Rajini and Modi – The Twain meets, again!

In a post way back in 2016 after Rajinikanth’s Kabali released, I wrote about the strange coincidences between Rajini’s Kabali and Modi Sarkar @ 2 years. You may want to read that piece here. Strangely again, now in 2020, post Rajini’s latest film release – Darbar and few months into Narendra Modi’s 2nd term, I find both of them in the same rocking boat!

Darbar, which released to huge expectations last week is still raking the moolah at the box office. As per various reports coming in, just like Rajini’s few other earlier movies, this one also may set records for collections. However, popular opinion is spilt down in the middle. While the film has endured itself to Rajini fans, it has not impressed the more discerning movie viewer. For them, Darbar has been a huge let down.

Now hold this thought on Rajini and Darbar and let’s look at what’s happening with Modi and his government now. Ever since it passed the controversial Citizenship Amendment Bill, popular opinion is split vertically down the middle in India. The core voter base of the BJP has hailed the Act as one which has been long overdue. On the other hand, the more liberal and non-core supporters of Narendra Modi are of the view that CAA and the proposed NRC are divisive and should have been left alone. This group which probably voted for Narendra Modi for the 2nd term too, is a trifle disappointed with Modi Sarkar’s priorities.

In the case of Darbar, film critics have panned the film almost in unison. Most of them felt that the film lacked coherence and A.R. Murugadoss, the director was trying hard to pander to the fan base of Rajini. As a result of which he lost sight of the screen play and ended up wasting Rajini.

Similarly, the media has been extremely critical of Modi and his government the last few weeks ever since protests erupted all over the country against CAA and NRC. The narrative is similar. That the Modi Government is pandering to its Hindu fan base and attempting to bring in legislations that are bound to alienate Muslims.

For Rajini, the film before Darbar was Petta. A film in which he went back to playing a youthful Rajini after a gap of few films like Kabali and Kaala. A film which was touted as an ode to the Superstar of yore full of Rajini-isms. For a change, people and critics alike accepted the film, notwithstanding the overdoing of Rajini-isms!

Before Modi Sarkar ventured into the controversial CAA-NRC territory, just within few months into the 2nd term, it made some big bang moves like nullifying Article 370 and passing the Triple Talaq bill. Notwithstanding the process followed in nullifying Article 370 and notwithstanding the fact that Triple Talaaq bill was targeted at conservative Muslims, these moves were hailed as stuff which were long overdue.  And Modi was hailed as a solver of long standing issues which needed fixes. To a large extent even by the liberal media, perhaps reluctantly!

One thing that was found common across all critical reviews of Darbar was how Rajini came unscathed. The unanimous view was that Rajini tried his best with his usual charm, style, energy and wit but without a strong script, the film failed to deliver. So the ire was reserved for the Director and his team.

Similarly in spite of the missteps of the Modi Sarkar around the economy and CAA and NRC issues, Modi’s image still seem to be intact among the common man. He is still seen as this hard working Prime Minister who is working round the clock with unbridled energy to fix India’s problems. And so the ire is targeted towards his team and the bureaucracy which is not measuring up!

Over a period of time, people who liked Rajini’s films expanded significantly beyond his core base who just adored him for his style, his mannerisms, his swag,.. in short, what I call as Rajini-isms. In few films, Rajini demonstrated that beyond these ‘isms” he can also pack a punch and seriously act. Today, there is a base of film watchers who yearn to see that side of Rajini, who will choose a script, a director and do a film, going beyond the Rajini formula and template!

In the same vein, for Narendra Modi in the run up to the 2014 elections, there were people from outside the BJP core base, who preferred Narendra Modi as the next Prime Minister. This group saw the work he did as Chief Minister in Gujarat and wanted to give a chance to him at the National level. Today, this non-core supporter group wants Narendra Modi to go beyond his “isms” which are basically the Sangh Parivar agenda items!  

In that sense, the conundrum before Rajini and Modi are similar. Whether to just keep the core fan/supporter in mind and continue to pander to his fancy. Or look at the larger group who have supported them over the years and have made them the icons they are today?

While I have attempted to put Rajini and Modi at the same pedestal here, it’s a very simplistic view. The stakes involved are of course completely different. For Rajini, it is just the fate of his films at the box office and his own legacy. However, for Modi, the stakes involved are much higher. Modi is presiding over the fate of millions of people who expect him to deliver the promised Acche Din!

