governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

mangoes

(photo credit:southasia.foreignpolicy.com) 

FM Jaitley’s comments recently in Mumbai, that the media did not know much about what happens inside government, riled many a media person. Expectedly, the comment was attributed variously to smugness and being out of touch with the intimacy, the media has got used to in the “chummy’ days of the UPA, when they were actually a “fly on the wall”.

Some media worthies had the grace to take the comment at face value and pointed out that lack of information or communication by government, in the modern age, is as bad as disinformation, because this “city of the Djinns” uses both to self-advantage. The only option is to be open and share in the “information age”

But imagine this scenario. What if the government had early information of the mounting unrest (which has unfolded subsequently) in Pakistan against the Sharif government and felt it was not an opportune time for Secretary Singh to dialogue with her counterpart in Islamabad.  Instead, the ostensible reason offered, to pull out of the talks, of being upset with the Pakistan High Commissioners attempt to get briefed by the Hurriyat, seems a master stroke.

The response, however, from a section of the strategic community was severely negative (due to lack of information?), ranging from outright condemnation of this dangerous departure from precedent to  approbation for undermining the fundamental basis of Indo-Pak relation so studiously built around “talks” for the last many decades.

How can the government possibly come straight out and say that the fundamental asymmetry between India and Pakistan is similar to the asymmetry between the US and Myanmar.  Forget the fire power and soft power asymmetry. It is the asymmetry of political beliefs. Myanmar has Aung San Suu Kyi and Pakistan has Malala Yousafzahi; both heroes in their own right. But the hard fact about long standing militaristic societies is that they change only when their military leaders feel compelled to do so, either because of conviction, or pressure. Also luckily for the US it does not share a border with Myanmar but it is always difficult to figure out the outcomes of counterfactuals (what ifs).

How can there be pressure on the Pakistan army to step out of politics when their unsustainable economy is liberally financed by “friends” in the Middle East, who get repaid with the supply of Sunni Jihadists or financed by the US, in its constant attempt to wedge a foot into the door of this tinderbox country?

And if these friends were not enough, they now also have China dripping investments and promises into ports, roads and infrastructure.  Clearly, business school teachers are out of touch when they say the only ones who fail to access finance are those who need it the most. They never took into account a Nuclear Pakistan, passing the “N button” like a parcel between squabbling political leaders, as easily, as they would a shisha.

In India the overwhelming sentiment in the face of the new rash of political problems in Pakistan, is deep sympathy and concern similar to what the rest of India felt for the BIMARU (sick) states (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh) in the past.

But such lip sympathy is of little use to the people of Pakistan who must be fed up with fighting a daily struggle to survive. The inevitable shortening of life and business horizons; the apathy towards tackling fundamental fiscal imbalances; the seeming disregard for joining the ranks of open economies whose growth is based on competitiveness and the habitual cultivation of an inward looking, defensive perspective, must indeed be soul destroying.

Sad as it may be, there is little than India can do but to “buckle up”, be prepared for being named as the fall guy, yet again and keep open its channels of communications with the Pakistan Army via its (and our friends) friends in the US, the Middle East and China.

Formally, India has never conceded that the Indo-Pak affair is anything but a bilateral issue to be decided accordingly. But beyond the world of formal institutions, lies the “real” world of “informal” institutions, where the fate of common people on both sides of the border is decided. We must burrow deeper into our seat at this “informal table” and make better use of it in the forthcoming leadership level meetings with China and the US.

 In India we say “finis” with “supari”. In Pakistan they lately prefer “mangoes”. Neither tactical device generates positive outcomes. Being friends, means assisting, when needed, including to make the mangoes rot.

great powers

(photo credit: english.sina.com)

  1. You don’t have to say you are sorry. Japan took half a century to sort of apologise to Korea for its war crimes. The US has never apologized to the Vietnamese for napalming them.
  2. You can lie with impunity. The US and the UK lied about Saddam Hussain’s arsenal of chemical and nuclear weapons. Russia lies when it says local rebels are fighting the Ukrainian government. China lies when it calls itself a democracy.
  3. You don’t have to go looking for someone to talk to at a diplomatic party. Everyone else flocks around you.
  4. The line-up for the photo-op after a conference happens around you rather than you scrounging around for a place in the third row.
  5. Your “think tanks” are well funded and packed with retired Ambassadors, Generals and assorted strategists and feel comfortable preaching to your neighbours.
  6. You consider it your duty to send 20 some things, who can barely handle their nickers, to “help” the unfortunates in foreign lands. Never mind that they have never done the same in the country of their birth.
  7. A University professor in the neighbouring countries gets paid the same as a semi-skilled worker in yours.
  8. When you are sure that if you die in your sleep in a foreign land, your local embassy will bother to inform your folks and send back your body.
  9. When you don’t need a visa to travel to other “great countries”, except those whom you have browned off.
  10. When you don’t have to spend an hour figuring out how the loo flushes in your up-market hotel abroad.
  11. When a decent meal in your hotel abroad doesn’t mean that its McDonalds for the rest of the business trip.
  12. When you BPO jobs out to allies.
  13. When high security for the “President” does not mean locking down the neighbourhood where she is visiting for the entire day.
  14. When more foreigners are voting with their feet to come and work in your country than there are citizens trying to get out.
  15. When your language is recognized by the UN as one of its official languages.
  16. When the number of scholars working on your country in the universities of a competing great power are many more that those working on your neighbouring countries.
  17. When your delegation is doing the selling (not the buying) at an air and weapons fair.
  18. When the WTO calls you for convenient dates before fixing the next round of negotiations.
  19. When the poorest adult woman in your country weighs at least 10 kg. per foot of height.
  20. When you don’t need to have a child just to have someone to look after you in old age.

 

 

imran khan

(photo credit: en.wikipedia.org)

Samson, the mythical Israeli, who was born with the strength to rip apart a lion with his bare hands, loses it all, when Delilah, an unreliable female “partner”, in whom he confides that the source of his strength lay in his long hair, cuts them off, in exchange for “blood money” from his enemies, whilst he is asleep.

Possibly learning from Samson, Imran Khan, the ruggedly handsome, heart throb, erstwhile cricketer and presently a potential Prime Ministerial hopeful in Pakistan, complete with long locks,  pledged during the recent siege of Islamabad, which he led demanding PM Nawaz Sharif’s resignation, that he would not marry (lest he lose his locks?) till a “New Pakistan” dawned.  

The South Asian sub-continent is rife with similar examples of political leaders who eschew marriage to serve a higher purpose, implicitly learning from Samson.

Gautam Buddha walked away from his sleeping family and the World, to found a new religion, which has adherents across the world practicing the technique of deliberate disassociation from material things and thoughts via meditation, as a therapy for even tired, dissolute and remorselessly materialistic, Wall Street Bankers.

