governance, political economy, institutional development and economic regulation

Posts tagged ‘corruption’

Fix the “market” for political power

Indian army

Citizens expect governments to intervene when the markets fail. The market for Diplomacy failed last month at Doklam. If the Chinese Army is to be stopped well north of the tri-junction between India, Bhutan and Tibet/China, then only the Indian forces, funded by taxes, can do the job. This is a satisfactory arrangement for all Indian and Bhutanese citizens, who otherwise may be hard-pressed to secure their territory.

When State failure fails to fix the underlying market failure

But not all government actions have an obvious rationale. Demonetisation was unleashed in November 2016 to end black money. Few believe that this objective has been achieved. Black money is not an outcome of market failure. It is an outcome of governmental failure to tax income effectively; control corruption or control crime. Poor governance only encourages the generation of black money, which then requires another intervention to root out black money. Economist Shanta Devarajan of the World Bank, in New Delhi last week for the NCAER annual India Policy Forum <http://www.ncaer.org/event_details.php?EID=184>  believes such iterative interventions are ineffective in improving the quality of governance, and can reduce the legitimacy of governments. Far better instead to rethink how to deal with the underlying market failure – in this case the “market” for political power.

Poor tax administration

So why do governments tax ineffectively? Most commonly, multiple objectives in the tax policy are to blame. The sale of loose groundnuts — the ordinary person’s food — may be tax-free but packed groundnuts, even if unprocessed, are taxed. This creates a five per cent tax differential for arbitrage between the two categories, which are difficult to administer separately. A single rate of tax levied on a non-evadable tax base is the most effective. But consider that this would be akin to the colonial “poll or head tax” — levied on each person uniformly. Effective, but terribly inequitable.

The killer “app” for instant equity – Universal Basic Income- how effective?

Admittedly, mechanisms like transfer of a basic income to the poor can neutralise such an inequity. But transfer of a similar amount of cash, to each poor person, itself creates huge inequities, even among the 40 per cent population vulnerable to poverty. Transferring differential amounts, depending on need, attracts the same inefficiencies as trying to administer progressive tax rates fairly.

The big 2Cs – Corruption and Crime

Why is corruption or crime so hard to control in India? If citizens feel that political power can be acquired by subverting the “popular” vote, it reduces their faith in the power of their vote. It also delegitimises the government and undermines its ability to rule, in the eyes of those who voted against the government. Bihar faced this conundrum for two decades.

It does not help that, in India, governments can be formed even with a minority of the total votes cast in elections, so long as each elected member of the ruling party gets more votes than the next candidate. This first-past-the-post system fractionalises politics. It encourages parties to form coalition governments, which are unable to discipline errant behaviour by their constituents. This “coalition dharma” fosters crime and corruption.

Are laws aligned with context?

An alternative explanation for pervasive crime or corruption is that laws are out of sync with local customs. And not enough has been done to change social behaviour beyond legislating transformative rights and duties. Ending open defecation — a prime driver to reduce the vulnerability of women to crime — is one such example. The benefits from ending open defecation are dependent on collective action. One reason why we did not do more earlier could be that the political incentives are perverse. They favour exaggerating, rather than bridging, the social cleavages of caste and religion, which inhibit collective, progressive decision making.

Feudal governance patterns breed poor accountability

Low public accountability and lackadaisical collective action can also be traced to the continuation of feudal traditions of governance and poorly distributed income growth. Richer citizens are more resilient to State encroachment of their rights and less dependent on State largesse. Luckily, over the past three decades, we have become less poor, better educated and more aware of our rights versus the State.

But the extent of inequality remains significant as does the infrastructure deficit across rich and poor areas. The privileged crust is thinner than a hand-tossed Neapolitan pizza — possibly just 10 per cent of the population. The rest seethe in forlorn frustration. Can we get away from this low-level equilibrium? Yes, we can by fixing the market for political power.

End the perverse incentives in our political architecture 

Our political architecture is riddled with perverse incentives which  constrain the will to reform. Here are four changes which are overdue – deepening decentralisation; enhancing state government autonomy; enhancing the representativeness of the legislatures and regulating political parties better.

