Agenda for Modi 2.0!

Dear Mrs. Sitharaman,

First things first. Congratulations on becoming the finance minister of the country. Ever since you have taken over, there has been a flurry of unabated, unsolicited advice on what you should do and should not, in the upcoming budget. I was extremely reluctant to add to that already long list. But then your extremely gracious and earnest tweet the other day, welcoming all suggestions and inputs changed my mind.  Being from Trichy as well, I could see the “Trichy Tehzeeb” in that request!  Hence this piece, with my wish list not just from the budget but overall from the Modi Sarkar 2.0 from an economic agenda point of view.

I am not an Economist. I am just a keen and informed observer of Indian politics and a well-wisher of our country. So, my points may or may not stand the scrutiny of economists but hopefully will pass muster with the readers of this post.   I promise that I am not going to repeat a lot of stuff which has already been suggested by the erudite in their pieces.  So, here we go:

  • First up, the positive effects of implementation of GST and the kicking off of several infrastructural projects from the 1st term will start bearing fruits in the coming 2/3 years. So, I suggest that the 5 year term till May 2024 be divided into 2 parts – First 3 years till 2022 and the second 2 years till 2024. Take all the tough decisions in the 1st part and use the 2nd to stabilise things.
  • Second, in Modi 1.0, there have been quite a few hits but some misses too. In the 2nd term, on the back of a solid mandate, Team Modi should play on the front foot with confidence, while at the same time leaving alone deliveries outside the stumps and negotiating short pitched deliveries and bouncers with alacrity. In governance parlance, this means implementing even the not so populist decisions with confidence and not getting muddled in unwanted distractions.
  • Third, please request the economic ministries to come up with a list of things to be done to rev up the economy which is stuttering. Divide this list into 3.
    • 1 – Low hanging fruits which don’t need legislative backing
    • 2 – Which need bills to be amended, passed in the parliament
    • 3 – which need the states to take action

Get going on this list systematically. Have a target of 60 days to accomplish everything in the 1st list. This will give a clear message to all stake holders that this government is not the one to rest in its electoral success laurels!

  • Fourth, you are now in Japan and there is a lot we could learn from the Japanese in terms of going about things. One of the things I learnt from working in a Japanese company is “Prioritisation”! As Indians, we tend to focus on 100 things at the same time and spreading ourselves extremely thin. This was one grudge I had on Modi 1.0 which embarked upon so many projects simultaneously like Make in India, Skill India, Stand up India, Digital India, Smart City project, Ujwala programme and so on. If you closely measure the success, it is only the programmes which had focus like Ujwala, Rural electrification, Rural housing that met with success. In Modi 2.0, I would suggest that the Government takes up a maximum of 2 or 3 projects at a time, focus on the delivery with finite timelines and then move on to the next set of 2/3 ideas. This is what Japanese do.
  • Fifth, in India we have been talking of linking outcomes to outlays. But seldom has the same been acted upon. So, in the coming budget presentation on the 5th of July, please do not announce plain outlays but outlays that can be linked to quantifiable  outcomes.
  • Sixth, we usually see that in the budget, there are many outlays which are just carried forward year after year with a % increment or a % cut. For example, since 2013, money from Central Budget has been allocated to Nirbhaya fund to support initiatives towards ensuring women safety. One really doesn’t know how this fund is being utilised and after 5 years what this fund has achieved. This is just one example. In every budget, there are many sundry allocations like this. Please review item-wise outlays in the last 3 budgets,  respective outcomes achieved and allocate outlays in the coming budgets only if they make sense.
  • Seventh, considering the state of the economy, there is a need to mobilise resources to generate income and keep fiscal deficit under check. As Prime Minister Modi has been talking of “Minimum Government and Maximum Governance” one way of mobilising resources is by Government exiting many businesses that are no longer strategic in nature and monetising those assets. In Modi 1.0, in every budget, we had an item called “Proceeds from disinvestment” and this was achieved by making some PSUs like LIC pick up shares from the disinvested PSUs. During NDA-1 under Vajpayee, there was a clear focus on “Real” Disinvestment with a full-fledged ministry and a determined minister like Arun Shourie doggedly pursuing it. UPA did away with this and since then Modi 1.0 included, there has been no serious disinvestment in the country. I suggest that Modi 2.0 take this up seriously. A functional ministry named as “Monetisation of PSU Assets” (since disinvestment is seen as a bad word) should be formed. I also add that the proceeds from this monetisation be parked in a separate account and used for welfare schemes. By this, any criticism of the move can be countered by demonstrating that the proceeds of the same are being used for social welfare. A creative way needs to be found for accounting like this.
  • Eighth, in Modi 1.0, there was a big push towards infrastructure projects like highways and roads which was really commendable. The same should be continued with additional vigour. However, as admitted by Nitin Gadkari the pace of the projects could have been faster but for complex land acquisition issues. This is a big issue even today. In the 1st term, after initial belligerence, the government chickened out of the much needed amendments on the Land Acquisition bill. I remember Modi taking this up with rigour in 2014 basically because all the states identified certain provisions in the existing Land Acquisition bill as impediments for timely closure of infra projects.  Since the states are equal stake holders in this issue, please have discussions with a fresh outlook, strike a consensus and pass the amendments to the bill smoothly in both houses of the parliament. Renaming this as “Land Partnership bill” or something like that instead of the negative sounding Land Acquisition bill will help too to remove the negative connotation around this!
  • Ninth, taxation in India is still complex. GST implementation was a landmark Tax reform. I am sure there is a road map towards further simplifying the same with reduced tax slabs and simplifying procedures. Now, in this term please focus on Direct taxes. I hope that the panel working on overhaul of this will submit their recommendations quickly and your government should adopt the same ASAP. In simple terms, the mantra should be lower tax rates with no or very few genuine exemptions. Some of the exemption clauses we have are weird and defy all logic. For example the current clauses we have for LTA exemptions for salaried. Applicable for 2 years in a block of 4 that being calculated from the year 1986 and so on!!! Someone needs to do a Zero based hard look at all the existing exemptions for personal and corporate taxation and do away with most of them which don’t make sense in this day and age!
  • Tenth and the last one. On the 5th July when you leave your office for the parliament to present the budget, your team will hand over a brand new brown brief case which will have the budget speech. You and your team will pose with that brief case for the cameras and then you will read out the budget speech from the bunch of documents. And here’s what I suggest. Please, please do away with this brief case and the papers. Instead, amble along in style, pose for cameras with your hands “free” and as you rise to present the budget in the parliament hall, download the speech from the ministry’s secure server and project it in a large screen. Doing away with the rambling, long speech that would be just uber cool, while at the same time giving a push towards Prime Minister’s “Digital India” dream!

