governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘Congress’

Disaster sans democracy in Uttarakhand

harish-rawat 2

Photo credit: NDTV.com: Harish Rawat – the unfortunate Congress Chief Minister, sacked by the President of India for failing to fulfill his constitutional mandate to get the budget approved

Nothing illustrates the cost of wantonly discarding democracy and handing over the government to unelected officials (Governor) than the case of Uttarakhand. To recap the turn of events , the President of India (read the BJP Union government) was pleased to take control of Uttarakhand on March 27, 2016, by invoking constitutionally vested emergency powers available to it if an elected state government fails to discharge its constitutional mandate.

The occasion for doing so was an allegation, by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s members of the Legislative Assembly, who are in a minority, that the Budget for 2016-17 was not approved by a majority vote in March, as required, to keep public finances running in the new year — April onwards. The ousted Congess government strongly refuted the allegation and approached the Uttarakhand high court, in appeal against the Presidents order. On March 28, a single judge of the Uttrakhand rubbished the President’s order. The Union government filed for revision of this order. A division bench however confirmed on April 21 that Presidents rule was unwarranted. The matter is now in the Supreme Court on appeal against the high court order. A ruling is expected this week but early indications are that the Court leans towards asking the ousted government to prove its majority on the floor of the Legislative Assembly, as is the norm and which aligns with what the Uttarakhand Governor had directed in the first place, once the dispute arose.

The absence of political leadership shows

But forget the legalese. The fact is that Uttarakhand has been without an elected government to take charge and be accountable for over a month now. It is fashionable for citizens to blame politicians for all the ills in the country. Unfortunately, the official machinery has failed miserably to showcase its strengths by managing the ongoing forest fire disaster. This illustrates that the “iron frame” of the bureaucracy is now so rusted that it fails to be proactive even when there are no visible political constraints on them.

Jhoom an age old practice

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The people of Uttarakhand are no strangers to forest fires. Indeed, this writer has had out of control fires in previous years licking the boundary of his home and it has happened again this year. Just like in California, where habitations co-exist with forests, lighting fires can be property and life threatening. In India, the foresters and villagers resort to it as a low-cost, low-labour intensive practice to clear the fallen pine needles and accumulated undergrowth so that fresh grass sprouts from underneath for cattle to graze on. Till not so very long ago jhoom (slash and burn) cultivation — regularly setting fire to land and leaving it fallow to regenerate — was common practice. It is still followed in the Northeast.

The problem arises when local fires are poorly managed and they grow out of control and ravage vulnerable people (the old, the differently abled and the very young), homes, cattle, wildlife and indeed trees, none of whom can get away quickly.

Lack of advance red alerts 

Unfortunately, this year was different in a manner which people never recognised. The lack of rain created tinder box conditions. A more proactive bureaucracy would have sounded the red alert early, launched a communications campaign to sensitise the public against the danger, set up a war room fed by daily updates via sms and Facebook and designated local champions to lead the effort and build public opinion against jhoom.

chandi pd bhatt

Photo credit: indiatogether.org: C.P.Bhatt- Uttarakhand’s pragmatic Ecologist and community leader

Remember how Chandi Prasad Bhatt- alarmed at deforestation on an epic scale in the 1970s- a major cause for the Alakananda floods at that time – galvanised the women of Garhwal to launch the “Chipko Movement” (literally hugging trees) to guard against the rampant logging? He showed it is possible to build strong public opinion if people’s self-interest is shown to be aligned with a public cause. Managing perule better is a similar public interest issue.

Short sighted programme implementation

A previous government programme, which could have tackled the root of the problem, aimed at buying perule (fallen pine leaves) to incentivise villagers to collect them, rather than setting them on fire. Unfortunately it has long fallen into diuse. Villagers say it died because the amounts offered by the government were unattractive. Foresters say the villagers are too lazy to work and look for easy earnings and viable options for recycling perule were never developed. Also viable methods for recycling perule by compacting it into and selling, or the villagers themselves using it, as fire wood were never commercialised. Lack of sustained interest and lack of public finance effectively buried the programme even though it could have diluted the extent of the current ecological disaster by reducing the vulnerability of forests to catch fire.

Preventing disasters is nobodys business

But the real problem is that governments routinely under-spend on preventing disasters in comparison to the potential loss. Also, the tendency is to buy new equipment to manage disasters once they happen, rather than evolve low-cost, local options to prevent them. Had Uttarakhand done so, it would not be facing the terrible social and environmental costs of doing nothing.

A more technically savvy bureaucracy could have redesigned the old perule (pine needles) purchase programme to make it more attractive. But none of this happened. Minus a chief minister, the bureaucracy was a leaderless army. Local administrations headed by the district magistrate became a dead letter box into which the secretariat heavies dutifully dumped warnings and advice, sans funds, for guarding against fires.

This is not to say that the Uttarakhand bureaucracy was as callous as the Supreme Court described Union government bureaucrats to be. Whilst rapping them for not bringing forward evidenced solutions to reduce air pollution levels in Delhi, the court said: “Why can’t they come up with some research and solutions? You people are just sipping coffee and doing nothing”.

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photo credit: pinintrest.com: Delicately sipping tea – the bureaucrats relaxant.

What is true for Delhi is not necessarily true of state-level bureaucracies, which have responded magnificently, in the recent past, to disasters in Gujarat, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. But they all had a chief minister directing the coordinated effort that relief requires.

The key assurance an official seeks in an emergency is that his/her actions, taken in public interest, will be assessed not on the basis of how closely the regulations were followed, but on the context in which decisions were taken, and their effectiveness, in solving the problems disasters throw up.

This type of reassurance can only be credibly given by a duly elected chief minister. In today’s context, it takes a politician even to make the trains run on time! The colonial model, where the officials led and politicians merely presided, is past and buried.

Local political leadership is key 

Sans a chief minister in Dehradun, it is Delhi which is sending money, choppers and the Army to deal with the disaster. But only elected governments at the state and the local level can engage continuously to prevent disasters and effectively manage those that occur.

But the last thing to be wished for, in a disaster area, is a government led by officials with no effective political oversight. Even a bad chief minister is better than no chief minister at all. One hopes the Supreme Court will take note and end Uttarakhand’s misery.

 

CJI Thakur

Photo credit: Zeenews.comChief Justice of India, T.S. Thakar breaks down whilst sharing the misery of a judge’s life with Prime Minister Modi- the government promised to do better at staffing and funding the justice system. 

