governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Hubris

So when does hubris — the corrosive comfort of undiluted power — overtake a government? Conventional wisdom points to three early red flags. First, when routine tasks are ignored for grand ambitions. Second, when party cadres act out of entitlement rather than commitment. Third, when rant replaces reason as public outreach. Has this already happened to the BJP government?

Ignore routine tasks at your peril

Venkaih

First, consider the recurrent trail of routine lapses. Take the embarrassment in July of being unable to get the non-controversial bill to give constitutional status to the Other Backward Castes Commission passed in the Rajya Sabha because BJP MPs did not even bother to attend in sufficient numbers. There is no glory in floor management. Ergo, it gets overlooked. Next, consider the election of Ahmed Patel to the Rajya Sabha from Gujarat. The strategy to keep him out was brilliant. But shoddy execution, or worse, deliberate sabotage, let down the BJP. Finally, the mass death of children in a Gorakhpur hospital. The hallmark of the RSS has been effective management during emergencies and disasters. That oxygen cylinders couldn’t be swiftly organised speaks volumes of how low the cadres have sunk.

Rulers can’t ignore the Rule of Law

Second, consider contempt for the rule of law. Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS supremo, violated the law in Kerala by unfurling the national flag, on Independence Day, at a school in Palghat, contravening a restraining order by the district collector. The order was perverse, based on pique and politics rather than prudence. The manner of its service — just prior to the occasion — was hurried and amateurish. But it was a legal order and anyone violating it is liable to be arrested. Mohan Bhagwat got away. But the lesson he taught the schoolkids and party cadres was that no law is sacrosanct if you are powerful enough.

Gandhiji would not have approved. Disobedience of an unjust law is fine, if followed by submission to its consequences, under the rule of law.

Gandhi

This contempt for the law is visible in the cadre vigilantes protecting cows, supporting unruly, disruptive religious yatras and the demonisation of alternative voices. Add to that, the raging testosterones of a BJP “princeling” in Haryana and you have party cadres which align more with gaali (abuse) and goli (bullets) rather than the galle lagana (hug) that Prime Minister Modi has espoused as the leitmotif of New India. Third, let us consider why no one came away inspired from Red Fort this year.

Outreach by high decibel rote no substitute for passion

The Prime Minister’s speech was a prime example of zombie behaviour, where the mind is elsewhere but the motions are acted out. The wide ramparts of Delhi’s historic Red Fort have set the stage for Prime Ministers to grandstand every year since 1947. Two (Lal Bahadur Shastri and Morarji Desai) barely had a chance to give a second speech before they were gone.

Four others (Charan Singh, V.P. Singh, H.D. Dewe Gowda and Inder Gujral) were even more transient, managing not more than a single speech each from Red Fort. One — Rajiv Gandhi, a young, stunning-looking charmer — was suddenly elevated to the position but never quite unbuckled the pilot’s seat he used to occupy earlier. Manmohan Singh had a decade to hone up his act. But he knew that he was a mere seat-warmer for the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty — having been taught his lesson earlier, when party workers sabotaged his election bid to the Lok Sabha. P. V. Narasimha Rao — a friendless, private man was not given to making big public gestures from the Red Fort. His political games were deadly effective, but played entirely in privacy.

Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi are the only three Prime Ministers who have had the mandate and the charisma to use the ramparts to strut their act. Mr Modi thrilled us in 2014 with his energy and his earthy enthusiasm at reaching out to people — quite a change from the taciturn Manmohan Singh or the imperiously distant Sonia Gandhi. In 2015, he filled in the vacant spaces in his act with data, slogans and acronyms. We were impressed. In 2016, we were still agreeable to look kindly on him, given that the economy was racing along and government performance was projected as trending sharply upwards.

By 2017, the act was flat as yesterday’s soda. This is remarkable considering that Indian testosterones are racing at the government effectively holding off the Chinese muscle-flexing at Doklam and now in Ladakh; Pakistan is reduced to being a mere vassal of the Dragon and economically hollowed out Western powers are fawning at our doors for Indian business.

Modi 2017 Red Fort 2017 (3)

International acquiescence has bred much-needed confidence. But it is disquieting that in domestic policy it has led to complacence, drift and distance from the public. Mr Modi’s speech was rambling, glib, unnecessarily argumentative and just plan stale. The turban was way too shiny to be classy. The stance too casual to be purposive. The look too staged. Very confusing was the discrete use of the terms — Bharat, India and Hindustan.

Bharat, India or Hindustan?

Hindustan was used in the context of pledging support for the victims of the irresponsible Muslim practice of triple talaq. Bharat was referred to as the mata (mother). But it is New India that we seek to build. Meaning?

Bharat, India or Hindustan, all three remember earlier episodes of hubris — disconnects between reality and rhetoric — which ended badly for us. In 1964, we discovered, too late that India needed the world, not the other way around. In 1975, we realised Indira needed India, but we didn’t need her. In 2017 (Delhi municipal and Uttar Pradesh elections), a shallow social revolution met its downfall. In 2004, we tired of using the stock market as a metric of progress. The metrics proposed for New India are similarly flawed. Corruption, poverty, filth, early death and unemployment are long-term outcomes, unachievable by 2022.

Child India

Focus on the essentials, Mr Prime Minister: Ending poverty by providing jobs and social security; improve results in education and health; build infrastructure for the 21st century and professionalise your government. We supported you in 2014. We want to do so again in 2019. But is your party up to this task?

Adapted from the author’s article in The Asian Age, August 17, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/170817/is-a-sense-of-hubris-slowing-down-modi.html

Well begun is half done

BOOK REVIEW
India Transformed
25 years of Economic Reforms
– edited 
Penguin Viking 
670 pages; Rs 999

 

India Transformed
Curating 31 essays into a story on India’s economic reforms can be a giant yawn. But Rakesh Mohan, a videshi economist and a veteran of four major government committee reports, is up to the challenge. 
THE PLUMBING WHICH CHANGED INDIA
Indians believe that the actions of civil servants determine the future of India. This is an abiding fallacy. The truth is, starting from Jawaharlal Nehru to Narendra Modi, it is politics and political leaders that set the tone, whilst civil servants dutifully follow with the plumbing. This book is not about the broader political economy of reforms. Those stories have been told elsewhere. Instead, this book examines the practices and processes — back-office stuff — that achieved reform objectives. Expectedly, therefore, essays by civil servants and public intellectuals dominate this compilation. 

 

INDIA TAKES CHARGE OF MACRO ECONOMIC STABILITY
C Rangarajan marks 1991 as a watershed moment in the  Montek S Ahluwalia agrees and debunks the J Bradford DeLong (2001) and Dani Rodrik Arvind Subramanian (2004) proposition that the 1991 reform process was overhyped; that merely becoming business-friendly would have been sufficient to yield the maximum value; that external liberalisation was merely genuflecting to the Washington Consensus. He asserts that the reform architecture responded to the local context and was designed for medium-term results. Y V Reddy deconstructs the role of fiscal federalism in stabilising state budgets. Laveesh Bhandari evidences this by citing best-fit policies and programmes innovated by states using these additional devolved resources. Jaimini Bhagwati reviews the process of capital market liberalisation that was key in enabling competitive industries to grow. 

