The Maahaul of India Shining!

If you are an avid watcher or reader of global commentary, you cannot miss the ongoing spotlight on India and mostly for good reasons.  India seems to be the shining star in what otherwise seems to be a global economy that is still coming to terms with post-Covid recovery and the spiralling effects of the Russia – Ukraine war. The past few weeks have seen a downpour of bad news on the economic front globally. And it is not just from the US which is a prime mover in the global economy but other developed nations as well.

India though seems to be a lonely planet in the universe. The stock markets are on a historic high as we approach the end of this calendar year and despite the global demand situation, the Q2 GDP numbers at 6.3% demonstrate that India is tiding over the global headwinds reasonably well. Therefore, on cue, we have been seeing many opinion pieces, commentaries, and encomiums of late not just within India but globally, saying that this could be India’s decade and so on. I am calling this the “India Shining” sentiment for easy understanding! The point to note is the maahaul of India Shining keeps visiting us every 5-6 years and ebbs off after a while.

The phrase “India Shining” was of course used for the first time by the Vajpayee-led NDA government to project a positive outlook of the country to foreign investors back in 2003-04. The campaign was envisaged by Jaswant Singh as the finance minister. Later on, it took shape of a political campaign for NDA in the 2004 polls. Many expert commentators till today opine that the India Shining campaign was the main reason for its defeat in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. If one does a fine toothcomb analysis of the results, it will be clear as daylight that NDA was defeated due to other issues. We will keep that for another day, another blog.

The campaign did help to improve the image of India worldwide in that period. India was part of the BRICS coinage, a commentary that would have done countries like India, China, Russia, etc more good than any global PR campaign ever did. I remember in that period wherever I went, the BRICS story dominated discussions in board rooms and what followed was a long period of India Shining till the Global Financial Crisis in the form of Lehman shock struck in 2008.  If you recall, the period 2003 – 2008 saw huge investments in real estate and retail with the free flow of “Hot money” to India, all thanks to the positive India Shining sentiment.

The next brief and passive wave of India Shining started in 2014 after Narendra Modi took over as the Prime Minister of a full majority government after 1989. India was the flavour of the world then and this lasted for a few years till 2017.  The stock markets saw new highs with a heavy inflow of FII in this period.

What we are seeing now is the return of the BRICS type hype. The difference is, three of the constituents of BRICS namely Brazil, Russia, and China are no longer in the good books of the world while India continues to be. There are a few things that are going well for India overall now. A politically stable government that is confident in itself and no longer suffering from coalition compulsions.  A government led by a leader whose popularity and credibility among the masses is unprecedented in a long while which helps take decisions without looking over one’s shoulders.  Introduction of structural financial reforms like the GST and IBC that have stabilized and yielding results. India coming out of Covid relatively better off with life and business back to normal. The swift post-pandemic recovery in the economy despite the global headwinds due to the ongoing war. A nuanced management of the economy in the past few years and in a sense better than what the minders of the economy are being credited for, in my opinion.

Countries and Corporations who had conceived the China+1 strategy back in 2013 to de-risk from China are actually getting serious about executing the strategy now by shifting part of production elsewhere. The Covid pandemic and the way China has been handling the pandemic has now morphed the China +1 strategy into ABC (Anything but China) strategy.  These have certainly helped the cause of manufacturing in India as we can see in the exports of Mobile phones out of India now. We are still scratching the surface here and still miles to go before we become a credible +1 in manufacturing.

There is a visible infrastructural transformation that is happening in India as we speak. Highways, Railways, Airports, and seaports are all getting upgraded or added at a speed not seen before. Again, the pandemic derailed the progress for two years otherwise, many would have seen completion by now.

There is credence therefore to the India Shining sentiment that we are witnessing at the moment. Here is where I would like to add a caveat. Developed countries like the US, Western Europe, Japan, and so on look at other countries when their internal situations are not good. That is how China got the benefit of a huge benevolence from the US in the 90’s when the US outsourced almost its entire manufacturing to China.  Similarly, the US Economy is going through a trough presently with the spectre of a recession looming large. The economy is indeed resilient but there are lots of ifs and buts. Commentators call this the “Yes and But” situation.

If you look at India, I would say we are in a “No and But” situation. Living in India, one cannot resonate easily with the India Shining maahaul. Our cities are in a state of perennial under-construction.  Projects, whether they are flyovers or Metros just don’t seem to finish.  Interest rates have become so high that have pushed EMIs over the roof.  IBC has not helped to resolve quickly the issue of bankrupt companies. In Mumbai, bankrupt builders have ditched projects midway spoiling the aspirations of so many middle-class families and filling the skyline with incomplete towers. Jobs and Unemployment data point to a very grim situation for the youth.

But the economy is indeed growing. GST collections have been on a healthy trend. People are travelling and holidaying like there is no tomorrow. Just look at the long queues for check-in and security checks in big airports like Mumbai and Delhi in the early morning hours. Festival and marriage shopping crowds have been unprecedented of late in shopping areas in all cities. Cheap data and bandwidth have transformed our day-to-day lives in more ways than one. The “India stack” is a global case study. Amidst all the negative sentiments globally, there is an air of positivity in India. We have to move to a “Yes and no But” scenario that too as early as possible.

As Shekhar Gupta says in one of his columns, we have a habit of flashing victory signs early.  India as we speak is still a WIP and a lot of work is yet to be done.  From here, what we need is an uninterrupted home run where the economy keeps clocking 7-8% if not more on a year-on-year basis for 20 years.  If that happens, we will not be talking of just a maahaul but an actual India shining!

Pic credits: Alex Fine in The Economist dated 13th May, 2022.

NDTV – A Nostalgic Drive!

In the last few days, social media has been buzzing with the news of the Adani group buying a large stake in New Delhi Television or NDTV as we all know it. A corporate house getting involved in the ownership of a news organization is no longer a strange thing in any part of the world.  So, why is there such an interest in this news of the Adani group buying a large stake or moving to acquire a controlling stake of NDTV? It is because the news company involved here is NDTV, an entity that has been a nostalgic part of the growing up of an entire generation in India. As more and more details of the transaction and what it entails are unfolding, I couldn’t help jog my memory back to the time when NDTV was all that we watched as far as current affairs on TV was concerned.

