Guest Post by – Dr Gaurav Chhabra
The recent meeting between the Bollywood top-shot Aamir Khan and political hot-shot PM Modi is trending online. With both men talking development, one focusing more on social development and the other on economic development, this meeting was destined to happen sooner or later. Some of the news and blog posts are calling this meet a U-turn. Whatsoever this meeting might mean to anyone, this power meet, is something that cannot be easily ignored.
Lately the fan-following of Aamir has been high on pop-meter, more due to his anchoring cum acting skills in popular citizen activism show- Satyamevajayte, than in any of his recent Bollywood films. Much of the fan following out of this is ‘social do-gooder’ people and many of them also happen to be Aam aadmi. Incidentally, a large chunk of this bunch, happens not to be a great fan of PM Modi. The power-meets-power shake-hand has left some idealist Aamir fans into a dilemma. Should they also, like their Bollywood idol, reset their expectations high from Modi and give up all the anti-Modi rant they have frequently been indulging into?
Frankly speaking, there is no need of any ideological dilemma, for when Aamir meets PM, he means Business. For that matter, a PM of any political party and probably ‘Business’ in its literal-most financial sense as well.
In a country like India, full of X numbers of issues and (X) x (n) number of NGOs (read 3 million+) working toward these issues, the social work sector today is expanding fast as a professionally organized sector. Passion to do more and more good requires expansion of scope of work. Unfortunately, this sometimes comes at the cost of ethics. Today when ‘awareness’ is the keyword and large chunks of public money is set aside by Government for running National awareness campaigns through print and electronic media, the developmental organizations and Social welfare departments of Government are coming up as a major tentative client for any big creative/advertising agency.
Big client means big business and big business means big lobbyist to bag the projects.
To be a good lobbyist, a regular Salam-Namastey helps.
Or call it a Courtesy call!
Last, when Aamir met PM Manmohan Singh, to discuss social issues, he solicited a big project for his friend Prasoon Joshi’s creative agency McCann Worldgroup. In fact he duly used his position of influence to vouch for and to bring Joshi’s company on board for this project.
Many of you might be aware of the ‘National Anti-Malnutrition campaign’, the video spots of which, starring chroma-keyed Aamir, frequently appeared across all the TV channels, print magazines and popular websites over many months, last year. Aamir was the Brand Ambassador of this project of Ministry of Women and Child Welfare carried out in collaboration with UNICEF India.
Though it would be a bit too technical to put it here, but any well-trained Public health-communication expert would not have chosen an erstwhile brand-ambassador of a fizzy Cola drink as a brand-ambassador of a National Anti-Malnutrition campaign; but that surely is not a matter of discussion here, as practically, such precision of work is not usually expected. Moreover, in India, a star is a Star, so forget about technicalities and just shut-up.
But still, why out of all the Bollywood stars and starlets.. Aamir Khan?
Had it been a matter of choice, things could have been different, but hardly any choice was left for the Government officials as the NGO/Think Tank- ‘Citizens Alliance against Malnutrition’, of which Aamir was also a creative-consultant, approached the PM office with an offer that PM could not refuse.
And happily so.
Aamir for free!
Well appreciated. Didn’t I tell you he is a good guy?! He promised and went ahead to be a brand Ambassador of Government’s Anti-malnutrition campaign for free!
Where then, is the catch?
A brand Ambassador has to reach out to public. TV is a great medium to reach out to you as you gobble up your freshly ordered Thin crust pizza with extra cheese while watching you favorite TV show. That’s when these public service broadcasts pop up. You might not fit well under the category of the mal-nourished, but chances are, that may be you will drop in a word or two to your domestic help and other marginalised helping staff about what message Aamir left for him/her last night. You also, obviously are the secondary target audience in any govt. awareness campaign since the awareness campaigns are partially also about showing Government’s ongoing efforts to the tax payers. In any case, you would find enough DishTVs in any of the smaller colonies in the slums where malnutrition in kids is more likely. So, enough communication surely is happening. Good! So let’s not get into the details if the channels and websites chosen for broadcast were suitable to the target audience of the campaign or not. Only thing worth highlighting here is that with his influence, Aamir once again lobbied for bringing on-board, another friend of his, the CEO of a sister company of Joshi’s company, as an unofficial consultant, to negotiate deals with the pvt. TV channels for buying air-time for broadcast of the prepared video spots, on behalf of Government.
Talking first about the development of video-spots for the campaigns..