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age on May 3, 2015; http://www.asianage.com/columnists/fuelling-fire-979

 

Politics sans service

The curious case of Uttarakhand (a small hill state in north India) shows that getting elected to political office confers powers but no responsibilities.

The otherwise placid, hilly paradise was rocked by frenzied politicking in end March, as Congress dissidents lit a fire under their own government, even as forest fires lit to clear shed pine leaves gusted up clouds of carbon and heat. Tellingly, citizens were more concerned with managing the forest fires than the fallout of the political shenanigans.

forest fire

Photo credit: disaster-report.com

The Harish Rawat-led Congress government still has one year to go. But it fell, because former chief minister Vijay Bahuguna and Mr Rawat’s ex-buddy from Garhwal, Harak Singh Rawat, and seven others pulled the plug on it. Their timing was cannily disruptive since the annual budget could not be approved — politically effective but irresponsible from a citizen’s viewpoint.

Triple political no-balls

What followed was a comedy of high-level bungling. The Speaker, Govind Singh Kunjwal, disqualified the dissident Congressmen the anti-defection legislation for voting against the government. But it is alleged that he did so only after the President of India had already put him and the state Legislative Assembly under suspended animation by dismissing the government.

Also, subsequent to the budget approval snafu, governor Krishan Kant Paul had already directed on March 18 that the state government prove its majority on the floor of the House on March 28. Why then did the President of India (read the Union government) scramble to dismiss the government on March 27, just a day before the vote of confidence?

The Congress approached the Nainital high court against the dismissal of their government. The honourable single-judge ordered on March 29, somewhat unusually, that the Congress test its numbers in the House on March 31 even though the Legislative Assembly had been suspended by the President of India. Expectedly, this order was stayed on appeal by a division bench of the court.

Politically motivated manipulation of constitutional powers is not new. But consider how low representative democracy has fallen and how remote politics has become from the people who chose to remain indifferent to the political machinations. It was not always like this.

activists

photo credit: tribuneindia.com

Leading up to November 2000, when the state was formed, the mood was upbeat and passions inflamed. The hilly areas of Garhwal and Kumaon had revolted against the allegedly quasi-colonial rule from Lucknow — the erstwhile city of nawabs, sheermal, galawati kebabs and the capital of Uttar Pradesh. Cut to 2016, and the dismissal of a duly elected government evokes no popular response at all beyond gossip at nukkad teashops. Apparently, the average citizen gets galvanised politically only when it is time to vote.

Dysfunctional inner-party governance

Consider also how dysfunctional our political parties are. A significant section — more than a quarter of the Congress MLAs — could not resolve their grievances through inner-party governance systems and chose to create a constitutional crisis to hit back at their party. They did not act out of high moral principles. Nor were there difference with the party around policy, legislation or programmes. Their rebellion was borne out of perceived insufficient recognition by the party of their merit, effort and political standing. Equally, it was irresponsible of the Congress, to ignore the growing dissidence, secure in the belief that the anti-defection legislation could contain dissidence and that there was still one more year before citizens could vote to call it to account.

Sadly, the five-yearly spells of public accountability do not protect citizens sufficiently from irresponsible governments. Can we do better?

Power to recall non performing MLAs

recall

photo credit: English.pradesh18.com

Being empowered to recall recalcitrant public representatives can make public representatives responsive to citizens. But Indian voters do not have this power, unlike in North America and Switzerland.

Technological improvements can help. Biometric identification can cheaply and correctly verify discontented voters who could digitally communicate their intent to recall, thereby triggering a re-election. The “Save the Net” campaign last year and subsequently supporters of Facebook/Internet.org, flooded Telecom Regulatory Authority of India with electronic messages. Voters could similarly message the Election Commission.

Devolve to dilute the zero-sum game of centralized politics

A second option to hold politicians to account is to devolve political office and powers closer to where voters live so that people can actively participate in overseeing an elected politician. The constitutional provisions have existed since 1992, but they have never been implemented in good faith and with full earnestness. Despite the rhetoric, there is little political appetite to let go of centralised powers in the Union and the state governments — both of which function remotely from people.

Our centralised, political ecosystem and architecture have created sticky political interests at the national and the state level.

Rarely does a village-level politician graduate to politics at the state level and even less so to the national level. The India-Bharat class divide exists even in politics.

True to their class ethic, state-level politicians perversely prefer to lose power to an opposing party, in the hope that it would come back to them one day, rather than see power trickle away permanently down to local levels. Consider that the consequence of a state government being dismissed is not the empowerment of local governments, to pick up the slack and fill the vacuum, but instead power is sucked back to Delhi where all state-level politicians aspire to work.

Would the Uttarakhand Congress dissidents have been as ready to rebel and trigger the dismissal of their government if the consequences were that elected leaders at the town and village levels would get vested with the executive powers of erstwhile state ministers and carry on working? Consider also whether the Union government would have been as willing a participant in the dismissal game, if the consequences meant executive powers being transferred lower rather than to the national level.

harish rawat

A chief minister under siege from his own party. photo credit: indianexpress.com

Petty palace politics and dodgy moves will continue to blight political stability and retard effective executive action, unless we rejig the institutional structure to generate political incentives. Citizens must be able to hold governments to account in real time.

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age April 4, 2016 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/petty-palace-politics-570

TRAI’s ersatz socialism kills innovation

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R.S. Sharma the new TRAI chairperson and  architect of “ersatz socialism” in the www. Photo credit: economic times.com

By ruling against Facebook’s Free Basics type of innovation, which offers, hitherto undreamed of, free but limited access to data services, Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has regressed to a version of “ersatz Nehruvian socialism”, which persist long after Panditji. It would have astounded him that his thoughts are still evoked to preserve the privileges of a thin crust of 250 million elite Indians whilst doing little for the 700 million poor Indians. Consumer benefit has been sacrificed yet again for ideology.

Nehruvian Socialism and Net Neutrality

Remember the car you used to drive in the 1970s? Most don’t, because it was an expensive, exclusive asset owned only by the rich. Even today Indian cars remain a rich person’s trophy because of the high cost of owning and using one relative to average income. Only 10 per cent of the 230 million Indian households own a car. Ironically, the TRAI order of February 8, 2016, is driven by a similar vision — preserving notional equity and freedom within a small bubble of 250 million well-off, “Internet connected” Indians owning smartphones.

poor buy

India’s poor- ersatz socialism permanently excluded them from the bubble of shiny cars. Net neutrality similarly excludes them from the virtual world. Photo credit: bbc.co.uk

Shunning innovation in the pricing of access to the Net under the garb of Net Neutrality has precisely this bubble effect. TRAI has decided to protect the existing ecosystem which privileges platform managers, content and app developers who today have unpaid access to 250 million netizens. But it ignores the need to grow this market to include 700 million Indians who are too poor to access data services other than phone calls and SMS.

