governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

saarah-ahmed-indian-pilot-8-march-15-513x239

Photo: Sarah Ahmed: Indian. Pilot.

July 4, 1995 — America’s Independence Day — Islamist militants take six tourists hostage in Kashmir. They decapitate a Norwegian and kill the rest, including two Americans. There has been no letup in the orgy of violence since. But now Islamists — Sunni and Shia militants — are eliminating each other in West Asia. Glee that the “enemy” is disintegrating is inevitable in both Christian and Hindu right-wing camps. But as Prime Minister Narendra Modi has repeatedly stated, albeit with scarce substantive effect, terror has no loyalties beyond the willingness to kill and maim.

The political economy of terror

Islamic terror, like terror anywhere, comes heavily loaded with political and economic objectives. The Taliban was created by the US to oust the Russians from Afghanistan in the 1980s. They and the Army are the only credible political actors in Pakistan today. Even China engages directly with them to protect its infrastructure investments and workers in Pakistan.

Saudi Arabia funds Sunni Iraqi militants to dominate the Shias of Southern Iraq and to undermine Syria’s Shia regime — all because Shias are perceived to be universally aligned with Saudi arch-rival Iran. Conversely, Russia and Iran support Shia militants in Iraq and the Shia regime in Syria. It is not inconceivable that in future Shia militants may be used to neutralise the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Ashraf Ghani — the technocratic President of Afghanistan — would probably welcome a dilution of Taliban power so that he can get on with implementing the development agenda.

Endemic warlordism and militant factionalism in North Africa and West Asia was constrained during the Cold War (1960-1990) by authoritarian regimes supported either by the US or the Soviets. Ironically both the democratic US and the Communist Soviet Union had no qualms about imposing authoritarian regimes as the norm in the region. It helped that till 1990, even the metric of development ignored politics as a factor and focused primarily on enhancing per capita income levels.

Democracy as a metric of development

The change came with the surprisingly sudden collapse of the seemingly well-off Soviet Union, a middle income country in 1990. Soviet unsustainability was ascribed to the absence of Western-style institutions — elective democracy, rule of law, small governments, markets, competition and choice.

Post 2001 (9/11), this development mantra acquired evangelical fervour, as an instrument to “civilise” the “arc of Islamic terror” stretching from Afghanistan in the east, through Egypt and Sudan to Mauritania in western Africa. The Arab Spring (2011) was hailed as the blossoming of democracy in time-warped North Africa. Once invincible, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia bit the dust and the people won. This was the expected upside.

The unintended consequences of Democracy: strengthening traditional fault lines

But two unanticipated downsides were less palatable. First, democracy became uncontainable — like a nuclear explosion. Democratic contagion travelled south and shook the gilded birdcage lives of the Sunni sheikhs of the Gulf states and deposed President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen via tribal bloodletting which rode on the aftershocks of the Tunisian “Jasmine Revolution”.

Second, democracy in Egypt empowered the Muslim Brotherhood — a transnational Islamic party pushed underground by Mr Mubarak. For the G7, “Islamists” ruling Egypt was a horrific replay of the deposition of the “modernist” Shah of Iran in 1979 and the subsequent rise of a “renegade” nuclear, Islamic Iran. The Egyptian “Brothers” — beneficiaries of Islamic democracy — were presented as role models for disenfranchised commoners across the region. This questioning of the elite order was not what the sheikhs or the G7 had bargained for, or desired.

The G7 were comfortable with a “managed democracy” — the bare-bones institutions of a democracy, never mind if the

democratic spirit was non-existent. What they got was an unruly explosion of the democratic spirit — a magnified version of rumbustious, Indian style democracy, where rights trump responsibilities.

Libya disintegrated into armed militias and cost the US the life of its young, well-liked ambassador Chris Stevens. Yemen remains a cauldron of tribal militias. This democratic disorder is much like the persistent clan and tribe-based militancy in Manipur and Nagaland in India’s Northeast, funded by the drugs and arms trade with “wink-nod” support from China.

The recent bomb blast in Tunisia, which killed several British tourists, is similar in intent to the blasts in Mumbai in 1993 and the terror attacks in 2008. The former, managed by smuggler and mafia don Dawood Ibrahim, rode on the back of Muslim anguish at the unlawful destruction of the Babri Masjid by Hindu right-wing groups. The 2008 strike is credited to the Inter-Services Intelligence — Pakistan’s dirty-tricks entity. Both aimed at hitting where it hurts the most — the economy.

Tackle Islamic terror with targeted incentives for peace and development

Can we really expect Indian Muslims to remain unmoved by the global trends in Islamist terror? A few misguided young men have already joined Islamist groups in Iraq and paid the final price. But most Indian Muslims look inwards to a domestic solution to break out of the downward spiral that events drag them into. This is where government intervention can help.

First, reducing poverty helps all marginalized groups. There is a broad congruence between Muslims and poverty in India even today. Focusing on  poverty reduction more vigorously also reverses the marginalization of poor Muslims in Independent India.

Second, a more visible signal is also needed. Positive discrimination like reservations is unhealthy. It pits Muslims against the existing beneficiaries — dalits and backward castes by generating a scrabble for a fixed pie. Far better to instead to empower young Muslims to work productively in the modern economy. Modernizing the curricula of the madrasas is a long-term, sensitive but powerful option. Indian Muslims shine in private enterprises where success is meritocratic and not dependent on connections, networks or preferential access to education or progress at work. They are the core of Bollywood, handicrafts, the arts and our cricket team.  Ashwini Kumar’s Inshallah, Football is a touching film about how a dedicated Brazilian coach uses football leagues to meet the needs of aspirational youth in strife-torn Kashmir. They must be directly supported to do be better prepared for private enterprise which, is in any case, is the growing sector. Indian Muslims must also be assured that being part of the modern economy does not and should not, mean having to abandon traditional beliefs or culture. India is not France. We are a plural society.

Third, politics must lead by example.  Religion is deeply embedded in India. Politics must learn to live with religion as a political force rather than pretend to work within an a-religious framework. In this context, the new government in Jammu and Kashmir which federates the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party of Jammu with the Kashmiri Muslim’s People’s Democratic Party in the governance of the state, is a progressive model which explicitly recognises that religion, like caste, is a legitimate basis for political action. True secularism is recognizing the right of citizens to organize themselves politically on any basis which provides a legitimate common cause.  Better to reflect traditional fault lines honestly rather than paper them over with the Band-Aid of pseudo-secular, socialist gibberish.

Fourth, women are the prime movers of social change, particularly in South Asia. Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Mayawati, the Dalit leader of Uttar Pradesh, and the young Pakistani Nobel Laureate Malala Yousafzai are examples. Leveraging potential Malalas in India via expanded and targeted education and health is what the government should be doing, if one-third of our population — Muslims and Dalits — are to make common cause with the rest of India.

Adapted from the authors column in Asian Age July 2, 2015 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/terror-s-echoes-home-748

Socializing the Dragon

dragon

(photo credit; http://www.mrwallpaper.com)

China has “bested” its way onto the big boys table through three critical initiatives which bore fruit since President Xi took over as China’s numero uno in 2013.

The first was the founding of the BRICS New Development Bank (NDB), headquartered at Shanghai. Symbols speak louder than words. The logo of the NDB is eerily reminiscent of Chinese communist logos of yester-years encased in two encircling stalks of wheat or maybe olive branches, as in the UN logo. At its center is a round blob with geometric shapes embedded- a suitably vague and nondescript statement of intent, possibly illustrating that the Bank can go any which way and has endless opportunities.