First, bridge the trust deficit and distance between citizens and the State. Empower state governments versus the Union government and local government versus state governments. Hopefully, the 15th Finance Commission will carry forward the trend of forcing the Centre to devolve functions and Central taxes to states and directly to local governments based on performance criteria.

Second, cut the colonial fat; abolish the titular but unedifying position of state governors. These are unelected nominees of the Union government exercising oversight over elected state governments. Transfer this role to the President, who is elected. This will level the playing field between states and the Centre versus the presidency.

Third, make Parliament and state Assemblies more representative. Sharply reduce the size of constituencies. Only directly-elected members should be eligible to become Prime Minister or chief minister. A candidate should be able to contest an election for only one seat at a time. The winner must secure a simple majority of the available votes and two-thirds of the votes cast. Municipalities must be headed by elected mayors.

Fourth, the functioning and finances of recognised political parties must be made transparent. Inner-party elections must conform to common but effective guidelines. The Election Commission must be empowered to determine constituency boundaries and diversified beyond the administration, to include citizen representatives and the judiciary with the chief election commissioner chosen specifically.

Use the GST process of risk-free consensual decision making

GST became a reality as a process of cooperative federalism was followed led by the finance minister. Reforming the market for political power could benefit from a similar approach.

Adapted from the author’s article in The Asian Age, July 19, 2017 http://www.asianage.com/opinion/columnists/190717/power-structure-needs-reform.html

Public sector angst

So, what is it about social media which gets sarkari types hyperventilating about their gripes and grouses? First, we have members of the para military forces seeking sympathy for the poor living conditions they suffer on duty. Next, we have a General, passed over for promotion, pedaling conspiracy theories around his being overlooked. To cap it all the managing director of Air India laments that a CBI investigation into improper procurement could sabotage the critical turn-around of the publicly owned airline. 

Why for instance do the owners and employees of private companies not do the same. Why didn’t Mr. Ratan Tata wring his hands on social media about the underhand way his successor was cutting the ground from under his feet? Or, for that matter, why hasn’t Netaji – Mulayam Singh Yadav – done the same about the goings on of his son? Why don’t we get to hear more stories of backstabbing, sell outs and short-circuited ambition from the private sector? I suspect the private sector guys feel that exposing their angst on social media is unlikely to generate any public sympathy for them. Working to improve the bottom line of a private company does not gel with the popular concept of national service. Never mind that using resources efficiently and maximizing output and productivity are the corner stone of growth oriented, competitive economies. In India “profit” remains a dirty, exploitative word.

Not even bumbling saints

At the very least public sector officers could be bumbling saints – role models of honesty, diligence and accomplishment. But forget efficiency most do not even have the basic attributes of rectitude. We saw this in the abandon with which public sector bank employees participated in the conversion of old black into new black recently during notebandi. The reasons why more sarkari types do not conform to the ideal are complex. Low organizational expectations from them; a performance system which provides huge rewards for competing successfully for the market (getting a public-sector job) but virtually no rewards for competing in the market (continuously improving performance in the job); lax disciplinary procedures for miscreants and low accountability, all serve to cocoon the public servant in an impregnable miasma of collective might versus citizen demands.  

Antiquated management systems

Continuously improving public sector systems are part of the job of a public servant. But India, today, has possibly the most antiquated public management processes. This despite the availability of funds for purchase of equipment, procurement of technical expertise and the powers to make changes in existing rules being pervasive. But for years the job of managing the household efficiently has taken a backseat to racing ahead with announcing new initiatives for public good and spinning old initiatives into new ones.

High overheads

The overhead cost or, tail to teeth ratio, is very high in the public sector. Just the expenditure on salaries and pensions is around a quarter of the net revenue receipts of the central government. The administrative costs of managing offices – purchase of consumables, electricity, purchase of new equipment, maintaining and constructing offices and government houses, travel and communication costs are additional. 

In public sector accounting, employees matter more than machines. Getting boots on the ground and waving the flag is more important than empowering the employee. That is why Bollywood delights in stereotyping the bumbling cop who ambles up to a crime site gamely swinging nothing more than a lathi. A lathi costing Rs 300 is the sole piece of equipment the average policeman has. Never mind that the average police constable costs the government upwards of Rest 20,000 per month. Providing jobs is a means of empire building for politicians and far too often becomes a lucrative business for the recruiters.

