The Dream of a Swachh Bharat!

2nd Oct, 2019 marked the 5th Anniversary of the launch of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet campaign – the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. And ever since the campaign was kicked off, this is my 5th post on the topic with the central theme being the same which I will come to, just in a while. While launching the program way back in 2014 just after coming to power, I remember Narendra Modi clearly saying that a “Clean India” would be a fitting tribute we would give to Mahatma Gandhi on his 150th birth anniversary in 2019.  Even back then, I had said that the very noble thought notwithstanding, turning India into a Swachh Bharat cannot happen in 5 years.

If one takes stock today, India would not have turned into a squeaking clean nation but a valiant beginning has indeed been made. After the program got launched, within the government a Swachh Bharat Mission was kicked off, breaking down the overarching objective of a Clean India into many, many micro goals with measurable targets. This included stuff like constructing toilets in rural and urban India, making India Open Defecation Free (ODF) completely, achieving rural sanitation, sustainable solid waste management and so on.  The thrust given to this program from a top down push and resources point of view has been unprecedented. Just purely looking at the results from a data stand point they are impressive.

Going by the numbers presented in the budget in May 2019, in the 5 years since the program was kicked off, 9.6 crore toilets have been constructed while more than 5.6 lakh villages have become Open Defecation Free. The Finance Minister had then said, “More than 95% of cities have also been declared ODF. More than 45,000 public and community toilets across 1,700 cities have been uploaded on Google maps, covering more than 53% of India’s urban population”! Now considering the sheer magnitude of the task in hand in India, these are not mean achievements and credit needs to be given to the Government, where due.  And when the Prime Minister on 2nd Oct said that “rural India and its villages have declared themselves “open defecation free” there were the usual sneers and sniggers around the same, questioning if there will not be any person who will defecate in the open from the next day in India!

In spite of all this capacity building and pouring in of resources by the Government, has India become clean? The answer is probably “No”. But from 2014 levels, it has perhaps become cleaner.  People who visited Varanasi, the Prime Minister’s constituency say that the city is much cleaner, the Ghats are approachable and clean. All over India we keep seeing public clicking pictures from Railway stations and posting in social media regularly as to how cleaner they have become since 2014. It is undeniable that many places of tourist interest look much cleaner now than ever before. So far, so good. At the same time, we still see islands of squalor even in urban centres. Garbage is littered all over the place.

So what has been the problem? While the Government has been doing its bit in running awareness programs around cleanliness, placing dust bins all over the place, constructing toilets, making sanitation accessible so on, we as public have failed the country. Our attitudes towards cleanliness haven’t changed a wee bit.

  • We have not stopped littering in public places.
  • We have not stopped spitting in the open.
  • We have not stopped painting the town red with paan spitting day in and day out.
  • We have not stopped urinating or shitting in the open even when toilets can be found in the vicinity.
  • We don’t clean the dog poop even inside our posh apartment complexes while walking them every day.
  • We have not stopped throwing garbage in all areas except into the dustbins in the streets.
  • We have not stopped mixing wet and dry garbage though the authorities have been requesting for a while now.
  • We have not stopped feeding our pets and others from the balconies.
  • And we have not stopped from wanting the Government/Corporation/Authorities to keep cleaning the filth we create.
  • And finally we have not stopped dreaming about a “Clean India” without putting any effort from our side.

Coming back to my pet theme which I referred in the beginning, if we think that Swachh Bharat is about cleaning, then we are grossly mistaken. SWACHH BHARAT IS NOT ABOUT CLEANING, BUT TO REDUCE THE NEED FOR CLEANING IN THE FIRST PLACE!

It is an oft repeated take that the same Indians when we step out of India change our attitudes towards public cleanliness like “Switched On robots” while in India we behave as “Switched Off Morons”!

