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Archive for the ‘Democracy’ Category

Modi@Davos – Jawboning the future

Davos

Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be winging it to frosty Davos for the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting next weekend, his bete-noire — Congress president Rahul Gandhi — has decided to be different and spend the coming week in his parliamentary constituency of Amethi, in rural Uttar Pradesh. Both seek inspiration and support. But from very different sources.

A shared future less likey than a dystopian nightmare

famished

As usual, bombast is expected to rule at Davos. Consider the title of this year’s meet — “Creating a Shared Future in a Fractured World”. It completely obfuscates the fact that everything the world has done over the past 40 years has conspired to keep the majority share of the fruits of development within the elites. The rising inequality and congealing wealth at the very top is witness to the failure of the open economy model to deliver growth benefits across the population. China’s President Xi Jinping contested this proposition in his address at Davos last year. Yes, China has lifted 700 million people out of poverty — more than any other nation. But relative poverty has increased even in China.

As if this was not enough, automation and artificial intelligence shall, over the next two decades, push ever greater masses of unfortunates outside the virtuous cycle of income enrichment. This is a prime concern for India, with 60 per cent of our current population less than 31 years of age.

It doesn’t end there. Once we create this dystopian world in which the few, engaged humans work within an insulated eco-system of high tech, the large mass of humanity will be on the outside looking in. They would be fed by subsidies thrown at them. Consider that block chain if applied widely to everyday transactions can scupper the employment of auditors, accountants, lawyers and judges — all of whom earn a living out of the problem of authenticating facts. Possibly, the efficiency benefits of automation may be high enough to finance generous handouts to the losers. But it would be a sorry society surviving on aid, rather than individual effort. We know already how debilitating aid dependency is.

This model of growth is not sustainable and needs to be junked. But it is unclear what should replace it. Davos is unlikely to help in that direction. There is never time at Davos to get beyond the breaking news.

The silver lining – WEF exaggerates the fear of a fracturing world

Consider also the assertion that the world is a more fractured place today that it was a few years ago. Nothing could be further from the truth. Just last year at Davos, China, a habitual outlier, took the lead to reinforce the need for world integration. Compare this with the China of just 40 years ago — which was not even a member of the World Bank, and which joined the World Trade Organisation only in 2001. The rapid increase in the share of domestic GDP exported today is another indication that the world has shrunk, not fractured.

Show me the money

Davos is more about striking deals than philosophising about the world order. Prime Minster Modi is a consummate deal-maker. So, expect some significant commercial action at Davos. After all, Davos is not the United Nations, where nations talk at each other. It is a forum for leveraging business opportunities through public-private partnerships.

India a leader in frugal innovation

Frugal

India has already thrown its hat into the ring of frugal innovation in space technology, with our Mars mission. Davos would be a good opportunity to emphasise the peaceful development of missile technology by India — in stark and sharp contrast to China, Pakistan and North Korea.

Unparalleled deep fiscal and institutional reform

No country has taken steps, on the scale we have, to root out corruption using digital technology, banked transactions and the Goods and Services Tax. These have together negatively impacted economic growth in the short term. To be sure, there have been glitches along the way. But steadfast remedial action is delivering financial inclusion for all. This is more than just an economic revolution since it goes to the heart of culture and social practices.

Conquering terror

Mr Modi was one of the first to warn the developed world that terrorism was a hydra which strikes rich and poor alike. India has for long suffered cross-border terrorism, which seeks to incite an alternative religious reality to Indian Muslims, who are a significant minority. India’s foundations are secular.

India is quintessentially liberal and entrepreneurial.

India was a secular country even before the term “secular” was inserted, somewhat unnecessarily, into the preamble of our Constitution in 1977, during the Emergency, by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Also, despite the term “socialist” having been inserted into the Constitution at the same time, India has never been a Socialist country.  Land ownership has always been personal in India. The concept of property rights is deeply embedded into our culture. The state-owned industrial monoliths — the visible outcomes of “socialism” and the entire employment in the government sector, has never exceeded around five per cent of total employment. If there is one thing India is known by it is the spirit of entrepreneurship. The government is trying to liberate “animal spirits” through light touch regulation, the rule of law and supportive infrastructure.