It is no wonder then that “zero based budgeting (ZBB)” never took off. How could it? ZBB is based on the axiom that you can always do better. The past is nothing more than a sunk cost which must never hold back good decisions making in the future. But our public sector operating mantra is to never accept that a mistake has been made which needs to be corrected. Government auditors view all mistakes as evidence of waste. Never mind that individuals only learn by committing mistakes. A baby who is fearful of falling would never walk, let alone run. 

So, what is it that we can do differently in the public sector?

First, by providing cradle to grave employment, even at the officer level, we create a collective (the cadre) where only individuals need exist. Government must dispense with the cadre system for recruiting officers, which is at the heart of the problem. Recruit instead for specific positions against specific eligibility criterion. Open recruitment, on contract, would keep the officers on their toes. 

Second, adopt cost accounting metrics for budgeting. This would make operational systems more efficient and facilitate performance evaluation across verticals.

Third, decentralize financial and administrative powers extensively whilst making the reporting chain flatter. This is the first change Suresh Prabhu made as Minister for Railways in 2015. The beneficial impact is already visible. The IAS should be as adept at organizational development as at strategy or policy making. The incentive today is to shine in service delivery achievements. This is self-limiting once the low hanging fruits have been plucked.  

Fourth, we should experiment with flexible budgeting by broad banding expenditure allocations across schemes. This would enable the executive to maximize the physical impact of budgetary allocations based on the performance of schemes in the field. Parliamentary approval should be limited to setting the macro variables (primary deficit, revenue deficit, fiscal deficit, current account deficit, debt to GDP ratio and the assumption of economic growth) and approve the specific tax proposals. The specifics of how the money is spent should not be held hostage to Parliamentary approval. Parliament must safeguard the macroeconomic bottom line not become part of the executive in micromanaging expenditure via the power to allocate expenditure. 

Lastly, disciplining of errant public sector staff can be salutary. Mistakes happen. What is more important is that they should be corrected once they are detected. Severe sanctions should apply for those who commit rule infractions themselves or those who turn a blind eye to infractions by their subordinates, whilst managing to keep their own desk clean. Conversely, rewards must accrue for others who adopt a positive and proactive approach to rule infractions made without mala fide intention. Greater rewards should accrue, for those who can propose thoughtful changes in rules to plug loopholes and avoid repeat infractions in future.

Managing a government is very much like managing a large, noisy joint family. A combination of encouraging pats, dissuading slaps, a great deal of open discussion and well intentioned decisions made in public interest are the failsafe ingredients for a happy and productive public sector family.

 

 

Dirty money: Joining the dots

Which of us does not enjoy pulling down the high and mighty? And the thrill is even sharper if these are people who may have breached laws whilst rising to dizzy heights. And so it was with the recent Panama Papers leak which opens a window into the morbid financial gymnastics of the amoral, global elite. There are five hundred Indians also in the list. But no “A” team players have yet been disclosed. Of course there is considerable overlay between unaccounted money and simply “smart” money which is avoiding not evading tax- the former is illegal but the latter – well it is just good financial management. The Panama data leak does not sift out the latter.

The scale of dirty money

cash

photo credit: gizmodo.com

Global Financial Integrity (GFI) – a United States-based entity, which tracks and campaigns against black money – ranks India fourth out of 149 developing countries, after China, Russia and Mexico, on the basis of the volume of illicit outflows. But this metric is fuzzy. It relates outflows to the size of individual economies and consequently fails to reflect the severity of the problem in each country.

Conflating the GFI data on illicit flows with the World Bank data on GDP at current market prices results in a more useful metric. The average annual illicit outflows as a proportion of GDP for India, according to this metric, was 2.7 per cent over the period 2004 to 2013. Within the BRICS countries cluster, South Africa was at a whopping 23 per cent, followed by Russia at 5.6 per cent. Brazil was the lowest at 0.9 per cent, with China the second lowest at 1.8 per cent.