Whilst the first President of the Bank is an Indian corporate guru -K. V. Kamath, no one is under any doubt that it is China which will call the shots, exactly as the US does in the World Bank or Japan in the Asian Development Bank. This is fair since she who pays the bills gets to call the tune.

The second success was to get thirty eight regional and twenty non-regional countries, including members of the G8 except the US, Japan and Canada who kept away, to sign up as Prospective Founding Members of the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank which is to be based in Beijing. The candidature of North Korea and Taiwan was refused by China. The former because it is a renegade and the latter because China does not recognize Taiwan as a sovereign country.

The third success completes the trilogy of China’s financial hegemony. China has offered to fund the European Infrastructure Fund at a time when Europe’s powerhouse- Germany and the European Union are engrossed in managing the financial bog of a potential “Greek exit” from the Euro and the likely ensuing turmoil. Massive investments in infrastructure are viewed as one way to kick starting growth in Europe, which has lagged recovery post the 2008 crisis. With Europe agonizing over how much more pain it can take, China’s generous offer of financial support is well timed.

China gets it fiscal muscle from its foreign exchange reserves of over US$ 3.7 trillion. These are down from their peak last year of nearly US$4 billion but remain the largest reserve ever. The annual trade surplus is a healthy US$300 billion plus. Its budget deficit, albeit increasing is still low, though off-balance sheet borrowing by state owned enterprises and the iffy quality of bank assets could cloak an incipient problem.

Its diplomatic and economic muscle is evident from its success in cowing down the meek protests by the Philippines and Japan against its assertive claims over small islands in the South and East China Sea. Far-off South Africa, the continents most developed economy, has repeatedly refused to give a visa to the Dalai Lama since 2009, reportedly out of deference to Chinese sentiments. The Dalai Lama, who is resident in the gorgeous Indian mountain paradise of DharamshaIa, is not recognized by China as the titular head of the Tibetans. China promotes an alternative in the Panchen Lama who is resident in Tibet.

Only the feisty Mrs. Merkel, Chancellor of Germany has had the gumption to ignore China’s ire and met formally with the Dalai Lama. Now with China bailing out Germany-till now the primary “money bag” for the reconstruction of Europe – the jury is out whether Mrs. Merkel would be inclined to repeat this diplomatic equivalent of thumbing her nose at China.

There are two jewels China still seeks. First is to implement President Xi’s vision of reviving the ancient silk route from Western China to Europe. The second is to develop a maritime silk route in the Indo-Pacific region from Myanmar via Bangladesh to India and Sri Lanka. Possibilities exist of extending this further West to Pakistan (where China is already developing the Gwadar port) and Iran where India is tentatively engaged in a similar venture at Charbahar.

These Chinese financed beltways will straddle Asia physically. If China pulls it off they are sure benefit the economies of the continent by reducing transit cost and linking local markets better. But the key issue spoiling the party is sovereign doubts about China’s true intentions in proposing these extravagant infrastructure plans.

Action speaks louder than words. Chinese overseas investment, particularly in Africa, is perceived to be driven too narrowly by self-interest. Its muscular approach to safeguarding what it considers its justified claims in the South and East China Sea give rise to fears of territorial expansionism.  Despite the fact that the India-China border has been peaceful for the last forty years the fear of conflict is ever present.

China needs to demonstrate that it has crossed the hump of middle-income prickly aggression into the beneficent altruism of a self-confident, high income country. It needs to take on an international commitment which demonstrates its resolve to make the world a better place.

It has already taken the first step by voluntarily capping carbon emission by 2030 including by increasing the share of clean energy to 20%. The voluntarism is praise worthy. But a bird in hand is always more credible than two in the bush by 2030.

Stabilizing Afghanistan presents an existential challenge which China can use to establish its credentials as an international force of substance. This single initiative can start a virtuous cycle of development in the “roundabout of Asia”- as president Ghani of Afghanistan, terms his country- with spill over benefits across the region.

China is well placed to substitute the US in leading this effort. It has a close relationship with the Pakistani army and civil leadership which are crucial to contain the Taliban. It has the resources. The US is reported to have spent around US$ 800 billion in Afghanistan, over the thirteen year from 2001 to 2014. This is not a scary number for China, especially since there are spin off benefits- bringing to the international market the huge copper and iron ore deposits in Afghanistan; honing the experience for the Chinese army and equipment in the field and creating a stable buffer in Afghanistan which can sever the existing arc of terror and violence that extends today through Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan to Pakistan.

The real question is will President Xi bite this bait to flex muscle productively or shall transactional engagements remain the order of the day for China.

1061 words

Rijiju

(photo credit: northeastnews.in)

Bloodletting always makes good copy. No wonder then that the killing, by Naga rebels, of 18 unarmed Army jawans going on leave in Manipur on June 5 and the airborne counter-strike on June 9 by Indian troops on rebel camps in Myanmar, stirred public sentiment. The depth, the speed and the effectiveness of the Army response was breathtakingly efficient, and reflects the capabilities of our Army when it is effectively led.

But the “cheer-leader” type response of the young minister of state for information and broadcasting — Colonel Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore, himself an ex-Armyman, using Twitter handles to extend dire warnings that Indians will root out terrorists who attack India or Indians anywhere, was reminiscent of President George W. Bush’s forceful “Marlboro Man” resolve to “hunt down” the Al Qaeda perpetrators of 9/11.

Col. Rathore forgets that President Bush was targeting enemy aliens who had wreaked havoc on American soil. Naga rebels are as Indian as the minister — historically disgruntled though they may be. Surely the optics of managing our own rebels has to be different from the manner in which foreign enemies are dealt with.

Col. Rathore will rue his remarks should he, one day, become minister in-charge of the Northeast — as his more illustrious colleague Gen. V.K. Singh (retd) is today. Negotiating with “rebels” you wanted to once hunt down becomes unnecessarily more awkward and difficult.

Alternatively, Col. Rathore could, in future, become minister in the external affairs ministry where he will rue a hawkish image whilst dealing with our immediate neighbours. The friendly government of Myanmar ostensibly only came to know about India’s targeted penetration into their territory, after the airborne Indian Force had returned — a mirror image of the US strike to hunt down Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

No government likes its sovereignty to be taken lightly, least of all our immediate neighbours in South Asia, who already bristle at our “big bully but empty pockets” image. China is also a big bully, but at least they shut the protesting mouth with cash.

The point Col. Rathore should consider is that he is not mandated to speak on matters outside his portfolio. He may have personal opinions. As an ex-Armyman it would be natural to glow with professional pride at the faultless manner in which the operation was executed.

But the code on tweeting personal opinions by ministers was established in 2009. Shashi Tharoor, a junior minister in the previous government, got a rap from his party for tweeting jocularly that he was willing to travel “cattle class” or economy on government work in solidarity with all our “Holy Cows” — a particularly evocative term for the “secular”, very politically correct optics code of the Congress.

India’s very professional armed forces, like all professional soldiers worldwide, are the first to acknowledge that violence, even when it is justified and used by the state legally, is at best a necessary evil to deal with those who do not respect the rules of law. The Army is a highly honed, surgical knife, effective only when used for the shortest period to maximum effect. Violating this key axiom for their deployment results in rapid degradation of their effectiveness. This is what happens when the Army is used for extended periods to ensure internal security as in Northeast.

