All Newspaper editorials in one place – February 17, 2024




February 17, 2024

Brave new world

India must invest in fundamental research to develop reliable drugs


Expectations are high that a free trade agreement involving India and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) is close to fruition. However, a bone of contention relates to intellectual property rights, and has persisted as an issue since 2008. Switzerland and Norway, which are prominent members of EFTA, host several of the pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies that are responsible for several of the drugs and therapeutics that underpin health care globally. The nature of the pharma industry — it costs much to discover a useful effective drug and relatively little to make generic copies of it — with demand that is far disproportionate to affordability, means that there is a constant tussle between the inventors and the generic-drug companies. Patenting, or an exclusive monopoly for a fixed number of years to originators and a reciprocal right by governments to issue directions for ‘compulsory licensing,’ thereby selectively breaking such monopolies in the interest of public health, has brokered the peace and sustained the global pharma industry for decades. But new legal innovations such as data exclusivity continue to inveigle themselves in free trade negotiations. Under this provision, all the clinical-trial data that concerns the safety and efficacy of a drug generated by the originator firm becomes proprietary and out of bounds for a minimum period of six years. Permission to make a generic is possible if a country’s regulator can rely on supplied clinical trial data to approve a drug. For this, generic makers usually rely on the originator’s published data.


The principle of data exclusivity is present among European countries as well as in agreements involving many developing countries. Were it to take effect in India, it could significantly hinder India’s drug industry which is also a major exporter of affordable drugs. Indian officials have rejected data exclusivity as a point of negotiations in the FTA, though leaked drafts of the agreement suggest that it is alive. However, India’s rise up the drug manufacturing chain in the last few decades means that it must invest in an ecosystem that can conduct ethical drug trials and make new molecules and therapeutics from scratch. The paradigm that drug development will always be expensive and confined to the West need not be permanent, as was seen in the development of several novel technology approaches to developing vaccines in India during the COVID-19 pandemic. But as preparation, India must invest substantially more in fundamental research to incubate the local drug industry into the future.



February 17, 2024

Scuttling opposition

Income-Tax department’s stalling of Congress accounts seems political


In a politically loaded move, the Income-Tax department has raised a demand of ₹210 crore in penalty and as dues from the Congress, which the party says has effectively stalled the operation of all its bank accounts. On the face of it, the action seems disproportionate to the charges, and an appellate tribunal has subsequently allowed the political party to operate the accounts on the condition that an amount of ₹115 crore is kept in lien until the case is heard next week. The party says it does not have such amounts in its current accounts. Just weeks before the general election, the principal Opposition party of the country finds itself restrained by a central agency. It is worrying that this falls into a pattern of enforcement agencies targeting those fighting the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The Income-Tax department action against the Congress relates to tax returns filed by the party for FY2018-19. The party had missed the deadline of December 31, 2019 by about 45 days to file the returns. Of the receipts of ₹199 crore recorded in the income-tax returns, ₹14,40,000 was in cash, which the party says was given by its Members of Parliament and Members of the Legislative Assembly. The demand of a penalty of ₹210 crore is for a 45-day delay in filing the returns, and a discrepancy, if at all, of ₹14.40 lakh. The Income-Tax department’s action appears high-handed and is clearly meant to paralyse the Congress.


This unusual I-T move came to light a day after the Supreme Court of India expanded on the link between money and politics in a verdict that held the secretive electoral bond scheme to be unconstitutional. Money has the power to influence politics, and disparity in access to funds can create political inequality and distort electoral outcomes. The Court’s judgment echoed this in its verdict which held the electoral bond scheme as violative of fundamental rights. The BJP has championed the scheme that allows anonymous donors to contribute unlimited amounts to parties as an instrument to combat electoral corruption. Stalling the bank account of the Opposition, regardless of the Income-Tax department’s allegations, cannot be viewed as routine law enforcement. Weaponisation of the law against political opponents of the ruling party has become a serious threat to India’s democracy. The brazen partisanship of central agencies that target the critics of the government is undermining the political system. The claim that all this is being done for fighting corruption and ensuring transparency cannot be taken at face value. All stakeholders must be accountable in a democracy, and the ruling party more so. When accountability is invoked for scuttling the political activity of the Opposition, that can only bode ill for democracy.