Around 50 video spots were to be produced for the project.
Ministry of Information and Broadcasting with its Video production unit- DAVP, was a partner in this project. DAVP has on its panel, duly competent professional creative and production agencies to produce relevant video films for such campaigns. Also, Ministry of Women and Child welfare had good enough good a budget available to get these video spots produced from DAVP. But these chosen empaneled agencies were systematically ignored. The video production was rather outsourced to UNICEF, without any proper justification for the same. (http://www.scribd.com/doc/231257988/Outsourcing-of-production-to-UNICEF).
Aamir, in a meeting with Govt and UNICEF officials, at his residence in Mumbai, openly brought forth his self-selected ‘team’ and vouched for his friend Prasoon Joshi’s agency McCann Worldgroup for this project. (http://www.scribd.com/doc/231257963/Aamir-vouches-for-friend-Prasoon-Joshi).
UNICEF India office, the collaborating partner and financial supporter of this project chose to use its special powers to waiver the process of competitive bidding and rather directly signed a Tri-partite agreement between Aamir, itself and McCann Worldgroup. (http://www.scribd.com/doc/231257974/UNICEF-signs-McCann-Worldgroup).
Not only this, the project was already fixed unofficially much before this contract, which is clear from the records of work-meetings between McCann team and Govt/UNICEF officials, which had already started taking place much before the signing of this contract. (http://www.scribd.com/doc/231382201/McCann-part-of-project-even-before-official-selection)
This practice of ‘Waiver of competitive procurement’ such as this has been highly condemned time and again in professional Audits of UN agencies, but to no use. Further, to overcome the technical matters related to financial issues, this whole project was shown merely as ‘Technical support’ to Government rather than a financial one by UNICEF.
UNICEF even after repeated requests, refused to disclose any information about this project, even though their transparency policy claims otherwise in regard to disclosure of information.
Later, when these video spots were to be broadcasted on TV channels and DAVP was supposed to buy air-time from private TV channels, an agency called Lodestar UM, recommended again by Aamir Khan through the CEO of the agency Shashi Sinha was chosen to be involved in consultation while ‘negotiating primetime with concerned agencies in order to leverage best deals and optimal resource efficiency’, thus putting this agency, at the personal recommendation of the star, at a key position to influence the decision making in buying of airtime worth hundreds of crores of rupees for the project, without officially following due procedure to hire him as a consultant for this project. (Pg 2nd, Last [email protected] http://www.scribd.com/doc/231257998/Aamir-reccomends-Lodestar-UM)
The fans would surely love to jump ahead and put forth the idea that Aamir genuinely did it for a better campaign. Well, a great idea! I wish it is so too. But then, that would also justify and approve all the nepotism and favourism in the world that politicians indulge into, to award the projects to their near and dear ones. Is that also OK?
The above two ‘recommendations’ clearly indicate that bhai-bandhuvaad runs in higher circles of social-work system and the very ambassadors of Truth, practice it without much of a hitch.
On detailed inspection of the project documents, there are numerous other questions that arise and point clearly at discrepancies like unfair competitive advantage, conflict of interest, lack of accountability, failure to maintain standard of ethics in the execution of this project. These need to be dealt by relevant audit agencies and Government bodies. If, at all.
With the portfolio ranging from cola giants, national anti-malnutrition campaign and NaMo’s political campaign itself; creative advertisers like Prasoon Joshi surely are big merchant of truth; or at least they can market an approximation of truth as the ultimate truth. Further down, Brand Ambassadors are likes salesmen of such Truth. But for that, they ought to be a reliable face.
Is Aamir a reliable face?
Yes, for many he is. Reliable enough. With Aamir’s genuine efforts to raise the conscience of aam junta through his show Satyamevajayate, he today is the champion of all causes and the most well-known star face connected with social work. Today every other NGO wants to invite Aamir to preside over at their ‘awareness’ rally related to their social initiatives. ‘Hope is the opium of masses’. In present times, all hope is good. Aamir’s model of social work through Satamevajayate is a great model of ‘social entrepreneurship’. Social work sector must try its best to be financially self-sustainable rather than being a stagnantly donation based model alone. This quality of self-sustainability and profitability must be well appreciated. But what is clearly not worth a Bravo is the fact that when he offers his work pro-bono, the strings attached pull along his friends for making good business.