In its growing years, the generation I am referring to witnessed the evolution of News broadcasting in India from a staid, single-source sarkari Doordarshan to the opening up of the News broadcasting domain to private, professional and independent options in the mid-80s. As this evolution happened, the credit for being a pioneer in the private news broadcasting space at each step goes to NDTV.

My own tryst with NDTV as with many others in my age group started with “The World This Week” a packaged show on the world outside that was telecast on Doordarshan. So 10 PM on Fridays saw the recreation room with just a single TV in our B-School hostel, being house full with inmates even sitting on the floor and occupying every inch of the room to watch this program. Such crowds in our hostel TV room were reserved for Cricket matches or the Mahabharat serial usually.

The World This Week anchored by Dr. Prannoy Roy and another gentleman by the name of Appan Menon was the first and only source to catch a glimpse of what was happening outside of India back then. With its slickly edited visuals, carefully curated content from across the globe and more importantly accompanied by the clear, concise and measured commentary of Roy, The World This Week became extremely popular and soon Friday evenings meant Chitrahaar/Oliyum Oliyum and The World This Week. I vividly remember the visuals of the “Tank Man” at Tiananmen Square in China back in 1989 shown as part of an episode.

Even before The World This Week, as an anchor Prannoy had already endeared himself to a large section of the English-speaking TV-watching audience in India. That was as the anchor of the first election coverage program on DD along with Vinod Dua (who used to handle the Hindi part) for the 1989 Lok Sabha elections.  The Jodi of Prannoy and Dua speaking alternately in English and Hindi while presenting the trends of the leads and results trends is afresh in my memory. We in fact used the concept of Roy-Dua pair for a college skit and remember getting the second prize! In that pre-EVM, paper ballot box era, counting used to go on 3 days for a Lok Sabha election and the Roy-Dua pair would be on it for hours and hours together analyzing the election results.

As far as I can remember, Prannoy is the pioneer of Opinion polls, exit polls and all kinds of election analysis that we see today. To Prannoy and his team goes the credit for introducing many a few election-related terms that are part of our vocabulary now. Personally, for me, psephology as a subject interested me after I started watching Prannoy’s programs on TV.  Stuff like Anti-Incumbency, TINA factor, Index of Opposition Unity, First past the poll system, Winner’s bump and so on became familiar thanks to Prannoy’s usage of these in his election shows.

The early ’90s was a phase in which India was opening up on many fronts. The News broadcast domain was not an exception. So, when Rupert Murdoch’s Star network started its news channel – Star News, it was NDTV that was contracted to be the content producer. What we saw as Star News was essentially NDTV news with the editorial control totally with NDTV while Star TV was running the channel. While Prannoy has always been the visible face of NDTV, it was only known much later that his wife Radhika Roy played an active role in running the channel.

The NDTV English and Hindi channels which we see today I guess, came into existence after the arrangement between Star TV and NDTV broke up in 2003. The one fact that we cannot ignore is that NDTV as an organization has been a factory of talent in the Indian News broadcast industry. You name any anchor or reporter of heft in India and he or she would have schooled in NDTV sometime in the past. Whether it is star anchors/editors like Rajdeep Sardesai or Barkha Dutt or Arnab Goswami who are all brand names in their own right today or some of the finest reporters in the country, they are all from the NDTV school.  It is to the credit of the Roys that they were able to spot and nurture talent across the country in the News broadcast domain. There is no doubt that in the news media space, NDTV has always been seen as a brand of trust, credibility and professionalism.

It will be interesting to watch, therefore, what the future holds for NDTV with the recent developments. It is a fact that NDTV today is a pale shadow of its past. Blame it on the flight of talent or the financial woes of the Roys or the degeneration of the News broadcast industry overall, NDTV has not been able to maintain its leadership position which it held perhaps in the mid-noughties. Irrespective of what the future entails, I am certain that the legacy of NDTV as a pioneer on many fronts in the news broadcasting space in India will remain and hopefully it will spring back to a fresh beginning in a New Dashing TV avatar!

India @ 75 – Seven and a Half reasons for being proud of!

As I write this blog on the eve of yet another Independence Day, the whole country is in a festive and cheerful mood. This being the 75th Anniversary of our Independence, it is all the more special.  The entire nation seems to be swamped by the Tricolour with the people embracing the Prime Minister’s “Har Ghar Tiranga” call with great rigour. As is for every milestone event, there are Op-eds and articles galore on how India has fared after 75 years of Independence.  And everyone’s outlook is based on if the glass is 50% full or 50% empty.  At 75 years, to me, it seems like it is 75% full and there are seven and a half reasons, we can be proud of as a nation in terms of what we have accomplished. Here we go:

  1. Armed Forces: Throughout these 75 years, our Armed forces have shown exemplary character and have stood for the country in times of need. Whenever there is no other option, the armed forces are called in and they have always done the job. More importantly, they have always stuck to their boundaries and have not ventured to diminish the civilian authority in a democracy like ours, even when situations have been ripe. The Armed forces have functioned as a disciplined force and have discharged their responsibilities ably all the time.
  2. Cricket: One would easily mistake Cricket to be the National sport of India. It is not even a sport that is native to our country. It is a sport that was bequeathed to us by the British. Yet, it is a game that we lord today. India dominates the game of Cricket both on and off the field. Period.
  3. Democracy: When you think of it, that India is a chaotic but functioning democracy may surprise even many of us. But the fact is, it is. It’s really amazing how in the past 70 years since the first election, power has smoothly segued from the loser to the winner without a single instance of any hiccup. Across the country, there are many examples of leaders who have risen to the top as Chief Ministers, Prime Ministers and Presidents who all started as common men and women, all thanks to a vibrant democracy.
  4. Diversity: This is a thing about which we within India do not attach much significance. Ask any foreigner and she would always be overwhelmed by the diversity India as a country offers whether it is religion, culture, ethnicity, food, language, landscapes, weather, customs and even clothes. After Independence, many naysayers felt that this diversity will do India in. Yet, here we are, alive and kicking as a democratic nation. We are so diverse that for everything that we say of India, the opposite is also true!
  5. Election Commission: Among all the bodies of the Government, easily the Election commission comes on top as the most professional, efficient and dependable body. One should give credit to T.N. Seshan for this who as the Chief Election Commissioner brought in reforms that changed the way the EC functioned. The good thing is even after Seshan, the EC has continued to maintain or rather better its efficiency.
  6. IT Industry: If you have to choose one brand ambassador for India which helped in elevating the image of India outside, it has to be the Indian IT Industry. Today, there is no part of the world where we don’t have IT professionals who spread some message about India on a day-to-day basis. But more importantly, within India, the IT Industry helped to create a self-confident Middle class that flaunts its purchasing power and drives consumption. Also, most of the path-breaking governance initiatives like the India stack are all a by-product of the IT power of India.
  7. IRCTC: Ease of railway booking must count as the earliest visible and tangible improvement in the delivery of a government service in India. Today we are used to other efficient services like the UPI, GEM and so on. But in my opinion, IRCTC continues to be the trailblazer.
    • Yoga: This is the last half reason for us to be proud as a nation. I am saying “half reason” because we seem to have woken up late in claiming our true legacy in this field. When the whole world is moving from health to wellness, Yoga as a practice has the potential to fill this gap. And being the birthplace of Yoga, India has all the credentials to do what it did with IT.