Out of the other large developing economies, illicit outflows out of Malaysia stood at a worrisome 14.1 per cent of GDP, Thailand at 5 per cent, Mexico at 4.5 per cent, Nigeria at 4.1 per cent and Indonesia at 2.1 per cent. In South Asia, Bangladesh is the leader with illicit outflows at 4.2 per cent of GDP, followed by Nepal at 3.1 per cent and Pakistan at a low 0.1 per cent.

Dirty money links

So, how do illicit outflows, tax evasion, corruption and crime link up? Simply put illicit flows legitimize the proceeds of any of these activities. In the hawala transfer route, an individual or entity, resident in India, desiring to transfer dirty money overseas, makes a payment in cash in India to a hawala agent whilst a designated counter-party overseas gets paid in foreign exchange.

The source of the cash in India could be from income on which tax has not been paid or the proceeds of crime, including corruption. The foreign exchange overseas could be similarly sourced from corruption, crime or from Indians remitting money home (remittance of invisibles, including by overseas Indians of their earnings, was around $223 billion in 2013). Remittances through hawala get a better exchange rate than those via bank transfers. Foreign exchange overseas could also be the proceeds from under-invoicing Indian exports with part payment being made by the foreign importer to an overseas account related to the exporter.

Such illegal caches of foreign exchange overseas can be legitimated by bringing them back to India by over-invoicing Indian exports. Such funds can also be masked as foreign portfolio investments from foreign jurisdictions where obscuring the ownership of funds is a fine art, as in Panama. GFI estimates that under and over invoicing of trade flows accounts for 83 per cent of global illicit outflows. Usually a combination of several illicit transfer mechanisms may be used to obscure and mask the direction and ownership of the net flows.

The drivers of dirty money

Crime, corruption and the ability to avoid tax are all the outcome of poor governance aided by low levels of financial intermediation and digitization in the economy. Identifying the real ownership of bank transactions using biometric tracers, reducing cash transactions, embedded red flags and alerts which identify and monitor irrational transactions and sniff out a mismatch between income and consumption or income and savings, are standard tools for clamping down on the extent of black money. But we have started down this path only very recently.

Till the 1990s, when India had a chronically precarious balance of payments, the loss of foreign exchange through illicit transfers was a major concern. Today with foreign reserves at around one year of imports this is less so. But the loss of potential tax revenue hits us hard. Assume the value of tax lost on illicit outflows of $83 billion at a conservative 30 per cent or $24 billion per year. This equals around one-fourth of the average fiscal deficit during the period 2010 to 2013.

Lost tax is just one of the problems associated with dirty money. Other downsides are less tangible. Strong political and business interests get entrenched which obstruct enhanced transparency, the reduction of discretionary administrative powers and systematically subvert the formal governance systems and the informal norms which bind society.

Where this happens over a period of time, societal norms shift towards a new normal which actively subverts the rule of law. Prolonged conflict creates a similar loss of cultural and social capital. Government loses credibility as the provider of security and the arbiter of equity and fairness. Citizens look to informal structures like caste, clan or even professional alliances for social support.

Triangulating the evidence

Can we substantiate this link between poor governance and enhanced illicit outflows? The World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators (WGI) provide a ready index which maps six drivers of good governance across multiple data sources. For our purposes we look at two of these – Rule of Law and Control of Corruption. A close and negative correspondence between illicit outflows and the country WGI score can validate both the WGI and the GFI methodologies. High illicit outflows should correspond with a low WGI score.

The WGI ranks Brazil, Malaysia, South Africa and Thailand high on both upholding the rule of law and exercising control of corruption. India edges in only into the Rule of Law category in this ranking. But good performance in the WGI has not helped Malaysia, South Africa and Thailand curb illicit flows which are high, relative to GDP. In comparison, China and India with lower ratings in the WGI have far lower illicit outflows relative to GDP.

Similarly, Pakistan and Indonesia have minimal illicit outflows relative to GDP but score very low in the WGI index. The bottom line is that either the GFI assessments need to be improved or that good governance- at least as it is measured to day needs to be reviewed.

