governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Archive for the ‘BJP’ Category

India’s elite bureaucrats – unshakably resilient

 

Mughals

The great Mughals (16th to 18th century) found it more difficult to manage their extended zenanas than to conquer fractious Hindustani kingdoms. The insidious politicking and power struggles of the women in purdah are well known. Less well appreciated are the strength, stability and support that the zenana afforded to the emperor, as a secure haven of peace and a source of experienced, sound, well-meaning advice. Ira Mukhoty exquisitely documents this aspect of the zenana in her new book -Daughters of the Sun.

zenana

The IAS is the metaphorical “zenana” for leaders of modern India

What the zenana was to the Great Mughals, the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) is to our political leaders at the Centre and in the states. Curiously, even the numbers match. Both the IAS and Emperor Akbar’s zenana — the largest — are around 5000 strong.

The only difference is that, unlike the zenana, the IAS is predominantly male. But this is changing. Like the zenana it is recruited on merit through intense competition. Once recruited, a minimum basic standard of life and respect is assured. But progress onto meaningful positions of power depends on both merit and political convenience. Bad political choices can end careers prematurely. Good ones can lead to a rapid rise.

IAS

Expectedly, disruptions to the existing architecture initiated by the emperor caused great trauma then, with fervent attempts made to subvert the change, as now. Not all disruptions end well either. But that is no argument for not trying to imbue knowledge competition into the workplace, as the Narendra Modi government proposes via the lateral entry of 10 joint secretaries.

Why change?

Modern workplaces have specific needs. Of these, IAS officers have only two characteristics which others may lack. First, they are the culled outcome of the UPSC exam which selects just 0.1 per cent of those who apply. This ensures that genetically they have the required level of raw intellect. Second, they have an accelerated and time-bound promotion career path. This ensures that they will always be ahead of those in other cadres. Even seniority, within a cohort of officers, is based on their score in the UPSC exam and the Mussoorie training academy. These embedded entitlements bestow upon an IAS officer ritual status, attracts respect, and often abject compliance. But an impartial, permanent civil service, as a source for leadership level advice, is an anachronism, for three reasons.

The IAS has no “skin in the game”

First, politicians today need bureaucratic advisers who have “skin in the game” — they prosper with a politician — zenana style — and go down with the politician they support. The need for “trust” and “faith” in the support senior staff around a minister is poorly aligned with the old civil service architecture of impartiality, seniority and permanence.

Quick to learn, but no deep personal knowledge or insight

Second, the explosive force of the knowledge economy and the range of new sovereign interventions call for total immersion for extended periods in a chosen area of work. This is alien to the way the IAS is managed and trained for general management purposes. To head an engineering department, it is not enough to have an engineering degree before joining the IAS. Most useful skills are non-academic and acquired on the job. Only a practising engineer can credibly navigate a politician through the likely cost-benefit of options. Our achievements in space technology, missiles and atomic energy are out of sync with the quality of our roads or public medical care. Both of the latter work areas are managed by an IAS officer at the top. And it shows.

Deep skills do not come cheap, nor do they remain captive

Urjit

Third, skilled help does not come cheap. The pervasive private sector provides the demand for top-level skills where the government can never hope to compete for talent. Only saints would give up private sector options and choose to work in the government, except for short periods, such as to round off one’s CV, enlarge networks and gain face time at the leadership levels. Facilitating short-term contracts in the government for skilled professionals is a good way of achieving the required skill infusion into the administration.

Short term hires should come and go with the government

Expectedly, the contractual top-level hires will be selected only where both ideologies and objectives match. This makes sense for both sides. The entrants and the government know that without an inside track with the political leadership, they would simply run out of time before achieving anything. In public policy, academic credentials have to burnish with zenana brownie points like loyalty and a complete alignment of objectives.

What does short term hire mean for the reservation policy?

Mayawati

This flags BSP supremo Bhen Mayawati’s concern of how to ensure that brilliant Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe candidates do get a fair chance. At present, there is no caste quota for promotions in the Government of India for the elite services. The quota applies only at the time of recruitment. Currently, only two per cent of all joint secretary-level positions have been advertised for lateral entry. But in future, if lateral entries increase to, say, 25 per cent of all positions, the caste quota issue will need to be managed head on.

UPSC selection is not aligned with the hiring practices for short term experts 

Would the UPSC be a safer choice than an in-house government selection committee? Not necessarily. We have seen in the case of the appointment of judges, compromised selection is not the preserve of the government alone. But there should be a permanent selection committee comprising the secretary of the requesting department; two private sector or NGO subject specialists, and the secretaries of the UPSC and the department of personnel and training.

But safeguards to ensure merit and transparency must be built into the process

Lastly, the process adopted for lateral contractual positions must be differentiated from the existing process for internal appointments. Advertisements for contractual positions must specify the required mix of minimum educational requirements and particular work experience, along with the exact job description. Transfer from one specific position to another, during the contract, must not be allowed, to avoid gaming and to protect the incumbent.

Alas, has this come too late?

time

The Narendra Modi government’s move to open the doors for external, top-level skills is extremely welcome. But, as in the case of Air India’s disinvestment, its timing, at the fag end of the government’s tenure, loads the dice against persons of outstanding talent applying for this opportunity. Even the best house help is risk averse and abhors untimely disruptions.

Adapted from the authors opinion piece in The Asian Age, June 18, 2018 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/oped/180618/govts-lateral-hiring-great-idea-bad-timing.html

Pranab da mimics Atal ji

 

Paranab RSS

The brouhaha over Mr Pranab Mukherjee’s visit to Nagpur, as the chief guest at a valedictory function of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), foregrounds the stunted nature of politics in India.

