Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Of lungis, TVs and this funny thing called an "idea"

There is this new ad on YouTube that is attacking Hillary Clinton (and pro-Obama). Looks like the Clinton and Obama camps were both unaware of who did it. Let me give you the description of the ad --

"The "Vote Different" clip is a remake of an Apple computer ad from 1984, which in turn was a take on George Orwell's "1984."
In the latest version, Clinton is cast as Big Brother, and excerpts of her speeches mesmerize a uniform, catatonic audience. As the audience files into a theater, a young woman carrying a sledgehammer runs up the aisle and throws it at the video screen, shattering it.
The ad ends with a message reading, "On January 14th, the Democratic primary will begin. And you'll see why 2008 won't be like '1984.' "
The screen then dissolves to a colorful "O" that resembles an Apple logo, with the Internet address "" beneath." [CNN]

The thing is, unlike top down political advertising, with platforms such as YouTube, people can become part of the campaigning process in an unprecedented way. The grassroots have a life of their own now. The creator, Phil De Vellis, is a Democrat. He supports Obama (duh) but isn't crazily anti-Hillary. He just wants Obama to win the primaries.

But the interesting part of this entire exercise is that De Ville wanted to make a point: The political process has changed. One person can make a difference. People sit up and take note. At the moment Youtube is being sued for copyright infringement. One of the lawyers defending Viacom, Douglas Litchman, has written a piece for the LA Times where he has said that he is not opposed to YouTube per se -- its a great medium for people to participate and opens up newer channels for creativity and communication -- its just that copyright infringement is unfair to the artist. Its exactly that point, that YouTube's democracy does a service to everyone, is what even allowed De Ville to put up this advert in the first place.

Now, this brings up two important points for me in terms of India, the Internet and campaigns.

1. This probably doesn't even need to be mentioned but despite being an IT country, Bangalore and all that, Internet penetration has been so pathetic that you cannot quite imagine one ad having quite the same impact. Yet, at the same time, when you think about the Gandhi in a lungi clip that caused such a stir -- you have to consider the power of the Internet has been understood. I was there for one of Barkha Dutt's shows (We the People) -- at the time my blogging article had come out -- and the impression I got was that while active, the blogging and YouTube community is very isolated. So while you might have ruffled a few feathers, that's what it is at the end of the day -- a FEW feathers. In contrasts, the US is way more Internet savvy. But its a start. And its on national TV. So I'd say, a good start.

But wait,

2. The ad itself. And even the Gandhi clip itself. Why did they in particular hit nerves? Now, this is the point about putting a campaign or a movie (or a short clip) out there. It needs to resonate. I'm actually doing some homework for a piece and what I have fast come to realise is that election campaigning in India suffers due to the lack of vision. Now see, this was a rework of an Apple ad and harks back to images of Orwell's 1984. It works because the imagery is spot on. Now you look at why the (originally) harmless Gandhi clip caused so much anger. Gandhi on a pole? Surrounded by women? It hit an emotional nerve. Now you look at posters, ads, which we use for election campaigns in India. Uninspired, faces of some fat lala's with the party symbol. More often than not are posted on crucial direction boards and so you have no idea which turn to take cause some jackass from some party, who wants you to vote for him but could not care less about decency, put up this poster without thinking.

See, the Samajwadi Party ad is very interesting to me. I don't want to go into too much detail right now because I want to save the analysis for my article but the very fact that he has the idea to out up this advert with Bachchan telling you what a bed of roses UP is seems completely crazy. But it definitely makes you react. Did they really think people would believe it? Or is it the case that there is no such thing as bad publicity? SP, being a fairly regional party, is now being talked about nationally. So was this the aim? Or am I giving them too much credit?

I've written about James Carville before because I'm madly impressed with how he conducted the Clinton campaign in 1992 and if you don't want to read his book then watch the documentary 'The War Room'. There is no similar machine in Indian politics. People have tried, but because of the general lack of vision and understanding, none have really prevailed.

De Ville said he expects others to follow suit with similar ads. You can imagine how this changes the political landscape of the US. You mean far more creative people who are not into party workers will make political ads (positive and negative) for FREE and then the distribution will be done by people at the grassroots level and on platforms like YouTube again, for FREE? That's very incredible.

So the question one must ask is, when will India move to a sophisticated and thoughtful election campaign. I really, truly believe its an art. To take stock of different people and places and to offer a message that resonates is no easy task. And not not make effective use of the media that is available is a tragedy. Are we doomed to see uninspired posters for ever and ever?

BJP's 'India Shining' was the one recent example. The experiment failed, but not completely. Are we not going to learn something from it or just flatly ignore modern campaigning altogether?

We are all not in lungis you know.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

help me help ME

It is Women's Day today. Celebrate away, but what about the rest of the 364 days? Here is some food for thought:

The Multipurpose National Identification Card (MNIC) could go a long way to solving some of the larger, yet smallest, economic problems India faces. The vast population has been the biggest hurdle in enforcing any kind of reform or workable schemes with ease and because of the country’s natural attachment towards red-tapism, a bad situation is made worse.