 

USING THE GROWTH DIVIDEND
Top diplomat Shyam Saran traces the post-cold war, benign, unipolar world that gave India breathing room to grow till the 2008 financial crisis. His successor in the foreign office Shivshanker Menon establishes how economic growth engendered new foreign policy options for India — a view endorsed by Martin Wolf, who advocates even greater proactivity in world affairs. Sanjaya Baru links the recalibration of India’s security matrix to the new-found confidence from successful reform. Tarun Das points to the quiet success of Track II initiatives in forging defence and nuclear cooperation. Harsha Vardhana Singh, details how substantive tariff rationalisation opened domestic industry to competition. However incomplete, domestic factor market reform shackled export growth and enhanced the trade deficit. N K Singh and Jessica Seddon illustrate how public and private roles moved from mere co-existence to co-evolution, especially in infrastructure development. 
THE MARGINALISED 
 
rural India
But the benefits from economic reform did not accrue symmetrically. postulates that domestic labour market and regulatory rigidities continue to dull the growth potential in small manufacturing. Ashok Gulati argues that liberalisation of the exchange rate, lower industrial tariff and private investment norms never benefited agriculture due to institutional rigidities. Devesh Kapur documents that enlarged access to education was not accompanied by quality enhancement. Naushad Forbes rues the stagnation of Indian R&D spend as a proportion of gross domestic product and the skew towards science research, rather than technology development, which can constrain innovation. Nachiket Mor et al are sceptical that stepping up private investment alone can result in catching up on health outcomes. Sarwar Lateef argues for deeper governance reforms to benefit the disadvantaged. Vinayak Chatterjee laments that the PPP (public-private partnership) model died because of unrealistic asymmetric expectations between government and private developers. 

 

LISTENING TO THE “ANIMAL SPIRITS”
The voices of the intended beneficiaries from reforms — consumers and domestic suppliers — are jammed into the last segment of the book. Rama Bijapurkar caricatures the new Indian consumer, cannily devouring cheap Chinese goods and luxuriating in retail therapy, financed by the deep pocket of e-commerce start-ups. Gita Piramal points to the churn in private business league tables as illustrative of the competitive forces unleashed by reforms. Omkar Goswami adds that the concentration of business accelerated as companies sought scale economies. Services benefited disproportionately, being less constrained by the continuing hurdles in acquiring land or access to quality infrastructure. 

 

Deepak Parekh narrates how HDFC seized new opportunities in banking and insurance using its core competence in customer-friendly financial services. For Mukesh Ambani, economic reform was instrumental in fulfilling his father Dhirubhai Ambani’s dream of a global scale of operations. Kiran Mazumdar-Shaw — a first mover — lucked out. With just Rs 10,000 in her wallet, Biocon grew into a $1-billion listed company by 2004. Sunil Bharti Mittal, a spunky, first-generation entrepreneur, seized every opportunity available to establish India’s first multinational telecom company. If every second American truck has a Bharat Forge axle, Baba Kalyani has economic liberalisation to thank for it. For Narayana Murthy, liberalised import of hardware and current account convertibility alone were enough to make Infosys fly. R Gopalakrishnan recounts how storied firms, like HLL and the Tata group, also restructured and diversified. 

 

INDIA – THE QUINTESSENTIAL REFORM DEBUTANT
shy
T N Ninan describes navigating reforms in India as the impossibility of cooking an omelet without breaking the egg. Vikram Singh Mehta similarly recounts the broad consensus but only for shallow reforms in the petroleum space. Some of this reticence was because of the dharma of coalition politics. This constraint no longer exists. Will the consensus deepen now? And will it now be our time to eat?

 

Adapted from the author’s book review in Business Standard, August 17, 2017 http://www.business-standard.com/article/beyond-business/well-begun-is-half-done-117081501123_1.html

 

‘Mr And Mrs Jinnah’: A Tale Of Unrequited Love And Its Aftermath

BOOK REVIEW : Reddy, Sheela. Mr and Mrs Jinnah: The Marriage that Shook India Penguin Random House India, 2017. 464 pp.

Sheela Reddy has a winner in this deftly crafted and diligently researched work on the life and times of Rattanbai Petit Jinnah. But this is not a racy read to be completed on the flight from Mumbai to Delhi. Try it only when you have the time and mindspace for it. There have been other works on the Jinnahs earlier – Khawaja Razi Haider’s Ruttie and Jinnah and Kanji Dwarkadas’s Ruttie Jinnah: The Story of a Great Friendship.

The recent release of the private papers of Padmaja Naidu provided the impetus to revisit Ruttie and her times. The author paints a broad canvas of the life and times of the commercial, professional, political and zamindari elite of the British Raj during the first three decades of the 20th century with the rumblings of guided democracy as a backdrop to profile Ruttie.

Other characters enter through the door opened by her, including Muhammad Ali Jinnah, or “J” as Ruttie called him – a relentless achiever, penniless son of a bankrupt Shia businessman in Karachi, who became the most sought-after barrister in Bombay, a multi-millionaire by the time he was 40 years old; the political leader of Indian Muslims and eventually, Quaid-e-Azam of Pakistan; austere to the point of having cold baths in freezing England and yet a dandy dresser, with an eye for fast cars and a mansion on Mount Pleasant Road, Malabar Hill.

Jinnah Gandhi

JINNAH – Macaulay’s perfect product with GANDHI – wily, veiled Macaulayputra

ruttie

RUTTIE JINNAH – THE PARSI BEAUTY WITHOUT A CAUSE

Ruttie could have passed into the pages of history unnoticed had it not been for two red lines she crossed. First, at a time when caste and religion were impregnable walls for getting married, Ruttie, a Parsi, married Jinnah, a Shia, without her parents’ approval. Even today “Love Jihad” – a Muslim man marrying a non-Muslim woman, remains socially somewhat unacceptable. But in 1918, this was unheard of. Such were the religious rigidities, that even Motilal Nehru, a contemporary, anglicised Kashmiri Pandit barrister from Allahabad, twice president of the Congress, could not stomach his daughter, Nans (later Vijay Laxmi Pandit), marrying a Muslim man she loved. He successfully moved heaven and earth to break up the romance, aided and abetted by Mahatma Gandhi.

THE PULL OF OPPOSITES

For Ruttie, to have followed her heart, without considering the consequences, was typically foolhardy but also exceptionally courageous. Second, characteristically, it was Ruttie who pursued and wooed Jinnah, a regular guest at the Petit mansion, which with its fabulous cuisine and gracious hospitality was a melting pot of high society.

“I abducted him” was Ruttie’s conclusive declaration to the judge hearing the abduction charge lodged by her father against Jinnah, once he came to know of their secret marriage according to Islamic rituals. It is easy to understand why Ruttie desired Jinnah. He was quite simply the most desirable man around, seemingly impervious to the charms of dozens of swooning society damsels, including, rumour has it, Sarojini Naidu. It was a challenge Ruttie could not ignore.

Not so obvious is why Jinnah wanted Ruttie. Salacious rumour, implausibly, insinuated that it was Ruttie’s wealth which attracted Jinnah. The author perceptively suggests that behind his mask of male invincibility lay an insecure man, craving love and affection. Ruttie, a romantic with undentable self-confidence, bravado and panache must have been the perfect blend of strength and womanly caring which Jinnah had never experienced. Their romance was short lived. From the time they got married in 1918 – when Ruttie turned 16, the cold embrace of Jinnah’s austere life began to cool the flames. It was not the age difference which mattered (Jinnah was 24 years older than her).

