India's general elections, the largest such exercise the 21st century has seen yet, will also be the most important that Indian business has faced in 64 years of the republic. That's not an exaggerated statement. Economic growth today is closer to the 4.1 per cent average in the four decades before the economic reforms than the near-7 per cent in the two since. Those fighting the elections are yet to recognise how bad a shape the economy is in and have a limited view on what it will take to get it back on the rails. Ask any businessperson and he or she will tell you how things are much worse on the ground - in terms of new orders, trade financing, wage inflation, and the reliability of utilities - than what the headline GDP numbers suggest. And, even more worrisome, is how precariously the economy is perched. One shock like a conflagration in Ukraine or a bank crash at home will be enough to set off a domino that could put us back a few years. The elections, then, could have been an opportunity for India Inc. to pull itself out of the rut it is in rather than wringing its hands on how bad the business environment is. That is, had it advocated credibly the need for changes that would make creating wealth easier in India. And, it is difficult to imagine any political grouping opposing the need to make government and regulatory permissions more transparent and predictable; the process of taxation (note: not the quantum of taxation) less onerous; and make movement of physical goods less of a hassle. Unfortunately, business decided to sit tight on its hands and, as in the past, shied away from actively engaging with the political class and shaping a non-partisan policy regime that was good for the economy. If the elections turn up a fractured mandate, India business leaders will rue what they missed doing.
By all indications, there will be regret elsewhere, too: leaders in the Congress party will likely smart over how they did not project Rahul Gandhi effectively enough when election results are announced on May 16. Associate Editor Shweta Punj and Special Correspondent Anilesh Mahajan look at Brand Rahul through the lens of a product brand. Theoretically, the Congress party had everything going in the younger Gandhi: appeal with some 100 million new voters, someone who is untainted by the corruption scandals of the ruling United Progressive Alliance government, and a last name with the all important 'G'. But, like in most branding failures, the problem lies in the disjointed fit between the product and the image being projected. Read about the 4Ps of Brand Rahul and more in 'Lost in Communication'. Other interesting stories this issue are one on the grandstanding versus reality of inter-linking rivers, another on how bank non-performing assets could indeed be the tipping point into financial disaster for India, and one on how Ferrero Rocher prised open the premium chocolates market in India.
Continuing with product and branding (and Rahul Gandhi), there have been few disasters in recent corporate history that can be compared with the Tata Nano. Undoubtedly the most watched product to have come out of India, the addressable market for the Nano, priced at Rs 1.7 lakh for the top-end version in 2009, was in the millions. But the 'little boy' was quickly bleeped out of customer minds when they saw little value in it. Tata Motors, Nano's maker, has learnt from its mistakes and launched what many would call a normal car: with power steering, AC, car stereo, and other accoutrements. Add a dash of pizzazz and factor in some inflation, suddenly the all-loaded Nano Twist at Rs 2.58 lakh makes it to the "is it value for me" dashboard of potential buyers. Go to Executive Editor Suveen Sinha and Associate Editor Sunny Sen's Nano narrative in 'The new Nano promise'. In an El Nino year, the Tata little boy looks like it has a shot at the sunshine. 'El Nano' Gandhi may have to wait for a few years more.