Now take for example Kavita, – stuck in a thankless, often violent marriage. She has been told, as have countless other women in search of protection and help, that if they can only become economically self- sufficient it would greatly improve their lot in life. For Kavita, who has never heard of the Gramin Bank or micro-credit finance, the concept will soon become familiar. Trickle down economics has not brought about the results India’s poor need – trickle up is proving to be the next best option.

So Kavita joins a self-help group. Operating under the guidance of a NGO, she begins to save fifty rupees every month for six months. After that period, all twenty women in her group can open a joint bank account from which they can borrow for professional purposes. But because Kavita lives in the slums, she cannot be elected president, secretary or treasurer of the group – as the bank needs identification. She has no ration card. She has no house. This is the first time she is ever saving money. But this also means that only women with proper identification can serve as officers for their groups, and unfortunately equal opportunity is lost, and the NGOs can only train as officer’s women who already have a leg up – an address.

However, Kavita does manage to borrow funds as a regular member to join a training scheme. She learns to cook. The NGO and its parent organisation tie up with other places to ensure employment. For example, the Delhi Commission for Women has tied up with the MCD and one thousand government schools have arranged to have mid-day meals provided by the self-help groups. Kiran Walia of DCW explains that the larger objective behind the schemes is to provide minimum income to the women. It helps them put money in the bank for the first time. It does wonders for their self-confidence; even a small gesture like buying a gift for their child with their own money is a big step for them.

And Kavita’s world-view expands. She begins to understand the wisdom in saving and investing money. The NGO tells the women if they were to form a cooperative society, they could get a larger loan. Excited, she asks what needs to be done. The fee is a steep Rs 500 but she is ready to save. But then comes the clincher. She needs identification to join the cooperative. Again, she is left out in the cold.

Kavita’s story is certainly not unique. And it a sad testimony to the lack of progress the country has made that these schemes, aimed at the most destitute in the country, inadvertently keep them out. If their rules are not revised, we will have to accept that we continue to condone that we are a country of forgotten people. And it is this gap in connecting the schemes that is holding back these schemes. Consider the requirement of a ration card -- a permanent address. Now consider the plight of the lowest echelons of society, like Kavita – those that are migrants, those that live on the footpath, in jhuggis. Where is such an address? The same goes for acquiring a voting card, documents that validate your existence, for example, a drivers license, electricity bill and so on are acceptable. And so, under these rules, a women who is allotted a servants quarter can reap benefits, but it leaves out those that do not have a roof over their heads in the cold.

Perhaps there is a silver lining with the introduction of the MNIC, which can prove to be a breath of fresh air in the stifling atmosphere of the urban slums. Granted it will face similar hurdles, but no excuses can be made for not taking ground realities into account, and instead asking every citizen for their permanent address. It simply does not work. Her abusive husband may treat a woman like Kavita as a non-entity, but surely the government of India should not mete out the same treatment.

After all, even if the government has a hundred different schemes and departments for the poor, unless it learns how to connect all the dots, there will be leakage we simply cannot afford.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Budget chatter: what’s in it for us?

Listening to 20-somethings on the budget was a revelation

The budget session in Parliament was an oddly exciting experience, what with all the big political players sitting in the same room. Some paid attention, some fidgeted, the backbenchers joked, and some took notes. But what intrigued me more were the reactions of friends who came with me to be in the visitors’ gallery (willingly may I add), all about 25.

During the lunch that followed I was constantly reminded that we had all grown up (cannot afford inane college talk anymore). The conversation drifted to how the budget affected each one. That mutual funds can now directly invest abroad is a huge step said one; they no longer need to go via off shore companies. What about the healthcare industry lamented the other, when will the government give subsidies to larger hospital equipment?

The word on the rialto is good. The feeling is that India is finally taking off! Investment is the buzzword. When Chidambaram joked that he had good news for pet lovers (less import duty on pet food), the Opposition protested, ‘aam aadmi ka kya?’ and I realised I had been nodding along too for I have a friend in the business.

The difference that I have realised is that my personal interests and those of my friends lie at the macro, not micro level. We see the problems of the country, not because we have faced them but because we are the elite. We can afford to look at the economy in terms of opportunity.

And so lunch continued: didn’t they want to change the budget after the setback in Punjab and Uttarakhand, asked one. The other replied, yes, but you can’t change the budget overnight. Lighting a cigarette, another asked, remember the day cigarettes were cheaper in India than abroad?

It seems to me that the economy is divorced from politics for my friends. The logic is that economic progress needs to continue, no matter who is in power — India’s economic joy ride is not going to be derailed. But petty communal politics scares a lot of us who have grown up in diverse communities because it could disrupt the progress that’s been made. That’s not the India we want to live in.

But then again, you can’t expect all twenty-somethings to pay too much attention. I had mentioned to someone I was going for the budget session. The reaction: “Oh really, where is it?”

One day we’ll all grow up.