The trend going forward

GFI estimates that the aggregate outflow of illicit money for the set of 149 countries grew at 6.5 per cent per annum during the period 2004-2013 – more than double the rate of economic growth. This is worrisome because it illustrates a looser than desirable link between growth and tax revenues. If economic growth is leaky and does not boost tax revenues in developing countries, achieving social protection and human development targets can be severely compromised. Is India sliding down this slippery slope?

In India, illicit outflows more than doubled overnight from $29 billion in 2009 to $70 billion in 2010. During the period 2010 to 2013 – the latest year for which data is available – it averaged $83 billion per year or around 4 per cent of GDP. This period coincides with the second term of the United Progressive Alliance government, which was marked by serial scams in telecom and coal. But whilst it is tempting to deduce a causal relationship between the two, this is difficult to substantiate.

pipe

Better tools can help

What we do know is that we need better tools to monitor, in real decision time, the origin, magnitude and direction of illicit outflows, which are a vital red flag for poor governance. Achieving this is closely linked to professionalizing the government and rapidly digitizing the economy and government processes. We are doing far more on the latter, than on the former. This could be a costly and careless error. Till advanced robotics and artificial intelligence kick in sometime around 2030, the effectiveness of government servants will continue to matter

Adapted from the authors article in Swarajyamag April 12, 2016  http://swarajyamag.com/economy/joining-the-dots-on-dirty-money-and-how-india-can-become-clean

Can Modi Copy Deng?

China

(photo credit: http://www.deeshaa.org)

The thought of Modi, an original and innovative doer if ever there was one, copying anyone, is so implausible that the first instinct is to perish the thought at birth. But it is interesting to list how Modi could “do a Deng” for India.

Deng Xiaoping inherited a China wracked by the inefficiencies, but blessed by the upside of Communism. Principally, five decades of communism had deadened the innately entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese and sank the economy under the weight of a burgeoning State. But communism had also proliferated a highly disciplined party cadre across the country-much like India’s bureaucracy-except that the Chinese Communist Party marches to a single drumbeat; that of the President/General Secretary/Chairman. In contrast, the Indian bureaucracy is a discordant orchestra with multiple political conductors.

Mao built his Party cadres to weed out all those who either were, or could become, dissenters to his thoughts. Deng used the very same party to unleash the Chinese “animal spirits”. Municipalities and provinces competed viciously with each other to achieve the highest growth numbers in a no-holds-barred, single minded commitment to the bottom line, which could put the partners of Lehman Brothers in the shade.

The extraordinarily successful U turn was not surprising. Party foot soldiers are rarely ideologically committed. On top of it, if there is something in the change for them, they take to it with gusto. The Party took to “capitalism” with a vengeance. It is only now- two decades later- that President Xi is trying to unravel the resultant bundling of public and private interests.

When Deng Xiaoping became the President of China, per capita Gross National Product (GNP) was double of India’s but only around two thirds of Indonesia and Philippines (1996 WB data). By 2012 China’s per capita Gross National Income (GNI) had become nearly four times that of India; more than 1.7 times of Indonesia and nearly double of Philippines. Poverty declined in China from “Indian levels” to just 3% by 2012. Rapid economic growth based on exports, manufacturing and jobs was Deng’s mantra. But we musn’t forget the sacrifices of the Chinese people, who suffered personal and economic deprivations at the altar of national economic growth.

Can Modi do a Deng for India?

Unlike China, India is a soft state. Our citizens live in an asymmetric economic and political environment. On average, our citizens are as economically deprived as the Chinese were. But they have become accustomed to significant levels of personal and political freedom, more typical of a developed democracy. The State “includes” everyone in its warm embrace through food, fuel and income subsidies, which successive governments have honed to a fine art. Significant interest groups all receive a special package of subsidies tailored just for them. The package may not be individually very substantial. It may be threatened by inflation and increasing public fiscal stress. But the important thing is that it exists as a symbol that the State “cares”.

The only way of getting citizens to vote beyond subsidies is to rapidly enhance their individual incomes to a level where stagnating subsidies no longer mean much. For this private sector jobs based growth is the key.

