governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘Beatles’

PM Modi “let it be”

mother mary

PM Modi should consider listening to the “words of wisdom” in the famous 1970 Beatles hit –“Let it be”.

Of course in this cruel results centric world of ours, only those who get going fast and hard survive. But there are virtues also to sometimes take a call and just let things be.

Take for instance the manner in which BJP is keeping up the electoral rhetoric. Amit Shah the BJP President is everywhere exhorting voters in Bengali and Tamil to vote BJP. The adoption of “shock and awe” tactics- the use of such overpowering force that it leaves the enemy convinced that defeat is certain and thereby demoralizes them- is useful especially since the BJP is adept at using technology and has “Sangh boots” on the ground to realize this tactic in real life. Such tactics may work, but not against an extremely well organized and determined enemy- like the Afghans or Kejriwal.

In fact Kejriwal would welcome the adoption of the tactic in Delhi to magnify his underdog status and “David versus Goliath” effect. Ironically, in Delhi the BJP is painting Kejriwal as the “shock and awe” man with an Rs 100 crore election budget. Be that as it may but Kejriwal’s electoral base amongst the poor and the Muslims seems intact and he will give the BJP a rum fight.

The real question, is should PM Modi bother about Kejriwal? Some fights are best lost. After all India would lose its democratic plurality if every Indian state government from Kashmir to Kanyakumari became saffron-the BJP colours.

A ceaseless election rhetoric also has the downside that it does not allow the adversarial environment to cool down for the business of governance to commence. This the BJP can ill afford since it has built its election agenda around performance and shall be judged accordingly.

If Parliament cannot function harmoniously; if state governments get deadlocked in confrontation with the center, the development agenda, the BJP so desperately needs to implement, will remain just good intentions and plans.

The dilemma confronting the PM is starkly outlined by the Mid Term Economic Analysis 2014-15, the first document authored by the new Economics team in the Ministry of Finance, headed by Arvind Subramanian.

The Analysis notes that all through the period 2007 to 2010 it is private investment which led growth. It acknowledges that private investment has dried up. Corporates are deep in debt- partly due to their own greed in lapping up cheap debt because all through this period, inflation rates exceeded interest rates making it a no brainer to access debt- but also because investments have not resulted in revenues and remain locked in incomplete projects bedeviled by land unavailability; fuel shortages; contractual disputes; scams; and hold up in environmental approvals.

Rapid institutional reform (the underpinnings of good governance) could attract private investment for growth but the Analysis is starkly honest and pessimistic about the possibility of institutional reforms in the near term.  Apparently the PPP model is “broken” and cannot be fixed in the near term. Ergo the only available, albeit second best option, is to pump up public investment to compensate and hope to kick start private investments.

The efficacy of a public finance led growth option is not the topic of this post. The dangers are well known. No amount of public finance can fix a “broken” system. The more we rely on public finance led investment; national champions and a necessarily interventionist government; the deeper we slide into the morass of mega scams; gold plated projects; monopolies; tariff walls to “nurture” the consequential white elephants built using public finance and a further erosion of state credibility. This is exactly what the opposition wants to happen, so PM Modi should beware.

Political nirvana lies in sticking to the path the PM propounded when the country voted for him.

First, work doggedly to reform institutions in the near term. The near term is not as near as the next budget in February 2015, it is till end 2015 by when election fever will grip Bihar and then Uttar Pradesh. This can be done by building a team of selected state governments, the higher judiciary, Parliament and the trade unions all working to a minimalist institutional reform plan, which stops at causing unbearable (and uncompensated) pain to any one actor. That is the essence of democracy.

Second, PM Modi should rise above the metric of stock market numbers. What matters to him is an improvement in the lives of the average voter.  These are not people who live or die by what is happening on Dalal Street. Stick to the “micro economic” problem of making their lives better and here we have a problem. The ongoing deflation (reduction) in rural wages, as the Analysis maps, is not a desirable outcome for the poor, especially in an environment in which government servants are 100% inflation indexed.

But above all the PM has a political choice to make. Is it better for the BJP to continue to hog headlines via an adversarial electoral agenda or reserve the “shock and awe” effect for later in 2015 when preparations for Bihar and then Uttar Pradesh elections kick-in?

He would be well advised, in these troubled times, to “listen to Mother Mary and let it be”.

(This blog is dedicated to my Grand Nephew Angad Ahluwalia, age 6, whose favourite song is “Let it Be” and whose current ambition is to be a Lead Guitarist in a band.)

When I’m 64

Paul Mccartney

(photo credit: wikipedia)

Paul McCartney -he of the long, brown hair who hung out in the company of the Beatles in the 1960s-wrote this song when he was just 16. Clearly he was not an economist and didn’t need to be hesitant about asking his “love” to project forward by 48 years, her likely feelings for him at the ripe, old age of 64. We don’t know what she told him then, but today it is unlikely to be the right thing to do.

