Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Aam-aadmi and Demonetisation

Latest Blogpost: 

The aam-aadmi must be rewarded for their travails and support of #DeMonetisation by lower taxes, interest rates and social security schemes:

Read at: Right Angle by Clicking Here:

Thursday, December 01, 2016

My new address:

This blog has now shifted to: Right Angle. Please visit my new website under construction and send me your feedback Click here.

Many thanks for being such loyal readers. Looking forward to seeing you often in my new home.



Wednesday, November 02, 2016

Arnab Goswami - the meteoric rise of a media outsider

Photo: +The News Minute 

Article first published in +The News Minute Click here

Arnab is a rare media personality, who from being a news anchor has transcended the professional "Lakshman Rekha" to become news himself. Much of that has been the contribution of his former colleagues, who first turned rivals and finally adversaries - trolling him relentlessly. Though Arnab too studied in Delhi (Hindu not Stephen’s) and also went to Oxford as some of his celebrity contemporaries, not being a Delhi or Mumbai boy (coming from Assam) he was not considered part of the inner circle. At NDTV - the alma mater of so many news TV stars - he was always under the shadow of not only Barkha and Rajdeep but also the next rung of starlets and wannabe stars.

When Arnab moved out of NDTV, no one took either him or Times Now seriously. The battle ahead was expected to be primarily between NDTV and TV18 CNN-IBN. The unconventional decision to have a news channel out of Mumbai, instead of Delhi, which was the place of action, was itself frowned upon. The initial years were trying for Arnab (as has been chronicled at fair length in a number of hatchet jobs in other publications) and there were rumours of the Jains even starting to look out for his replacement at one stage. Finally, he found his mojo in The Newshour and the rest is now history.

Arnab not only became his competitors envy, even those who criticised him clandestinely watched his show. The only other parallel in Indian media this columnist can think of is the Bengali Daily - Anandabazar Patrika - that everyone trashes but loves to read. This gave rise to the advertising slogan - "what does Anandabazar have to say (on a topic)?" Similarly, no matter how much people dissed Arnab and The Newshour, even his most vocal detractors were keen to know his position on key issues of the day. Often, Arnab was the one who set the agenda for others.

Another distinctive style of Arnab was that he preferred to be the quintessential Anchor and Editor instead of an Anchor-Reporter, which is more common in television journalism. Therefore, Arnab did not step out of the studio except for his face-to-face Frankly Speaking interviews. Also, being stuck before the camera, practically 365 nights of the year, he had little time for schmoozing in the capital's power circuit. So, he continued to remain the "outsider". Distance gave him an enigmatic and maverick image, which he seemed to enjoy.

In many ways, Arnab changed the paradigm of Indian news television. Contrary to popular perception, while he was not afraid of taking positions on issues, he did not bring personal bias or prejudice against individuals on his shows. This is more than what one can say about many of his peers. He provoked and intimidated - in an adversarial mode of anchoring - to bring out the counter point of view but never tried to surreptitiously sneak in political or personal agenda. I am inclined to believe he is politically agnostic and much of his posturing is for effect (On the few occasions, I have met Arnab socially, found him to be soft-spoken and polite to a fault).

To many who had followed his meteoric rise - the question was not whether he will ever leave Times Now, but when. It is humanly impossible to maintain that maniacal pace and tenacity month after month. One has seldom seen him take breaks and a few times he has even returned cutting short his leave if there was an important news-break. He had clearly peaked at his game and from hereon it could only be a plateau at best till youngsters displaced him from the top slot. There were already his clones copying The Newshour format to create a poor man's Times Now. While others after trying to put him down - with snide asides (example "You don't have to shout to be heard") went back to their old ways of slanted journalism.

Clearly Arnab had to reinvent himself. But, it is doubtful if he could have done it at Times Now. If he stayed on forever - his core audience and fans would expect more of the same from him - which would be a recipe for professional disaster. Now, if he makes a fresh start he has a better chance of creating something new for himself. The best part of that will be, this time around he shall own "the brand" not someone else.

For the Jains too, it will be a good opportunity to get off the Tiger that they had inadvertently mounted. They can now get fresh talent and also relaunch the product in a new avatar - something that BCCL is particularly good at. One would not be surprised if they make it into a newsroom-based channel rather than an anchor-dependent channel (just as they have done for their print and digital publications). It will be a "win-win" for both.