India is particularly afflicted by this seeming conflict between a higher duty and the pleasures of a family. Sadhus (holy men) are Hindu mendicants, colourfully clad in ochre robes and long hair, matted in a manner any Rastafarian would envy, whom the rest of us have to support as they pursue a higher purpose.

Even politicians are affected by this bug. Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, was a bachelor. Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, Jinnah’s contemporary and rival did not remarry after his wife died in 1936. A. B. Vajpayee, the first BJP stalwart to become Prime Minister also never married. Bhen Mayawati, the Dalit leader from Uttar Pradesh; Mamta Banerjee the first time, firebrand, Chief Minister of West Bengal; Amma Jayalalitha, the veteran Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu and PM Modi, all are not married. Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the Nehru clan, pledged himself to the nation in the 2014 elections, also seemingly following that path. But sadly it did not help the election outcome.

There is something incredibly attractive to South Asians about the idea of their leaders giving up permitted pleasures, like having a family, to serve the nation. The notion that a family distracts rather than focuses attention on one’s career, is enshrined in Hinduism, which urges people to renounce material concerns, once they have discharged all their family duties and obligations.

This underlying bias, which views a family as a drag, rather than a resource, was reinforced by the colonial tradition. Young officers under British rule were not allowed to acquire a family till they were (a) old enough to afford one and (b) too senior to be likely to engage in battle and get killed, thereby leaving behind a helpless family to be looked after by the paltun (his army colleagues).

That the family and most importantly a wife, is important in making a man what he becomes, is entrenched in Indian tradition. This is why callow youths, prone to “false” female charms, are not encouraged to choose their own wives, lest they choose Delilahs, as Samson unwisely did, who would only shorn them of their power and desert them thereafter.

Whilst the choice of a spouse or partner is a tough one for any man-politician, it is an impossible choice for women-politicians for a number of reasons.  

First, men are wayward. During the extended daily absence of a busy politician wife, whose every waking moment is taken up by matters of the State, heaven knows what the man may be getting up to. Keeping track of a male spouse, boosting his fragile ego and keeping him harmlessly engaged, can quite derange a woman-politician.   

Second, not every man can keep looking grand, like Prince Phillip of the UK, whilst perpetually trailing Queen Elizabeth, his wife, and yet remain seemingly content to be perpetually out of the main spotlight. Some male spouses of powerful women, are prone to leverage their position, to their advantage in business thereby potentially wrecking the woman-politicians career.

There are very few “Power Couples” like the Clintons, who have perfected the “art of living and thriving together”. In India, Prakash and Brinda Karat of the CPI (M), stand out as one such power couple. But sadly such sharing of power does not seem to have brought political dividends.

In India, such successful, congenial power play, is seen most often in the bureaucracy, where it is used to deadly effect. In contrast, politicians are still too seeped in the male-dominant tradition and need to catch up with their bureaucratic colleagues. Possibly, the political environment reflects main steam India, with all its social inhibitions better, whilst the bureaucracy, after all, is just a chip-off-the-Colonial block and thereby retains some characteristics of a more western orientation.

The real problem of course is not the fact of the marriage but its outcome in children and a spreading net of close relatives all whom want a finger in the power pie. Indian parents are culturally tuned to cosset their children endlessly. Combine this cultural trait with access to political power and you have the beginnings of a corrosive dynasty.

PM Modi is a competent and charismatic man, but the fact that the only thing he will leave behind is his collection of kurtas and turbans and several large development projects dedicated to the nation, is chillingly compelling. Indeed this was also the Mahatma’s magic and possibly the reason for his forsaking his family. His meagre personal belongings, his charkha and his thoughts are all we are left with and yet, they are more powerful and long lasting, than all the riches in the world and the combined political force of the State in India. Maybe we should go back to our roots.  

 

 

 

 

Modi piegeons.theunrealtimes.com

(photocredit: unrealtimes.com)

In inimitable style, Prime Minister Modi freed the nation from the “stifling” control of the Planning Commission (PC) on August 15-India’s Independence Day.  Not many are likely to mourn its passing.

But bureaucracies dislike a power vacuum and it is not clear who inherits the mantle of work the Commission used to do. Of primary concern is the need to co-ordinate the allocation and use of public resources, mostly though not exclusively, as investment for sustainable development. The amounts involved are huge, amounting to 11 % of GDP, of which Central government resources comprise 60% whilst the residual 40% are state government resources.

India’s quasi federal structure creates governments at three levels with varying and mismatching levels of functional assignments and resource allocations and a spaghetti bowl of mandated and discretionary, inter-government transfers. Whilst a good long term strategy would be to work at aligning responsibilities with resources, there is little hope of these issues being sorted out in the next five years.

The need of the hour is to find practical near-term solutions to three key issues which would remain unresolved if the PC is wound up.

One, which government entity could be empowered to realize the PMs vision of “cooperative development” between the Union government and the states?

Two, which government entity could have the capacity and the mandate to take an integrated and a technically informed view on development priorities and evaluate options and their tradeoffs?

Three, which government entity could be structured to bring together the best brains in the business of development to assist the “combined team of the PM and the Chief Ministers of state governments” to take informed and optimized decisions which simultaneously reduce poverty, create productive jobs and ensure sustainability?

This is not to assert that the PC did any of the three very well. But it did provide a forum for all three issues. The fact that it was not used to that purpose is a reflection of its leadership rather than its substance.

The PM, whilst announcing the demise of the Planning Commission (an institution, which the PM heads, created in 1950 by executive order), also said it would “soon” be replaced by another institution but no details were shared. Speculation abounds that this may be a lean, high power, government “Think Tank”.

It is unclear however why the government needs another in-house think tank when it has so many aided “Think Tanks” already at its disposal. The National Institute of Public Finance and Policy (NIPFP); Indian Council of International Economic Research (ICRIER); National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER); Institute of Economic Growth (IEG), just to name a few, which are all part of the Delhi Durbar.

Others include highly specialized ones like the Center for Policy Research (CPR); The Energy Resource Institute (TERI) and the Center for Science and Environment (CSE) in Delhi. There are scores more of such “knowledge institutions” in other metros and the state capitals. All of them are already able and engaged in providing research and knowledge support to governments, state owned enterprises and the private sector.

Why spend new public money on establishing yet another sarkari (government) or quasi sarkari knowledge institution, which will likely be bedeviled by the same constraints as its predecessor? All sarkari institutions suffer from the problem of low remuneration levels, which are insufficient to attract the best from the domestic private sector or to attract the many qualified Indians working abroad. Lateral entries are mostly “fixed” on the basis of exploiting networks, not on the basis of assessed merit. Lastly, and most importantly, their processes and systems are stiflingly bureaucratic, which puts-off most experts.