Having observed closely how things are in our country and world over, I have come to the conclusion that the attitude towards public cleanliness is not a Rich Vs Poor thing. It is not an Educated Vs Uneducated either. It is not even Urban Vs Rural divide. It has nothing to do with Caste, Creed, Religion and so on.  It is complex function of a combination of things like Awareness, Empathy, Upbringing, Education, Access, Priority, Laws etc. In short, having an empathetic attitude towards cleanliness not just in one’s own private spaces but more importantly in public places!

This is why I am of the opinion that, since transforming attitudes is a generational thing, it will take at least a couple of generations from here for India to be called a “Clean India”. That is about 50 years from now! And the key to make it happen is investing in resources and time in schools to create, nurture and spread the importance of having the right attitude towards Swachata!  While the present Governments at the centre, states, districts and at panchayats continue to work on what they are doing currently, admirably, they and the future Governments must focus on schools at all levels to “indoctrinate” kids at a young age about cleanliness. Investing in the future generations is the only hope we have to achieve the dream of a Swachh Bharat!  Cannot wait that long for a Swachh Bharat? Then we must stop complaining of what the Government is not doing and start reducing the need for cleaning! Basically stop some of the things I have listed above.

Does that mean that the campaign is a failure? Certainly not. The Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has helped to bring “Cleanliness” to the mainstream agenda of the country. Far long, we had neglected such basic issues of Nation building. So, kudos are in order to Narendra Modi for waking up India towards Swachata! Swachh Bharat may still be a dream for us now, but certainly not a pipe dream!

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Howdy Economy?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript:  In my earlier posts, I had said,

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

And

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

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

Turning the GDP (Gross Disappointing Product) tide!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To get private corporate investments going:

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

To improve consumption and spending:

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

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

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

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

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

A Tale of Two FMs!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Resorts as the 1st resort!!!

How many still remember Jaspal Bhatti? If you are from the Doordarshan generation just like I am, you will not have any problem in recalling him. Jaspal Singh Bhatti was the 1st known political satirist on Indian Television. Through his shows Ulta Pulta and Flop show in the 80’s and 90’s, Bhatti took pot shots on what was happening around us in the political scene and we eagerly looked forward to his shows. A clip from one of those shows where Bhatti dons the role of a “Buyer and Seller of MLAs” for political parties who lose MLAs to defection, landed as a WhatsApp forward few days ago. Someone recalled that episode and circulated it to remind us of Bhatti’s foresight looking at what is happening in Karnataka and Goa in the last few days! If Bhatti were to be living amidst us today, I am not sure if he would be proud or feel ironical of his prescience!

In India, what’s happening these days make a mockery of the famed “Anti Defection Bill” which was introduced in the late 80’s by Rajiv Gandhi to put an end to the Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram routine that was common in those times! For some time, one felt that we found an anti-dote to defections once for all. But then, we Indians are reputed to find innovative solutions to any problem. So soon, a loop hole in the Anti Defection law was found and exploited. Which is – the bill only prevented individuals from defecting but did not mind splits and mergers of parties with 1/3rd of members! So Aaya Ram, Gaya Ram has now given way to “Aaya Toli, Gaya Toli”! Or like what is happening in Karnataka, legislators just resign as MLAs bringing down the strength of the house and thereby of the party/front in majority!

What is common among Goa and Karnataka? These are states where the polls threw up a fractured verdict.  No single party got an absolute majority. Even a pre-poll arrangement could not garner majority. A government could be formed only by cobbling up a post-poll alliance! In a democracy, there are inherent problems with such post-poll alliances. The parties don’t face the electorate with such a premise. And when voters cast their votes, they for sure do not expect those who fought bitterly against each other during the campaign to come together as allies and conjure up a government! This is exactly what happened in both Goa and Karnataka!

