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Archive for the ‘elections’ Category

Junk policy for action


Policies mean very little, unless there is a national consensus behind them, because governments change in a  Formulating a policy is a clunky, time- and effort-intensive, process. It should be attempted only if massive structural change is necessary. India has rarely been in the game of big bang reform. Our forte is incremental change. For this, key actions with outsize results are more significant than policies.

Industral licensing became ideological & lasted well past its expiry date

Also, policies can haunt a country for longer that necessary.The Industrial Policy Resolution of 1956 was one such. It was inspired by the seductive early achievements of the Soviet Union. The Bombay Plan 1944 formulated by leading industrialists, including the redoubtable JRD Tata, implicitly supported massive state intervention and regulation to protect domestic industry from foreign capital and competition. This became the trap, chaining private enterprise in regulations and excluding it from capital intensive “core” sectors.

Never mind that Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata had invested in Asia’s largest integrated steel plant as early as 1907, helped by a buy-back arrangement from the British Indian government, which also laid a railway link to the site. It was India’s first public–private partnership (PPP).


It took us over eight decades, till 1992, to come around to the idea that leveraging public resources with private management and investment was cleverer than autarkic public investment. It took another 25 years for us to come to terms with foreign investment. In the meantime, India missed the bus of industrialisation and manufacturing, even as China marched ahead, from the 1980s, to become the factory of the world.The short point is that making a policy is no panacea for achieving results.

Were the existing low-level of health outcomes unachievable without a policy?

Health is a state government subject under the Constitution in India. But a National was formulated in 1983. Despite three decades of central planning since then, health outcomes vary significantly across states and aggregate achievements are unimpressive.

Gradual privatisation of SOEs is ongoing because there is no policy to stop it

Balco 2

Conversely, structural change is often implemented without articulating a policy.Consider the privatisation of state-owned enterprises. The National Democratic Alliance government under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee found it impossible to build a consensus around privatisation. A comprehensive privatisation policy was therefore, never attempted. The Industrial Policy Resolution of July 1991 — which sought to weaken the stranglehold of the government over industry — had shrunk the industries reserved for the public sector to atomic power, defence, mineral oil, mining of coal, iron and other metals and the railways. This enabled the sale of minority shares in the other public sector undertakings (PSU). Then finance minister Yashwant Sinha used the 1999-2000 Budget to reduce the reserved sector to “strategic” PSUs in atomic energy, defence and railways only. All others could be privatised.

Gradual disinvestment has been ongoing, primarily with the intention of raising revenue. This year the government anticipates an all-time high of Rs. 1 trillion from disinvestment, being 30 per cent of non-tax receipts, other than debt.Seasoned bureaucrats will advise never write something down, unless you need to.

Electricity remains a “vexed” business despite reform legislation and policy

Merely articulating aspirational objectives in a policy will not achieve results. This has become particularly true in an uncertain world, made even more unstable by technology development. Clunky state action tends to come late and gets clogged into stranded assets.

This is the fate of our Mega Power Policy with 30 GW of power generation stranded because of low demand or disrupted fuel supply. Policies create huge inertia. Consider that as late as 2015-16 the Budget Speech sought to create 4 GW of additional power capacity, even as stranded power assets were building up.

Foreign policy is different 


Some policies are intended to signal political alignment and intent rather than become an entry point for concrete action. falls clearly in this genre. The “Look East” policy of the Manmohan Singh government was followed by the “Act East” policy of the present government — both signaling our interest in South East Asia. But substantively little has changed in the years since, even as China has gone, from being a dominant economic power to a power-hungry bully in the region.

Paris 2016 – the world laid to rest, climate policy & switched to voluntary actionable metrics 

India does not have a comprehensive  We tend to put development before the environment — in exactly the manner other developed countries have grown. This is pragmatic. The 2016 recognises the futility of having a single for the world. Instead, it defines a global target — reversing aggregate carbon emissions to keep global temperature rise within 1.5 degree Celsius of pre-industrial levels. Countries now evolve their own action plan, keeping in view their development needs. Collective action works better than global posturing.