In any case, even the best “Think Tank” cannot achieve all the three objectives cited above. Even International Development Institutions, like the World Bank, IMF and UNDP find it hard to sell their admittedly “high quality thoughts” if they are not backed by money power to implement them. A Think Tank is not the solution.

The erstwhile Commission discharged several functions. It coordinated the allocation of vast public investment resource and monitored implementation and expenditure. It provides the secretariat for the National Development Council (NDC; an entity created in 1952 by executive order for interaction between political heads of the Union and state governments). In fact unfettered “thinking’ and “knowledge generation” was never a major part of the Commission’s job. It was more a hands on “applied knowledge” generator which navigated political economy constraints to suggest commonly acceptable, technically suitable options for allocating development resources. This role remains vital.

The notion that the Ministry of Finance, Department of Expenditure, Plan Finance Division can perform the investment management; resource allocation and monitoring role is laughable, given the limited human resources available to it.

Why not then simply assign the entire existing Planning Commission staff to the Plan Finance Division; upgrade this to a Department and let it do the job? This solution would be even worse than the existing arrangements. It would extract whatever independent “non-government” knowledge capital, which existed in the Planning Commission, plus embed the entire process in the traditionally (possibly necessarily), non-transparent functioning in the “forbidden fortress” of the Ministry of Finance even further, with no hope of efficiency improvements in return.

Can the PM retain the bird in hand- the virtues of the PC- whilst still netting two more birds (state leadership participation and enhanced human capital) in the bush?

This post outlines a proposal to this effect:

  1. The PC already provides the secretariat for the National Development Council. Unfortunately, meetings of this entity have been reduced to a mere formality, where no meaningful co-operation takes place. The reason is that it is not empowered to do more than talk. This can change dramatically if it is empowered to “approve” the medium and long term invest plan of the Union and State governments. This “symmetric sharing” of fiscal power, between the state and union governments would be unprecedented. It could energise the NDC into a business like agency.
  2. What we call “the Five Year Plan”, in India, is very similar to what more modern governments call the “Medium Term Fiscal and Expenditure Framework (MTFEF)”. This is an internationally accepted “good practice” as a guide. The Plan can be tweaked into becoming this modern avatar.

In essence the MTFEF requires the setting of aggregate fiscal deficit, revenue and expenditure targets; assessing the fiscal resources and then painting in allocations for different sectors and projects, within these broad fiscal envelops.

This is already done by different agencies independently; RBI, MOF, line ministries, state governments and the PC. Each entity has vested institutional interests which are at variance. The RBI would like to constrain debt and regulate money supply since it targets inflation. The MOF traditionally exaggerates revenue and borrowing potential while targeting growth. The line departments and state governments exaggerate expenditure needs to “grab” the highest allocations. The interplay between these entities is expected to reach an optimised equilibrium which the PC presents to the PM and the NDC. We still need an entity to perform this vital function.

  1. This could be a new “empowered” NDC which would operate much like the Governing Board of a multilateral development institution. The Governing Board would consist of the Prime Minister as chair; a designated central minister as Dy. Chair; chief ministers of state governments or their alternates, key central government ministers and the RBI Governor as members. The Governing Body would ensure pan-India political leadership and “buy-in”.
  2. Technical governance could be provided by an Executive Board, chaired by the Secretary of the new NDC Secretariat. Other members would be of Chief Secretary level from each state government and key Secretaries of the Union government. The Executive Board would mirror, at the bureaucratic level, the composition of the “political” Governing Board. It would be the function of the Executive Board to coordinate and clear documents formulated by the Secretariat, before circulation to the Governing Board for decision.
  3. The new Secretariat would be designed for independence and competence. This requires that only the best talent is selected. To ensure merit all appointments to the secretariat would be outside the central staffing pool which is operated by the Department of Personnel, GOI and draws officers from the All India Services and Central Services based on pre-determined proportions from each service and then allocates the officers to vacant positions in the union government; a cumbersome and non-transparent mechanism of ever there was one.

All positions in the NDC secretariat would be open to external competition. Government officers would be expected to compete with external experts for appointment to specific positions, each of which would have defined job descriptions and eligibility criteria. Secondly, all appointments would be contractual. This simple device will give more flexibility to the NDC to pay for merit. The fear of competition and the need to temporarily step out of the “comfort zone” of service regulations (like the payment of house rent at market rates rather than allocation of a government house; payment of car and driver allowance at market rates rather than allocation of a government car) will automatically ensure that only those competent in and committed to pursue specialized technical work would apply.

All recruitments would be processed by the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) to ensure that the highest fiduciary standards in selection are maintained.

Despite the liberalized compensation, the operational cost would be lower than in the case of the PC by limiting the number of employees to 100 or around one half of the staff presently employed; enhancing the teeth to tail ratio and aggressively adopting technology to reduce cost.

The proposed new NDC can meet the PMs objectives of introducing “co-operative federalism” by building “a common team” of leaders from state and the union governments.

It bridges the gap between state and the union government, at the bureaucratic level, by bringing high level government representatives together in an empowered Executive Board with real time “shared” powers and functions.

It ensures that the best available human capital is made available to inform the deliberations of the NDC and yet minimizes the institutional dislocation from the demise of the Planning Commission.

The bath water is drained, the “baby” remains, to be nurtured into an image of inclusive, federal, technologically empowered, institutionally integrated, India.

 

 

TFA

(photo credit: Times of India)

The Economist, a venerable English newspaper, can be excused for being confused about why India kicked the WTO bucket on July 31st. But it is a mystery why the Economist expects nations to behave rationally, when it knows full well that individuals don’t.

Humans fear losing more than they like winning, similar amounts of money. The anxiety about loss is irrational. There is nothing rational either about buying diamonds, but the world spends $72 billion each year on them. It is even less rational to buy missiles and weapons but the world turnover of these adult toys is more than $350 billion annually. Incidentally, this not very different from the net estimated gains for developing countries from implementing the now torpedoed Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA); basically aimed at cutting red tape in international trade.

Assume instead that irrationality rules. It then becomes easy to see why a seemingly “win win” solution, in a narrow, partial equilibrium sense, like the TFA, becomes less attractive because of the costs and collateral political damage it causes to the cozy, status-quo favouring domestic elites.

The Economist is perceptive however, in assessing that the WTO in its “jamboree” form is dead as the dodo. On this it is bang on. The expectation that nearly 200 nations can possibly reach a common “agreement” and more importantly stick to it is so utopian that it boggles the mind.

But it is odd that a newspaper, as incisively investigative and intellectually rigorous, as the Economist, should not have picked up on the key, underlying issue of “cultural rifts”, which lies at the core of multilateral failures (trade and climate change).