For Modi, the next release of consequence is the Union Budget. For some time now, I had begun to believe that the Budget is an over rated event in India. But this year, considering the perilous state we are in as far as economy goes, I do feel that the Budget 2020 gains enormous significance. Outside of India, among foreign investors, there is frustration over India’s continuing “Work in Progress” status. And clearly there is disappointment over India’s “1 step forward, few steps backward” economic progress. So, for Narendra Modi who always keeps an eye on the legacy he leaves in whatever he does, this is a good opportunity. To make Budget 2020 as significant or more than Budget 1991!

Just like the non-core fan base of Rajini who wants the Superstar to move beyond Rajini-isms and deliver a mega hit betting on a strong script, characterisation and acting skills of Rajini, the public of India also would like Modi to keep aside the “majoritarianisms” and focus on the Economy in the coming months to deliver a turn around.  For becoming a 5 trillion economy Modi must “Chumma Kizhi”!

Picture credit: indiatoday.in

A New Decade Resolution for India – Moving on from being WIP!

When you are neither here nor there, you are Work In Progress (WIP). As a country, India has been that. A Work in Progress. Now for a long while!

Since Independence, we probably had the tag of an “Under developed” country till the 80’s. From then on, we moved on to be called as a “Developing” country. Since then, it is now 5 decades but, we still continue to be a developing country. An emerging market. A Work in Progress.

Personally for me, from the time I started my career in 1991, India has been a developing country. Even today it continues to be. After close to 30 years.

Just look around and you can notice that almost everything around us is Work In Progress.

Our public transportation in all cities is still evolving.

Roads and highways are perennially under construction.

Health care is floundering but getting better day by day slowly and is Work in Progress.

To just cite a few areas.

In all these years, one thing constant has been that we hold promise. Promise of future potential.

We have had goal posts by way of Vision 2020 etc. in the beginning of this century. In the many versions of those vision documents, by 2020, India was supposed to be an economic Super power.  Supposed to be the 3rd largest economy ahead of Japan or some such thing. As we speak we are still the 7th.

For India in the last few decades, it’s been a case of missed opportunities. We never miss to miss an opportunity. Once missed, it’s a question of living in futuristic hope. If one thing that has kept this country going in the last many years, it is hope. Hope others have on us. More than what we have on ourselves.

In the past, whenever we seemed to have caught the economic growth train, we have quickly derailed it ourselves.

Beginning of every decade is touted to be India’s decade. And we have belied that systematically.

As we step into another new decade, can we actually turn it into being India’s?

What is stopping us from realising our potential? Is it “We the people”? Is it the Government? Is it the politics? Is it the bureaucracy? Is it our attitude? Is it our capability? Is it the population? Is it our chosen path of democracy? Probably it is a combination of all these. And so the answer is complex.

I think the first and foremost need is to put “Economic growth” at the centre of our National discourse and put everything else in the back burner for the next ten years.  For the government, for the media and for the citizenry. There could be and probably there are other unfinished businesses. But it is time to prioritise. And prioritising Economic growth over everything else has obvious beneficial effects on peoples’ quality of life. Has a direct effect on many social issues. It also promises a placebo effect on issues.

It’s not that governments have not been focussing on economy in the past decades. They have, but only intermittently. The question is – was it or is it a single minded focus? As people, did we make Economic growth the single issue while voting?  Politics is driven by electoral results. If parties get the message that if they don’t deliver on economic growth, they cannot win, there will be difference. Today, this is not the case.

A new year is always a time for personal resolutions. This is not just a new year. A new decade beckons. Hope on India is still high. At least as of now. So time for a new decade resolution for India as a country. A resolve to put the Economy first.  Not just first. Just that. For the next ten years.

And move on from being a Work In Progress, come 2030!

On that note, here’s wishing you a busy and exciting decade. Working to Progress.

Image courtesy: Yourstory.com

 

 

CAE of CAB/CAA!!

In the last one week, what was known as CAB (Citizenship Amendment Bill) got passed in both the houses of the parliament and became CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) when the President put his stamp on it. However, as we have been seeing in the last few days, the CAE (Cause and Effect) of this has been different in different parts of the country and among different sections of the society.

In Delhi and in states like West Bengal, Kerala and even parts of Uttar Pradesh, the opposition to the Act stems from the point that the act is discriminating against Muslims. This was what was being echoed by the opposition in parliament and by and large by liberals in the media. The narrative here is that the Act goes against the “Idea of India” as enshrined in the constitution which is “Secular” in not singling out a religion on any ground.  On this pretext, as expected there is a large resentment among Muslims and of course among political parties who depend upon their votes and among liberals. So we see huge street protests in Delhi, Kolkata and in Kerala. As I write this, the protests have gone violent and turning into a mob fury!

In some states like Tamil Nadu for example, the disapproval to the Act is because, it has only included persecuted minorities from three countries namely Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan while leaving out Tamils from Sri Lanka who are minorities there. The opposition on this count is less intense and is mostly restricted to TV debates, newspaper columns and not much on the streets.

