3 rich contradictions that have given the slip to India’s pink papers

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So Jet Airways announced record losses this week, maintaining its vice-like grip over business headlines in India. Ever since its high-decibel deal with Abu Dhabi White Knight Etihad some months ago, Jet has been a fixture in our pink papers and has been the subject of at least one big magazine cover story. One would imagine that by now, the airline, and particularly L’affaire ‘Jetihad’, would have been covered from every angle possible – but during some recent research I realised everyone had actually skipped at least one rich detail. It’s not a simple matter of ‘data’ – the reigning deity of business journalism. Rather, it’s a cultural contradiction underlying Jet’s decision to partner Etihad, which added so much more to my understanding of what plagues India’s oldest private airline.

That’s not the only one. I recently worked on two other stories covering two very different news points that India’s pink papers have been gushing forth on. These are India’s rise as the world’s largest bovine meat exporter and Modi’s vitriol against it; and the bull run of HCL at the bourses, overshadowing some of its more fancied peersIn terms of longevity, these stories have seen a terrific run just like Jetihad, and once again none of the many takes on them seem to have spotted – or made much of – a set of deceptively basic contradictions that would make the narratives much richer. Storytelling is a subjective art, so you can always argue that not every story can say everything – unless not saying certain things puts you in a bubble that blinds you to the whole story.

Here then are the missing pieces that helped me burst the bubble and understand these stories more fully. (PS: If you have come across articles that address these pieces, please do leave the links here. I have included links below to get to versions we published at Fortune (India). Also, this is only an indicative post and not a detailed exploration. I would be happy to discuss some of these issues at length right here – or you could read the Fortune stories!)

1. THE BULL ABOUT BEEF

Narendra Modi has been up in arms against the Indian “beef” (cow meat for the uninitiated) industry’s rise as the world’s largest exporter of the stuff. In fact this was one of the fixtures of his pre-election speeches, and the Internet is replete with his diatribes. At a meeting of the Jain International Trade Organisation in Ahmedabad in 2012, he even rebuked the audience for not protesting against what loosely translates as “the heart-rending evil of slaughter”. He mockingly anointed it the UPA government’s “pink revolution”.

Religious undertones are unmissable in any anti-beef tirade in India. However, Modi’s logic has ostensibly been economic: slaughtering cattle = less organic fertilisers = increased dependence on chemicals in our farms.

BUT

India only exports buffalo meat. While editing a piece written by my friend @Utopiandevil on the bovine meat boom in India, I realised that Modi’s speeches make no distinction between buffalo meat and beef, or indeed any other form of meat. To wit: “The UPA government has been taxing cotton while subsidising mutton”. Many would  intuitively see through this conflation of categories, but there’s been little attempt to lay bare its implications on a country with notorious Holy Cow sensibilities.

Also, notwithstanding Modi’s fears that we are perilously depleting our livestock, and despite India’s recent star turn as a buff exporter, its buffalo population has actually gone up by 26%, from 89.9 million in 1997 to over 113 million in 2011.

And the increased use of chemical fertilisers, says Greenpeace, is the result of systematic government subsidies – “the single largest financial support that our government gives to agriculture every year.” (Greenpeace link courtesy @Utopiandevil; read his story ‘Buff, boom!’ in the current issue of Fortune India, or wait for Fortune India’s web launch due shortly.)

2. THE IT REVOLUTION THAT WASN’T

Bangalore gets all the footage for stoking India’s IT revolution, but it was Uttar Pradesh, to be precise Noida, that gave India its first ever indigenous computer brand – HCL, now a D-Street Bull – bang in the middle of the Emergency.

In fact HCL’s origin coincides with that of Noida, which was set up by the government in 1976 as a showpiece city under its urbanisation drive. HCL’s founder Shiv Nadar was given land to start his outfit there soon after. In all the hullabaloo about HCL as an unstoppable force on the bourses, we don’t often pause to consider that it is the only North India-headquartered player in the big league of Indian IT. (You can download Fortune India’s April ’14 issue to read Anurag Prasad’s story on Nadar’s umbilical relationship with Uttar Pradesh, or you can watch this video where he discusses his deep debt to the state.)

BUT

Computer penetration in Uttar Pradesh schools four decades after the inception and latter-day surge of HCL: less than 7.5%. That’s barely a third of the national average of over 20.5%. That’s from a government report on the quality of education in UP’s schools. I suspect that the irony behind the massive digital divide in the state that gave India its first computers could easily be given a place in the reams and reams reserved for HCL’s heroics.

3. JET’S FORGOTTEN BAD MARRIAGE 

And finally, the curious case of Jet Airways. Erstwhile archrivals Naresh Goyal and Vijay Mallya announced an operational alliance between Jet and Kingfisher in 2008, a year when aviation globally was on its knees thanks to the recession and crude @ $145.

Mallya said the unexpected friendship would result in “humongous” cost savings. None of that materialised, and a culture clash between Mallya’s outsize opulence and Goyal’s brick-by-brick approach would have been one of the main reasons for the alliance’s collapse. Eventually, Kingfisher shut down in 2012, and Jet continues to reel under losses.

BUT

Six years on, Goyal is back with a tie-up with Etihad – the flagship airline of Abu Dhabi, the richest UAE emirate. Etihad’s latest contribution to aviation: a $21,000 “apartment” in the sky, featuring a bedroom, bathroom, living room and personal butler, which the New York Times says could all be a whim rather than a response to real demand, because, well, they can afford it.

There’s a school of thought that Etihad is a moneybag that wants to dominate West Asia riding on Abu Dhabi’s seemingly endless petrodollars – a philosophy which Mallya’s Kingfisher would probably have better appreciated in its heyday. Jet on the other hand has been on the brink of financial apocalypse and can scarcely relate to such excesses. Yoking it yet again to a partner that loves making blingy statements has all the makings of an ill-fated second marriage. But no one’s talking about Jet’s out-of-tune culture radar (@Utopiandevil does in his upcoming June ’14 story for Fortune (India)), choosing rather to focus on quarter-on-quarter ho-hum. 

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