There are other reasons for us to be proud of India, but these come as top of the mind for me as I pen this post to commemorate India @ 75!

Wishing all the readers a Happy and proud Independence Day! 7.5 stars for India @ 75. Now showing everywhere in world!

LOC for FOE!

Freedom of Expression is in the news these days. Not just in the news, but also in social chatter. Young followers of this chatter may begin to wonder if in India there is Freedom of Expression at all. Of course, there is. Article 19 of the constitution provides for it clearly. Well, almost.  Article 19 of the constitution says “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” This is very clear. The devil as they say is in the details. Here it is in Clause (2) of the same article. Clause (2) of Article 19 of the Indian constitution enables the legislature to impose certain restrictions on free speech under following heads:

  • security of the State,
  • friendly relations with foreign States,
  • public order,
  • decency and morality,
  • contempt of court,
  • defamation,
  • incitement to an offence, and
  • sovereignty and integrity of India.

Therefore, I really wonder where is the confusion. The law and its provisos are very clear. Freedom of Expression does exist. But comes with its own riders. Why is it so difficult to understand this even for the liberal intelligentsia?

What is missed out in the above which is what is the grey area in the whole thing is the Right to offend in the garb of Freedom of Expression. Does Freedom of Expression come with the Right to Offend? Certainly not.

Let us look at the most recent case in India involving this Freedom of Expression which was the release of a poster for a documentary film that depicted a smoking Kali, a goddess revered by the Hindus in India.  As a film maker, Leena Manimekalai has the freedom to say what she wants in her films.  As some people now try to say – the poster very well could be depicting a character in the film playing the Kali role in a play and smoking during breaks. Many of us have seen actors in their make ups smoking at the back stage. Now the question is, what is the need to put up this one scene in the marketing collaterals for the film?

As we have seen the director’s further reactions to the uproar, it is obvious that the choice of the poster was not by chance. It was by intent. An intent to exercise her Right to offend – in this case, a section of the Hindu faith. Therefore, no one should complain if there is an uproar and start questioning the existence of Freedom of Expression in India.

At the same time, is there a need to arrest her and put her in the jail for this? I don’t think so. Right to outrage cannot be a response to Right to offend. By calling for her arrest, one is falling into the trap of fuelling the promotion of the film.

This was followed by TMC MP Mahua Moitra’s comment which again sparked condemnation and call for her arrest. This is stretching it too far. While condemnation is also exercising the Freedom of Expression, calling for her arrest is not. Her comment certainly does not fall under any of the reasons mentioned in Clause (2) of Section 19 that warrants a legal action.

One can see the pattern. Before the Kali poster controversy, it all started with the comment made by BJP’s Nupur Sharma on TV on the Prophet. As a spokesperson of the ruling party, she did cross the line by dragging the Prophet in the TV discussion. Not surprising that it invited condemnation from the Muslim countries and India had to handle the diplomatic fallout. Again, the call for her arrest and killing is totally not acceptable and condemnable.  In the same lines, the daylight killing of Kanhaiya Lal in Udaipur for a Facebook post in Udaipur is deplorable. This Action – Reaction cycle is going to be endless.

In all this, it is clear that one can exercise his or her Freedom of Expression openly while in private or in the known circle. But when you are in the public space, there is a need to exercise restraint and control. Because as some wise counsel said, “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins”. This can be stretched quite well to the issue of Freedom of Expression as well. While expressing in public, one should clearly be aware as to where the other man’s sensibilities lie.

Therefore, there is a need for drawing one’s own LOC (Line of Control) on FOE (Freedom Of Expression) while in public domain. In my opinion, one knows very well, when the Line of Control is being crossed. So, it is not that difficult to exercise control along the LOC.  This is not just applicable to individuals but to politicians and creative people as well.

Image Credit: Indianprinterpublisher.com

Agnipath and not Agnipast!

“Change is the only thing that is constant” is an oft repeated phrase that has now become a cliché! In a real world that is not Utopia, the only thing that is constant is resistance to change. “Where are the big bang reforms?” This was a familiar question from the commentariat in the first few years of the Modi Sarkar. Then when the Sarkar started implementing reforms of the big bang variety, the question changed to “Why is this needed now?”. We saw this when the much-needed reforms in the agriculture sector were introduced. Finally, the government had to roll back the same. In my blog (read here) when the farm bills were repealed after protracted agitations, I had written on the lessons for the Modi Government in bringing in reforms. There are more lessons coming up!

Here we are, again in the same boat. The Government announced Agnipath, a scheme that brings about radical changes or reforms in the recruitment of jawans for the armed forces. And post the announcement, we have been seeing the same scenes playing out in terms of agitations and approach of the government. Literally speaking Agnipath has set parts of the country on fire, and this is extremely unfortunate.

Most commentators and domain experts acknowledge the need for these reforms. Yet, the section of the population which is supposed to benefit from these have an angst towards these. The result is what we see playing out on our respective screens.