TRAI’s vision of the www is like that of an owner of an expensive mall- keep the poor out.

The net is like a Mall except that you have to pay to get in and guards are actively instructed to keep shabbily dressed people out so that rich customers can float through an air-conditioned heaven- just like in Dubai. The good news is that in the real world business serves the needs of the poor through street markets because the municipality facilitates it. in a TRAI ruled internet the poor are to shunned, exactly as in expensive Malls and no street market is to be made available for the poor. The poor are to be kept invisible – as in China or Rwanda where the strong arm of the State keeps the poor severely controlled.

It is unsurprising that the Congress which has made ersatz socialism into a family business should support “Net Neutrality”. But that this should happen under a government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi which has vowed to “free” India from the social and economic chains of the past, shows that this government needs to put on its “thinking” cap.

TRAI order equates porn with socially relevant content

TRAI’s decision is perverse and here’s why. It throws out the baby with the bath water. Whilst banning price “discrimination” for content, it also effectively disallows “positive discrimination” or “affirmative action” for access to socially responsible content. In essence it says a consumer must pay to access content whether it is porn or wikipedia.

Consider a large Indian company which may want to subsidise a telecom service provider (TSP) for providing free access to educational sites targeted at helping poor or dalit kids crack the JIIT exam. The TRAI order disallows this effort.

Similarly, it bars a poor, pregnant woman, say on the outskirts of Patna, from availing free access to check the cost of having her baby in a decent hospital in Mumbai, where her husband works. Sorry, says the TRAI order. You must pay the TSP to access the Net.

It is hypocritical to simultaneously support free content-unhindered by state control whilst arguing against “affirmative action” for providing free access to the poor to socially relevant content, developed just for them.

It is not just about Facebook

It’s not only about Free Basics. It is the principle of killing innovation that’s the real concern. The Trai order kills innovation in developing socially relevant content for the poor because there is no way now of getting the content to them.

Free Basics is driven by commerce. Free access has to be paid for by someone. Today it is Facebook subsidising access, tomorrow it could be a Tata CSR project. In Africa, Net subscriptions of the poor are subsidised by foreign donors.

Net neutrality is bad economics

More practically, there is money at the bottom of the income pyramid. Activists, platform managers, content and app developers are being short sighted in ignoring the role of “free access” in getting them there. They lack the business vision of Hindustan Lever which innovated shampoo sachets two decades ago to give every woman an affordable taste of luxury. Or do they fear that international players with deep pockets may get there first before they get their act together? Are they using the garb of “Net Neutrality” as a fig leaf for self-preservation? Do existing Indian players, TSPs want to keep Facebook out so they can do the same once they become big enough?

Predatory pricing based on enormous private equity funding is the essence of the IT start up.

All IT start-ups attract customers by subsidising prices. Take Uber, Flipkart or any other. The fear that they will start increasing prices once they get bigger is misplaced because unlike the bricks and mortar world entry barriers are low in the digital economy which ensures sufficient competition to keep each big player on their toes. Guarding against predatory pricing is a slippery slope for TRAI. It can result in taking the fizz out of e-commerce which is growing by out-pricing the corner mom and pop store and traditional taxis by relying on serial funding from investors, not profits to fund unheard of price discounts. In any case India has laws and the Competition Commission of India to regulate dominance and monopoly. TRAI is hardly equipped to rule on anti-trust issues.

Today’s startup is tomorrow’s business biggie

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The Bansals of Flipkart- value $ 15 billion and counting- give Amazon a run for its money. Photo credit: livemint.com

Ironically, whilst making it easy to do business for “start-ups,” we are killing commercial innovation by business biggies. Can an “innovation” friendly eco-system really be sliced and diced, such that it is a “free market” for start-ups but a stiflingly regulated environment once they become a business biggie, like Facebook? In the virtual economy startups grow on the strength of innovation not government protection. In any case, the record of ersatz socialism in growing small industry via protection is miserable. The Indian Telecom industry, the only success story of privatisation and reform, has grown from being yesterday’s “start-up” to today’s business biggie. Why discriminate against it because it has been successful?

The digital eco-system must be fair to all stakeholders, not just the software and content developers

There is a symbiotic relationship between TSPs, content providers and app developers. TSPs, represented by Cellular Operators Association of India (COAI), buy expensive spectrum from the government, install and maintain the telecom network to link-in netizens and ensure that the number of eyeballs grows. If the content available is attractive, netizens spend more time surfing, thereby boosting TSP revenues. They enrich app developers by buying an app off the Net.

To access content on Flipkart, Snapdeal, Amazon, Uber or Myntra there is no additional charge other than the Internet access cost. So are these companies just plain generous? No. Like Facebook or Google, they make their money by selling the data they gather from the netizens — demographics and preferences — to market analysts and sometimes to governments; they leverage their eyeball score to increase advertising revenue and get additional private or public equity funding. This is the money they burn to offer fantastic discounts and out-compete brick and mortar pop and mom stores.

So why does National Association of Software and Services Companies, an Indian IT lobbyist, support the Trai order? Because it is in the interest of the software developers and content providers they represent to try and hang-on to the freebie they have — the roving eyeballs of netizens for which they pay nothing.

Why do the parents of the www (US & the Brit Sir Tim Berner) support net neutrality?

Berner

Sir Tim Berner-Lee inventor of the www. Photo credit Wikipedia.com

Indian activists are fond of using the United States as an exemplar of non-discriminatory pricing access and the trenchant advocacy of Tim Berners-Lee – the inventor of the www-for net neutrality. This is their Brahmastra to clinch the argument for “Net Neutrality”.

This is unsurprising. For most netizens, the US is the mother lode of innovation, which it certainly has been. But cut-paste is bad tactics for good governance. The context in which things work is key. Activists and governments routinely overlook the difference in context in a slavish tendency to adopt best practice international templates.

Why the US is different

US poor

The poor people of the US: photo credit: rediff.com

In the US, the poverty level income is $2,000 per capita per month. Data access costs just 5 per cent of income or $100. In India, the poverty level income is $30 per capita per month. Data access costs $10 or one-third of a poor woman’s income. The cost of Internet access is not an economic barrier in the United States. The US is under no compulsion to abandon “Net Neutrality”, an ideology which sounds noble. For India, TTAI’s ideology of “Net Neutrality” means the economic exclusion of 700 million poor people.