Jinnah had devoted himself to his work and to politics since 1898 when he first came to Bombay from Karachi. There was never any time for anything outside his professional and political ambitions. For Ruttie, life was meant to be enjoyed, travelling, meeting and making friends, partying and dancing – which Jinnah detested, interspersed with a fierce commitment to social causes and extravagant gestures defying convention, like sitting on Jinnah’s desk with her legs dangling, during business meetings.

The need to shock, to be out of the ordinary, manifested itself in unorthodox behaviour in Ruttie – refusing to courtesy to the Viceroy, instead greeting him with folded hands in the Indian way; venturing out into the Lower Bazaar in Shimla to eat chaat by the roadside, which upper class women of her time never did. Her portrait penned by Lady Reading, the wife of another Viceroy, is tellingly pointed: “Very pretty, a complete minx. She had less on in the daytime than anyone I have ever seen.” Not surprisingly, the marriage quietly unraveled.

NO PLACE FOR WOMEN LEADERS IN POLITICS

Ruttie longed to join Jinnah in his struggle against the British. On one occasion, whilst Jinnah and the Home Rule Leaguers were engaged in a fierce struggle within the Bombay Town Hall to outvote the supporters of Governor Lord Willingdon, who wanted a memorial erected to honour the governor’s services, Ruttie succumbed to her secret desire to directly engage with the massive crowd gathered outside. Climbing atop a soap box, she delivered a rousing speech which had the crowd begging for more.

Such was the tumult they created, that the Commissioner of Police arrived to disperse the crowd. She refused to leave and resolutely stood up to the water cannons which were unleashed on her and the crowd, drenching them completely. Her beauty, now clingingly displayed, her passion and her determination were much praised.

Jinnah never commented on her actions. But Ruttie understood that her place was not to lead but to sit mutely behind Jinnah in public support of him. This continues to be the role for many talented but unfortunate Indian women even today in our patriarchal, gender-biased society. Jinnah was entirely self-centred, craving attention and love, but only on his terms and at his bidding.

INDEPENDENT WOMEN AT A TIME OF INSTITUTIONALISED DEPENDENCE

The more traditional amongst modern Indian women continue to resignedly cater to it. But Ruttie never was a traditional Indian woman. She, more than any other, was what rich, Indian women from anglicised homes were being taught to become by imbibing the “enlightened” European-style education and lifestyle they were exposed to. That hers was the right way was reinforced by the examples of liberated womanhood around Ruttie. Sarojini Naidu, her key confidante and a frequent guest at the Petit Mansion, equally at ease in Gandhiji’s ashram as in Bombay high society, spent more time out of home on lecture circuits and Congress meetings than with her family in Hyderabad. But her good fortune was to find in MG Naidu the perfect, enlightened, supportive husband, gently explaining to their daughter, Padmaja, that her mother had committed to serve the nation, which thereafter became a duty she could not ignore even at the expense of spending less time with the family.

NEVER A FAMILY

A girl child was born to the Jinnahs in 1919, known today as Dina Wadia married to Neville Wadia of the illustrious Mumbai industrial family. But parenthood created no new bonds. Like the other super rich, anglicised Indians of the time, the Jinnahs outsourced care of their child to European nannies and tutors. Jinnah took no interest in her, beyond willingly paying the bills of the nannies. But that was not atypical for the times.

Why Ruttie, who seemingly adored children and lived with a menagerie of pets, took no interest in her child, remains less clear, except if examined through the lens of Ruttie’s all-consuming love for Jinnah, which left no place for any other.

Seeking a stabilising routine, Ruttie emulated her mother and diverted her creative energies into wifely duties, turning Jinnah’s mansion, South Court, into a breathtakingly beautiful home. But she was unable to cope with the loneliness of unrequited love. Jinnah was not given to expressing his emotions. On the contrary, his entire life had been a struggle to master them.

Ruttie, ostracised by the Parsi community, took refuge in dancing, the occult, Theosophy and ultimately drugs. Ironically, Motilal Nehru visited the lonely Ruttie whenever he was in Bombay. Every visit to the miserable Ruttie must have served to reassure him that he had done the right thing in saving his own daughter from crossing the communal divide. By 1928, the couple were ready to part. Jinnah chided himself for marrying a mere child.

THE END

Ruttie felt stifled by the need to keep up the charade of a hollowed-out marriage, which was devouring all aspects of her character except the role she was expected to play. “Try and remember me beloved,” she wrote to Jinnah “…. as the flower you plucked and not the flower you trod upon.” Her letter to Jinnah on separating is a damning indictment of unrequited love. “Darling, I love you. I love you – and had I loved you a little less, I might have remained with you.” Within a year of separating, Ruttie was dead – rumour has it, through an overdose of drugs. She died on her birthday – February 20 – at the age of 29.

LIVING CONTEXTUAL LIVES MATTERS

Born at the dawn of the 20th century, Ruttie exuded the confidence and exuberance of one born to lead. But her gilded life remained imitative, out of context, a parody of an alien culture, lacking in the sense of purpose or deep roots, which are the bedrock of inner peace and happiness.

Rapid urbanisation and the tech explosion in India have spawned similar incentives today to live “out of context”, “over the top” lives, in insulated, comfortable, alien bubbles. But take heed of Ruttie’s lesson – nothing which is out of context is sustainable.

Sheela Reddy’s book is a treasure trove. A must-have for your bookshelf.

Adapted from the authors BOOK REVIEW in Swarajyamag, August 3, 2017 https://swarajyamag.com/magazine/mr-and-mrs-jinnah-a-tale-of-unrequited-love-and-its-aftermath

Manmohan Jaitley

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, recently released a book titled India Transformed — 25 years of Economic Reform, edited by Rakesh Mohan, at the appropriately historic Nehru Memorial Library. After the obligatory photo-op, Dr Singh turned to finance minister Arun Jaitley and with a beatific smile, handed the book over to him, as if, symbolically, he was satisfied that he could hand over trusteeship of the economy, to the three-year-old NDA government, and walked off, disregarding the speech he was scheduled to deliver.

The reform baton passes on

It was indeed a poignant moment and well chosen, for the economic baton to be handed over. The high-decibel criticism by Left-oriented, liberal public intellectuals of the economic vacuity of the BJP government’s economic policies continues. But the fact is that we are now at a cusp, an inflexion point. In all likelihood, we shall do substantially better on inclusive growth. This may sound incredulous at a time when growth, industrial investment and exports have fallen from the earlier upward looking trend line. But a dip in the industrial investment and growth rate are natural short-term consequences of the BJP having finally walked the talk on corruption.

Pressing the economic accelerator is not enough

Over the first three years, the NDA merely pressed the accelerator harder on the positive legacy of the UPA — rural unemployment support, fast-forwarding Aadhar, digitisation of commerce and banking, financial inclusion, space technology competitiveness, making electricity surplus, making access to telecommunications even more affordable, better transport and urban infrastructure, disinvestment of minority shares of state-owned entities, ensuring fiscal stability and progressively higher financial devolution to sub-national governments, including local governments.

Burying past negativities is good but not enough

It also did very well to bury the negative legacy of the UPA. The biggest achievement is in fast forwarding of expenditure programmes without the viral outbreak of corruption scandals seen earlier. More positively a three-pronged action plan is in place to make public systems resilient to corruption.

GST – the corruption buster

First, getting the GST is the biggest legislative and operational achievement to dampen corruption and enhance value addition by integrating the national market. Glitches remain due to poor drafting of rules which burden the small, honest taxpayer. Many such are the obsessive dedication to maximising revenue, even at the expense of simplicity. As usual the pain is being most felt by those least able to bear it — ragpickers — at the bottom of the urban food chain – their daily income have halved because the “kabadis” (junk yards) they sell plastics and glass to, are playing safe on the likely new tax liabilities. Small individual consultants or homeowners,  who live in one state but get work or rent from another, re similarly caught in a bewildering tax reporting spaghetti.