The third category is how the Act has been seen in the North Eastern states like Assam and Tripura. Here, the reaction has been more virulent with fire spreading on the streets with little signs of slowing down. And the cause for the same is completely different from what it is in say, West Bengal. The fundamental issue is that people here see this Act as going against the spirit of Assam accord by opening up the states to foreign illegal refugees of all religions. The opposition here is more about protecting regional identity and space and less about Nationalistic considerations.

And then there are other parts of the country where the reaction is muted and thereby letting one to deduce that the people are neutral on the Act.

In Engineering and Quality Management, “Cause and Effect Analysis” is an oft repeated technique to look at all possible causes for a particular effect. This technique was pioneered by Kaoru Ishikawa, a Japanese professor who later came to be renowned as a Quality Guru. The corner stone of this technique is to brainstorm with as many relevant people as possible and list up all possible causes (Man/Material/Method…) that could lead to a Quality problem.

In the case of CAB/CAA, at the outset it could be argued that probably the Act was required to correct a historical festering issue. However, from the kind of reactions which have emerged, it is clear that the government has not thought through the ramifications of the Act in different parts of the country. Hence I would conjecture that the government has not done a proper “Cause and Effect” analysis on the issue by involving a cross section of domain experts to list up what could be the reactions to the Bill.  It is extremely surprising that on a crucial move like this, perhaps in the interest of confidentiality, the government did not discuss the bill and its implications enough before bringing it to the parliament.

The kind of homework and alacrity the government had shown when it went about annulling of Article 370 is clearly missing this time. Otherwise, Assam and parts of North East where BJP has its own governments would not be burning today. Today, the home minister is busy assuaging one and all that the government will address all genuine concerns of the North East states.  And I believe that a roll back is in the offing soon as the government goes about dousing the fire.

Loyalists to the government argue that CAB was clearly part of the BJP manifesto and hence now that it has got the mandate, it is only going about ticking off items one by one from the manifesto. While one cannot pick too many holes in this argument, one cannot avoid asking if this was really a top priority at this point in time.

Ever since May 30th 2019 when this government took over the reins for the 2nd time, two ministries have hogged the headlines, for different reasons. First, the home ministry under a very aggressive minister – Amit Shah, has been busy with issues around Kashmir. Annulling of Article 370 and 35A, splitting of the state of Jammu and Kashmir and then handling the fall out of these moves have kept the home ministry under constant attention. Second, the finance ministry under Nirmala Sitharaman has been on the receiving end of the media, opposition and the industry due to the tanking economy. Quarter after Quarter the GDP has been touching new lows, not to mention of other economic indices as well, except perhaps the Sensex!

To be fair, the finance minister who is considered a green horn in the ministry has been earnest. Though she comes across as haughty, truth be told, she has been busy meeting a cross section of opinion leaders in trying to understand what needs to be done to fix the economy. It is perhaps her bad luck that she was thrown in to the circus ring when the Indian economy was on a decline. Some steps have been taken but they have not yielded any visible results.

Having seen the versions of many economists who have been critical of the economy, one thing is clear. The experts are split down the middle as to whether the problems in the Indian economy are structural, cyclical or a bit of both. So, it would be good for the finance minister to first do a detailed Cause and Effect analysis of the Economy on top priority, understand the causes first and then go about fixing them.  If these are not addressed before the next budget time frame, once again the fabled “India Story” will miss the bus as it did many times in the past!

That is why, it is time the government also goes about ticking off the manifesto points on issues related to the economy on SOS basis instead of just focusing on home affairs. Here, I feel that the finance minister needs political heft which can be provided only by the Prime Minister. And it is time he does that. What was that? “Modi hai to mumkin hai”, right???

Pic courtesy: Indiatimes

Coming of age of the Indian voter and a Wake-up call for the States!

This article has been written for the news website Newslaundry and was published on the 4th of Oct, 2019. You may read the same here:

https://www.newslaundry.com/2019/11/04/a-wake-up-call-to-states-its-time-to-invest-in-good-governance-to-win-assembly-polls

The latest season in the continuous cycle of elections in India ended last week, this time the Assembly polls in Maharashtra and Haryana. The dust hasn’t quite settled since Maharashtra still hasn’t seen its next government, even after what seemed like a clear verdict in favour of a pre-poll alliance. It can’t get stranger than this!

However, a detailed look at the results of the state elections before and after the Lok Sabha polls reveals a pattern. It discloses the coming-of-age of the Indian voter. Here’s how, and why.