India has made enormous strides on the diplomatic front by establishing a functional relationship with the government in Myanmar. No trivial task given the political contradictions within Myanmar. The nascent democratic architecture; our ambivalent competition with China — intent on using Myanmar as an overland route to the Indian Ocean area; India and Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi’s subdued take on the human rights of the marginalised Rohingya Muslim community — all add to the complexity of Indo-Myanmar relations.

But it is on the domestic front in Nagaland and Manipur that the deficiencies are more extreme. As in Kashmir and in the Maoist-affected eastern districts, the incentive for local citizens, including rebels to end the conflict is less than self-evident.

It does not help when local administrations are elitist, historically weak, inefficient and often corrupt as in Nagaland and Manipur.

The jury is out on whether democracy helps or hinders this process of stabilisation in conflict situations. It is entirely possible that a strong authoritarian government, with deep pockets can “crush” rebellion temporarily. This is the expectation in China. But it is yet to happen in Tibet or in Xinjiang.

Unless the root causes of marginalisation are addressed and the incentive to conform to the rule of law becomes greater than the incentive to rebel, sustained stabilisation is unlikely. In any case, India is committed to working within the democratic framework. Both Nagaland and Manipur have elected governments, as in Kashmir and they have to be supported to take control. Emerging from conflict into peace is a complex societal process.

The good news is ordinary people in war-torn areas are usually unequivocal about their desire for peace. Padma Rao Sundarji’s Sri Lanka: The New Country presents this alternative view that local Tamil Sri Lankans, in sharp contradiction to the jingoistic sentiments of overseas Tamils, are happy that the domestic war in Sri Lanka has ended. All “armies”, including ones own, are extractive in character and feed off the local population, which suffers the economic cost, the indignities and the atrocities of conflict.

Rebels living comfortably abroad sheltered and assisted by “friendly” foreign governments and their agents never truly represent the ordinary citizen in the conflict zone. The recent incidents in Manipur are surely not the last round in the battle of attrition, ongoing since 1952, between the Indian state and the Naga rebels.

The real question is whether we are doing enough to innovate a domestic political solution? Can Team Modi build the process of reconciliation on the aspirations of educated, young Nagas? Are there more Kiren Rijiju’s (junior minister for home who is from Arunachal Pradesh) out there?

Adapted from the Asian Age June 12, 2015: http://www.asianage.com/columnists/innovate-move-conflict-peace-902

BeltTight

(photo credit:www.webmd.com)

It’s final now. The run of good luck PM Modi enjoyed has tapered off.

The monsoon is likely to be deficient by 12%. This would be the second year in a row. True, agriculture only accounts for around 15% of the economy and didn’t grow much last year either. But when you target 7.8% growth every basis point, added or lost, counts.

Manufacturing and services growth is already slow. Companies are at best cautiously optimistic but the caution makes new investment sticky. The money and jobs spinning realty sector, driven earlier by negative interest rates, is in a slump.

To complete the “perfect storm” scenario there are two important state level elections around the corner-Bihar later this year and UP in 2017. Neither state has BJP governments currently, so doing well in these will inevitably be a metric of how strong the Modi magic remains.

The good news of course is that every threat is also an opportunity. This is PM Modi’s opportunity to show that he is the Lion we think him to be.

Fiscal stability disaster prone

First, more will need to be spent on drought relief; restructuring of bank loans for farmers and income support schemes for farm workers. Delhi, admittedly with a miniscule rural area, has already distributed Rs 50,000 per hectare as relief for the farmers hit by the April 2015 unseasonal rain. FM Jaitley is possibly right that the drought will be localized in North and Central India. But these regions account for around 45% of the farmers. Retaining the targeted revenue deficit at 2.8 % and public investment at 14% of the budget will consequently be tough.

Postponed subsidy reform

Second, it is unlikely that subsidy corrections will now be possible this fiscal. Cheap electricity, water and fertilizer are here to stay with a possible relaxation of the tight minimum support price policy of the last few years.

Higher wage cost

Third, a significant expansion in the wage bill looms. For the armed forces it is the One Rank One Pension promise of the PM.  For the Civil Service the recommendations of the 7th Pay Commission are to kick-in from 2016. Luckily the wage bill is low by international standards- 1.6% of GDP and 14% of the budget. But even small incremental increases, unless accompanied by efficiency enhancing restructuring, are not affordable this year.

This perfect storm of shocks cannot be wished away. Better to deal with it upfront. Here are five suggestions:

Winning the market perception battle

First, don’t be cowed down by stock market fluctuations or seek to pander to them. These are short term adjustments by speculators and not reflective of annual economic prospects. Consequently, rather than play down the “perfect storm” scenario it makes sense for the government to highlight the extreme shocks they are battling with to keep economic growth growing. Even in this David versus Goliath scenario, what is key is to share a plan of action on disaster management; income support; and realigning revenue expenditure to retain the revenue deficit and investment target.

Nothing much was heard about the recommendations of the Bimal Jalan, Expenditure Management Committee (August 2014). But it could provide some useful strategic, short term revenue expenditure rationalization measures.

Cut the Red Tape

Second, stressful times also create an environment conducive for administrative reform. PM Modi’s can quickly lick babudom into shape through positive strokes. He should consider setting up a lean but empowered “Decision Support Team” in his office, manned by ten senior Joint/Additional Secretary level officers selected for their expertise in key sectors; their ability to persuade and their flair for collaborative performance.

They would be mandated to speak for the PMO and be tasked to work with the key ministries and state governments to cut through red tape holding up investment decisions. Working against weekly targets with real time feedback to the PM, the mantra for this team should be “ANA- Achievement Not just Activity”.

Those taking up such high tension assignments should expect to be on the fast track to become Secretaries to the GOI.  The PM is known to be cagey about trusting officers beyond a tiny circle familiar to him. This is not surprising given that he has never worked closely with the babudom in Delhi. But he should experiment by subjecting a larger group to the “agnipariksha” of performance. He will not be disappointed with the results.

Forget the optics of who gets the credit

Third, the knotty problem, particularly in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, is how to be proactive in the face of state governments, which have the incentive to rebuff such support as being politically motivated.

The farmer does not distinguish between the state and the Union government (Lokniti Survey 2013) – 58% held both the state and the Union government responsible for the sorry plight of agriculture. If farmers fall through the gaps of political finger pointing, they will punish both the BJP and the SP-in Uttar Pradesh and the JD (U)-in Bihar. The beneficiaries of apathy will be Bhenji (Mayawati- the BSP supremo) in UP and Lalu Yadav in Bihar. Doing little is not an option for the Union government despite some of the shine rubbing off on the SP and the JD (U).

Don’t rattle the private sector

Fourth, it would be a big mistake to take too seriously the campaign to paint the BJP as a consort of the corporate sector. When stern action is warranted, it must be taken transparently and without rancor or bluster. But a “Preet Bharara type” of regulatory action is not what we need. Jobs are what the average citizen wants, which only the private sector can generate them.

Strong arm regulatory actions against foreign investors are bad optics- both for investment and for citizen sentiment. If our regulatory agencies are seen to be handmaidens of the government, they lose credibility. But the government also loses by devaluing an efficient instrument for regulating the private sector in a hands-off, technical manner.

Sticky revenues

Fifth, boost revenue. The tax receipt scenario is grim. First, projections for the year were over optimistic at Rs 14.5 lakh crores (US$ 230 billion) around 16% higher than the previous year. Tax receipts are bound to slide with slow external and domestic demand and lower corporate profits, despite the 15% increase in the rate of service tax. A tax receipt equal to last year’s estimate of Rs 13.7 lakh crores (US$217 billion) or 9% more than the actuals of last year is the best we can hope for- 5% points due to inflation and 4% points due to growth of the taxable base.

