governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘Bill Clinton’

India-US in sync: wooly Liberals out, pragmatic Conservatives in


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The Republican sweep of the mid-term Senate elections in the US closely resembles the Modi wave in India. In both cases, electoral disgust with wooly idealism and unfulfilled promises fueled the wave.

In the US, Janet Yellen, Chair of the Federal Reserve caused a stir on October 17 by labelling as “stagnant” the living standards of the “aam” American – a seeming indictment of the last seven years of Democrat rule. She next made already raised Democrat eyebrows, merge with the hair line, by citing the inheritance of wealth as a significant pool of economic opportunity.

Both statements are anathema for the Democrats for whom income inequality is only a necessary evil and inheritance of wealth, opposed to the American dream of making good on one’s own steam. Is Yellen playing to the Republicans?

If it was India, Yellen’s strategy would be viewed as a technocrat aligning to the tune of new masters. Party lines in India are androgynous, vague and fungible in any case. Political stances on specific issues are not nuanced. When horns are locked between parties, the driver is mostly to play “spoiler” rather than differences on technical or ideological grounds.

But for a dilution of “neo liberal” ideologies in the US, close to the heart of the Democrats since Bill Clinton initiated them,  is a serious event signaling a never before ideological convergence between the Democrats- associated with “big government, social protection and wealth redistribution” -and the more “conservative, small government, pro-business” Republicans.

Such a workable convergence of ideologies is sorely needed in the US, where the Republican dominated House of Representatives and now the Senate can torpedo any chance of President Obama having a meaningful second term.

The American parable has lessons for India. The handsome mandate won by the Modi led BJP in May 2014 and again recently in the Maharashtra and Haryana state assembly elections has spawned acrimony and worse, between India’s two main national parties: the BJP and the Congress. Frankly this is uncalled for. In sharp contrast the ex-PM, Manmohan Singh, who is a Rajya Sabha MP, is setting a good example by regularly and positively contributing to issues across party lines in Parliamentary Committees.  PM Modi and FM Jaitley seem to have established a working relationship with the technocratic, ex-PM. This augurs well for the substance of confabulations in the parliamentary committee on Finance. We hope the Modi Sarkar  (government) will expand the opportunities for such positive collaboration across party lines, especially with technocratic talent.

Media reports suggest that the erstwhile Planning Commission will be reconfigured, in early 2015, into a forum for hands-on collaboration between state government and the Union. This is just what is required.

The Modi electoral wave is shrinking the number of non-BJP state governments rapidly. Maharshtra and Haryana are now with the BJP. Delhi, which is now on way to the polls, is likely to follow. As the electoral clout of the BJP grows, it will inevitably induce a push back from threatened regional and marginalised national parties.

The British successfully used the “safety valve” of participative deliberations for decades, to secure political harmony. Bleeding opposition parties by productively engaging their technocrats can not only meet the capacity challenge the BJP currently faces, but also restrain opposition parties from being “spoilers”.

As in the US, Indian voters have “hunkered down” and adopted a black and white perspective. The choices have shrunk to either a vote for nebulous concepts of pluralism; democracy; liberalism (Congress and its spin offs) or a vote for economic self-interest (BJP and select Regional Parties). Between the two options, clearly acting in one’s economic self-interest is winning.

The Modi Sarkar has a huge opportunity to tap into this narrowing of the voter expectations. Here are two steps which can play to their new expectations:

First, after wowing the young electorate with a media savvy, electronically charged campaign, the likes of which has never been seen in India, the Modi Sarkar cannot now tamely go back to the netherworld of the paper file bound by red tape.

Google, Microsoft and Apple can facilitate real time digital communication between government, business and citizens. But unless connectivity become pervasive; the quality of access improves and the cost of access is resonable, large swathes of our citizens remain excluded.

More importantly, what use is it for a citizen to record and report crime instantly, using a smartphone, if the response time of the police and medical teams runs into hours if not days? Unless government processes are digitized to seamlessly integrate digital inputs and establish electronic audit trails of action taken, vast pools of sloth and inefficiency will continue to confound citizen expectations.

We are not moving up the ladder of digitization of public systems and interface fast enough, thereby keeping transparency, accountability and participation levels very low. Can the PM set May 27, 2015-a year since assuming office- as the deadline after which all submissions to the PMO must be electronic?

Second, young voters are unlikely to be impressed with the hoopla around the skills agenda as it currently exists. Even skilled workers do not have jobs today. Our 3000 engineering institutes churn out 1.5 million graduates every year, many of dubious quality. Around one half waste the skills acquired as no jobs exist. Jobs can only be created over time. During the interim a “holding strategy” is needed.