The tamasha doesn’t end there after the Government is formed, as we have been seeing in Karnataka! Every other day we find the Government on the throes of a crisis of survival. Governance be damned because it is a question of “Return on Investment” (ROI) for many! One group is not complaining though! The resort owners! They don’t have to worry about their ROI! Every now and then a political party suffering from a threat of group defections hordes their MLAs to resorts in other states, usually the friendly ones, to firewall them from offers and counter offers. Horse trading is the term used for this in popular lexicon. Frankly I feel that it is an insult to horses! Another rhyming word though a bit unparliamentary would make a better fit as we are talking about seats and chairs here!

“Resort politics” which was invented originally by Devi Lal of Haryana in the 80’s has now been internalised perfectly by most of the parties. Hotel Viceroy in Hyderabad became a sort of a tourist attraction after Chandrababu Naidu used it to house his MLAs during the infamous coup he staged against N.T.Rama Rao. What does it speak of the MLAs who are supposed to be people’s representatives who allow themselves to be hoarded from one city to another and lodged in resorts?

It is not very difficult to imagine the trade-offs in these situations. In Goa, 3 of those who defected from the Congress have been made ministers with one – Chandrakant Kavlekar, even being made the Deputy CM of the state! Not to forget that he was accused of running shady businesses and land deals not so long ago by BJP! Similarly, the MLAs who have resigned in Karnataka would not have done so without Quid pro quo deals! What does all this say of Democracy? We cannot claim to be one of the world’s largest and best performing democracy by just routinely conducting free and fair elections! Elections are of course important through which, people get to elect their own representatives. However, Democracy I believe, is not just about this aspect. It should also be about deriving desired outcomes from the electoral process! From this point of view I feel our current democratic process is flawed and need serious reforms!

First up, the Anti – Defection law needs a re-look. If a candidate has gone to the voter and obtained votes as “A” party’s candidate he should not be allowed to defect to party “B” after becoming a legislator. Period. Similarly an “Independent” candidate should clearly indicate his allegiance to a front or his true non-allegiance to any front before the elections based on which he should seek votes from people. Once the candidate does that and becomes a legislator he should not be allowed to switch allegiance post the elections. In short, there can be Zero defections once an election is over.

Second, which I have written before as well (Read the post here) is on the veracity of “Post poll alliances” in a democracy. I sincerely feel that the concept of Post poll alliances is actually a fraud being inflicted on the voting public. More often than not, even the so called liberal commentators are fine with governments being formed through post-poll deals under the premise of “Politics is the art of the possible”! I really don’t know in which context Otto Von Bismarck, the German statesman made this statement! But it has been imbibed very well in Indian politics. Under the current circumstances, I would like to make a small change to that philosophy to read as “Politics is the art of the plausible”! Plausibility adds that credibility bit.

If the above are implemented, it will put an end to this tamasha of “Resort politics”! It was George Bernard Shaw who famously said, “Politics is the last resort of the scoundrels!” If he was alive, Jaspal Bhatti in his own inimitable style would have made it sound like – “Resorts are the first resort of politicians”!

Postscript: The term “Horse trading” owes its origin apparently to the notorious shrewdness of Horse traders who are involved in long drawn mostly dis-honest negotiations while buying and selling horses! (Courtesy: TOI)

Image courtesy: Asianetnews

When Social media becomes Antisocial!

For the uninitiated, Sudha Raghunathan is an accomplished Carnatic vocalist from Chennai. She is a Sangeeta Kalanidhi – a revered title awarded by the Madras Music Academy. She is a Kalaimamani – an award given by the State government of Tamil Nadu to illustrious artists. She is a Padma Shri. She is also a Padma Bhushan. She has been one of the leading Carnatic vocalists of the country.  And has been in the fore front of spreading this art form world over, for decades now.

All these don’t seem to matter anymore. If you go by what you see on Social media these days! In the past few days, Social media has been flooded with posts and forwards, all centred on the upcoming marriage of Sudha Raghunathan’s daughter to a Christian. It all started with the appearance of the marriage invitation card on Facebook and Twitter which then found its way to myriad WhatsApp groups!

