Kolkata coupling looking good together
Vanessa Dougnac

CHENNAI — In Murugavel Janakiraman's office, his daughter's drawings are pinned up next to family photographs. He proudly points out his children, Arjun and Anisha, his mother, who lives with them, and his wife, Deepa. They met on India's most popular matrimonial website, Matrimony.com.

And as the old saying goes, if you want something done, do it yourself: Janakiraman founded the website in 2000, and successfully launched its initial public offering in September.

With his generous mustache and frank smile, the businessman embodies what he sells: marriages arranged online — traditional values associated with pure technology. This 46-year-old ethnic Tamil has staked out a strong position in the Indian marriage market. His website, which employs 750 people, has its headquarters on the top story of a skyscraper in the southeastern city of Chennai. From up here, he enjoys one of the best views of the capital city of the Tamil Nadu state.

The originality of Matrimony.com is that it is actually made up of a total of more than 300 different specialized sites, each tailored for a different social group.

"In India, 95% of marriages take place between people of the same caste or community," Janakiraman explains. There are sites for Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains and the main Hindu castes. There is even a site for Mangliks, who according to Hindu astrology are unlucky marriage partners, and for military personnel, divorced people, elites and others. "Segmentation is one of the keys to our success," Janakiraman explains.

This recipe offers infinite possibilities within the Indian marriage industry, worth an estimated $800 million. And for good reason: With 107 million singles aged 18 to 35, the potential clientele is vast. Janakiraman's website has led to close to 1 million marriages, and 3 million members pay to find a soulmate on the platform.

"Muruga," as his employees call him, looks out his office windows at Chennai below. The city tells his life story. To the north used to be the apartment, without electricity, where he grew up. His father worked as a laborer at the harbor. But Muruga was always good with computers and, in 1996, he moved to the United States to work as a consultant. There he created a website for the Tamil diaspora. Soon, he added a matrimonial section to the site and quickly noticed that the service attracted many visitors. In 2000 he launched his own website and began charging for access, a winning formula that he has not had to change since.

His vision has succeeded thanks to his ability to understand and anticipate his clients' expectations. The holy grail of arranged marriage is a happy union. According to Matrimony.com, the more a couple has in common, the happier it is. Goodbye exoticism, difference and mystery. "People think they'll be happy if they're similar," he admits. "There are priority criteria: language, religion, caste, horoscope. Beyond that, all tastes are negotiable."

Our algorithm knows that engineers prefer engineers.

On the app, candidates create their profile and select their expectations. They are not obliged to specify their caste and sub-caste, but they are unlikely to get any responses if they do not. Matrimony.com thereby displays, without any apologies, a system banned by India's Constitution.

"Through castes, what we're really aiming at are people from a similar culture, which limits tensions between spouses," Janakiraman says. Users say they do not mind mentioning their caste. For example, for Adnyesh Dalpati and Apurva Mhatre, who married in 2012 thanks to the website, what mattered most was "cultural and social harmony."

Matrimony.com founder Murugavel Janakiraman — Photo: Facebook

Finding one's other half is primarily a social project, something the algorithms of Matrimony.com have grasped well. A team of 20 analysts and 200 engineers works on selecting the elements of potential matches from a database with information on 30 million people who have used the website over the past 17 years. In the case of Dalpati and Mhatree, the result speaks for itself: Both are engineers from the same caste and their families live in the same neighborhood in Mumbai. Bingo!

"We are able to predict the success of potential matches," says M. R. Chandrasekar, one of the site's managers. "For example, an engineer might say the other person's profession doesn't matter. But our algorithm knows that engineers prefer engineers. So we're going to present him a candidate who's an engineer." He also admits that there is an internal selection process based on the candidate's looks, with a grading system.

Janakiraman insists he does not want to change society. "We offer clients what they want. Nevertheless, we have contributed to women's liberation." This was the case for Mhatre, whose family had tried to find her a husband. "You then have to receive the suitor in front of the whole family, and a rejection can be hurtful," the young woman explains. "I joined Matrimony.com and was able to make my decisions freely."

Surprisingly, Janakiraman is not worried by the emergence of Tinder and other competing dating apps. "It's an urban and very limited market that doesn't reflect India's reality. Traditions will survive for another few decades," he forecasts, his sights fixed on rural India, where access to technology continues to expand.

And yet, there is one word that the marriage guru has not uttered during the entire interview: Love. It is simply not one of the criteria his engineers have programmed into the algorithms. In modest, reserved India, love remains a magical secret that belongs to the intimacy of young couples. For better or for worse.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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