May 2018: Karnataka state election 

The Congress, which governed the state in the last term, received a clear verdict against the party in Karnataka. At the same time, the Bharatiya Janata Party, while emerging as the single largest party, fell short of majority. However, in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll almost a year later, the BJP got an overwhelming mandate winning 25 of the 28 seats on offer.

November 2018: Madhya Pradesh state election 

The BJP, which had helmed the state for three terms, was unseated by an anti-incumbency vote. The party was pipped by the Congress. Yet, in the May 2019 parliamentary poll just six months later, the BJP swept the state, winning 27 of the 28 seats!

November 2018: Chhattisgarh state election

Here also, the BJP was voted out by a strong “against” vote and the Congress captured the state with a decisive mandate. It’s vote share was just 33 per cent. In the May 2019 Lok Sabha election, the story was different. The BJP won nine of 11 seats with a vote share of 50.9 per cent.

November 2018: Rajasthan state election

Again, the state went against the incumbent party, the BJP, and voted the Congress to power. But in the Lok Sabha poll, the BJP swept the state with a decisive vote share of 58.47 per cent, winning 24 out of 25 seats. Even the final seat went to an ally of the BJP.

December 2018: Telangana state election

The Telangana Rashtra Samithi managed to beat anti-incumbency in the state and retained power with an overwhelming mandate. It got a three-fourth majority and won 88 of 119 seats. The Lok Sabha poll flipped this win: TRS secured only nine out of 17 seats.

May 2019: Odisha state election

The governing Biju Janata Dal returned to power with a decisive mandate, winning 111 of a total of 147 seats in the Assembly. There was no trace of anti-incumbency. In the Lok Sabha poll held simultaneously, the BJD managed to win only 12 of 21 seats. Its vote share also fell by 1.9 per cent.

October 2019: Maharashtra state election

The BJP and its ally, the Shiv Sena, secured 161 seats with a combined vote share of 42.16 per cent. As a pre-poll alliance, they managed to get a majority. This result comes six months after the Lok Sabha poll, where the same coalition had bagged 41 of the 48 seats with a comfortable vote share of 51.34 per cent. What this means is the alliance lost a vote share of 9.18 per cent in just six months!

October 2019: Haryana state election

Though the BJP emerged as the single largest party, it fell short of a majority. Only with the support of the Jannayak Janata Party could the BJP eventually form the government. Compare this with the Lok Sabha election where the BJP won all 10 seats in the state, implying it lost a vote share of almost 21.71 per cent in the Assembly election.

Only in the northeastern states of Tripura and Nagaland, where the state elections happened in February 2018, the electorate voted for the BJP alliance in both the Assembly and Lok Sabha polls.

What are voters looking for?

Voters know what they’re doing. There are different combinations: voting for the same party in state and central polls; different parties being given the mandate in the state and central polls; or the extent of mandate differing if the same party wins in both elections.

If this trend holds — which I believe it will — this augurs well for Indian democracy. The voter is sending a clear signal that she understands the issues for which she is voting in a particular election. This is different from the general commentariat opinion that voters do not know what they are voting for.

This brings us to the next section of this piece: understanding the different issues voters vote for in the Assembly and Lok Sabha elections. Glancing at the results of the 2014 and 2019 general elections, here’s a quick breakdown of what, perhaps, voters are voting for in the Lok Sabha poll.

– For a face. The Lok Sabha polls are increasingly becoming presidential. Voters like to know the face of the prime minister they’re voting for. If parties do not project a clear prime ministerial face, they start with a handicap.

– For a party whose leader is seen to be strong, decisive and communicative.

– For a party’s stance on nationalistic issues related to India’s defence policies, the way we deal with our neighbours, the way we conduct our foreign policy, and so on.

– For a party’s overarching welfare programmes related to health, education and other issues.

– For an overall image of an honest, non-corrupt and functional government.

On the flipside, a voter clearly expects their state government to deliver on day-to-day issues like living conditions, infrastructure and delivery of the Centre’s welfare programmes.

Hence my hypothesis that the emerging voting pattern must serve as a wakeup call to the states to double down on governance issues. Even if a party receives an overwhelming mandate in the Lok Sabha polls, it does not translate to a resounding mandate in an Assembly poll unless it gets its act together on delivery of governance. States can no longer ride on the charisma of a central leader if they haven’t done their bit on the governance front.

It’s also time the commentariat shifts its focus and scrutinises the governance levels of states. This means analysing state budgets and not just the Union budget, and regularly evaluating a state’s financial health. It implies comparing the appetite for reforms within states, not just at a central level.

