governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Archive for the ‘Public Institutions’ Category

Lives dedicated to change India

RTI story

This is not a glib account of mobilising the rural poor, penned by a peripatetic babu or a drive-in-fly-out development expert. It is, refreshingly, a record of activists, who elected to spend the better part of their working lives making a difference, bottom upwards, and three decades later remain rooted in their karmbhumi — village Devdungri, Rajasthan.

school for democracy

Some came from well-off urban backgrounds and yet stuck it out in the harsh and relentless realities of the rural poor. This testifies to their commitment. But even to attribute high moral incentives to them, betrays the tinted glasses of this urbanised reviewer. The authors do not vent their frustration, voice their regrets or betray even a whiff of resentment against an uncaring world. What shines through instead, is their quiet joy and fulfillment, at doing something useful.

Aruna Roy, for all her careful attempts to disperse the credit, is the central figure. Born into a family of lawyers, she drifted into the elite Indian Administrative Service in 1968 but resigned in 1975 to work with the Social Work and Research Center (SWRC) in Ajmer. Clearly, goaded by the need to be more immediately and directly involved with real people in rural India, she left SWRC in 1983. Nikhil Dey — recently returned after college in the United States, seeking something beyond a comfortable life, became a friend; Shanker Singh, a local village official’s gifted son, adroit puppeteer and communicator extraordinaire, completed the group which bonded and decided to check out the rural empowerment landscape in Jhabhua, Madhya Pradesh. That seed did not flower. But bonds between the three deepened.

They resolved, in 1987, to put down roots in village Devdungri, which today is part of district Rajsamand in the Mewar region of Rajasthan. This was close enough to Shanker’s village, Lotiyana, to give the group an entry into rural life through his local bonds of kinship. Here, in a mud hut, rented from his cousin, the small group lived like the villagers around them and awaited a gradual immersion into the rhythm of village life and hopefully, local social acceptance — their doors and hearts open. Trust and credibility is central to an activist’s effectiveness.

MKSS

Meanwhile, the group refined the credo of their concerns. These coalesced around the need to enable the rural poor and marginalised, to look beyond their sordid reality of traditional social and cultural constraints, to understand and avail of, the constitutional rights available to them, within India’s democratic and institutional architecture. The disastrous drought, blighting the region, presented an opportunity. The standard mechanism for drought relief was to initiate civil
works.

By 1983 the Supreme Court had directed that public works must comply with payment of minimum wages. But this was rarely done. The group resolved that getting workers minimum wages would be their central concern. A related opportunity arose due to the tyrannical ways of a local sarpanch who misappropriated village development schemes for personal benefits and whose benami holdings encroached on village land.

In both cases, empowering the poor meant getting access to the government records of money allocated by the government for different schemes; the amounts spent, on what and when. At that time ordinary citizens could not access these records as a right. Often mistakenly, even a list of Below Poverty Line cardholders was conveniently construed to be secret. Consequently, in any dispute with government entities — around wages or non-inclusion for welfare schemes “the villagers were always the liars”. They had no way to prove their case because the truth was hidden inside the official records, to which only the government had access.

Getting the dispossessed to appreciate that access to information and knowledge is vital, was the easiest part. The awareness that local government intermediaries were swindling them kindled anger, and sometimes outrage among villagers. While the immediate oppressor is visible and becomes vulnerable, the veiled support of those higher up in the hierarchy, maintains the status quo. Getting villagers their rights, means changing the status quo from the top.

The political vehicle used by Aruna and her activist colleagues to generate awareness; the desire for change and an ecosystem for long-term support to deliver rights to the rural poor was the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS). The artful, determined and collaborative way in which it was constituted, and the strategic depth of its functioning is a delight to read. The ideological roots of the MKSS lie in the life and thoughts of Gandhi ji (non-violent protests against government apathy), Babasaheb Ambedkar (equity and dignity for all) and J.P. Narayan (social and political revolution within constitutional constraints).