TRAI’s technical incompetence drives the ban on differential pricing

The bottom line  is that despite its rhetoric on “net neutrality” TRAI is technically incapable to monitor data services to detect instances of blocking or preferential access for content favoured by TSPs. This why it has opted for the blunt instrument of a complete ban on commercial innovation in pricing and financing. This is the worst option driven by regulatory incompetence not by high minded adherence to principles. A sad comment on the state of regulation and of consumer protection in India.

Adapted from the authors article in Asian Age February 10, 2015 http://www.asianage.com/columnists/trai-s-socialism-kills-innovation-136

Lest we forget our “dark” non-democratic past

emergency

photo credit: http://www.dw.de

Forty Eight years ago on March 23, 1977 India emerged from the darkness of a 21 month long “national emergency (Article 352 of the Constitution)” into the light of full restoration of fundamental rights. Indira Gandhi- the then Prime Minister, a feisty mother, tired of the excesses of her son- Sanjay Gandhi, called for general elections in January 1977, which resulted in the decimation of the Congress Party in the North and the humiliating defeat of herself and Sanjay from their pocket boroughs of Rae Bareilly and Amethi respectively.

Lest this dark period repeat itself, we must plug the institutional gaps which allowed it to happen in the first place.

Better oversight of the need to impose emergency

First, today the President is the only entity empowered to exercise oversight over the government’s proposal to implement the emergency provisions. This arrangement has not served us well.  The manner in which the Indian President is selected- indirectly by a simple majority of the MPs and MLA vote- only ensures that a “candidate” of the ruling party wins. Any, but the most exceptional, human being is bound to serve those who appointed him. This makes the President unsuited to stand up to a Prime Minister who has a more direct democratic mandate. Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed- no moral giant succumbed to Indira Gandhi’s dark machinations- and approved the Proclamation of national emergency.

But that was as inevitable as the more recent example of the shoo-in, unelected Prime Minister- Manmohan Singh, subverting public interest, presumably under pressure from the Congress Party. Sonia Gandhi- an astute politician ensured her centrality by putting in place a non- threatening President of India (Pratibha Patel-2007 to 2012) and a Gandhi subaltern as Prime Minister.

Can we avoid a recurrence of such crass undermining of our constitutional framework? There are three options.

  1. We could change the manner in which a state of national emergency is approved by making it more inclusive and subject to ex-post-facto approval not only from the Parliament, as presently required, but also by state legislatures. The downside is this is likely to be a clunky process and unsuited to the urgent needs of a “real” emergency.
  2. We could change the manner in which the President is elected to strengthen the incumbent’s independence from the executive and preserve his mandate for guarding against a mala fide “emergency provision” by the government of the day. The best way to do so is to directly elect the President. Whilst there are good reasons why we should adopt a Presidential style of government, doing so, just to safeguard against malicious use of the provisions for national emergency, would be like the tail wagging the dog.
  3. We could narrow down the basis for imposing national emergency by excluding “armed rebellion” as one of the three reasons. The other reasons are “war” or “external aggression”. This approach resonates in these troubled domestic times. A large part of Eastern India is under siege from Maoist and assorted rebels but life goes on there and the situation is improving, without recourse to emergency provisions.

In any event “armed rebellion” is largely a “domestic law and order” issue which is handled by state governments and can be dealt with using the existing laws criminalizing violence and terrorism. Nothing stops the Union Government from coming to the assistance of a state government which needs help in dealing with the break-down of the rule of law.

A State Government, which is unable to manage “armed rebellion”, may yet be reluctant to seek or accept help for political reasons. The proper way to deal with such governments is to impose state level emergency provisions under Article 356 if there is break down of the constitutional machinery at the state level. There could be a number of reasons why there may be a constitutional meltdown in a state and “armed rebellion” is just one of them.

Limit the period

Second, more broadly, the scope of a Constitutional provision for imposing emergency; suspending fundamental human rights and diluting recourse to the higher judiciary against excessive or unjust executive action needs to be relooked.

Independent India has fought four wars till now- 1962-China, 1965-Pakistan, 1971-Pakistan and 1999-Pakistan. They all ended within a month except the last one, fought on the heights of Kargil, which lasted three months. This illustrates that the need for unfettered executive action, unencumbered by clunky constitutional provisions, lasts only for a limited period. Presently, emergency provisions can be extended ad-infinitum merely with Parliaments approval. The 1975 emergency lasted 21 months! That is way too much power to give to a simple majority of Parliamentarians with too few safeguards to guard against the mala fide use of such wide powers.

Forget the “steel frame” 

Third, our dark past showed us that faced by a determined and malign political power the much vaunted bureaucracy crumbles and “crawls” even without specifically needing to do so. The “steel frame” has eroded far too much to be revived. Indeed it is questionable if it should. After all, in modern democracies it is those who have the popular mandate who must rule and be responsible for the outcomes. Professional bureaucrats are today just that- professionals who devise the most optimum way of achieving political objectives. They cannot and indeed must not, be expected to carry the can of defending the nation against tyrants. That is best done by developing robust institutions; formal and informal norms for political behavior.

Make political parties democratic

Fourth, political parties are the vehicles for consolidating and representing the opinions of voters. They continue to be very ineffective in the absence of commonly accepted norms for their internal governance. Even a small public limited company is exposed to more regulatory control to ensure transparency and protect the interests of the small shareholder, as compared to even the largest political party. Media reports suggest that the Congress party could be the biggest real estate owner in India! In the absence of disclosure standards for political parties rumor may well be fact.

Unless a code for ensuring transparency and preserving inner party democracy is imposed on recognized political parties, the “recognition” granted to them by the Election Commission is meaningless. It is instructive that the nascent Aam Admi Party is self-destructing even today on the charge of undemocratic and authoritarian rule by a select few leaders. The Election Commission must be empowered to define and audit standards for the internal governance of political parties- audit and accounting of party funds; election of leaders and protecting the rights of the ordinary member, in much the same way as SEBI does for public limited companies listed on the stock exchange.

Democratic party processes can breed democratic leaders and thereby cut at the root of dynasty; megalomania and delusional complacence.

Time to get working on protecting the ordinary voter from the tyranny of undemocratic political parties.

Taming Terror

terror

(photo credit: guns.com)

An inequitable sharing of power and the “glass ceilings” of “closed order” societies, devised to keep the status quo intact, are ripe pickings for terrorism.