Politics is about reaching out

First, consider the absurdity of the prevailing schoolboy notion of “team” spirit extending to a ban on supping with one’s political opponents or with those whose ideology is distant from one’s own. This downgrades politicians to being nothing more than groupies of one or the other party – much like football fans.  Amusingly, ever more rigorous behavioural tests of allegiance are demanded, as parties themselves, become ideologically indistinguishable.

The “sameness” of post ideology politics

After all, other than the fuzzy social concept of Hindutva, there is little to distinguish between the BJP and the Congress. Even Hindutva – at least the soft Vajpayee version – is associated with no discrimination across caste or religion. This naturally includes no mollycoddling of Muslims or Christian but also rules out targeted pogroms against them. The constitution makes Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains, honorary Hindus, even though, these are distinct religious minorities. The erstwhile Karnataka government proposed this year that Lingayats be listed as a minority religion within the Hindu pantheon.

None of this aligns with the hard Hindutva line of “nationalising” Hinduism to the exclusion of all other religions. Indian Muslims often retain their caste consciousness, as do Sikhs, even though neither religion envisages caste divisions. For Baba sahib Ambedkar, caste and not religion, was the biggest social cleavage. And he was right.

Who, amongst the opposition, is not a Hindu?

opposition

Hard Hindutva remains untested as a political instrument to consolidate Hindu votes. Who amongst the opposition – Mamta Banerjee, Captain Amarinder Singh, Bhen Mayawati, Akhilesh Yadav, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Rahul Gandhi, Naveen Patnaik, Chandrababu Naidu, K. C. Rao, E.K. Palaniswami or P.Vijayan, is not a Hindu, albeit of the “soft” inclusive, Hindutva kind?

Standing tall, like Atal ji, means leaving the comfort of one’s corner 

Atal ji

Second, it is odd that, on the one hand, the “secular” camp bemoans the absence of “tall” leaders, like Atal ji, who were widely acceptable, aroused respect rather than antagonism and who could be relied upon to do the right thing by the nation. Yet, they take strong exception to Pranab da emulating the Vajpayee brand of inclusiveness, by reaching out to the RSS. Pranab da did not go to Nagpur in the naïve hope of converting the RSS into a peacenik. The purpose was to show to the current lot of political leaders, that it is possible to stand firm, on what one believes, even in the midst of political opponents. After all, our diplomats do this almost daily, when they serve on committees and in nations, where the mood may be inimical to India. By participating, one shows the public, the strength of one’s conviction and the rationale thereof. Opponents may remain opponents. But at the fringe, citizens get the opportunity to rethink role models, possibly resulting in a softening of hard positions, much like a glacier crumbling at the edges, in the face of climate change.

Demonising one’s opponent is unhelpful, listening and participating is better

Third, demonization of opponents is reminiscent of what fundamentalists do. Those who espouse a secular, liberal agenda must surely shun the fundamentalist’s tool kit. Prime Minister Modi was widely criticised by the secular crowd, for not donning a skull-cap, publicly offered to him by a delegation of Muslims in Gujarat. This was an extreme case of political symbolism, marking out Mr Modi, as being different from the average leader, who has no qualms paying lip-service to minority sentiment. The hosting of Iftaar parties, by those, not keeping the fast, is a prime example of superficial secularism.

Owisi

Asaduddin Owaisi, an MP from Hyderabad and President of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, claims Pranab da’s Nagpur visit has “finished” the Congress. The implication is that Muslims will no longer feel “protected” by the Congress. This is entirely possible. But it could signal progress of sorts. Minorities voting for parties which advance their modern professional or business identities, rather than feeding-off their traditional identities, would be encouraging. If the Hindu vote is splintered today, why must minority votes remain transferable en-bloc, like pocket boroughs?

May Pranab da’s tribe multiply

We need more leaders like Pranab da, who are unafraid to grow a common ground between the uber Right RSS and mainstream, secular Indians. Even the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) should rethink its arcane electoral arithmetic, based on uniting the Hindus against the rest. The “Hindus” have never been a monolithic group. Caste and regional identities have always mattered more than the fact of being part of a family of Hindu religions. That is why Hinduism, despite all its warts – like the caste system – remains an attractive, forward looking religion, which assimilates rather than divides. Nationalising Hinduism, as the RSS is trying to do, will be as disastrously limiting, as the nationalisation of the private sector by Indira Gandhi, was for India.

Looking for repeat orders is better than one-off customers 

The BJP came as a whiff of fresh air in 2014, after a decade of more-of-the- same rule by the United Progressive Alliance. The last four years have seen some economic progress. The BJP should feel confident of citizen support based on results. It clearly overreached whilst setting targets, quite forgetting, that high aggregate targets do not matter to the average voter. Much as in commerce, repeat orders, are an outcome of a rewarding, initial customer experience. Would you buy a Patanjali product the second time, merely because their turnover is increasing rapidly or because the initial customer experience pleased you? Voters are no different. Indivisible security and shared growth remain key touchstones of State credibility. The government must strive to achieve these.

 

What Karnataka foretells

File picture shows Prime Minister Narendra Modi drinking green tea during a tea ceremony in Tokyo.

The tea leaves, following the Karnataka elections, are as muddied as they were before it — a hung House, a history of unstable coalitions and in your face examples of money power and shabby politics all around.

Modi government a bell-weather for fiscal management

The BJP not getting a majority has spooked the financial markets. Frankly, it matters little which party or parties have a majority as long as it or they live through the five-year term, thereby allowing the outstanding administrators which Karnataka has to go about their jobs and for business to plan ahead. The Narendra Modi government is a bellwether for markets simply because it has demonstrated vastly superior capacity to get the rusty levers of government working.