First, not many lose their hair by 64 and the ones that do, get them back with renewed vigour, courtesy a visit to Dubai for a hair boost. Second, it is unwise to ask the modern spouse if she would lock the door if you remain out till 3 AM. The likelihood is that you would be opening the door for her when she comes in at 6! Third, the role distribution between men and women is no longer about the former mending a fuse and the latter knitting a sweater. Nor do women typically look forward to have three grandchildren dangling at their knees. But Mccartney got one thing right when he plaintively asked “will you still feed me when I am 64”.

The way to a man’s heart remains via his stomach and it is not just food that we refer to. In rural areas women have traditionally done most of the drudge of farming, animal husbandry and cottage industry along with fetching firewood, water and often carrying the weekly supplies home from the village market.  But now, even in urban areas, supporting the family by earning an additional income has become a critical role for women. In fact several studies of recent migrants to urban areas find that women adjust far better to the demand for skills in cities than men. The bulk of the labour demand in the urban informal sector is for housework and hospitality related jobs. Nannies in Gurgaon earn Rs. 40,000 a month, the same as recently graduated engineers. Women are better equipped to meet this demand than men, who tend to slide down the labour profile, from being proud farmers to become daily wagers in manual unskilled muscle-power related work or fall into petty crime. A woman with a steady income is consequently not to be sniffed at.

Even amongst the rich, women today play an important role in salving the stomach. Take for example the case of club memberships in the megacities. With a limited number of “legacy” clubs- leftovers from the colonial past- and growing demand, membership of a decent club has become a problem, even if you don’t have Groucho Marx’s hang up of not wanting to be a member of a club which would accept him. Most clubs however do have fast track arrangements for women memberships. A spouse, with a membership in these “legacy” clubs, is consequently a fairly efficient way of ensuring perpetual access to decent food and booze at ridiculously low prices, relative to the extravagantly generous environs.

Our PM Modi is already 64 and so must sympathise with the problems of his age cohorts. We know that this makes little electoral sense for him. After all, less than 5% of our population is above 64. Far better to cater to the 80% who are below 44. But here four things the PM should think about.

First, caring for the elderly is no longer a family effort. Nuclear families and migration make that impossible. Catering to the health needs of the old is a completely different specialization than looking after working adults. India is hopelessly deficient in this skill and public health institutions do not even waste their time on this “marginal” activity. The one thing the PM should remember is that social norms are built around how the elderly are treated. Even elephants will remain with a sick and elderly herd member, providing comfort and company. Should India not have a similar publicly funded HealthLine for the elderly?

Second, better nutrition, awareness and altered social expectations have enhanced longevity. The fond, greying, father marrying off his daughters and setting off for pilgrimage; his worldly duties done, is a Bollywood caricature, observed more in the breach, than in real life. India does not use its elderly purposefully. We tend to look at the “jobs and employment” pie as fixed. An elderly person occupying a job is seen as one job less for the young. This age based discrimination violates the fundamental principle of human rights and the economic principle of merit-based employment. Callow youth can be a disadvantage in many jobs and experience coupled with reasonable health, an economic virtue. A society which seeks to provide productive employment to the “specially enabled” cannot logically discard the elderly from its work force.

Third, the PM and FM Jaitley should regulate our private Medical Insurance Industry better. These companies blatantly cherry pick medical cover for those above 60 and make it available only to those who can either fudge their heath reports or to the few who enjoy “perfect health”, even after 60 and that too at astronomical premia.  There is no insurance cover available for those who have the typical “old age” health concerns of hypertension; diabetes and other assorted pains and aches. The pity is that there is significant demand from those who are more than 64 and can pay handsome premia but who want to insure against all possible “old age health risks and care”. Surely there is a business opportunity there which Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority (IRDA) should nudge the private health insurers to exploit as a desirable private good?

Lastly, FM Jaitley was recently reported as supporting the reduction of interest rates for kick starting the stagnant realty sector. Whilst, setting interest rates should be strictly in the purview of the RBI Governor, could Mr. Jaitley please think about extending tax and interest rate benefits to “retirement homes” of which, yet again, the supply is far less than the demand, across all price segments. Caring for the old and giving them a good send-off when they die, is a nit-picky, long term business investment and does not lend itself to the typical realty practice of theme of doubling your money in two years by hiving off an leveraged assett. Big, established, realty and hospitality companies, with a reputation to protect, can only be attracted into the retirement home segment if the deal is sweetened by government.

Hopefully the FM will include this “public benefit” in the 2015 budget. This writer is waiting to sign up for one such “home” now that I am 62.

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