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

Narendra Damodardas Trump!

Back to India after a week’s trip from Trump land, one cannot escape the palpable political weather in both the countries. Large parts of the US may be freezing due to the polar vortex but politically, the climate is hot in the US as in India. While India is already in the grip of election fever with the Lok Sabha polls just couple of months away, in the US, presidential elections are due in 2020! Even then, the political chatter is all about if Donald Trump will get re-elected or not! Same is the question in India with Narendra Modi!

Ever since Modi, a rank outsider to what is now infamously called as the Lutyen’s Delhi, became the Prime minister of India in 2014 and Trump more famed as an “Apprentice” politician and a real estate baron became the President of America, comparing both these leaders and bringing out the similarities in them have been favourite pastimes of the commentariat. Probably rightly so! Here are two leaders who have defied many established conventions to chart their own course in governing their respective countries. The similarities in their methods and more importantly the narratives around the personalities are difficult to ignore.

In terms of the evident similarities, the liberal media’s scorn in India and the US for Modi and Trump respectively comes first, I guess. For example, all through the time I was in the US, TV news was engulfed by the Government Shutdown due to a budget fight centred on Trump’s demand for $5bn to fund a wall along the US-Mexico border. On TV, the built up narrative showed Trump as the central villain for bringing America to such a crisis. Images and clips of federal employees suffering due to loss of pay dominated most of the screens. In California where I was during that week, on the streets, it was business as usual! I can compare this to the narrative which was played up during Demonetisation in India. Of sufferings, deaths and what not. However, in election after election in the aftermath of Demonetisation, BJP swept the polls! Not surprisingly both Modi and Trump treat the main stream media with contempt. Trump calls channels as Fake news generators, Modi calls them ‘Bazaaru’ media! And therefore, they prefer to engage with the public more actively through Social media.

The other point of convergence is their response to border security. Trump has been vocal about constructing the wall along the Mexico border to prevent illegal migration into his country. In India, along the North East, the introduction of the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill by the BJP is touted as a similar action to deal with illegal migration from Bangladesh. Likewise, both Trump and Modi during their respective campaigns had raised alarm over worldwide Islamic terror without beating the bush.

Yet another commonality in Trump and Modi is their approach to external affairs. It is said that Modi being a Gujarati always brings a sense of ‘Dando’ (business) to the table. In the case of Trump too, we have seen so far that he has been running the United States of America as another Trump Corporation! Again, in the context of External affairs and diplomacy, historical legacy and precedents have not come in the way of taking bold initiatives for both Modi and Trump. For example, in India, while we have always treated Israel as our friend for so many decades, Modi has been the 1st Prime Minister to make a historical visit to Israel and set the optics right. Rubbing our friends in the Gulf on the wrong side – a historical reason for not taking our friendship with Israel to the next level was set aside by Modi. Similarly in the US, Trump has been brazenly demolishing some legacy diplomatic hangovers like supporting Pakistan with aid even when it was not doing anything on curbing terror. There are few other examples as well like seeing China into its eye and not withholding the import curbs.

And the other thing I noticed which is quite common in the case of both Modi and Trump is this. While seeing what is said about these two in the media one may get an impression that they are steadily losing ground and are grossly unpopular. However, the reality may turn out to be different. In the US, I noticed that calling yourself a supporter of Trump can make you a social untouchable and therefore, people tend to stay quiet rather than expressing themselves. Like my friend said, he was routinely derided by his pals for riding a “Triumph” bike mistaking it for a “Trump” bike! Similarly in India, seeing the narrative in main stream media, an outsider can get an impression that Modi Is finished and his popularity has hit rock bottom. Those of us with ear to the ground know that the truth is far from that!

Beyond these, there could be more meeting grounds as well for Modi and Trump! Like they are both eternally on “Campaign” Mode”! So, while it is very tempting just to draw parallels between Trump and Modi and call it as the beginning of a new era in political personalities, I do feel that there is a need to pause here. I think beyond the veneer of similarities between Modi and Trump, I do feel that never the twain shall meet for many reasons.

Like, while Modi and his office are active on social media, you can never find one politically inappropriate tweet from Modi. In the case of Trump, we have to search for one which is not!

Though Trump has been active in his direct communication through Social media, he has still respected the traditions of giving interviews and doing press conferences regularly. Modi, on the other hand, has shown high contempt to main stream media and has not addressed one presser since he took office. He has been quite stingy on giving personal interviews as well. His Man Ki Baat can be deciphered by the people through the radio and not through the mouths and writings of journalists!

