India Trip – A Few Random Observations
5 days; 3 cities; 10’s of conversations with both business colleagues and friends; and I am now getting a sense that the country is going through a change, but doesn’t quite know it yet. In no particular order or coherency, here are a few random observations and related thoughts:
- Disdain for politicians in all classes of society is reaching epic proportions. Whether this translates to a change of political will, remains to be seen. One is beginning to witness incidents where people are actually making bureaucrats’ cars stop and wait for traffic lights. Previously, red, amber or green, these cars would whiz by without a pause. What’s the latest fear (or hope, given your perspective)? Mayawati actually has a shot at becoming Prime Minister!
- What truckers’ strike, what fuel shortage? Despite supplies for fuel being choked by 70% or more nationwide, for a week, the country simply adapted. Yes, there were lines, yes there was anger, but no – things do not/did not come to a standstill. Flight cancellations, price gouging, lines at government owned pumps, etc. are all taken in stride. Life is returning back to a state of normalcy (if there is such a state in India) as I write this.
- Peaceful co-existence amongst Muslims and Hindus, despite the deep chagrin caused by 26/11, remains the overwhelming norm. This is particularly evident in Lucknow – a city where probably a third of the population is Muslim. Hindu (and Muslim) anger is directed towards the rogue elements in Pakistan, the governments’ inability to manage, but not the Muslim community. There are several negative impacts that are visible. For example, the train between Amritsar and Lahore has carried a total of 5 passengers in the past 5 days; all – yes, all – concerts by Pakistani artists that were on tour to India have been cancelled. The larger question remains. Where do we go from here?
- Big unknowns around what the Obama presidency means to India. Bush has been perceived as having been really good for the country, specially because of sponsoring and pushing the nuclear deal through; taking a hard stance against terrorism and for free trade. Ironically, Hillary Clinton’s nomination to the State Dept. has people viewing Obama favorably in the hope that the Clinton’s fondness for India will shift the balance to India even if Obama tries to play the middle ground with Pakistan.
- The economy seems to be in a slow motion fall. Layoffs, unheard of till very recently are now accepted with little or no fuss. Here are some anecdotal observations.
- Mid size IT companies previously geared up for 30% growth are seeing 10% declines as Q4 numbers surface. Most seem to be behaving like deer caught in a spotlight.
- Training institues for hospitality, travel and retail personnel are dying sudden deaths.
- Hotel rates are down by 40% or more in Bangalore, Delhi and Bombay. Perhaps, more significantly, rooms are available with little or no notice!– Flights and trains on major routes are all full; airports and train stations are packed. This doesn’t compute … for me, yet.
- Large billboards on the Bangalore Airport Highway are 80% vacant. Even the ones considered to be at vantage points are 50+% vacant.– Foot fall in shopping malls is dramatically down. Even on the weekend, there was only a trickle of shoppers in this one Lucknow mall (picture) where till recently, one had to wait in a 10 min queue just to get in. It could be that the novelty factors of malls has worn off the shoppers. I think not.– Salary and other job related expectations have, almost overnight, become downright reasonable. The cockiness is all but gone. The psychology of raises of 15-20% every six months that had become a right, seem to have switched to hopes of just holding on to jobs.
- Banks seem to be unaffected and other than ICICI, no bank seems to have declared any meaningful losses. The cash economy, as always is vibrant, and seems to be lending consistency of support when the official economy is teetering all over the place.
- Real Estate is affected, but similar to US, property prices for high value places are still intact and very few flats come up for sale. I suppose the lack of leverage; paying large sums in “black” and no runaway mortgage lending does have a bright side.
- From government to private companies, large and small, maintaining top line revenue with cost reductions is the only mantra. The Indian business man is creative anyway. These economic times has brought out that much more creativity. The good part about the Satyam/Maytas, PWC disaster just might be that keeping one’s nose clean will actually be considered goodness. The media is making hay out of the Raju brothers’ plight in jail … white collar crime or not … they did spend the weekend with petty and not so petty criminals (purse thiefs, chain snatchers, wife beaters, dowry mongers, kidnappers and more).
So what does this all mean? Heck if I know. I promised only observations and not coherency of thought, remember.
On a lighter note, I happened to be on the same flight from FRA-BOM as drop-dead-gorgeous-in-person Kareena Kapoor and beau Saif Ali Khan. They seemed to be largely normal people, other than a few chips on Kareena’s shoulders. No preferential treatment in the immigration lines, but they didn’t have to baby sit their bags through customs – Saif’s PA did the job – go figure.
I’ll blog some more as time and internet connectivity permit, or Namita goads me to. This is a business trip and those priorities do come first, sometimes.