In developing economies, a “sustainable agreement” is one in which the mutuality of interest is explicitly acknowledged; no party has residual reservations and the agreement is aligned with practicality. A mere formal consent, given under pressure, or with the intention of “kicking the can down the road”, is no consent at all. A pile of papers signed to seal such “faux deals”, have even less value. Whilst individuals are prone to such derelictions, agents (read leaders and bureaucrats) are even more likely to adopt the easiest route to avoid immediate stress.   

Why then do multilateral institutions bother to negotiate such unsustainable “deals”? First, every broking house has a “managerial incentive” to “close” deals. Never mind if they unravel subsequently. Second, cultural cleavages between ancient civilisations and “modern” States create mutual mis-assessments of the degree of consent and the leeway for subsequent rethinking behind formal agreements. Third, modern institutions are prone to use a “template” methodology for assessing conformity and consensus. Whilst templates reduce the time and cost of decision making by enforcing standardized conformity, they miss the contextual signals indicating covert dissent; misgivings or simply lack of “buy in”.

The near universal business model today is the one based on neo-liberal economic precepts and political architecture. Prior to 1990, Soviet Russia cocked a snook at this model of development which is embedded in the “Doing Business” publication of the World bank/IFC.

Today, it is China which is doing so. Despite growing at more than 8% per annum over the last 33 years; becoming the second largest economy in the world and reducing the level of its poor to 3%, it ranks 96th out of 189 countries in the “ease of doing business”. What explains the mismatch between its achievements and its ranking?

The purpose of this statement is not to undervalue the “Doing Business” publication. Instead, the intention is to show that there is more than one way of skinning a cat as so vividly illustrated by China.

Large, continental economies, like China or India, have options to innovate development solutions, which may not be available for small countries. If an economy is hugely dependent on external markets or foreign investment, the need to “de-risk” its institutional arrangements, in the conventional sense, will be far greater. Big economies can attract business interest, purely on the basis of their vast market potential, without having to go through the hoops of process change to conform to “best practice” institutional norms. The only caveat is that political stability is a must.

But it is hard work to convert informal, business practices, which work at the boutique level, into a generally applicable market principle. The diamond trade in India, worth around $9 billion, is done entirely on trust. No formal agreements are executed between buyers, sellers or couriers but there are no defaults. Yet, no Indian retail investor would consider purchasing a home without signing legal agreements with home suppliers. Access to bank credit is similarly cocooned in masses of paper. Never mind that the Non-Performing Assets (NPA) of Indian public sector Indian banks have nevertheless increased to an alarming level of 10%. Never mind that these paper agreements are virtually unenforceable or enforceable only at significant transaction cost.

Small players need the comfort of a legal agreement. Large players know that any agreement is sustainable only if it remains mutually beneficial and the balance of market power does not shift significantly over the course of the agreement. In effect, this reduces a legal agreement to a mere formality, more like a memorandum of understanding or a minute. More accurately, a fudge, to lull the less informed into a false sense of security.

The bottom line is, clunky international agreements are out. Smaller pacts between immediate beneficiaries are easier to conclude and provide higher gains all around. Consider how ineffective the G20 (a talk shop of mostly rich countries and a few poor countries-including India, convened to coordinate national actions during the 2008 financial crisis) was in the WTO-TFA affair. The group aims for “individual country action based on a common understanding”. The Indian action of rejecting the TFA, in opposition to the remaining 19 members of the G20, was akin to kicking it in the teeth.

The “unnatural exuberance” of the last 30 years is over. Trans-border equity is no longer normative. It has to be negotiated every time, in every context. Market power is in; collaboration between high-worth, small groups (BRICS) is in; bilateral deals are in. The world is suddenly less grandly inclusive and more squalidly business like, than ever before. But it is also more real and practical and less hypocritical.

defence

(photocredit: ndtv.com)

Secretary Chuck Hagel’s whirl-wind India visit, ending August 9, highlights the tight rope India needs to walk, whilst enlarging its defence establishment’s collaborative engagement with the external world.

The opening up of defence production to the private sector, including foreign direct investment, is a sensible, hard-headed, no-brainer, business decision given India’s current volume of defence procurements and expected future expenditure (1% of a fast growing GDP).

What is more difficult to manage and to resist, is the accompanying temptation to take sides in managing the regional strategic and security balance between the US and China.

It is not for nothing that Nehru conceived of non-alignment as a way of ducking such hard choices. Pakistan was the US outpost in South Asia, in their joint global “jihad” against communism in the 1960s. By dispatching an aircraft carrier in 1971 to threaten the Mukti Bahini in erstwhile East Pakistan, the US effectively pushed India  into the lap of the Soviets and there we remained, till Russian penury ended this “special relationship” in the 1990s.  

But much has changed since then, including India’s spectacular, steady, rise as an “aspiring” regional power, courtesy better economic management, post 1990. As Mr. Hagel graciously acknowledged, Jaswant Singh was to the “new” India-US friendship what Nixon was to the China-US détente. Subsequently, the dominance of China, has spurred the US and its regional allies; Japan, Australia and Singapore to look for regional counterweights to China. India is an obvious choice.

For India, if acquisition of front-line technology is our objective and joint defence manufacturing is the intended instrument, clearly it is to the US we must look. There are three reasons for this “look West” approach.

First, the US has no competing interests with India in achieving regional hegemony status. China, on the other hand, is in direct conflict with India on this score.

Second, the US political environment, characterized by freedom of choice and competition, resonates with Indians. Most Indians would choose the US as their country of choice, after their motherland. Some choose it even above their own motherland and good luck to them. China, on the other hand, is a cold, ruthless, ”godless”, factory. Indians find hard to identify with China, nurtured as we all are, on a mélange of an uncaring but “soft” State; faux-religiosity; cultural plurality and a disdain for rules. The last, if regulated, can be the mother of innovation; a light weight equivalent being jugaad (making do).

Third, the US has the best defence technology to offer. Residents in Delhi would feel a lot safer if we had an “Iron Dome” protecting us, like Tel Aviv, from incoming missiles. Collaborating with the US also means spin-offs for technology transfer with other countries in the Western bloc.

But the downsides of a strategic partnership are considerable.

First, the big down side of partnering with the US is, ironically, that it is a democracy and like India, susceptible to public opinion. All US Presidents are guided overwhelmingly by their domestic ratings and are willing to sacrifice inconvenient external engagements and partners towards that end. India suffers the very same democratic compulsions. The two do not make ideal and stable, strategic partners.  

Second, our South Asian neighbours; Srilanka , Nepal and Bangladesh are being actively wooed by China. We are in competition with China there. Becoming strategically aligned with the US is likely to sharpen, rather than diffuse, this unnecessary competition.

