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Trump’s – “ugly American” redux


President Donald Trump’s administration is showing its a mean. mercantilist machine. Unsurprisingly, for it, international trade is a one-way street, with exports increasing wealth in America, at the expense of the importing economies and imports stealing American jobs. The psychosis is familiar territory for India and scores of developing countries. What is truly unusual is the conversion of the United States of America to this flawed concept and the abandonment of the open economy model, by the erstwhile foremost exponent of this philosophy.

Nǐ hǎo ma America

In today’s topsy-turvy world, Mr Trump is aping the Great Qing emperors of China during the mid-19th century. At that time China was more than willing to sell Chinese silks, ceramics and art in exchange for silver, but felt no need to import any foreign goods or influences. The result was a burgeoning trade surplus. It took export of cheap opium and gunboat diplomacy by the Western colonial powers to balance the trade.

Emperor Quinlong

Unlike China under the Great Qing, the United States runs a massive trade deficit equal to around three per cent of its GDP. This is normal for many developing countries but unusual for a “great power”. American consumers are accustomed to the “opium” of cheap imported goods. It helps that the appetite of foreigners for AAA-rated US dollar securities finances the deficit. But what matters to Mr. Trump is protecting US jobs. Hence the plan to reduce the deficit, particularly versus China, by $100 billion. Hiking import tariffs on metals significantly is part of that  endeavor. Mr. Trump hopes that metals, being intermediate goods, the resultant rise in price of final goods will not be immediately visible. More bizarre tactics may follow.

Jobs for the boys, at any cost 

But higher tariffs will rob both American consumers via higher prices eventually and jobs in ancillary, user trades, which are sensitive to price rise. All this, just to keep jobs alive on life support, in the metals production business. This is bad politics and worse economics – at best a short-term tactic — to signal the Trump administration’s sympathies for Republican rough-necks. The economy wide negative impact will be diluted over time. Mr. Trump believes in deals. So expect to be able to evade the higher tariffs if you are willing to buy enough of iconic American products – like Harley Davidson motorcycles, stetsons and Boeing aircraft.

The US remains the biggest single country, market. It imports $2.7 trillion of goods and services. But the European Union’s market for imports is much bigger, at $6.7 trillion. Japan alone imports $0.8 trillion and China imports $2 trillion worth of goods and services. So the US is steadily dropping away from being a dominant market for world exports.

India is not the target, but we suffer collateral damage

The new import tariff of 25 per cent on steel and 10 per cent on aluminum are of marginal consequence for India. Our share in world steel exports is just 2.5 per cent. Steel exports to the US, over 2012-16, averaged around 6.5 per cent of our total steel exports. We also export metals to other big markets like the UAE, Europe, East Asia and South Asia. Our share in world aluminum exports, averaged 1.5 per cent over 2013-16. The share of the US in our aluminum exports is significant, at 10 per cent. But our largest importer is South Korea, with significant volumes also exported to Mexico, Malaysia, the UAE and Turkey. Indian exports to the US are not of the scale where they could threaten the economic security of American industries. Also, our special relationship with the US, since the 2005 US-India Civil Nuclear Agreement, the shared commitment against terror and common military logistics arrangements, can facilitate privileged access to the US market.

The US – a willful ally

The elephant in the room is US intransigence, amounting to the “ugly American” behaviour. Starting with the US walking out of the 2015 Paris climate change agreement; and its recent regressive approach to immigration — in sharp contrast to responsive European policies; and its most recent arbitrary protection via high import tariffs of steel and aluminum manufacturing jobs — all these have damaged its “soft power”.


Of course, the US has the firepower, bolstered by its $600 billion defence expenditure, to promote “gunboat” diplomacy. But faced with China’s relentlessly expanding economic muscle which makes it an implacable adversary in the superpower sweepstakes, the US will be hard pressed to convince its own allies that it can back its brash words with action.

Indians have indelible memories, from 1971, of the threatening deployment of the US Seventh Fleet in the Bay of Bengal seeking to prevent the liberation of East Pakistan by the Bangladeshi Mukti Bahini from the oppressive, quasi-colonial rule of the Pakistani-Punjabi mafia — a long-time close US ally. It was only the counter deployment of Soviet nuclear submarines and warships, in response to a request for help from India, which rendered the USS Enterprise and the rest of the Seventh Fleet toothless. If the US was not willing, in 1971, to face down the Soviets, to help its ally Pakistan, then how credible is its willingness and ability to come to the help of India in facing down a possible threat from China?


China, our awesome, prickly neighbour

In a networked world, trade, investment and security are intertwined. The US views China as its primary adversary. Luckily for it, China is several thousand miles removed from the American land mass. But China lurks on our northern borders. It spends $180 billion on its military alone — almost equal to the total budget of the Indian government. Whilst, lining up to seek favourable trade terms from America, it would be foolhardy to provoke a trade war with China. India did well, recently, to dilute the potential use of the Dalai Lama’s April 19, 1959 flight to safety in India, as an irritant for “Emperor Xi”.

Navel gazing better than eye-balling

Modi emerging

Prudence lies in following the Chinese strategy of subordinating muscular diplomacy to economic growth till the time is ripe. It remains in India’s interest to adhere to the open economy model. We have limited capital and governance capacity. We must be frugal in allocating them to first build our domestic infrastructure and facilitate private investment, whilst keeping our markets lightly regulated and open to competition and foreign investment.

Let us not obsess about job creation or force-feeding the formal economy. The US creates two million jobs in a year. Non-farm jobs are scarce everywhere. We should become better at generating fiscal resources to redistribute as income support to the “lost generations” of unskilled, unemployed Indians who are older than 50. This will boost domestic demand and fuel economic growth, far better than resorting to failed economic solutions — such as protectionism, subsidies and publicly financed businesses to chase impossible dreams.

Adapted from the authors opinion piece in The Asian Age, March 17, 2018

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

Modi@Davos – Jawboning the future


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


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


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”


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


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

Xi and Modi – joined at the hip


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

China shines


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

But a more benign social policy beckons 


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

Bhutan: Democratising for happiness


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

Wealth alone does not breed content

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

India and China: different strokes

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

Nationalism rules

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

The country cousins meet

Xi and Modi

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

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


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

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

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