Pic Courtesy: Livemint

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Jet Airways – Positioning lessons from its crash landing!

On Wednesday last week, as I was queuing up to board an Air India flight to Delhi, I could see the tarmac at the Mumbai airport lined up with idling aircraft of Jet Airways, whose operations was being cut down by the hour. Eventually, by evening the airlines shut down its operations completely, albeit “temporarily” as per the company’s statement. And in a twinge of irony, the last flight was a Jet Connect flight from Amritsar to Delhi that landed in Mumbai in the wee hours of Thursday.  I say “in a twinge of irony” because one of the reasons for the airline to get caught in turbulent weather, was its many experiments in positioning wrongly so, trying to compete with budget/low-cost airlines with Jetlite, Jet Connect and so on, when it hit financial air pockets way back in 2009 and later.

Unlike this generation, people born before the pre-liberalisation took their 1st flights when they started working! So did I. Way back in the early 1990’s for the initial few years, it was all Indian Airlines for work related trips. Though Indian Airlines in that period wasn’t bad, when Jet Airways burst into the scene, post opening of the sky along with other private airlines like East-West, Damania, Modiluft and so on, it brought in a whiff of fresh air. I remember vividly those times. The airports with inadequate infrastructure to handle the explosion of airlines and traffic, by and large resembled railway terminus’s and bus stations with multiple loud announcements of arrivals, departures and boarding calls.  “Chaotic” was an oft-repeated description of airports, then.

Amidst all the initial slew of private players, only Jet survived. It is clear that Naresh Goyal, the original promoter of Jet Airways had mastered the one core competency that mattered to excel in business in India – that is of “managing the environment”! But, I must admit that apart from managing the environment, Goyal could get another aspect of business right. That is of managing customer needs and experience well.

In those initial days, –  I am referring to the mid 90’s, Jet Airways experience was really out of the world,  particularly for frequent flyers. You could tele-check in and get your favourite leg space seats without much of an issue. Upgrade vouchers could actually be used to upgrade to business class even at the airport while checking in. There was a wide variety of meal options apart from just Veg and Non Veg. In fact for breakfast, in Vegetarian, they used to have South Indian and North Indian choices!  Dinners were 3 course meals. Hot and cold towels were provided even to Economy passengers! You could redeem your award tickets without much fuss and disappointment. In the initial few years, one needn’t pay even the taxes for award tickets (That changed pretty soon). With fares almost same as of other airlines, there was no reason unless otherwise the flight was full, to look at alternative airlines! I can say that from a user perspective, it was truly a golden era for Jet Airways!

The golden run for the airline continued in the 1st decade of this century, but with conditions attached. This was when it became a market leader by way of market share and leadership pangs started catching up. But still, due to its superior service and its On-time record, it was business travellers’ first resort.

The advent of low cost or budget airlines in the scene in India somewhere around 2006, must be one watershed moment in the history of Jet Airways. Captain Gopinath, the founder of Air Deccan redefined airline business in India with his no frills, low-cost offering exemplified by R.K.Laxman’s “common man” as the brand mascot. By lowering air fares to the extent of making it cheaper than train fare, Gopinath ushered in a whole set of middle class travellers into flying. In doing so, Gopinath with Air Deccan became of subjects of case studies in B-schools. The whole landscape of air traffic changed so fast in that period that, Air Deccan with its mindless pricing strategy, ended up disrupting itself and few other airlines on the way.