The movement for access to political and social rights, formally started in 1987, expanded organically over time from the village level to the state level by the mid-1990s and finally to the national level by 2005, when the Right to Information Act was passed by Parliament. Parivartan, the Delhi-based NGO, headed at the time by Arvind Kejriwal, evolved its strategy of “direct democracy” from the MKSS methodology — a mix of rootedness in organising the poor from within; high moral, ethical and personal values; imaginative use of local folklore and theatre like the Ghotala Rath to lampoon corrupt politicians; careful research to unearth government information to pinpoint negligence, fraud or corruption using the vehicle of Jan Sunwais (public hearings).

Less successfully the MKSS also branched into directly managing kirana (provisions) stores in villages as a competitive force to make local traders less rapacious and reduce their profit margins. While useful as a temporary local intervention to break a trader cartel in a small village market, this model proved difficult to scale up. The MKSS also dabbled in village-level elections to get some of its well-intentioned members, elected and collaborate with like-minded parties. But it is far from transmuting into a political party.

Aruna and the team

Aruna, 41 years of age in 1987, is 72 today, Shanker is 64 and “young” Nikhil is 55. During the last three decades of their struggle, the Right to Information has been embedded into the accountability structure of the State, bringing the much-needed transparency. But making the State accountable to the people, in real time, is a broader unfinished task — top-down accountability and bottom-up participation, both need deepening. The good news is that the indefatigable trio is upbeat about conquering this frontier too.

This book is a must read for cynics, who want their optimism restored; those eager to share the pain and the joy of activism; organisational behavior “experts” and budding activists looking for pathways to India’s development.

Adapted from the author’s book review in The Asian Age, April 22, 2019 http://www.asianage.com/books/220418/read-it-to-know-the-pain-and-joy-of-activism.html

Getting nationalism right

nationalism

If the term nationalism and the sight of the national flag generates a warm, comforting feeling in your heart, your government is doing a great job. If, however, this term and the flag, leaves you cold, clammy and resentful, there is something the government is not doing right.

Nationalism – an abstract construct – acquires a real dimension on rare occasions, like when you need visas to travel; or if you lose your passport whilst abroad; deciding whom to root for in international cricket; when a hate crime is reported against an Indian citizen; when P.V. Sindhu shines in badminton; when a stranger turns to you for help with her mobile, assuming all Indians are techies or when a cortege trundles, past draped with the national flag.

In comparison, ethnic, religious, professional, social or economic ties are more immediate and experienced daily. Should it be otherwise?

Nationalism versus globalization

Till recently, nationalism was a waning concept, marginalized by the increasingly interconnectedness of the world. The two decades post 1990, saw the world became unipolar; international trade boomed; the threat of wars receded – except in a few fragile regions. Poets dreamed, and the world seemed united, in solving the collective action problem of global warming.

Nationalism, it appeared, had bowed down to globalization and become just a set of civic duties and rights for citizens – a sub-set of broader rules governing the entire planet. High border walls, to keep citizen from escaping abroad or stopping those wanting to get in, became an aberration. Foreigners eager to become citizens became a metric of a country’s success and in the United States, the reason for it.

India appeared well placed to walk the talk. Our constitution is an enabler to pursue globalization. Our history places us at an advantage. We are no strangers to foreigners settling permanently in India. Foreigners ruled India for seven hundred years prior to 1947 and were assimilated into the mainstream. India did not come ready-made in 1947. It has been built, since then, using a mix of persuasion, pressure and perquisites. Parts of the North East, which had remained restive, have now joined the national mainstream, driven by the pervasive influence of Bollywood, domestic economic migration and adaptive political alignments. The valley of Kashmir however remains an outlier.

Drivers for sustained nationalism

The best glue for national integration is the perception that every citizen and every region is getting more from the nation than they are giving back. A positive balance, for every individual and every region is possible because in economics one plus one is more than two. Collective decisions create opportunities for adding net value, which do not exist if individuals were to decide separately. Managing climate change – a negative externality – and the beneficial scale effect from integrated markets – a positive externality – are both examples of the benefits from collective action.

Nations with complementarities should stick together. Sadly, they often don’t because of political noise or perceptions of inequity. Consider that our trade with South Asia is abysmally low. Imports are less than 1 percent and exports 7 percent of our total imports/exports. But India is not alone in such errant political behavior. Brexit happened because Britons felt, or were made to believe, they were giving more to the European Union than they were getting from it.