February 17, 2024

Day after, way ahead

SC strike-down of electoral bonds opens up space for wider discussion on how best to clean up election funding


With the Supreme Court striking down electoral bonds, India is back to square one on the issue of electoral finance. While many had argued that electoral bonds were a step in the wrong direction, many others, including the former finance minister, Arun Jaitley, saw it as a first step towards cleaning up campaign finance. It is critical for the continued health of India’s democracy that the rejection of the electoral bonds scheme does not mean an end to the idea of reforming electoral finance.


In its judgment, the apex court devoted a complete section to a discussion of the close association between money and politics. “It is believed that money does not vote but people do. However, studies have revealed the direct and indirect influence of money on electoral politics,” it says. In particular, the court noted that money “creates entry-barriers to politics by limiting the kind of candidates and political parties which enter the electoral fray”. In other words, absent regulation, money can not only exclude candidates who belong to socio-economically weaker sections but also make it tougher for political parties that are new to the electoral fray, and in particular, parties representing the cause of marginalised communities. The court also noted that there is “an underlying dichotomy in the legal regime” when it comes to this issue in India. That’s because the law only regulates contributions to political parties, not to individual candidates. However, when it comes to expenditure, the law regulates the expenditure by candidates and not by political parties.


Experts point to four key aspects that future regulation must tackle. These are: Regulation of donations, expenditure limits, public financing, and disclosure requirements. Around the world, one can spot various norms and experiments. For instance, the US imposes restrictions on contributions based on the kind of donor whereas there is no such regulation in the UK. But the UK regulates expenditure — political parties are not allowed to spend more than £30,000 — while the US imposes no such constraints. On the old question of public financing, Germany is an oft-quoted example where parties receive public funds on the basis of their importance (based on criteria such as the number of votes received in the last elections) in the political system. A noteworthy experiment in this regard was the use of “democracy vouchers” in local elections in Seattle, US. In this, publicly funded vouchers were distributed among eligible voters, who, in turn, donated them to the candidate of their choice. Lastly, the issue of disclosure, the balance between transparency and anonymity — the specific count on which electoral bonds were binned. To be sure, there is no single ready-made solution to this issue, especially since politics differs dramatically between countries as well as within the same country over time. A glaring lapse in the electoral bonds case was the government’s decision not to have any consultations either with other political parties or with the general public. For finding a robust solution it will be necessary to avoid that mistake.



February 17, 2024

Straws in trade wind

India’s goods exports picked up slightly in January. But conflict in Red Sea continues to pose risk


Data released by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry on Thursday showed that India’s merchandise exports grew by 3.1 per cent to $36.92 billion in January, from $35.8 billion last year. Goods exports have now registered a positive growth in three of the last four months. But for the financial year so far (April-January), total goods exports have touched $353.9 billion, down almost 5 per cent from $372.1 billion over the same period last year. Excluding oil exports, the decline is less, with non-oil exports down around 2.5 per cent this year.


The segment wise data shows that electronic goods continued to register a healthy performance, growing at 9.31 per cent in January. For the year so far, electronic exports are up a healthy 20.7 per cent, even as overall exports have fallen. Alongside, drugs and pharmaceutical exports are also up 8 per cent. However, major labour intensive segments such as gems and jewellery, textiles, leather and products have not fared well. Alongside, goods imports also grew at 3 per cent in January. However, excluding oil and gems and jewellery, imports were 2.3 per cent lower than last year. For the year so far (April-January), imports stood at $561 billion, down 6.7 per cent from $601 billion over the same period last year. The segment wise data shows that vegetable oil imports are down almost 29 per cent, fertiliser around 40 per cent and coal roughly 25 per cent. Imports of petroleum, crude and products, chemicals, pearls, precious and semi-precious stones and transport equipment are also significantly lower than last year. On the other hand, imports of gold, electronic goods and machinery, electrical and non-electrical goods are up.


There were expectations that the January trade data would reflect the disruptions caused due to the conflict in the Red Sea. The region accounts for 12 per cent of global trade, and around 80 per cent of India’s goods trade with Europe passes through it. Attacks by Houthi rebels on ships had forced vessels to take the longer route. As per a report in this paper, in January, India’s petroleum exports to Europe had been affected by these developments. However, based on the January trade data, a report by Nomura says that, “on a value basis, there doesn’t seem to be major disruption to trade from the Red Sea escalations.” It is possible that the effects will be visible in data still to come.