I firmly believe next generation reforms, which can make a difference to the economy, lie at the doorsteps of our states. Labour reforms, DISCOM reforms, land acquisition reforms, PDS reforms, agricultural reforms — multiple issues related to the daily livelihood of the poor are in the hands of states. It’s time chief ministers wake up to this and invest in running key ministries at a state level that deliver governance. If the results of the last few Assembly elections haven’t served as a wake-up call to the states — nothing will.

Howdy Economy?

“Howdy” is in the air in India these days! With Prime Minister Narendra Modi set to address the global Indian audience from the NRI platform at Houston, which has been branded as “Howdy Modi”, this American slang has got into the Indian vocabulary!  But, in India, ever since the 1st Quarter poor GDP results were out, the commentariat has been asking just one question “Howdy Economy?” Because, Indian economy is believed to be in ICU where the Chief Doctor was not giving much attention!

In India, the time tested tradition has been to undertake reforms when there is a crisis. Economist and Author Shankkar Aiyyar explains this beautifully in his book – “Accidental India” with back stories behind every single historic economic initiative of post independent India. The bottom line being, we take such drastic steps only when push comes to shove!

It looks like the latest decision of the government to slash corporate taxes drastically in one go from 30% to 22% is one such initiative which will have a lasting positive impact on the economy but which was taken when the answer to Howdy Economy question was very, very feeble. Naysayers notwithstanding, simplifying the tax structure, eliminating the myriad exemptions and having a reasonable low rate is a welcome move. It will make the industry competitive, make it more profitable, attract both foreign and domestic investments thereby have a trickle-down effect on the economy.

I saw some commentary that, this is more of a long term treatment and not an answer to the short term woes. Indeed yes. There is no silver bullet that can get the economy growing at 8% and more. It needs a combination of measures that are short term and long term. My belief is that, irrespective of the condition of the economy, a simple and low corporate tax structure was anyway required to grow the economy from the 8% levels we were couple of years ago, to 10%. With the economy struggling at 5% levels, the crisis like situation galvanised the government into action. Finally, the progressive reduction in corporate tax from 30% to 25% which was promised by the then Finance Minister Arun Jaitley in the 2015 budget has been executed by his protégé Nirmala Sitharaman. She has done it in one stroke and has gone a step further reducing the rate to 22%.

While the reduction in corporate taxes is a supply side reform, steps are required in the demand side as well. With the transition to the GST regime, the government has less flexibility to announce stimulus like in the past where excise duty or Sales tax cuts used to be announced to boost demand and consumption. In the present GST regime, the GST council has to take a call on the same and make those adjustments. Some of the announcements on GST rate reduction on hotel tariffs are in this direction.

With the reduction of corporate taxes, there is a loud clamour for reduction on the personal taxes front. Experts keep saying that this will put more money in the pockets of the salaried class which will make them spend more. I am not too sure of this. In the past, whenever there has been some personal income tax slab changes and effective rate reduction, we hardly came to know of the savings or reduction. And I don’t think anyone then consciously went to spend the money saved! Of course, it is more of a mood lifter and gives a feel good effect to the salaried class. Beyond that, I am not sure if a personal income tax rate reduction will boost the consumption in the short run which is what experts claim!  Nevertheless, as I have opined in the past, simplification and reduction of tax rates is essential.  This will also remove the peeve that there is now too much gap between the corporate and personal income tax rates!

One positive signal from the last few weeks is that the Government is listening.  In today’s world, any government of the day can choose to ignore the mainstream media. However, it cannot afford to ignore popular opinion which manifests in social media. As someone said, in India, we have as many economists as we have cricket experts! But the good part is, thanks to social media, apart from the secluded voice of the commentariat, there is an opening for “People like us” to give our opinions.

Ever since the tax cut announcements, there has been much discussion and debate as to whether it is right, whether it is sufficient, whether it is too little – too late, if it is pandering to corporates and so on. And if things can turn around quickly? With the festive season coming up in India, it is all about signalling and lifting the spirits and mood. When there is bad news which usually reaches us through the media, even if we are not directly connected to it, we all start talking about it, isn’t it? I refer to this as the economy suffering from “Headlines syndrome”! So similarly, when there is positive cheer emanating from even a single but important decision like this, it has a ripple effect. So, I hope this corporate tax cut move leads to such positive ripple effect in the coming days! And the answer to “Howdy Economy?” becomes loud and cheerful in the coming days!

Postscript:  In my earlier posts, I had said,

As a purely short term stimulus, any capacity building in manufacturing industry by way of new factories, expansion of plants,.. should be provided with tax relief”

And

With respect to taxation, “In simple terms, the mantra should be lower tax rates with no or very few genuine exemptions

Glad both these found resonance with the government and have been implemented!

Turning the GDP (Gross Disappointing Product) tide!