The global recession of 2008 and the cost consciousness that ensued among corporates world over, brought the curtains down on the party of the expensive, premium priced, full service airlines. In India, it meant Jet and Kingfisher who were truly premium, full service airlines at that time. This is where, I feel Jet was caught in the wrong foot. When it started losing market share to low-cost air lines and new entrants like Indigo, Go Air, Spicejet… Jet decided to pursue its own “budget airline” strategy which in my mind was a big mistake. Extending the brand is a trap which many companies fall into, with their eyes wide open.  Here, Jet Airways, hither to a market leader with a full service offering and impeccable service reputation, decided to extend its brand and launch a budget airline called Jetlite and then later Jet Connect. At the outset, it seemed like a smart strategy to prevent losing market share to the newly launched low-cost carriers, that too in those prevalent muted global economic conditions.

In the process, what happened was a systematic dilution of the brand equity of Jet Airways and all it stood for. In the name of cutting costs, service offerings were trimmed. It was no longer a frequent flyer’s delight. Service started falling apart. I started seeing the writing on the wall sometime in 2011/12. You could never get a seat of your choice even when you web checked in early! Choice of food became limited. For a flight taking off at 7.30 pm, instead of dinner, a snack meal was beginning to be served! Even the After mint (post meal mouth freshener) which was served in Jet Airways in the beginning, which became so popular that it was sold in super markets and stores as Jet Mukhwas suddenly disappeared from the in-flight meal. Here, I must add that I have seen many passengers asking for extra sachets of the same and hoarding them to their homes!  Award ticket redemption process now online, became a farce. There were just few seats for award tickets in a flight and you would never get them. If you redeem award tickets for your family, seldom you will get confirmation of the same while you book. Upgrade vouchers became just pieces of paper because upgrades were limited to few fares.

In the midst of all this, Jet’s financial woes only multiplied. A mistimed acquisition of Sahara Airlines only worsened the situation. Few quarters back, realising its original mistake of taking the budget airline route, Jet jettisoned its low-cost brands and decided to stick to just its full service offering. Considering the fact that global economy had revived, I thought that it was a wise move and hoped that Jet will soon be back to its glory!  Well, it did not. The low-cost hangover continued. The pricing was of full service. But the service was of budget airline! Can you imagine as recently as in Feb, on a 5 and a half hour flight from Mumbai to Singapore, there were no personal screens and one had really sleep through to kill time? And my co-passenger who requested for a glass of water got it after reminding the crew for the same at least 3 times! And of late dinner served in Jet Airways resembled more like junk street food! And I can only say that Jet’s frequent flyer programme – Jet Privilege which was once upon a time really world-class, is a pale shadow of its former self! Jet Privilege was such a strong brand that Goyal hived that off as a separate entity and monetised it. Even that infusion didn’t help to improve the user experience, though. Keeping the financial troubles aside, I was of the opinion that Jet was sinking as a brand anyway! And the culprit was its positioning! Was it a full service airline with offerings of a budget airline or was it a budget airline that was overpriced??

What if, had Jet continued to stay the course of a full service airline?

What if, in that period when low-cost airlines were mindlessly cutting prices, had Jet focused on “business value flyers” and on superior service?

What if, had Jet went after bottom line instead of preserving market share in that turbulent economic period?

So many what ifs! As I said, in hindsight, pontification is easy. But this hold lessons for companies for the future. After all, business cycles repeat themselves.

Having said that, singling out Jet is also a tad unfair. Airline business globally is a tough business to wade through. One that requires continuous infusion of Capex and which sucks up huge Opex. Only airlines that have thrived are those protected by state monopolies or those who have got their positioning and cost efficiencies correct. In India, the woes of Airline industry have been compounded by high taxes, fluctuating fuel prices, high interest rates and crony capitalist policies. In the history of Airline Industry, Jet is only the latest to bite the dust. Before, we had East-West, Modiluft, Damania, Air Deccan, Sahara, Kingfisher, Alliance Air and myriad other smaller airlines which all exited the scene in one pretext or the other! And we all know how Air India has managed to pull through while being in ICU for so many years.  And it is also clear that the other airlines are all clutching at straws and managing to stay afloat. That must really beg some critical policy related questions among the policy makers in India. While on the one hand trying to expand air travel to smaller towns in India, is the current Aviation policy regime really business friendly?

Seeing an Indian brand, which was once upon a time close to world-class fold up, is really unfortunate. Hope wisdom and luck prevails and we soon see Jet get its Jetwings of yore!

Image courtesy: https://www.thenational.ae

In #2019, no TINA but be wary of TAIL!