Bankruptcy & NPA resolution – The crony capitalism killer app

Second, is the frontal attack on crony capitalism — identifying the borrowers who have defaulted on Rs 12 trillion owed to banks, getting the Bankruptcy Act operational and signaling public sector banks that there will be no more “Mundra scam (1950s)” type telephone calls from the government. Reaffirming that sensible lending shall be rewarded and inept or corrupt lending punished.

Big brother must watch use smart analytics

Big data

Third, the proposed use of “big data”, including data from social media, to zoom in on potential tax evasion and crime. Taken together, these actions lay the systemic capacity for reducing corruption.

Aim for the sweet spot

cricket sweet spot

Whilst perfecting its drive at real sector reforms, here are the four “tests” the government must pass.

Defang the trade Unions

First, the unleashing of genuine privatisation (offloading of majority shares in a state-owned entity) as proposed in the long-delayed case of Air India is the winner. It sends the signal that India is open to efficiency enhancing financial restructuring. That it intends to free up existing public capital to create new public goods — jobs, physical infrastructure, improved social services, like health and education, whilst fresh private capital gets infused into the commercially viable supply of private goods — air and rail travel, steel, metals, petroleum and electricity. The Labour Unions are up in arms. This is where privatisation flagged in 2003 under Minister Arun Jaitley and Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee. Can the Modi-Jaitley team de-fang the inward looking, protectionist, labour “aristocracy” comprising the Trade Unions – the bedrock of the moribund CPI(M)?

TU

Grow private banking rapidly

Second, financial sector restructuring to make state-owned banks commercially viable. Uday Kotak, of the Kotak Mahindra Bank, surely over-stretches when he advocates the  wholesale exit of loss making public banks and their substitution by private banks. But clearly, the strategy of incremental privatisation, as done earlier to enhance telecom, aviation or electricity generation, will pressure state-owned banks to become competitive. This should also circumscribe the ability of the government to use banks like ATMs for populist goodies.

Nail large. serial loan defaulters as criminals 

Modi nail

Third, the strong action proposed for making collusive default on bank loans a criminal act is commendable. It brandishes a big stick for potential defaulters. The intention is virtuous. But experience shows that criminals, especially rich ones, find it easier to evade the law than poor innocents. To avoid this perverse outcome, criminal powers should not be delegated outside the judiciary. The record of tax tribunals and quasi-judicial agencies is not sanguine enough to empower them with criminal powers in addition to their economic mandates.

There is no option except to reform the judiciary through incentives and structural changes in judicial governance. This is a tough nut to crack, but shortcuts will give rise to the miscarriage of justice, vigilantism, and massive public resentment — specially in the middle class, which will be the most impacted in cases related to property and small business.

Remain a classic, fiscal fundamentalist

Lastly, the finance minister’s determination to maintain macro-economic stability has been amply demonstrated. This resolve must not weaken even during the run up to the 2019 general election. This will be the biggest economic win,lo if achieved. The report of the N.K. Singh Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Committee 2017 embeds too much flexibility to provide credible guidance for the future. Fiscal fundamentalism is better.

cricket defense

Good politics must also be good economics. There is an appetite now amongst voters for hard reform. This, by itself, is a tribute to the credibility of the NDA government. A populist pre-election budget would be seen by the voters as an early admission of defeat. That is not the winner’s way.

Adapted from the author’s article in The Asian Age, August 9, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/090817/hard-reforms-vital-nda-needs-to-shun-populism.html

bjp-new-office

The rout of the BJP, in the Bihar and Delhi Assembly elections, were loudly touted as evidence of the deep roots of the “idea of India” — so dear to the Left-leaning, “secular” intelligentsia. Two years later, Bihar is back in the BJP stable and Delhi limps along with Arvind Kejriwal nursing his 2017 defeat in the Delhi municipal elections. In parting ways with his “less than kosher” partners — Lalu Prasad Yadav and his ilk — and realigning with the BJP, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar has apparently, revised his views on the Hobson’s choice between aligning with corruption or with communalism. He has now switched to the latter, as the lesser evil, possibly nudged by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public resolve to abolish both by 2022. In the meantime, he forfeits the somewhat unlikely “halo” around him as the leader of a national “secular” Opposition. Muslims and dalits also face this choice now — between a clean and effective, albeit Hindu, government or self-serving, dynastic patriarchs, posing as ersatz secularists.

Does consolidating the Hindu vote equal communalism?

shah dalit home

For the BJP, the charge of “communalism” has little meaning. Ending “casteism” – another vicious scourge, is only possible, if the Hindu vote is consolidated, ending the use of narrow vote banks based on traditional identities, around which regional parties have grown deep roots, like the RJD in Bihar and Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party in Uttar Pradesh.

BJP’s strategy is to consolidate the Hindu vote across regional and caste divides to strengthen its majority government at the Centre and control enough states to cover two-thirds of the voter population. The idea is to become like a mega political mall, encompassing diverse shades of opinion. Smaller parties, like the JD(U) are welcome to buy-in or opt-out, but none would be critical to the BJP’s survival.

The BJP sees no contradiction between resolving to root out “communalism” whilst consolidating” the Hindu vote by ending archaic caste divides. It wants Muslims and Christians, both foreign religions, to harmonise their religious beliefs to fit seamlessly into the dominant local culture.

Deeper decentralisation can be a bridge to communal harmony

naga 2

India is very diverse even within large states. Eating beef and pork is fine in predominantly Christian Nagaland. Bonding over beef is the custom in Kerala for Muslims, Christians and many Hindus. But this would be unthinkable in Uttar Pradesh. A more decentralised India can give greater space for making locally acceptable choices about customs and norms at the local government level. But the principle of subsidiarity is ignored. What can be settled at the village level is decided in Delhi or a state capital where the the minority viewpoint gets ignored in favour of across the board acceptability. Today, local governments lack the administrative, political and financial clout to matter. This means for now, the onus is on the minority community in any area to negotiate workable local compromises on cultural and religious practices which conflict with the locally dominant majority. Detractors of this “majoritarian” approach say this illustrates the disenfranchised status of minorities

Nuns

To be fair to Muslims and Christians, it is a stretch for them to reach such local accommodations. They have been misleadingly nurtured, since 1947, into expecting that the Indian State shall provide special mechanisms to safeguard their right to religion and facilitate their active political participation, in view of their numerical disadvantage. They have never before, encountered a government that is coldly dismissive of their expectations and has, at best, no desire to go beyond the letter of the law.

muslim women

What does being secular mean?

There is also disagreement on what being secular means. Should the State actively shun anything to do with religion, as in France? Or be even handed with all religions, as in the UK? Or should we further refine our version of secularism. Political theorist Rajeev Bhargava, is of the view that, in India, both the State and religions influence each other. The State actively intervenes in religion — as for example taking over the administration of Tirupati or subsidising Haj travel for Muslims or opening Hindu temples to dalits. Similarly, religion actively influences State action. Demolition of the Babri Masjid by karsevaks in 1992 breached the law. But the State watched passively out of deference to Hindu sentiment. In 1986, an executive ordinance was used to specifically nullify a Supreme Court order granting maintenance to Shahbano, a Muslim divorcee – a practise unsupported by Islamic law which had greatly agitated Muslim clerics.