Inequity and discrimination – a leading cause for nations breaking up

bangladesh

Nations can splinter if systematic inequity persists and not enough is done to address the problem proactively. The creation of Bangladesh in 1971 is one such example. Pakistan managed its province of East Pakistan (previously part of Bengal) on an extractive basis, like the colonial masters prior to independence in 1947. It did not help that the new colonial masters were heavy handed, often brutally repressive fellow Muslims from Pakistan who ignored the deep Bengali cultural roots of the region. A perception of inequity fed on the fact of cultural differences and significant economic disparity between the two regions.

In comparison, India has been better at managing actual and perceived inequity at the regional or provincial level. Quotas for recruitment of tribes into the civil services have benefited the North East areas. Special benefits built into the scheme for devolution of central grants and share in union taxes, make additional resources available in tribal areas for infrastructure development. Caste, in Hindu majority India, is a significant driver of inequity. But quotas in government jobs and special schemes for livelihoods for the lowest and mid-level backward castes have levelled the field somewhat.

Embedding liberal, democratic principles in nationalism is tough

MK Stalin 2

Democracy breeds contestation. Tamil Nadu is the economic and cultural powerhouse of South India.Tamil, claims to be older than even Sanskrit,  With firebrand DMK leader, M. K. Stalin annointed to succeed strongman M. Karunanidhi; intense infighting in the ADMK after Amma and film star Rajnikanth exploring political waters, expect populism and rhetoric to prevail. A favourite ploy is to play victim and seek special status for a pan-Dravidar region, comprising the six southern states (including Puducherry). The cone of south Indian states comprises 21 percent of the population with an outsized share of 29 percent in national GDP and higher than average social indicators. Industrialized southern states benefit from access to the markets of the less industrialized northern, central and eastern India. The underdeveloped hinterland is a source for cheap, unskilled, migrant labour and a market to absorb skilled southern migrant workers.

Liberal Democracy is under stress internationally. Nationalism, conflated with authoritarian, even whimsical rule from the top, is on the ascendant. President Trump’s America First is the most distressing example, because it is a betrayal of existing international compacts. Russia, under President Putin remains whimsically self-centered. China, backed by recent economic success and the ascendancy of “Emperor” Xi, represents the most troublingly compelling, muscularly proselytizing, alternative to the liberal, democratic model of nationalism.

Partnerships, across nations, can secure the liberal, democratic order

In this dystopic, political landscape, ageing Europe and Japan emerge as beacons of liberal democracy.  Partnerships with them and select countries in Sub Saharan Africa and the Asia-Pacific can provide demographic and market dividends whilst fostering our common political and civic values, rooted in the Magna Carta.

Also available at TOI blogs March 30, 2018 https://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/getting-nationalism-right/

 

India’s 50-50 reforms

half reforms

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

Changing goals

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

Partial success abounds, but excellence less visible

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

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

Elusive transformative change

Tribal protest

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

Public trust and credibility in short supply

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

“Accountable discretion” is not an oxymoron

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

Chasing impossible scale 

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

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

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

Overlapping mandates

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

Poor arrangements for resource management

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

Avoid the Banyan Tree 

banyan tree

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

 

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

Union taxes are scraping the bottom

old men

The introduction of a 10 per cent tax on capital gains (with effect from April 1, 2018), accruing from the sale of equity, after holding it for at least one year, has generated a great deal of angst. But it is unconscionable that stock market investors who have earned windfall gains of 30 per cent over the past year should mind paying three percentage points out of that windfall as tax.

The government has gone further and “grandfathered” from the tax all equity-related capital gains accruing till January 31 — the day prior to the Budget 2018-19 proposals being made public. The stock market slid by about six per cent thereafter. Future gains will depend upon better profitability in Indian corporates; the options for alternative risk-free returns in developed markets (US treasuries, for example, which are likely to have higher spreads) and growth in India.

Even wealthy Indians dislike taxes

The new long term capital gains tax is not onerous in the present context. But at the heart of the discontent with it, is a corrosive aversion to pay tax, even by the very wealthy. There are good reasons why we are habitual benders of the rule of law.