As 2018 winds down and we step in to 2019, for India, it is just not another new year. Mid of 2019 is when we will have the Lok Sabha polls that will determine if Narendra Modi will get another shot at being the Prime Minister. In my memory, I cannot recall of any individual who has come for so much scrutiny as an elected representative. And whose re-election is being discussed and debated so intensely in the country. First up, blame it all on the social media and its growing tentacles!

The fact that a government’s performance is coming up for such a rigorous appraisal itself, augurs well for our country. It should be like that. I only hope that this appraisal business isn’t selective and not just reserved for Modi Sarkar! If I think as to why this government has come under such a close assessment, I realise that it should blame itself for the same.

Did we have any other government in the past that

Set targets for itself on many fronts?

Which announced the targets and put them out in public domain?

Which tracked the actual delivery against the targets and presented them for everyone to see and comprehend easily that too mostly on real-time basis?

Today we know, not just what this government’s targets are for rural electrification, construction of highways, building targets, opening of bank accounts so on and so forth but also where it stands in terms of achievement. One look at the https://transformingindia.mygov.in/performance-dashboard/ site gives us an update on a real-time basis. It is not that governments in the past did not set targets for themselves. But all these targets were usually in terms of outlays announced in the Annual Budget speeches and seldom one would know what the final outcomes were. Between the outlays and outcomes, the India story remained in tatters. I guess not any more.  So, if people keep remembering the promises made and get disappointed if some of the promises have not been met fully or adequately, blame it on the Government’s efforts of putting out data in the open which makes it possible to compare achievements Vs goals easily.

In comparison to the upbeat mood in 2014 and 2015, today the mood in the country is more sombre. Even the most loyal fans of Modi have realised that probably he chewed more than what he could swallow. Five years are just not enough to turn around and solve all the ills of the country. That too when the global economy is facing one headwind after another! But then, as a country we had our own share of misses. Right when the economy was getting back on track in 2015/16 from the throes of policy paralysis and negative vibes and was poised for a leap, this government let loose the Demonetisation devil on the economy.  This set the economy back by 2 years to get back on track. That we didn’t fully collapse and managed to grow the economy at a slower pace nevertheless, would be a miracle, academicians would pore over in the years to come!

Before the effects of Demonetisation could subside, this government went ahead with the introduction of GST which according me is the biggest Tax reform in Independent India. Irrespective of the critics who take on this government on the “not so perfect” GST, I maintain that it was extremely creditable on the part of Modi Sarkar to launch the GST without further delaying, on the 1st of July 2017. In India, in aspects of meeting deadlines, we Indians follow religiously and rigorously the Theory of Elasticity which says solid materials deform under the application of external force and regain their original shape when the force is removed. So, in the quest of a perfect, ideal GST, if this government had deferred the launch, who knows, perhaps we will still be talking of “introducing the GST” in the upcoming budget!  Against that, today we already have a thriving GST which is now going to complete 2 years! The introduction of GST will remain this government’s biggest achievement when its history is written.

The short term pains inflicted by these 2 moves (Demonetisation and GST) to the small and medium businesses combined with the government’s failure to address the Banking crisis at the beginning of its term have led the BJP to the situation where it is today.  In its strong hold states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, the party’s support base has been dwindling. On the contrary, the Congress which seemingly had no hope of a revival till mid-2017, has smelt blood and is hoping to deprive Modi of a second term and a shot at history.

In India today, in the main stream media and also probably social media, the obituary of Modi Sarkar is being written on a daily basis. As per me, it is too early to write off Narendra Modi in the context of 2019. In spite of his government’s misses in terms of promises and more importantly the delivery of Achhe Din, his personal credibility as a leader who is keen to deliver, is intact. I do believe that there are those who are disappointed with him. But they are still not disgusted with him. Yet.  My personal feeling is that they would like to give him another chance.  The same states which voted out the BJP recently could very well see voting for Modi in the Lok Sabha polls!

Apart from this factor of Modi’s personal charisma, there is another important factor at play. People like to call it the TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor. I don’t believe that there are no alternatives to Modi. In fact, we have many. We have the spectre of a Rahul Gandhi becoming the Prime Minister, if a Congress led UPA front emerges as the biggest. Or else it could be toss between a Mamata Banerjee or a Mayawati or a Chandrasekhar Rao or any other leader depending upon how many seats they win, as part of a coalition which will be cobbled together post the elections. In all these cases, a leader of the party with 30-40 MPs would head the coalition of 10-15 parties with each party playing the “I am indispensable” card!

This Mahagathbandan where, parties will oppose each other in one state but will come together in another state is only a Maha”cut”bandhan who want their share of power and the perks that come with it. I believe that people are smart enough to understand and realise that Modi Sarkar might have disappointed but will still probably vote for him not because of TINA but being weary of TAIL – The Alternative Is Lousy!

In the past, we saw many Accidental Prime Ministers as we didn’t sight TAIL properly! Hope 2019 is different. On that hopeful note, wishing India a momentous 2019!

Cartoon courtesy: Satish Acharya

Budget – The Annual celebration of Outlays!