The skills agenda is a copy of the “holding strategy” in developed countries, where kids without jobs can continue studying at state expense. This is extremely wasteful. Far better, in the Indian context, to incentivize kids early to opt for learning-on-the-job. The traditional system of learning under an “Ustad” (mentor) can be kick started by publicly funding 5 million long term-2 to 3 years- apprenticeships.

Business would welcome the move for two reasons. First, public funding dilutes the cost of training a low-skilled, young employee, who could leave after her apprenticeship. Second, businesses get to train employee in the skill-set per their specific requirement. They are far better placed to impart job related skills than vocational schools, established under traditional, technical training programs, at high cost, but no direct linkage to jobs.

For employee the on-the-job-training is a costless opportunity to network and to add skills with an eye to the future.

Clearly, there are downsides to this proposal. Employment in the formal, private sector is shallow at only 13 million. Apprenticeships in the suggested volumes just cannot be absorbed in the formal sector. In the non-formal sector, unfair capture of benefits by family members of the business owner is a possibility. But competitive grant of apprenticeships can overcome this problem. Also the scheme does not come cheap and could cost 1% of GDP or 5% of the government’s budget.

But just as clearly there are upsides. The political benefits are obvious: 15 million young voters and 50 million satisfied family members, spread across India, all of whom have benefited directly from the scheme by 2019 (next general elections).

More substantively, publicly funded apprenticeships can democratize access to non-formal private sector jobs by encouraging the entry of other than family members. The public subsidy for financing the learning curve can incentivize the hiring of deserving but un-networked and financially insecure, young workers.

The incremental fiscal burden, whilst not insignificant, is easily absorbed by rationalising the wasteful, legacy, central sector schemes spawned by the erstwhile Planning Commission which amount to more than 4% of the GDP. Also funding apprenticeships is one way of increasing our miserably low allocation of public resources for education.

The hardest thing in public resource allocation is to quantify tradeoffs. But helping a young worker get hands-on experience, as a first step towards a real job, is surely pretty high up as a national priority.

Digit Sex, Lies and False Gods


Thanks to Bill Clinton and his legal brilliance, the definition of what constitutes a sex offence has become so broad that men and women now need to comply with the strictest code of antiseptic, social behavior.

Earlier we all knew when we were crossing the line since the rule was simple. In Rome do as the Romans do….and what they do can fill entire books. Red lines of sexual behavior are contextual.  Hugging, kissing on the cheek, or the palm of your hand, holding hands, caressing acquire significance only in a particular context. What would pass as acceptable in Africa or Russia would land you in jail in the US and India. USAID training manuals, in the 1990s, were compelled to advise Indian scholars visiting the US, that if their host’s spouse kisses them on the cheek, that is not an invitation to grope her!!! Even today China feels compelled to issue advice to their overseas travelers on behavior norms.

We have come a long way from there and as is usual in such things, overshot considerably on what a law should prescribe. Consider this. Under the 2013 Indian law if you come up on your ex-boyfriend trying to open his own room in a hotel corridor and hug him tightly from behind, in a “hello again gesture” and he does not shake you off but just turns around in your arms, making you reach up and caress his face, he could send you to jail for “sexual assault” for three years. Surprised? But this is the kind of nonsensical rule that a law obsessed, urban society, led by the nose by social activists, legislates.

It assumes two preconditions, neither of which exist in India. First, an efficient police investigation and prosecutorial system, which would have the time, energy and the capacity to take an FIR to conviction of the accused. In India public interest tapers off quickly after an FIR has been lodged. Second a judicial system which could decide the case in a short time. If neither exist a draconian law becomes a hotbed of corruption and misuse.

The human body, and indeed any living creature, is morally inviolate. Human society conveniently permits humans to have double standards; one for themselves and another for other living things. We can kill animals, except some privileged ones like the Tiger, but not ourselves. Within humans, there are gender differences and historical gender behavior codes which marginalize women, in India and most of the World.

There are three ways of reversing the unhappy state of gender equity.

First, Laws can give access to public power through positive discrimination (reservations); prescribe special procedures for fast forwarding gender justice in our investigative, prosecutorial and judicial system and reverse perverse economic laws, like on inheritance, which are gender biased.

Second, the government can enhance the functional capacity and skills of women, increasing their market power. It can also dilute the existing barriers to achieve this objective, including by, locating schools in a gender sensitive manner so that girls can access them; enlarge housing for urban, working women in a manner which blends convenience with safety; increase the street level presence of women police officers, especially at night, by instituting mixed gender police patrols and so on.