To find the reason for this national shame, look no further than our political leaders. The Election Commission turns a Nelson’s eye to the yawning gap between actual election expenditures and the income of parties on the books. The recently introduced Election Bonds are unlikely to bring about a transformative reform.

No crony capitalist wants to be identified while buying these bonds from designated banks. Privacy of information arrangements are easily breached, to ferret out who contributed how much to which party.

Demonetisation did throw up big data on the ownership of cash. But following up on suspected tax evaders is quite another matter. The options of bribing their way out or legally delaying a final decision reduces the incentive to respect the rule of law. We are then back to square one. During the demonetisation of November 2016, 99% of the cash came back into the banking system, because tax evaders innovated, on the fly, to escape the tax net.

No wonder then, that the tax revenue at the Central level is stuck at just below 12 per cent of GDP with an additional 10 per cent in the states and local governments.

scraping bottom

Growth need higher public spends

The conundrum is that higher growth needs higher public spends of around 6-8 per cent of GDP on infrastructure, health and education. India has underinvested in these for decades. The real problem is that tax revenues are difficult to increase with 40 per cent of the population being either poor or vulnerable to fall into poverty.

China innovated best-fit solutions to boost public revenues

China had the same problem. Their solution was to decentralise development decision-making within a broad party line of priorities. Local government and local party offices worked together to monetise government assets — principally land — for private development projects. The proceeds from such monetisation generated the resources to finance infrastructure and increase spending on health and education. Without a doubt, the dynamics of working with the private sector also lined the pockets of party and government officials. But both were held to account if there were failures in achieving development targets.

India too is turning away from template solutions

The good news is that India is changing. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made chai vendors respectable. Our next Prime Minister may do the same for pakora sellers — much derided today by some, who look down their noses, at anything but formal sector jobs. But Shekhar Shah, director-general of NCAER, a New Delhi economics think tank, cautions that formalisation, China style, can be a double-edged sword.

Formalisation of work and rising inequality

Yes, formalisation does improve work conditions and facilitates production at scale. But formalisation is often linked to capital intensive production, which results in disproportionate benefits to those, with access to capital. Unless managed with great care formalisation takes away from rewarding livelihoods for people in the bottom 40 per cent with traditional or low-level skills. President Kagame of Rwanda — till recently a darling of donors, because of his rapid adoption and implementation of the “doing business” type of performance metrics — runs a spotlessly clean capital, Kigali, with neat markets. But this is at the expense of street vendors who were priced out by the prohibitive cost of a licence.

Innovations in public finance lacking

We need to innovate, to increase government revenue, without trying to copy China. The 15th Finance Commission could be crucial in tweaking the transfer of resources to states and local government in a way which incentivises them to generate more local revenues. That is where a significant contribution to aggregate government taxes can be made, as suggested by the Economic Survey 2018-19.

Every Rs 100 spent from the budget can leverage an equal amount from the private sector.

The mantra for government spending is simple. Big ticket public development spending (both revenue and capital) must generate at least a similar level of private investment as extra-budgetary resources. Funding the premia for providing health insurance to 100 million poor families is one such scheme which can change mindsets and provide the forums for productive collaborations between the Central and state governments and the private sector. There is enough fat hidden away in the 2018-19 Budget to fund the scheme.

The National Health Insurance scheme can lead by using insurance permia to establish private or not-for-profit hospitals  

A ready market already exists — in urban and peri-urban areas, covering around 40 million poor families, as private hospitals are accessible. With an annual premia amount of Rs 20,000 crores, a similar sum as private investment can be leveraged in new healthcare facilities. Insurance companies, which will enjoy the bonanza of publicly-funded premia, will need to work with the healthcare industry to enlarge access to hospital facilities in under-covered areas. Similar state-level health insurance schemes should be allowed to lapse. States should divert their funds instead, to primary care, nutrition and public health.

Government should pull out of being the interface with citizens for service provisioning 

The government must, in a sequenced manner, pull out of the business of direct provisioning of services, except in disaster situations. Central,  state and local governments must learn to use the power of public finance to leverage private capital and management. A big push for outsourcing public services might be the only way to fill the financing gap between aspirations and today’s sordid reality.