Only Janata (S) gains from the mess

The only real gainer in Karnataka is a regional party — the Janata Dal (Secular) under the leadership of H.D. Deve Gowda, a former Prime Minister of India (June 1996 to April 1997) and his son H.D. Kumaraswamy. The latter was chief minister of Karnataka (February 2006 to October 2007), courtesy a power-sharing agreement with the BJP after the JD(S) walked out of a similar arrangement with the Congress in 2004. The record does not inspire confidence in its commitment to political stability.

Germany lived for six months without an elected government, why not Karnataka?

Having said that, Karnataka is not a backward state where political stability is critical for survival. Germany took nearly half a year to form a coalition government after inconclusive elections in September 2017 without any adverse economic consequences. Karnataka, like Germany, has a high capacity to absorb the absence of elected government. It is above the median, amongst Indian states, in its socio-economic indicators. It is one of the four major national hubs for the tech. industry. Services account for 60 per cent of the state’s domestic product. Per capita income is 20 per cent higher than the national average.

Yogendra Yadav, a veteran political analyst, has rightly said that the hung Assembly in Karnataka is a routine affair. It acquires significance only because of what it might foretell about political economy responses at the national level. Shorn of all jargon, the question is — will the BJP continue its reformist economic agenda or will it be abandoned for more populist measures, in the run-up to the spate of Assembly elections and the national election in 2019?

BJP’s desperation for power a self goal

Mr B.S. Yeddyurappa, the state BJP leader, on being invited by the governor, Mr Vajubhai Vala, to take charge as chief minister, quickly declared that farm loans, possibly amounting to `250 billion, are waived, even before he could prove his majority. This could be a panic attack, foretelling that the BJP may not find the numbers to cobble up a majority. If it does not, the unseemly political manoeuvring to gain power will be a self-goal.

Will Modi’s reforms take root?

The two biggest reforms that have been initiated by the Narendra Modi government are incentivising formalisation of the economy via the Goods and Services Tax and using the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Act to end the long festering, toxic ecosystem of Indian banks, which spawns stressed assets. Both actions increase tax revenues, reduce the pressure on public financial resources and control black money. These are signature reforms with significant economic gains. Imposing penalties on businessmen, who misuse or default on bank loans, has enormous popular support. Neither is likely to be abandoned by the Modi government.

The next two important achievements have been taming inflation whilst playing a careful sherpa to economic growth. Low international oil prices helped finance minister Arun Jaitley to liberalise the petroleum retail price regime whilst simultaneously raising additional revenues to reduce the fiscal deficit from 4.4 per cent of GDP in 2013-14 — the final year of the UPA — down to 3.5 per cent by 2016-17, where it has remained in 2017-18. Further reductions are tough. Inflation is likely to edge up to five per cent this fiscal driven by the oil price increase, whilst the fiscal deficit shall increase to four per cent of GDP.

Piyush Goyal a hard taskmaster – will not let tax revenue slip

Image result for free photos Piyush Goyal

It is unlikely that the new, interim finance minister, Piyush Goyal, will countenance any further deviation from the path of fiscal consolidation, lest it erode India’s credit rating. He is likely to keep inflation in check by adjusting Central taxes on petroleum to avoid the full impact of the oil price spike passing through into retail prices. But this revenue sacrifice will need correspondingly higher collections of income-tax and GST — a task that the present finance secretary Hasmukh Adhia is adept at. Monetising existing infrastructure assets, to get additional fiscal resources this year, will be an extension of what Mr Goyal was already doing as railway minister.

The blessings of a cheaper Rupee

It is not all doom and gloom. The rupee exchange rate has adjusted to more realistic levels as foreign investors reallocate their “hot” money to higher return jurisdictions. This is a blessing. Letting go of the fetish of a strong rupee can boost exports; contain imports; make domestic production more competitive and induce additional flows of long-term foreign direct investment into projects. Higher international oil prices also mean more net inward remittances from our citizens working in the Gulf countries, which will balance the external account.

Focus on budget announcements for liberalising agriculture

Quickly implementing the progressive announcements of Budget 2018-19 for agro-processing, liberalisation of domestic agricultural markets and agricultural exports — which has not been in the news since — can illustrate that the government walks the talk on a sustainable doubling of farmer incomes.

Pursue enhanced health care capacity 

Investing more in primary health via well-equipped “wellness centres” and insuring the poor against the ruinous costs of hospitalisation, via Ayushman Bharat, are powerful, scaled-up initiatives, which should be foregrounded.

Actions speak louder than words

If the BJP has a long-term economic vision for India, it needs to shun acting in a purely transactional manner in the near term, with an eye to squishing out all political opposition. It has taken the lead at the national level in ensuring probity. Doing the same in the states can show that the BJP rubber is meeting the road.

Adapted from the authors opinion piece in The Asian Age, May 19, 2018 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/190518/what-ktaka-foretells-not-all-gloom-doom.html

What the cash crunch foretells

Parliament's winter session

Conspiracy theorists are hard at work to identify the drivers behind the ongoing cash crunch, that has left the automated teller machines (ATMs) in cities and towns across large parts of the country dry. There is much finger pointing between the Reserve Bank of India and the commercial banks, both private and public sector, each accusing the other of being responsible for inefficient operations. It is unusual to see this level of discord, bordering on acrimony, between a regulator and the regulated entities.