Third social change led by religious leaders and social activists can target individual behavior and mindsets, stemming and eventually reversing, the baggage of history which constrains the unleashing of woman power in India, across the economic classes.

India has done a great deal on the first two but virtually nothing on the third, especially with respect to sexual equity.

We will not make much progress unless we become more open about our sexual needs and practices. Today most of us live a lie. Spouses prefer to turn a Nelson’s eye to sexual transgressions rather than confront them, possibly because sexual depravity is considered a higher social negative than corruption. The children of sexually deviant people attract opprobrium on the erroneous assumption that it is genes which determines sexual conformity.  The concept of sexual depravity is generally gender biased and it is easier for a woman to fall foul of this “moral” code than a man.

The most affected by the sex warp are the middle class. The poor have no space, time or resources for living by Victorian values. Children grow up in the same room as copulating elders; women change partners, since men often fail to be the “provider”; involuntary sex is one of the many dangers of tight, spatial proximity of an extended family; most poor women work which gives them a great deal more economic freedom.

The Indian elite are more evenly gender balanced, as one would expect. Many are double income households, which automatically dilutes the “man above” hierarchy. The very rich are also known to permit reciprocal sexual equity, though women generally have to be more circumspect about it than men.

What does this mean for the Indian family and for traditional values that spouses and partners genuinely love each other and have no need for breaching the sexual behavior code. Nor surprisingly it is the middle class, both urban and rural, which adheres the most to traditional values. Cynics would say this is not out of choice but compulsion. Middle class men are not enveloped by the miasma of power which so attracts others. Middle class women are so tired out with just managing the cost of onions and tomatoes, cleaning and cooking that they have little time or energy left for even thinking about sex. They sublimate their fantasies through movies and film magazines, since their reality is so grim.

What is a sensible sexual behavior code? Here are some suggestions:

First, sexual behavior should become a crime only if one of the two or more parties, alleges non consensuality and complains to the police. Gay sex, multiple partner sex may be socially deviant behavior, though even this is very, very, debatable, but it must not be a crime unless it transgresses the red lines of involving a person needing protection, like a minor. This single tweaking of the existing law would take way the absurdity inherent in the new law and rationalize the burden of proof required for securing a conviction.

Second, it is good that there are now institutional norms prescribed for sexual behavior in the workplace but it must be clear to all (it appears even senior managers are not aware) that these are only lead to institutional disciplinary action and do not substitute for the rule of criminal justice.

Third, men and women will always be attracted to the route of granting sexual favours for getting benefits in the workplace. This would be entirely their own business, if it did not adversely affect the rights of other employees in the workplace. A boss, looking for sexual favours, and there are many, will always favour a sexually compliant employee, so neither the employee nor the boss would be inclined to complain. Criminal law must consequently provide for an aggrieved colleague, in the workplace, to lodge a criminal complaint against both the boss and the employee for indulging in “sex for benefits” in the workplace.

The “Gods” of acceptable sexual behavior norms are often the ones who are most in breach of them. Such false Gods apart, acceptable sexual behavior norms, in general, are best left to be decided by the society concerned. A multiplicity of locally compliant norms is better rather than a pan-India norm. Meanwhile, a good principle to avoid crossing the red line is to (a) never try and have sex whilst drinking (b) examine the motive of your sexual urge, every time you get one and reject it if it is driven by ego or your “power miasma” (c) never make the first physical move, especially if you are a man, unless it is with another man (d) keep your digits to yourself unless they are asked for. 

A Foreigner in Delhi


Foreigners aiming to live in Delhi must first get acquainted with its culture. It is they who need to adapt. No one, not the Mughals, the Brits, the entrepreneurial Punjabi refugees from Pakistan, the rich but rude, Haryanvi landowners, the clever South Indian Brahmins, desperate Bangladeshi refugees, the skilled Bihari, Eastern UP and Oriya migrants, the Christian tribals from East India nor the educated migrants from the North East, have managed to bend the robust spirit of Delhi, characterized by the five Cs: (i) Contempt for the law and rules: “sab chalta hai”. “Dilliwallahs” make the rules. (ii) Car; the bigger and higher the better, preferably black or white, with multi-coloured beacons, flags and a sign board on the front bumper (iii) Cut: variously, a cash payout from a deal involving public funds; short-circuiting a queue by using status; changing lanes frequently on a road, to get ahead of others. (iv) Cutlet: a westernized and tasteless kebab or a foolish friend and (v)  Carat: which is self-explanatory as jewelry, opulent clothes or a more generalized measure of quality.

The colonial Brits were adept at mastering this game. Many, not surprisingly given their choices, went “native” and integrated. Living examples are the journalist, Mark Tully; actor, Barry John and wildlifer, Belinda Wright.