From whatever I have seen and heard on this issue, the biggest issue around the proposed Agnipath program is the timing.  For the past 2 years, due to Covid, recruitment to Armed forces through recruitment rallies have not happened. The process is at different stages and the candidates are going through an agonising period of prolonged suspense, frustration and at the end of the day some hope.  Aspiring candidates are at different stages in the process – some awaiting their medical, some awaiting the final letter, some at different rounds and so on. So, all the while they have been forced to keep themselves fit and ready for the process to come to an end now that things are getting back to normal post Covid.  All along the candidates have been given the reason of Covid for the delay in the process.

Now comes the announcement of Agnipath which totally puts paid to their hopes of not just joining the services that will ensure a settled life but, a 3/4th probability of getting out of the services and start all over again in 4 years. What we see as raucous demonstrations are a result of the pent-up frustration in the first place due to last two years of agonising wait and second now finding that the game has changed.

If one must look at the causes therefore for this unrest, they can be summarised as follows:

  • First the timing.  As I have mentioned before, the proposed changes have come at a time when recruitment has not happened for two years.
  • Second, the proposed changes have made some of the candidates ineligible due to the age limits. They feel slighted.
  • Third, there is an element of uncertainty because of the 25% absorption clause even for those who get selected. Therefore, this is seen as a harbinger of struggle in life if one misses the bus!
  • Fourth, the probability of getting selected even if this is a short tour of duty has reduced since the overall recruitment numbers has been reduced. In general, around 60,000 get selected in a year. Now that has come down to 40,000 of which only 10,000 will get absorbed after four years. This is my understanding. So, the reduction in intake is drastic and therefore the probability of getting into a settled job with the forces has also reduced for the aspirants drastically.
  • And finally, the sudden drastic communication of the rolling out of the program.

Having said all this, since the proposed reform packaged as the Agnipath scheme is much needed for reducing the average age, reducing the pension budget, shifting the allocation from boots on the ground to weaponry, technology and sophistication, the government must stay the course but probably with a few course corrections.  Here’s what the government could have done in rolling out this program and probably it could still do:

  • Over to Overlap: In businesses, when we try to bring in some changes that tend to disrupt long standing processes, we deploy a tactic called “Overlap”. I strongly feel that in this case also, the government could have brought in this new program with an overlap clause. This means, the existing recruitment program will continue as it is for 2 or 3 years while the new program will be introduced in phases. This of course increases the overall intake for two years but that is a smaller cost for bringing in a reform that has benefits in the long run. The candidates who are part of the ongoing process would not have felt slighted. The new candidates would come in knowing fully the contours of the new program. This would have taken care of the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th issues mentioned above.
  • Float the trial balloon: Now coming to communication and therefore getting feedback before implementing the same, the government could have used a time-tested technique of leaking parts of the program to select journalists. When key elements of the program appear in the media quoting “as per sources”, it gives a window for the government to own/disown parts or the program in full depending upon the feedback. In this case, the government could have easily got an idea of the ground level feedback and therefore timed it better. Also, aspects of the program which the government is now making changes like the one-time extension of age limit and other ministries bringing in notifications for absorbing Agniveers could have been built into the program itself by floating this trial balloon.

Though some of the commentators particularly from the services feel that this should not be seen as an employment generation program, the fact of the matter is, in India there are districts in states like Bihar, Eastern UP, Bundelkhand, Haryana to name a few, where getting into the forces at the sepoy level is a primary source for employment for the youth. This explains the reason for the skewed nature of the protests and outbursts as far as geographic spread is concerned.  The irony is, what probably started as spontaneous outbursts which resulted in destruction of public property at will has now turned into a more orchestrated campaign to create unrest in the country.  Nupur Sharma issue is now history!

By going full fledged with the announcement, the government has put itself in a quandary and the program in jeopardy. Now coming out of the hole and still roll out Agnipath even with some changes will be a real Agnipariksha for the government! Hope this doesn’t go down as “Agnipast”!

Where is the “India Story” headed?

  • World over, inflation is at an all-time high.
  • Oil prices are shooting up.
  • There is a shortage of Wheat and other food items.
  • China has shut down its major cities in pursuit of its “Zero Covid Policy”.
  • Experts expect China to be in some kind of a lock down till 2023.
  • Supply chain disruption which started with Covid in 2020 is still on.
  • US GDP growth rate this year is likely to surpass China’s after four decades.
  • The World’s love affair with China is over.
  • Russia’s Ukraine war is dragging on without an endgame in sight.
  • US companies have pulled out or shut operations in Russia.
  • Affinity for Globalisation is now fraught with “Conditions apply”.
  • Almost all nations are seeking “Atmanirbharta” in some form or other without saying so explicitly.
  • A Unipolar world with US as its vertex that existed for two decades since the end of Cold War has now withered.

So, if one looks around, the picture is not very rosy. Where does that leave with the much touted “India Story”?

I think that this phase of 2/3 years is most crucial for India that can make or break the India Story. And the reasons are as follows:

  • Globally companies who had invested heavily in manufacturing in China are looking at de-risking from China. As a country with a huge population and therefore a source for cheap labour, India can fill in, if we get our act together quickly.
  • We are largely English speaking in business and our systems are integrated with the world unlike China which has strong firewalls in place for integrating all systems.
  • India has already proven its prowess in IT and IT services worldwide.
  • We have a functioning democracy that provides inherent checks and balances where transfer of power happens smoothly as per the will of the people.
  • We have a stable government in place now for the past 8 years at the Centre with a leader who is acknowledged and regarded worldwide.
  • India is back on its feet after two years of Covid.
  • With a large consuming domestic population, it is an attractive market for many corporations.
  • India can be the magnet for attracting manufacturing investments in areas where we have core competency like Auto, Pharma etc.
  • India maintains friendship and strategic relationships with big powers like US, Japan, UK etc…

In short, reasons which are all obvious and which we are all mostly familiar with.

For a world that is looking at options, India can be that next best choice if we get our act together quickly. And that is a big IF. Why is it so?  History of India is replete with missed opportunities. Opportunities missed at times due to external geopolitical reasons but largely thanks to internal politics.  Can this time be different?