Commercial banks bear the brunt of fuzzy policy objectives

The banks allege that the supply of high-value notes has dried up. The Bank Employees Union alleges that a shortage of imported printing ink at the currency press in Nashik could be one reason. Alternatively, this could be a covert attempt by the government to correct a problem dating back to the November 2016 demonetisation — the incomprehensible introduction of a Rs 2,000 note to replace the Rs 1,000 note as a measure to reduce black money. Phasing out the offensive new high-denomination note and stepping up the printing of new Rs 500 and Rs 200 notes instead is a more obvious and welcome blow against black money. The Ministry of Finance says Rs 70,000 crores worth of such “Hi-Value” notes can be printed in just one month. The value of such notes in circulation on March 31, 2017 (the last public data available) was Rs 7.5 Lakh Crore or ten times the value of such notes printable in just one month. So why a shortge ?

RBI waffles with poor communication

The Reserve Bank, unconvincingly, denies that there is any cash crunch and alleges the inefficiency of banks in properly allocating the available cash. Could this be a surgical strike by the banks and ATM service providers who have got unsettled by the criminal investigations into fraud or are upset with the March 2018 decision of the RBI to end the incentives for installing cash recyclers and ATMs for low-value notes? Was it their intention to embarrass the government by engineering a cash crunch to coincide with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visits to Sweden and the UK for the Commonwealth Summit? Possible, but far-fetched.

Cash remains king

cash is king

The most plausible reason is that the economy is reverting to its pre-demonetisation levels of cash held by the public of around 12 percent of GDP versus the hugely constrained post-demonetisation level of 9 percent of GDP in end of March 2017. Expectations were exaggerated on two counts. First, that the black economy would permanently be reduced. Second that digital and banked transactions could become uepreferred options. The second has indeed proved true. The use of cash by those who declare their incomes to tax, or even those below the tax levels, has reduced significantly.

But the big stick and carrots embedded in the Goods and Services Tax to incentivise the switch to banked transactions are not widely experienced yet. Systems and reporting compliance are clunky and curiously disadvantage the small, honest entrepreneur. Other small businesses may be unviable with a tax load.

RBI – bitten by the bug to ration currency, & create the “statistical” basis for “digital victory” 

Anecdotal evidence of how cash transactions are done show that post demonetisation, Rs 2000 has replaced the earlier Rs 1000 note as the preferred stock of currency held by high value entities and individuals. Unfortunately, RBI has squeezed the printing of this note. Prior to demonetisation, for every Rs 1000 note available, there were three Rs 500 and three Rs 100 notes. Post demonetisation, for every Rs 2000 note available, there are eight Rs 100 notes but just two Rs 500 notes available. RBI has curiously enlarged the relative supply of the highest value note (which is used mostly for individual stock of currency)  at the expense of having more transaction related currency in Rs 500 notes- possibly hoping that transactions would move to digital rather than remain in cash post demonetisation.

More importantly, not only has the overall quantum of currency, relative to GDP decreased, but even the share of Rs 500 and Rs 2000 notes, by value, in the total stock of currency has decreased, from 86 percent pre-domentisation to 73 percent in end March 2017 – possibly in expectation of individuals banking surplus stocks of money.

The ground reality is that the cash-based supply chain of goods and services is a subset of the demand for cash contributions, related to electoral politics. Highly contested elections are scheduled for mid-May in Karnataka and later this year in several other states. Cash resources will be needed to buy SUVs, print advertisements and motivate the lethargic population to vote.

Election Commission hesitates to adopt T.N. Seshan’s (ex-Chief Election Commissioner 1990-1996) muscular credo on mandate

ECI

Oddly, there is not a peep out of the Election Commission of India (ECI), which is charged with the responsibility of ensuring that election spending remains within the implausibly tight limit of Rs 20 to Rs 28 lakhs per candidate for Assembly elections. The EC has adopted an “end of the pipe” strategy. The intention is to catch the crooks once they show their hands via excess expenditure. A more proactive EC could have recognised the red flags of unusually high cash withdrawals unearthed by the media. It could have directed the Karnataka government to report on the ensuing potential for subversion of the code of conduct and the measures being taken to heighten border vigilance, to clamp down on cross-border transfers of cash. One can imagine former chief election commissioner T.N. Seshan diving through this open door for enhancing the regulatory ambit of the ECI. But today’s election commissioners appear to be content, at least overtly, with a narrower definition of their mandate, strictly as per the law.

RBI – a regulator at odds with its “caged parrot” status 

To speak the truth, the glory days of Indian regulatory institutions are over. Even the RBI, the first to be legislated into existence in 1934, is going through strained times. Demonetisation had spread the apprehension that the RBI was led by the nose from North Block in New Delhi. The extent of wilful defaults in the bad loans of public sector banks, often the consequence of ever-greening of impaired assets and plain fraud, also points a finger at the RBI for exercising inadequate oversight.

RBI governor Urjit Patel had appealed to the government through a public address on March 16 to bring public sector banks into a uniform regulatory arrangement as applicable to private banks. Domestic and international professionals support the broad thrust of a uniform regulatory arrangement for all banks. But the subsequent expose of the yawning deviations in ICICI Bank and Axis Bank from gold-standard board governance have cut the ground from under the governor’s feet.

Public credibility of commercial banks at its nadir

Mutual funds are upbeat about the prospects for equity investment in private banks. But the average person is inclined to quietly diversify away from private banks to the safe haven of public sector banks. Private insurance and healthcare are similarly perceived as being exploitative of the average consumer. It does not help that the Financial Resolution and Deposit Insurance Bill 2017 was worded so ambivalently that it fanned a deep seeded fear of savings deposits being sequestered as equity for resolving bankruptcy. Finance minister Arun Jaitley has been at pains to assure people that deposits up to Rs 1 lakh per account will remain guaranteed. But ministerial assurances provide very little comfort when elections are around the corner.