Apologists of terror focus on this underlying social explanation for the breeding of terror. But this is cold comfort for the victims of terror who, generally, are as ordinary and as excluded, as those perpetuating terror.

In fact hurting the average citizen is the intended consequence of terror.  The intention of the terrorist is to shatter the credibility of the government’s ability to preserve the rule of law.

The UN Declaration of Human Rights 1948 is a verbose document assuring all manner of Human Rights through its 30 Articles. Of these, the most critical are Articles 3 to 5 which relate to the Right to Life; Freedom from Slavery and The Right against Torture. It is these three which are the primary targets of terror.

Democracy disappoints

Through the second half of the Twentieth Century the anticipated social leveling through the spread of Democracy and since 1990 the economic benefits from Globalization were expected to take away the breeding ground for terror. Sadly this has not happened.

Democracy perversely marginalizes and excludes many, even as it empowers others. In India lower castes have gained through a policy of positive affirmation but religious minorities have lost out. It is all a numbers game with a huge political incentive to encourage identity (religion; ethnicity; caste; culture) politics. In this polarizing game those who have the majority win and the rest lose or are forced to become subaltern partners in governance.

Economic growth an incomplete answer

The notion that growing economic well-being can bridge the divisiveness of culture and identity has been shattered repeatedly. Germany was a rich nation just prior to the World War II but demonized the Jews. British and French kids today join the Islamic State even as the ethnicity obsessed, Right in Europe is resurgent by making immigrants the “fall guys” on whom to pin the woes emanating from the fiscal excesses of the go-go years of the first decade of this century.

Monitored executive discretion can help

Centralized, authoritarian regimes like China seem best placed to manage terror for the simple reason that they have plenty of monitored, executive discretion, which is the key ingredient whilst fighting those who live in “shadows”.

Terror is spread by highly trained and motivated cadres who are rigorously monitored and mentored.  They can only be stopped by a similar cadre. The Israelis know this and that is why they are so successful at surviving in the toughest neighborhood in the World.

But Democracy by definition undercuts executive discretion. Transparency, Open Data and Citizen Voice- all off-springs of the Good Governance framework popularized since the late 1990s, similarly constrain executive discretion.

The most dramatic illustration is the public rebuke given by the Republican controlled Senate to President Obama’s initiative to “socialize” radical Iran by negotiating a nuclear agreement with it. This is a departure from the “norm”, which gave significant leeway to the US President to negotiate Foreign Policy initiatives. We are fortunate that the Indian Prime Minister is not constrained in this manner since Agreements with Foreign Nations are not subject to Parliamentary approval and the Executive has considerable discretion in managing Foreign Affairs.

With both Economic Development and Democracy proving to be unlikely bulwarks against terror what then remains as a cogent strategy to manage this scourge?

Four initiatives present themselves.

First, reduce inequality. This is important because much of it, particularly in developing countries, is the result of massive corruption. This is visible in the workplace; in life styles and in the resource endowments that some people inherit. What can be done about it is less certain. The best, but somewhat dissatisfactory strategy is to constrain the government’s budget to the very minimum, whilst striving to get the biggest bang for the buck. Big governments are bad news. Small, nimble governments are in.

Second, adopt open access structures: The challenge is not to “pull down” the rich by taxing them (France tried but failed) or by banning the consumption of luxury goods (luckily the French view fine wine and cheese as a necessity). The challenge is to open access to good education, health, social protection and formal, private sector jobs based on merit.

Third, Role Models matter. “Open access” systems are not created overnight.  Open access is more than a physical process. As Tagore said it is the mind which has to be opened. Role models are key in building such societies.

One such role model today is Arvind Kejriwal who emulates the entrepreneurial, mass-movement based political principles of Bapu (Mahatma Gandhi).

PM Modi presents the other, more “muscular” model of the dedicated, organizational man who claws his way to the top by pure grit and guile- very similar to what happens in an American Corporate and the Communist Party of China.

Both role models represent an open access system in operation. For Chief Minister Kejriwal the “entry point” was the Constitutional provisions for pluralism in political parties. In Prime Minister Modi’s case, it is the meritocratic structure of the RSS and the BJP.

That “open access meritocracies” are the best bridge to socialize Radicals, Fundamentalists and Discontents is best illustrated by the recent teaming up of the “Islamist” leaning, People’s Democratic Party (PDP) of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed with the Hindu Right-BJP to form a government in Kashmir. Neither party wears “secularism” on their sleeve but both represent the middle class and that is their biggest glue. In comparison, the National Conference of Kashmir and the Congress are both dynasties run by political aristocrats.

Fourth, grow the middle class. The key to kill terror is to grow the middle class by investing in formal, private sector jobs and state funded, but privately provided, education, health and social protection facilities.

Keeping people productively busy and cruising the “basically comfortable” income frontier is important. Time to restructure the government workplace by opening it up to external skills (they exist in India believe it or not!); balancing worker rights with worker responsibilities and decentralizing authority widely, including to non-state actors thereby co-opting them into governance, so that the “pie” is widely shared.

Capitalism centralizes income and wealth. The government must use its fiscal resources to re-distribute it wisely.

Kejriwal – God’s own messenger

Kejriwal Ramlila

(photo credit: indiatoday.com)

Speaking today in Ramlila Grounds, the “maidan” of the people’s movement which birthed the Aam Admi Party, just over a year ago, Kejriwal, in his acceptance speech as Chief Minister of Delhi state government, confided that it was God who had ordained the Tsunami like landslide win of the AAP (96% of the available seats).

None of the 100,000 supporters gathered there doubted for a minute that this was indeed so. For them Kejriwal is indeed a God sent savior from the ugly corruption of state agencies; the morbid face of the traditional parties in Delhi and the lop sided “development” which leaves 60% of Delhi’s citizens living in muck and filth without water or sewage systems, though electricity supply has improved significantly, post privatization by the previous Congress government of Shiela Dikshit (http://www.cuts-international.org/ review of customer satisfaction 2015).

Kejriwal still concludes his speeches with a rousing “Inquilab zindabad” (long live the revolution) preceded by Bharat Mata Ki Jai (Praise be to Mother India) and followed by Vande Matram (the title of India’s National Song) but it is clear political experience has mellowed him.

Today’s signs of maturity included a firm rejection of the recently voiced ambitions of several AAP members to ignite AAP “fires” all over the country and spread the party – a mistake they committed last year; a commitment that Kejriwal will personally serve the people of Delhi for the full five years – he unsuccessfully contested the Varanasi polls against PM Modi; a reality check on the speed at which citizens should expect change; reaching out to non-supporters with the assurance that he would be everyone’s CM not just the AAPs and emphasizing agendas which are within his constitutional mandate.

