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Posts tagged ‘middle class’

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.

Budget 2015: Swap higher outlays for efficient spending

jaitley dnaindia.com3  

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

A cold Republic Day had FM Jaitley looking dapper under his stylish cap as he snuggled into his overcoat on a rain lashed Rajpath munched nuts and broodingly watched the parade go past.

PM MODI’s OFF-SWING

Was he fleshing out what he would say in his budget speech to the Indian Parliament just one month away?  Should he bowl a leg-spin veering sharply left towards equity or an off-swing veering right and towards growth? Around him, on its 66 Republic Day, Modi India was visibly exhilarated celebrating its “off-swing” to the right.

China, possibly stung by this sudden change of events, after the cozy, bon homie of the recent jhula swing on the banks of the Sabarmati, retorted by clasping Pakistan even tighter as an eternal friend. Meanwhile the Greek “loony left”, united with the “loony right” to aspire to become a sovereign debt defaulter with the rest of Southern Europe waiting to follow, should their anarchic tactic succeed.

SOVEREIGN DEBT STRATEGY

Avoiding payment by default is not a new strategy. Latin America similarly exploited the short memories of lenders with serial debt defaults.  In contrast Asia, in general and India, in particular, has been very puritanical about its debt obligations, never having defaulted even once in the last forty years, though we came close to it in 1991.

Whilst morally correct, it is unclear if this is a good fiscal strategy. Standard and Poors rates India sovereign debt BBB-, the same as Brazil (which defaulted thrice-1983, 1986 and 1990 in the last 40 years) and lower than Peru-BBB+ (which defaulted twice in 1980 and 1984). From this perspective, debt default is not about “prestige”, “national honour” or about financial rewards. It is merely a game of brinksmanship to be played with the market, if it serves us well.

Was FM Jaitley pondering the merits of doing a Latin America; borrowing recklessly to finance a populist, public investment binge, which “growth-wallahs” are crying themselves hoarse demanding?

Borrowing more is the “soft” option to reforming expenditure since tax collections have dipped. Our borrowing capacity for FY 2015-is limited by a Fiscal Deficit (FD) envelop of 3.8% of GDP, down from the target of 4.1% in the current year. Even the higher FD level severely constrained resources though this constraint remained hidden. The previous UPA-II government put so many non-fiscal barriers on investment-lengthy environmental approvals; land acquisition constraints and contractual inconsistencies which ensured that the project stream froze thereby avoiding additional cash outflows.

The present government is working overtime to unclog the pipes and clear payment arrears. These have built up over time but they do not show up in the budget. Unlike Indian companies, the government follows the “cash” and not the “accrual” accounting system. Both unpaid current liabilities and uncollected current assets are not accounted for in the annual budget. This loop hole enabled the previous government to “sell our future” by collecting arrears whilst falsely showing a robust budget allocation.

GROWTH AND INFLATION

Indian “growth-wallahs” are prepared to risk inflation if it means pushing growth to 7% from the 5.5% it is likely to record in the current year. But the trade off, at the margin, between growth, inflation and jobs is unclear. This is dangerous ground for those living on the edge.

Growth is just a meaningless number for the average citizen. Jobs are welcome of course. But we do not have a “jobs filter” that can assess competing investment.  We do not even measure changes in employment through the year. In comparison inflation is an everyday reality which the poor and the urban lower middle class have to battle with daily.

If there is a choice between growth and more inflation, the FM would be well advised to choose containing inflation to below 5% even at the cost of chugging along at a 6% growth level.

PUBLIC INVESTMENT IS HIGHLY INEFFICIENT

The real question is if the domestic and international private sector is unwilling to invest, as for example in Nuclear energy, how can it be desirable for public investment? Clearly, an unhelpful institutional context makes these investments into “lemons”. Unless the root causes of their unviability are addressed, such projects are neither good for the private nor the public sector.