Many years ago on my visit to China, I found most of the newspapers there giving a lot of attention in their front pages to decline in GDP, tapering of FDI into China and other such economic issues. In a blog post that visit, I rued that in India, our media doesn’t still focus on economic Roti, Rozgaar issues but spend disproportionate amount of columns on mundane political news and views. For the past few months, it has been good to see in India too, the media at last waking up to the slow down blues in the economy.  For more than a year or so, the entire country was pre-occupied with the Modi re-election issue and everything else did not matter.

Since the re-election of Narendra Modi and his government that too with a majority better than last time, the euphoria and the resultant expectations have been very high.  However, the party has been cut short by the bad news coming in on the economic front, day in and day out. There was a great opportunity for this Government with a new face as the Finance minister to have seized the opportunity when she presented the Union budget on the 5th of July and fire the economy. The budget was a decent one but one that was devoid of Out of box, bold ideas which would set the economy on fire. In doing away with the brown brief case and opting for the bahi kaatha, Nirmala Sitharaman’s budget was a ritual breaker but, was not a path breaker! Hence, ever since the budget, there has been quite a few negative reactions as manifested in the tanking of the markets, depreciation of the rupee and a massive FPI pull out!

The initial reaction of the Government to these reactions were in expected lines that our economy was still resilient, one of the fastest growing and hence no need to panic. However soon enough, with bad news emerging on the Automotive sector first and then even on FMCG, the Government was forced into action and from then on we have been seeing a slew of measures, cabinet decisions and sops to revive the economy. Q1 GDP at 5% turned out to be the last straw.  Coinciding with the Q1 GDP results, the Government announced the merger of PSU Banks as a way forward in banking reforms. Economy was finally on top of the news cycle and the Government’s attention, Kashmir notwithstanding!

It was widely expected and hoped that some of the important initiatives of the Modi Sarkar in the 1st term like the thrust on Highways construction, massive investments in improving Railways infrastructure, improving air connectivity to the smaller towns, making electricity available to the last village and so on would start yielding results in terms of improving economic activity and fuel growth in the country. Added to this, Modi Sarkar has been constantly increasing outlays on MGNREGA in every budget. Why these measures have not started yielding results on the ground both in terms of economic growth and job creation is mysterious. It may be a good idea for the Chief Economic Advisor to come out with a White paper on the outcomes achieved for the massive outlays in Modi Sarkar 1.0.

In the back of all these, the question becomes, are the measures so far announced by the Government enough to resuscitate the economy? The reversal of some of the proposals in the budget are certainly welcome moves but those just contain the damage.  And the other measures like opening up of FDI and so on are necessary but not sufficient to get us back to where we were last year (8%) and then hit our dream goal of 10% GDP growth which increasingly is becoming a pipedream.

During Modi Sarkar 1.0, the Government leveraged well on the windfall it had from the crude prices and not passing on the entire benefit to the consumer to “manage” the economy with heavy public investments. The hope was that gradually the private investments will pick up once the sentiments change. But unfortunately, due to the NPA and the overall banking crises, it did not fire up the economy so much but, just kept the wheels of the economy going. Now, under the current circumstances however, continuing of public expenditure alone may not be sufficient. The recent red herring on the increasing debt of NHAI may in fact become a dampener here. For India as a country, the next few months are supposed to be very high on economic activity with the impending festival season. And the fact that the monsoons have been bountiful for most parts of the country notwithstanding the floods in some parts, there is still hope even for this year.

So, in order for the economy to fire up, ways and means have to be found for increasing private investments and individual spending/consumption. I am no economist but here are some thoughts:

To get private corporate investments going:

  • Modi Sarkar should bite the bullet and announce 100% FDI in Multi Brand Retail. Though India as a country missed the retail bus 10 years ago, it is still not late. Some of the global retail majors may not be as bullish today as they were a decade ago on India due to our policy flip flops and the current industry shift to E-Commerce. But still considering the country’s size and the potential it offers, India is still an exciting market for say specialised vertical retail stores. In announcing this, we should do away with the myriad sourcing conditions and allow the retail water to find its own level. Retail gives fillip to low end jobs, manufacturing industries as well as commercial real estate.
  • Copy the STPI (Software Technology Parks of India) strategy that helped in boosting the software industry in India in the 90s and come up with a similar framework for boosting Electronic hardware manufacturing in India. This will help India in becoming a preferred country for those who are looking at alternatives to China. Again we are late in this game and today Vietnam has emerged as an alternative to China for low cost manufacturing. But still considering the long term view, I believe we still have opportunities here.
  • Every Government recognises the potential of Tourism as an industry to provide jobs and improve economic growth. However, to unleash and unlock the true potential of India, we need massive capacity building in hotels, recreation facilities, connectivity and infrastructure. Government should provide time bound tax cuts for investments to private sector in this area to targeted locations in India which need infrastructural boost. The tax cuts must be linked to time bound completion of projects.
  • As a purely short term stimulus, any capacity building in manufacturing industry by way of new factories, expansion of plants,.. should be provided with tax relief.