But most of all what impresses is the choice of candidate which carefully reflects caste, regional and religious representation with poorly performing Ministers, fashionistas and charlatans from his previous government, excluded.

AAP is clearly a new age substitute for the erstwhile Congress minus its dynasty, corruption, clunkiness and with a dash of the Communist zeal for equity.

Today, for the first time in four decades, the Gandhi cap- a boat shaped headgear of white coarse cotton, was once again the headgear of choice in Ramlila Grounds. A sea of 100,000 white Gandhi caps, emblazoned with the iconic jhadoo (broom) symbol of the AAP bobbed and milled about, as this simple instrument of defiance and political empowerment, dating back to India’s independence struggle, was proudly donned by all present.

How long can the romance and dedication of a few drive a government to deliver? This is what remains in doubt. The cabinet line-up is unremarkable and four of the six Ministers, faceless new-comers to both politics and administration. Kejriwal pledged that he and his team would work 24X7 for the people without rest. But this is meaningless hyperbole. Every worker knows that efficient governments are run not by tireless people but by systems and institutions, both of which remain in short supply.

Kejriwal mentioned that the government would seek the advice of Bhen (Sister) Kiran Bedi (the BJPs nominated candidate for CM who was humiliatingly defeated by the AAP) and Ajay Makken of the Congress. One hopes he will also seek more professional help to flesh out his 70 point manifesto.

Service delivery is of course priority number one. Water, sewage and transport are directly within the Delhi government’s ambit and should be his focus if he wants to show performance. In electricity the private utilities have consistently improved their performance. Embedding consumer friendly practices in regulation and a consumer representative in the Delhi Electricity Regulatory Commission can deal effectively with the lack of trust between the utility; the regulator and the government.

The more generic reforms can follow. Policing, housing and land management is not in the mandate of the Delhi government so these cannot be his government’s priorities. At best he can and should be a spokesperson for the citizens and press the Union government to perform on these issues.

Setting specific targets for water supply, sewage disposal and treatment and travel time in Delhi should be right up the street of the IIT alumni who crowd the AAP. Time to descend from the realm of high rhetoric and morality into the mucky business of unclogging the pipes of Delhi’s governance.

Show us that you can deliver clean water at a reasonable price to all; that every dwelling and mohalla in Delhi gets a sewage collection system; that Delhi’s sewage is treated before it is discharged into the Jumna river and that public transport is available within a ten minute walk of every dwelling in Delhi at a frequency of not more than 15 minutes during peak hours, 30 minutes during off-peak hours and 60 minutes all through the night.

If you can do this, sir, in 2020 you are sure to get 99% of the seats, possibly with the BJP choosing not to contest.

BJP, take five!

BJP

(photo credit: archives.financialexpress.com)

Delhi Assembly election 2015 is beginning to resemble a Greek tragedy for the Bharatiya Janata Party. What a change from the national elections in May 2014 when the BJP shone in comparison to the inept Congress Party. The motley crew of small regional or local parties (like the Aam Aadmi Party) also could not measure up to the exhilaration created by Prime Minister Narendra Modi who seemed capable of moving the nation, if not the Earth itself, so long as he was given a long enough lever to do so. The people responded positively in ample measure.

But charismatic, centralised leadership, like Mr Modi’s today and Mrs Indira Gandhi’s earlier, whilst a huge advantage in national elections, cannot single handedly carry a local election. Delhi is likely to make this point to leaders yet again.

It is highly unlikely that the BJP will get a majority when the votes are counted on February 10, 2015.

Why did the BJP juggernaut fail in Delhi? Here are five reasons, which are also lessons for the future:

First, there is no substitute for an empowered, decentralised leadership in state-level elections. National parties are, by their very nature, highly centralised. This is why their only option is continuous micro-management by a central election committee. In the instant case of the BJP in Delhi, this was left till too late. The media blitz, the frenetic campaigning, the Cabinet ministers unleashed in end January to make up for inept local leadership, all reinforced the general impression of panic at the BJP high table and a crass attempt at wooing the voter purely for electoral gain.

Second, never underestimate your opponent. The BJP, which has a very thin leadership, got completely engrossed in its grand project of governing India and forgot that local votes have to won locally. The fact that the BJP won all the Lok Sabha seats in Delhi by hanging onto Mr Modi’s coat tails should not have induced the lethargy it did.

In comparison, Arvind Kejriwal never let his guard down. He also had the advantage that the AAP got purged of interlopers, self-servers and free-lunchers; all of whom left it when its prospects seemed dim, post May 2014 debacle in the Lok Sabha elections.

Lean and hungry, core AAP supporters kept up the leg work amongst the voters.  They refined their agenda to suit the Muslims, Christians and disenchanted Congress supporters and carried their message door to door. India loves a fakir (ascetic) and Muffler King Kejriwal resembles one, even from the tinted window of his new Toyota Innova.

Third, performance matters. The BJP’s biggest handicap in Delhi is the non-performance of the Union Territory’s three municipal corporations ruled by it. These entities are dens of corruption and completely erode the national image of the BJP as being relatively above corruption. Prime Minister Modi came to power on the performance plank. But the sordid reality in these three local bodies did not change, not even in the last nine months of direct management by the Union government, significantly diluting the BJP promise of good governance.

Fourth, stopping petty corruption yields high dividends. The instant “governance reform”, to the relief of Delhi’s “underbelly” (street hawkers, small shopkeepers, auto drivers, casual workers, petty contractors), during the 49 days of the AAP government meant the complete stoppage of harassment by the police and municipal corporations. Once Mr Kejriwal resigned and governance devolved upwards to the Union government, petty corruption returned in full force. This reinforces the impression that Mr Modi’s extraordinary executive capacity and expansive aspirations for India are not reflected in the rest of the leadership of the BJP.

In comparison, the AAP got “tempered” in defeat. They humbly accept that they erred in resigning. They appear more politically savvy. They kept up their strategy of ground-level contact and are hungry for power. The belief is strong that an AAP government will enforce “freedom from petty corruption”.

Fifth, Delhi is a city of “winners” and winners do not take kindly to subaltern rule. Delhi has the highest per capita income in the country. Its public services are both highly subsidised and of superior quality than elsewhere. It is not surprising, therefore, that it has been a “destination city” for the last two decades. Delhi comprises people who have self-selected themselves as “winners”: by entering government service through an exactingly competitive process; migrating from the surrounding areas with “fire in their belly” to earn a better life and small and medium scale business people in tourism, hospitality, IT and exports. These are highly entrepreneurial people and expect to see the same quality in their leader.

