In #2019, no TINA but be wary of TAIL!

As 2018 winds down and we step in to 2019, for India, it is just not another new year. Mid of 2019 is when we will have the Lok Sabha polls that will determine if Narendra Modi will get another shot at being the Prime Minister. In my memory, I cannot recall of any individual who has come for so much scrutiny as an elected representative. And whose re-election is being discussed and debated so intensely in the country. First up, blame it all on the social media and its growing tentacles!

The fact that a government’s performance is coming up for such a rigorous appraisal itself, augurs well for our country. It should be like that. I only hope that this appraisal business isn’t selective and not just reserved for Modi Sarkar! If I think as to why this government has come under such a close assessment, I realise that it should blame itself for the same.

Did we have any other government in the past that

Set targets for itself on many fronts?

Which announced the targets and put them out in public domain?

Which tracked the actual delivery against the targets and presented them for everyone to see and comprehend easily that too mostly on real-time basis?

Today we know, not just what this government’s targets are for rural electrification, construction of highways, building targets, opening of bank accounts so on and so forth but also where it stands in terms of achievement. One look at the https://transformingindia.mygov.in/performance-dashboard/ site gives us an update on a real-time basis. It is not that governments in the past did not set targets for themselves. But all these targets were usually in terms of outlays announced in the Annual Budget speeches and seldom one would know what the final outcomes were. Between the outlays and outcomes, the India story remained in tatters. I guess not any more.  So, if people keep remembering the promises made and get disappointed if some of the promises have not been met fully or adequately, blame it on the Government’s efforts of putting out data in the open which makes it possible to compare achievements Vs goals easily.

In comparison to the upbeat mood in 2014 and 2015, today the mood in the country is more sombre. Even the most loyal fans of Modi have realised that probably he chewed more than what he could swallow. Five years are just not enough to turn around and solve all the ills of the country. That too when the global economy is facing one headwind after another! But then, as a country we had our own share of misses. Right when the economy was getting back on track in 2015/16 from the throes of policy paralysis and negative vibes and was poised for a leap, this government let loose the Demonetisation devil on the economy.  This set the economy back by 2 years to get back on track. That we didn’t fully collapse and managed to grow the economy at a slower pace nevertheless, would be a miracle, academicians would pore over in the years to come!

Before the effects of Demonetisation could subside, this government went ahead with the introduction of GST which according me is the biggest Tax reform in Independent India. Irrespective of the critics who take on this government on the “not so perfect” GST, I maintain that it was extremely creditable on the part of Modi Sarkar to launch the GST without further delaying, on the 1st of July 2017. In India, in aspects of meeting deadlines, we Indians follow religiously and rigorously the Theory of Elasticity which says solid materials deform under the application of external force and regain their original shape when the force is removed. So, in the quest of a perfect, ideal GST, if this government had deferred the launch, who knows, perhaps we will still be talking of “introducing the GST” in the upcoming budget!  Against that, today we already have a thriving GST which is now going to complete 2 years! The introduction of GST will remain this government’s biggest achievement when its history is written.

The short term pains inflicted by these 2 moves (Demonetisation and GST) to the small and medium businesses combined with the government’s failure to address the Banking crisis at the beginning of its term have led the BJP to the situation where it is today.  In its strong hold states like Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, the party’s support base has been dwindling. On the contrary, the Congress which seemingly had no hope of a revival till mid-2017, has smelt blood and is hoping to deprive Modi of a second term and a shot at history.

In India today, in the main stream media and also probably social media, the obituary of Modi Sarkar is being written on a daily basis. As per me, it is too early to write off Narendra Modi in the context of 2019. In spite of his government’s misses in terms of promises and more importantly the delivery of Achhe Din, his personal credibility as a leader who is keen to deliver, is intact. I do believe that there are those who are disappointed with him. But they are still not disgusted with him. Yet.  My personal feeling is that they would like to give him another chance.  The same states which voted out the BJP recently could very well see voting for Modi in the Lok Sabha polls!