To improve consumption and spending:

  • Holiday season is upon us. Provide relief on Income tax to individuals for money spent on holiday travel and stay in select locations in India which require boost on tourism (Uttaranchal, North East, Leh for example) with a cap of say Rs. 1 Lac. This will motivate public to take vacations and boost tourism in certain locations which have potential, decent infrastructure and connectivity but are untapped. Usually this has a spiral effect. When more people throng these places, automatically investments start pouring in for development.  For every 3 years, the locations can be changed in order to make it widely spread.
  • On the real estate front, today the supply is high and the demand low. This is mainly because the property rates are artificially pegged high and the home loans still high. This jinx needs to be broken. Though I have seen the Government announcing a slew of measures in the past few years, the housing market has not taken off. Considering the fact that the private real estate lobby is not going to cut prices ever, there is a need for the Government to intervene and disrupt the market. Like in countries like Singapore, Malaysia,.. Government must float either own companies or joint ventures to construct affordable housing in a massive scale and allot to citizens who do not own a single house in a transparent manner. The Government can offload its equity and then exit after say 20 years from these companies once the overarching objectives are reached. This will also disrupt the existing real estate industry and make it fall in line in terms of pricing and best practices, both of which are found wanting in the current scheme of things.

To revive the “animal spirits” in the Indian economy. Animal spirits are related to the points mentioned above i.e. both consumer and business confidence. I have put this separately as there are some low hanging fruits here which can be taken:

  • Sell Air India as of day before yesterday!
  • Get going on “Actual” disinvestment of Public Sector units already identified as non-strategic. Identify another Arun Shourie to make this happen in this term!
  • It is not enough to merge PSU Banks but to offload equity, get professional management and turn them to “HDFC Banks”!
  • Today many of the Government’s grand projects are stuck or going slow due to land acquisition issues. Identify the issues and fix them by bringing about the necessary changes in the Land bill!
  • Use the current crisis of job loss to build consensus around Labour reforms. Adopt the “GST council” approach for labour reforms. Today all state governments will eagerly come on board considering the pressure all states have on generating jobs.

As I write this blog, I am seeing that the Finance Minister is addressing a press conference. This is her 3rd one in the last 2 weeks. Glad to see the Government demonstrating the needed sensitivity to the economic situation and willingness to take steps. Our only urge is that instead of incremental small steps, we need big leaps.

Only that will ensure we turn the tide over Gross Disappointing Product and achieve real Gross Domestic Product rates quickly!

A Tale of Two FMs!

In the last week, two Ex-Finance Ministers of India, pushed Kashmir out of the headlines and debates, though for reasons completely different. Palaniappan Chidambaram (PC), an Ex-Finance Minister in the UPA ministry hogged the headlines for being a political heavy weight who finally got close to the long arm of the law. Arun Jaitley (AJ), the other Ex-Finance Minister but of the Modi 1.0 cabinet, dominated news since yesterday when he passed away after prolonged ill health. The lives of these two successful personalities have many common strands but, what is striking is the way it is finally diverging and in this lie key lessons for aspiring politicians.

The similarities first. Both PC and AJ came from privileged backgrounds and were never the “rags to riches” type leaders. They were lawyers by profession and extremely successful at that.  If they weren’t full time politicians, they would have been among the top 10 highly paid lawyers in the country for sure. Both were extremely articulate.  Both made their first impressions through their communication skills within their parties.  And that also turned out to be the lasting impression. In the last few years, the most interesting debates in the parliament were, when PC and AJ were pitted against each other – whether it was the GST or the Aadhaar debates. Both were tailor made for TV interviews and discussions. Both came extremely prepared for interviews and were at their combative best in putting across their views. More often than not, one tended to change opinions after listening to their points of view on a subject.  PC through his weekly columns and AJ through his blogs have also been using the written medium to get across their views effectively.

Both PC and AJ with their legal backgrounds, would give key inputs in drafting of bills to their respective parties. Their opinions were always sought in all issues related to passing laws in the parliament. In spite of not having a background on economics, both got the opportunity to be Finance Ministers. Both showed alacrity in dealing with numbers.  And when the situation demanded, they were the chosen ones to step in, as In-charge for other ministries. In the wake of the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai during Manmohan Singh’s regime, it was PC who was asked to take over the reins of the Home Ministry from Shivraj Patil who was found wanting in terms of responding to the situation. In AJ’s case he was asked to handle Defence Ministry as well, till Narendra Modi could convince Manohar Parrikar to take up the job.  One point of time he was handling three key portfolios concurrently.