It’s just about a week since the Annual Union Budget – supposedly the most important policy statement for any Government in power, was tabled in the parliament in India.  In these days of extremely limited attention span, the news and noise around the Budget are already done and dusted. The media has already moved on from analyzing the Budget to debating if an MP’s loud cackle is acceptable parliamentary behavior and if the PM’s witty riposte to that, will pass the test of a Nehru or a Vajpayee in parliamentary decorum! The only remaining nugget about the Budget I see in the media in the last couple of days is, as to who won the TRP war on the Budget day! For the television media, the annual Budget presentation is another TRP generating event in the annual calendar and hence the whipped up frenzy and hoopla around it.

For the past 20 years, I have also been a victim of the annual cacophony called the experts’ analysis of the Budget and in the same breath, culprit in doing my own analysis and critique. Over the last few years, it started dawning upon me that slicing and dicing the Budget and trying to evaluate the same as good, bad or average is an exercise steeped in foolhardiness. And so, this year apart from a cursory look at the highlights in the evening of the Budget day, I spent little time in that direction.

This distancing has nothing to do with this year’s Budget and its contents but on the way “we”, as a country carry out the discourse around the Budget. When I say “we”, this includes the Government, the Opposition, the political parties, the media, the Industry, the commentators and folks like us.  For years, I have been seeing that the reactions to the Budget proposals have become extremely predictable. The ruling party members give a huge thumbs up to the Budget and usually follow it up with head line making epithets. (Path breaking/Visionary,…)  While the finance minister is presenting the Budget, any announcement of outlay which is seemingly bigger than that of last year is welcomed with huge thumping of the desks by the treasury benches. The Opposition parties usually criticize the Budget calling it Inflammatory (if taxes are raised), Anti poor (if subsidies are cut), “What about implementation?” (If outlays are increased) and so on! And for other political parties, the famous Mile’s maxim applies – “where they stand on the Budget depends on where they sit” in the parliament. The Industry usually in front of cameras always give a 12 out of 10 to any Budget!  The media provides a ball by ball update on the stock markets as the Budget presentation goes on, as if the entire nation’s well-being depends on how the stock market reacts to the Budget on that day!  And we all know that the stock market yo-yos on the Budget day, without proper understanding of the provisions and settles down few days later.  The media commentators present a typically “On the one hand, on the other hand, having said that,..” analysis replete with clichés and Budget equivalent of Shastri’sms the next day in their columns. And with the advent of social media, Budget day in India is a Kaun Banega Economist? competition with you and me donning the hat of economists to hail/trash the Budget based on the outlay proposals and our own prejudices!  All this repeated itself this year as well.

In the din, what is completely missed is an analysis and report of the outcomes of the previous year Budget outlays. Budget after Budget, finance ministers announce crores and crores for initiatives and programmes. But as a tax payer, we never get to know the outcomes of those outlays. 13 years after the then finance minister P. Chidambaram spoke of “outlays versus outcomes” in his Budget speech of 2005-06, no mechanism is still in sight to measure the same. Take for example one such announcement in the last year Budget, which I clearly remember. The finance minister had announced that allocation under MNREGA was being increased to Rs. 48,000 crore from Rs 38,500 crore which was meant to be the highest ever allocation in all these years. And this was supposed to provide rural jobs, alleviate poverty in rural areas by improving rural incomes and at the same time end up building assets as well. One year hence after this historically high outlay, maybe I missed, but do we know exactly know what happened to this Rs. 48,000 crores? And this is just one outlay. A regular Budget speech is replete with outlays like this and more.

Another glaring example is the Nirbhaya fund. Announced among thunderous thumping of desks in the 2013 budget by the then UPA Government following the heinous Delhi incident, over 90% of the funds remain unused. Does that mean that rapes against women have declined? This is a classic case of an outlay not yielding the desired outcome and still being provided for, year after year!

My disenchantment with the Annual Budget exercise stems from this gap. Of celebrating outlays without knowing what the outcomes were! In the finance minister’s Budget speech a review of the past year is usually limited to the GDP growth rates and projected fiscal deficits against the targets. Even these get revised when the actual numbers come out some time in May/June and very few of us take notice.  The Annual economic survey does cover some of the trends but I don’t think even that covers specifically the results of the previous year’s outlays.

For a developing economy like India, we need more transparency. We should not be pushed to use instruments like RTI to just understand outcomes and expenditures!  And hence here are my suggestions:

  • In the start of the Budget session, before the Budget for the next year is presented, have a day to present the outcomes for the previous year’s outlays. Tell the people what worked and what didn’t. This will help to justify increase or cut outlays for the next year.
  • Typically our parliament has 3 sessions. In these sessions, have each of the ministry provide an update on the progress of the initiatives, programmes, outlays and status of outcomes announced in the year’s Budget. If not for all, have this mandatory for all key industries.

