By Sumit Kashyap Jha

No one remembers Sanjay Agarwal’s Home Trade. People tend to forget things easily, and get conned even more easily. Home Trade was a company endorsed by some of the biggest celebrities in India- Shahrukh Khan, Sachin Tendulkar, Priyanka Chopra, Hrithik Roshan– with a signature line “Life Means More”. It had all the prime slots on TV channels- be it during the famous 2002 India-Aus Test series or the top Saas Bahu serials; Home Trade was the talk of the town. It became part of every conversation, from college canteens to the stock market; everyone wanted a piece of Home Trade. Bankers wanted to lend money to Agarwal’s company, consumers wanted to buy his products, and stock brokers couldn’t wait for the IPO.

Some of the biggest PR and advertising firms were working for Home Trade and PwC was looking after their back-end transactions. It was headed by a person who came to office in T-shirts, in an office where any employee could walk in anytime- no knocking, no formalities needed. The much awaited IPO came and the market went into frenzy; the mood was celebratory. It was the perfect story except that there was a catch. Home Trade didn’t have a single product to show. None of their ads ever mentioned any products; it was purely a brand-building exercise. In the end, all those who used to swear by Sanjay Agarwal were the worst hit- From celebrities to PR firms, Marketing agencies, investors, employees, and all those who bought his dreams.

It’s been over twelve years now since the Home Trade scam broke and today we are looking at a similar frenzy of public attention around Narendra Modi. I hear a lot of things and a lot of melodrama- from him, from the BJP, the RSS, from celebrities, in his speeches, and from his legions of online supporters. And we can’t forget our great “Bombay Club”. If someone goes purely by what Modi’s supporters say, s/he will get the feeling that Mr. Modi is a hybrid between Rockefeller, Steve Jobs, Obama, Mother Teresa, Mick Jagger, Lord Shiva and Lord Vishnu. This really is the image of him projected in campaigns both online and offline. Millions are being spent on rallies- over 500 of them, with people dancing to the tune of meaningless and vague songs like “Desh Nahi Dubne Dunga” on FM channels. From fake Lal Quila to fake photos with lions and swans, from cosmetics to hair-transplants, from Gucci to Versace- everything was used to project that perfect Godly image. This mammoth branding exercise was done to create the image of a person who is above the rest- who is not one of us, who is “Above Suspicion”.

How much they have succeeded in doing so remains to be seen, but our “Bombay club” was the first to bow down to his Highness. Those very Anil Ambanis and Kushagra Bajajs who use to run behind Amar Singh and used to call UP the place where things move, and the next business hub, are now shouting themselves hoarse for Mr. Modi. IT Tsars like Narayana Murthy who had earlier issued strong public condemnations are now praising his ‘leadership’. The same CII members who in 2003 were concerned about law and order in Gujarat are now haling Modi as the champion of economic reforms. Anyone who has worked for and understands the corporate world knows that big businesses only want one thing in a politician- someone who can dance to their tunes.

Celebrities almost always fall in line- they all want to stay in the power corridors. Amitabh Bachchan, who in 2003 was featuring in Uttar Pradesh ads calling it “Sarvotta Pradesh”, saying how “Bhrastachar yahan kam hai”, is now saying “Kuch din toh gujaro Gujarat mai”. The entire herd of celebrities soon followed- some started flying kites for movie promotions, a few got land to set up film studios, many got tickets to the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. The same Chief Minister who banned multiple movies of their colleagues, representing a party which has more often than not thrashed artists and art galleries, is now the new messiah of the art and entertainment world.
The media of course doesn’t want to be left behind. From Minhaz Merchant, who couldn’t stop praising the new political entrant Rahul Gandhi, and now can’t speak anything else other than Modi- to Madhu Kishwar, who wrote a letter asking for the head of Mr. Modi, and will now smash the head of anyone not willing to accept Mr. Modi as the new Vishnu Avatar. Many have come out in open support; many are supporting behind the scenes. A few were bought over, a few did it out of fear, and a few I suspect were always RSS supporters at heart and now it easier to come out and express themselves.

Entire PR machinery in place, it is now named the Modi wave- where everyone hails the Lordship. The situation is such that this Lordship can turn a singer with the BJP anthem and others will promptly say that he is the greatest singer since John Lennon, and will volunteer to dance on his tunes. But amidst all this, like they did in the case of Home Trade, they forgot a crucial thing: What is the Product. No one cares to talk about the product.

What was actually delivered? What percentage of MoUs signed at Vibrant Gujarat summits actually turned into investment? What percentage of people in Gujarat live below poverty line? What is the condition of primary education there? How good is higher education in Gujarat? What is the condition of minorities? What fraction of people gets safe drinking water? How many RTIs are answered in Vibrant Gujarat? How many convicted ministers are sitting in the state cabinet? What is the internet penetration in the state? How friendly is it for SMEs? These are just some of the questions which have direct implications on those who voted him to power in Gujarat, and those who are probably thinking of voting Modi to power at the Centre.

In this entire branding extravaganza we had forgotten about the actual product, and as the Home Trade fiasco stands testament, everyone is set to lose- from early investors, to employees to celebrities to PR companies to advertising companies. But the biggest losers of the Home Trade scam were those stock buyers who couldn’t wait for the IPO. Everyone else made some profit and moved on, but the stock buyer only lost. Sanjay Agarwal happily conned us and made a killing, and is probably leading a comfortable life in some tax haven. There is a very likely possibility of this unfortunate history repeating itself again this time, and everyone from business houses to media houses turned PR firms, to cheap celebs- they will all lose some.

But it’s the people, the real stock buyers and holders of democracy, who will be the worst losers if they vote for a person just on the basis of branding, without caring for the product. And the only winner will be this one person who will gain his life’s ambition of turning this great nation into a Hindutwavaadi oligarchy. But people are smart, and they understand the value of their vote. They will exercise it wisely, as they have done so in the past. They generally know what is good for them. Or do they? We will get our answers on the evening of 16 May 2014.