Adapted from the author’s opinion piece in Asian Age February 13, 2018 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/130218/innovate-outsource-to-fund-deliver-services.html

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

A “green” Diwali sans firecrackers

SupremeCourtPhotos(47)

Managing winter smog in the National Capital Region (NCR) has occupied the Supreme Court since 2015. Three interim orders — in November 2016, September 2017 and October 2017— each of which changes the status quo, imposing commercial costs, illustrate the limitations of the judicial approach while balancing commercial interests with public health concerns.

Joined at the hip

joined at the hip

Delhi and Sivakasi, 2,650 km away in Tamil Nadu, are symbiotically joined. Sivakasi produces three-fourths of India’s firecrackers. Delhi and its surrounding areas are the prime consumers. Consider that 40 per cent of 610 permanent licensees for selling firecrackers are located here. Delhi also licences 968 temporary fireworks retailers. The NCR’s stock of fireworks is estimated at 6,000 metric tons — enough to fill 600 trucks.

CPCB plays truant

The reason why a substantive decision on the sale of firecrackers remains elusive is that the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) has failed to define the permissible ingredients for firecrackers and their volumes thereof. Without a standard regulating manufacture, the task of optimising across public health concerns; preserving employment and nurturing business potential becomes, at best, an approximation with avoidable costs. Only blunt options like banning the sale of firecrackers present themselves. The actual public health benefit of such measures is uncertain. But irreparable harm to businesses and distress to workers is certain.

At the very beginning…

Back in November 2016, during the Diwali season, Delhi was enveloped in smog. CPCB air quality reports indicated that in 2015 and 2016, the level of pollution had spiked during and after Diwali. Pitampura, a densely populated area in Delhi, suffered an increase of pollution by four times in 2015 and more than 10 times in 2016. Dealing with an emergency, the Supreme Court suspended all licences for the sale of firecrackers in the NCR on November 11, 2016. It also directed the CPCB to submit, within three months, a comprehensive report on the air pollution impacts of bursting firecrackers. The implied strategy was clear. Take stern action in keeping with the magnitude of the crisis and incentivise manufacturers and sellers of fireworks to negotiate with the government for setting standards. Since Diwali was already over, the commercial dislocation caused by the order was minimal.

The CPCB has yet to submit the report due on January 11, 2017, on the air pollution impact. Meanwhile, prohibitions on using antimony, lithium, mercury, arsenic and lead compounds were imposed piecemeal by the Supreme Court on July 31, 2017 and on strontium chromate on September 13, 2017. The court is clearly working hard despite executive intransigence.

And more recently…

Gearing up for the festival season in 2017, the Sivakasi manufacturers and suppliers requested the Supreme Court on July 5, 2017 for a modification of the suspension of permanent licenses.

The Supreme Court recognised the harm being caused to 300,000 livelihoods, despite the absence of any proven link between the bursting of firecrackers and hazardous air pollution.

The National Green Tribunal has listed seven sources of air pollution in NCR. Firecrackers are not one of them. A January 2016 IIT Kanpur report had also not listed firecrackers as among the major sources of air pollution in Delhi.

On September 13, 2017, the Supreme Court allowed a partial lifting of the suspended licences, to enable the accumulated stock of fireworks to be sold in NCR or to be transferred out. To avoid any reoccurrence of a fait accompli, it directed no more fireworks should be transported into the NCR. More significantly, it directed that the number of temporary licences in NCR be halved in 2017, and both permanent and temporary licences further halved in 2018. Taking a cue from the 1999 experience in defining noise pollution standards for firecrackers, it constituted a multi-stakeholder, technical committee chaired by the CPCB to report on the impact of bursting firecrackers on air quality. By all accounts this was a fair and forward-looking order mitigating the commercial harm caused by regulatory uncertainty while seeking to reduce the public health impact.

The puzzling about turn

Inexplicably, on October 9, a three-judge Supreme Court bench put the September 2017 order in abeyance till November 1. The intention was clearly to postpone the restitution of sale till after Diwali, thereby nullifying the positive commercial benefits. The court invoked the “precautionary principle” in the public interest. This principle advocates abundant caution if the potential for irreparable harm exists. Thereby, the significant, negative commercial impact of the order simply became inevitable collateral damage.