In spite of these strengths, both PC and AJ were never mass leaders. PC did win elections from Tamil Nadu but that didn’t make him a mass leader. AJ could not manage to win the election even amidst the “Modi wave” in 2014 when he contested from Amritsar! And I also reckon that their elitist background, their success in their profession and thereby their high net worth made them easy targets for “not fit for public life” barbs.

Now, coming to the divergence in their personalities. AJ has been more loyal to his ideological moorings. Having started as part of the ABVP, he stuck to the Sangh parivaar during his entire life. PC, though known as a Congress man, left the party in between to be part of Tamil Maanila Congress. He was rewarded with the important Finance Ministry by both Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral.

While AJ is known to be congenial with his staff and peers, PC always came across as arrogant and rude. He was known to be firm in his views and not one to suffer mediocrity. This projected him as an aloof politician who won more enemies than friends. On the other hand, as can be seen from the obituaries since AJ’s death yesterday, his friend circle cut across professions and political parties. And this turned out to be going against AJ most of the time.  Among the hard core BJP followers or Bhakts, AJ was viewed with suspicion of protecting his friends from other parties and corporates in corruption and other charges.

The same goes with relations with media.  AJ had many among the media who are now calling him as “My friend Arun” in their obit pieces. I suspect PC has few friends in the media!

PC while in Government had many run-ins with his ministerial colleagues. His spats with Pranab Mukherjee and Jairam Ramesh are in public domain. Who will forget that “patching up” Press conference he did along with Mukherjee? With AJ, we have not heard of any spats he had with his peers.

PC was seen more of a self-centred person even within his party and there was always a question mark over his commitment and loyalty to the party and the leadership.  But here, AJ was always seen as a party man. When not in power and not a minister, AJ was handling the poll strategy and electioneering. Before the Amit Shah era, AJ was the master strategist in putting together the poll campaigns for BJP in states including Gujarat when Narendra Modi was fighting the elections. PC apart from being a member of the manifesto drafting committee he was not known to be a poll strategist or an organisational man.

It is to AJ’s credit that many of today’s senior ministers in the Modi cabinet were all at some time mentored by him. Whether it is Piyush Goyal or Nirmala Sitharaman or Dharmendra Pradhan, they have all been coached and guided by AJ in the past. Similarly most of today’s BJP spokespersons have been mentored by AJ. PC has no such reputation.

In terms of handling the Finance Ministry, I always thought that PC did a better job. He took over as FM in 2012 from Pranab Mukherjee during UPA-II, when the economy was at its lowest ebb. He quickly put in measures in place to arrest the Rupee slide and restore investor confidence by drawing a clear red line on fiscal deficit. That the mood of the country had already set in for a change that time is another matter.  But, it always seemed like he was a right person in the wrong party under a wrong leader. I personally felt that under a stronger government and a more decisive PM, PC would have relished his job better and would have made a bigger impact in governance.  AJ, though armed with the luxury of heading the Finance ministry of a majority government, showed very little appetite for getting into a “Mission mode” on the economy front.

The introduction of the landmark tax reform – GST shows who is a consensus man. The work on GST which started during the UPA era couldn’t see the light of the day during UPA. The then Finance Minister PC was not accommodative on many of the requests from the states like revenue compensation… However, during Modi 1.0, AJ could build a clean consensus and despite stiff opposition from Congress (in particular PC) on certain clauses could get GST off the ground in 2017.

Amidst all this, if there is a big divergence between PC and AJ, it is how they managed their families, which has now become PC’s Achilles heel.  The legal troubles PC is facing today all claw back to the conduct and involvement of his son Karthi Chidambaram. We wouldn’t know if PC was a wilful partner in all his son’s business misadventures.  However, the fact that he didn’t and he couldn’t reign his son from misusing the office of the Finance minister, makes PC a partner in crime. And today he is paying for the same.  On the other hand, AJ had a spotless track record. Except for pointing fingers at him for developing friendships across the board and being a gossipmonger, there is no charge of misconduct or misappropriation against AJ or his family. He had kept his family away from his political and public office.

In public domain, Chidambaram is seen most of the times in spotless white shirt and dhoti. However, his public life has not been spotless. On the other hand, Jaitley while being in a similar political boat, lived his life without a blemish. And kept his family away from tapping his political influence.

In analysing the lives and career of these two fascinating politicians, there lies a key lesson for many a politician – Control thy Son(s)!