A common thread across this turbulence is uneven support from the government for beleaguered institutions and the absence of informed participation, quite unlike in the GST Council. RBI governor Patel bravely sat out the storm around the hasty implementation of the questionable policy option of demonetisation. But the Pandora’s box of crony capitalism has taken its toll. These are challenging times. Deeper bench strength, within the government, of trusted fiscal and financial expertise would help.

Adapted from the authors opinion piece in The Asian Age, April 21, 2018 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/210418/what-the-cash-crunch-foretells.html

India’s 50-50 reforms

half reforms

Unlike politicians, who can choose their targets, business leaders have to dance to the tune of  shareholders, who buy or sell, based on the existing or the future bottom line. In politics. it is relatively easy to change the goal posts or indeed, shift the goal itself.

Changing goals

In India, the current metric for political performance, is jobs. Self -selected by the Bharatiya Janata Party, this may become a self-goal because even globally, there are few, near-term solutions.Prior to jobs, in the noughties, it was all about boosting economic growth — where again headwinds have built up. Before growth, it was about ending poverty in the 1990s. Earlier, in the late 1960s and till the mid-1970s, it was about boosting agriculture, becoming self-sufficient in food and avoiding famines. Even further back in the 1950s, heavy industrialisation and infrastructure were the mantra. Of course all these are part of development. But sequencing matters. Also, pancaking more reform targets on the existing ones, confuses even the reformers.

Partial success abounds, but excellence less visible

Seventy years on, we are only narrowly competitive in manufacturing; our infrastructure is vast but shoddy; agriculture has low productivity levels; 40 per cent of us are either poor or are vulnerable to poverty; we are still stretching for sustained real growth in high single digits; unemployment is rife and the participation rate in the workforce is a low 44 to 48 per cent, with women faring worse than men.

This is not to trash what we have achieved. But it is useful to look beyond the efforts made by the successive governments, at the outcomes and ask the question, why are the results always worse than expected?

Elusive transformative change

Tribal protest

Transformative change is disruptive. We have been slow in embedding credible instruments to mitigate the cost of disruption. This increases the risk perception of change, leading to a public push-back on reforms. Consider how poorly we acquire land in public interest. The instruments for identifying, determining and managing the acquisition are loosely supervised, at the cost of ensuing inequity and poor transparency.  Massive amounts of mineral resources continue to lie buried in tribal areas, whilst tribes prefer to eke out a subsistence level traditional life, rather than participate in the process of development. The overriding fear of every property owner, or occupier, is of being gypped in the process of acquisition, by forces beyond their control. In a democracy we cannot ignore insulating people, especially the poor, from the cost of disruption.

Public trust and credibility in short supply

Managing change successfully, requires a governance system good at modern parenting rather than a patriarchal approach to directing and controlling people and events. Our governance systems still follow the colonial legacy of collaborating with entrenched elites to get things done, somehow. Those affected at the bottom become a hindrance rather than participants. There is very limited institutional appetite or capacity to deal directly, as a change agent, with those who are most affected by change. Even when specific processes, like consultation are provided for, the approach degenerates to ticking the box, rather than using the opportunity to gather feedback on the process, test assumptions and obtain buy-in for the way forward.

“Accountable discretion” is not an oxymoron

It does not help that there is a near ubiquitous ban on the transparent use of executive discretion — prompted by misuse of the privilege in the past and a judicial preference for impossibly rigid rules, regardless of their negative impact on implementation.Consider, for example, the burgeoning non-performing loans of banks. The rule bound approach to bank lending insures the lender- manager, if sufficient security against the loan existed, on paper, when the loan is approved. The focus is on achieving secured lending targets rather than adding economic value. This makes gold plating of projects, to increase the notional value of an asset, a mutually convenient tactic between the lender and the borrower, especially at times when the real lending rate is low. Never mind that it can adversely affect the project’s viability and thereby the repayment capacity of the borrower. The public sector no longer trusts its employees. But ending supervised, executive discretion has significant efficiency costs.

Chasing impossible scale 

We succumb easily, to the insidious temptation to effect instant change at sub-continental levels, rather than build change, bottom upwards, block by block. India is heterogenous without parallel. For us, the political model should be Europe, rather than China. Multi party politics in India requires sufficient elbow room for diverse political agendas. The political architecture may prescribe the objectives and principles of public management. But being flexible in program implementation is a must.

The Constitution fixed past challenges, but under-provides for the future

Our constitution reflects the challenges faced at the time of independence rather than today’s priorities. Integration fears at the time led to a centrist constitution. This is what enabled the Union government in 1959 to dismiss the first elected E M S Namboodiripad government of Kerala. The governor of a state, appointed by the President, acting on the advice of the Union government, is another centrist feature as are the emergency powers of the Union government.

Overlapping mandates

The capacity constraints existing at independence shaped the lop-sided division of mandates between the Union and the state governments, with the former unduly burdened. The sub-state or local government came into existence only through a 1993 constitutional amendment.Delhi is a good example of poor inter-governmental allocation of mandate resulting in a governance logjam. Overlapping mandates confuse citizens. and reduce accountability. Consider that Members of Parliament get elected by getting drains made and Members of Legislative Assemblies by promising higher prices for agricultural products or by proposing a separate flag for their state — all areas outside their mandates.

Poor arrangements for resource management

The constitutional scheme for recruitment and management of the bureaucracy is unduly complex and diffuses accountability. Officials must be “owned” by the level of government they serve. Fiscal resources, at every level of the government, must be aligned with form, which should fit the functions executed at that level.