February 17, 2024

Let them tell stories

Hugo Awards debacle points to spectre of censorship cramping one of the most inventive comers of world literature


A big reason for the popularity of science fiction and fantasy (SFF) literature — among writers and readers — is that it offers a creative way to address subjects that cannot be discussed otherwise. Which is why the revelation that the Hugo Awards, the top honour for SFF works, succumbed to censorship is especially jarring. Leaked emails show that in preparation for its first ever event in China, which took place last October, the award organisers ensured that works of a “sensitive” political nature were kept out of the running. The news confirms rumours in the SFF community that books by Chinese-origin writers R F Kuang and Xiran Jay Zhao, which had qualified for nominations, were taken off the list for fear of offending China’s government.


Around the world, even as the number of books published each year grows, the spectre of censorship looms large. Nowhere is this more the case than in China, where using proscribed words and concepts or including references to historical happenings such as the Tiananmen Square protests can invite the authorities’ wrath. For writers, the act of telling a story can sometimes be a complex negotiation, to elude the punishing gaze of the state and sidestep censorship and avoid prison. Many choose the tropes of SFF to do so, setting commentary about contemporary China on distant planets and in alternate timelines. They have helped create one of the most thriving and inventive corners of world literature, producing groundbreaking works such as The Three-Body Problem series by Liu Cixin, which wraps criticism of the Cultural Revolution’s excesses in a story about an alien invasion.


The Hugo Awards debacle has caused disappointment and anger among fans, resulting in the resignation this week of a member of the committee and an apology from the body responsible for the event that is taking place in Glasgow later this year. For the writers who risk the might of a state simply to tell the story they want to, it is a betrayal.


February 17, 2024

No Country For Flyers

Air passengers are being taken for granted by airlines


Indian aviation is on a roll. Passenger traffic is increasing and profits are soaring. Crisil Ratings expects operating profit of the industry to grow over 20% next financial year, after a near tripling this year. Everyone’s having a good time save one group: passengers. They are an afterthought, taken for granted by airlines and, it sometimes appears, by govt.


Shocking negligence | An 80-year-old man collapsed this week at Mumbai airport and died. He had pre-booked a wheelchair on an Air India flight but didn’t get one because of shortage. He walked, with tragic consequences. How can there be a shortage when a wheelchair has been pre-booked? Regulations say it’s an airline’s obligation to provide assistance to people with disabilities or reduced mobility.


Not isolated | This is not a one-off. For months, passenger complaints have mounted. Airlines have violated contractual obligations, not bothered to give timely information on cancellations during peak season. We recently had frustrated passengers in Mumbai airport sitting on the runway to eat.


Lame excuses | The preferred excuse of aviation companies and GOI officials is that there are infra constraints because passenger traffic has exceeded pre-Covid levels. Wasn’t it a normal outcome of mobility constraints being removed and return of normalcy?


Missing regulatory action | GOI pulled out all stops to help the aviation industry, which was severely affected by Covid. For a while even a floor price for tickets was fixed. The same level of attentiveness is not extended to passengers. Aviation regulator DGCA concentrates mainly on operational safety. It did issue a show cause notice to Air India, but recurring offences suggest India doesn’t have an institutional mechanism that’s effective enough.


Domestic aviation today is a near-duopoly. Lack of competition and an inattentive regulator make for miserable passenger experience.


February 17, 2024

Love The Sinner

Thieves sometimes can steal our heart


This week in Tamil Nadu, burglars returned a National Award trophy to film director M Manikandan. Attached was a note: ‘sir, forgive us, your hard work is yours’. You gotta admire these burglars. And note, in this context, that despite moral injunctions against stealing, it’s always been philosophically complicated. The Robin Hood idea is appealing precisely because it’s hard to distinguish rightful from reprobate, clean from corrupt. Surely stealing a loaf of bread for a hungry person is not the same as making off with the savings of the poor. In situations of systematic oppression, gangsters often break rules and get popular support. Many crime syndicates follow stoic codes of conduct and honour, whether it’s Italy’s mafia, Japan’s yakuza or our own underworld. They don’t bother with petty crime, and are known for their protectiveness towards ordinary people. They don’t supplant law and order. They provide an alt version of it.