Unfortunately, the world economic environment is now even less supportive of inefficient economies than it was in the “go-go years” till 2008. India remains a hugely inefficient economy because of the high transaction cost of doing business, even by domestic entrepreneurs. Some of this is due to a very inefficient and decentralized but systemic corruption.

The magnitude of corruption grabs public attention. It is unseemly but it is not the main impediment to job creation, growth or poverty reduction. In an imperfectly regulated economy, with a large State sector, regulating corruption to reduce its incidence and impact is more important than eradicating it. East Asia in general and indeed China itself, illustrates this.

But bitterly contested democracy does not allow the ruling party the luxury of “plain policy speak” based on cost benefit. A well publicised war against corruption better satisfies the masses that tax money is not being wasted.

More substantively, a policy of adopting increasingly higher levels of transparency and the  depoliticisation of economic regulation by transferring powers to autonomous, technical regulators, can significantly reduce the space for “crony capitalism”.

PM Modi, whilst condemning the “hate speech” of his errant Minister Niranjan Jyoti urged the Rajya Sabha: “let’s get back to work”. His words could well be heeded by government itself. Five fundamental institutional changes can create a Team Modi for targeting poverty; enhancing growth and increasing private sector jobs.

First, Captain Modi has to radically change the manner in which appointments are done in the Union government and adopt a transparently merit based system. For starters PMO should have an HR anchor identifying and tracking potential officers for these positions, using a variety of indicators.

Second, for improving the sustained effectiveness of the Union government, the PM has to ruthlessly prune the political executive and the bureaucracy, of elements who are, or have been ineffective or complicit in corruption. This is not about launching a witch hunt for the corrupt. It is more about identifying effective politicians and bureaucrats (of which individually there is an oversupply) and putting them in the right positions.

Third, it is not enough to improve the Union government. PM Modi has to talk Turkey with those CMs, who are similarly inclined to grow their states. Some, but not all, will be BJP governments. But the real issue here is to form alliances, not for political survival, as was the practice in the past, but for national growth. Network economies spill over across state boundaries and business uses such opportunities to locate where land is cheap, labour is abundant and pre-existing infrastructure is nearby.

CM Naidu previously used this model of cross border spill-over from Karnataka and Tamil Nadu to Andhra Pradesh’s benefit. Western UP and Haryana have similarly benefited from the economic dynamism of Delhi, irrespective of what their State Governments were up to. It is not necessary to have every CM on Team Modi’s Bench. Just getting 50% onboard, sprinkled across the country, can generate strong growth impulses nationally.

Fourth, a institutional focal point for getting CMs on board is needed. The National Development Council exists, but needs support. At the heart of the change is the willingness to share with the states, the fiscal and administrative powers available in the erstwhile Planning Commissions. How it’s is structured will be critical. Yet another anemic Think Tank is hardly fit for purpose.

Fifth, the key administrative unit, at the cutting edge level are the 604 Districts in rural areas and around 3255 “towns”. It is at this level that all reform and change is implemented. Unfortunately, this level of administration remains completely divorced from the direct responsibility for achieving the three point agenda of growth, jobs and poverty reduction in their own areas. This has to change if we are to “Do a Deng”. China determines local targets for national objectives. We must do the same.

PM Modi must provide incentives to States to “push back” senior officers from clunky state secretariats to the field. State secretariats (as also the Union Secretariat) must be slimmed down and District and urban Local Bodies strengthened. This can restore technical competence and gravitas to district and local body administration. The minimum service in field postings for IAS/IPS officers, before they can go to the State Secretariat must be increased to 15 years from the 9 years necessary today.

Every District and Town will also need base line studies of jobs, poverty levels and the size of the local economy. Their annual growth and poverty reduction targets and achievements must be available publicly. The share of local resource allocation must increase and be aligned with the path to achieve these objectives at the local level.

Today District Plans are just local segments of state government projects with specified outputs but with less than adequate linkage to the three overarching objectives. Local “Planning” is more about appeasement of local politicians rather than about achieving national objectives. More rigorous project selection guidelines; filters for assessing poverty reduction, growth and job creation potential; better oversight of expenditure and public participation in decision making are the underpinnings of success.