Avoid the Banyan Tree 

banyan tree

The top-down, centrist approach has the disadvantage of an overblown apex crushing the little people below. Remember, nothing grows under the Banyan tree.Change, sensitive to mitigating the costs thereof, flexible implementation of norms driven from below, with primacy for real value addition can deliver 100 per cent results in reforms.

 

Adapted from the author’s opinion piece in the Business Standard, March 27, 2018 http://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/india-s-half-baked-reforms-why-are-the-results-always-worse-than-expected-118032601102_1.html#

BJP’s new script – defending the losers

Modi grim

Thus far, the BJP has played to a core script of development; a more effective State and muscular nationalism, fanned by Hindu revivalism and an assertive foreign policy stance. This has resulted in a “tick all the boxes” type strategy, with the central focus being on winning elections. This strategy has paid rich dividends politically.
But some of the steam appears to be leaking out of this construct.

Admittedly, more Indians still put their faith in the BJP than in any other party – not least because of its charismatic Prime Minister – Narendra Modi. But voters are notoriously fickle. A politician is only as good as the last bag of goodies delivered to supporters. The BJP needs a strategy to generate goodwill in a more sustainable manner.

One option is to systematically address the concerns of those who have fallen through the cracks of the neo-liberal, open economy model we have followed since the 1990s. Of course, in doing so, the BJP will have to distinguish itself from populism and vote buying, which is the hall mark of a failed politician. Here are some options.

Protect children from malnutrition

stunted

First, we have smashed the pre-1980s growth, glass ceiling of 4 per cent per year, also called the “Hindu rate of growth”. Sustained growth reduced poverty to around 20 per cent with an additional 20 per cent teetering on the edge of the abyss of poverty. But it is shocking that 40% of children remain malnourished and not all of them are poor.

Unless a child is adequately nourished in the first eight years, there is a high likelihood of permanent damage to its brain. Clean air (to increase lung capacity), clean water (to avoid diarrhea) and micronutrient rich food can guard against stunting. Unless this is done, we are continually handicapping around 90 million kids or 7 percent of our population, from childhood.

Spending today, on these three inputs – clean air, clean water and nutritious food, is well worth the avoided economic cost of perpetually sustaining a stunted population of around 500 million. Do the math if you are not convinced. Consider also, that looking ahead, the quality of the human brain and not brawn, will determine if a nation succeeds or fails.

Social protection for the elderly- 50+ and poor

old man 2

Second, experts agree that the capacity of the average human brain to learn and innovate decreases sharply with age. Start up India, Make in India, Mudra – loans for MSMEs, all benefit those under 50 years of age, who retain the vitality to do new things. For those above 50, who have been thrown out of jobs or others who have never held a job, there is little on offer, except the back-breaking NREGA.

SKILLS India is also not a solution for them because failure rates in adult education are very high. Around 6 percent of the people above 50 years of age, or 80 million people, are poor. They could never have saved for their old age. Also, poverty is sticky and disadvantages entire families. Even their children must be barely able to keep body and soul together.

Cash benefits for this set of 80 million, at a paltry Rs 1000 per person per month would cost Rs 1 trillion per year. A progressive annual cash allocation, increasing with age, as the likelihood of doing gainful work decreases, would be sensible. This is expensive but an inevitable cost of our past public transgressions.

In addition, they must get free basic medical insurance schemes, allowing them to seek in and out-patient treatment, at any registered clinic for free, just like the middle class and rich do. This way the elderly poor will cease to be a burden on their children. The cash and other benefits for supporting the girl child have worked well. So can, a benefits scheme for the elderly poor.

Respect land ownership rights

Third, liberalization, whilst creating enormous private wealth, also generates inequalities. There are losers who fall through the cracks. Take our historic failure to provide credible commitment that acquisition would “cause no harm” to land holders. The common apprehension is that bank financed, land acquisition, incentivizes excess acquisition for speculation. It also robs the land holder of the ensuing value creation.

This creates resistance and fear. Even the latest version of the Land Acquisition Act is backward looking. It merely seeks to “compensate losers”. It should explicitly provide for “sharing of the ensuing value creation” between the land holder, the project developer and the government, using a Participative, Public, Private Partnership (PPPP) model.

land protest

India is land starved. The ownership of this valuable asset must be respected as an equity contribution to new projects, with pre-defined, time bound returns, insured by the government. Even “public purpose” must bow to the rule of law, which upholds the property rights of land-owners.

Penal sanctions for public delinquency

Lastly, some tough love is necessary to improve our public services. We should legislate – “The Public Services Act” – sanctioning those who fail to use the fiscal resources put at their disposal; we must attach criminal penalties to public actions which result in public harm, due to lack of due diligence whilst budgeting or poor implementation of projects.

death 2

If citizens die in road accidents because an ambulance cannot ferry them, in time, to hospitals; if hospitals negligently harm, not cure patients; if defective public buses, trucks, aircraft, ferries and ships are allowed to ply, resulting in deaths; if shoddy public construction causes death or disability; if an official values her time more than the life of a citizen in urgent need or if a citizen dies because the police is away on VIP duty, the delinquent officials must be held accountable. Only then can the right public service culture and moral fiber be created, so necessary, to deal with the ceaseless challenges in public life. It cannot be a one-way street with only citizens serving the State.