Regulating better is possible

Could the regulatory process have been managed better? First, it goes without saying, that this is yet another instance of the government purposefully abdicating politically sensitive, inconvenient regulatory ground. Commercial uncertainty and public health costs are bound to escalate when this happens.

Strong action effective only if sustained

CJI Thakur2

Second, could the Supreme Court have been more consistent? Yes, it could have limited its initial intervention in 2016 to simply nudge the executive to introduce safe manufacturing standards, including by using back channels for the purpose. Possibly, its strained relationship with the government during this period, over the judicial appointments issues, may have constrained it from using this practical tactic to resolve the problem.

Optionally, the court could have issued a nuanced order, suspending temporary licenses in NCR to restrict retail sale; allowing permanent licenses to continue, but at a progressively decreasing scale and directing the executive to limit the bursting of firecrackers to collective displays at pre-designated sites. This would have reduced the quantum of firecrackers burst; minimised the commercial harm and preserved the incentive for firecracker manufacturers to actively pursue formulation of safe manufacturing standards. Despite the storm in the social media decrying the  encroachment of Hindu religious rights by limiting firecrackers, the public is in favour of clean air and a cleaner India.

Green “bangers” anyone? 

bamboo

Finally, the court could have explored the manufacture of “green” firecrackers. Before gunpowder was invented in the 10th century, the Chinese made them by heating bamboo. Northeast India is resplendent with bamboo, just waiting to be used. China might also be happy to modernise this sustainable technology and commercialise it under the Make in India initiative. Green “bangers” can preserve the thrill of Diwali, only minus the smog.

Adapted from the authors article in The Asian Age October 12, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/121017/costly-flip-flops-over-ban-on-firecrackers.html

Will NITI get it’s hands dirty?

Rajiv-Kumar-NITI

Rajiv Kumar, the new vice-chairman of the Niti Aayog, has made development of an organic, Bharatiya model of development as his mission. He is likely to encounter three problems in this endeavour.

A new, local model of development is doomed from the start in a globalised world 

farmer 2

First, in a post-ideology world, marked by rapid technological transformations, economic models become outdated even before they can be tested. In these uncertain times, feeling the rocky river bed with one’s feet carefully, while crossing turbulent economic and social currents, seems the wisest option.

Second, isn’t this what Bharat has always done. We have been obsessive about the “uniqueness” of India, which seemingly requires all international experience to be adapted for use locally. This is not necessarily a bad thing, though it has its downsides.

Scaling up rapidly more important than localisation

school lunch

Consider that in the five decades after Independence we have stuck, like leeches, to the Nehruvian development model of ersatz socialism based on a massive industrial public sector accompanied by the outrageous neglect of agriculture, private enterprise or international quality education and health facilities. This, when most other emerging countries, in East Asia, Southeast Asia and Latin America, switched over to a modified Anglo-Saxon, neo-liberal strategy from the 1970s and reaped the benefits of rapid growth.

To be sure, even after 1991, the reform model we followed was Bharatiya. Its core ingredients were incremental rather than big-bang reform — a strategy Russia followed with disastrous results — and careful sequencing of sector reform to minimise the pain from reforms.

It is unclear, however, whether Bharatiya incrementalism helped the poor. Chancel and Picketty (July 2017) estimate that over the period 1980 to 2014 the share of growth accruing to the bottom 50 per cent of adults was 11 per cent in India; 13 per cent in China and only one per cent in the United States. Meanwhile, the top one per cent of adults garnered 29 per cent of the growth in India. China did better by containing the share of this segment at 15 per cent, while the US did worse at 34 per cent. More worryingly, the next nine per cent of adults, from the top, garnered 37 per cent of growth in India, significantly more than in China (29 per cent) and the US (32 per cent). Where we failed spectacularly was in protecting the middle 40 per cent of adults, who got only 23 per cent of the growth versus 43 per cent in China and 33 per cent in the US.