Public investment stoked growth is strongly dependent on the efficiency of public expenditure and the avoidance of “pork”- gold plated projects which fail to provide social returns and jobs. Excessive investment in new renewable energy (a rapidly evolving technology) has precisely this risk.

NO BUBBLES PLEASE

Of course the stock markets will not be enthused by such fiscal caution. But who really gains from the irrational financial exuberance (or despair) of stock markets except a few savvy speculators with deep pockets- not all of them Indian either.

Real Estate is another sector which should be left to lag not lead growth. It is a safe haven for “black money” fed speculation. Five years of cheap money since 2009, high inflation and massive corruption are the drivers of the Indian realty bubble. We have to guard against such bubbles, which consume the savings of the middle class, as in Japan (1980 to 1990) and more recently in the US (2004 to 2012).

LOOKING BACK TO THE FUTURE

One stratagem to inject conservatism into the budget would be to project the FY 2015-16 budget on the growth and revenue numbers which were achieved in 2014-15.

Looking backwards to define the fiscal envelop will further constrict spending estimates. But this would be a useful, albeit unorthodox mechanism, to drive better collection of tax and non-tax revenues and contain “pork” in the spending estimates.

If there are “happy” surprises – revenue exceeding estimates or growth exceeding forecast levels, the surplus generated could be allocated to pre-defined schemes in a supplementary budget later in the fiscal year. Leaving something on the table is good strategy anyway to keep stakeholders engaged and responsive.

Our biggest worry is that populism will trump reason. Subsidies are the elephant in the room of fiscal responsibility. Rationalizing them has become a political hot potato with potentially high political costs. This is why reform needs to be both well timed and appropriately sequenced.

LIMITED REFORM WINDOW

FY 2015-16 is the only reform window available to India for the next four years. If we can’t do it now we never shall. The 2016-17 budget shall be populist since Bihar (2016), UP (2017) and then Rajasthan, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh go to the polls (2018) followed by National Elections in 2019.

Can we, for starters at least, legislate a cap on subsidies just as there is a medium term trend and cap on FD? We don’t know enough about the extent, substance, nature and social impact of subsidies. Why not make these aspects more explicit by changing the way in which we present the budget documents?

Two subsidy reform steps are immediately doable.

First, making petroleum prices market determined is a no-brainer in the present scenario of cheap energy. This will plug one gap in the subsidy envelop.

Second, rationalize agricultural subsidies which are provided through multiple mechanisms; assured purchase prices for cereals; cheap fertilizer; cheap power; cheap irrigation water; no tax on income and minimal tax on land. Despite these subsidies, rural wages remain low and migration to urban areas is the only options for landless workers and marginal land owners.

These subsidies have only served to create a class of elite “millionaire” farmers; a tiny fragment at the very tip of the 600 odd million strong farming community. Why not use it to better target the poor, rural folk instead? An additional advantage would be that the rural poor have a significant overlap with Dalits and Muslims, neither of which are part of the BJPs traditional support base.

Will FM Jaitley grasp the moment and push through reform or do we have to wait till 2020 for substantive change?

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)

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(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.

Rahul and Kejriwal; common aspirations

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In India, fractured as it is by multiple social divisions, on top of the usual economic distinctions of class, the notion that any one party can appeal to the majority seems far-fetched, especially in the context of an increasingly aware and literate electorate. Intelligent voters seek to maximize their self-interest, which is increasingly defined in a narrow manner.

Despite its divisiveness, India’s electorate can be grouped into three broad segments.

First, the Muslims, the Dalits and the Tribals remain marginalized local groups, comprising around 33% of the vote. This vote remains pretty much transferable in bulk to whichever party they trust. The rise of regional parties is based on this vote. For the marginalized, the primary concern is the security of life, property and social dignity. These immediate concerns are best met practically, by the party which rules the State government, where they live. They also believe that caste/religion cohorts will be less rapacious than others.