Can POTUS & Modi queer President Xi’s, 2017 play as “leader of the world”

POTUS

US President Donald Trump seems to have upset Prime Minister Modi’s moment at WEF. The ebullient and volatile POTUS is likely to garner all the sunshine. But Mr Modi is sure to use their joint appearance at Davos. He will fashion events and his remarks in a manner which point to a genuine partnership between the United States, Europe, Japan, Southeast Asia and India. Together, these economic actors contribute nearly two-thirds of the current world GDP. More important, they share some institutional and cultural attributes, which even by the jaded standards of today, can be called morally superior — like due regard for citizens’ rights and a commitment to enhancing the transparency with which the State functions.

Some homework may show that India walks the talk on shared growth

sharing

Davos will be a tough challenge for Prime Minister Modi. He needs a credible story to explain why growth — the holy grail of the Davos crowd — has lagged in India even as growth has picked up world-wide. It would be great if he could substantiate that while headline growth has lagged, shared growth has increased, particularly if the 116 backward districts (out of 593 total districts in the country), identified by NITI Aayog have, contributed more than their share in GDP to growth.

That, after all, is the growth model the World Economic Forum is looking for.

Adapted from the author’s opinion piece in The Asian Age January 13, 2018 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/oped/130118/modidavos-a-new-kind-of-challenge.html

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

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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

BJPs half-win in Gujarat

gujarat-elections

The David versus Goliath battle in Gujarat Assembly elections has ended, as expected, with Rahul Gandhi failing to pry away the State from the BJP. But the Modi magic has been dented, particularly with the slim margin of victory and the loss of his home constituency of Unja. With a 41% plus vote share the Congress has reasserted its political credibility in the state.

What is the glue which binds the 41% plus vote share of the Congress?

Of course, it remains to be seen, how well the glue, which holds the Congress together, sticks. State level legislative assemblies do not function in a manner which provides the opposition a forum for high profile “statesmanship” as should be the norm in parliamentary democracies. It is pretty much a zero-sum game with the executive getting most of the face time.

gujarat-elections Gandhi

Five corrective steps for the BJP 

So, will the Congress leave the BJP in the dust, in the general elections of 2019? Yes, it may, unless the BJP takes five corrective steps – broaden its core leadership; roll out public jobs; junk Hindu consolidation; push federal decision-making in education and health and go hell for leather in rolling out infrastructure.

Broaden the core leadership

First, the BJP should seriously consider bolstering the public profiles of their state chief ministers and rely on them to win the state elections rather than just on the Prime Minister’s charisma. MP, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan are coming up for elections in 2018.

It is ironical, that such homilies were once regularly directed at the dynastic Congress, which had systematically decimated its state level leadership to ward of “pretenders” to the Gandhi fiefdom. Today, it is the BJP, once a party of open entry and merit, which needs to go back to the future.

2019 will be traumatic if state level BJP leadership sits on its hands, whilst only the Shah-Modi combine toil.

Create publicly funded jobs as an interim filler

gujarat-photostory-Hardik

Second, if young voters are to be attracted to the BJP, it is jobs, which will do the trick. There is precious little the BJP can do, over the next two years, to turn around the gloomy situation on jobs in the private sector. But there is nothing to stop it from recruiting youngsters for government. Done strategically, every person given a job, creates hope in at least ten others. If government can increase employment by a million people, ten million others feel hopeful.

Even in the civilian (excluding the military) part of the central government, employment has declined by around 2,00,000 since 2001. There are 4,20,000 unfilled positions today. In the broader public sector, which includes all state and local governments, employment has fallen by 2 million since the peak, in 1995, of 19.5 million. Filling up these 2 million jobs provides hope to 20 million youngsters. This is a no-brainer.

Junk the strategy of Hindu consolidation

Third, the strategy of consolidating the Hindu vote. It is dead in the water. Prime Minister Modi must revert to his 2014 vision of a multicultural, meritocratic nation for the good of all citizens, with no obeisance to caste or religious divides, for narrow political ends. Hindus are not under threat in India, nor is their culture under threat of being swamped.

The minorities need to feel that they are a minority, only nominally. That being a minority is only an arithmetic fact. That what they can achieve for themselves, their families and society, is limited only by their own inhibitions and not by an unsupportive state architecture.

Just as surely, putting the young in touch with their roots; correcting history, where it may have been written with a bias; building a national consensus on language and cultural policy, are all legitimate State objectives. State actions seem menacing only when they are a cloak for achieving partisan political ends.

Extend the federal council concept (GST) to education & health

Fourth, political federalism has taken a backseat beyond implementation of the GST. The central government must broad base this principle with respect to areas in the concurrent list of the constitution, where both the Union government and the state government have a mandate to legislate. Education and health are two key areas.