I believe keeping aside what happened in the past, as an eternal optimist, things can be different if we played our cards differently.  Towards this, I am suggesting a three-point agenda:

  • Put economic prosperity and therefore growth at the top of the country’s agenda. Think, breathe, and act basis the same.
  • This means that at the Centre, States and local level including WhatsApp groups, we must put a stop to all divisive agenda items. The country must focus single minded on issues related to economic growth. Today, at these crucial times, we are spending our time and attention on issues like origins of temples and mosques. I think we all know the origins of the temples and we don’t need to further spend time and resources to establish the facts.  This is a needless distraction at this point of time for us.
  • Centre and states must work towards this goal of economic prosperity as a team. Unfortunately, today, there is an atmosphere of Centre-state friction for which I believe both the Centre and States are responsible. On the other hand, if Centre and states co-operate and work together, I am sure the pace of growth can be fastened. Let me cite two examples to demonstrate my point:
    • In Mumbai, one of the crucial Metro line projects is now in limbo because of the tussle between Centre and State over the location of the Metro car shed/depot. This is clearly unfortunate and there seems to be no sign of a solution to break the impasse.
    • Last week, at the World Economic Forum at Davos, many of the states from India had individual booths along with a strong contingent to pitch for investments. This is indeed appreciable. But, what if, instead of states fighting among each other to attract investments, the Centre and states had worked a joint plan? What if we had a common India pavilion at a much larger scale with separate booths sector wise with participation from concerned states? I feel this would have made a much larger impact and will also ensure joint ownership in execution once a project is landed.
      • Labour is indeed a state subject. But it is high time a common acceptable labour code is thrashed out between Centre and states and implemented asap. A GST council type labour council be set up asap to arrive at a consensus on this. I believe that such a labour council will also help to wade off local political opposition to changes in labour laws for all political parties.
      • One of the key issues for attracting investments for manufacturing is making available land at reasonable prices. Again, a consensus among states and Centre needs to be arrived at for changes in the current land acquisition bill and implemented asap.
    • In essence between the Centre and State what is needed is Co-opted federalism and not Competitive federalism. Dwelling too much on semantics like “Union Government” Vs “Central government” is just a sheer waste of time.

Author and Columnist T.N.Ninan in a recent piece in The Print says, “For India, economic disorder is a reality to be reckoned with, but it also presents an opportunity” and I agree completely.  If we blow this opportunity, I am afraid that the India story will turn to be a Saas-Bahu type soap where the end doesn’t matter as long as there is some drama every day.

Not PK, Congress needs an AK!

Notwithstanding the poor performance in the recently concluded state elections, Congress managed to hog the headlines in India for the past 2 weeks. And the reason for that was the imminent roping in by Congress of Prashant Kishor (PK), who has now clearly made a mark as a master election strategist in India.  After his very successful stint with TMC for the Bengal state elections where he had openly challenged the BJP on its final tally and won that round, PK had announced that he is moving on from being an election strategist for a party. Instead he said he will be associated in politics in a different avatar.

From then on, we have been hearing about his rounds of discussions with the Congress leadership to work with them for future which ultimately culminated last week with an announcement of a breakdown of discussions between Congress and PK. Except for BJP which was PK’s 1st assignment in working with a party in a poll campaign, the other projects that were successful were when PK and his organisation were signed up by a regional party. These regional parties had supreme leaders and PK had access straight to the top. PK’s package was absorbed and implemented by and large without dissent and he could show results. Even during the 1st assignment, PK was working for and with Modi and not for BJP per se.

Secondly, PK’s wins have been where he has been riding winning horses. I still would say his value addition must have helped in bringing a method to the madness of campaign management, data analytics in candidate selection and culling, innovation in campaign tools and last not but the least, handling a monster called the Social Media with deft. Yet, when it was not a winning horse on the race as we saw recently in Goa (TMC) or in UP in 2017 (Congress), PK’s magic didn’t work.

For PK therefore, working with the Congress comes with a substantial risk.  Congress is an elephant of an organisation and in its weakest form presently.  Yet his keenness to work with Congress and help them win by even joining the Congress comes as a huge surprise and circumspection. Now, with the announcement of PK not accepting the invitation of the Congress to join its Empowered Action Group, it seems it is back to square one for the Congress.  So, how does Congress pick up the threads from here and try to win?

There have been suggestions, ideas and models galore from political commentators in the past few weeks for the Congress that include fixing the leadership issue, building the organisation at the grass roots and of course coming up with a credible narrative against the ruling BJP.  In fact some of these have been detailed in the leaked power point deck of PK which he made to the Congress last year. So, I will skip repeating the same points here.

In my opinion, what Congress needs is not a PK but an AK i.e. an Arvind Kejriwal. And I will tell you why.  Among many, I would like to pick up 2 aspects:

  1. To become leader of the ruling party, you should first become and excel as a leader of the Opposition. Today, though Congress is the single largest opposition party, it has singularly failed in being an effective opposition party. How did AK become what he is today – A sitting two time CM and the leader of the party which is emerging as a credible challenger for the BJP? The answer is simple. It all started with AK launching the Anti-Corruption movement in India which shook the nation thereby taking on the ruling party – Congress in 2011. If you recall, the key aspects of that movement were
  • Picking up a subject (Corruption) that touched all citizens irrespective of caste, creed, religion, class, geography and demographics.
  • Having a credible face for the campaign (Anna Hazare).
  • Garnering support from mainstream media that produced a multiplier effect and clever use of social media.

The campaign propelled AK as an effective activist which he used well to launch a party and win Delhi.

In the past 8 years, can you recall an Opposition campaign spearheaded by the Congress or any of its top leaders on a country wide basis?  Whether at the Centre or at the states where Congress is the principal opposition party, the only place it chooses to take on the ruling party is Twitter. Tweets do not win elections by themselves.  If Rahul Gandhi wants to challenge Narendra Modi for the post of Prime Minister, first he should prove himself as an effective and credible opposition leader.

  1. Once AK became the CM of Delhi, he has made a mark by having his own “Arvind Kejriwal model of governance” with its impetus attached to Education, Health care and cheaper utility bills for the Aam Admi. This model has got a thumbs up from the people as seen by his re-election in Delhi with a massive one sided mandate in 2020. Now this model has also got acceptance in another state namely Punjab where AAP recently swept the Congress out of the state.

