Saturday, April 3, 2010

Much ado about nothing

Shakespeare never knew that his 16th century title would apply to a 2010 drama. And in India at that. The sound and fury over Amitab Bachchan would suggest that his brand ambassador ventures were the most urgent issue for the nation to address and resolve. Minor matters like the nuclear liability bill can wait.

Look at the fuss. Spokesmen of this party pouring ridicule over spokesmen of that party, editorial writers competing with columnists, channel rajahs and ranis falling over one another, blogs, twitters, sms – what a show! In reality it is exactly how Shakespeare summed it up: It’s much ado, and it’s about nothing.

Even so, there are some useful lessons we lay citizens can learn from this episode. First, there is a mean streak in the Congress and perceived likes and dislikes of Sonia Gandhi send party leaders into a frenzy of support. Second, Mr B is the most alert businessman in Bollywood. And third, all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten Narendra Modi’s hairy hands even if he becomes Prime Minister of India or President of the United Nations.

Sonia Gandhi actually is more sophisticated and shrewder than any Indian politician. But she is not known to forgive easily, especially where personal feelings are a factor. It is no secret that Rajiv Gandhi and Amitab Bachchan, once buddies, fell out. We do not know the real reasons, but there were reports that the problems started with the wives. Congress’s official spokesmen must have got a signal, hence their high-pitched criticism of Bachchan.

The level of these televised recriminations is pretty low. A Congress spokesman said, with patriotic emotion, that Mr B must make his position clear about the Gujarat riots. A BJP spokesman, with louder patriotic emotion, asked who were “these guys” to talk like that after massacring Sikhs for several days. The logic is: You massacred Sikhs, so it’s okay for us to massacre Muslims. To which the people will say: A plague upon both your houses.

Such puerile debates divert attention from the business acumen of the main protagonist, Mr B. His early attempts were a disaster. Who can forget the A. B. Corporation holding a beauty pageant in Bangalore promising to donate the collection to charity and then defaulting on the promise? He later discovered that advertising was his field. He made a success of the Reid & Taylor suit material campaign.

Then he discovered that the brand ambassador business was even more attractive because your clients would be government entities and you can expect to gain an element of prestige besides the money. Gujarat was an easy catch with a beleaguered chief minister eager to seize any opportunity that would give him an ounce or two of acceptability. Then he tried Kerala, then Orissa. Perhaps more will follow.

Kerala made a fool of itself by officially writing to Bachchan approvingly and then reneging on it under political pressure. But Bachchan’s own initiative in angling for the jobs cannot be overlooked. He went to Kerala for a meeting and dropped hints at the appropriate places. He met Modi to ask for tax concession for his Paa (which was like Sachin Tendulkar asking for duty waiver to import his Ferrari) and dropped a hint or two. Okay, as a businessman, it is his right to look for opportunities and grab them. Only that he should spare us the trumpet of his own virtues; no lectures about serving the country and about tourism being different from Modi, etc. In today’s Gujarat no ambassador can sell the Gir Lion without also selling Narendra Modi.

Mr B closing his eyes will not alter history. Modi’s position in history is inextricably linked with the worst communal atrocities in India since partition. The good things he is doing in industrial development and infrastructural improvement are praiseworthy. But the blot is a blot and it won’t go.