Clones of the GST council could be formally created in education and health, to make decisions on allocation and utilization of funds, participative and consensual. India lags, even many developing countries in Sub Saharan Africa, on education and health metrics. Joined up action; significant expansion in the public education and health services; leveraging technology to improve the quality of services and a doubling of budgetary outlays in both sectors are reforms which can be implemented in the short term. Just focusing on these basic services can spread a warm, nurturing glow amongst voters.

Gap filling of infrastructure better then new projects

Fifth, focus on completing last mile gaps in infrastructure rather than new projects to maximize value creation. Jobs, better connectivity, lower transaction costs – all flow from public investment in this sector. Some innovation is needed. Crowd sourcing small infrastructure can reduce the fiscal burden.

More significantly, this makes private citizens and entities feel like partners not just recipients of public largesse. Assuring decent returns on private funds contributed in this manner will help. Think – functional street lights; road over or under passes for pedestrians; public toilets; better public transport; better water supply.

Bulk up budget re-allocation resources for infra, edu & health by 3% of GDP

The fiscal situation is already under severe stress. The money will need to be found by reallocating the existing funds. Additional funds to the tune of 3 per cent of GDP need to be directed towards health, education and infrastructure. Cutting back on defense allocations and starving peripheral departments of funds can achieve this objective over the next two years.

fort

The BJP has been on a winning streak thus far. It is now time to defend the political fortress it has built. How it goes about doing so, will make the difference between a fractured, weak India in 2020 or a progressive, forward looking nation, fulfilling citizen aspirations.

Also available at TOI Blogs December 18, 2017  https://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/bjps-half-win-in-gujarat/

“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

FM Jaitley’s press meet – more lobs than ground strokes

Jaitley lobs

What was Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley’s press conference on Tuesday all about anyway? If the intention was to gain eyeballs, it succeeded. But if it was to allay fears about the Indian economy, it failed. Here is why.

Misguided choice of communication medium

First, the optics were all wrong. The finance minister had just returned from the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank in Washington. The timing required talking up the economy in a more artful way, drawing on international trends, in rethinking the role of the State in development. Instead, the assembled press corps got drab statistics. The naysayers remain unconvinced that the economy is doing fine. Presenting alternative indicators — other than those already in the public domain — could have helped. For example, the government has reduced risk by conferring residency tax benefits for local administrative offices of multinational companies. Similarly, GST revenue is marginally more than the targets for the first quarter.

Recycled “kosher” ideas for fudging data on the fiscal deficit

Second, the key “announcement” was a proposed outlay of `2.1 trillion for recapitalising public sector banks over two years. This was presented as a “bold” step. But how is it going to be achieved without relaxing the fiscal deficit target of 3.2 per cent of GDP this year and 3 percent next year? The budgeted outlay, for capital support to publicly-owned banks is just Rs 200 billion till FY 2019. Where will the “additional” resources come from? The how and when remains a mystery – though speculation, some of it inspired by the views of Chief Economic Adviser, Arvind Subramanian, abound.

FM Jaitley unhappy at being trapped

The finance ministry has a long, credible tradition of technical expertise. The Prime Minister can get away with making generic promises, as he has done in Gujarat, of a tax amnesty for small business, for past misdeeds. But finance ministers are required to be very precise. They can’t waffle. They must not seem to be led by advice, whispered into their ears, while a press conference is on. This, unfairly, makes the finance minister look feeble, or worse, being led by the nose.

arvind subramanian and jaitley

Mr Jaitley fell squarely into these traps. To his credit, he looked decidedly unhappy and uncomfortable while doing so. It is inconceivable that this media jamboree was his idea. Just back from Washington, where “best fit” fiscal practices are the main discourse, resorting to fuzzy announcements, which create high expectations and uncertainty, is not par for the course.

It’s the politics stupid

So what explains Mr Jaitley going down this route? After all, the Budget is just three months away. The sanctity of placing new budgetary proposals before Parliament, prior to revealing them to the public, is a sound convention. The only explanation is that the press meet was convened to boost the feel-good factor prior to the Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat elections, due over the next two months. Recapitalising banks sounds good. Building infrastructure sounds even better. If this was the intention, Mr Jaitley was right to look uncomfortable. Nothing stops the Union government from doing its job, even as state elections are being held. But a red line must be drawn at presenting significant new fiscal proposals, that are not already embedded in the existing fiscal roadmap.

