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)!

Budget – The Annual celebration of Outlays!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toon Courtesy: Satish Acharya (Sify.com)

Long lasting Budget Wishlist!!!

Tomorrow, on the 29th Feb 2016 as the finance minister “rises to present the budget of the Union for the year 2016-17”, he also raises a lot of hopes. In the media in India in the past 1 week or so, it’s been raining wishlists from the budget. As an Aam Admi, I also got tempted to join the bandwagon to submit my own wishlist though I know very well that it’s too late to incorporate even one from this (Wait a minute, may be one can be). But I still go ahead and here’s my list of 10 things which I would like to see change around the budget atleast in my life time.

Here we go:

  1. First up, do away with this archaic “Halwa ceremony” where the FM participates to prepare Halwa in the North Block office along with the staff who are going to be holed up for few weeks in isolation running upto the budget. What’s this Halwa got to do with the budget making? On the other hand, “Halwa Kudukarathu” (Giving Halwa) in Tamil is a euphemism for taking one for a solid ride😁😁! So unless the Govt. actually meant this only every year, they should stop this. And what’s this FM and team posing every year stirring up the Halwa😩
  2. On the day of the Budget, one familiar sight every year you can’t escape is the FM posing with a shining new “Brown Brief case” just as he enters the parliament. To me this brief case symbolizes extreme colonialism which we find it difficult to shrug off. In British parliament also same thing happens to date. (For more on the history of the “Budget Bag” pls click here).  For a country, which boasts itself as an IT behemoth and all that jazz why can’t the FM just walk in with a high capacity pen drive or a lap top instead of this antiquated brief case??? Won’t that be cool?

Budget pic3. And as the FM reads the budget speech, it’s usually from a huge bound document supported by a wooden stand crammed with facts and figures. How will it be if the same is presented as a power point presentation – with slides to the point with graphics? (something we could see in this year’s Economic Survey presented by Arvind Subramanian and team)

4. I don’t know when or who started this trend of sprinkling budget speeches with Shayari??? I do know that FMs like Manmohan Singh, Yashwant Sinha and now Arun Jaitley (Not to mention P.Chidambaram and his Thirukural couplets) get into shayar mode in the course of the budget speech but with limited effect. While it’s good to keep the speech which tends to get boring interspersed with some couplets, poetry,… more often than not it looks thrust upon and not in a flow. As if the British left that also as a rule! Some good self-deprecating humour could be a better option!

5. What is this thumping of the desks by the treasury benches for every outlay announced? It’s now obvious that outlay in itself doesn’t mean anything. Before the FM starts reeling out budgetary allocations, I would like to see the FM starting with the “Outcomes” from the outlays of the top 20 items in the previous year and explain how it benefited the people at large. That will give us some idea as how “our” money has been utilized and for the Govt. an opportunity to boast their report card. This can be followed by the outlays for the next year with clearly expected outcomes from the same.

6. And what is this “ranking” business the media resorts to by the Industry captains immediately after the budget? We have now seen that the devil is in the detailed explanations that surface later. So any ranking without understanding the fuller provisions according to me is an exercise dipped in frivolity.

7. And when is the last time you have seen industry captains giving a thumbs down to the budget?? It is generally a mega thumbs up or atleast a thumbs up with conditions attached. The feedback is always ‘right” and seldom “honest”. So why get into reactions from the Industry which are any way far removed from honesty?

8. Any why do the pink channels get excited and scream about the way the Stock market reacts to the budget?? We have now seen many times in the past that the Stock Market reaction to the budget is knee jerk and not borne out of any proper analysis of the after effects of budget proposals.

9. And why do the pink papers – The Economic Times in particular come out with a blockbuster issue the next day of the budget with the full budget speech and the myriad annexures??? Just upload on the net and leave it to the discerned to access if they need. Saving trees and the environment can just start here!

10. And finally, instead of the FM just making a once a year marathon appearance why not present a review of the budget and the progress made on outlays once every Qtr.? This will help us understand which ministries are performing and will aid PM to separate the wheat from the chaff!

I admit that my wishlist is more on the “method” and not on “matter” and “form” rather than “content”. One of my earlier posts (read here) delved on that a bit. Hopefully we get to hear something sweet in the leap year budget speech tomorrow which will leapfrog our economy. And are not dished out the greasy “Halwa” we Tamilians abhor.

Sir, a Plus budget!!!