Be shrewd and businesslike not ideologically shortsighted

One Bharatiya innovation which succeeded spectacularly was the phased introduction of currency and capital convertibility. This modified-market approach was validated by India escaping the ill-effects of the 1997 East Asian currency crisis. It is significant that Malaysia followed our innovative approach, endorsed by Jagdish Bhagwati, by reimposing capital controls after 1997, and Iceland did similarly in 2008.

Similarly, our choice of shying away from “big bang” privatisation of the public sector, unlike Latin America in the 1980s and Eastern Europe in the 1990s, worked well. We chose instead to liberalise controls over private investment, thereby enabling private companies to grow and compete with the public sector. This strategy has paid dividends in civil aviation, telecom, minerals and electricity generation. Incremental private sector investment now dominates these sectors and a competitive market-based economy has emerged.

Simultaneously, we contained the social cost of reforms. But a similar policy has not worked in banking. We were too hesitant to give up the political power which comes with the government owning public sector banks. Private banks today account for just one-third of banking assets. The massive economic problem of stressed loan accounts, amounting to around 14 per cent of publicly owned bank assets, is a consequence of our not following through by liberalising the financial sector. Bharatiyata has, unfortunately, become synonymous with crony capitalism in banking.

Aping the turtle gives time to pull a reform coalition together

The GST is operational today due to a strategy of incrementalism, driven by the need for building inter-government consensus. Early indications are positive both on the increase in revenue collected and the enhanced compliance by taxpayers. But the jury is out till the final results come in by April 2018.

In a nutshell, Bharat’s economic policies have always been unique and contextual. Some observers would even say we obsessively reinvent the wheel. It will thus be a tall order for the Niti Aayog to evolve a new Bharatiya model of development, which is completely unknown to us, or the world.

Don’t fix what isn’t broken

Third, do we need a new model of development? The existing model has served us well. The areas for deeper reform are well known and agreed. Indeed, many are already on their way. Hopefully the 15th Finance Commission will continue the task of decentralising fiscal resources, by increasing the share of devolved resources from the 42 per cent existing today towards 50 per cent. This would push the Union government to be more selective in its interventions based on the time-tested principle of subsidiarity — not doing anything that can be efficiently done at a lower level of government. The government is already allocating more resources to agriculture, education and healthcare, which had fallen through the gaps earlier, while also stepping up allocations for defence and infrastructure.

Avoid the temptation to centralise functions – There is enough to do for all.

At the helicopter level of grand plans and policies, there is no gap which the Niti Aayog can address. In fact, it would do well to exercise forbearance in areas where individual ministries are better equipped to take the lead. Where Niti can add value is in addressing the root causes of poor implementation. Tony Blair’s Service Delivery Unit did this to marvellous effect in the UK. Malaysia and Tanzania thereafter copied the template.

Check the plumbing in government. Massive efficiency gains are low hanging fruit

dirty

Niti should focus on the nitty-gritty of getting the plethora of good intentions, embedded in policies, implemented on the ground. This goes beyond close monitoring of targets or punishing laggards. The devil lies in clogged delivery chains, poor metrics to measure results and misaligned incentives, all of which need to be painstakingly mapped and then innovatively declogged. It’s a plumber’s job that needs to be done. Is the Niti Aayog willing to get its hands dirty?

Adapted from the authors article in The Asian Age, September 7, 2017  http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/070917/is-niti-aayog-willing-to-get-its-hands-dirty.html

 

Privacy – an elite fantasy

privacy

Elite concerns are usually disconnected from the ground reality. For the 1 per cent of Indian who live privileged, cocooned lives, the judicial right to privacy created by the Supreme Court yesterday will add yet another layer with which they can insulate themselves from the “barbarians at the gate”. So, here is what the rich may now be able to do which they couldn’t earlier.

Is the right to euthanasia next?

First, they may now be able to refuse medical treatment and die in their beds, peacefully, instead of being compulsorily hooked up to tiresome, life-saving machines in hospitals. But try explaining this “right” to the millions of poor Indians for whom just getting admitted to hospitals is still a dream and refusing treatment would be unimaginable.