Third, Pakistan is part of the arc of Islamic terror, originally cultivated by the US and conveniently used, from time to time, for its own purposes, including to remote control Afghanistan. These incentives and institutional linkages will not go away. So long as it suits the US to covertly retain its links with Islamic Terror, India will remain an easy target.

China on the other hand has a far less ambivalent approach, very similar to that of India; a zero tolerance for Islamic terror. China recognizes that they themselves are susceptible to this threat and being in the neighbourhood, unlike the US, they cannot afford to risk starting a fire they cannot control.

Ironically the Nehruvian vision of non-alignment seems the best option.  

An asymmetric approach seems best. Say yes, to defence manufacturing in partnership with the West to add jobs and boost economic growth in India.   Say no, to partnering the US, or anyone else, in securing the region. India has neither the economic muscle nor the mind space to play the “Great Game”. Having said this, the fact is that, in an integrated world, nations align with the big powers they buy their security assets from. A comfortable relationship is a necessary pre-condition for transfer of sensitive technology. Buying arms and technology from the US consequently means, eventually celebrating “Thanksgiving” in New Delhi.

Before we get there, we first need to get our own fundamentals in place. Chuck Hagel, an erstwhile potential nominee for President of the US and a person who voluntarily enlisted to fight for his country in Vietnam and earned four medals, including the prestigious Purple Heart in the space of two short years; 1967 and 1968, astutely stated today, at an Observer Research Foundation event in New Delhi: “Superpowers do not choose their challenges. They deal with them as they come”. We are clearly not in that league yet and still have to be extremely choosy.

Our fundamental challenge is extreme poverty. One third of our people are caught in that trap. Our first commitment must be to them. This is why creating opportunities for economic growth and jobs via defence manufacturing, fits our objectives perfectly. Swaggering around the neighbourhood, pretending to be a cousin of the Americans, does not.

Nevertheless, we have to step up our spending, to achieve defensive credibility, which we lack today. If the chips are down and the Chinese attack India, we are sunk. This is not acceptable. We must have the ability to inflict sufficient counter damage to pre-empt and limit any Chinese mis-adventure in India.

Stepping up spending on equipment and defence capital assets will put significant fiscal pressure on our budget resources. Our blue water Navy, our Air Force and our Army are hopelessly antiquated and under provided. Our domestic and external intelligence networks similarly require a capacity upgrade. All this means big bucks, which we don’t really have.

This is why we must pursue the Defence Trade and Technology Initiative but shun any grandiose notion of partnering the US in joint surveillance of the Indian and Greater Pacific Oceans; we must equip our Air Force and Army to defend the icy heights of Siachin; assert our sovereignty in Arunachal Pradesh and defend the line of control in Kashmir, but not adventure to reclaim land not held by us today.

Chuck Hagel propounded the concept of P2: “Power with Principles” which binds India and the US. For India the applicable concept is P4: “Power though Prosperity, Parity and Principles”.

  

 

Modi trade

 (Photo credit: Oneindia)

 

.Neo-liberal public intellectuals and foreign service babus in Lutyens Delhi are not happy with PM Modi’s “South Asia First” policy. For long, the managerial incentive was to hobnob with the “sahib log (people)” of the G 20. A predominantly rich country club, in which India is the poorest member. After all, our children do not aspire to study in Dacca or work in Kathmandu. Nor do we aspire to holiday in Pakistan. The incentive has always been to cozy up to the rich country missions in Delhi; get posted to rich countries abroad to enjoy the good life; drink the best wines; nibble the choicest of cheese and talk knowledgably of foie gras (duck liver paste).

First, Modi spoilt it for the domestic babus in Gandhi Nagar for thirteen long years, by making them spend their weekly holidays monitoring development schemes in remote villages of Gujarat, along with their ministers. Now, as PM, he seems bent on focusing the energies of the “foreign service babus” on our “near abroad”; an area that the top brass pointedly “looked beyond” for the last two decades. Now it’s all about roughing it out in “foreign” places in South Asia, which are in no way more “foreign” then the home districts of babus; rubbing shoulders with the “aam babus” of South Asia and making friends with movers and shakers in the region. All this is tough to adjust to.

Notice the immediate outcry that the PM should not neglect the West whilst seeking friends nearer home. What a sham!

India has courted the West for years, driven mostly by the “managerial incentives” of its babus and “babu-like politicians”. India forgot that the West, live all of us, is driven principally by commercial principles. Per these principles of engagement, if you are not strong at home and with your neighbours you matter very little abroad. Think Pakistan, if you want an example of a country which barely survives, on the twin and directly correlated pillars of US support and regional instability.

Look at the manner in which the “principled” G8 is now somersaulting to get an inroad into PM Modi’s mind space. The only thing that has changed between as late as March 2014 and today is that the people of India returned a mandate on May 16, 2014 which cocked a snook at the sham “principles” of the West.

Witness yet again the furor by our home grown neo-liberals cum faux- socialists over the horror of India speaking its mind at the WTO meet recently in Australia. It seems mindboggling that any Indian would question the need for food subsidies in a country, where nearly 70% of citizens earn less than $ 2 per day. The UPA was happy to coast along on vague assurances that the outdated, maximum subsidy limits on food, specified in the WTO, would not be applied to India till 2017.

Admittedly, by playing “spoiler” and rejecting the cozy compact submitted to by the UPA earlier, by “linking” it to a trade facilitation agreement, PM Modi was asserting his “56” chest” internationally, in a manner reminiscent of Putin. 

But it is note-worthy that PM Modi could have played the UPA tune of a short term of reference. After all, under the compromise reached by the UPA, India has till 2017 when food subsidies will not be hit. In 2017 Modi could plead international compulsions and reduce food subsides.

Domestic neo-liberals are at pains to explain that, in any case, the earlier UPA deal did not prohibit the government from giving a cash subsidy to the poor. It merely restricted the ability of the government to pay more than what it needs to farmers. Surjit Bhalla (Indian Express July 31, 2014) tabulates that the government has consistently paid much more than the equated international price for cereal purchase since the 1980s.  This is possibly true. But Bhalla forgets that the worst way to justify sound domestic policy is by pleading International constraints.

A case in point is the attempt to explain away high inflation since 2011 by ascribing it to the fiscal loosening post 2008. This type of reasoning is dishonest and misleading. It subscribes to the traditional manner of “reform by stealth and deception”, first used by the team of PM Narasimha Rao and Finance Minister Manmohan Singh in 1991 and continued during the successor UPA governments. It also has the downside of falsely creating the public perception that the world’s interests are different from those within the country.

Full marks to the Modi government for rejecting this craven strategy of economic reform and confronting the food subsidy issue boldly and in a transparent manner. It is noteworthy that subsequently, even the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD); a UN entity, has rejected the notion that a country of 1200 million people should soft pedal its obligations to hungry people.