Of course, the most recent examples are David Cameron and his wife, participating enthusiastically in Hindu rituals during Deepawali (clearly with an eye to the huge and rich Indian community in the UK) and the less strategic, but more genuine and endearing, “Indian”, Prince Charles, worshipping the Ganga in Varanasi. It is a measure of their maturity, that no one in the UK objects, to their leaders participating in the “foreign” rituals, of a minority community. The Americans are no different. President Nixon famously complained that every Ambassador he sent to Delhi became more Indian than American.

Modi must learn from the Brits. If he is to live in Delhi, he has to publicly accept the glorious Mughal and Muslim part of Delhi’s composite culture. It is a pity that Modi is vegetarian otherwise good sense would have got to him via his stomach.

The kebabs, korma and biryani, handed down from the Mughals, are mouth-watering. But he could feast on the succulent Shahi Tukda and reflect, on whether it is such a bad idea, to don a skull cap after all.

No one can argue that Modi is wrong. Of course, Indian Muslims have willingly been used as political pawns and “secularism” converted into a political tactic. Just as clearly, Hindu fundamentalism is misplaced in India. The BJP won the battle in 1992, but erred deeply in demolishing the Babri Masjid with the Congress looking on from Delhi. The Congress erred in supporting and feeding the fundamentalist Bhindranwale into becoming a cult figure for the Sikhs. It subsequently tarnished its image further, by having to destroy the Golden Temple, to get rid of him. Give politicians of any hue a cleavage and they shall play with it. No pun intended.

Hindus were massacred by Sikh terrorists in Punjab (1980s), Muslim terrorists in Maharashtra (2008) and got killed in the post Babri Masjid riots in Mumbai (1993). They have put the past behind them. Sikhs were massacred by Hindus, the Police and the Army (1984) but they have put that behind them. Christians have been sporadically killed in Odisha but they have not given up on the idea of India. Muslims have been massacred in Uttar Pradesh (1980s and 2013), Mumbai (1993) and Gujarat (2002). They, similarly, need to put this behind them.

Clearly the Hindu-Muslim religious tension is enhanced by the memories, albeit fading now, of the horrors of partition (1947). The continuing, intentional, overt support by Pakistan to Muslim fundamentalism in India does not help. Nor does the international, institutionalization of Islam in politics, evidenced by the rise of Islamist parties in the newly democratic countries of North Africa, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, the Middle East, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Democratization inevitably throws up what people actually believe in. If citizens are deeply religious, democracy is unlikely to lead to religious neutrality. In India we know that religion is entwined into culture and life and cannot be separated from State action, in the manner it is done in the West.

But we also know that 15% (or more) of our population is of Muslims who are poorly led since the traditional elite migrated long ago to Pakistan and other countries. Indian Muslims are defensive, as only a minority can be and are gradually being pushed into a tight corner by all parties, to become the obscurantist, backward looking political pawns they are made out to be today. A case of life imitating fiction.

Modi is against appeasement of anyone just for votes and who can argue against that stand in distinguishing him from the others. However, he needs a Bill Clinton moment when he comes out openly and pulls the average Muslim into the warm embrace of the national mainstream.

He can do this by rising above Advani’s brand of fundamentalist Hinduism. He can also do this by consciously playing to the development needs of the minorities and the marginalized: Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhist, Jains, the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes.  

Here are three suggestions:

First, be the caring elder you claimed to be in Patna. For the marginalized, the biggest concern is security of life and property. Set up an all India 24×7 call-in number and website which would counsel them if the local police are not taking sufficient or appropriate interest in their case and monitor the most outrageous cases of neglect. Law and order is a State subject, but it is within the Central governments powers to monitor and ensure that basic human rights are implemented by state governments.

Second, be even handed. Extend the scheme of reservations (positive discrimination) to the marginalized, who are currently excluded (Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains) but with an additional poverty criterion. With a downsizing government and growing private sector this is a sop but it does establish equity as the corner stone of state action.

Third, make democracy truly representative and kill identity politics by killing the potential for fracturing the vote. This is the most important reform. Change the existing electoral system under which MPs and MLAs get elected just by polling the largest number of votes, which is sometimes not more than 20 to 25% of the polled vote. Introduce a system of runoffs so that the elected candidate represents at least more than 50% of the polled vote, including the NOTA votes. This will ensure that the voice of minorities is not ignored.

Skull caps and Astrakhans are just a symbol. Donning one will not put off Modi’s supporters. The Gujarati voters cherish him, not for the Gods he worships, but for the development he delivers. 

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