Stick to your instincts Finance Minister

Mr Jaitley’s instincts remain sound. He will try hard not to breach the fiscal deficit target. He will resist reducing the capital outlay. He must also resist forcing cash-rich, listed publicly-owned companies to subscribe to the special recapitalisation bonds proposed to be floated by public sector banks. Listed, publicly-owned companies must be managed by their boards, and insulated from politics, at least with respect to their investments. Anything else is very unfair for the minority shareholders and the Securities and Exchange Board of India is duty-bound to resist such moves — however bizarre that may sound!

Deepen equity divestment in publicly owned banks & companies

Generating Rs 580 billion by selling-off government equity held in excess of 51 per cent in banks is a good idea for a start. A better idea is to dilute government equity even further to 26 per cent without relinquishing effective control. The government does not need more equity to ensure that the public interest continues to be served. We must resolve the legal obstacles which prevent such dilution of equity.Using disinvestment proceeds to inject public finance into private companies, which create growth and jobs, is a great idea. But doing so via the chosen long route of public sector bank recapitalisation is worrisome. Unless management systems are restructured, politicised loans and NPAs will persist. This cannot be achieved by 2019.

Use equity divestment proceeds to refinance private NBFCs for MSME business

What can be done is to use disinvestment resources to refinance private banks and non-banking finance companies, who in turn finance end-use borrowers, including small and medium enterprises (SME), to scale up operations. The unmet financing needs of SMEs are estimated at Rs 65 billion. But this could be an underestimate, not least because of their widespread use of cash or unbanked transactions. The share of manufacturing SMEs in GDP is seven per cent, or just under 50 per cent of total manufacturing GDP. Their most immediate financing need is to discount their invoices and thereby reduce the 60-to-90-day payment cycle which saps their cash reserves.

Scale up private, boutique, supply-chain finance providers

Private specialised companies offering boutique supply-chain financing already exist. The largest is reputed to be the New Delhi-based Priority Vendors Technologies Pvt Ltd. founded by Kunal Agarwal in 2015 (http://www.priorityvendor.com)But these early entrants tend to finance only the payables and receivables of large, star-rated corporates who buy from, or sell goods and services to, smaller ancillary firms. There are 5,000 large corporates. Compare this with 1.6 million registered SMEs.

We have barely scratched the surface of the potential for supply-chain financing. Saturation levels of financing can alleviate the cash crunch, at the firm level, caused by the GST regime of advance tax payments coupled with the delays, in “matching” tax credits, earned on purchases, before they can be used by firms, to pay taxes.

Jaitley ground strokes

India is replete with good ideas. The finance minister could have unleashed an array of nimble steps, which can lubricate the economy, reduce risk and create jobs. But, by not grounding Tuesday’s press meet around a friendly conversation about the nitty-gritty of unleashing private potential and mitigating the hardships arising out of GST, this opportunity was lost. There will surely be another time. But will we be prepared by then to grasp the tide at its flood?

Adapted from the authors article in The Asian Age, October 26, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/261017/wheres-the-big-idea-fm-got-optics-wrong.html

Xi and Modi – joined at the hip

xi-jinping

Prime Minister Modi and scores of democratically elected leaders, must envy Xi Jinping the President and “uncrowned emperor” of China. The serried rows of compliant and attentive members of the People’s Congress, seated, as if pinned, to identical red upholstery; displaying endless patience through Xi’s three and a half hour over-long, speech, without once dozing off or interrupting with a “point of order”. All this must seem like a dream to our leaders, used as they are, to rambunctious legislatures, more eager to speak- often all together – than to listen.

China shines

china2

Clearly, China has something to be chuffed about. Its model of socialism with “Chinese characteristics” cut away the romantic nonsense of socialist collectivism and recognizes that private enterprise and (less strongly) markets, create wealth, rather than good intentioned, tight, public-sector management. By combining private enterprise with a strong government and political stability, the Chinese model borrows the best from different ideologies. China gets an A for creating national wealth and for distributing it – poverty was down to just 2 percent in 2014 versus 21.2 percent in India (per World Bank definition $1.9 PPP (2011) per person per day).

But a more benign social policy beckons 

dissent

But the jury is out on whether an authoritarian State can nurture citizen centric growth. How long can the iron hand of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) continue to rule China absolutely? Will the Chinese middle class not replicate the autonomy and democracy movement of Hong Kong? These are current concerns. This much is evident, from the new Xi doctrine, spelt out on October 18 in Beijing, which espouses that the CCP must provide for the “happiness” of citizens;  remain closely in touch with their aspirations and monitor citizens perceptions better.