PM Modi does not have a centralized Party based executive to rely upon, as Deng did. But he can forge a Team of politicians, bureaucrats and non-government professionals who have a passion for lifting India out of poverty via economic growth and private sector jobs. Many are waiting for his call.

Will Ashraf Ghani be Afghanistan’s Manmohan Singh?

ashraf

(photocredit: dnaindia.com)

It is unlikely that the national coalition in Afghanistan, which the US has stitched together, will last. More likely, the Unity Government provides a convenient cover of artificially generated “peace” allowing the US to withdraw, with “honour”, from the “graveyard of invaders”.

Once it leaves, the US shall make all efforts to secure a working relationship between the Taliban and the Afghan Unity Government. The US has already started distinguishing between the palatable, if misguided, Taliban, with whom business is possible and the utterly untouchable Al Qaida.

The new Afghan President, Ashraf Ghani seems comfortable with cutting a deal with the Taliban to include them too, in the fullness of time, in the power sharing structure. This approach also fits well with the traditional “big tent” approach of the US which also includes decentralizing power and thereby enhancing inclusion of hitherto marginalized segments. This option is worth a try, but is likely to fail just as surely, as the existing Unity Government.

Mr. Ghani is a knowledgeable, well-meaning and committed, if somewhat unbending, politician-international bureaucrat-academic. His main problem will be similar to what Manmohan Singh faced in India. How does a personally honest leader turn a blind eye to massive corruption and yet retain control over the government?

Mr. Ghani says his first priority will be to make it difficult to be corrupt by improving governance systems. The conundrum is that “power sharing”, almost by definition, means allowing warlords a long rope. Manmohan Singh called it the “dharma of coalition politics”. Once executive control is loosened to avoid the personal association of the leader with the expectedly bad decisions of the warlords, stopping the system from unravelling is tough.

In his last political assignment (2002 to 2004) Mr. Ghani was Finance Minister in Afghanistan and was very successful in introducing some order and economic sense into governance. The parallels are ominous. Mr. Singh too was outstanding as Finance Minister in India before he got the top job. It doesn’t end there. Like Manmohan Singh in 1999, Ashraf Ghani lost his first election in 2009. The question then is: will Mr. Ghani be Afghanistan’s Manmohan Singh; a good man heading a bad outfit? Only time can tell.

For India, the current situation is impossible. There is little to distinguish the Pashtun dominated Taliban from Pakistan’s military de-facto rulers. This is why, traditionally, India cozied up, during the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan (1980s), to the “Northern Alliance” comprising the Hazara, who are determinedly opposed to Pashtun rule; the Tajiks who are today represented by Abdullah Abdullah, the number two leader in the Unity Government and Abdul Rashid Dostum, the indomitable Uzbek leader- who is currently allied with the Pashtun, President-Ashraf Ghani.

Any talk of an Afghan government, propped up by the Taliban, cannot be music to either India’s ears or acceptable to Abdullah Abdullah. This is especially so because China does business with Pakistan quite happily and is unlikely to have any qualms about doing the same with the Taliban. In this calculus any gain for the Taliban, is a gain for Pakistan and for China and a loss for India.

In the shadows is Putin’s Great Bear which is constantly sniffing about for a pot of honey in the great game. India and the Soviets have a long association of friendship which can become the basis for a coalition of the “underdogs” in Afghanistan. India is also friends with Iran, which it uses to trade with Afghanistan. The Russia, Iran, India (RII) axis will become India’s fallback option if the US continues to duck its responsibilities in South Asia. The result will be the “RII axis” playing “spoilers’ with consequential instability and strife in Afghanistan.

The silver lining is that India’s PM Modi has already signaled a preference for a more positive strategy of alignment with the set of countries which represent the shared ideals of democracy, markets and private sector led equitable growth. This approach advocates caution and restraint in committing our scarce resources to secure our near-abroad, whilst we still face enormous challenges of dealing with domestic infrastructure and poverty.

PM Modi stressed during his recent US visit that there can be no “good terror (read Taliban) and bad terror (read IS and Al Qaida). The networks of terror and the resources available to them are fungible and transmute constantly to escape identification. In simple language, a Leopard cannot change its spots. The only option is to isolate and confine it once it turns man eater.