Modern Indian culture is syncretic – but dominantly Hindu

Shahrukh 2

Modern Indian, popular culture is syncretic but dominantly Hindu, as best illustrated by Bollywood. Our movies cater predominantly to Hindu cultural settings, ironically often on the backs of film stars, many of whom are Muslim. With 80 per cent of the population being Hindu, it cannot but be otherwise.

The constitution reflects the fraternal bond between the State and Hinduism 

Fraternal bonds

Similarly, the founders of our Constitution were prescient in anticipating that Hindu sentiment would be politically dominant. Article 25 of the Constitution, excludes Christian and Muslim religious and social institutions from State regulation. But it specifically limits the fundamental right of Hindus (which includes Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists) to practice religion, by allowing the State to intervene for reforming Hindu religious institutions. This asymmetric provision reflects an assumption that there can never be a conflict between the Indian State and Hinduism. But the potential for a conflict of interest between the State and Muslims or Christians, exists and must be guarded against.

Muslims and Christians are not the only ones isolated by the Hindu revivalism. One-fourth of Hindus (dalits and backward tribal communities) are uncomfortable with traditional, Brahmanical religious practices. Often these are just a cover for hanging onto the asymmetric power structures benefiting the upper and the “Mandal”-empowered backward castes. Babasaheb Ambedkar articulated this apprehension as a deal-breaker for political cohesion.

Testing the efficacy of mega political power

Should we be worried by a BJP mega political power mall? We are schooled to believe that pervasive, political power begets authoritarianism. This hypothesis will now be tested. The BJP believes that a “national” government, in which, political sub-interests, defined by gender, caste, region or religion, “work” the system from within, is better than the template version of parliamentary democracy, in which an active opposition keeps the transgressions of the ruling party “in check”.

The BJP had 100 million registered members in 2015 — 18 per cent of the registered voters. It has a massive majority in the Lok Sabha and shall replicate this majority in the Rajya Sabha as legacy UPA members retire. The BJP directly controls states comprising 54 per cent of India’s population whilst another 23 per cent of the population lives in states ruled by allies or jointly with the BJP. Together this constitutes more than three-fourths of the population. Why then does it feel compelled to grow bigger?

BJP rule

In any competitive market, to stand still is to lose ground. Indian sporting teams are often criticised for lacking the “killer” instinct to convert their strengths into wins. But in politics, as in business, this genetic flaw is an asset. Leaving something on the table boosts the “feel good” factor for all. This has merit in politics, where there are no permanent winners or losers.

Adapted from the authors article in The Asian Age , August 1, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/020817/the-politics-of-religion.html#vuukle-emotevuukle_div

Hasmukh Adhia Masterclass

Muscular tactics are paying-off in the Income Tax system. The number of assesses went up by an astounding 25 percent from 37 million in March 2016 to 46 million, by March 2017 and to 63 million by mid-July 2017. The linking of Aadhar-PAN card to bank accounts; the campaign against cash and now the GST, together create desirable institutional incentives for individuals and business to bank their transactions. This provides the “push” factor for enlarging the income tax base of potential assesses.

Transformative GST  

The GST is even better designed to provide desirable incentives for enlarging the indirect tax base. Unlike, Income Tax where “push” factors compel assesses to pay tax on the income revealed via bank transactions, the GST uniquely also has “pull” factors for better tax compliance. The biggest being the facility to set-off GST paid on purchases against GST payable on sale, which reduces the net tax payable. This induces both buyers and sellers to bank their transactions – which is also good for income tax collections.

Transformative, as the GST is, glitches have inadvertently crept in, which go against the grain of positive incentives to prefer banked to cash transactions; increase value addition and boost tax revenues.

But design glitches remain

One such, relates to small service providers with annual revenues of up to Rs 2 million. Those providing services within the state are exempt from both registration and payment of GST up to this limit. But the moment they provide a service across the state borders or to a client abroad, they are compelled to get a GST registration; submit the mandatory three returns per month and much worse, pay GST on their entire revenue stream.

Killing the small cross-border service provider

Individual IT professionals writing code or designing websites routinely get contracted over the internet to provide services to overseas clients or to clients across state borders. Each contract may be as low as Rs 20,000. But all these professionals will need to get registered and incur the transaction cost on submitting monthly GST returns. For these small service providers, the price points are highly competitive. It is unlikely that clients will be willing to part with the 18 percent GST for out of state providers. They will be pushed to get registered and pay the GST themselves or absorb the tax in the price they charge with the GST paid on the purchase by the client.

The net result will be that out- of-state small service providers will become uncompetitive and may stop seeking work outside their states, reducing competition. GST which was meant to create a Pan Indian national market will instead, end up creating intra-state silos for small service providers.

The negative impact is fiscally marginal but it rankles

This design flaw will also impact income tax revenue. Service providers whose annual billing reaches Rs 1.6 million within a state, will refuse out-of-state work of less than Rs 0.5 million because, by increasing their out-of-state billing by up to Rs 0.4 million they end up paying the entire incremental amount as GST.

If 2 million small service providers, ranging from civil contractors, designers to business consultants, refuse additional work due to this reason, the government loses Rs 18 billion as income tax. This calculation assumes a tax rate of 20 percent and the underlying taxable income lost at one half of the amount of work refused.

Protection for local service providers breeds inefficiency

The “infant industry” proposition can be used to justify discouraging cross border services and thereby encouraging small local service providers to ramp up their capacity and fill the gap. This may well be true. But it rankles against the pan-Indian tax framework objective of promoting efficiency and competition. It is also, against the logic of digital India which is meant to enable seamless work across state and international borders.

Whence the pan-Indian market and digital India?

Admittedly lost income tax revenue of Rs 18 billion is small change, in an income tax kitty of around Rs 4 trillion. But it is personally frustrating for small service providers who can see the cross-border opportunity to expand their business but are blocked by the “deadweight” amount of Rs 0.4 million of billing, which equals the GST they would pay by increasing their billing to Rs 2 million, if some part of it coming from cross border contracts.

Have a common GST exemption limit irrespective of location of the client

Is there a way of getting away from this flawed design? Yes, there is. The first option is to extend a common GST exemption limit to all service provision, irrespective of whether it is within state, across state borders or overseas. This immediately removes the “deadweight” of GST becoming payable, the moment a cross border transaction, no matter how small, is made.

Tax only the incremental revenue above the GST exemption limit

However, this still leaves the problem of expanding billing above Rs 2 million and thereby losing the exemption from GST on the initial Rs 2 million. Adopting the principle of taxing only the incremental amount, as used in the Income Tax, can effectively avoid the perverse incentive for opting for cash based transactions to avoid losing the tax exemption above a billing of Rs 2 million, till billing expands substantially beyond Rs 2.4 million, at which point it would neutralize the additional GST paid and yield a net income increase for the supplier.

Harmonise tax exemptions under IT and GST to reduce reduce the compliance cost 

The best option is to harmonize the exemption limits under GST and income tax. The current income tax regime presumes taxable income at 50 percent of billing, unless shown otherwise. A billing of Rs 0.5 million corresponds to a net taxable income of Rs 0.25 million which is also the maximum limit for income exempt from income tax. Hence the exemption limit for GST could be reduced to Rs 0.5 million from the existing limit of Rs 2 million. But rolling back exemptions is tough. Alternatively, the exemption limit in Income Tax could be increased to Rs 1 million. Enhancing the income tax exemption limit is the preferred option.