It is without doubt that agriculture subsidy needs to be better regulated and targeted. But the manner and sequence in which this is to be done, is a matter to be decided by Indian stakeholders- in this case the Union government and the State governments, by evolving a transition path for cost reflective, regulated fuel, electricity and  fertilizer prices whilst also rationalizing the administered price paid for the procurement of food.

Domestic neo-liberals need to step back from the 101 economics they base their arguments on and step into the real world of international negotiations. Sleight of hand; quid pro co (opening domestic markets for insurance and defence production) and swagger, all anchored to the foundation of rock-solid, domestic, political support, is usually what gets the “sahib log” in the West to the table. This is the China model and it works.

PM Modi knows this environment well. He is no stranger to the same environment at home, which an ordinary Indian battles daily to succeed. Fire in the belly, the capacity to take pain and personal credibility, is what succeeds in fiercely competitive environments, abroad and at home.

It is no surprise that our “domestic sahib log (DSL)” whether in heavily protected and regulated industries; the bureaucracy or our “public intellectuals” should question the shift in balance from the “far abroad” to the “near abroad” and be fearful of the bold contrarian stand in the WTO.  The DSL do not live in cheek-by-jowl community housing, where you are only as good as your neighbour’s opinion of you. Nor are the DSL used to perturbing the status quo. They are more comfortable in clubby environments; enhanced by the soft hum of convivial conversation and the gentle tinkling of cut glass. The DSL are far removed from the pressures of a competitive world and the science of living well with scarce resources.

Where the government failed spectacularly was in outreach and communication. The Indian people were bombarded with inspired public outreach of how terribly India had bungled. But the government was silent. Was this a result of crossed wires between the PM, Commerce and External Affairs? We will have to wait for a “kiss and tell” book from a retired babu or a vanquished politician, to get to the bottom of this mystery. But clearly, such outreach failures must not go unattended. Public perception is everything.

 

 

village

(photo credit:www.voices.halabol.com)

How close is India to achieving the PM’s vision of “cooperative federalism”? Very far I would say on current trends. Federalism itself is a distant goal, cooperative, or otherwise.

There are too many unitary features in our constitution to qualify us as a federation. Just to list a few; (1) the vertically higher judiciary with the President of India appointing all judges of the High Courts and the Supreme Court; (2) the Union Government’s power to supersede the constitutional checks and balances by declaring national or state level emergency; it’s powers to direct a State Government to redress any failure to support the exercise of its executive powers; its controlling powers over the civil and police administrative elite cadres (IAS and IPS) which dominate state government administration also and its power to appoint a Finance Commission to advise on the inter-government distribution of revenue without the concurrence of states (3) the overriding status of Union law even in the concurrent list; (4) the Rajya Sabha can authorize the Union Government to legislate even on matters in the State List

“Federalism” in the Indian context is a tug-of-war between the Union and the States. It does not extend to the devolution of powers and funds to local governments-Panchayats and Municipalities, which are closest to where citizens live. This leg of federalism has been largely ignored, despite explicit constitutional provisions, available since 1992 via the 73rd and 74th amendments, for such downward devolution by States. Whilst lamenting the “unitary slant of the Constitution” versus themselves, the State Governments tend to replicate the very same “unitary” approach whilst dealing with local governments.

The oft cited barriers for devolving powers to local governments include the lack of capacity; the risk of even greater financial irregularities; the increased cost of administration; the inefficiencies arising from even greater need for coordination. The good news is that other developing countries have successfully overcome such barriers; Brazil in Latin America; Indonesia in East Asia; South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania in Africa are some leading examples of large developing economies.

The real barriers to devolving power to local governments are not technical. They relate to the loss of elite power and the associated loss of “rents” (personal profits) and patronage at the state government level. Take land management for example which is currently located at the state government level. If the management of land and other natural resources like lakes; forests and mining for minerals are located at the community level, a major source for “rents” available to state level elites either disappears or gets transferred to local elites. The expectation is that local elites, being interdependent with the aam admi, are likely to be less rapacious than distant elites located in the state capitals.

Is India ripe for deepening our nascent “federalism”? At the very extreme federalism allows a State to secede from the Union. This is unthinkable though it is not self-evident that given this choice, state governments would walk out. But even the devolution of more functions, powers and funds is constrained by the ground realities.

The belief that there is no longer any real and present danger of the splintering of India is naive. At least one fourth of the 680 Districts in India are sensitive to sequential insurgency, communal, caste or access to resources based violence and a significant number are virtually inaccessible to the civilian administration. Many insurgents draw inspiration from the Chinese revolution. It doesn’t help that tumescent China is flexing its muscles in its’ near abroad. We should consequently expect that such local insurgencies will increase rather than decrease. Our Western borders are directly exposed to Islamic terror. We have contentious and unresolved border disputes with Pakistan, China and Bangladesh. These are not trivial security concerns. Consequently, strategic unitary features seem sensible.

There is little sense in devolving the core sovereign functions of external and internal security; diplomacy and immigration; monetary management and the financial sector; external trade and investment; environmental protection; development of network industries; infrastructure including inland waterways (rivers); space, science and technology; and Atomic Energy. All these must remain directly managed by the Union government.

But large swathes of the social sector (education, health, water and sanitation, sports, culture)  and natural resources sector (forests, land, coal, oil and other minerals) can be devolved to states and local governments though the revenues should be shared across the three levels of government. The Union government could restrict itself to setting standards; harmonizing Rules and Regulations; promoting sustainability research and knowledge management.

Strategically, taking federalism to the people level is a national glue. Stronger local governments reduce the potential threat of state level separatism and enhance levels of vertical interdependence. Better network infrastructure; greater private sector led investment with pan-India supply chains and the Goods and Services Tax can bind states horizontally.

Finance must be aligned with the restructured functions. Currently the Union government has an effective share of 40% of all government revenue. It also effectively encroaches on an additional 8%, which it is supposed to transfer to states, by usually withholding this as the contribution of a State as co-financing of central schemes. In effect States get just 52% of aggregate government revenue to discharge their long list of responsibilities. They pass through only around 15% to local governments.

Admittedly, state governments have been delinquent in growing taxes available to them; property tax and agricultural income tax being two examples. But it is unconscionable for the Union Government to retain anything more than 30% for its own purposes (15% for defence, 5% for internal security and 10% for its other functions).

State governments must in turn transfer 40% of their aggregate revenue to local governments. They must start cutting their coats according to the cloth (the residual 60% of available resources) available. The earlier administrative sprawl is contained in the Union and State governments, the better, stranded facilities and human resources are expensive and politically disruptive .