Unlike Modi, I must say that Trump has shown more commitment to the promises he made during his campaign. Right or wrong, he has been diligently ticking off the promises he made one by one whether it is corporate tax reduction, steps to prevent illegal migration and so on. I would say that his stand on the Shutdown was another visible demonstration of his commitment to his manifesto. In the case of Modi, it has been a case of “Glass half empty”.

On the question of jobs, Trump has a better record to show certainly. A recent report said that US created 304,000 jobs against 170,000 expected just in January smashing all expectations. In India, the question of job creation is a mystery with no clear answers. As Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar points out in his Sunday TOI column, “An employment crash of the catastrophic sort indicated by the NSSO and CMIE typically occurs only in terrible, deep economic depressions. But India has been averaging over 7% GDP growth, and is the fastest-growing major economy in the world. Never in history has a miracle economy, growing at over 7%, witnessed a collapse of employment.”

A big difference between Modi and Trump has been the way they handle their teams. In India, Modi has his own handpicked team in his PMO. Most of them are from his erstwhile Gujarat cadre or with a stint in Sangh parivar backed Vivekananda foundation. They have stayed with him so far and we have not seen any public dissent against Modi. However in the case of Trump, we have lost count of his team members who have either quit or got fired! I don’t think any of the original staunch supporters of Trump are still sticking to him in his close circuit. I don’t think Modi will fire a subordinate over Twitter!

Another important point to add here is the influence of the family. In the case of Modi, his family has been kept at a far distance with no one occupying any real or virtual posts of power. In the case of Trump it is exactly the opposite. His daughter Ivanka and son in law Jared Kushner have been in the thick of policy making. Morality around conflict of interest has been thrown out of the window. And this I feel may return to haunt Trump for a long time when his term gets over!

I mentioned earlier about what the common public thinks of these leaders. Even the staunchest opponents of Modi would not venture to label him as a clown. But, in the US, calling Trump names – “Clown” and “Joker” being popular in that is uber cool! Similarly, Trump’s earlier escapades with women have routinely surfaced in regular frequency to embarrass him. Modi has a clean record on this score.

Above all, if there is going to one lasting difference between Trump and Modi, it is going to the legacy they leave. In today’s business parlance, “Disruption” is a virtue and “Disruptors” are visionaries. However, Trump as a disruptor is likely to lead America to paying some heavy price in the future. Many of his moves though in the short term have paid dividends politically and are seemingly smart for America today, may not be, in the long term. In that sense, I reckon that the legacy he leaves may be of the disruption in the real sense. On the other hand, Modi has been very circumspect in disrupting anything. He has believed in what I call as “Improved continuum”! I believe for a country like India, his legacy may be a more positive one. From that point of view, I do feel that talking of Modi and Trump in the same breath may just be a good academic exercise and therefore “Narendra Damodardas Trump” may just be a good click bait title for a blog. Just.

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

Single party majority sarkar or Coalition sarkar?

Last week, parts of a speech of our National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval made headlines. Speaking at the Sardar Patel memorial lecture, Doval said that India needs a strong, stable and decisive government for the next 10 years. He also predicted that weak coalitions will be bad for India.

While I was reading this, I was reminded of another speech made by Y.V.Reddy, Former Governor of RBI some time in 2017. “Interestingly, the highest growth in India from 1990 to 2014 was really during coalition governments… So, in a way it is consensus based… in Indian situation, a coalition probably produces better economic results than a strong government,” Mr. Reddy told a Washington audience on September 27.

From the two specks of wisdom, we can assume that while the former spoke from security point of view, the latter did from economic point of view.  While I don’t remember many reactions to Y.V. Reddy’s opinion then, Doval’s speech has triggered a lot of rebuttals, primary one being, this piece from The Print’s Shekhar Gupta where he has argued that majority governments in the past including that of Rajiv Gandhi’s in the 80’s and the present one of Narendra Modi have not been better off significantly than the few coalition governments we had in between!

Without going back too much back in time, I would like to focus on the present majority government of the BJP in this post. By the evening of 16th May, 2014 when it was clear that BJP against all expectations and pre-poll predictions, was hitting the half way mark on their own, there was euphoria all around. Even among the non-BJP loyalists, there was visible excitement of how a majority government can decisively take the country forward without having to constantly look over its shoulders. By nature, coalition governments formed mostly through post poll alliances come with the spectre of instability. So, here was a government finally which had the numbers on its own and a two third majority with its allies. So, can’t blame the public at large including the author if they thought that Acche Din finally arrived for India!