In Delhi circles, I hear that this government of Narendra Modi is a “Dashboard” government. In the sense, the PMO expects weekly/monthly/quarterly dashboard on their ministry’s accomplishments from all the ministries.  Why not extend this “Dashboard” governance to the parliament and get ministers to showcase their ministries’ performance to the people?

Even the media and the commentariat must devote time to analysing outcomes of previous outlays and bring it to the fore rather than just talking of the new outlays!

Thumping of desks by MPs and celebrating outlays on the Budget is passé.  Aim must be to let people celebrate outcomes by voting for you at the hustings!!!

Toon Courtesy: Satish Acharya (Sify.com)

Nano – Tata’s and India’s miss!

Tucked in between the noisy and newsy headlines in India in the last week around Love Jihad, Rahul Gandhi’s religion, Ivanka Trump’s costumes in Hyderabad and other inanities, was a poignant news bit about the Nano car. Poignant, because it said that dealers have stopped placing new orders for the car and in the month of October, just a measly number of 57 cars were shipped. And this led to political jibes from Rahul Gandhi that the PM’s pet ‘Make in India’ project just died. He also tweeted that Rs. 33,000 crore of tax payer’s money and that too of Gujaratis’ turned into ash. Coming in the midst of a vitriolic election campaign in Gujarat, one can excuse politicians for spicing up their speeches without looking at the larger picture. The point is taking potshots at Nano’s failure is taking potshots at India. Failure of Nano is not just a failure of Ratan Tata or the Tatas but a blot on India.

Cut to year 2008, when Nano was first launched, it was the biggest story of India Inc. ever. When Ratan Tata initially announced that Tata Motors is working on a Rs. 1 lac (US$2500) car, it was met with excitement and skepticism in equal measure. So, finally when Tata did launch the car with a price tag of Rs. 1 lac, the world did look up and notice. Finally, here was a car which was conceived in India, designed and developed by Indians with indigenous technology and manufactured in India that broke all cost frontiers unimaginable by car manufacturers till then. Overnight, Ratan Tata was the toast of the nation.

Around the 2008-10 time period, whenever I met any foreigner from Japanese to Americans, our conversations invariably touched upon the Nano car and how this was pulled off. And those visiting India always wanted to see a Nano car on the road and take a picture in front of one. Selfies didn’t exist then! The Chairman of a well- known Indian group who drove a Camry, proudly told me that he was the first among to book a Nano in Mumbai and to get delivery as well. At that time, Nano was yet to be seen in big numbers in Mumbai. But on a visit to Colombo in 2011, Nano had already captured the “Budget Taxi” space there. Media was full of interviews of not just Ratan Tata but also of the R&D engineers who had designed the Nano.  Nano’s launch was the culmination of a series of stories in which India Inc. was part of then. It was believed that Nano would be a live case study for C.K. Prahalad’s “Fortune at the bottom of the pyramid” theory!

That was not be and the excitement around Nano soon started tapering. Unfortunate incidents of the Nano going up on flames on the road didn’t help at all. For a product which was expected to expand the car market by 65% or so, the sales was plateauing around 70,000 Units a year for 2-3 years before nose diving to what is a few hundred cars this year. The failure of the Nano car must be one of the most analyzed and discussed case study in B- Schools, I reckon. Most of what I have been reading, attribute its failure to the “positioning” of the car as the world’s cheapest car in the beginning.  The Quality failures adding “fuel to the fire”. Attempts to re-position the car as a “Cool Urban car”,… didn’t help either. I have a different view on the reasons for the failure of the Nano car. But will keep that for another blog.

In business, they say there is no room for emotions and decisions need to be taken based on just commercial considerations. The ousted Chairman of the Tata Group, Cyrus Mistry recently said that during his time it was decided to pull the plug on Nano as it didn’t make commercial sense, after attempts to revive the project failed.  As of now it hasn’t happened. The current Chairman Chandrasekhar has been more considerate, probably towing Ratan Tata’s emotional line. He has said that there is a need to take a more “holistic” view on the Nano project. And I tend to agree.

Nano was not a Tata story. It was and is an India story. Ergo, failure of Nano in a way is an indictment on the capability and potential of Indians. And as somebody said, “Nano was not an Idea. It was an ideology!” Ideas can fail. Ideologies need to linger! The failure of Nano soon opened up to “We told you so” and how can Indians pull it off” jibes. For a 3rd largest economy (GDP-PPP) in the world, India is yet to throw up globally renowned home ground brands. So far, it’s been the soft power brands like Ayurveda, Yoga, IIT and the likes which have been torch bearers for India globally. Let’s keep aside the Software brands like Infosys, Wipro,… aside for the time being. In one of my very early blogs (read here) on different styles of management, I had opined that for the world to recognise, acknowledge and adopt the “Indian style of Management”, we need stories of successful Indian companies and brands. Just like how the world adopted the American way or Japanese style when their companies were successful. And that opens the door for Indian companies, Indian products and we Indians in the global arena. Nano was uniquely positioned to be the 1st homegrown successful Indian product brand. There was an opportunity for India Inc. to have “arrived” in style. Not just that. Success of the Nano would have led to similar pushing of cost and design frontiers by other Indian companies in many other product categories. It would have opened the floodgates for Indian CEOs to apply the “frugal innovation” concept in other products. Hence my fervent hope that Nano should succeed.