Bhutan: Democratising for happiness

king

China’s tiny, neighbor, Bhutan could teach China a lesson or two on whether “happiness” mixes well with absolutism. King Jigme Singye Wangchuck voluntarily abdicated in 2006, in the hope, that this would help Bhutan evolve into a modern, egalitarian, democratic country, whilst retaining its trade mark of happiness. The Bhutan constitutional monarchy is revered, like the British monarchy, which is widely respected and admired.

Wealth alone does not breed content

The Chinese quest for a prosperous, satisfied and happy populace living under the hegemony and parental control of the CCP, is self-defeating. The spirit of liberty and competition is not divisible. A market led economy cannot be sustained under monopolized political power. Where markets rule, they drive the political process. Where the State rules it drives business. Innovation does not thrive in eco-systems, where the freedom of thought is absent. China is much admired as the factory of the world. But it has grown because worker rights do not exist, access to legal rights is limited and public interest is expected to mirror the CCPs interest.

India and China: different strokes

Unlike China, India is determinedly heterogenous and multi-party. It lends itself to decentralized, democratic governance. It is tempting to infer, therefore, that India illustrates the value of democracy even in a poor, developing country.  The recent Pew survey showed that 85 percent of Indians trust the government, even though, 40 percent of the population is vulnerable to poverty; governments have been negligent in providing public services and human development indicators are worse than in sub-Saharan Africa. But, disturbingly, the very same Pew Survey also shows that 55 percent of citizens are comfortable with a more autocratic, “strong” government.

Nationalism rules

This swing towards authoritarian governments is not isolated to India. It is an international trend in reaction to the economic limitations of the open economy, liberal, democratic model for development, particularly with respect to containing growing inequality. It is not surprising, therefore, that President Xi Jinping should advise developing countries to look closely at the Chinese model, which comes with dollops of loan assistance, as an alternative to the more standard western model of development, advocated by the Multilateral Financial Institutions.

The country cousins meet

Xi and Modi

Prime Minister Modi was not just sharing dhoklas with President Xi in Ahmedabad way back in September 2014. There seems to have been a meeting of minds there. Like Modi’s vision of modernity, rooted in tradition, the Xi doctrine, also evokes the five thousand old civilization of China. Both leaders focus heavily on external and domestic threats to security. Both advocate much stronger oversight of the media, the internet and educational institutions, to regulate disruptive dissent. Like Xi, Prime Minister Modi has used the first three years to implement structural reforms. His high decibel war on corruption is expected to minimize the financial “fire power” of the mafia; bridle political opposition and improve public sector outcomes. Implementation of the long-delayed Goods and Services tax (GST) shall, like Bollywood, bind us more tightly and provide incentives to integrate further. Regions which are seamlessly connected for commerce tend to remain together. Like Xi, Modi views infrastructure as a “glue”. For Xi it is a glue to foster Chinese hegemony over its near abroad. For Modi it is a “glue” to bind the nation.

The Xi doctrine seeks to realize the ”China Dream” – a vision of a prosperous, environmentally clean country at the center of the world, contributing positively to mankind, by 2049 – the centenary of the founding of the Republic of China. There will be much to learn from China. There are two immediate take-aways. First, that it is futile to copy the political systems of other countries mindlessly. Second, that even authoritarian governments need to listen to the people.

lagislature

Indira Gandhi, turned away from absolutism and towards democracy, in 1977, by choosing to call for elections. This ended the two-year old national emergency. She gained personally and politically from this astute move. But it took an entire decade, till 1991, for the democratic apparatus to be used effectively, in public interest. We have not looked back since. India’s political architecture is finely tuned to the risk averse nature of its citizens. It charts the middle path to progress and shuns extreme options.

China will do well to study this option closely, as it seeks to move center stage in world affairs and looks for domestic pathways, to transform from being a single minded, ruthlessly efficient, economic, power-house to a house, fostering happy Chinese.