Also available at TOI Blogs, December 31, 2017 https://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/bjps-new-script-defending-the-losers/

The two conundrums of the Modi government

DOKLAM

The Narendra Modi government poses two conundrums for citizens. First, citizens want an effective government, like PM Modis. But they also value and actively guard their rights. Making a colonial-style government gallop, often means cutting corners and turning a blind eye to the encroachment of citizens’ rights. We are still very far from being China, where even the option to negotiate a tradeoff, between effectiveness and rights, does not exist. For PM Modi reforming the government — a long-delayed, unpleasant, plumbing task — is one way to reduce the starkness of the tradeoff as it exists today.

Harsh on corruption soft on criminality

criminals

Second, there is a yawning gap between the proactivity of government in ending corruption and the business-as-usual approach to ending criminality. For the average citizen, criminality is far more worrying than corruption. A government which does not consistently impose the rule of law uniformly loses credibility over time. The djinns unleashed by allowing hired goons to massacre Sikhs in 1984 or by allowing kar sevaks to bring down the Babri Masjid in December 1992 still haunt us.

Going up the down escalator, is hard work and wasteful

The dead weight of poor governance practices and a predilection for unorthodox solutions, to show quick results, create a drag on its otherwise creditable efforts — just like a person running up the down escalator. Switching escalators can help. But this requires a change in ideology to put growth with jobs and a crackdown on criminality first.

Growth slows

Growth has taken a hit. Fiscal 2018 will end with a probable 6.5 per cent growth and the terminal year of the Narendra Modi government — Fiscal 2019 — with seven per cent. The average growth will then be one percentage point lower than under the previous government — a point Dr Manmohan Singh repeatedly emphasises to show that this government is only about hype.

But growth is not the only metric of governance

But this is being uncharitable to the BJP government. Growth is just one of the metrics of good governance. The open economy model spits out growth but often without jobs and with growing inequality, corruption and criminality. At some point, an efficient and purposeful tradeoff can be made between higher growth and more rounded social and economic outcomes, like social protection and investing in human development. Growth has been affected because drags like the accumulated stressed assets of banks trap them into recycling credit to discredited corporate borrowers to keep the accounts “healthy”, crowding out credit to others, who could build the future. This is slowly being rectified. But the steps towards building a more responsible banking culture, to avoid reoccurrence, are not yet visible.

New beginnings in infrastructure and connectivity

metro2

Poor infrastructure and high transaction costs are another drag on growth. Higher allocations of public finance for infrastructure; doubling the rate of highway development; modernising ports and railways; tripling the number of airports connected with regular flights; promoting the free flow of goods across state borders, are positive steps to reduce the drag on growth. Allowing the overvalued rupee to realign with its real value can boost exports to meet reviving overseas demand and level the playing field for domestic producers versus seemingly cheap imports.

There is little near-term hope for private job creation

Job creation is doing worse than growth, increasing inequality, because jobs in services and manufacturing are being axed at the middle and lower end. Even in agriculture, higher productivity will depend on using machines for tasks currently done by humans, and changing regulations to allow leasing-in land for scaled-up commercial farming — again at the expense of jobs.

Reversing the trend of declining public sector employment could help. We need more specialised skills, directly linked to service delivery — nurses, doctors, teachers, engineers, accountants, tax professionals and lawyers. Better talent can be attracted by linking salary and benefits to specific positions, filled through open competition, rather than through a cadre, as they are today. The Modi government has made some lateral appointments at the highest level. But a comprehensive policy for reforming government appointments is sorely needed.

Despite the rough edges PM Modi enjoys respect and credibility

Modi mask

Quixotically, the levels of public trust and credibility that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has generated, within India and abroad, is unprecedented since the days of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Admittedly, his supporters are overwhelmingly upper and middle-caste Hindus, though a tentative outreach to the lower castes, dalits and tribals has started. The minorities are caught in the “appeasement”and “alienation” paradox. Their “alienation” today is explained as an inevitable consequence of ending the practice of “appeasement” of earlier governments, to retain them as votebanks. The BJP is less ideologically committed to social and religious diversity than it is to forge a uniform national identity — China style. China faces potential social unrest — a drag on growth. We cannot afford another drag on growth.

Democracy incentivizes  political rhetoric

Democracy is about winning elections, forming stable governments, governing efficiently and ensuring justice. The BJP government has shown it can do three of the four very well. Turning up the heat on corruption has become the leitmotif of the BJP government. The costly demonetisation exercise; the rapid rolling out of the GST despite the associated implementation glitches; the strong action against corporate founders defaulting on bank loans or short-changing customers and suppliers; rapid financial inclusion and the promotion of bank and digital financial transactions to replace the use of cash — all these are initial steps towards combating corruption, increasing tax revenues and improving corporate governance.

But are we doing enough to reign in criminality?

More must be done to reduce the drag of widespread criminality. Reforming the election system to root out criminals; working with the Supreme Court to reform the dilatory judicial process and speed up the delivery of justice; enlarging the reach of judicial services; and reforming the police and prosecution systems are critical to reduce the drag imposed by shoddy implementation of the rule of law.

Use 2018 to consolidate past initiatives with just two new beginnings

2017 was a year of significant disruption and of useful beginnings. 2018 should be devoted to consolidation of ongoing initiatives rather than the scheme-a-month, headline-grabbing strategy of the past three years. Two new beginnings would, however, be welcome.

First, steps to compensate for the collateral damage caused to business, employment and incomes by hurried attempts to show results and win elections. Second, defined pathways to reaffirm the wider social compact between the government and all citizens.

inter faith 2

Adapted from the authors article in The Asian Age, December 28, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/281217/protect-rights-of-all-or-itll-be-drag-on-growth.html

“Demonetisation” as a morality play

The politics around “demonetisation” — a misused term for what happened on November 8, 2016 — has taken centerstage in the run-up to the Assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh (that voted yesterday) and Gujarat (which goes to the polls in December). Finance minister Arun Jaitley has added “morality” to the cluster of objectives, that seemingly justified compulsorily replacing 86 per cent of our currency with new notes over a short period of just two months last year.