So, when it failed as it has now, it has pushed back the India Inc. story by few years till we stumble upon the next Big Idea. In the meantime, Nano I believe, is slated to make a comeback in an electric avatar.  Will this avatar help Nano to claim the position of “the common man’s car” in Indian market that Ratan Tata originally envisioned 9 years ago? The world in no longer watching it with the same excitement of 2008. Away from the arc lights, the original billion dollar opportunity still beckons!

A quote alluded to Ratan Tata says, “I don’t believe in taking right decisions. I take decisions and make them right!” Nano might have been a glaring exception to this. For Ratan Tata’s sake, Nano-II should set the record straight. For India’s sake too.

Demonetisation and it’s after”math”!!!

Ever since the RBI released its Annual report 2 weeks ago, Demonitisation (DeMo) is back in the news. And with its eminent Ex-Governor Raghuram Rajan now in India to promote his book, DeMo continues to hog the headlines and Op-Ed pages. The analysis of DeMo swing from scathing criticism of being a “big mistake” by the likes of Ex-Economic Advisor Kaushik Basu to calling it a “huge success and a course correction” by the likes of Gurumurthy, the veteran commentator on public affairs. So, as it happens in most issues these days, “for every spin there is an equally effective and opposite counter spin”! And where you stand on an issue depends on where you stand on the ideological divide.  On social media, it was a hashtag war between #DeMomenisationsuccess and #DeMonetisationfailure!

Ten months on, based on all the data available (99% of DeMo notes coming back to the banks) it seems that DeMo has not helped in sucking out the black money. In retrospection, I wonder how the government expected anybody in India to give up their prized possession (currency notes in this context) at all in the first place. In my own experience, when coming out with marketing promotion programs for the trade, we usually take twice the time for foolproofing the program compared to conceiving the program itself. This is from the wisdom of previous programs over the years where, we found that the Indian brain works over time always to find loop holes/gaps in any program announced. So, in a sales promotion program for example the trade will end up earning the incentives while you never achieve the increased sales objectives!

This is what happened in DeMo as well. If you remember, the day DeMo was announced, the chattering class’ verdict on WhatsApp group and dining area discussions was that it was a “Master stroke”! While the middle class and upper middle class folks who didn’t have unaccounted cash had to just find ways of beating the lines to exchange their notes, the ones who had, started cranking their brains. The result was the everyday tweaking of the rules and adding more terms and conditions for currency conversion. The then Economic Affairs Secretary Saktikanda Das became a celebrity overnight, thanks to his daily media briefings on what else – change in rules!

By now, it is clear that notwithstanding the anti-DeMo commentary of economists, there was overarching, tacit support for the DeMo move from common public. Inspite of loss of business for traders, loss of jobs for casual workers and loss of income for farmers the Note Bandi didn’t evoke much unfavourable mood towards the BJP so far. I am not sure if it will, from now on. What explains this paradox?

Many of the commentators have alluded to the human trait of Schadenfreude to explain this. That the poor were happy because this was one move which affected the rich and privileged and that the Prime Minister Modi had the guts to do so. This is a good possibility. But there could be more to this as well.  Within days of the DeMo announcement, the initial despair among people who were caught unawares with a lot of unaccounted cash turned into a relief, when they found ways and means to deposit the same into the bank. Among many ingenious ways, one was to tap into their own staff and workers to distribute the cash and get them deposited into their bank accounts. A report said that by Dec, the deposits in Jan Dhan Accounts peaked to Rs.74,609 crore! As of Sep, it was just 4,273 crore! The number of Jan Dhan accounts itself went up 5 times in this period!  My guess is that, in this process of conversion through the conduit of using others’ accounts, there must have been a cost.  The government must have lost an opportunity to earn taxes on the unaccounted income but those who had a lot of unaccounted cash ended up incurring a “conversion tax”! And I am certain that those who were witness to the rich incurring this tax felt certainly happy that DeMo was an equalizer of sorts. And not just being a witness, there would have been many who would have benefited from the sudden largesse of their masters as well and got their share of the “conversion tax”. So, instead of the government collecting taxes from the haves and distributing to have-nots by way of welfare measures did DeMo make it as a Direct Benefit transfer from the rich to the poor without the government in between?  Probably.

It’s evident now that the DeMo move has been a rocking political success for the government. On the economic front, though the objective of sucking up the black money has not been achieved directly, certain fringe benefits have accrued. Like reduction in cash circulation, increase in Digital transactions, and increase in bank deposits,…  These may leave the country in good stead in the future.  In the short-term however, the country skipped its GDP beat.