In India, come Feb, it’s time for the release of the mother of all blockbusters – “The Union Budget”. While even the blockbusters of the Khans are just in the vicinity of few 100 crores, this one flies in the space of thousands and hundreds of thousand crores. Isn’t it interesting, that the whole nation awaits with bated breath to find out how the Govt. of the day is going to spend “it’s collective” money in the next 1 year??? So too I was yesterday, when Arun Jaitley the Finance Minister rose oops sat down to present what I would think as one of the most significant budgets in recent years for our country.

budget

Since yesterday afternoon, we have been fed with hours and hours of programming in all current affairs channels with experts dissecting the budget. After having gone through these boiler plate stuff for so many years, I get a feeling that the reactions are mostly pre-determined irrespective of the content of the budget. As in, the verdict on the budget is along expected lines. Panelists from the ruling front sing panegyric paeans on the budget while those from the opposition usually sing the “disappointing” tune rather petulantly :(. Also for experts. For those with leanings towards the Govt. of the day, it is a transformational budget and for those in the other side of the divide it is “trashformational”!!! And for CII – any budget is a 9 on 10 budget!!! This satirical piece – Budget Criticism 101 from The Unrealtimes I feel is not a satire at all but the Annual reality 🙂 🙂 . So I thought why not analyse the budget through a normal aam admi prism devoid of any ideological/political tilt?

As a responsible tax paying citizen of the country, I look for the foll. In the budget:

  • Does the budget spell out initiatives which can fuel growth in the Indian economy? Overall Economic growth brings in investments, increases jobs for all, raises salaries,…,…
  • Is there any transformational/game changing idea (or is it Big Bang) which has longer term impact for the country? – Like De-licensing, Gram Sadak Yojana, Aadhaar, GST,…,…
  • India is notorious for its archaic regulations and laws. Is the Govt. doing anything to make life simpler for doing business – local or foreign?
  • What’s in it for the poorer sections of the people – which is still significantly big in our country?
  • Finally what are the signals being sent by the Govt. of the day?

Looking at the Modi-Jaitley budget from the above perspective, my sense is that they have presented a “Smart” budget. They know very well that the expectations of all sections of the people are very high and had to do the balancing act to appease everyone. At the same time, elbow space for tough decisions is only available in 2015 and 2016. Beyond that the Govt. gets into re-election mode.  It appears to me that, from whole lot of things they need to do (which they have promised) they clearly prioritized the ones which needed to be attended to in this budget. And put off a few for the future. And I feel that’s the way to go.

  • The budget indeed brings in focus back to economic growth without being apologetic about it. Focus on infrastructure, Corporate Tax cut, Job creation,.. signal that.
  • Though there are no new transformational ideas in this budget – to be fair to Modi – he didn’t wait for the budget to announce a few. Ideas like the Jan Dhan Yojana, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and Make in India – all transformational ideas were kicked off last year itself. This is a welcome sign. Finally GST gets a final deadline.
  • Cleaning up gets a lot of attention. Whether it is Swachh Bharat, Clean Ganga or for that matter Black money cleansing!!!
  • The Universal Social security net for all Indians is an interesting initiative. That it is through the insurance route comes as a relief. Otherwise India could end up suffering like most of the European economies with very high long term liabilities.
  • The Govt. has clearly for this year atleast prioritized on domestic investors rather than foreign if one looks at the introduction of SETU fund …and no major FDI relaxations.
  • The pandering to salaried class interests with more income tax cuts or other gimmicks have been I guess postponed for years closer to 2019!!!
  • Again things like flowing money to Smart Cities, Digital India are on hold in this budget. Means could tap the private route for these initiatives or will be taken up in the coming years when tax collections are more buoyant with better economic growth.
  • I see a lot of critiques on the increase of Service tax rate from 12.6% to 14% which will overall shrink our wallets. But I think this is a clear attempt to prepare all of us for the introduction of GST which will be at a higher rate of may be 16%!

Any budget proposal will have its share of misses. And there were a few in this too. However overall, I think it is a Smart, Working, Balanced budget which sets the tone for the economy to grow in the coming years. Taking up a few important issues and implementing them is better than announcing a slew of initiatives and outlays and messing up the outcomes. So in that sense Sir, it is a Plus budget!!! And I guess the FM scored well if not a centum!!

Budget2

India has indeed reached a sweet spot. We must now be in a hurry to change its status from #WorkinProgress to #JustArrived!!!