In India, we have had a long history of taking one step forward and few steps backward. Unfortunately this did not change even with a single party government with a decisive leader at its helm as we found soon enough in 2014. We soon found that adequate majority in Lok Sabha is not enough and that the government needs numbers in Rajya Sabha also to be effectively called as a “true majority Sarkar”! And for that, the wait needed to be longer – another 5 years or so!

As per me, the virtues of a single party majority Sarkar got exposed when this government failed to get the amendments in the Land Acquisition Bill passed. In his 1st meeting with the Chief Ministers, Narendra Modi was reported to have got the feedback from most of the CMs (including of the Congress) that the tough and impractical clauses in the Land Acquisition Bill presented the single biggest challenge in getting many infrastructure projects off the ground.  The government went about making changes in the provisions and tried to pass the bill. But couldn’t get the bill passed through in Rajya Sabha where the Congress and the Left blocked it effectively. The majority government then tried to use the Ordinance route many times but finally gave up, coming under the cloud of Rahul Gandhi’s Suit Boot Sarkar jibe! As we speak, in spite of this Government’s intent and drive towards kicking off many infrastructure projects, land acquisition continues to be the biggest impediment in meeting deadlines for large game changing projects!

Here, I feel that a coalition Sarkar of the stable type as NDA-1 run by Vajpayee or the UPA-1 run by Manmohan Singh, would have handled this differently. By engaging with the respective oppositions through dialogues and agreeing to give and take on a few provisions. Since many Congress CMs were on board on the changes to the Land Acquisition Bill, dialogues with the Congress party leadership through some of these CMs would have probably done the trick leaving the Left isolated on this.  As we all know now, in the initial days of this government, its single point agenda was to isolate the Congress. What if the government had given the status of the Leader of Opposition to the Congress in the Lok Sabha as a quid pro quo to getting their support to a few important bills in the Rajya Sabha? Machiavelli or our own Chanakya would have been proud, isn’t it?

In spite of this initial setback though crucial, I do believe that the Modi Sarkar was flying high in that period. From bringing Swachh Bharat to national discourse to bringing back India at the top of investment destinations worldwide, Modi Sarkar could not make a single false move, but that was till November 2016! With the confidence in the Indian economy back and aided by windfall gains from low crude prices, one thought that the Universe was finally beginning to conspire to make India successful.  Again that was still November 2016!

In November 2016, Modi Sarkar took on the Universe and went ahead with Demonetisation. What seemed a master stroke initially to suck out black money, soon turned out to be an ill-conceived and ill – executed move that set the economy back by a year or so.  The much lauded ‘Jugaad’ mentality of Indians came to party, the result of which we could finally get to see.  As much as 99.3% of the junked 500 and 1,000 rupee notes returned to the banking system!! While it is to the credit of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi that his government came out unscathed with its credibility intact or grown even after this very huge miss-step, I wonder if a major decision like this could have been taken without taking the coalition partners into confidence if it was a coalition government. And in the same token, I do feel that the collective wisdom of a coalition cabinet would not have let this move go at least without proper checks, balances and preparations!

I certainly would not add the introduction of GST as a miss-step of this government as many are doing, as I firmly believe that GST was a long-awaited reform and in the introduction of the same, Modi Sarkar learnt its lessons and behaved like a coalition government in listening to and taking all parties on board. The result is there to see. GST is a reality now and after initial hiccups as can be expected from any path breaking reform, the benefits are trickling down with the GDP showing clear signs of recovery in the past few quarters.

A majority government led by a decisive leader provides for great optics particularly from foreign countries’ point of view. And that has its own benefits as major powers would like to believe that the Government/leader they are engaging across the table has the backing of the popular mandate. However, in practice, I have now come to feel that a coalition government led by a party with a fair share of numbers led by a decisive leader may be ideal for a diverse country like India. In that, we do get the advantage of the collective wisdom of alternate views while, the virtues of the decisive leader are also not missed out.

Or going a step further, a majority government with a decisive leader which behaves like a coalition government by not taking key, strategic decisions without passing by the collective wisdom of alternate brains!  In short, institutionalizing the “GST Introduction model” for all key decisions!

So going back to the speeches of Y.V.Reddy and Ajit Doval, both may be correct. In parts! Just that like in many aspects in India, the ideal situation may be somewhere in between!

Can the ‘Gem of a scam” become “Gem of an opportunity’??

The debate on privatisation of Public Sector Undertaking (PSU) banks has a habit of rearing its head in public discourse in India with regular frequency. Not so long ago, it was when the PSU banks were hit by the NPA (Non-Performing Assets) crisis embodied by the likes of a fleeing Vijay Mallya. Later, it was when the Government finally took a call on recapitalisation of the PSU banks last year. And now, it is when the Nirav Modi – PNB scam, the latest to hit the Indian shores (and shares) surfaced. Yesterday even Arvind Subramanian, the usually reticent Chief Economic Advisor has joined the debate!