Also, it’s not a stretch to say that most justice systems are patently flawed, where poor people accused of small crimes languish in jail – in India, even before conviction – while multi-billion scams of ‘too big to fail’ financial institutions go unpunished. This is not to condone crime, but to place it in a humane context. Those burglars in Madurai went out of their way to return an award, and why shouldn’t that little gesture be appreciated?



February 17, 2024

Bitcoin’s More Mature Second Coming

Crypto comeback in a more regulated environment


Bitcoin regained $1 trillion market capitalisation this week, with investors pouring in money through a newly approved exchange-traded fund (ETF) in the US to track spot prices. The US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is due to decide by May on a clutch of ETFs based on other cryptocurrencies. Expectations of a cut in interest rates by the Fed as early as May are driving investor interest in both stocks and bitcoin. The cryptocurrency is also gaining on account of its next ‘halving’, likely in April, a process designed to cap the supply of bitcoin. The comeback of cryptocurrencies is occurring in a more regulated environment, which is guiding their transition from illegal tender to an asset class. Call it the second coming.


The US has, over the past year, gone farther than any other country in regulating cryptocurrencies through enforcement against bad practices at FTX and Binance, rather than by drafting rules of compliance. The world at large, too, has begun to fence in the Wild West of the crypto industry, with the EU about to enact laws to penalise fraud and money-laundering. It has also introduced financial stability controls. Individual countries in Europe are separately inserting oversight into various aspects like trading, custody and lending. Asia’s exporting economies, which are more vulnerable to currency movements, are setting out rules on issuing stablecoins backed by assets. The UAE already has a regulator for crypto exchanges and funds.


All of this adds up to concerted global regulation of cryptocurrencies since the last time bitcoin had a $1 trillion market capitalisation in 2021. The reaction to crypto is now more textured and regulatory fragmentation is easing. This more mature play should avoid a race to the bottom where crypto players seek out the most easy playground. Cryptocurrencies have a wide array of functionalities, from transaction to hedging to investment. The comeback of cryptocurrencies shows they are emerging from the niches of the financial world out into the open.



February 17, 2024

Lose Tunnel Vision In Infra-Building


India is in the middle of an infrastructure development boom, and Delhi, as capital city, is understandably one of the top gainers, with new flyovers, roads, foot overbridges and tunnels being added at a brisk pace. But not all projects seem to be going according to plan. The ₹773 crore Pragati Maidan Tunnel project, for instance, connecting central Delhi to east Delhi and NCR, is one such story gone wonky. Readied before the G20 Summit, the 1.3 km-long tunnel is, according to PWD, a ‘potential threat to the life of passengers’ due to poor drainage, cracks in concrete and water seepage. This leaves a bad aftertaste in the ‘G20 wow’.


On February 3, PWD issued a show-cause notice to two government engineers and project executor L&T, saying that ‘fault in design’ and ‘other quality parameter-related issues’ can’t be resolved without a ‘major revamp and maintenance/overhaul of the entire project’. It added that L&T has failed to do repairs. PWD has asked L&T to deposit ₹500 crore, and the firm has reportedly made a counterclaim of ₹500 crore against PWD. In this dizzying blame game, it is Delhiites who will suffer.


Yes, India’s project execution pace and quality have improved over the last few decades. But there is a lesson in this mess-up. Spending massive amounts of taxpayers’ money on infra — India is expected to spend ₹143 lakh crore in FY24-30, double that of FY17-23 — is welcome. But what is essential is investing time and effort to ensure that projects are top-notch and at least last their lifecycle. And responsibilities must be fixed if they are not up to scratch. Most importantly, it is crucial that efforts be made to maintain infrastructure. This isn’t a tough ask in an age when AI, sensors and robotics can augment efforts.


February 17, 2024

Unfinished agenda

Transparency in poll funding remains a challenge


The Supreme Court is right in striking down electoral bonds for not being transparent. The judgment, however, does not help bring more transparency into electoral funding in any manner, whatsoever. The verdict has struck down electoral bonds as unconstitutional by arguing that it does not further the cause of electoral transparency by maintaining the anonymity of donors. In Constitutional terms, the court has said that the citizen’s right to know in Article 19 (1) (a) applies to electoral funding and supercedes privacy rights of donors in this case.