The Congress used to be the party of choice for them, but the loss of power at the State level, particularly in North and East India, has severely undercut its usefulness to these marginalized segments.

For none of these, though the BJP has broken through to the Tribal vote, is the BJP a welcome prospect. Its strident Hinduism disadvantages lower castes, whilst its vision of business led growth, paints it as vile, exploitative and people unfriendly. This effectively knocks around one third of the electorate into the arms of regional parties, the Left and the Congress (where it rules a State government).

Second, the urban non-poor, comprising around 20% of voters, remain catchment areas for the BJP and its clones. The urban poor, comprising around 10% of the vote, were solidly with the Congress till 2013 but now may gravitate to AAP clones, if these are scaled up, although this seems unlikely given the past history of such “honesty based” social movements.

The third group is the rural, rich and business community, who are increasingly becoming indistinguishable from the urban rich, since untaxed agricultural income remains an attractive instrument for accounting for unaccounted income. Also agricultural land is a prime speculative asset in a fast urbanizing economy. This group, which hangs its hat on the movements of the Sensex, is firmly with the BJP. But their numbers are woefully insignificant (less than 1% of the vote).

The rural poor (other than scheduled caste and tribes), comprising the residual 36%, are the votes which remain up for grabs by the National and Regional parties. Caste, Clan and Community all play major and enduring roles.

If the Left had a more credible jobs and public services program, this segment would be fertile ground for it. The Congress and the Left have now become virtually indistinguishable. They have similar approaches to gay rights versus traditional values; social protection versus growth; subsidies versus jobs or domestic agendas versus open economy linkages. The only difference is that the Congress is not averse to playing the caste and religion card, as convenient, whilst the Left is still squeamish about departing from its class struggle agenda.

These two parties are likely to cannibalize each other. They could usefully coalesce into a single “Progressive Union” of the rural poor, Muslims, Dalits and Tribals. In doing so they could aggressively combat the Regional parties which are essentially caste and social identify based. They could give a modern, welfare State option to this segment. The AAP is also closely aligned to the philosophy of the Left and the Congress. Strident secularism; worker welfare; self-sufficiency; decentralized rule by mohallah committees/Bhagidari/communes are examples of common thinking.

The BJP is consequently forced to distinguish itself as the Party offering pan-India economic growth, industrialization, rapid urbanization and jobs, whilst minimizing its Welfare State character. It has quite some way to go towards this objective. Its 2013 victories in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh were based on a social welfare program, closely resembling that of the Congress and were aided by poor leadership and in-fighting in the Congress. This cannot be a consistent ground for victory. A combative Congress could swiftly reduce the BJPs advantage at the “efficient government” game.

The BJP has to look to the rural rich and upwardly mobile middle class and the urban voter for long term support. This segment will grow from being 30% today to over 60% of the vote by 2030. This is its natural constituency. In doing so it must distance itself from Hindu fundamentalism; obscurantism and adopt a modern growth and development based agenda. The Nagpur connection has to be severely diluted. Otherwise it will lose ground, which it can ill afford.

There is little scope for Fascism in India, principally due to deep social and regional heterogeneity. The Parties of the next decade will be smaller in size and scope. They will live or die depending on how nimble they can be in reaching out to their voters. Close and consistent interaction with voters, rather than mammoth public rallies, will determine success. Merit based on performance, rather than birth, shall increasingly be the measure of politicians. Governments will be formed by coalitions rather than through block buster electoral support.

Kejriwal has belled the cat. The Congress, which is in search of a leader, could usefully anoint him as its 2014 candidate for Prime Minister.  Rahul and Kejriwal share a lot of common ground; age, social conscience, a thirst for asceticism and a focus on doing the right thing. They should join hands. What could be better than contracting-in the model, Rahul hopes to emulate?  Another, more revolutionary option, would be for Rahul and the progressive section of the Congress to merge with the AAP. Either model can work, in stemming BJPs juggernaut.

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