Maggi, Maruti, Mandal and Mandir: the dying 80s brands in the Modi era

In 1983, through massive ad campaign, Nestle managed to somehow make a small entry into the Indian households.

On a trip to Mexico in 1982, India’s then Information and Broadcasting minister, Vasant Sathe discovered a communication strategy developed by Miguel Sabido of producing “telenovelas” (soap operas of the socialist world order) to promote social change and national development. The socialism of that era believed in these grand gestures of national magnitude that were supposed to alter societies through cultural manifestations, and India’s “progressive thinkers” were no exception to such grandiosity.

Maggi-ed by Hum Log

Sathe, on his return from the Mexico trip, initiated Doordarshan’stransformation into the then portmanteau neologism territory of an‘edutainment’ channel by creating content that was supposed to be primarily educational and incidentally entertaining.

Two years later, on 7 July 1984, Sathe’slabour bore fruit as India’s first edutainment telenovela began its tryst with the audience. “Hum Log”, a story of a normal middle class north Indian family was designed to blend entertainment with educational messages from the socialist state by promoting family planning and feminism (sic) etc. Whether “Hum Log” educated India or not is debatable, but it sure did entertain in good measure throughout its run of 156 episodes.

One of the unintended consequences of Vasant Sathe’s experiment came in the form of the transformation of urban India’s eating habits! This is the fundamental problem with socialism, for it never really understands the consequences of its grand gestures and almost invariably ends up validating capitalism at every juncture.

In 1982, Swiss FMCG giant, Nestle, had entered the Indian market through the porous and murky jungle of the license-permit Raj by creating an Indian subsidiary, “Food Specialties Limited”. Nestle (through its subsidiary company of course) was trying hard to market its flagship noodle fast-food product but was struggling with near-zero sales throughout its first year of operations.

In 1983, through massive ad campaign, Nestle managed to somehow make a small entry into the Indian households but was only selling some 1600 tons of its flagship product every year. Then “Hum Log” happened to Maggi. Or rather, Maggi happened to “Hum Log.

Maggi advertisers quickly realized the value potential of “Hum Log” for an entertainment starved Indian middle class and decided to sponsor the showeven as Sathe, the progressives, and the Congress party were hoping to educate the masses on their pet themes of socialism.

Week after week, “Hum Log” reached six crore viewers along with Maggi noodles as an instant two-minute nirvana- for-hunger as the message that changed the Indian food consumption landscape forever. In the span of just one and a half years, between 1983 and 1985, Maggi’s sales grew by a whopping 163% from 1600 tons to 4200 tons! Never has Maggi seen such growth in such a short span of time in India since then. Indeed, in the five years from 1985 to 1990, it grew by only 132% to 10000 tons even as Maggi made inroads into rural India.

maggiOver the years, Maggi had become synonymous with noodles just like Xerox is synonymous with photocopying even as Nestle commanded 70% market share of India’s noodle consumption. Also, over the years, many other players, including indigenous giants like ITC, have tried hard to break the Maggi stranglehold over the noodle market but have invariably failed.

Suddenly in the last few days, Maggi’s dominance has been threatened by suspected toxic content of Lead and Monosodium Glutamate. The threat has been so severe that even Indian Army canteens have withdrawn Maggi from the shelves (for the uninitiated, Maggi has been an army favorite ever since the mid-80’s).

Maruti: the symbol of Indian under-achievement

In today’s India, Maggi was the last man standing from India’s socialist evening of 1980s, both literally and figuratively. If Maggi was the instant nirvana for urban middle class hunger in 1980s, the aspiration of the Indian middle class was born on Sanjay Gandhi’s birthday on 14 December 1983 in an elaborate ceremony whenthe then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, handed over the keys to the first Maruti car to an unknown contest winner, Harpal Singh.

If Maggi was a calculated success story of a European FMCG giant, Maruti was merely a Japanese fluke. No doubt, the then PM’s son, Sanjay Gandhi had dreamt of a people’s car along the lines of Volkswagen Beetle, but it was nothing but a pipedream. In fact, Toni Schmücker, the then chief of Volkswagen had shot down the idea as “any investment in India would be a waste of money”. Global automobile manufacturers only entertained Sanjay Gandhi as an extra constitutional authority at the PMO but had absolutely no intention of investing in India to manufacture his people’s car.

