal debate to focus on poli­cies to return to the pre-2008 growth tra­jec­tory, debat­ing paths to get­ting there, and try­ing to build a con­sen­sus which would then lead to the par­lia­men­tary out­comes in mid-2014. What we get instead from our so-called lead­ers is mud­sling­ing that is utterly vac­u­ous from a pol­icy point of view.

What is sad but inter­est­ing is that in some cases the com­ments actu­ally point to the malaise in Indian pol­i­tics, although per­haps those mak­ing them do not actu­ally get it. Con­sider for exam­ple the com­ment attrib­uted to Mr. Jairam Ramesh noted above. It sug­gests that Mr. Rahul Gandhi will be around in pol­i­tics no mat­ter whether the Con­gress Party wins or loses.

This is dynas­tic pol­i­tics, not the pol­i­tics of a lib­eral democ­racy where the party lead­er­ship that fails to take the party to vic­tory is replaced by fresh blood and new think­ing. This is pre­cisely the prob­lem with the pol­i­tics of the Con­gress Party and, inter­est­ingly, Mr. Ramesh a tech­no­crat who is a grad­u­ate of India’s pres­ti­gious IIT Bom­bay, made this com­ment with­out real­iz­ing how inap­pro­pri­ate it was; and that is the most char­i­ta­ble attri­bu­tion possible!

Rahul Gandhi

With­out real lead­er­ship, more mature polit­i­cal behav­ior, with­out polit­i­cal par­ties that for­mu­late poli­cies based on some under­ly­ing philo­soph­i­cal per­spec­tive or ide­ol­ogy, I fear for our future no mat­ter which party comes to power in 2014! Clearly, there is a rea­son why China con­tin­ues to grow at close to 8%. Take heed and learn.

More professional trades people needed in India!

Reading the article entitled “South Korea tested by rise in over-educated workers,” in the Financial Times on October 10, 2013, I started wondering about the broader question of the skills we need in India and the education system that we have. Clearly, we have some huge misalignments, as I have come to realize from recently building a home in India.

Living outside India for the past 30 years I had gotten used to dealing with tradespeople who were skilled at what they did. Tradespeople who are professionals. The plumbers and electricians I had gotten used to dealing with are trained and certified and are skillful at the jobs they do. Indeed, in most of the places I have lived, you need a certified tradesperson to do these things if you want your insurance company to payout in case of damage due to hazards stemming from your plumbing, electrical circuits, and the like.

My experience in India made me realize how lacking in professionalism the tradespeople are in the construction business. None of the electricians and plumbers who worked on our house had any kind of certification. They had simply learned on the job and had a very rudimentary understanding of what they were doing. In fact, on occasion, I had to intervene to help them figure out how to get stuff done, and I am the first person to admit that I know very little about any of these things.

Talking to friends in India, it is clear, that my problem was far from unique. All of them have problems finding good plumbers, electricians, and more generally any tradespeople when they need help. At the same time, you find graduates with university degrees undertaking relatively unskilled jobs like driving taxis or as bus conductors and the like. This mismatch has significant economic consequences that we don’t ever look at, discuss, or debate. It is clearly time we did this.

Clearly, as a first step we need training institutions, we need certification programs, and we need to require that professionals with certificates undertake various building tasks so that they are done properly. This however will only be the tip of the iceberg. In a culture that looks down upon physical work, it will be important to change the mindset of parents and their children on the one hand and consumers on the other. Parents and children need to see value in acquiring skills that can be parlayed in to a successful and secure economic future. They need to take pride in their trade skills and earning a living through them. As customers of this new breed of tradespeople, we who will use their services also need to change our mindsets. We need to treat tradespeople as professionals, treat them with the dignity and respect they deserve. Not with the contempt and disdain that we see all too often today, as tradespeople are seen as inferior as they are doing something menial! They are not. They are professionals providing an important and vital service to make the rest of our lives run smoothly and uneventfully. We should treat them with the respect they deserve.

Self-righteous West!

I was reading an article in the Huffington Post and it really struck home how self righteous the “West” is. In fact, it has always been this way, come to think of it, when I heard about the actions of the British Empire, when it still did exist, from my elders back in India. One could easily include the behavior towards Libya, Syria, and the like under the same banner. Indeed the second invasion of Iraq fits it well too.

What is interesting is that the self righteousness doesn’t diminish a whit on being confronted with things that the electoral public are not happy with. Consider the current surveillance of civilians by the UK and the US that came to light from the leaks provided by Mr. Snowden! The Guardian newspaper today has indicated that it will reveal more news and MI5 not surprisingly has noted that this will be a grave threat to national security.

I commend Mr Alan Rusbridger, Editor of the Guardian for not backing down. He would like to see a public debate about how we the citizens feels about having our privacy invaded without a by your leave in the name of fighting terrorism!

We are mentally stuck as a species!

I was recently struck by how mentally stuck we are as a species with incredibly damaging consequences for the well-being of the planet’s citizens!