The issues Aamir has raised in SatyamevJayate are important. He deserves all the credit for that and no unfair criticism. But on a fair and deeper analysis, one can find another side of the story too. A one hour show on Water conservation and he chooses to completely ignore corporate exploitation of water by his ex-paymaster cola giant. Every Indian activist worth the salt would know how village after village has fought against this cola giant’s exploitation of their water resources. Years of protests and legal battles against the atrocities of the unethical corporate-government nexus for reclaiming their only and scarce source of drinking water. (http://www.righttowater.info/rights-in-practice/legal-approaches/legal-approach-case-studies/case-against-coca-cola-kerala-state-india/). Only an activist worth a Fizz could choose to ignore it. Critically looking at this, in development-sector lingo, this intentional presentation of selective truth is called a cover-up or rather a Positive Image building by partnering with the very root cause of the problem in highlighting the very same issue. That is exactly how many unethical corporates are using celebrity figures and NGOs and CSR campaigns to cover up their darker sides. (Like Priyanka Chopra for Vedanta mining corporation).
But why does aam junta tend to ignore such intricacies? That is where; the important role of creative advertisers comes in. They are the best at painting the great Happiness picture for us, so that we can hum aloud.. ‘haan haan mein crazy hoon..’ and instead of becoming voice of the oppressed, become little billboards of corporate giants on social media.
The passion for organic and natural farming as shown in one of the episodes of Sataymevajayte, could have also been extended to be shared in the meeting with the great philanthropist Bill gates, whose non-profit foundation also happens to be one of the heavy investors in the biggest Genetically Modified Organisms corporation– Monsanto. (http://naturalsociety.com/bill-gates-foundation-buys-500000-shares-of-monsanto/). Aamir’s film as a producer- Peepli Live, though plucked some unwanted strings in farmer-rights circles due, it did, by the way of dark-humour try to put forth the important and much neglected issue of farmer’s suicide, much of which reportedly also relates to the GM crop of Bt Cotton. At his position, in his meeting with Bill Gates, by talking clear about GM food crops, he could have send out a strong message, had he really intended to. But collaborations in development sector can choose only to be tactful, it seems. So not a word about it, when it could have meant the most.
At the least, I hope Aamir does have some personal stand on these important issues too.
That is why, when Aamir says, that he is not an activist but an actor; I choose to thoroughly believe him.
The Upanishadic aphorism Satyamev Jayate refers more to the Truth that is to be achieved by selfless works- Karmayoga. Even if Aamir’s present social work is no less an effort, to be a true activist, he surely has to raise his bar high…atleast on ethical front, where he seems to develop slippery feet as of now, knowingly or unknowingly.
Talking of Modi, his claims are high and so are his promises.
If he is serious about his promise of integral social and economic development, he should make sure that he promotes development of a transparent administrative system where, in a case such as this, the govt. officers do not continue to indulge in an arbitrary decision-making in regard to awarding of big projects based on influence of star power alone but instead respect the Financial rules and Guidelines laid down for transparent and effective functioning public procurement systems and effective utilization of public money.
Also, as Modi’s government sets to tighten the noose on international NGOs by regulating foreign funding based on the recent IB report, he should also work towards making the functioning of International Developmental agencies working on Indian lands, like UNICEF, more transparent and accountable to Indian public rather than allowing them to be veiled behind the clouds of secrecy of special powers. In any case the unchecked functioning of such organizations happens with due support of their government counterparts; the second half of the unholy nexus.
With Prasoon Joshi already been on NaMo’s political propaganda panel and now this courtesy call meeting of NaMo and Aamir to remind the former of his social development promises; with plans to work together towards developmental issues, there are all the bright chances that there might sprout a lot of corollary ‘awareness’ projects. Which, also means a lot of business for creative agencies.
I can only hope that if Aamir again chooses to offer his voice for free, it doesn’t come at the cost of ethics and that he chooses not to indulge in nepotism and use his clout to bring more business to his clique by overriding the public spirit of the rule books.
Not something extravagant, to ask for, from a torchbearer of Truth!
Note: This article is based on inspection and research of more than 1000 pages of documents procured via RTI from Ministry of Women and Child welfare and other sources. The detailed report, of which this article is an extract, was shared with most of the leading National Newspapers, all the major News Magazines including the popular Investigative Tabloids, and many News Channels but all invariably chose to ignore it or put it under the carpet. Invariably most of them also got business from the project that this article relates to. Hence, this article intends to bring forth the issue, in relation to its prevalent social context, in the public domain through an independent article. Maligning anyone’s public image is least of the intention and readers are requested to abstain from the same.