Left with no option and facing a dead end, MarutiUdyog Ltd was formed by adopting a bill in the Indian parliament before the 1981 Tokyo Motor Show where a whole host of small cars under 550 cc and short of 3.2 meters in length were paraded unlike the much bigger and more expensive European models that had interested the late Sanjay Gandhi. The choice had quickly narrowed down to Daihatsu’s “Mira Cuore”, Mitsubishi’s “Minica” and the slightly bigger Nissan “Sunny”. Unfortunately, none of these Japanese carmakers believed that India had any worthwhile market for cars. Even the response of Suzuki, Honda and Toyota at the Tokyo Motor Show was lukewarm at best.

Sanjay Gandhi’s ambition would have remained a pipedream had fate not intervened. When all seemed to have failed and suitors had turned betrayers, a knight in the shining armor came in the form of the erstwhile recalcitrant, Suzuki. One of the senior directors of Suzuki who happened to read an Indian newspaper on a flight, came across a story on MarutiUdyog Limited and India’s quest for a “people’s car”. That changed everything. As it turned out, Suzuki’s partnership with Maruti became the biggest deal for that Japanese carmaker in its history.

Throughout the 80s and 90s, Maruti 800 remained India’s aspirational peak, so much so that as late as 2004, it was still the largest selling car in India even after more than a decade of liberalization that had opened up the automobile market. The 800 also was a symbol of Indian under-achievementthrough a Nehruvian socialist governance model. Truly,Maruti 800 is a constant reminder of our shortcomings as a nation(despite its iconic status when it was launched) owing to its unnecessary longevity. For more than 25 years, while the world was moving around in some of the most technologically advanced cars, we the socialist republic of India were forced to celebrate a matchbox sized design disaster of a car that packed an engine of merely 796 cc.

carWhilst urban India was busy discovering instant noodles in a cup of hot water and mobility in a small boxy car in the 80’s, vast majority of Indians were also waking up to asserting their hitherto hidden identities. Maggi and Maruti represented the first break from the socialist past whereas Mandal and Mandir symbolizeda new political awakening beyond secularism.

The Mandal and Mandir awakening

Congress had institutionalized its own form of 20th century feudalism as the mainstream political philosophy of India for close to 60 years up until the 1980s, starting from the 1920s, coinciding with the Mahatma’s arrival on Indian shores. Thus most historians and political analysts have invariably had two standard reactions to both Mandal and Mandir:

  1. Identity politics is bad for India
  2. Mandal and Mandir paradigms operate as countercurrents to each other

The primary reaction of branding identity politics as anathema comes from the Nehruvian school of thought that wanted to broadly brush India into a single canvas of his choice along the “Discovery of India” lines. Thus any deviation from that narrative process, wherein native sections of populace would demand better political representations were considered as going against the very ethos of India’s nationhood which by 1980s had become synonymous to the Nehruvian ideology by the progressive intellectuals.

Whether it was the Hindu resurgence through the Ram JanamBhoomi Andolan or the vastly neglected middle and backward castes – who simply did not fit into the Nehru narrative where there was place only for Muslims, ‘Harijans’ (not Dalits, mind you) and a small section of upper castes – finding their voice through Mandal, both were branded as being essentially anti-nationalists.

The second part of the commentarial reaction was a slightly more complex demographic misunderstanding of the historic Hindu landscape. The Mandal ascension of backward and middle castes is considered by many political theorists as a jolt to the Hindu awakening of India. In fact, there has been a school of thought that wants us to believe that all the anti-Mandal protests, mainly by upper caste Hindus, as an important inflection point against larger Hindu unity. But, now hindsight tells us that the Mandal assertion was indeed a smaller subtext of the larger Hindu identity inception into the consciousness of India.

The Ayodhya movement provided the single most important opportunity for the Hindu awakening of India in the 20th century. For more than two decades now, 6 December is considered as a black day by the secular ethos of India, but the fact is that it was a day when ordinary Indians demolished possibly the biggest symbol of slavery that had been bestowed upon us.

The fact also is that Muslims have been, over the years, deliberately enticed to cultivate a mindset of victimhood around the Babri narrative by various strands of the secular political tribe, whereas data suggests that the immediate reaction to the Babri Masjid event by Muslims was more of an anger againstthe systemic neglect by the state.