I for one do not subscribe to the theory that Arnab has resigned due to differences on editorial policy. Knowing how commercially driven the BCCL group is, TRP is what would matter to them most. However, being independent will certainly give Arnab much more room for play. It is also possible that over the past few months Arnab was raising his jingoistic pitch and displaying an incipient right-wing inclination as a build up for his next jump. But, I am willing to bet Arnab and the Jains would part as friends without rancour.

Finally, it was amusing to note that some Times Now staffers actually cried after he made the announcement. This is somewhat at variance to the impression outside that Arnab is a monster of a boss who everyone loved to hate.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Why ain't anyone talking of Governance and the Small Shareholder in the Tata-Mistry saga

Photo Courtesy +ABPLIVE 

Article first published in +ABPLIVE (Click here)

The Cyrus Mistry saga has been done to death. Normally, fatigue would have set in among both the media and the public. As someone remarked, it does not even have any gossip value like, say, the sacking of the chairman of a liquor company. But the aftershocks of the sacking are still continuing.

Though the epicentre of this quake was Bombay House, the headquarters of Tata Sons, it has shaken entire corporate India and the tremors were also felt in the capital’s corridors of power, especially the Finance and Corporate Affairs Ministry and, some suspect, even the PMO. Per public perception, the Tatas were considered the gold standard among Indian business conglomerates. Now some fundamental questions have been raised about corporate governance in India.

First, on a positive note, it establishes the supremacy of the board. But, at the same time it also makes it loud and clear that in the final analysis the promoters are the ones who call the shots.

Having conducted a silent board room coup the Tata PR machinery went on an overdrive. In a rather intriguing move, they had a slew of top gun lawyers defend their action on television with a series of “exclusive” interviews rather than waiting their turn in court. This was probably triggered by rumours of Cyrus Mistry contemplating legal action (given that Mistry’s father-in-law Iqbal Chagla, son of the famous MC Chagla, is a renowned and respected legal luminary) which also explains the rush to file caveats in courts. But, it was a rather curious way of addressing stakeholder concerns — especially the stock market where the Tata stocks tanked.

In contrast, Mistry’s reactions were both restrained and dignified. Other than what is being popularly called his “letter bomb” (it is not known for certain who leaked the contents) he has not made any public utterances. In fact, his office went out of its way to scotch rumours of potential legal action.

Returning to the root, none can deny the Board’s prerogative to sack or appoint a Chairman. The rest is surround sound. Mistry certainly knows this and it would be surprising if he chooses to pursue a protracted legal tussle that will be a drain on resources and time. He wanted to have his side of the story to be known and has more than achieved that objective through his letter that mysteriously found its way into the public domain. Notwithstanding their self-righteous fulminations, it has clearly put the Tatas on the back foot with a lot of explaining to do and simultaneously put the onus on the Government, tax and regulatory authorities to investigate the charges.

The real battle, however, lies in the Board Room. It should not be forgotten that at the end of the day Mistry represented the interests of Shapoorji-Pallonji who hold 18.6 per cent of Tata Sons’ shareholding. The Trusts, no matter how powerful they are, cannot steam roll over the interests of minority shareholders.

In many off-line conversations it has been remarked that one of the cardinal sins of Mistry was not keeping the Tata Trusts informed of his moves on divestments and acquisitions. A fundamental question that one has not heard being asked is about the legal propriety of sharing “price sensitive” information with majority shareholders. If the Trusts are expected to be kept informed, what about the public shareholders of the concerned companies who are directly affected by these decisions? This is where the ‘Corporate Veil’ has been sharply pierced. It remains to be seen what view Shapoorji-Pallonji takes on similar situations in the Tata Sons board going forward.

At one level it will test the corporate governance framework in the country, in which the role of independent directors will also come under a spotlight. The obligation of the board is not limited to just the promoters and shareholders, but also the larger universe of external stakeholders. It is for this unrepresented constituency the independent directors are expected to act as conscience keepers. But how far the average director is either inclined or equipped to discharge such responsibilities is a matter of debate.

Till the time of writing Mistry has not been dislodged from his position in the Tata flagship companies which were either affected by his decisions or might be impacted by the contingent liabilities that he has highlighted in his letter. Will the ordinary shareholders who had elected Mistry as the Chairman of their companies go along without a whimper if the respective Boards recommend his early separation? If the Tatas try to bulldoze their way through, it will be another travesty of corporate democracy.