Also available at https://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/xi-and-modi-joined-at-the-hip/

Bimal Jalan reflects

Jalan book

 

exercises the writer’s privilege to box his reflections between three inflection points. The first is 1980, ostensibly because 1977-79 was the first time the Congress lost power at the Centre. The second is 2000, being the start of a new millennium. And 2014 is the bookend when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) formed a majority government.
Obscure inflection points
Of these, the choice of the first two years as turning points is not immediately obvious. Conventional wisdom regards 1991 to 2014 as a near continuous development period, barring the fractious interregnum of 1997-99. In the 1980s, it is 1984 that dominates, as the end of an era with the assassination of Indira Gandhi and the beginnings of Rajiv Gandhi’s brief “Camelot” phase. The year 1980 is significant only because Sanjay Gandhi died in an air crash in June and Mrs Gandhi aged visibly. The choice of 2000 is similarly obscure, except for broadly coinciding with the start of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NDA government.
Dr Jalan – man for all seasons
But this is mere quibbling. The book is unconstrained by structural rigidities. It provides reflections, spanning Dr Jalan’s seven earlier publications since 1992.  It can’t get better. Dr Jalan was in the Rajya Sabha (2003-2009); the longest serving governor of the Reserve Bank of India (1997-2003) since 1992; finance secretary; secretary banking, chief economic advisor and India’s executive director to the IMF and the World Bank.
Seven key reflections
Readers would choose their own favourite reflections. But this reviewer was intrigued by the following seven.
Low public savings retard investment 
First, Dr Jalan favours the conventional view that the persistent gap between India and the fast-growing economies of Asia during the last four decades of the 20th century is explained by our low levels of investment. For this he squarely blames our ideological decision to invest in public sector industries, which failed to generate savings for future investment and instead bled scarce tax revenue to fund financial losses — a familiar story even today.
Colonial style administration ill equipped for challenges
Second, he red flags the fact that from the 1970s, we did very little to enhance the competence and efficiency of public administration. We still lack the required composition of skills and experience in the public space to provide 21st century results.
High expectation, poor execution
Third, he bemoans the fact that we unfailingly adopt best practice priorities — take the national priority for agricultural growth. But we fail miserably in making supportive policies and rules. We have throttled agriculture by ignoring the interest of the farmer to serve the interest of the consumer. Similarly, we prioritise a progressive fiscal policy. But the revenue from direct taxes stagnates while regressive indirect taxes are buoyant.
Sustained, high growth misaligned with political incentives 
Fourth, Dr Jalan’s term in the Rajya Sabha convinced him that deep political reform is the key to change India. And who could disagree? But some caveats apply. Decentralisation, as flagged by Jalan, is certainly desirable for enhanced effectiveness and public participation. But, it will not, by itself, serve to reduce the size of government. In fact, employee numbers and expenses are likely to increase as scale effects disappear.
Union government muscularity erodes state government autonomy 
In a similar vein, it is true that the Union government tends to erode the federal structure by misusing governors for narrow political ends. But constitutionally, we are a “Union of States with a centrist bias”, per political pundits, and not a federal state. Parliamentary norms and conventions are routinely subverted — a self-goal, since this reduces Parliament’s credibility.
Dysfunctional parliament erodes its own credibility
Dr Jalan cites 2006, when the budget was passed without discussion, illustrating political expediency of the worst kind. But it is open to question whether the existing process for annual Budget presentation and examination remains a productive exercise or has become mere form without substance. The cabinet system of decision-making, underpinned by the principle of collective responsibility, was undeniably subverted during the United Progressive Alliance government, since political power was dispersed beyond the government. But this was poor practice rather than a structural flaw. And it appears to have healed itself after 2014.
Judiciary – safeguarding the constitution 
Fifth, the judiciary, rightly, comes in for high praise, for progressive jurisprudence, safeguarding the principle of separation of powers, and the primacy of the Constitution. But entrenched territoriality in the judicial appointments process remains contentious.
Public sector banks – out of control
Sixth, Dr Jalan recounts, financial reforms after the Narasimham Committee report of 1998 enhanced the resilience of Indian banks. But he leaves the reader begging for more on what went wrong over the last decade to inflate stressed loans to crippling levels. Are not politicised leadership and boards the problem in public banks? And given the stakes, can UPSC selection – as Dr Jalan suggests – really be an effective bulwark? Would not ramping up private shareholding, with the government holding only a “golden share” be a more effective solution? More generally, how effective are the existing prudential norms, for limiting exposure to sector, corporate or currency risk?
Tax reform – only half done?
Seventh, Dr Jalan’s view that it is unnecessary to reopen the constitutional scheme for inter-governmental division of taxes is curious. Tax pundits advocate that GST be extended to alcohol and petroleum.
jalan 2
It is a broad canvas on which reflects, as befits one who has helmed public policy since the 1980s. Readers will look forward to his take on the more recent developments — that is, since 2014.

 

Adapted from the authors Book Review in Business Standard, September 18, 2017 http://www.business-standard.com/article/beyond-business/bimal-jalan-reflects-117091801405_1.html

 

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

BJP – mega political mall

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

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

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