A poll survey conducted in (the undivided) Uttar Pradesh, the epicenter of 6 December 1992, just months after the event, suggests that the Muslim anger was greatest against the police force (57% did not trust the Police at all) and not the state government (of Kalyan Singh).

The fact of the matter was that despite all the overt façade of “secularism”, India as a nation under the Congress rule had failed to redress the fundamental grievances of the Muslim community. The biggest data point to prove this benign neglect of the Muslim community came from the fact that Muslims constituted merely 5% of the Police force in India in 1992-93 despite being a minority of close to 13% then. This underrepresentation of Muslims in the law enforcement agencies had not only caused the greatest heartburn among the community, but had also deprived the state of important intelligence inputs from the underbelly of crime syndicates operating in largely Muslim ghettos.

chartThe systemic Muslim anger in the backdrop of a rising crime graph and lack of sympathy from law enforcement agencies and lower level government officials was tapped by various political parties of the secular hue and converted BJP into Islam’s Enemy Number One purely to conquer the Muslim vote bank. As we are witnessing today, this frank political opportunism is fast approaching its sell by date.

Narendra Modi: the original Ram RathYatri

The rise of Narendra DamodardasModi in the last couple of years has altered the whole politico-demographic paradigm of India. The modern Hindu of the 21st century is comfortable in his skin and no longer has to battle the “other” to rectify historic imbalances. This 21st century Hindu is self-assured of his primacy and unlike his counterparts of the 80s, he is not rising as a force against Babur but is in harmony with India as the new global spiritual and knowledge superpower.

It is this 21st century Hindu that Modi has taken in his stride. The first step of Modi’s rise therefore coincided with the voluntaryride into the sunset of the original Ram RathYatri. The counterbalance of the Muslim vote-bank meanwhile has been reduced to glorious irrelevance due to hyper pseudo secularism politics.

Coincidentally, the production of Maruti 800 too was finally stopped in February 2014 to make way for better automobile revolutions in Modi’s India. In fact, it was under Modi’s Chief Ministership that Gujarat had emerged as the most promising destination for auto manufacturers across the world and Gujarat is all set to become India’s biggest car manufacturing state by rolling out 10 lakh cars annually by 2016.

While extra constitutional authorities like Sanjay Gandhi were struggling to find auto companies who would invest in India to make his “people’s car”, it is irony indeed that Modi is selling his “Make in India” dream to the world which can potentially transform India into the largest hub of global passenger car manufacturing.

The biggest impact that Modi has had is on that Mandal brand of politics which was such an important demographic dimension of the 80s. Modi, the great unifier of the Hindu vote has rendered Mandal polity almost redundant in 21st century India.When we do a comparative analysis of the 1991 Lok Sabha elections of undivided Uttar Pradesh and Bihar which was at the peak of both the Ayodhya movement as well as Mandalization in the heartland with the 2014 elections in Uttar Pradesh + Uttarakhand and Bihar + Jharkhand, we find at the outset thatthe BJP’s growth has been almost exponential whereas the Mandal parties have either remained static or are declining in strength. A qualitative analysis of the vote-share of the Mandal parties throws further light on Modi’s United Spectrum of Hindu votes because essentially what the SP or RJD or JDU are taking home in the heartland in the form of votes mainly consists of minorities and not the erstwhile OBC supporters. This is the primary reason why a Lalu or a Mulayam is so jittery about Modi, because he is attracting their core Yadav vote base like never before. This was probably inevitable as hindsight analysis tells us that Mandal politics was never really a countercurrent to the rise of Hindu nationalism but was merely a time correction of the larger identity assertion of native India.

modiWith Maruti, Mandal and Mandir disappearing from India’s mind-space, Maggi was really the last icon from the socialist evening of the 1980s. It is a pity that Maggi is going down in such a fashion, but then it may have already outlived itself in our kitchens.

If we look at it, this is also a real opportunity for indigenous quickie food makers to log on to India’s taste buds. Can the instant Pohas, Dhoklas andIdlis conquer the Maggi space is a question that will be answered by how desi food can be preprocessed for instant cooking and the ability to market the same.