Apart from this factor of Modi’s personal charisma, there is another important factor at play. People like to call it the TINA (There Is No Alternative) factor. I don’t believe that there are no alternatives to Modi. In fact, we have many. We have the spectre of a Rahul Gandhi becoming the Prime Minister, if a Congress led UPA front emerges as the biggest. Or else it could be toss between a Mamata Banerjee or a Mayawati or a Chandrasekhar Rao or any other leader depending upon how many seats they win, as part of a coalition which will be cobbled together post the elections. In all these cases, a leader of the party with 30-40 MPs would head the coalition of 10-15 parties with each party playing the “I am indispensable” card!

This Mahagathbandan where, parties will oppose each other in one state but will come together in another state is only a Maha”cut”bandhan who want their share of power and the perks that come with it. I believe that people are smart enough to understand and realise that Modi Sarkar might have disappointed but will still probably vote for him not because of TINA but being weary of TAIL – The Alternative Is Lousy!

In the past, we saw many Accidental Prime Ministers as we didn’t sight TAIL properly! Hope 2019 is different. On that hopeful note, wishing India a momentous 2019!

Cartoon courtesy: Satish Acharya

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Our Tryst with GST* – * Conditions apply!!!

GST – The Good and Simple Tax, as our acronym lover PM touted during the launch on 30th June is finally a reality after almost 11 years of intense labour. This along with FDI in retail must count among the most awaited reforms in India by India observers.

So, the advent of a single tax which subsumes, at last count, some 17 different taxes and myriad cesses certainly must count as the single largest Tax reform undertaken in India. Not to forget the application of tax only on value added in the chain. Along with this simplification, the fact that goods from one state can pass thro different states without wait, harassment and accompanying corruption portend a new beginning for trade in our country. In the pre-GST era, logistics and warehousing strategy of companies have been dictated by tax compliance rather than supply chain considerations. In the sense, the number of warehouses and their size would be driven by billing point concerns rather than geographical spread of demand. In the GST era, warehousing will depend on supply and demand equations and not taxation points. And hence like in most developed countries, companies will get to run larger, integrated and fewer of warehouses. Development of more efficient logistics hubs, warehouse consolidation and ensuing FDI will become a reality soon. This is a new dawn for retail, supply chain and logistics industry.

So with all the seemingly obvious benefits of the GST regime, why is it that there is still some cynicism and negativity from different quarters about the move? Why is P. Chidambaram once the prime mover of GST when UPA was in power, cautioning all of us to “Get Set for Turbulence”? The GST in the current form is nowhere close to the one which was originally conceived. Rolling stones probably gather no moss. But a rolling GST gathered whole lot of moss on its way from the wisdom of empowered committees to standing committees to GST council. The current version of GST is a product of what I call “co-operative federal bullying”. The result is instead of the One Nation, One Market, One Tax premise, what we have is One Nation, One Market, One Tax name, 3 Sub Tax names, Multiple Rates, Few Exceptions, Some flexibilities and with an *. * – Conditions apply.

Being part of the GST council, the states in their own wisdom, ensured that we as a country don’t get away with a simplistic tax which may throw many Chartered Accountants out of jobs. However, I understand that without having a set of different GST rates (in some cases different rates for the same category as per user segments) or without excluding items like Petrol, Alcohol, Real estate,.. consensus could never have been built in getting GST off the ground. UPA’s failure to make GST a reality during their regime stems from this. So the choice before the centre was to accept what the states demand and bring about a not so ideal GST or wait endlessly for a few more years may be decades before some major economic crisis forces all concerned to come to an agreement on the ideal GST. From that point of view I agree with the stand taken by the Govt. to bring in GST in its present form with its shortcomings, with a hope of ringing in the changes in the coming years. Kudos are in order hence.

The Congress party which at every opportunity reminded us that the seeds for GST in India were sown by the UPA, however, chose to be petulance personified and boycotted the GST launch. While rubbishing the GST in its present form its main “anGST” against GST was that it is being rushed thro and should be delayed by 3 months till September. We all in India know that in our country whatever may be the preparatory time available, things get accomplished at the last minute. If we get more time, we stretch our deadlines accordingly. That if we have more time, we will be more prepared and can do trial runs before actual roll out,.. exists only in theory. Don’t we see in our Indian weddings, folks tying up some loose ends literally till the baraat arrives and continue to do so as the wedding is in progress?  Finally when the wedding gets over, its smiles all over.  So even after the GST roll out, there will be glitches, teething problems and surprises which I am sure we will find ways and means of getting over. Pushing back by another 3 months is not going to make things any different.