Mumbai is no different. Maharashtra’s chief minister Devendra Fadnavis is so conscious of his relative youth (he is 44) and inexperience that he takes every opportunity to dispel the notion that he is just a shoo-in of Prime Minister Modis. He needs to do that if he is to govern the proud Maharashtrians credibly.

In Kiran Bedi, the BJP had an independent, high profile, outspoken candidate for chief minister. But she was muzzled and has looked progressively more forlorn since her nomination on January 15. Gone is the assertive confidence. The Bedi baan (arrow) has been tamed into a submissive, humble “subaltern”, basking only in the reflected glory of the Prime Minister. Not quite what she has been thus far.

In the change from being a leader to becoming a dutiful subordinate, Ms Bedi lost her edge to inspire. She now closely resembles any of the many “subaltern” leaders of the Congress, none of whom are encouraged to have an identity larger than the party. She is likely to suffer the same fate. She will have to wait for the tide to raise the BJP boat again before she can have a go at political power, most likely at the national level.

Finally, is the BJP’s likely poor show in Delhi a harbinger of what will happen in Bihar? Nitesh Kumar’s Janata Dal (U) would do well to bear in mind the lessons from Delhi’s elections.

The BJP is today India’s only real national party. Fighting the “Gir Lion” needs more than development statistics and caste calculations. Time to put the JD(U) boots on the ground to5work.

Reposted from the Asian Age February 6, 2014 <http://www.asianage.com/columnists/bjp-take-five-497&gt;

BJP dials 100, Bedi to the rescue

(Reposted from the Asian Age January 21- http://www.asianage.com/columnists/bjp-dials-100-bedi-rescue-021)

bedi_kejriwal

(photocredit: sahilonline.org)

The DNA of Kiran Bedi and the Bharatiya Janata Party seem twinned at birth. Bolly-wood films thrive on the “masala” (formula) of twins separated at birth but reunited after an epic struggle with a happily tear-jerking end. The BJP and Ms Bedi finding each other after so long is real life imitating art.

For both, “discipline” comes with a capital D. They share a strong belief in the ability of large, efficient organisations to provide direction and in the efficacy of formal rules and regulations to manage society.

“Crane” Bedi could as well have been known as “danda” Bedi. Armed only with a wooden baton, she single-handedly charged at a bunch of unruly, sword-wielding Akali protesters in Delhi. The BJP is similarly admired for strong leadership and decisive action.

Kiran Didi mesmerises kids just as Mr Modi does. In both these leaders kids see a strong, stern but clear-headed “parent” with a consistent idea of what to do next and the ability to prescribe, what seems to be, a winning game plan. They have a common bias for acronyms (Kiran Didi’s 6Ps — police, prisons, prosecution, people, parents and press — compete with Mr Modi’s 3Ds — democracy, demography and demand) and a shared communication style of keeping the message simple: Hard work, discipline, steadfast goals and an alert mind ready to grab any opportunity being the mantra for advancement.

Business people, Punjabi refugees, professionals, the “sarkari” middle class and all those with a stake in preserving the status quo form the core urban constituency of the BJP in Delhi. They all look on Kiran Didi with approval. She is a Punjabi herself; a self-made professional who strove to excel at whatever she did and ensured that she got recognised for her achievements. Professional aggression, ambition and, above everything else, success, is what this core constituency adores. These attributes Ms Bedi has in plenty.

Given more time, Ms Bedi could have consolidated the woman vote behind her. She is today a mélange of what many young girls dream to be a mother, a successful government officer, an outspoken social activist, a TV personality, a politician and, implicitly, very much part of the Delhi elite.

But time is scarce with barely three weeks to go for the polls on February 7, 2015. Indeed, the fact that time was running out is what induced the unorthodox induction of a “rank outsider” into the BJP, ostensibly to lead the campaign and, possibly, eventually become the chief minister. Galling as it must be for Mr Modi that his name was not enough to pull in votes in Delhi, the fact is that the BJP must look at systematic dispersal of power and responsibility if they are to win in Bihar and later in Uttar Pradesh.

This, in fact, is the way it has been thus far. BJP chief ministers in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh or Maharashtra do not view themselves as subordinate to the Prime Minister, at least not yet and certainly not in the manner the hapless, erstwhile Congress chief ministers were with regard to Sonia Gandhi.

The induction of Kiran Didi should also be read as a sign that Mr Modi is not averse to modernising the BJP and aggressively broad-basing its membership beyond the rather obscure agenda of the Sangh. Mr Modi seems to be working towards reinventing the BJP as a party of the right, committed to small government functioning on the P4S principle of private sector-led growth, security, sustainability, social protection and passive secularism.

Both the BJP and the Aam Aadmi Party have their core support base intact in Delhi. It is the direction of swing in the erstwhile Congress supporters — Poorvanchali migrants, scheduled caste, scheduled tribes and the Muslims which will determine the vote change this time around.

Ms Bedi’s induction into the BJP is a game changer because, first, she has the star appeal and freshness to attract the middle class supporters of the AAP who were disappointed with Arvind Kejriwal’s reluctance to rule in 2013 and in whose eyes Mr Kejriwal became an opportunistic quitter. Many were coming around to the idea of giving him a second chance rather than support a “traditional party” like the BJP. Now they see in Ms Bedi an alternative, the manifestation of a “new” BJP just as AAP was in 2013.

Second, Ms Bedi shall attract the wavering, non-Muslim Congress supporters who are rudderless today with the demise of the Delhi Congress. For aspirational women and the educated professional, Ms Bedi’s BJP seems to be the true inheritor of the Congress’ erstwhile mantle of stability and development which kept it in power for 15 long years (1998-2013).

Third, the BJP’s core base is unlikely to reject the “outsider” Ms Bedi who exudes success and brims with optimism. Too much is made of the disaffection of the old-time Delhi BJP leaders. These are long-term political players, honed in the Sangh’s discipline to never break ranks. In any case, they can easily be assured that Ms Bedi is only “transiting” through Delhi to enter the national government, where she would get more traction. Police, land and housing in Delhi are all dealt with by the Union government. In fact, the Delhi government is more like an empowered metropolitan authority rather that an Indian state.