The number of income tax assesses increased by 25 percent in 2016-17 over the previous year. In comparison the revenue from Income Tax increased by 18.4 percent. Tax yields are lagging increase in assesses. Efficient tax collection practices would point towards focusing on high value targets rather than cluttering up the system with marginal yield assesses until tax filing systems are vastly more simplified and easy to follow for the average citizen.

This article is also available at http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/end-perverse-incentives-for-small-service-providers-in-gst/

Template Rashtrapati

Rashtrapati Bhawan

Presidential elections in India are a ho-hum event for the average citizen. At best, this is a moment when the government “signals” its political identity or its governance style. The BJP-led NDA government has succeeded in the former but not the latter.

Shivshankar Menon, national security adviser in Dr Manmohan Singh’s government, uses the “minimum cost, maximum benefit” strategy as the defining principle of India’s foreign policy. This applies equally well to identify the political incentives behind presidential nominees.

Why Presidential nominations are the outcome of a MinMax strategy

The ruling party’s biggest nightmare is to nominate a candidate who loses. This is not only egg on its face, but it opens a Pandora’s box of future antagonisms between the government and the head of the state. It has never happened thus far. But it is wise to budget for minimum risk, especially when the upside of having “your own man (only one of thirteen Presidents has been a woman) in the Rashtrapati Bhawan are limited.

The Constitution severely limits action, independent of the government, by the President. But the potential for being deviously obstructionist exists. James Mason — the distinguished political scientist — credits Babu Jagjivan Ram – the original dalit face of Indian politics – with the insight of how to do a “Putin” in the Indian context and acquire covert, unconstitutional political power. The only redress against a malevolent President is to impeach him in Parliament. Whilst theoretically possible, it requires a two-thirds majority. That is tough if the President is politically savvy and actively conspires to defeat the motion, including by requesting MPs to merely abstain from the vote.

Unrealised political ambition is not an asset for being President

In the heady days after Emergency was lifted, the Janata government — a loose coalition of political interests, opposed to the authoritarian rule of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi — came to power. But it splintered. Prime Minister Morarji Desai lost his majority and resigned. Y.B. Chavan and Charan Singh sequentially failed to build their factions into a majority. President Neelam Sanjiva Reddy (1977-82), instead of giving Babu Jagjivan Ram — leader of the largest rump of the Janata Party — a similar opportunity, dissolved the Lok Sabha and ordered fresh elections. This was, at best, presidential over-reach to force an early conclusion to the drift. At worst, it was intentionally muscular, to induce an election, in anticipation of an uncertain outcome, which would allow then the President to manoeuvre and put a “pocket” government in power.

Petulance can warp Presidential efficiency 

Later a petulant President Zail Singh (1982-’87), a “trusted” political follower of Indira Gandhi, used obstruction as a mechanism to show his annoyance at being politically ignored by the debonair, apolitical Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, who stepped into his mother’s political legacy, but wanted no part of its earthier political roots.

Ego is a killer for normative functioning  by the President 

President K.R. Narayanan (1997 to 2002) was a “working President”. Nothing was further from his intent than subverting the Constitution. In fact, he felt a heightened sense of responsibility to keep the ship of state credible and morally enlightened in the face of unstable minority governments. He possibly felt, albeit unwisely, that the President, being elected by an electoral college much wider than the Lok Sabha, had a stronger, deeper representativeness. He was also decidedly uncomfortable with the BJP holding the reins of power — a hangover from the post-Independence demonisation of the Hindu right-wing party. This mutual distrust led to his public speeches and media interviews being interpreted as being critical of government policy. He departed from his prepared and vetted speech at a state banquet in New Delhi and seemed to hector President Clinton of the US – the chief guest, on the proclivity of great powers to play “headman”, quite contrary to the government’s intentions.

The game is rigged so that nominees of the Union government win elections

The process for Presidential elections is constitutionally rigged in favour of the Union government. The Lok Sabha, where every Union government has a working majority, has a vote share of 35 per cent. The Rajya Sabha — where the government, like the present one , may not have a majority – has a smaller vote share of 15 per cent. State legislative assemblies have an aggregate vote share of 50 per cent. But the weight for each state Legislative Assembly varies and is indexed to its population. Just 10 of the most populous states — out of a total of 31 states — together have a 37 per cent vote share in the electoral college. An MLA from Sikkim has vote value of seven versus 208 vote value that an MLA from Uttar Pradesh commands. This is one reason why political parties go all out to capture elections in state legislative assemblies.

Union governments have traditionally played safe and fielded nominees whose reliability trumps their candour. Political placidity is preferred to ambition. Being of an age close to permanent retirement is a key qualification.

President elect Ram Nath Kovind – the perfect fit

Ram Nath Kovind 2

Ram Nath Kovind, the BJP’s nominee and the 14th President of India, is a perfect fit. He is non-controversial and low-key. His Hindutva beliefs seem to be personal rather than aggressively political. Like President Narayanan, he is a dalit and hence a symbol of continued dalit empowerment. He is the first President from Uttar Pradesh — the most populous Indian state with the largest population of Scheduled Castes. His election reiterates that Uttar Pradesh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s adopted karam bhumi, remains close to his heart.

Thus far the average age of Presidents, at the time of election, has been 71 years. Mr Kovind is right on the button being 71 years of age. The youngest at 64 years was President Neelam Sanjiva Reddy. His subsequent actions reiterated that unrealised ambition is not an asset for this position. But age alone is no assurance of placidity.

K.R. Narayanan — never “a rubber stamp President” — shares the honour of being the oldest at 77 years, with R. Venkataraman (1987 to ’92).

Ironically, 81 per cent of India’s population is less than 44 years of age and 97 percent was born post-Independence. But all our Presidents have been from the pre- 1947 colonial period. It doesn’t need to be that way.

The minimum age to be elected President is 35 years. But till we effectively depoliticise the presidency, by defining a code of conduct with detailed guidelines for presidential action (an Indian Magna Carta), the potential for youthful ambition to seize power covertly, will dissuade governments from taking the risk of electing a youthful, erudite President, as the face of Bharat which is India.

children

An opportunity lost for being transformative

The government has played the “minimum-maximum” game to perfection. The irony is it didn’t need to do so. This was a low-risk opportunity to reinforce its commitment to cooperative federalism and to broaden the ambit of governance by pulling in apolitical talent. At the very least, it should have tried harder and negotiated in good faith, to get President Kovind nominated by all parties, rather than making him contest an election. Admittedly, there is no political tradition urging it to do so. But Mr Modi did not start out trying to be a template Prime Minister.

One hopes he will resist the institutional incentives to lapse into a transactional, rather than his earlier, transformative mode.

Adapted from the author’s article in The Asian Age, July 21, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/210717/template-rashtrapati.html

Indian army

Citizens expect governments to intervene when the markets fail. The market for Diplomacy failed last month at Doklam. If the Chinese Army is to be stopped well north of the tri-junction between India, Bhutan and Tibet/China, then only the Indian forces, funded by taxes, can do the job. This is a satisfactory arrangement for all Indian and Bhutanese citizens, who otherwise may be hard-pressed to secure their territory.