Whose morality?

Morality is a slippery slope to tread in public affairs. It’s certainly an individual virtue, but at a societal level it’s difficult to define. Consider the moral conundrums that arise while enforcing a law which doesn’t have widespread local acceptance. Rebels with a cause see themselves as morally-elevated outliers. Not so long ago, our freedom fighters were feted for disrupting the peace, assassination or damaging public property. Even today in areas like Kashmir or the Maoist belt in central India, it’s tough to apportion the balance of morality between those who violate the law and others who seek to enforce it.

Our Constitution, quite properly, is silent about “morality”. A quasi-moral concept of “socialism” was introduced in 1976 into the preamble, by former PM Indira Gandhi, as a populist measure. But it sits incongruously with the otherwise liberal slant of the document.

Corruption is patently immoral as it saps national wealth. Measures to fight corruption are part of public dharma. The real issue is: was demonetisation essential to end corruption?

Demonetisation to identify counterfeit money like using a hammer to kill a bug

If the objective was to weed out counterfeit money, which can fund terrorism or even legal transactions, there was no need to impose a tight timeframe of two months. This is what caused widespread panic and disruption. It would have been enough to alert the public to the menace; provide markets (banks already have them) with testing devices to weed out “compromised” notes over time. This is an ongoing activity, that all central banks do routinely, because any note (besides crypto currencies) can be counterfeited.

Better policing can identify & capture the stocks of black cash

If the objective was to capture the stocks of “black” money, held as cash, in one fell swoop, this was better done by making known “havens” of “black” cash — apparently entire warehouses — unsafe for storage through effective enforcement, coupled with strong incentives to come clean. Note that “black” money hasn’t gone away.

Black money was generated even as the notes were being replaced

Demonetisation can do very little to stop generation of black money. The government knows this. It intends to use “big data” for surveillance of potential evaders; embed governance systems with enhanced oversight and enhance transparency. Only improved technology and perpetual, intensive oversight can starve this hydra.

Was it political?

Not least the timing of the move, just before the elections in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, which sends the largest number of members to the Rajya Sabha, where the BJP didn’t have a majority, could indicate the compulsion to play to the gallery. If this was the motive it worked very well politically — not least, because UP is a poor state with low governance indicators and high levels of inequality. Hitting the rich is a tested populist strategy, perfected by former PM Indira Gandhi, and still held dear by our antiquated Communist parties.

Would Gandhiji have approved?

But demonetisation doesn’t align with Mahatma Gandhi’s precept that “means matter as much as ends”. Hitting tangentially at corruption, at the cost of scorching even the law-abiding, is unacceptable. Anti-corruption measures which ignore the social and economic collateral cost of implementation are suspect. The State has an asymmetric, fiduciary relationship of trust with citizens. Did it live up to its dharma of insulating the honest from State-induced actions intended to harm the corrupt?

Some positives – nudged people towards digital and banked transactions

Undoubtedly, demonetisation did accelerate a shift towards banked transactions and boosted digital payments. Both outcomes are winners. But it’s also true that it put a temporary brake on economic growth by disrupting business and inducing job losses, mostly in the informal sector, where workers and the self-employed are less well paid, and less well-endowed to absorb the cost of a disruption.

Means matter as much as ends

Seemingly desirable steps to make the system honest can have grossly inequitable outcomes, which Gandhiji would have termed “immoral”. It’s possible to reduce corruption by replacing income-tax with a “head tax”. Citizens are more easily identifiable than their income, so very few would be able to escape this tax. If a “head tax” were to replace income-tax, each citizen would pay Rs 3,600 per year. But consider, for 40 per cent of the population, which is vulnerable to poverty, the head tax would be a minimum 12 per cent of even the poverty level income of $1.90 per day. Currently, even an income of Rs 10 lakhs (Rs 1 million), or 22 times the poverty level income, attracts a low effective tax rate. Protecting the weak is cumbersome. It creates tax escape routes, which need to be plugged with minimum collateral damage to the weak and the honest.

GST the first efficient, corruption buster

The good news is that the Narendra Modi government has got it bang-on with its second major corruption-busting initiative: the Goods and Services Tax (GST). Implemented from July 1, 2017, it has also disrupted business and compounded job losses, arising from the shutting down of businesses, which relied on the illegal competitive advantage of avoiding tax. GST is a potent standalone, medium-term winner. This expectation mitigates the interim economic “amorality” arising from the collateral harm to innocent workers and suppliers to such businesses. The proactivity of the GST Council in correcting mistakes and acknowledging errors has only deepened its credibility and conveyed a sense of responsible stewardship. This is welcome.

Compensate for the distress & dislocation

cashless

Demonetisation was misguided even if it had “moral” end-objectives. One-fifth of our population, which suffered the most, is in the income segment of Rs 50,000 to Rs 5 lakhs (0.5 million) per year, being workers and those self-employed in the informal sector. They have still not been compensated. Hopefully, the finance minister will apply some balm in his 2018-19 Budget and bring this tragic “morality play” to a happy end.

Adapted from the author’s opinion piece in The Asian Age, November 10, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/101117/end-morality-play-its-a-misfit-in-eco-policy.html#vuukle-emotevuukle_div

Is hubris slowing down Modi?

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

FM Jaitley, aim for the sweet spot

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

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