Reformists are of the view that the Government is betraying Winston Churchill again and again who famously said that “Never let a good crisis go waste” in the context of biting the PSU bank bullet. They are of the view that the repeated crises which hit the PSU banks provided a plausible excuse and “Gem of an opportunity” (pun entirely intended) for the Government of the day to privatize PSU Banks and thereby get out of the rigmarole of using tax payer’s money to keep bailing them out. The underlying assumptions being that the PSU Banks are run usually inefficiently and being under sarkaari control are subject to pulls and pressures.  While this is true for almost all PSUs in general, money being closer to the pocket and heart of the public, privatisation topic haunts the banks more. One cannot dismiss the very popular data point thrown in the above argument’s favour which is that the market cap of a relatively younger HDFC Bank which is privately held is higher than all PSU banks put together!

At the core of the argument against privatisation is of course the security it provides to the Aam Admi. Irrespective of what happens around the balance sheets of these PSU banks. The general public does believe that the Government will not let their savings go down the drain come what may. One remembers the furore and angst in WhatsApp groups recently when we were all told that our deposits above 1 lac are not safe if the banks go belly up. So, for any Government of the day, it is a minefield of a quandary to attempt privatisation of PSU banks unless it is completely politically immune to a public outrage and the after effects thereafter!

Be that as it may – the Government’s quandary I mean, the larger issue is the conflict bordering on hypocrisy in the minds of people like us which is – my direct stake in the bank by way of savings/deposits Vs my indirect stake in PSU banks by way of government’s stake which is in effect all our tax payer’s money. In short “My money” Vs “Our Money”! Nirav Modi has just swindled a government bank of few 1000 crores but that still is not “My money” though it is “Our Money!  And largely our outrage has stopped with laughing out loud (or is it laughing like Renuka these days?) looking at jokes, memes and sarcastic jibes on the Government while a smart cookie has “been crying all his way to the bank”! I think as individuals we are more concerned about the safety and security of our savings which we feel is protected if PSU banks remain as is – Government owned.  Even if that means

  • The Government of the day interfering in the day-to-day functioning
  • The Government mandating the banks to carry out populist programmes which may not make commercial sense but may make immense political sense to them
  • Mounting NPA’s due to favouring cronies of the likes of Vijay Mallya
  • The Nirav Modi kind of frauds due to conniving staff
  • Less accountability in the system.

At the end of the day, as along as the banks are Government owned, the only fix for all the above ailments is injecting more capital which is by tapping into tax payer’s money. It’s obvious that the same money if not used for bailing out banks could be put to use for better roads, power, water, electricity or even for that matter the proposed grandiose Health Insurance programme – stuff our country has been deprived of in the last 70 years since Independence.

The 1.6 billion dollar question is whether as tax payers and citizens we are okay and ready to let the government seize the opportunity and privatise the PSU banks? My guess is maybe we are not. And this stems from our socialistic belief that next to God, the Government is the savior and hence must protect us. And the constant fear associated with losing our money if not protected by the government.

In a country like ours which is evolving and is still a work in progress on many fronts like urbanization, education, social mobility,..,… the fear is mostly legitimate. Coupled with the fact that the private sector has not fully covered itself with glory. But the performance of the new private banks set up since the opening up of the economy in 1993, provide quite a lot of hope. For example, as far as we know, the new private banks are not part of the NPA problem.  Even during the 2008 Lehman shock, when all over the world financial institutions were rocked and many went belly up, in India none of the banks including the private ones were affected so much (though banks like ICICI had exposures to the subprime crisis) due to very strong regulations in India.  So, so far we could bank on these banks!

In summary, my point is may be if not all in one go, the Government could contemplate privatising PSU banks in batches of say 2 starting with the smaller ones. This will give adequate space to watch out for any pitfalls in the process and fine tune the same. This of course with the continued strong regulatory frame work in place.  The smooth completion of the ongoing privatisation of Air India may give the much needed heft to the Government.

With may be all banks out of governmental control in the next 10 years, the frequent exercise of tapping into “Our Money” to protect “My money” may be a conundrum of the past. The moot question remains if this current “Gem of a scam” will be turned into a “Gem of an opportunity” by the Government and that we as public will let that pass!

Postscript: Overheard in a lift: “These jewelers kept telling us that Diamonds are forever. But, they never told us that loans are also forever! Saala vaapas hi nahi kiya!!!

Toon 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)