The devices used by the Union to evade sharing of revenue, like increasing the rate of a cess; fee or surcharge (which are not sharable with states) rather than the tax rate itself, should be curtailed by simplifying the sharing formula to take into account all revenues other than the sale of assets and net loans. 

The 14th Finance Commissions report is eagerly awaited.  It should be measured against the broad metric of devolving enhanced shares in finance downwards to states and most importantly to local government. It must starve higher levels of government so that they are forced to change track and implement decentralization. Its five year time frame would be inadequate to achieve this restructuring. Unlike Indonesia, India does not take easily to big bang reform. But the Commission could lay out a transition path to simplify the formula for revenue sharing; move money downwards and suggest accompanying vertical functional shifts. It will be measured against this metric.   

Some symmetry is needed in the constitutional arrangements between state and local governments to balance control with and trust and autonomy. One step could be to change the status of the Governors of states. Today they are mere nominees of the Union Government. Like the President of India, they must be indirectly elected by the people’s representatives at the state and local government level. Their current status is pretty unedifying and they risk ending up as being completely redundant to good governance.

An associated amendment should be to replicate the unitary facets of the Union-States constitutional arrangements, to define the arrangements between a State Government and its local governments; (1) emergency powers of the State Government; (2) vertically integrated police and civil administration; (3) state government control of local courts, ability to override the legislative autonomy of local governments on concurrent subjects and with the approval of the legislative councils (which would be replicas of the Rajya Sabha) to legislate even in the local government list of subjects.

Despite some symmetric arrangements, there is ample room for vertical asymmetry to accommodate the diversity in the endowments; economic potential; population; geographical size and cultural plurality across states so as to strengthen both the Union and the  States.

“Sardar” Patel dedicated his entire post-independence career to creating a unified architecture of India but not as a mere draftsman “moving boxes around”. He did this by negotiating, cajoling, convincing and overcoming local resistance overt and covert, and building on local support.  

We need a second “Sardar” to convert the PM’s vision of cooperative federalism into reality, by loosening the unitary bias versus the state governments and simultaneously pushing federalism to the level of people, using the principle of subsidiarity.

If we delay in sharing power at the “peoples’ level” the relentless force of urbanisation, communication technology, social media and the autonomy endowed on local jurisdictions by private sector investment and growth, is likely to create a maelstrom of political disruptions, which we can ill afford. Time to act and preempt the inevitable.    

 

 

 

 

 

protest 

photo credit: news.nationalpost.com

The ability of a sovereign to levy and collect tax sustainably, on an equitable basis and without overt coercion is a sound measure of the strength of the “social compact” between the State and citizens.

In India, the “social compact” is weak partly due to our colonial past but mostly due to the State evading the obligation thrust on it by a social contract. Citizens do not perceive public funds as belonging collectively to them. State funds are still viewed as belonging to the “ruler”, as they did pre-independence, to either the 250 Indian Princes or the British Raj.

Of course we are poor, which limits the tax potential. Two thirds of Indians (700 million) have a per capita income of less than USD 2 per day. They do not pay any income tax on their earnings but they do pay around 10 to 15% of indirect tax (excise and general sales tax) on the goods and services they consume. But indirect taxes are bundled into the price of goods. They become “invisible” and no individual can wave the tax receipt under the nose of the State and demand to be served.

Of the funds available with State governments (FY 2012 Indian Public Finance Statistics), where interface with the citizen is the most, only 20% is on account of direct taxes (including their share in direct tax collection by the central government). The remaining 80% is all on account of indirect taxes.

Only 34 million Indians (2.8% of the population) pay Income Tax. But it is direct tax, like Income Tax, which creates a clear, direct “contract” between citizens and the State and obliges the latter to do its duty by the former.   Worse still in India 60% of the direct tax collection is from firms, not individuals. Not surprising then that corporates matter more than individual tax payers.

The Income Tax Department recently announced that it had unearthed Rs. 100,000 crore (Rs. 1 trillion) of unaccounted income in FY 2014-no mean achievement on the face of it. But it pales into insignificance against Jawaharlal Nehru University Economist, Arun Kumar’s estimate of “black money” accounting for 50% of India’s GDP, which is around Rs. 90 Lakh crore (Rs.90 Trillion). If Dr. Kumar is right, our Income Tax sleuths got their hands on only 2% of the “black money” circulating in that year.

The impact of tax policy on corruption is ambivalent. Tax people too high, or over regulate the economy and you create an incentive to evade tax and licensing and thereby to operate in the “black economy”- a parallel environment of wealth or income, for which transactions remain unrecorded and on which no tax has been paid. Conversely, not taxing people at all, runs the risk of bankrupting the State and also of losing an opportunity to gauge the “willingness to pay” of citizens for public goods and services provided by the State.

Non-payment of tax is the first manifestation of citizens losing faith in the State. The Mahatma’s Dandi march (1930) was not just a protest against the specific tax imposed on the production of salt, but also highlighted the low levels of satisfaction under British colonial rule.

The “Boston Tea Party” (1773) was a similar event in America, where the flame of nationalism was lit by the spark of protest against unjust colonial taxation of tea by the British, without representation of American interests.

India has neglected the “social compact” building aspect of tax and relied instead on “freebies” like cheap fertilizer, electricity and water; high grain, sugar cane and other cash crop support prices and very low tax on ownership of land, to bribe farmers into a one way social compact, where the government owes them a lot and they owe nothing to the government.

This lack of a “social compact” is most evident between the swelling middle class (500 million strong in rural and urban areas) and the State.  The middle class anger, which Kejriwal’s Aam Admi Party was able to coalesce across the upper middle and the lower middle class, urban voter in the 2014 national elections, most dramatically in Delhi and Punjab, is the anger of inequity. The perceived injury being that they are lumped with the taxes (property tax, income tax, motor spirit tax, entertainment tax, high petrol cost, paying for cross subsidy for free electricity to rural areas) but have little say in government decision making.

Ironically, the consolidation of middle class anger, triggered by Kejriwal against the Congress, helped the BJP and in particular PM Modi, to emerge as a viable leader to further middle class agendas.

Electricity, gas, water supply, road transport utilities; schools, universities, health centers and hospitals are still predominantly owned by the State in India. Most of them suffer for a vicious cycle of low user charges for retail consumers and punitive charges for commercial and industrial users. Despite this price distortion, which creates its own incentives for by-passing formal billing mechanisms or for outright theft, utilities have insufficient revenues to meet costs. Admittedly, some of this is due to inefficiency. But once utilities stop being “profit centers” and become “freebie providers”, they degenerate in operational efficiency over time. Employees lose the motivation to cut costs and maximize efficiency.

Just as the levy of direct tax, even in small amounts, builds “social compact’, paying utilities and State facilities a cost based tariff, is essential for users to feel empowered to demand efficiency from these agencies and for agency employees to view users as valued customers, not petitioners for public services.