With the Congress in decline, Delhi elections are a face-off between the BJP and the AAP. The AAP 2013 phenomenon was a unique convergence of the middle class and Delhi’s “underbelly” votes. But even this coalition was not sufficient to get AAP a clear majority. This time around the AAP will be boosted by significant Muslim support which earlier kept the Congress in power. But even within the AAP’s core support base they will have to contend with Ms Bedi attracting women voters.

Ms Bedi is a powerful role model and a convincing administrator to assure the empowerment of women and their protection, not least because of her linkages with the police.

If Kiran Didi can project herself as the “face” of the “new BJP” — forward-looking, effective, gender sensitive, socially progressive, honest and committed to equitable development — she may well nudge the BJP towards forming the government in Delhi.

The Bedi baan (arrow) unleashed by Mr Modi is sure to give sleepless nights to “King Kejriwal” as he trawls the slums of Delhi to keep his flock intact.

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

madison

(photo credit: http://www.ndtv.com)

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.

The new Modi fan club

Image

Hindus, across caste lines, believe that the Modi Sarkar will usher in better times. But there is disquiet amongst the Muslims, in particular, but also amongst Christians. Both religions are of foreign origin and linked to religious regimes located elsewhere. They fear the whip-lash of a possible “India for Hindus” sentiment akin to the “Africa for Africans” sentiment in the 1970s, leading to the exodus of non-Africans. Also a consolidation of Hindu votes can make minorities less politically relevant as a vote bank.

Such fears are understandable. The potential for anti-foreign religious mania builds on the traditional Indian geo-political stance of self-determination and against “domination” by external actors. Nehru, a romantic, shunned geo-political alliances and grew the idea of “non-alignment”. Indira Gandhi, was more practical and whipped up phobia against the “invisible” hand of the West in geo-politics and leaned towards the obliging Soviets.

The BJP view on geo-politics is no different from that of the Congress in the recent past or indeed that of the Chinese; to do everything which builds the domestic economy and secures the country’s interests. However, there is one variation in the BJP strategy, which finds no place in that of the “secular” Congress.

Just as Amma’s geo-political stance is determined by how it affects Tamil interests (in the context of Sri Lanka), the BJP is likely to boldly pursue the cause and interests of Hindus overseas. Is this horribly unsecular?

Those who think so, must consider who else would weigh-in when Hindus are denied human rights in religious States like Pakistan or the Middle East? India is where Hinduism has developed and it is extremely odd that the Indian government should shy away from this duty. Should not a “secular” BJP be similarly proactive in protecting the rights of persecuted Christians in Egypt or South Sudan for instance, or allegedly persecuted Muslims in France or the US?

Whilst siding with a generic commitment to the Human Rights doctrine, the BJP rightfully believes that it is for States (much stronger than India in economic and political clout), which ascribe to these religions, to do this front line job. These nations do so in any case, even in the context of alleged human rights violations of Indian Muslims and Christians. In contrast the Hindus have no one, except India, to bat for them.

“Secularism” has acquired a shrill, hollow, politicized tone in India, which is at variance with our global interests. This is not to say that India should change the Constitution and become a Hindu State. Far from it. Secularism, in so far as the relationship between the State its citizens is concerned, should become even more sanitized of religious dogma to reassure Indian minorities.

The State must disengage totally from all religions, starting with religious rituals at State functions. Multi religious prayers and the construction of temples, mosques or churches in government buildings, especially the defence forces and police establishments, must be shunned. Warships should be launched, not by breaking coconuts on their hulls, but by a secular ritual. At state funerals, a clear distinction must be drawn between the role of the State, the party and the family concerned. The State must withdraw from the function, once religious rituals take over. The display of calendars with gods, goddesses and religious symbols must be banned in public offices and a code of religious conduct introduced for public servants.   

The romantic notion that the State can “adopt” all religions and yet remain secular, is fanciful and lies at the root of competition between religious denominations, for privileges, government funds and political power.

Has Indian “secular double-speak” been conclusively defeated in the 2014 elections? Unfortunately no. The political cleavages between Hindus and Muslims remain as deep as ever. Caste based politics has been papered over but remains a potent political instrument at the sub-national level. 

The BJP remains essentially a Hindu party. The real political conundrum facing it, is whether proactive outreach to secular Muslims and secular Christians, is likely to compromise its appeal to its new pan-Hindu, caste rainbow, voter base?

The longtime BJP supporter; Punjabi refugees from the Partition (now on the demographic wane); the Banias; Pandits and Thakurs of North India and a smattering of in-between castes, no longer constitute the bulk of BJP supporters. The baton has passed to aspiring youth frustrated by the lack of decent jobs; shoddy public facilities and a poor quality of life. These voters increasingly gel along classic, class lines. Kejriwal shrewdly tapped into their frustration but did not have the mind space to lead them. Modi has stepped into this breach and scaled up the strategy nationally.

But one major problem the BJP faces is that it’s “traditional Indian” image does not square with the aspirations of the modern Indian woman. This antediluvian caricature of ‘Indianess” and the role and relative status of a woman, is derived mostly from the BJP’s base in the North, where the status of women is the worst. Under Modi’s leadership, hopefully, the more enlightened, gender neutral cultural norms of Hindus in the West, South and the East of India shall prevail.

After all, unlike other leaders of his generation, Modi encouraged Jashodabehn to get educated and self-actualise, just as he was trying to do. But now the battle is done. Both Modi and Jashodabehn have voluntarily sacrificed their marriage and it is time to acknowledge their unbreakable bond of friendship and mutual respect. Jashodabehn is Modi’s biggest fan. She should not be discouraged from being so publicly.

Finally what of the poor, all 700 million of them, who earn less than US$2 per day. Modi was one of them and they are his primary constituency, irrespective of religion or caste. This must reflect in the government’s policy on reservations and positive affirmation in general, through a poverty criterion.  

There are three things the poor fear most of all; (1) insecurity, (2) inflation and (3) financial shock. They are the least prepared and the most exposed to all three. The Modi agenda already assures that social protection schemes, started by previous governments, will be made more effective, not shut down. If he can kick start domestic manufacturing by systematically cutting red tape and encouraging babus to deliver; boost infrastructure construction through public finance; incentivise tourism and private investment, the poor can be assured of a steady supply of decent jobs.  We need to generate 10 million a year.

One hopes that the false pride, associated with an appreciating exchange rate or hollow but unsettling jingoism, will not scuttle the sustained development of an internationally competitive, Indian economy. Modi is a practical man and a master strategist. He shall not be found wanting. Ache din aa gaye hain.

 

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