Getting more tax payers into the net is a worthwhile but effort intensive option with limited upsides. In 2013-14 there were 47 million direct tax assesses. New assesses have varied between 1 to 3 million per year since 2011. Even doubling the number of new assesses helps only marginally in additional revenue.

Transferring the crown jewels to citizens

There is more upside in fast tracking disinvestment. Listed Public Sector Undertakings (PSU) account for 13% of the valuation of the Bombay Stock Exchange or around Rs 13.6 lakh crores (US$ 215 billion). Of this, some equity is already held privately by minority investors. But an additional 10% can be sold without diluting government’s majority control. The problem is that, in the past, Institutional Investors have been the primary takers for such shares. Retail investor appetite has been largely absent from the tumultuous stock market for some years now and market momentum has been primarily provided by Foreign Institutional Investors.

Selling PSU shares in large volumes, without transferring majority control to the private sector, dampens the market price. Even the private IPO market is slow. Government is wary of inviting the charge of crony capitalism by selling shares to large institutional investors at cheap rates.

On the other hand, selling directly to retail investors is more defensible even if the price is low. After all the “Crown Jewels” really belong to citizens. Dispersing the ownership of PSUs widely also meets multiple objectives. Why not borrow a leaf from Dhirubhai Ambani’s 1982 market making strategy and incentivize the retail investor back into the market?

Link disinvestment, as a sweetener, to the issue of government debt for retail investors only – special convertible bonds – with a fixed return for three years at the prevailing Government Bond rate. 50% of the face value could be optionally convertible on termination in 2018-19, into a balanced bouquet of public sector equity at a 15% discount to the then prevailing market price.

A sequenced, mega issue of Rs 1 lakh crores (US$ 16 billion) of an asset backed government security can reduce the short term risk profile of PSU equity investments and pull in finance from an alternative source.

Government must come out with an evidenced strategy to deal with the “perfect storm” India faces. Of course, the PM is a “lucky General”. The drought may not materialize; the world economy may sort itself out and the opposition in Bihar and UP may self-destruct. But waiting for this to happen may be pushing the Gods too far.

Lion

(photo credit: http://www.archives.financialexpress.com)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s adoption of the Asiatic Lion as the symbol of “Make in India” has triggered off a debate. The lion — Gujarat’s state animal till now — has become ubiquitous. The brilliant, public brand developer, Amitabh Kant has made the lion near synonymous with Incredible India, as Dalda once was for ghee (clarified fat).

The lion now appears in tri-colour ruffles; bedecked with flowers; impaled by pistons, wheels and gears; outlined in bright LED lights or most elegantly just in a steely grey profile. The message is clear — India is not a power you can mess with.

Of course, the truth about the lion — but not the lioness — is that it is the laziest big cat ever. It uses its overpowering muscle mass and speed to forage for food; overeats voraciously and then sleeps contentedly barely able to control its snoring. But just the sight of its mane; its magnificent rock cut nose and jawline; its arrogant gaze and its tawny coat can bring on the goosebumps, absorbing the viewer for hours on end. The lion is not king without a reason.

In comparison, the Bengal Tiger — India’s national animal — is a furtive large cat which slinks about in the dense undergrowth. Whilst magnificently graceful and elegantly clad in striking stripes, it relies on strategy and guile in making its kill. Lions are more transparent. They hunt in a pride and can even take down an elephant. The tiger is a solitary hunter and can even be done in by a pack of wild dogs.

Which of the two suits India’s image best? Today’s “muscular” India is closer to the lion than the tiger. For the longest time, through the 1970s, ’80s and till the 1997 financial crisis, East Asia was known for its fast growing “Tiger economies” — tightly managed, efficient, lithe and opportunistic.

India is far from that model. We are too big to emulate the East Asian steps or use the entry points available to them — FDI in electronics and automobiles from Japan and later China and external trade drive growth. We are too diverse to have a single model fit all requirements. The “Pride of Lions” model suits us best — group effort; selection of the fittest amongst the group to lead and a strategy which leverages our size and inherent strength rather than rely on our low levels of flexibility or the accompanying moderate speed.

Valmik Thapar — India’s best-known Tiger conservationist — suggests that adopting the elephant suits India best. In fact, the elephant is the state animal of three Indian states — Kerala, Karnataka and Jharkhand. But elephants can’t dance, jump or dunk. They do have prodigious memories and are very community minded. Elephants will mourn a dead member of the herd for considerable periods and are very human in their reactions to loss and their fondness for a drink when the Mahua fruit ripens.

But its ponderous pace reminds us of the bad old days of the Hindu rate of economic growth. Its high maintenance — a daily feed of 140 kg and water consumption of 120 litres is the kind of resource intensity we need to get away from.

Its proclivity for making false charges and trumpeting to scare off the enemy is too close to the regressive character of our political discourse today.

Its unfortunate tendency to defecate in large quantities at inconvenient locations is so similar to the India we are already used to, that it just cannot become a symbol of what we want to be. I suspect even Mr Thapar would agree.

In fact, most likely, his apparent willingness to forego the “national animal” status for the Tiger — his first love, in favour of the elephant, seems to be a red herring — a canny move to propose a substitute so impossible, that it can mire action in discussions for the next decade, thereby maintaining the status quo, which suits Mr Thapar best. This tactic is familiar to every well-trained bureaucrat and part of her arsenal of tactics for blocking change.

But move away from the tiger we must. Here are three key reasons for doing so. First, we would thereby enable its adoption by West Bengal, which currently has to make do with the unglamorous “fishing cat” as its state animal. This is unbecoming for a state where the mighty Sunderbans Tigers prowl. Also, Bengalis in India can never digest the fact that Bangladesh has unfairly appropriated the Royal Bengal Tiger as its national animal leaving them with just a cat. The recent Communist governments in West Bengal never bothered about this because for them all cats are the same. In any case, in the “man versus wildlife” debate, they are squarely on the side of man. Prior to them, the Congress government was a mere handmaiden of the Union government. Didi (chief minister, Mamata Banerjee) now needs to right this wrong.

Second, despite being the national animal and thereby enjoying the VVIP special security arrangements of Union government-funded tiger reserves, the tiger population in India has not stabilised. In contrast, Mr Thapar notes, the lion population in Gujarat has increased, thanks primarily to the proactive conservation efforts of the state government. The lesson is clear. If the tiger is to be saved, name it as the state animal of West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan so that state governments develop a direct stake in its conservation.

Third, the question of naming the Indian elephant as our national animal does not arise. It is a beautiful animal and we don’t want to lose it by elevating it to this status.

But if the “national tag” is the kiss of death, what hope is there for the Asiatic Lion to survive its de facto national status? Here we have to pray that the “Lion” that we have as the Prime Minister, currently, will look after his own, just as he did in Gujarat.

In case Mr Modi does not deliver, we could always switch to naming rodents as our national animal and at least be done with them forever.

Reposted from the Asian Age June 6, 2015 http://wwv.asianage.com/columnists/king-industrial-jungle-282

Leyen

(photo credit:www.junglekey.fr)

Ursula Von Der Leyen, the scarily efficient and glamorous German Defence Minister, who is also incredibly mother to seven children, ticked all the required boxes for soaring rhetoric on a bilateral strategic partnership with India. Democracy, freedom, an open society, diversity and religious plurality being the ground for shared values.