However, electoral bonds, or an improvement upon it, that whittle down donor confidentiality could perhaps have worked as a viable way forward in funding political parties transparently. Now, what the striking down of electoral bonds per se implies is that the role of unaccounted hard cash in funding elections will come back into focus; the opaque role of corporates in political funding will continue as always. However, the verdict will have served its purpose if it triggers a fresh debate around transparency in poll funding.


On the key points of law, the Court struck down the 2017 amendment to Section 182 of the Companies Act permitting unlimited political contributions. This welcome ruling effectively brings back the earlier cap on corporate donations to 7.5 per cent of a company’s average net profit in the last three years. Here, the judgment has noted the view of the Election Commission which had underlined that a provision prescribing a cap on corporate funding should be introduced because unlimited corporate funding increases the use of black money through shell companies. Another significant aspect in jurisprudential terms is that the right to information in Article 19(1)(a) has now been extended to political parties, not just candidates.


On the question of whether the judges could have simply removed the donor confidentiality clause and retained the scheme, the court maintained that anonymity of the contributor was intrinsic to the electoral bond scheme, which is otherwise indistinguishable from other modes of contribution through the banking channels. Justice Sanjiv Khanna underlined the electoral trust scheme which accepts contributions while also protecting donor anonymity in a less restrictive manner. “In a comparison of limited alternatives, it (trust scheme) is a measure that best realises the objective of Union of India…without significantly impacting the fundamental right of the voter to know,” said Justice Khanna in his concurring judgment. Companies can set up trusts to fund political parties. The Trust is required to provide particulars of its depositors and the amounts donated to political parties, including the names of the parties. But it protects the anonymity of the donors vis-a-vis their contributions to the party. This could be the way forward in transparent funding of elections.



February 17, 2024

Stir causes stirrings in Punjab politics

If everything goes according to plan, a resuscitated SAD could emerge as a central player in Punjab in three years.


Winds carrying suspended particulate matter usually blow towards Delhi from Punjab. This time, the plumes from teargas shells used on farmers on Delhi’s borders will likely cloud the vision of those in the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) negotiating to revive the alliance between their party with the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) in Punjab.


In 2020, when the last round of the farmers’ agitation took place, SAD supremo, the late Parkash Singh Badal, and S S Dhindsa returned their Padma Bhushan awards, protesting the government’s treatment of farmers. The casualty of round two of the ongoing stir will be an alliance between the two parties. This means that while the SAD might win a seat or two of the 13 in the state, the BJP will be lucky if it scores even one.


In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, the BJP won two seats, Hoshiarpur and Gurdaspur. It contested in alliance with the SAD. But although its independent vote share has inched up since then, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), in power in Punjab, remains highly popular.


The last Lok Sabha election in the state was for a bypoll for the Jalandhar seat in May last year. The BJP polled 16 per cent of the vote, while the SAD got 18 per cent. They fought separately. The AAP got 34 per cent of the vote share compared to 2.5 per cent it had notched up in the same constituency in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.


Now, with farm stir #2, the SAD is in no hurry to strike any deals with the BJP.


When Mr Dhindsa, once number two in the SAD as secretary general and a confidant of five-time chief minister and Akali patriarch Parkash Singh Badal, quit the party, ostensibly it was over its poor performance in the 2017 Assembly elections. His real grouse was Sukhbir Badal’s promotion by his father. Mr Dhindsa resigned as the party’s Rajya Sabha MP, while his son, Parminder, who was finance minister in the SAD-BJP government, walked out of the SAD. “Badal saab key asli vaaris hamare saath baithe hain” (Badal saab’s real heirs are on our side). Prime Minister Narendra Modi had remarked in the Lok Sabha about Mr Dhindsa’s exit, in mocking reference to family rule in the SAD.


Now, the younger Dhindsa is reported to be in consultation with his supporters to make his way back to the SAD.


“There’s a word — anak. It is untranslatable but loosely, it means pride. Sikhs will lose everything. But they will not compromise on their pride,” said a senior SAD leader.