Imagine the impact on Google’s share value if it bound itself to follow a medium term policy

Consider that multinational companies do not formulate business policies in an autarkic manner. They define strategies which, nimbly align with global trends to  eke out the maximum value for themselves. This is a sensible approach. We should get away from announcing sector policies. Instead, we could define incremental and jointed action plans, which result in achieving national objectives.

Google folllows the money. We could follow the Directive Principles in our Constitution

happy girl

National objectives do not need to be defined afresh. A close look at Part IV of our Constitution will suffice. The Directive Principles of State Policy were formulated more than 75 years ago. Our task is to put in place the action points to achieve them, via the annual and medium-term budgets. Politicians love announcing policies and programmes because these can be narrowly targeted at specific beneficiaries for votes. This is the downside of the dharma of  We should junk sector policies as an instrument of development. Intellectuals will disagree. But pragmatism must trump ideals.

Adapted from the author’s opinion piece in Business Standard, February 26, 2018

BJP self goals dim the shine

Gadkari 3

It is not often than an innocuous government statement becomes the fulcrum of a storm. The sudden announcement that Minister Nitin Gadkari’s plan to announce a policy for 100% electrification of transportation by 2030 was off the cards, sent shock waves through the industry and political analysts.

Subsuming Gadkari’s proposed electric vehicle policy in a broader Alt Fuel Policy makes sense 

To be fair, not having a narrow policy just for electric vehicles makes sense. Nesting actions, needed to achieve cost-effective electrification in transportation, within a broader “alternative fuels policy”, ostensibly, being prepared by the NITI Aayog, as disclosed by Amitabh Kant – the NITI CEO, who works directly with the NITI Chair – Prime Minister Modi, makes perfect sense.

It is good practice not to choose specific technical options via a policy. Instead, good policy formulation should specify a generic pathway to achieve the final outcomes- in this case lower carbon emissions, clean air and reduced congestion. In the best-case, simplistic scenario, tax incentives for the transportation industry, should be linked to the carbon emissions and road area saved per unit of travel, irrespective of the technology option adopted by them.

Leaving the technology option to industry – electric, hybrid or hydrogen-fuel powered, ensures that the market for innovation is not artificially distorted in favour of any technology.

Why put all our eggs in a China basket?

But, life is rarely that simple. Consider that China has emerged as the leading low-cost manufacturer of electric vehicles. They have also firmed-up supply chains of lithium for the manufacture of associated high efficiency batteries. Natural resource constrained Japan, is in contrast likely to push for a clean, hydrogen powered vehicle.


Strategically, our relationship with China is cool if not chilled. We lean towards a “Triad” of the US, Japan, India – for collaboration in security and transnational infrastructure development. The choice of Japan, as the partner for the Industrial corridors project to link Indian metros by fast passenger and freight trains and for the proposed Asian Africa Growth Corridor, are illustrations of such cooperation. Closer logistics integration with the US and Indian military forces, is another. Joint patrolling of the sea lanes in the South China Sea is yet another.

Clearly, relying solely on electrification of transportation, has strategic implications with respect to tying our future to China, which begs a more nuanced approach. Ministers Nitin Gadkari and Piyush Goyal might have thought up the electrification push, early in 2017 when Minister Goyal was in charge of Power, Coal and Renewable Energy, to absorb the stranded capacity of 30,000 MW in the power sector.

Boosting efficient electricity consumption by creating demand makes sense

The capacity of distribution utilities to absorb electric power is constrained by the low, regulated retail tariffs versus the higher grid cost of delivering power using coal or gas generation. This makes it sensible to explore alternative options for using power for customers who are willing to pay cost based retail prices for electricity. If additional solar capacity comes up to meet the target of 175 GW of renewable power by 2020 at grid supply prices of 4 cents per unit (kWh), capacity utilization in coal and gas-based generators will fall even lower than 60%.

white goods

Are cabinet ministers being shown who is boss?