Of course, she was careful to not mention the closest strategic arrangement yet between India and Germany, forged by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose whose “Indian National Army” joined the “Axis” forces in World War II.  This fact is inconvenient on two counts.

First, Germany is still defensive about its authoritarian past under Hitler. Second, Netaji, whilst acceptable to the current BJP government, remains a big no- no to the Congress. He was Pandit Nehru’s rival within the Congress and had to quit. Displaying characteristic German caution, Ms. Leyen preferred to give the past a brush-over and concentrated on the future.

Today, the most visible link is the fascination of the Indian nouveau riche for high-end German cars- the Audi and its cheaper cousin the Volkswagen and the BMW stable- thereby uncharacteristically forsaking the “value for money” Japanese options.  The second common link is a taste for beer though German brands remain unrepresented in the Indian beer sweep stakes which is dominated by Dutch, American, UK, Australian and home grown Indian brands.

Human Rights and Democracy go together

To a direct question from a media representative whether a dodgy human rights record for India could sour any proposed strategic partnership with Germany, Ms. Leyen was quick to brightly aver that since the two countries were democracies,  safeguarding human rights was, by definition, of equal value for both. She could not have done better.

The response was in sharp contrast to the US Ambassador’s apprehension, recently voiced publicly, that freezing the activities of Ford Foundation and Greenpeace in India could chill Indo-American relations. But Ms. Leyen’s response also came as recognition of India’s long standing support for the rights of the exiled Tibetan community, resident in India. Chancellor Merkel has been an international exception in publicly snubbing China by maintaining warm relations with the Dalai Lama. PM Modi in turn has been quick to project the Indian origins of Buddhism.

Can Germany subvert NATO discipline?

For all the talk about a strategic partnership, it was not clear what the substance of this partnership could be. Germany and Japan (the defeated Axis powers of WW II) have both reaped the economic advantages of aligning with the victors and outsourcing their external protection to the US Nuclear umbrella for the last seven decades. Japan and Germany are the third and fourth largest economies, respectively, but on defense spend they rank a lowly eighth and ninth, behind the UK, France and even India (SIPRI 2015).

Is Germany seriously considering abandoning the US crutch and shouldering more of the defense burden versus Russia’s currently expansive ambitions in Europe? Would the additional fiscal burden be feasible given that the dodgy economies of Southern Europe are fast becoming Ms. Merkel’s subsidy problem?

This would be uncharacteristic for the cautious and pragmatic Ms. Merkel. Germany is increasingly dependent on natural gas imports, subsequent to it closing the nuclear power option. Russia is right next door with the largest reserves of gas and the pipeline infrastructure to supply it. It makes perfect sense for Ms. Merkel to continue to depend on the US for “protecting” Europe and avoid a direct face-off with Russia.

One lesson to learn from Germany is how aligning with a stronger partner for strategic purposes can free up public resources for development and growth. But it is unlikely that the context will ever fit the tough neighbourhood India is situated in and the compulsion of living with a “muscular” China.

Indo-German strategic partnership?

Indeed the question uppermost in Ms. Leyen’s mind was whether there was any future for an “alliance” with India, given our long standing adherence to the doctrine of non-alignment. It is unlikely that she will get a straight answer.

First, strictly defined “for-ever” alliances are now old hat. Germany, together with the UK, Netherlands, Denmark, the Nordics, Australia and New Zealand have ignored US chagrin at their participation in establishing the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank- China’s counter to the Japan dominated Asian Development Bank.

Second, the past shows that alliances do not suit India. We are too large and too poor, to hang our hat exclusively on any one peg though it is not for want of trying. India has all the characteristics to be a natural ally for the rich, democratic world.  But the accident of history, or the perversity of diplomacy, has been that none of the rich, democratic countries (US, UK, EU) actually showed much interest in having an alliance with democratic India and its messy politics.

The rich, democratic world (G8) found it more convenient, during the extended “cold war years”, to team up with developing country dictators in Asia, Africa and South America in a global pact against Communism. Unfortunately, this also meant teaming up with elites and against the poor citizens of their allies in the developing world. This is what drove India into a strategic alliance with Russia in 1971 which has since lost its salience.

Make for India

Germany is today Europe’s powerhouse. India has shrugged off its mantle of lethargy. Demography is waiting to be exploited in India whilst ageing Germany needs skilled, temporary immigrants to drive their economy. This presents a huge opportunity for India’s unemployed but tech savvy youth.

Language will be a problem for Indian immigrants and this is one good reason why India should free up the language curriculum in schools and make it market oriented. Ms. Leyen is multi-lingual as must Indian kids become.

Around 12% of the German population has roots outside Germany but mostly in other European countries and Turkey. Ms. Leyen’s proposal for temporary migration, at scale, from India must be pursued.

A partnership with Germany will likely cater more to optics than substance. But the proposal to integrate the technical workforce in the two countries is a substantive addition via Indians making, for India and the world, in Germany.

A packed house turned out in the burning, mid-day heat of New Delhi to listen to Ms. Leyen and to get a glimpse of the endearing German ambassador and India buff- Michael Steiner.

Part of the curiosity was to see what the Germans had to offer in this new area of defense international co-operation. What was on offer publicly was underwhelming. Seeing and hearing the first woman Defence Minister of Germany was itself a novelty. But mostly, it was an opportunity to be with a possible future successor to Ms. Merkel once she decides Germany no longer needs her.

If this happens in 2017, PM Modi may be dealing with a powerful transatlantic woman-power tie up: Hilary Clinton in the US and Ms. Leyen in Germany – both of whom are likely to provide him stiff sartorial competition.

Well run, PM Modi

modi run

(photo credit: http://www.iosipa.com)

Reposted from the Asian Age May 25. 2015 < http://www.asianage.com/columnists/well-run-modi-690>

Should it worry us that Modi sarkar resembles the Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie, the greatest long-distance runner ever and not Usain Bolt, the 100-metre thunderbolt from Jamaica?

Not really. The 100-metre dash, whilst spectacular and crowd pulling, is a good tactic for disaster mitigation but disastrous for managing a huge, diversified economy. The marathon analogy suits India better. It is a test of endurance, grit and determination. Outcomes are only visible towards the end of the 42 km race. Those in the lead for the first eight km rarely end up winning.

Other than physical fitness the marathon runner needs a disciplined mind, which restrains the urge to sprint till the last mile whilst maintaining a planned and steady pace all through. Also important is the ability to transcend the near continuous pain and stress, and remain focused on the goal.

Modi sarkar has expectedly followed the epic Bollywood masala — a marathon interspersed with sprints. Citizens have been kept entertained by a blitzkrieg of short-term Bolt spirits to simulate inclusive ascent on a rising elevator of well being, whilst working steadily behind the scenes towards medium-term goals.

The opening of 80 million small bank accounts; the launch of three social protection (pension and insurance) schemes; the attractively packaged, near weekly engagements with foreign governments on their soil and ours; pushing through the border realignment with Bangladesh; the quietening down of tension with China in Arunachal Pradesh; the relatively incident-free border with Pakistan; the warming relationship with Sri Lanka; the race to make India “cough-free” by substituting clean renewables with dirty fossil fuels; the quick response to natural disaster in Nepal and Bihar; the disciplining of the bureaucracy and the Bharatiya Janata Party’s political cadres; effective management of the sensitive relationship between the BJP and its regressive cultural font — the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh; the visible dominance of the Prime Minister’s Office, which had wilted under the previous government; the productive alignments with Didi’s (Mamata Banerjee) government in West Bengal; Mufti Muhammad Sayeed’s People’s Democratic Party in Kashmir; the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh; Amma (J. Jayalalithaa) in Tamil Nadu, are all signals of aggressive political outreach.