So when one does the after”math” of DeMo, it may well be like the popular “Elephant and the Blind men” story. For some, it’s a failure. For some, it’s a success. For some, it’s a partial success and for some it could be a partial failure. I would like to go with Rajan’s assessment that the short-term economic losses far outweighed the long-term benefits.  In hindsight, one is always wise. Other times – otherwise!

Our Tryst with GST* – * Conditions apply!!!

GST – The Good and Simple Tax, as our acronym lover PM touted during the launch on 30th June is finally a reality after almost 11 years of intense labour. This along with FDI in retail must count among the most awaited reforms in India by India observers.

So, the advent of a single tax which subsumes, at last count, some 17 different taxes and myriad cesses certainly must count as the single largest Tax reform undertaken in India. Not to forget the application of tax only on value added in the chain. Along with this simplification, the fact that goods from one state can pass thro different states without wait, harassment and accompanying corruption portend a new beginning for trade in our country. In the pre-GST era, logistics and warehousing strategy of companies have been dictated by tax compliance rather than supply chain considerations. In the sense, the number of warehouses and their size would be driven by billing point concerns rather than geographical spread of demand. In the GST era, warehousing will depend on supply and demand equations and not taxation points. And hence like in most developed countries, companies will get to run larger, integrated and fewer of warehouses. Development of more efficient logistics hubs, warehouse consolidation and ensuing FDI will become a reality soon. This is a new dawn for retail, supply chain and logistics industry.

So with all the seemingly obvious benefits of the GST regime, why is it that there is still some cynicism and negativity from different quarters about the move? Why is P. Chidambaram once the prime mover of GST when UPA was in power, cautioning all of us to “Get Set for Turbulence”? The GST in the current form is nowhere close to the one which was originally conceived. Rolling stones probably gather no moss. But a rolling GST gathered whole lot of moss on its way from the wisdom of empowered committees to standing committees to GST council. The current version of GST is a product of what I call “co-operative federal bullying”. The result is instead of the One Nation, One Market, One Tax premise, what we have is One Nation, One Market, One Tax name, 3 Sub Tax names, Multiple Rates, Few Exceptions, Some flexibilities and with an *. * – Conditions apply.

Being part of the GST council, the states in their own wisdom, ensured that we as a country don’t get away with a simplistic tax which may throw many Chartered Accountants out of jobs. However, I understand that without having a set of different GST rates (in some cases different rates for the same category as per user segments) or without excluding items like Petrol, Alcohol, Real estate,.. consensus could never have been built in getting GST off the ground. UPA’s failure to make GST a reality during their regime stems from this. So the choice before the centre was to accept what the states demand and bring about a not so ideal GST or wait endlessly for a few more years may be decades before some major economic crisis forces all concerned to come to an agreement on the ideal GST. From that point of view I agree with the stand taken by the Govt. to bring in GST in its present form with its shortcomings, with a hope of ringing in the changes in the coming years. Kudos are in order hence.

The Congress party which at every opportunity reminded us that the seeds for GST in India were sown by the UPA, however, chose to be petulance personified and boycotted the GST launch. While rubbishing the GST in its present form its main “anGST” against GST was that it is being rushed thro and should be delayed by 3 months till September. We all in India know that in our country whatever may be the preparatory time available, things get accomplished at the last minute. If we get more time, we stretch our deadlines accordingly. That if we have more time, we will be more prepared and can do trial runs before actual roll out,.. exists only in theory. Don’t we see in our Indian weddings, folks tying up some loose ends literally till the baraat arrives and continue to do so as the wedding is in progress?  Finally when the wedding gets over, its smiles all over.  So even after the GST roll out, there will be glitches, teething problems and surprises which I am sure we will find ways and means of getting over. Pushing back by another 3 months is not going to make things any different.

It must be commended that this Govt. stuck to the date of July 1. It would have been very easy for the PM and the Govt. to throw in the towel and put off the launch by a few months. But then, there are other implications. Come Oct. it is the peak festival and hence business season in India. Does It help if the roll out happens when India is in the midst of its biggest Annual economic cycle? Will it help if GST is launched in Jan. in the final quarter of the fiscal year???

The ruling party, the BJP counts traders as its important traditional support base for the party. That the party still decided to go ahead with the tax reform which professes maximum disruptions for this group is a significantly courageous move.  In India economic reforms have always been carried out under duress; when push comes to shove. The heralding of GST must be the 1st major economic reform brought in when not under any kind of stress but just to ease up things for the future. This certainly conjures up the arrival of Acche Din for our country.

Still our penchant for complicating things comes to the fore here as well.  Though the GST collections have to be shared between the state and the centre, could it not have been done at the back using technology rather than coming up with 3 variants like SGST, CGST and IGST??? Does the Anti-profiteering clause make sense? Will not competitive economics eventually drive pricing??

GST is indeed a Good and Simple Tax. So there is nothing like a good or better time to introduce the same. But, we should not forget that this is India and we are Indians. So, conditions apply.