Herein lies the next ironical tale of the Congress. In some many years of governing so many states, Congress still doesn’t have a model state to boast of as the “Congress model of governance”! What is stopping Congress from adopting all its professed good ideas in states where it rules and turn into a model? Unfortunately, Congress has been struggling to hold to states where they get an opportunity to rule (Punjab, Karnataka, Andhra, Kerala for example)

A consultant like PK can come and only show the mirror to the Congress. But the weight lifting at the political arena has to be done by the Congress leadership, for which you need be an AK. At the Centre, be a credible opposition leader. And in the states ruled by Congress, show case a model of governance, for starters.

Image courtesy: Outlook India

Takeaways on the takeaways from the 2022 election results!

The long election season in India came to an end last week and the results are in line with my forecast in all states except Goa where I thought that BJP will be shunted out this time.

We have been fed with a surfeit of analyses and takeaways by commentators of all hue by way of articles, videos and podcasts. I don’t want to further add to that cacophony by posting my takeaways on the election results.  However, I am unable to resist listing my key takeaways on the takeaways of the experts themselves. And here we go:

  1. “Switch” Bharat Abhiyan doesn’t stick: Just before the elections were announced in the UP, we saw a big number of defections mostly from the BJP to SP. These were interpreted by pundits as a pointer to the way the political wind was blowing.  In the end however, out of the 21 turncoats who shifted from BJP to SP just before the polls, only 4 won.  The big name among this was Swami Prasad Maurya who hogged headlines for at least a week. He lost his own seat. So, the message is, when leaders leave a party just before polls claiming to have not been given justice blah, blah, the reality could be different.  They might have sensed that the party may drop them from the contestants list due to their poor performance.  We saw this in Bengal also when few leaders jumped from TMC to BJP and they all mostly lost. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan may still be a work In progress but, this “Switch” Bharat Abhiyan is mostly still born!
  1. Differentiate between “Voting” public and “Vocal” public: Reporters doing ground reports often get carried away by the “Vocal” electorate and come to a conclusion for the entire “Voting” electorate. Here, I would like to give an analogy from marketing. When a product or service doesn’t meet the consumer’s expectations, it is very common for him/her to put it out on social media or talk to others about it. But, when the product or service is good and meet the expectations, consumers seldom talk to others or post a review. Negative WOM (Word of Mouth) always trumps positive WOM. It is the same case with voters, I feel. There could be those voters who are not happy with a party and hence tend to be vocal in front of the camera. But, there could be a larger section of voters who could be happy with a government and don’t bother to say anything to reporters. Coming to a conclusion in favour of the vocal public like many commentators did in the recent UP elections is fraught with a high probability of going wrong.
  1. Covid is not Government’s creation: In the run up to the polls and even later, we kept hearing experts talking about how UP government mismanaged Covid and how people will vote out the incumbent BJP government because of that. My point is, if Covid was mismanaged, it was mismanaged by all countries, all states and all administrations all over the world. I don’t think there is any administration that came out covering itself in glory in managing Covid. Even in India, if UP mismanaged Covid, so did Delhi, Kerala, Punjab, Tamil Nadu and so on. But commentators were rifle focussed in talking about Covid mismanagement only in UP while not referring to the same in other states. And the larger point is, the common public did not think that Covid was a creation of the Modi Government at the centre or for that matter any state government. Even in West Bengal elections or in Bihar elections, at the peak of the first wave, people did not punish the incumbent governments over Covid. I think there is a clear resignation among public that Covid was a pandemic not created by the governments and that the governments were trying to do their best with their backs against the wall.
  1. Pro-Incumbency doesn’t mean Anti-Incumbency is over: Since BJP won 4 out of 5 states in this round and sort of retained power in all these states, there is an opinion that the time of Anti-Incumbency is over and it’s the time of Pro-Incumbency. Well, this is only partially true in my opinion. Anti-Incumbency is over only if the incumbent is not Congress. The Congress still manages successfully to succumb to Anti-Incumbency in the states they rule. I am not saying this just because Congress lost Punjab this time where it was incumbent. In the recent past, Congress managed to lose power in states like Pondicherry (2021), Karnataka (2018), Tripura (2018), Himachal Pradesh (2017) and so on.  Yes, other parties have learnt to overcome Anti-Incumbency by mastering the art of governance and delivery like TMC in Bengal (2021), LDF in Kerala (2021), AAP in Delhi (2020), BJD in Odissa (2019), BJP in Gujarat (2018) and now in four states to sight a few examples.  But not the Congress. There is not a single state where Congress has managed to retain the state by demonstrating good governance and thereby projecting a case for Pro-Incumbency. The antithesis from here is that unlike in the past when Anti-incumbency was peddled as an acceptable excuse for losing power by an incumbent government, presently, Anti-Incumbency cannot be an acceptable ruse for a defeat.
  1. Marketing works only if the product is half good: In the beginning of the UP campaign, commentators were talking of how Priyanka Gandhi was running an exceptional campaign in UP with women at the core of the pitch. ‘Ladki hoon, lad sakti hoon’ (LHLSH) was hailed as a brilliant campaign. We now know the outcome of that campaign. Even during the campaign, key women faces of the program jumped ship. Any great campaign cannot save a poor or an average product.  So, I was surprised that commentators were getting carried away by the LHLSH slogan and were expecting Congress to make an impact. To me, it was of no surprise that the campaign lost steam midway.  Same can be said of TMC in Goa where the marketing muscle and resources couldn’t muster a single seat.
  1. In Election Arithmetic, 1+1+1 is not 3: Too many commentators have this habit of summing up individual party’s vote shares in the previous elections to forecast the vote share of an alliance in future elections. As we have seen repeatedly, 1+1+1 need not be 3. It can be 4, if the alliance is on the right side of winning and can be 0.5 if it’s the wrong side of winning. For example, just because RLD tied up with SP this time, the entire JAT vote didn’t shift to SP combine as we were told by experts.
  1. Day-today issues Vs Electoral issues: Increasingly I am seeing that reporters and experts talk to people on the streets on their issues and tend to conclude that they are key “electoral” issues based on which voters would eventually vote for a party. For example, in UP, commentators were talking of “stray cattle” as a big poll issue going against the BJP government. It is obvious to anyone as daylight that BJP as a party will never get punished for an issue like “stray cattle” that too when Yogi Adityanath who has been a votary of Cow protection is the Chief Minister. Also, can anyone tell me when Mehengayee (Price increase) and Berozgaari (Unemployment) have not been issues in India? These have been perennial issues in India and at least in the last 30 years, voters have not started voting for or against a party on these issues.  These issues are taken as given and voters weigh in their mind as to which party can provide them with more opportunities to get over these issues rather than tackle these issues per se.  