When State failure fails to fix the underlying market failure

But not all government actions have an obvious rationale. Demonetisation was unleashed in November 2016 to end black money. Few believe that this objective has been achieved. Black money is not an outcome of market failure. It is an outcome of governmental failure to tax income effectively; control corruption or control crime. Poor governance only encourages the generation of black money, which then requires another intervention to root out black money. Economist Shanta Devarajan of the World Bank, in New Delhi last week for the NCAER annual India Policy Forum <http://www.ncaer.org/event_details.php?EID=184>  believes such iterative interventions are ineffective in improving the quality of governance, and can reduce the legitimacy of governments. Far better instead to rethink how to deal with the underlying market failure – in this case the “market” for political power.

Poor tax administration

So why do governments tax ineffectively? Most commonly, multiple objectives in the tax policy are to blame. The sale of loose groundnuts — the ordinary person’s food — may be tax-free but packed groundnuts, even if unprocessed, are taxed. This creates a five per cent tax differential for arbitrage between the two categories, which are difficult to administer separately. A single rate of tax levied on a non-evadable tax base is the most effective. But consider that this would be akin to the colonial “poll or head tax” — levied on each person uniformly. Effective, but terribly inequitable.

The killer “app” for instant equity – Universal Basic Income- how effective?

Admittedly, mechanisms like transfer of a basic income to the poor can neutralise such an inequity. But transfer of a similar amount of cash, to each poor person, itself creates huge inequities, even among the 40 per cent population vulnerable to poverty. Transferring differential amounts, depending on need, attracts the same inefficiencies as trying to administer progressive tax rates fairly.

The big 2Cs – Corruption and Crime

Why is corruption or crime so hard to control in India? If citizens feel that political power can be acquired by subverting the “popular” vote, it reduces their faith in the power of their vote. It also delegitimises the government and undermines its ability to rule, in the eyes of those who voted against the government. Bihar faced this conundrum for two decades.

It does not help that, in India, governments can be formed even with a minority of the total votes cast in elections, so long as each elected member of the ruling party gets more votes than the next candidate. This first-past-the-post system fractionalises politics. It encourages parties to form coalition governments, which are unable to discipline errant behaviour by their constituents. This “coalition dharma” fosters crime and corruption.

Are laws aligned with context?

An alternative explanation for pervasive crime or corruption is that laws are out of sync with local customs. And not enough has been done to change social behaviour beyond legislating transformative rights and duties. Ending open defecation — a prime driver to reduce the vulnerability of women to crime — is one such example. The benefits from ending open defecation are dependent on collective action. One reason why we did not do more earlier could be that the political incentives are perverse. They favour exaggerating, rather than bridging, the social cleavages of caste and religion, which inhibit collective, progressive decision making.

Feudal governance patterns breed poor accountability

Low public accountability and lackadaisical collective action can also be traced to the continuation of feudal traditions of governance and poorly distributed income growth. Richer citizens are more resilient to State encroachment of their rights and less dependent on State largesse. Luckily, over the past three decades, we have become less poor, better educated and more aware of our rights versus the State.

But the extent of inequality remains significant as does the infrastructure deficit across rich and poor areas. The privileged crust is thinner than a hand-tossed Neapolitan pizza — possibly just 10 per cent of the population. The rest seethe in forlorn frustration. Can we get away from this low-level equilibrium? Yes, we can by fixing the market for political power.

End the perverse incentives in our political architecture 

Our political architecture is riddled with perverse incentives which  constrain the will to reform. Here are four changes which are overdue – deepening decentralisation; enhancing state government autonomy; enhancing the representativeness of the legislatures and regulating political parties better.

First, bridge the trust deficit and distance between citizens and the State. Empower state governments versus the Union government and local government versus state governments. Hopefully, the 15th Finance Commission will carry forward the trend of forcing the Centre to devolve functions and Central taxes to states and directly to local governments based on performance criteria.

Second, cut the colonial fat; abolish the titular but unedifying position of state governors. These are unelected nominees of the Union government exercising oversight over elected state governments. Transfer this role to the President, who is elected. This will level the playing field between states and the Centre versus the presidency.

Third, make Parliament and state Assemblies more representative. Sharply reduce the size of constituencies. Only directly-elected members should be eligible to become Prime Minister or chief minister. A candidate should be able to contest an election for only one seat at a time. The winner must secure a simple majority of the available votes and two-thirds of the votes cast. Municipalities must be headed by elected mayors.

Fourth, the functioning and finances of recognised political parties must be made transparent. Inner-party elections must conform to common but effective guidelines. The Election Commission must be empowered to determine constituency boundaries and diversified beyond the administration, to include citizen representatives and the judiciary with the chief election commissioner chosen specifically.

Use the GST process of risk-free consensual decision making

GST became a reality as a process of cooperative federalism was followed led by the finance minister. Reforming the market for political power could benefit from a similar approach.

Adapted from the author’s article in The Asian Age, July 19, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/190717/power-structure-needs-reform.html

ivanka G20

President Trump’s implicit assessment of the value of the G20 Hamburg summit was best illustrated by letting his daughter replace him, whilst he was away from his seat at the summit and to spend double the budgeted time, holding President Putin’s hand. We should take note.

Did Trump try and devalue the G20, President Xi or both by letting Ivanka replace him?

Despite his oddities and his rhetoric, President Trump is a businessman. He cannot but recognize that his real fight is with China. So occasional side swipes to emphasize US dominance over China are par for the course. But the US is too fat to keep pace with China. Its entrepreneurial juices have dried up, bled by the strain of keeping the American Dream alive – an endlessly aspirational, middle class and a voraciously, acquisitive elite, albeit both sets being more meritocratic than elsewhere. But the strain shows. If there is no public money for infrastructure and Facebook needs to build a village to increase the supply of affordable housing in Silicon Valley, there is something very wrong with institutional incentives in the US.

The football “huddle” to plot strategy

Trump

President Trump’s instincts to deal with a problem is to “huddle” in a group of “familiar” friends. Co-opting Russia into a loose friendly alliance of northern hemisphere countries could be an outcome of such “huddling”. After all, there are the cultural bonds. The UK will be supportive. It was Tony Blair, who persuaded Russia to join the rich country club of G7, which thereafter became the G8. Russia was expelled, in 2014 over its muscular action in Crimea. But the G7 was already in decline, post 2009, whilst the G20 gained leverage, as a more inclusive forum with economic heft.

Russia better as a friend than an enemy

Putin2

Bringing Russia in from the cold, makes sense. It is no longer an ideological threat to the West – just a shade smarmier in its management style. But no more so than other upper middle-income countries. Its GDP, in constant terms, has barely moved from US$ 1.5 trillion in 1989 to 1.6 trillion in 2016 – though it has doubled since 1998, when it reached its nadir at US$ 0.8 billion. Russian expatriates live happily in the US and in Europe.

Hypertension, made in China

china air craft carr

Expansionist Germany was the muscular outlier in the early part of the last century. In the early part of the current century, it is China. Scale matters. Consider that the world’s largest mall, 19 million square feet of space, has come up in Chengdu, western China.

The Chinese manufacturing engine has surplus capacity to feed the world over the next decade with goods, targeted at the price points and quality requirements of local markets, across the globe.

China applies the late CK Prahalad’s principle of, “finding the fortune hidden at the bottom of the pyramid” by supplying consumables and consumer durables to 3 billion humans at the bottom of the economic food chain. And they do it better than local manufacturers, located in countries where the poor exist, including India.

India’s dharma

So where does this leave India? It is not in India’s DNA to kowtow. So, we are a poor fit with China. It is in India’s political DNA to be ideological. Remember Non-Alignment? Ideologically committed bureaucracies are a menace. They must be tamed. To come out tops, from the ongoing international churn towards a transactional future, we need to reign-in our tendency to grandstand. There is virtue in being supremely transactional. But transactions must be anchored in public interest. We have not been very good at that.