But behind the scenes, several half-marathons have also been initiated — the blistering pace of tendering and award of infrastructure projects with results expected over the next three years; the quick decisions on defence procurements; the swift auction of coal mines to resolve the fuel supply bottlenecks; the opening up of the defence sector to private investment and management; relaxation of foreign direct investment constraints in insurance — both major sources of good jobs and the quiet continuation of the previous government’s Aadhaar electronic platform as a primary mechanism for verifying identity so necessary for subsidy reform via direct cash transfers.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has run the first leg of the marathon with exceptional skill. But this was the easy part. The next 16 km till 2017 is what will make or break his chances for re-election in 2019. Five key measures stand out.

First, with two big state-level elections coming up, the BJP will need to marry the compulsion for populism with fiscal rectitude, which has been the leitmotif of the first year of Arun Jaitley as the finance minister of India. Reigning in inflation is a continuous struggle in such circumstances. It is fitting that the Reserve Bank of India continues to focus on managing money supply and interest rates. The ministry of finance will have its hands full substituting for the erstwhile Planning Commission in allocation of funds and enhancing real-time, expenditure management systems and metrics to ensure “value for money” spent. Key indicators to watch will be achievement of the targeted reductions in revenue, current account and fiscal deficits.

Second, introduce a poverty and private jobs creation filter. Share the assessments publicly via a “dashboard” of proposed allocations to make the allocation process more transparent and participative. Direct democracy is of Mr Modi’s signature tune. This is also a great way of self-restraining crony capitalism and populism.

Third, cut loose the railways and the public sector companies and banks from the crippling constraints of ministerial intervention. Corporatise all production and service delivery entities as a first step to reform, followed by administrative autonomy and selective listing of stock. The creeping tendency, reminiscent of the “Indira Gandhi ‘commanding heights’ syndrome”, of falling back on the public sector for getting quick results is unfortunate. The international experience shows that poor investments are the outcome if public funds are plentiful. India cannot afford “bridges to nowhere”, even if they create jobs in the short term. This implies fixing the “broken” public-private partnership (PPP) model, not effectively junking it altogether with the government assuming all the risk, as is being considered currently.

Fourth, trim the flabby Union government. The UK model of agencification and administrative reform, tight budget constraints, monetisation of assets and the levy of user charges, fits the Indian context best. Look for “asymmetric reform”, rather than whole-of-government approaches. The Aadhaar unique ID experiment is a useful example of the benefits of strategic, but narrow reform. The “Namami Gange” Clean Ganga Mission is another example. If “cooperative federalism” is to be more than just an attractive slogan the Union government must be the pied-piper, which the state governments follow.

Fifth, fix the big institutional constraints to rapid development. The last thing we need is a clash of titans — Rajya Sabha versus the government — a replay of the dysfunctionality of the American political architecture; judiciary versus the executive. Are we really keen to tread the Pakistan route? Avoid proxy veto by the Union governors over elected state governments — a throwback to the ugly days of the Emergency in the 1970s. Implement the 74th Amendment (1992), which mandates decentralisation but remains ignored two decades later.

The final 16-km dash in 2018 and 2019 will be easy if the half marathons already initiated are run well, over the next two years. The trick is not to sacrifice public interest in an all-out attempt to win state elections in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The question remains: will the BJP’s marathon mind rule or its sprinter’s muscles dominate?

Kejriwal plunge

(photo credit: fundamental.bogs.com)

How justified is Mr. Kejriwal, the Chief Minister (CM) of Delhi in assuring auto rickshaw (tuk tuks) owners and drivers -his niche supporters numbering around 100,000 – annual rate revisions in tandem with rising costs, when he denies a similarly supportive regulatory regime to the three private companies which supply power to consumers in Delhi?

As a Dilli-walla, who has not had to use an inverter during the last five years because electricity is available on tap- a saving of Rs. 5000 per year- it seems obvious to me that privatizing electricity supply has been the biggest boon for citizens.

But to sustain supply at a reliability level of 99.5%, the DISCOMS have to buy sufficient power to meet peak load and maintain the wires, related transmission and distribution equipment and meters sufficiently well, to avoid breakdowns and to meter consumption accurately. Privatisation has given Delhi what only Bombay (also privately supplied) used to have a two decades ago – reliable electric supply.

Build institutions, don’t undermine existing ones

The Delhi Electricity Regulatory Commission’s (DERC) consistently fair, participative and effective decision making has supported this achievement. Not surprisingly, a recent independent survey, done by the premier Jaipur based, consumer advocacy institute- CUTS, which reviewed institutional arrangements and consumer perception, assessed the DERC as the state electricity regulator most responsive to citizen grievances.

It is consequently, decidedly odd, that the Mr. Kejriwal should try and undermine the institutional credibility of the electricity regulator by insinuating that the private DISCOMS are being favoured by the DERC tariff determination process at the cost of consumers.

Most recently Mr. Kejriwal has alleged that the newly appointed in-charge Chief Secretary (who apparently was not his choice) is also in cahoots with the two Reliance power DISCOMS.

Mr. Kejriwal has erred in mixing up the issue of whether or not the CM should choose the Chief Secretary with the unrelated issue of whether, or not, the person appointed to that position, by the Lt. Governor, has the right credentials to occupy that post.

On the first issue, good governance norms would dictate that, at the very least, the CM should be consulted and preferably should concur in the appointment of the Chief Secretary (CS). After all, unless the CM and the CS trust each other, government will become dysfunctional. The worst thing for a government is to admit publicly that it is out of control. This holds irrespective of the legal position that the Lt. Governor is not bound to seek the CMs advice on the issue since Delhi is only a “make believe” State Government with limited functions.

Populism is not sustainable

The Kejriwal government is coming across as populist, anti-reform and anti-organised private sector. Add to this the constraint that being recent rulers, with no administrative experience, it appears ham-handed at doing what it wants. The result is that even good intentions get warped by inept execution.

Why Messers Kejriwal and Sisodia seem bent upon wasting time and political capital on burnishing their populist image, even though there are still more than four long years to go before elections, is puzzling.

That Mr. Kejriwal looks to the common man for his support is welcome. After all more than 40% of Delhi residents live either in slums or in slum-like colonies. But more than “freebies”- like cheap power and free water- what each of these “slum dwellers” want is a better life for their children and a job.

Generating new jobs

Generating 1 million “good” jobs in Delhi over the next four years is a colossal task and the CM would do well to focus his energies on this task. He will need the active collaboration of the private sector to achieve this goal. The continued availability of reasonably priced, good quality electricity will be crucial so tinkering with what is working well (privatized electricity utilities) is dangerous and irresponsible.

It is all very well to grandstand by dis-allowing the entry of multi-brand retail in Delhi. In any case, these space-intensive, “deep pocket” entities which seek to provide a “complete shopping experience”, would rather locate in adjoing NOIDA or Gurgaon, where commercial space is cheaper. But what does the government plan to do to “clean up” the existing local market places and make small shopkeepers more competitive?

Why not create new jobs by servicing public spaces better with private security; better maintenance; toilets; take-a-break-spots; green spaces and parking facilities to enhance the shopping experience.  The popular Dilli Haat (market) started two decades ago is one such example.