Since the mid-1980s this problem of building the social compact has been sought to be addressed internationally by enlarging citizen access to information; creating entry points for citizen participation; making public decision making more transparent and adopting the mechanisms of the direct route for accountability (as opposed to the long route of democratic representation) by bringing government decision making closer to the people (decentralization). These are all useful interventions. (Refer to a paper by Sukhtankar and Vaishnav prepared for the NCAER Policy Forum 2014 for a detailed review of how these tools have been applied in India).

But in the absence of a direct “compact” between the State and the citizen via direct tax and market oriented user charges, citizen empowerment is seriously compromised since citizens do not perceive public funds as money contributed by them.

Rebalancing the presently warped proportion between direct and indirect taxes and rationalizing user charges, is not only necessary for greater tax progressivity; a higher tax to GDP ratio and a higher level obf cost recovery y public utilities, it is critical for “empowering citizens” to ask for more from the State.

If the State fails to make the first move in this direction, the ball will slip into the hands of citizens, as it did in Algeria, Libya and Egypt and nearer home in the Delhi State elections earlier this year.  Large economies, like India, cannot afford the disruption of citizen anger boiling over. The State has better ways of defusing this bomb but it must resolve to apply them.

 

 

                                                                                                                                 

Sahib

PM Modi has gone to great lengths to get the Principal Secretary of his choice. Institutional “purists” may cavil at his amending the TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) law to enable the individual to work in government post retirement from the position of Chairman TRAI. But viewed from the perspective of optics this is pure theater.

This is PM Modi, underscoring, yet again, his absolute control over things that matter to him. Pragmatists would shrug their shoulders and assert that far more important than “rules” (the last refuge of the lazy bureaucrat) are outcomes in public interest. If having Nripendra Mishra manage his office, leaves the PM free to manage the affairs of the Nation-more power to his elbow.

It is noteworthy that Mishra has impeccable credentials; has no known links to Modi prior to this appointment; is not his “jaat bhai”, nor is he a Gujarati. His appointment is based on his abilities not his identity or his personal “proximity” to the PM.

PM Modi has displayed a similar strain in his interaction with Secretaries (top babus) of the Union Government. He cut through the formal intermediation of individual ministers (so dominant in the recent past) to encourage top babus to use him as a support resource, assuring them free access to him to resolve constraints to furthering public interest.

Delhi glitterati will draw instant comparisons with Indira Gandhi’s call for a “committed” bureaucracy. They are not far from the truth. Like Indira, Modi is defining a new political reality. He is building a party around himself. This requires perturbing the existing political equilibrium. Consequently, he needs to choose his political friends very, very carefully.  If one is short of friends, the default option is to rely on babus-carefully selected for their merit and ability to deliver. In the process traditional hierarchical concepts of “seniority” and rule based promotions will surely get short shrift.

Those outside the government will instantly recognize that this is how any chief executive chooses her core team. The one place you should not have to guard your back is in your own office.

Many would want PM Modi to go further and bust the system of constrained choice the present system offers to the PM. Why should a PM not be able to choose “professionals” to manage his Departments?

The three All India Services (the Indian Administrative Service-IAS, Indian Police Service-IPS and the Indian Forest Service –IFoS) are primus inter pares in the central bureaucracy. Of these it is the IAS which has the lion’s share of the senior babu positions reserved for it. A government survey (2010) found that the IAS with just a 30% share in officers working in the central government occupied 76% of the top babu positions. It is not clear that this “destined to rule” timeline encourages operational effectiveness. It demotivates the more specialized services by the “glass ceilings” imposed on them. It perversely places a premium on subsuming specialist skills and knowledge in general management skills.

The need of the hour is highly specialized public professionals whose passion is their specialization. Whilst the world is getting increasingly specialized and even MBA students at Harvard are forced to learn code, to vibe with the technology firms they seek to lead, our Babu princelings glory in playing with time warped regulations, systems and processes all aimed at “managing their political masters” like a shop-worn, re-run of Yes Minister.

The new world is flat, because status is not linked to position but to achievement. The IAS gets the brightest minds available for public service at the time of recruitment. But thereafter the frozen-in-time seniority places a premium on longevity not innovation and the taking of risk. Of course many, within the IAS, are self-starters, highly motivated despite the comforts of the ritual status available; committed do-gooders in social development; industrial and infrastructure developers and gifted policy makers, marrying theory with context driven “doability”.  

One hopes that the new government will dig deeper to discover “talent” within the services whilst also contracting in the best minds internationally for specific tasks including for spicing up our moribund Universities and “think tanks”.  

The initial “initiatives ”of the government (including the budget) seem to indicate that the Ministers are under-served by just-in-time advice from specialists and domain experts. An “open economy” cannot keep its “windows” tightly shut.

Top babus who are best as “gate keepers” should be shunned. The top bureaucracy must be judged on the basis of its ability to collaborate with domain experts and build them into a team, not on their ability to work overtime to become an expert herself, unless she already is an acknowledged “thought leader” in her field-of which type, there are some babus but not enough.

For starters, the government would do well to start putting up on the Department of Personnel website the positions which are likely to become vacant over the next one year. Once an officer is offered for deputation by a State Government they should be asked to apply to not more than three available positions simultaneously. Selection should be made from amongst those who apply. This would be welcomed by all aspirants to these positions. Today just getting the information is no mean feat, let alone getting into these positions, given the opaque system for placement.

Second the government could try broad banding IAS cohorts for promotion to Secretary-the senior most babu position. Since we are a soft state and prefer easy transitions, for the present, the mode l used in many state governments could be adopted. Free choice for the PM, from amongst the eligible officers in three successive IAS cohorts for appointment as Secretary and equivalent positions. All those passed over would have the choice of (1) either remaining in their existing jobs to “compete” another day (2) get immediately transferred to the Planning Commission with Secretary rank to do what people do in the PC or (3) revert to their State cadres.

There is nothing like a bit of competition to make employees perform. Some will complain that competition to get positions based on “performance” can result in neglect of public interest to further private interest or the abandonment of “unpopular but inclusive tasks” like a commitment to poverty reduction; managing the environment or safeguarding human rights from encroachment by the State.  

There is amble evidence from State governments that this is a real and ever present danger if babus are made to compete for positions. But even with the existing babu safeguards in the central government, there is plenty of abdication of principles. Tighter oversight and accountability; enhanced access to information for citizens; transparency and breaking up the “omerta” culture, which service “cartels” encourage, by inducting external actors into government, are the only real options to prevent a perversion of public interest.   

For sustainable “ache din” babu reform is overdue.  A fish rots from the top. Time to get the best into top positions.  

 

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