Had we been better, we would have got rid of poverty faster than we have. We would have cared more about creating physical and social (education and health) infrastructure and jobs. And we would have exploited every growth opportunity, which came our way, rather than choose to sit out the 1970s and the 1980s on our elitist, immaculately manicured hands.

We do not have the luxury, unlike Latin America and large parts of Africa, of being natural invitees to the western, Christian table of nations. Nor do we fit the dismal, backward looking club of Islamic nations. And we are too large to be helped economically. So, like China, we have no option, except to fend for ourselves.
International trade is our entry point to becoming more competitive.

We need cheap Chinese goods more than China needs our market. We import just 3 percent of China’s exports. We should be trying harder to become part of global supply chains to pull-in foreign investment, technology, jobs and increase net exports. Our traditional links with Russia are valuable but need to be lubricated.

With the US and its West European allies, we share a tradition of democracy – a generic, clunky, artifact to safeguard citizen rights versus the State via an elaborate architecture of self-balancing, institutional power centers. These links can be deepened.
Going under the radar and setting-off no red alerts till we have accumulated critical economic heft is sensible.

Playing second, or even seventh fiddle, to achieve targeted outcomes is better than to compromise outcomes by being top-dog in process matters. But low profile economic diplomacy does not come easy to our colonial style Foreign Policy establishment. Best to remember that we rank seventh in nominal GDP and are a lower middle-income country. We should punch our weight. Doing more is unsustainable.

Adapted from the author’s article in TOI July 9, 2017Blogs http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/g20-trumped/

 

 

 

 

Courtesy Arvind Subramanian, India’s Chief Economic Advisor, the 4R (reform, recognize, recapitalize, resolve) approach to manage the corporate bad loans problem, has captured public imagination. But he soft peddles a fifth R, that of retribution. The big stick must be wielded for reform to be credible.

jail2

Public sector banks – flabby, politicised ATMs providing easy money to elites

Banks are flush with money. But “liquidity” for borrowers, even those who have a “special relationship” with banks, is low. The shadow of stressed loans – missed loan repayments and interest payments- makes the usual, clubby way of doing business suspect. Banks operate on big margins – between interest paid on deposits and interest received on commercial loans – of up to 5 percent, in our cartelized banking architecture, dominated by publicly owned banks. But, despite high margins, public sector bank ratings suffer. The more loans they give, higher is the volume of bad loans.

Bad loans are an outcome of shoddy risk appraisal followed by poor loan account oversight. The ugly habit of kicking the can down the road by rolling over bad loans has been the norm.  On average, only around 26 percent of bad loans and accumulated interest are recovered. Using this metric, banks stand to lose around Rs 9 trillion (6 percent of our GDP) by recognizing and resolving bad loans of around Rs 12 trillion.

If corporate loans were recovered like consumption loans for cars, there would be no problem

Once a loan becomes stressed there is little a bank can do, except to recover as much as it can from the borrower; divert the proceeds to a better borrower and black list the delinquent borrower. But Indian banks rarely operate on this “sunk cost” principle. A long history of covert support to keep diseased loans and borrowers alive, under the guise of retaining jobs, has not helped. The spectacularly unsuccessful, Board of Industrial and Financial Reconstruction was still alive till January 2016. Unfortunately, so were hundreds of companies ripe for corporate euthanasia. We now have a new Insolvency and Bankruptcy Act, January 2016. But its effectiveness remains to be established.

RBI oversight of banks comes up short

Disappointingly, the Reserve Bank of India, instead of taking the bull by the horns and directing banks to start bankruptcy proceedings for bad loans, has taken the soft approach – giving banks time, till the end of 2017, to resolve the stressed loans themselves. Amusingly, to nudge bankers into doing unfamiliar, unpleasant things, extraordinary measures are being taken, to provide them administrative cover, from ex-post facto audit, vigilance and CBI investigations. Clearly, retribution against those bankers, who approved and over saw the dud loans, is not contemplated.

Loan waivers without retribution for the complicit create moral hazard

Economists, including RBI Governor caution against the problem of “moral hazard” that loan waivers create in the context of agricultural loans being written off by state governments. Apparently, forgiveness without retribution, is bad for rural borrowers, but ok for corporate borrowers. Sadly, retribution is sorely needed for commercial borrowers too, who account for 75 percent of the bad loans.

80% model borrowers, 20% delinquent addicts of “easy money”

home

The reality is even more nuanced. The bulk of borrowers, across sectors, are gold standard risks. Despite gross mismanagement of large corporate loans, 83 percent of the bank loans, valued at Rs 63 trillion, are serviced on time by borrowers. Moral hazard affects borrowers selectively in India. This is because retribution is also selective. Access to bank finance for small borrowers is cut off if they become delinquent and recovery proceedings are harsh. For large borrowers and the influential, more favourable terms apply.

Are only babus to be held to account?

handcuffs

Last month, a retired Secretary of the Coal Ministry and two other senior colleagues, were convicted for criminal conspiracy, by a trial court. The charge and the punishment meted out was completely out of proportion to their misdemeanors – less than adequate diligence in discharging their duties. Why this double standard for holding public officials to account? Rs 12 trillion of accumulated stressed loans against annual loan approvals of between Rs 3 to 5 trillion, indicates a deep rooted “conspiracy of silence” within public sector and co-operative banks; their patrons in government and the borrowers themselves.

These stressed loans, whether in industry or in agriculture, must be taken off the books of banks. But the concerned loan sanctioning and account oversight chain, whether present or retired, must be held to account on a standardized, transparent metric to establish active connivance to cheat the bank or lack of adequate diligence. This is the only way to delink quick resolution of the stressed loans from the problem of “moral hazard”.

Blacklist actively negligent founders

Second, deals need to be urgently struck with borrowers to resolve loans without access to the lengthy judicial review process. These can only happen if the big stick of sanctions is available to the negotiators. Founders, actively negligent in servicing loans, should be made to exit management positions, as a precondition for future access to bank finance. Delinquent individuals, who have been given opportunities earlier, to reform, via “greening” or rolling over of loans, should be debarred from access to bank finance.

Hold banks to account for bad loans

The argument against sanctioning bankers is bogus. It is feared bankers will stop taking decisions if sanctioned, thereby freezing the lending cycle. Till two decades ago, bank trade unions, routinely used the threat of striking work, to stop computerization or extract better wages. It was the Supreme Court which defanged them in 2003 by ruling that the right to strike is not absolute, particularly in the case of public services. No need to turn the clock back.

Stringent action against the bureaucracy has not adversely affected the functioning of government. Enshrined bureaucratic safeguards are most often the refuge of the incompetent or the corrupt. Those working transparently, in the public interest, rarely need such support. There is no reason why banks should be different.

Needed an empowered financial sector, “clean up” champion, to wield a long broom

Jaitley grimace

“Moral hazard” in bad loan resolution becomes a problem, only if we do not deal equitably and transparently. Elitist cliques, spanning politics, business and agriculture, must be weaned-off, the vice of bank financed “easy money”. Swift, impartial, standardized resolution of bad loans, with judicious retribution, can drain this vicious whirlpool, which saps national wealth and reeks of inequity.

Adapted from the authors article in TOI Blogs, June 23, 2017 http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/retribution-the-missing-r-in-resolving-bad-loans/

 

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