Make the rich pay for using public road space

Delhi has around 2 million cars. Most of them are parked overnight on the streets and adjoining side-walks. Why not charge car owners for this privilege, especially at a progressive rate? Rate progression would mean that for every incremental car per household, the rate increases. Even a flat charge per car of Rs 500 per month would yield an additional revenue of Rs 1000 crore per year (rule-of-thumb basis) equal to 3% of the 2015-16 Budget estimate of Rs 35,000 crores.

The incremental proceeds could be used, in the colony where it is collected, to provide and maintain colony roads; drains; sewage systems; street lights and water supply systems. More importantly, the fee will provide a disincentive to own multiple cars; encourage owners to dump old, unused cars and free up public parking, cycling and walking space.

Public transport

The CM should also note that whilst today electricity in Delhi is of the same quality as in Mumbai, the same cannot be said of the public buses. Ensuring a 24X7 public transport system, which is secure and accessible within a maximum ten minute walk from any urban mohallah (community), is an enormous challenge which goes beyond just buying more buses. Meeting this public transport infrastructure gap will hurt he CMs support group the most – the 100,000 auto rickshaws who provide an inefficient, insecure and costly substitute for public buses. But it can garner the CM the support of 60% of the 25 million Dilli-wallas who can only afford to travel by bus.

There are still more than four years to go for the Delhi elections and it is sad to see the Kejriwal government not using this time to deliver substantial gains to Delhi citizens. Grandstanding by “taking on” the Government of India via the Lt. Governor is unlikely to get it votes. Delhi is not a city which tolerates “whiners”.

BJP ruled municipalities provide no “benchmark” competition

The only silver lining for Mr. Kejriwal is that the three Municipal Corporations, all controlled by the BJP, are even worse. It is shocking that the Modi “magic” has not brushed-off on its local worthies and the municipalities remain mired in inefficiency and corruption.

Far from setting governance standards which would force Mr. Kejriwal to up his game and perform better, the Delhi municipalities are making it absurdly easy for Mr. Kejriwal to “shine” by comparison. This is shortsighted of the BJP and bad for Delhi citizens.

End game

Mr. Kejriwal has already lost the support of the middle class. Sadly he is in danger of losing the poor also, unless he takes service delivery beyond the level of rhetoric. He knew the limited character of the Delhi government before he contested. If he now feels constrained for power he has to wait till 2017 when he will get a chance of consolidating his power base in the three municipalities. Alternatively, he has to wait till 2019 in the hope of getting a congenial partner at the national level, who will cede fuller powers to Delhi State.

Either way he has a clear three years in which he can focus on improving what lies squarely within his ambit today- electricity supply, roads, public lighting, water, drains, sewage collection and treatment and social services. Even this seems a handful given the shallow bench strength of the AAP.

Trilema

(photo credit: http://www.financialexpress.com)

Reposted from Asian Age May 15, 2015 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/modi-s-trilemma-1

India’s bland foreign policy has traditionally been based on the principle of “please all and offend none”. Things changed under Indira Gandhi when we pivoted to the Soviets and teamed up against the “capitalists” in the West. But post-1990, once the Soviet dream evaporated, we reverted to the “offend none” tactic. The UPA years were a continuation of this approach, which suited the soft-spoken, nominal Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

Things have changed since then. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a muscular, energetic man and wants his foreign policy to reflect that energy and purpose. But he faces the classic problem of managing an “impossible trinity” comprising the US, a weakening Russia and an emerging China, which today attracts allegiance from countries cutting across traditional power blocs.

East Asia, other than Vietnam and Australia, feeds off China’s economic growth. China will likely add $6 trillion of new wealth (GDP increase over 2015) in the period 2015-24 and this is a powerful magnet that dulls the pain of negotiating with China over “disputed territory” in the South and East China Sea.

Similarly, Sub-Saharan Africa increasingly depends on Chinese investment “aid” and mineral export to China. Even Russia prefers to diversify its energy exports away from Europe to China, but not to India or Japan.

China is an immediate neighbour of India. A dispute over border demarcation in the west and east lingers. Neither party is really willing to resolve it because it is convenient for both.

For China, the ongoing border dispute presents it with the opportunity to build roads through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK), linking into Karachi on the Arabian Sea and the still-to-be-built Chinese port of Gwadar in Balochistan province, next to the Iranian border.

For India, the border dispute and China’s dodgy moves to build infrastructure through PoK, with the concurrence of Pakistan, is a package problem. It serves to legitimise a tit-for-tat aggressive development of Arunachal Pradesh, a border territory claimed by China. The area has significant hydro potential estimated at around 30 GW and is of strategic importance to safeguard the north-eastern states of India to its south.

It is fashionable to couch India’s need for China in commercial terms — trade and investment. But China is a much more efficient manufacturer than India and hence a trade deficit ($40 billion doubling to $80 billion in three years) is inevitable, with India as the junior exporting partner. Seeking investment from China is one way of plugging the hole created by the trade deficit. But such investment benefits China as much as India.

India’s growth story, whilst not as impressive as China’s, is sufficiently dramatic in these economically hollow times to garner eyeballs. New value creation (cumulative value addition to GDP over 2014 levels) of $1.4 trillion over a decade from now is not a trifle. A share of just 20 per cent (similar to its share today) in India’s new value creation could feed an annual growth of 0.3 per cent for China.

Growing economic ties with India — soon to be the fourth largest economy in the world (after the US, China and Japan) — enhance China’s “strategic prestige”. This is the “pull” factor. There is also a “push factor” which Indian strategists tend to emphasise — China’s paranoia that India may become part of a US effort to encircle China along with Japan. This “fear factor” is over hyped.

China knows well that the Indian psyche favours reconciliation rather than confrontation. India routinely prefers turning a Nelson’s eye to occasional intransigence but abhors subjugating its sovereignty to any foreign influence — a hangover of our colonial mindset. India could never be a link in an American chain to “contain” China.

China is unconcerned about future competition from the US. Over the next 30 years, the US will morph demographically into being dominated by fast-growing Hispanic and African-American communities; an ageing, minority white population; the inherited disadvantage of high wages and even higher citizen expectations; degrading infrastructure and increasing inequality. What this will mean for the “can do” spirit and mojo which defines the US, is unclear.

Despite such uncertainties, the US remains a long-term natural ally of India. Its plural culture, democratic values, federal institutional arrangements, history of innovation and grounded belief in religion and “family first” gels well with India.

A weakening US and a strengthening India make a perfect combination. The combined GDP of the US, India and Japan will be double of China’s GDP in 2024 and their future value addition — a key “convening” factor for attracting allies — will be higher than that of China.

Finally, the significant Indian community and private sector investment in the US and Europe provide a ready base for developing P2P (people to people) and B2B (business to business) contacts.

All this is reflected in the determined efforts of Mr Modi to establish a trade, investment and communication bridgehead with the US, Japan, Germany and Australia.

The traditional third leg of the impossible trinity has been Russia. But the gains from trade or strategic alignment are scarce. A close strategic friendship with Russia elicits no apprehension in Beijing because Russia is today a “toothless bear” plagued by a natural resource-export dependent economy. Russia, ruled by “grasping” oligarchs, has to reform and shed its macho image. Its best bet is to integrate into Europe, where it belongs. Consequently the “real” third leg of the trinity in future is Europe, with Germany and Russia as possible focal points.

Mr Modi’s strategy to navigate the impossible trinity of US, China and Europe-Russia is clear. Engage with the US, Japan and Germany aggressively and integrate into their value chains. Keep expectations low but exchange lofty targets with the Chinese and the Russians. But, most importantly, keep your powder dry and gear up India’s economy, because our best friend is our own strength and resilience.