In India, elections come sooner than IPL. Just as we finish this round, we will have the next round of state elections towards the end of the year. And if you just kept hearing that UP is the most crucial test for BJP in the last few months, you will soon start hearing that Gujarat is the ultimate test for BJP and Modi in the run up to 2024. And the question, “Is 2024 a done deal for the BJP?” will keep coming up till the exit polls of 2024!!

Cartoon credit: Manjul

When Farm laws became Former laws and the lessons therein!

Guru Nanak Jayanti henceforth, will have an additional reason for celebration for many. Apart from celebrating the revered Sikh Guru on his birthday, the day will be also be remembered and celebrated for bringing Narendra Modi’s strong government down on his knees. This week on the day of Gurpurab, the Prime Minister chose to announce the repealing of the three farm laws which were meant to reform agriculture. This after almost 18 months of relentless protests by farmers mainly in Punjab, Haryana and Western UP. That the government had to finally relent and nullify the laws is unfortunate.  From here on, it is going to be tougher for this government to push through reforms of any nature. The opposition and the other adversaries have smelt blood and have found the soft underbelly of this government and hence a template for pressurising this government.

Farmers celebrate after India’s Prime Minister announced to repeal three agricultural reform laws that sparked almost a year of huge protests by farmers across the country in Singhu on November 19, 2021. (Photo by Xavier Galiana / AFP) (Photo by XAVIER GALIANA/AFP via Getty Images)

This means that moving forward, the Government needs to be inventive and creative in pushing through contentious reforms and bills so that the same fiasco is not repeated. And here are some unsolicited, practical ideas to the government to help push path breaking but contentious reform bills:

  1. Say No to Ordinance: The word “Ordinance” immediately raises the antenna of the opposition and commentators in civil society who deride anything that is an ordinance. Even if it’s a legitimate cause, pushing it through the ordinance route, unnecessarily gives it a colour of conspiracy.  If the Government opted for the Ordinance route to save time, then it is ill intentioned. In India, in matters of reforms, we are used to passing laws after 10 years of debates and discussions. So, trying to cut a few months of time by opting for the ordinance route is not worthwhile. And as we have seen in the Land acquisition bill and now in the farm laws, ordinance route has not helped at all. Considering the fact that the government has a comfortable majority on its own in the lower house and can manage a majority in the upper house, it is wiser to table the laws in both the houses, do some discussion and pass them as laws legitimately.
  2. Roll the red carpet to “Select Committees”: Opposition parties have egos. And egos need to be massaged often. What’s the other better option for this than rolling out the red carpet to “Select Committees”? In your planning cycle for tabling a bill that is reformist in nature and which will attract the ire of the opposition, buffer in certain time for sending the bill to “Select Committees”. It is usually said that “When a government cannot commit, it committees!” I would say that even when a government is clear in its mind and can commit, it should “committee” so that the opposition feels that they have been consulted and the law has been passed after due process. Now the flip side of this is possible dilution of certain provisions which may distort the intent of the law itself as we saw in the case of the “Land Acquisition bill” which the UPA government passed.  Ultimately it has become an ineffective piece of legislation that is the reason for delays in many of the infrastructure projects that are underway. But here again, I would say that with the numbers on its side, the opinions and recommendations of the Select committees can be managed in its favour by the government and in case there are some genuine provisions that need correction, that is welcome.
  3. Head hunt key opposition leaders to be ambassadors: Most of the reforms that are being brought about by the government are long pending once that have been talked about for a long time now. So, in public domain we can always check if any key opposition leader had a favourable view on the subject. It is important to head hunt such leaders and co-opt them as ambassadors for the law by reaching out to them before the law is tabled in parliament. This will not only divide the opposition but will also help in influencing public opinion in favour of the intended reforms. For example, in the case of farm laws, it is known to all that Sharad Pawar when he was the Minister of Agriculture had talked in favour of some of the provisions in these laws. So when Pawar expressed his reservations on the farm bills, the first attempt of the ruling party leaders was to expose his hypocrisy. Instead of that, the government should have reached out to him and sought his support before the bills were tabled. He could also have been used to influence other parties and fence sitters could have been won over. This approach needs a bit of deft floor management and handling of the opposition which I feel is lacking with the Modi government presently.
  4. Cherry pick opinion leaders to influence opinion: During UPA-1, the nuclear bill which Manmohan Singh was personally championing got into rough weather when its own allies from the Left were opposing the bill tooth and nail. The principal opposition party then which was the BJP, also took an opposing view though it was NDA under Vajpayee rule that had sown the seeds for engagement with the US on the nuclear front. In a masterstroke that set the cat among the pigeons in the BJP camp, Sanjaya Baru the media advisor to Manmohan Singh then, reached out to Brajesh Mishra, who was the National Security Advisor to Vajpayee and a vocal supporter of the nuclear bill. Brajesh Mishra came out openly in the press to support the nuclear bill which took the sting out of the BJP attack in the parliament and outside. The present government can take a page out of this play book and cherry pick opinion leaders from civil society to come out in the open to support the proposed reforms. While on this I must add here that many commentators who were in some point of time votaries of the farm bills turned their back and changed their opinion just because the reforms were brought by the Modi government.  This sort of exposed the intellectual dishonesty of such commentators and this is another reason why I advocate that it is important to cherry pick and co-opt some of these commentators who can influence public opinion.
  5. Debate and Debate: I have been reading that the farm laws were passed by the Modi government without any debate or discussions with the stake holders. A lie repeated often becomes the truth. This government might not have debated the bill in the floor of the house during this regime but the subject of agri reforms and the need to reform the APMC act have been discussed and debated enough since 2000. One has to just read this finely detailed paper titled “An intellectual biography of India’s new farm laws” by Gautam Chikarmane to understand the chronology and the journey of these laws. My proposal is, for future even if the need for a reform has been discussed many times, provision a few weeks for repeating the same in the parliament in your regime. Because in India, carrying out the debate in the floor of the parliament is supreme, notwithstanding the quality and the purpose it serves.