Deletable past lives

Second, the well-heeled may now be able to press for being judicially forgotten – all traces of their past lives and identities expunged, giving them a fresh start without having to flee to distant London or arid Dubai. Contrast this with the Herculean efforts the average Indian makes to become part of a database and have an officially recognized identity – a voter card, a passport, a PAN card, anything which proves that she exists.

LGBT sex may become legitimate

Third, those with alternative lifestyles – the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) community might now hope to be free of the notoriously archaic Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalizes everything other than straight sex. But would this give them the right to marry a partner of their choice; adopt children or be socially accepted?

Evidencing crime will become harder

Now ponder the downsides. Law enforcement agencies struggle to manage terrorism, Naxalism, urban mafiosi, drug pushers and armed rural gangsters even today. “Privacy” concerns will provide a legal shield to undermine information collection, crime detection and investigation. Nothing less than the over-the-top, draconian Armed Forces (Special Provisions) Act – used today only in the “disturbed” areas in Kashmir and parts of the North East – would be effective. Since gangsters can afford to hire the best lawyers, the violation of their fundamental right to privacy in the process of enforcing the law, will now become a favourite ploy to keep these worthies free to wreak havoc.

How intrusive is the Indian State anyway?

Will this fundamental to privacy help the 200 million slum dwellers or the unknown millions who sleep under the stars on urban streets? Is not our fear of the “big State” overblown? The India I know is under policed, under governed and under regulated. There is a plethora of agencies, laws and rules to bind down anyone and yet very few – mostly the timid, those mindful of their public image and the law respecting middle class get intimidated by the legal spaghetti. The rich buy their way out of any mess and the poor are so inured to danger and risk that it is second nature for them to live with uncertainty.

Biometric targeting of beneficiaries to be abandoned?

Take the case of Adhaar for verifying the identity of those using the Public Distribution System (PDS). Recent studies in Jharkhand by responsible social scientists – Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera – found that 15 percent of the eligible PDS beneficiaries were excluded because of technical glitches or access problems in using Aadhar as a test of identity. But 85 percent of the beneficiaries were targeted correctly. If the right to privacy eliminates the use of Adhaar, we will be back to what Rajiv Gandhi famously called the 25 percent approach to poverty reduction – where 75 percent of the funds are siphoned-off by intermediaries. How and why would a reversion to a system which has huge inclusion errors (ineligible people getting benefited) be any better?

Big data to be throttled?

Finally, consider how retrograde is the fight by “right to privacy” advocates against big data. It is big data – the billions of pieces of information on human behavior and preferences linked to specific human demographics, which enables algorithms to predict trends, thereby aligning products and services with customer needs. This is what makes big data commercially valuable. In price sensitive markets like India, telecom and e-commerce penetration is being driven by the potential to monetize big data. Putting brakes on this process means putting brakes on the rolling out of technology services which will become more expensive if the actual user is to pay for them.

India lost an opportunity in 2014 when facebook- Bharti Airtel wanted to roll out free internet services on mobiles. TRAI regulations ensured that this venture never took off, thereby slowing down internet access for all except the 300 million people in the upper most income segments who can afford it.

Tilting at windmills

Nandan Nilekani is now an evangelist against “digital colonialism” in the context of tech majors like Google and Amazon aggressively expanding their presence in India. We should be wary of tech industry insiders playing the “anti-foreign” card. Similar attempts were made by the infamous “Bombay Club” to scuttle the 1992 economic liberalization. Their contention was that liberalizing the domestic market was fine but Indian industry should continue to be protected from foreign competition. We are fortunate that the government of the day paid no heed to this self-serving agenda.

Keep India open for competition

India is a big economy with very shallow industrialization. We need to remain open to all economic actors – domestic and foreign who want to invest in India. It would be a huge mistake to emulate the xenophobia of the United States and draw up our bridges. Data is the new oil. Data security needs to be ensured, irrespective of whether data is stored in India, or overseas. But generating anti-foreign hysteria is not in our interest as we try to integrate into global supply chains and become a part of the global value creation eco-system.

It is easy enough to legislate rights. We have many notional rights. Creating a level playing field for all citizens to enjoy these rights, equally, is another matter altogether.

Also at http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/opinion-india/privacy-an-elite-fantasy/

Well begun is half done

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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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