Ni Hou

(photo credit: india.com)

Arun Shourie- minister in the earlier NDA government and senior BJP leader was being strategically alarmist when he went public on May 1 warning Prime Minister Modi against succumbing to the seductive spell, which the Chinese put on Pandit Nehru (India’s first Prime Minister) eagerly accepting his diplomatic largesse and support whilst remaining firm on giving nothing in return, which was not expressly bargained for and agreed.

Mr. Shourie has a flair for the dramatic and an uncanny ability to be evocative in his speech, sweetly hitting hardest, where it hurts the most. The Chinese “betrayal” of Pandit Nehru’s “brotherly” love by invading India in 1962 broke Nehru’s heart and spirit. He succumbed to the body blow two years later. China supporters maintain that unclear messaging from India forced China to retaliate since it perceived India as being bent on unilaterally disturbing the status quo along an un-demarcated Himalayan border between the two countries. Be that as it may, the China-India 1962 war, in which, despite heroic, determined but futile resistance from an ill-equipped and poorly led Indian army, China soundly trounced India, has left an open wound for India, which is still raw more than five decades later.

One doesn’t need to go back to 1962 to be sure that China is not a natural ally for India. We are just too similar with few complementarities and hugely competing priorities.

India-China, twins separated at birth?

Both countries are in a race for fuel, which neither have and both need to grow their economies and feed their people. One out of every three humans is either Chinese or Indian. China is racing to achieve high income economy status (per capita GNI> US$ 12,746) whilst India is striving to be an upper middle income economy-where China is today (per capita GNI> US$ 4,125). Both need to find export markets to fuel their growth. Both are relative “outsiders” to the high table of developed countries and both are jostling for space. Both peoples are hugely entrepreneurial and compulsively competitive. But there the similarity ends.

Even twins grow differently

India is barely at the threshold of being a lower middle income economy but its international, political engagement is larger than its economic heft. China is already an upper middle income economy but traditionally prefers to remain below the international diplomacy radar and boxes well below its weight, except when it perceives its national interest directly at stake.

India is a democracy of long standing, grounded on the compulsion of complex heterogeneity and plurality. China is a largely homogenous, beneficent, authoritarian meritocracy.

India is has been institutionally and ideologically networked into the developed world due to its colonial heritage and the facility with English. But it is a recent and somewhat unwilling, entrant to the international trade and investment value chains. China’s culture and values are unique and somewhat autarkic but its planned tapping of developed country knowledge, innovation, research and technology market has worked well. Its pragmatism, easy adaptation to change and determined implementation of a growth strategy by integrating into trade and investment value chains, sets it apart from even its East Asian neighbours, most certainly India and previously communist countries.

Given the lack of complementarities and the visibly rivalrous character of the relationship why has Prime Minister Modi steadfastly wooed the Chinese?

Why China eyes India

China knows well what it wants from India. It wants to service India’s booming market with cost competitive goods and services. This is why a bilateral trade target of even US$ 100 billion per year is rather limited for China. Given a choice it would rather shoot for US$ 200 billion so that it can buy into India’s growth prospects for adding at least 1% to its GDP growth over the next few years.

Growth is flagging in China. This is worrisome for the leadership which has built its credibility by “filling people’s pockets to shut their mouths”- a snide reference to the grand political bargain in which Chinese citizens agree to trade in individual freedom for material gains.

India has a trade deficit of 50% of US$ 37 billion with China. Bilateral trade is US$70 billion.  This is higher than the aggregate trade deficit which is 20%. Further expansion of trade will likely worsen this deficit, since China is a more efficient mass producer of goods. Trade with China is consequently only a lever for India with which to negotiate alternative benefits in investment; security cooperation and mutually supportive diplomatic stances in multilateral fora.

So what is it about China which should excite India?

China made Indian Gods

Rather than predictably moan about the trade deficit with China Prime Minister Modi should praise the Chinese people for their achievements.

First, thank them for sending affordable goods to India thereby directly benefiting Indian consumers and forcing Indian industry to become competitive through attrition of uncompetitive businesses.

Second, thank China for being a role model for developing countries on the following three counts. (A) Illustrating the virtues of savings and investment led growth, particularly in manufacturing (B) Establishing the necessity of increasing public investment in human development and social protection (C)  Providing to the developing world a model for enhancing employment, jobs and rapid reduction in poverty

Third, invite them to visit India as Tourists, Students, Scholars and Friends so that our great cultures can learn from each other directly.

The gloved fist

Much has been made of the Chinese excursions into India even as President Xi was eating Dhoklas with Prime Minister Modi in September 2014.  Was this part of an elaborate Chinese plan to remind India that sipping green tea together does not mean China will give up its claims on Indian territory? Or were they a Peoples Liberation Army game plan to stab the reformist Xi in the back and undermine his international credibility? We may never find out. But what it does illustrate is that diplomacy is like sleeping with snakes-one has to sleep light, remain vigilant, move slowly but definitively and remain calm and unperturbed by the ensuing rattles.

Chinese cash

Should we fear Chinese investment in India? Clearly they have the cash and we have the need for it. One reason why we need the cash is to generate jobs. This means that the standard Chinese model of project implementation which relies on Chinese expatriates does not suit our needs. Rather they should build Indian skills in project implementation in keeping with their celebrated record in project implementation.

Partnership with Indian companies is the best model for Chinese investment in India so that social benefits and tax revenue flows downwards to the people of India whilst corporate profits flow to China. Other than a very short negative list of investments in sensitive border areas, Chinese investment should be welcomed. In fact co-partnership in international value chain related production can be of mutual benefit in services, engineering and chemicals.

End game

Prime Minister Modi’s China strategy must needs be minimalist. India looms too large in China’s neighbourhood for comfort. China will pull no punches in consciously trying to establish its dominance in South Asia and thereby cramp Indian influence. This is very similar to the effort India spends on cultivating Vietnam now and Taiwan earlier to the chagrin if China.

The best that India can hope to do is to stop China from playing “spoiler” in India’s unfolding growth story. Chinese support for Pakistani Terror or Maoist rebels in east India is an illustration of such proxy efforts. The best way of neutralizing “spoilers” is to co-opt them into the game as active participants. We must encourage China to develop significant investment stakes and trade links with India so that they too benefit from India’s growth. Actively encouraging highway and rail links across borders is a good place to start. India must aim to become “too big” in the Chinese investment portfolio for it to stall Indian growth- this is what “protects” the US.

It is inconceivable that Mr. Shourie is oblivious of this imperative to reach out to China. Could it be then be that his highly publicized “missive” to the PM was just a charade, dreamt up by the BJP “dirty tricks” department, to build up PM Modi as a strong and forceful leader with the reach; the credibility and the strategic depth to ignore inner-party, high level resistance to warming up China-India relations? In other words was Mr. Shourie’s advice given with the full knowledge that it would be ignored?

Similarly, could it be that the recent government action against Greenpeace and the Ford Foundation for crossing red lines by supporting activities against the national interest, were also initiated to project Mr. Modi’s government, ahead of the China visit, as being strongly nationalistic, able and willing to cock a snook at the US, just to illustrate, that India is not wedded to any traditional power block.

Far-fetched or not, PM Modi leaves for Beijing on a stronger wicket, as a friend of China, than he started with in September 2014, in part, thanks to Mr. Shourie.

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