It will be interesting to see if after all this corporate paper shredding, what kind of external talent the Tatas are able to attract to replace Mistry. Many are betting that they will have to settle for an “insider-outsider” like TCS’s N Chandrasekaran. If there is even a grain of truth in Mistry’s allegations, the task of his successor is already cut out. It will be a miracle if he/she is able to achieve the turnaround painlessly.

Meanwhile, the coming weeks will be a test of credibility between Cyrus Mistry and Ratan Tata. If one were to treat the initial stock market reaction as an ‘Opinion Poll’, the Tatas have reasons to worry.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Curious Case of Bombay House

Picture from Internet
Article first published in +DailyO India Today

When Ratan Tata talked of “intolerance” rising in the country — at the Founder’s Day function of a public school — he was certainly not referring to what was brewing in the corporate empire that he presided over till a few years ago.

Even in hindsight — it could not have been a diversionary tactic. As the media went on an overdrive trying to interpret the political import of a generally apolitical Tata’s statement and was busy reporting the feud in the ruling political family of Uttar Pradesh , the young chairman of Tata Sons, appointed less than five years back with much fanfare, was removed unceremoniously in a bloodless boardroom coup.

Cyrus Mistry can enjoy quiet meals in dhabas with his chauffeur without the paparazzi chasing him.
Not much is known — or will probably come to light in a hurry — as to what might have preceded such a momentous decision by one of India’s largest (and arguably, the most well known, internationally) business conglomerate, though theories and conjectures are bound to surface.

However, from a lay external observer’s view, the following come across as interesting:

- The move obviously took Cyrus Mistry by surprise just as it apparently caught corporate India and the financial press unawares.
- If there were performance issues , they would have come to the table at board meetings and in a highly porous corporate culture of this country, there would certainly have been a whiff in the air;
- Over the years, despite having started on a tentative note, Ratan Tata had acquired a larger-than-life image and he not only remained the public face of the group, his personality undoubtedly held sway in the Tata empire not just because of his surname;
- While the internal Directors would have easily fallen in line with the group’s thinking, it would have required some very compelling reasons to convince the eminent external directors on the board;
- All things said, Mistry was the nominee of the largest shareholder of the Group (Shapoorji-Pallonji). For the Independent Directors to endorse such an extreme action, there must have been some overriding “ethical” (not necessarily integrity but “governance” related such as “conflict of interest”) considerations; it would be unfair to assume they would have gone along with the majority view.
- In a somewhat intriguing move, it seems Ratan Tata wrote to the Prime Minister apprising him of the Board’s decision. Whether the change of guard in a major corporate house merits such an intimation can be a matter of debate;
- Any shareholder tussle would normally be thrashed out first at a different fora before coming up to the Board — which is normally the place for stakeholders’ dispute resolution;
- Surely, the Tatas would have been alive to the possibilities of legal fall-out, especially with Mistry’s father-in-law being one of the very eminent jurists of India — Iqbal Chagla, son of the legendary MC Chagla. Not surprisingly, there is already talk of Mistry approaching the Bombay High Court for relief;

That brings us to a new development in Corporate India — when aggrieved senior executives are increasingly taking their former employers to court. This can be attributed to a number of factors.
First, high-stake CXO appointments are now stitched with elaborate legal contracts with severance conditions explicitly spelt out. With multi-million paycheques, head honchos are easily able to pay for expensive legal help that their poor predecessors could not afford. In an increasingly litigious society, law firms too are much more willing to take briefs against potential corporate clients.

Mistry’s appointment was prefaced with a much publicised “global search” by an international head-hunting firm stretching over two years. Finally, when Mistry — the scion of the largest shareholder — was brought in from the cold, many felt it was an elaborate charade. Now, that again a “hunt” has been insituted — one wonders what surprise it will throw up this time.

Finally, leadership transition in professional organisations is as prone to withdrawal afflictions as indeed it is in family-owned enterprises. And, it does not help to have a charismatic predecessor keeping a benevolent eye over one’s shoulders.

No matter how the drama plays out in the coming weeks — Mistry can enjoy quiet meals in dhabas with his chauffeur without the paparazzi chasing him.

But, the question people are asking is whether this was Tata Sons’ Samajwadi Party moment — and who is the Amar Singh in Bombay House?