Modi Jaitley

At the best of times there is more politics than economics in public policy formulation. But with elections around the corner, every action of government, acquires heightened importance. So, for example, could the trashing of Mr. Gadkari’s policy initiative be an indication that Prime Minister Modi is showing him who is the boss? Ministers Gadkari and Goyal are perceived to be the most effective members of the cabinet. With reverses in recent bye elections in Rajasthan and a perceived tough fight ahead in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, has it become necessary for PM Modi to flex his muscles to keep the cabinet orderly?

The PNB scam adds to the slight of losing three bye elections in Rajasthan

Political leaders are notoriously sensitive to perceived loss of power. Given PM Modi’s larger than life persona, this is surely, his personal Achilles heel. The BJPs lucky run over the first four years seems to be petering out. They could avoid responsibility for the Rs 10 trillion of non-performing banking assets they inherited from the UPA. But the most recent case of a fraud of Rs 110 billion in the Punjab National Bank due to poor controls and oversight by a clutch of banks shows that things have not changed.

The “no cash transactions” rule has hit the profitability of the diamond and gems industry 

More worryingly, the market capitalization of listed jewelry companies has become less than one half of their debts. Their profitability is plunging. Their interest cover ratio is barely above the red line of 1.5X with sundry debts increasing to 43% of sales.

Difficult to value jewels have always been a favoured route for hawala (over invoicing imports and under invoicing exports), which is one way to safely transfer black money abroad. Much of this is often brought back as FDI or more likely foreign portfolio investment in the stock market where returns have been generous, inflation has been subdued and the Rs artificially stable such that even exchange risk was minimized, at the cost of exports and at the cost of making domestic production uncompetitive versus imported goods.

Finance Minister Jaitley faces the heat for poor oversight over publicly owned banks

More importantly it is the timing of the expose which is like rubbing salt into the wounds of bye-election losses for the BJP, which campaigns based on “zero tolerance for corruption”. Unfortunately, Finance Minister Jaitley will be in the line of fire too, much as Minister Suresh Prabhu, was hounded out for recurring railway accidents.

Silence breeds discontent and distrust. Communicate please.

With barely a year to go for elections, the number of moving parts is increasing by leaps and bounds. The French Rafale fighter jet deal was also poorly managed. Even worse, communications outreach has failed to dispel the fiction, that it is another “Bofors scam”. Champions get moving when the going gets tough. The BJP had a fabled communications team leading up to the 2014 elections. Today, ensconced in power, the last thing on its mind seems to be, sharing carefully thought through public policy positions with citizens, in a credible manner. Not having an opposition has its own downsides. Or is it the BJP’s unerring instinct to dim the light, just when it is shining.

Also available in the TOI blogs February 17, 2018

The two conundrums of the Modi government


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


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


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

BJPs half-win in Gujarat


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


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.


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

Saintliness versus efficiency

BJP winner

The BJP can put India on auto-pilot over the next eighteen months and probably still win the next general election, principally because, things are going well and the combined opposition has still to acquire the characteristics – leadership, resolve and broad agreements – of credibility. This high probability of winning in 2019 should push the BJP to evolve strategies, rather than tactics, particularly for the economy.

The key decision – morality or results

The key decision is to choose between prioritising morality or efficiency. The former entails more public delivery, the latter more private enterprise. Going down the moral route, say “zero tolerance” for corruption, has severe consequences – continued economic dislocation over the next two years; losing out on economic growth and inhibiting the availability of jobs. In a largely informal, cash based economy, like India, putting anti-corruption first, requires the private sector to reorganise, become more efficient and profitable, other than, by just avoiding tax. Whilst this adjustment plays out, the state – despite it being more inefficient than private enterprise – would need to step in with an enhanced role. The moral choice puts us on the long route to efficiency, which could last, well into the second term of the government starting 2019.

