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Interview with Chirag Patnaik

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This evening, we are talking to Chirag Patnaik. Chirag is known in Congress circles as the behind the scenes man for the Congress Lok Sabha Social Media campaign in 2019.

How did you get started in your career?

Well, Like a lot of things in my life. It was unplanned and sort of just happened. I was in the usual, apply-everywhere cycle that most school leavers are in. So did the usual. IITJEE, state entrance exams etc. Then I saw an ad for The Times School of Marketing inviting applications. So I just filled it out. By the by gave the entrance test and also the group discussion and then forgot about it. I used to be in Deolali (near Nashik) in those days. Then one Friday afternoon got a letter saying you have been invited for an interview, which was on the following Monday. Clearly, the post office department was lax and the letter was late.

Anyhow, tickets were arranged and I pushed off to Delhi for the interview. I was asked by the Principal Mr Vispy Saher, how will you add value to this place. I immediately blurted out. Well. I could help make your website. Since you don’t have one right now.

Till date, I think he took me on only because of that. This is 2001. Anything web was new and very expensive and someone offering to do it for free was of tremendous value.

TSM was a captive school of the Times of India sales team. So, if you got in. You would more or less get a job (though some didn’t as well). So after a year of I got a job in the Times. It was as serendipitous as that.

What was your first job like?

The first job was a sales job. Nothing glamorous. Hit the streets. Get advertising for the newspaper. But I was very soon tapped to be the Executive Assistant to the Director Sales. I was more of an analyst type anyway and I quite liked it. It was numbers, meetings. After that, I went on to the Corporate planning team of the Times of India. Which was more of the same at a higher level. And a lot of fun. I would plan and sit in on discussions like the launch of a new edition or the purchase of a new printing press worth hundreds of crores.

What is the most memorable incident from your first job?

It has to be the launch of the dedicated Newspaper in Education edition of The Times of India. I was maybe 3 months into my working life and my boss told me to get a project rolling. I rounded up everyone, frome editors to printing head. All with decades of experience each. Convinced them that this was the thing to do and suddenly, a month later, everything came together. Without me having to reach out to my boss or seek his approvals or intervention to get the machinery going.

How did you switch from Sales to product management?

I have always had a fascination for technology. In fact, I had put up my first website in 1996, I had my first blog up in 1999. Switching to technology from marketing is a natural fit. Since I was in the Times group, I asked for a transfer and I got it. It has been a good experience so far.

You worked for a variety of companies, what was your most memorable stint.

It is difficult to pinpoint one particular job. There were highs and lows. I have to say that the first years in the Times and the last stint at the Indian National Congress had the most high and low points.

At the Times I learnt a lot about the basics of navigating a business and corporate life. At the Congress, I learnt to manage a large team that was almost always under pressure with serious and public consequences of a slip-up.

How did you manage to switch from corporate life to politics?

It started in February 2017, when a couple of friends and I asked and got an audience with Rahul Gandhi, then the VP of Congress. Where we mentioned the various steps that he could take to improve the response of the Indian National Congress on Social Media and how it was an opportunity that was not being fully exploited by the Congress. The meeting ended on a positive note, but nothing really came of it as we couldn’t figure out a way forward. I forgot about it and that was the end of it.

Then the real story started with one of the most innocuous of DMs on twitter from a former MP Divya Spandana asking me to “catch up”. This was highly unusual and I hadn’t even heard of her. I asked around as to who she was. After I found out that she was we agreed to meet. At this point, I had no idea what she wanted to meet me for.

So I met her and over several discussions, spread over a couple of months, I agreed to join. For all intents and purposes, I literally came in from the cold…

How was your experience in politics?

It was mixed. A lot of high points. That you ran the social media for India’s oldest political party is a high on its own. But it has it’s own pressures as your colleagues will be plotting against you. Even in the same department. If you can play that game, then it is perfect. And the price of failing at that game is quite high.

Would you recommend it to people as a career?

Short answer. No. Long answer. It depends.

No, because there is a lot of uncertainty. The quality of managerial talent is spotty. This results in a high-pressure environment, without a career path. In addition, like I mentioned above, this is literally politics. So the term “office-politics” acquires a new dimension altogether.

That said, you could consider politics if your household is not dependent on the salary from the party. This comes from an incredibly privileged position. But that’s the only way it will work.

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