What is unknown is whether President Obama has his ears tuned to South Asia or will the IS and the Middle East pre-occupations distract him completely. Will he be forced to soften his currently anti-Sunni terror stance by turning a blind eye to the Sunni-Taliban in Afghanistan? Great powers have to choose their battles and prioritise across options.

If the choice is between completely browning-off Saudi Arabia and its cohort of Sunni Middle Eastern countries by pursuing Sunni-Terror doggedly, on the one hand and worrying about how this approach could impact India’s interest, we know which way he will jump; and who can blame him for that.

If India is actually part of the “big boys club” we must mobilize pressure from constituencies who have similar interests in containing terror to force the US to not “step off the plate”. If this fails, as it probably shall, the option is to build a coalition against terror with China, which is similarly affected by it. Testing times loom for India’s diplomats.

Aside

Politics and theater

Parliament disgraced it self yet again. The statement of the PM on the economic situation was a welcome window into the minds of the policracy. Perhaps it is the Shatrughan or Babbar effect, but may of the honorable members believe that they magnify their own self image by copying a fiery, rightious Bachan, a braggart Sanjay Dutt or a stylishly, thughish Pran, If we wantd to see imitation actors we would watch movies instead. Pity none of them can dance though. It would have been good to see Manmohan deliver his economic sermon break dancing to a Hritesh number. The nearest any member comes to this is the redoubtable Rajiv Shukla who vitrually goes into an attarctive “wave” dance the minute the opposition shouts at the PM.

It was not clear what the government wanted to achieve yesterday. Statements made in the house are assurances of delivery (promises) which are monitored. No new promises were announced by the PM. He merely repeated what Chidambaram had already assured the house. Worse the manner in which he read the speech out had less credibility than the assured delivery style of the practised lawyer, Chidamram. The opposition oddly thought it necessary to shout down a “maun” PM. Possibly they have become so used to not hearing him at all, that that the merest squeak out of him is tantamount to an aggressive barrage.

Yes unbridled corruption is a mjor failing of the present government but that is the election plank of the Aam Admi party which is invisible in Parliament. Only those in power can be corrupt. The UPA is in. The BJP is out, so we can’t compare apples and oranges. Corrupt sons and sons in law are not a chink of the Congress alone.

I wish the opposition had cornered the PM on the three key constraints to unlocking growth and good governance. One is the recent sense of “entitlement” of the “policracy” to massive corruption. The potential and many would say the impunity, to be corrupt, erodes the possibility of shrinking Delhi in economic decision making and the transfer functions and finance to the States. On corruption it is only the record of the left parties which is relatively clean but unfortunately, unlike their brethern in China, they join the populist bandwagon here and shed crocodile tears for the poor, with little regard for the disastrous economic outcomes of populism. In fact the left is very much like our PM….honest but ineffective and the new India does not endorse that.

 Second, we need to correct  the extravagant spending on defence of around 20% of the budget. This is a major drag which comparative developing countries in East Asia (excluding China), Latin America and Africa do not face. Since the defence sector is notoriously non transparent, little is know of how much public finance leaks…..but the growing political clout of arms dealers makes it apparent that it is they, who are king makers and not the other way around.
 Third, the dynamic economic record of some state level leaders (Modi, Nitish, Patnaik etc) has a major medium term constraint. ALL of them follow the centralised Delhi model of not devolving functions and finance downwards,  to where the real action is, at the local level. That is the third quiet revolution still to happen in India but is completely ignored by all parties.
India does not lack economic or technical expertise in the public sector, skilled labour or private entrpreneurship. What we lack is a honest, formally endorsed leader at the national level. The best cooperatives, like Amul, grow because of honest, pragmatic and enigmatic leaders, like Kurien. If INFOSYS today needs to recall Murhty, to rescue it, shouldn’t India also reach back in time and get an oldie (albeit preferably, one without a child-in-waiting), who has the experience, the rectitude and the fire in the belly to lead? India is a young country but sometimes, it is only the exprienced who can deliver what the young want.

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