Corruption has its uses

The “amoral” choice is to junk the fundamentalist approach to anti-corruption, fix one’s eyes on the objective of high growth and navigate the waters by feeling the stones underfoot, to avoid deep pools, where corruption and inefficiency, overlap the most. Some examples of such action are – sticking to a reasonable “real” interest rate rather than go for an artificially “low” interest rate. The latter may enhance investment. But it comes at the cost of possible future stressed assets via “gold plated” bank-financed projects. Similarly, choosing Direct Benefit Transfers rather than the physical provision of subsidised public goods of indifferent quality is another example, which reduces corruption and enhances efficiency. But, in many other cases, the choice is not so obvious.

Corruption can be functionally efficient. Consider the case of information asymmetries – shorn of jargon, this simply means that it is not easy to know how or why government acts in a certain manner – whilst awarding contracts; appointing employees or allowing its assets – like land, to be misused.

Democratising access to information

If I bribe an official to understand the politics around a pending economic decision, corruption ends up “democratising information”, which is what a perfectly “transparent” system would achieve in Norway or Sweden. Consider, that prisoners in Indian jails bribe guards, merely to get minimum sanitary and nutrition conditions. Turning a blind eye to such “corruption” is “amorally pragmatic” till prisons become more acceptably habitable. After all, prison is meant to reform not penalise prisoners through health hazards. Petty corruption is the common persons way of dealing with administrative inefficiency.

Morality tends to exclude private enterprise

So, why does morality and a “big” state go together? Consider a government, which is stuck with a poorly motivated; inadequately qualified and shoddily managed workforce. Suppose it chooses to bypass public inefficiency by outsourcing public service delivery to the private sector. How will they oversee the private provider? Poor drafting of agreements and enforcement of contractual obligations generates corruption or delays execution. This is what took the fizz out of the juggernaut of Public Private Partnerships. Why for instance, did Mr. Piyush Goyal, the minister of railways decide to call in the Army to repair the collapsed pedestrian over-bridge at Elphinstone Station, Mumbai? Could it be that, contracting private parties, on an emergency basis, inevitably has lags and creates opportunities for corruption? We saw a lot of this in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games, New Delhi in 2010.

Preferring to work in-house is the obvious safe, default option for an executive which is capable and willing to work 24X7. The downside is that extensive use of state enterprises crowds out the private sector, which is hard put to better the riskless cost of finance available to the public sector. If publicly managed service delivery is sustainable, there is no harm in that. But not every public leader is an efficient “saint” and public systems, set-up by them, revert quickly to the mean, once the leadership changes.

How many Saints do we have?

Saintliness, humility and frugality make great copy and attract votes. The problem lies in scaling up a system based on virtue and otherworldliness. It is not for nothing that the competitive spirit -so important for sustainable efficiency- springs from the basic “killer” instinct to be numero uno. Saintliness is also rigid in adapting to the world. Effectiveness – getting results on the ground,  requires flexibility in implementation.

“Jhooming” can’t generate shared growth

closed market

A tax system with high nominal tax rates, which is efficiently oppressive can reduce supply because producers and service providers will shut shop, rather than risk getting their personal assets forclosed. This is worse than a tax system, which is not completely evasion proof but encourages growth in value addition. Black money, in progressively, smaller doses over time is better than a clean but scorched economy. Unlike in nature, “jhooming” may not generate shared growth.

Also available at TOI Blogs November 15, 2017

“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


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

Is hubris slowing down Modi?


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


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.


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

BJP – mega political mall


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


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

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.


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

Fix the “market” for political power

Indian army

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

When State failure fails to fix the underlying market failure

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

Poor tax administration

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

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

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

The big 2Cs – Corruption and Crime

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

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

Are laws aligned with context?

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

Feudal governance patterns breed poor accountability

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

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

End the perverse incentives in our political architecture 

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

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

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

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

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

Use the GST process of risk-free consensual decision making

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

Adapted from the author’s article in The Asian Age, July 19, 2017

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