The last round of “negotiation” between the BJP and the SAD took place at the level of Sunil Jakhar, former Congressman who joined the BJP and became the head of its Punjab unit. That was around six weeks ago. A survey by the BJP was cited in negotiations in which it demanded six Lok Sabha seats, leaving seven for the SAD. For the Akalis, this doesn’t work. Their thinking is, in an alliance, the balance of advantage is with the BJP — that party will add Hindu votes to its kitty, while the SAD will lose Jat Sikh votes as a consequence of the alliance. They feel the BJP needs them in the Lok Sabha, whereas the SAD can take or leave the 2024 elections. Their eyes are fixed on the Assembly elections three years away (2027).


A lot can happen between then and now. For instance, the killings of Sikhs agitating abroad to get the US and Canada to pressure the Indian government for a fair deal with the Indian state, was top of the mind politically till about a month ago in Punjab. But now it has retreated. And right now, given the farmer agitation, the SAD reckons it is best to not even be seen as negotiating with the BJP. The more the BJP and its affiliates criticise farmers, suggesting they have been infiltrated by “foreign forces” and “anti-nationals”, the better it looks for the SAD in Punjab.


Instead of getting distracted with the Lok Sabha elections, the SAD will likely work to persuade disaffected Akalis to return to the fold and build up the party. That leaves the field free for the Congress and AAP in the Lok Sabha space. If everything goes according to plan, a resuscitated SAD could emerge as a central player in Punjab in three years.



February 17, 2024

Are virtual influencers impactful?

Meticulously crafted computer-generated characters, with personalities and backstories are amassing millions of followers, becoming brand ambassadors for MNCs like KFC, Puma, and more


Until very recently, the term “virtual influencers” was not much currency, at least in India. But the tide has begun to slowly turn, with both recognition as well as commercial deployment becoming quick realities over the past few months. But before we go any further, let us answer a basic question: Who or what are virtual influencers?


Virtual influencers are computer-generated characters or personas that exist solely in the realm of digital and cyberspace. These virtual influencers resemble real people and interact with their human followers, much like human influencers. The influencers are meticulously designed and have their distinct personalities, traits, nuances, idiosyncrasies, even backstories, lineage and evolved interests, that make them real, engaging and interesting to online audiences. Creators, UI/UX experts, artificial intelligence specialists, graphic artists, language experts and code developers work together to design, animate and enliven these characters, bringing them to life such that they seem approachable, affable, adorable and emulatable.


Among the pioneers in India is the virtual influencer Naina Avtr. She is the brainchild of Avtr Meta Labs, and was introduced to the digital realm in 2022. Embodied as a 20-year-old fashion model from the small town of Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh, Naina relocated to Mumbai, nurturing dreams of making a mark in tinsel town. Vibrant and vivacious, the ambitious Naina invites followers to befriend her, like her and follow her daily conquests on Instagram and YouTube. Naina Avtr has been sighted in past months at Mumbai Airport and even spotted at a screening of Mission Impossible, leaving many followers wondering on the real nature of her virtual existence.


Naina’s close competitor is 21-year old KYRA. Launched in 2022, she has nearly 241K followers already. The brainchild of FUTR Studios, KYRA is a “dream chaser, model and traveler” who now even has her own assistant — a virtual human called Sravya. KYRA is brand savvy and has 15 campaigns to her credit for brands including Titan, Morris Garages, and ITC.


The pitch for virtual influencers is that they enable marketers to keep more control in their own hands while benefiting from all the value that influencers can create. Virtual influencers have no ego, can be more cost-efficient, and will never get caught up in a scandal. Virtual influencers are becoming so powerful that human stars want to win their blessings. Rapper Timbaland said he would like to have Lil Miquela appear in his next music video. Now you will ask who is Lil Miquela? Miquela Sousa, or better known as Lil Miquela, is a virtual robot model who has worked with some of the top global fashion brands like Prada, Dior and Calvin Klein. Since she launched in 2016, sweet-faced but provocative Lil Miquela has amassed 2.8 million Instagram followers, major brand deals and estimated annual earnings of more than $11 million.


Brands have meanwhile woken up to their own virtual mascots — Daisy, the brainchild of online luxury discount site Yoox, for example, hails from the fashionable city of Milan, Italy. Presented as living a life of opulence, Daisy embodies elegance and sophistication. Modeled after actress Hannah Gross, she has graced numerous high-profile campaigns, notably for Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, captivating the fashion world with her alluring presence.