For the conservative South Indian society in general and for followers of Carnatic music in particular, it is as if the earth quaked! “How can the daughter of the venerable Sudha Raghunathan marry a Christian?” was the initial reaction. What started as a general lament on the affairs of the youth these days (of studying abroad and marrying out of community and religion) soon turned into a barrage of vitriol and bile targeted at the singer.

One may recall that few months ago, a few Carnatic vocal singers were caught in a controversy over singing songs on Jesus set in Carnatic ragas.  Singers like O.S. Arun, Nithyashree Mahadevan and few others were targeted for agreeing to sing Carnatic music based songs on Jesus and participating in Christian events. There was a loud call for a ban on these artists and finally the controversy blew over when the concerned artists clarified that they are not going to participate in such events. The issue was also attributed to the Church’ larger design of promoting Christianity by appropriating native culture. Conservative and orthodox followers of Carnatic music hadn’t forgotten that story or forgiven those artists, when this issue of Sudha Raghunathan surfaced now.

In Social media, attempts have been made to explain this as a part of the larger “Missionary project” of evangelisation. In line with this presumption, a fake narrative was also propagated that Sudha Raghunathan and family were getting converted to Christianity religion to facilitate this marriage.

While the news of the marriage along with the invite went viral, there was another audio clip which went viral too! This was of a telephone conversation between Raghunathan (Sudha’s husband) and one Ramanathan belonging to the Rashtriya Sanadhana Seva Sangham. Some have mistaken it for the RSS but this organisation has got nothing to do with the RSS.  In the course of the call, Ramanathan almost questions Raghunathan as to why they are letting the marriage happen. In the entire call, Raghunathan is almost apologetic and tries to explain the situation around the fake news of them converting into Christianity and so on. The height of absurdity is that along with the audio clip, the phone numbers of both Raghunathan and Ramanathan were circulated as well!  This is the same Ramanathan who had called O.S. Arun during the earlier controversy, bullied him over phone, recorded the phone conversation and put it out on social media!  Raghunathan is also heard as saying he has been in the receiving end of many such calls in the past few days!

The matter didn’t end here. Another picture of Sudha Raghunathan and her family ostensibly clicked in some wedding reception started doing the rounds with a caption –“National Integration, Unity in Diversity”. The claim was that, Sudha’s son had married a Muslim before and now her daughter is marrying a Christian! This was again a fake narrative and even if it was true, how did it matter?

In Social media, many were of the opinion and rightfully so, that this was purely a personal matter and not of concern to the music lovers. It is good to see that for every nasty comment, there are equal and opposite comments condemning extreme reactions to the wedding news. However, the virulent reactions of many, including that of calling for a boycott of Sudha Raghunathan, the Carnatic exponent, exposed the faultlines that exist today in our society.

The whole episode raises a few serious questions and concerns.

  • That a public figure and a respected artist is just turned into a much hated figure over night by guardians of culture and religion just because the public figure or his/her family member exercised his/her personal freedom.
  • That any self-proclaimed protector of the Hindu religion can call and bully a public figure over a matter of personal choice!
  • That such calls can be recorded and put out on public domain without an iota of concern or respect over individual’s privacy!
  • That an artist’s credentials can be buried overnight and his/her career stunted over issues not concerning the art form!

It’s high time we as a society realise that it is none of our business to comment or express concern on purely a personal matter involving any public figure.

When Social media arrived in the scene we all rejoiced at the empowerment it gave to all those who wanted to express themselves.  Narrative building was no longer the privilege of a few or so we thought.  However, in the recent times, we have been witness to the ugly face of social media more often than not. This incident involving Sudha Raghunathan and her family is an example of how Social media becomes Antisocial!

One of the most popular renditions of Sudha Raghunathan is the song “Brahmam Okate…”! This song is one of the best compositions of Saint Annamacharya in which he describes the universal truth of Oneness! It’s time we as a society understand the profound meaning of the lines of this song and spare the likes of Sudha Raghunathan, this hate on what is clearly a non-issue!

Image courtesy: Milapfest

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