The government has its plate full in terms of the reforms agenda in the months to come.  Opposition parties and other interested parties can and will try to follow the SOP of the farm bills in derailing these reforms in the remainder of this term of the government. Therefore it is important that hard lessons are learnt to ensure that this government under Modi is not seen just as a harbinger of “former laws”!

Pic Courtesy: Forbes India

Catching up on the Economic Agenda!

Social Media is an ongoing battlefield for the IT Cells of political parties. There, you routinely find claims and counter claims by BJP and the Congress, which get forwarded and go viral.  Among the regular updates from the BJP side, the ones which are popular are those where Narendra Modi era (Post 2014) and Manmohan Singh era (2004-2014) are compared which show how the country has progressed rapidly in the last 7 years whether it is Highways construction, Rural Electrification, Toilet construction, Clean water supply etc. etc. However, one thing on which the BJP IT cell is put on the back foot by the Congress is the Economic growth. This is a graphic which is popular among the Congress supporters and rightly so where in comparison, the Singh era shows higher average GDP growth than the Modi era, so far.

I am certain that if there is one thing Modi as a person, who likes to leave behind a legacy in whatever he does, would like to correct, it would be this. Frankly, I had high hopes from this government in its first term on its economic agenda. I thought that with a clear majority, it will pursue bold and long pending reforms with a much higher vigour than the reformist Vajpayee Government which was always bogged down by coalition pressures.  It turned out that, but for the introduction of GST (a landmark and very important reform, in my opinion) and Demonetisation (in which the costs outweighed the benefits), the 1st term was lack lustre and was more or less on “Maintenance mode” as far as pursuing a bold economic agenda was concerned.

It is my opinion that lawyers do not make good Finance ministers. P.Chidambaram, a fine lawyer, who is regarded as one of the most reformist Finance ministers the country had, always use to come up with one nit picking thing in his every budget, which cast a dark shadow on all the other good reforms he came up with. We all know what happened with Pranab Mukherjee, another Finance minister with a legal background. His retrospective taxation idea much against the wishes of even the economist Prime Minister Singh, punctured the “India Story” then and our economy went into a tailspin. So, that’s what happened with the Modi Sarkar in its first term. Arun Jaitley, another fine legal eagle was picked as the finance minister but, even during his regime the retrospective taxation was not rolled back! With no much economic traction, the 1st term of Modi ended on a disappointing low economic growth path.

In 2019, when Nirmala Sitharaman was made the Finance minister in a very surprise move (not Piyush Goyal who was touted as the favourite), expectations were quite low. But, I had mentioned that time, that she could surprise the critics at the end of the day. I felt that considering her background and her studious nature, she can be expected to meticulously follow the agenda as laid out in the manifesto. Not just that, but also follow through methodically in terms of execution.  You can see that this is what is happening now.  In her 1st budget in 2019, when corporate taxes were cut – a bold economic move to boost private investments and sentiment, it appeared that the Modi Government in its second term had got its intentions right in pursuing its economic agenda to boost growth which faltered in the 1st term.

 

The pandemic though, which hit all economies hard including India in Feb/Mar 2020 put a spoke all further bold moves. Economic management during a pandemic is a double edged sword. The government needs to focus on lives on one hand and livelihood on the other and that too when its income is crippled.  But, I thought that the team managing the economy in this government weathered the Covid storm very well and managed to tide over the crisis very well, under the circumstances.

In the midst of the pandemic last year and perhaps even now, top economists of the likes of Dr. Abhijit Banerjee, Dr. Raghuram Rajan and Dr. Kaushik Basu have been of the opinion that the Central government should not worry about fiscal deficit, agency ratings and all. Among other things like increased spending on health, they maintained that it should just do cash transfers through DBT mode to the needy. However, the government took a more cautious and calibrated approach of support by providing free ration to the needy, extending loan support to businesses etc. instead of cash transfers.  This has been a clash of ideas between the economists in the government and economists commentating from outside.  Frankly, I felt that what our government did is a better approach for a country like India.

Unlike the West, in India, people are more conservative financially. So, when a person gets free cash during a pandemic his first instincts will be to save it for spending on essential goods rather than on non-essential stuff to boost demand. Secondly, thanks to the lock down, there were supply restrictions. It is not logical that people will spend money just because they have been provided with cash support. So, the Government’s calibrated approach of providing free rations to the needy serves the purpose of protecting livelihoods during the pandemic. The salaried upper middle class and above were anyway not so affected as they were getting the salaries and even they spent only on essential stuff basically due to lockdown restrictions. So, the argument that Direct cash transfer would have boosted demand in the times of a pandemic doesn’t seem logical at all.  If not all, a few economists like Swaminathan Aiyar finally admitted that this approach worked better for India.

It is in this context of understanding the thought process of this government on handling economic issues during the pandemic that I bumped on this video. In this speech, Sanjeev Sanyal, Economist and Principal Adviser in the Ministry of Finance, articulates brilliantly the approach of the government in managing the pandemic from an economic stand point. If you haven’t watched it, please do so.  It answers quite a few questions which are routinely thrown at this government at the way it has been responding to the pandemic.  Its clear from the speech that there is a “method” in the thinking of the government while there is “madness” in the newsrooms that feed us information.  I wish that the government articulates the thinking behind their decisions more regularly for the benefit of all.

Now if you see the last few months, it is clear that the government is dead serious in reviving the economic growth. Some of the decisions since March have been bold and commendable. The rolling back finally of the retrospective taxation is one.  The Asset Monetisation program is another.  Taking a call to relieve the stress on the balance sheets of the banks by forming a “Bad Bank” is also another one.  Again, addressing sector specific long pending issues like in Telecom is yet another.  So, there has been a slew of bold decisions recently that gives a hope that in this term, with the pandemic hopefully behind us, the Modi Sarkar is pushing aggressively on its economic agenda.

As an economy, I believe we are at an interesting and crucial point. The pandemic is ebbing (or so we believe). Vaccination is progressing at a rapid pace. Economic activity is getting back to normal. These should bring the economy soon to pre-Covid levels. Now, if the bold reforms that have been unleashed this year has the desired effect, the growth only can be higher from here. For the Modi Sarkar which is finally catching up on the economic agenda, it will be a lasting legacy to demonstrate a higher average economic growth than the Singh era. And for the IT cell of the ruling party, few memes less to counter!