Consider what is going on in the US. The Republican party, spearheaded by the Tea Party faction, has created a deadlock, forcing the US government to start cutting non-essential services. Polls show that this is going to hurt the Republicans. Yet, they are stuck in their dated viewpoint that rejects any new effort by the government to intrude in peoples’ lives, even when it is good, as is the case with the so called Obamacare initiative, which lies at the root of the current failure to arrive at a bipartisan agreement that would have stopped the shutting down of services.

Let’s now jump to the Middle East. The newly elected president of Iran, Mr. Rouhani, in a break with his predecessor, has held out an olive branch to the West. He has stated that “Iran will never develop a nuclear weapon,” and that his government has the full authority come to an agreement with the West in this regard. Mr. Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, however, wishes to convince the West that this is merely a game of smoke and mirrors, a ruse, and the Iranian government is not to be trusted. Same old; same old; unable to move beyond the past.

Go anywhere and look at the news, history seems to incessantly repeat itself. It seems that only a few people can move beyond the bounds of the past and the knee jerk reactions that are driven by them. When they do, as for example the reconstruction of Europe after WWII by the victorious US, or Gandhi’s non-violent mobilization of India’s masses to overthrow colonial rule, or Nelson Mandela’s Reconciliation Commission to forge a new and harmonious post-apartheid South Africa, great things are achieved.

Perhaps political leaders should pause and ponder. Should they remain entrenched and entrapped in knee jerk politics? This is the lazy option relying on effortless automatic responses without reflection. Relying on the ancient associative mental capacities that are common to all animals—think rats and electric shocks here. Or, should they try to forge something new and beneficial for their citizenry, by eschewing the knee jerk response, and taking the thoughtful high road that exploits the advanced cognitive capabilities that our unique to our species. It’s worth a politicians time considering this, as it might just ensure them a place in history.

A not so obvious but significant consequence of the US government failing to reach an agreement on debt ceiling!

The US government could not come to an agreement leading to a shutdown in many non-essential services, including the processing of passports and visas! Indeed, if by October 17th there is no agreement, things get worse and the US government could default on debt payment.

This has huge potential consequences that may not be obvious at first glance. One key advantage that the US currently enjoys is that the US$ is the reserve currency of choice. This confers benefits to the tune of US$100 billion to the US government and its citizens in terms of lowered borrowing costs.

This may not disappear with a debt default as currently there is no other currency available to fill the reserve currency shoes. However, it is likely to lead to a speedier erosion of the might of the US$ as a reserve currency and thus a quicker increase in the cost of debt for the US government and its consumers.

Call me paranoid!

It seems that notwithstanding what the media has been saying about India, international investors in India remain reasonably committed. According to the Financial Times, only $900 million of the roughly $200 billion of foreign investments in India’s stock market have been withdrawn by the investors following the recent slowdown. Perhaps these investors are more open to the reality of India as opposed to what I see as scare mongering by the global media.

Why do I think it is scare mongering by the international media? First, there are some very well managed businesses in India and they will likely ride out the current situation successfully. Second, as I noted in an earlier musing, this is not 1991 all over again. There is a policy paralysis at the moment but elections are due in May 2014, and things are likely to change as there is likely to be change in the political landscape, notwithstanding the specific coalition that comes in to power. There is also a new leadership at the Reserve Bank of India, India’s central bank, which is likely to lead to a more aggressive and pragmatic decision making there. Collectively, there is a decent chance that the macroeconomic conditions in India will improve in the coming financial year.

Call me paranoid but, given the above, it seems to me that most benevolently, one can call the international media as sensationalist and seeking to sell more eyeballs with dramatic headlines. At worst, it is a concerted effort to undermine large emerging markets like India through manipulating public opinion globally, as it would be a danger to the cozy new post-colonial world order that has been established by the developed countries, if the larger emerging economies were to continue with their growth story and succeed. That would shift the center of gravity more decisively to the “South”, marginalizing all but the largest of the developed economies in the immediately foreseeable future. That would not do, would it?

Good luck to Nandan Nilekani in his bid for a parliamentary seat. Hope he can spearhead a change for the better!

Nandan Nilekani has just announced that he will be a candidate for a seat in India’s lower house of parliament in the upcoming general elections which have to be held by the end of May 2014. The news report said that he would be running on a Congress ticket from south Bangalore. I received this information with mixed feelings. Let me explain.

I was initially very happy to hear of his decision to run for a parliamentary seat. We need more parliamentarians who are intelligent, professional, have gravitas, and most of all are honest. These are all qualities I believe Nandan Nilekani has. Perhaps he will be a role model and attract other people with this kind of background and values to participate actively in politics and change the political landscape of our country. This is something we very, very badly need.

So why the mixed feelings? Once the initial euphoria of receiving the news had subsided, I began to wonder whether and what he could achieve as a member of parliament? I wondered whether the corrupt politicians and the corrupt political parties that rule the Indian political map would allow an honest politician to bring about change, as it is not at all in their interest to do so. Would they tolerate the possibility or would they undermine his efforts or worse still do away with him?

In the past, and I don’t mean the distant past, politicians who have tried to bring change and opposed the entrenched vested interests, the establishment if you will, have conveniently met their demise in “accidents”. I hope I am wrong, and I hope Nandan Nilekani can be the spearhead that ushers in a new era in Indian politics. I wish him all the very best.

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