Similarly, Maya is a creation of sportswear giant Puma, introduced in 2020 as a self-proclaimed fashion model. Her Instagram bio proudly declares her as “Your average not-so-average Southeast Asian Virtual Girl,” reflecting her unique identity. Maya made waves in the fashion industry by unveiling the Puma Rider shoe, leaving an indelible mark in the world of virtual fashion. Almost on the same lines, Lucy, the brainchild of South Korea’s Lotte Home Shopping, serves as a metaverse virtual influencer primarily tasked with endorsing the brand’s products. Portrayed as “forever 29 years old,” Lucy embodies flawless skin, long lustrous hair, and distinct facial features.


The trend of virtual influencers is going mass too. A computer-generated version of Colonel Sanders was created last year by KFC to resonate with Gen Z audiences. The KFC influencer partnered with Dr Pepper, Old Spice, TurboTax, and Casper, immediately commanding the attention of 1.3 million Instagram followers. Virtual Colonel soon went viral, posting pictures of himself at the gym, boarding private jets, and posing with other virtual influencer friends, with each post complete with brand sponsorships and captions spoofing some real-life influencers.


We in advertising in India have still not woken up to virtual influencers. But the smart ones soon will.



February 17, 2024

Tango with the Gulf

Modi’s visit to UAE and Qatar augur well for India building bridges with the Middle East


The script of India’s Asian drama indicates hesitancy in looking eastwards but more sure-footedly engaging westwards with rising middle powers like the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia, where it has a huge diaspora. This indeed appears to be a felicitous strategy as these countries, too, are leveraging their abundant oil and gas resources and considerable financial heft to look increasingly eastwards in a multi-polar world. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the UAE and Qatar—which may be one of his last trips abroad as his second term as premier draws to a close—clearly testifies to the considerable investment he has made to deepen India’s multi-faceted relationship with the Gulf. Since he became PM a decade ago, he has travelled 15 times to the Middle East. This was his seventh visit to the UAE and second to Qatar and what stood out was the deep personal connection he has forged with the President of UAE, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan and Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, The building of a Hindu temple in Abu Dhabi and the release of eight former naval personnel who faced a death sentence in Qatar are unrelated but reflect the chemistry between Modi and these rulers.


India-UAE-Qatar relations are on an upswing. The uptick in India’s trade with these Gulf nations of course reflects its growing requirements for oil and gas. At a time of weakening global oil demand and the fact that US’s energy imports from the Middle East are negligible due to its shale boom, it is countries to the east like India and China that have become strategically more important. The outcomes of Modi’s visit indicate a strengthening of the energy partnership and resolve to advance cooperation in hydrogen, solar energy, and grid connectivity. India already has a comprehensive economic partnership agreement with the UAE which aims to step up bilateral trade to $115 billion within five years from $84 billion in FY23.


With Qatar, India’s two-way trade was $18.7 billion last fiscal. The UAE is currently our third largest trading partner and is also India’s second largest export destination. A bilateral investment treaty was signed to protect investments. The 10 MoUs with the UAE include an intergovernmental framework on the India Middle East Economic Corridor and interlinking of digital payment platforms like UPI, credit and debit cards and cooperation in digital infrastructure projects. Ahead of the PM’s visit, RITES Limited inked an agreement with Abu Dhabi Ports Company.


UAE and Qatar are also looking to a future beyond oil and gas and are deploying their financial clout in countries which provide profitable opportunities. In Qatar, Modi’s discussions emphasised the need for strategic investments and partnerships in technology. As the world’s fastest growing large economy, India is definitely a priority destination. UAE’s sovereign wealth funds—which manage more than $1.3 trillion—are gearing up to participate in the growth story, especially through investments in infrastructure.  When Modi made his fifth visit to UAE in July 2023, it was announced that the $850 billion Abu Dhabi Investment Authority would establish a presence in Gujarat International Finance Tec-City which augurs well for big-ticket investments. UAE is the seventh largest investor from April 2000 to September 2023 while Qatar ranks the 24th. All of this can grow manifold as India deepens its Gulf engagement.

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