It must be commended that this Govt. stuck to the date of July 1. It would have been very easy for the PM and the Govt. to throw in the towel and put off the launch by a few months. But then, there are other implications. Come Oct. it is the peak festival and hence business season in India. Does It help if the roll out happens when India is in the midst of its biggest Annual economic cycle? Will it help if GST is launched in Jan. in the final quarter of the fiscal year???

The ruling party, the BJP counts traders as its important traditional support base for the party. That the party still decided to go ahead with the tax reform which professes maximum disruptions for this group is a significantly courageous move.  In India economic reforms have always been carried out under duress; when push comes to shove. The heralding of GST must be the 1st major economic reform brought in when not under any kind of stress but just to ease up things for the future. This certainly conjures up the arrival of Acche Din for our country.

Still our penchant for complicating things comes to the fore here as well.  Though the GST collections have to be shared between the state and the centre, could it not have been done at the back using technology rather than coming up with 3 variants like SGST, CGST and IGST??? Does the Anti-profiteering clause make sense? Will not competitive economics eventually drive pricing??

GST is indeed a Good and Simple Tax. So there is nothing like a good or better time to introduce the same. But, we should not forget that this is India and we are Indians. So, conditions apply.

#GST is done, now work on GST-II

Finally the GST (Goods & Services Tax) in India is done if not dusted yet after being in the works for a decade.  From a foreign investor perspective, GST and FDI in Multi-brand retail are the initiatives that bracket India as a perennial “Work in Progress” economy.  Now is the time I believe to give a crack on another GST – “Good & Smooth Traffic” that is.

Traffic 2

Consider the situation in all the key cities of India today. In Delhi/NCR as I personally experienced last week, it just took one shower for an hour or so to bring Gurgaon oops Gurugram on its knees.  From the Delhi airport to the end of Gurugram took me 4 hours on a week day evening that too when it was supposedly against the traffic. I was lucky. The subsequent days it took more than 6 hours I was told. The CM had to do an aerial survey to understand the gravity of the jam!

In Mumbai these days you have traffic jams everywhere. In the so called freeways, Expressways, main roads, arterial roads, streets, gallis,.. everywhere.  Yes, in the air too. Flights departing out of and landing into Mumbai post 6 pm are routinely delayed due to air traffic congestion! And as I found today, even supermarkets are not spared of mammoth traffic. The space between racks are choked with oversized trolleys and sea of people that negotiating your way out is worse than Mumbai roads. I see this routinely in the neighbourhood supermarkets every weekend and sometimes on weekdays even. (Based on this, one is inclined to believe that “Achhe Din” have indeed arrived for the Great Indian Middle Class!!!).  Year after year during monsoons in Mumbai, the city resembles a Moon’s surface. May be it rains potholes!! For the Aam admi, every day it is “one small step becoming a giant leap” (as the pot holes are so big, deep and wide). For the city of Mumbai, Niantic the company behind the latest craze in town – Pokemon Go is better advised to go with a modified version “Pothole Go” which could be a runaway hit but slowed by traffic jams.

Ease of commute to work has become the single biggest hygiene factor these days for candidates when they seek a job. So much so, recently in a job interview the candidate asked me if we would anytime shift the office from current location and if yes, will it be still in the vicinity!! It is completely understandable I guess. With commuting and whatsapping sapping a lot of one’s time these days, “me time or family time” is on the shrink.

In India’s Silicon Valley and IT capital, “going live today” has a different meaning these days which is – atleast moving ahead in traffic while on the road. In peak hours it doesn’t matter where you are going and from where. Couple of hours on the road is a given. Columnist and now MP Swapan Dasgupta once tweeted “The unending journey from the airport to anywhere in Bangalore…” I would replace the words “the Airport” to “anywhere” now. The city missed a few crucial years in development when IT was on fire. Today, it is facing the heat of that miss.

In Chennai, if the Govt. spends one tenth of the money the parties spend on posters on building flyovers over key junctions, the city will be a different place to live. I am told that a 30km stretch of OMR (Old Mahalipuram Road) has only 11 signals!!.  Besides the myriad engineering college buses and IT companies transport vehicles, you will be lucky if you get some space to move your humble two wheeler.

In all these cities, the common story is of exponential growth with infrastructure not keeping pace at all. More often than not, a project planned today with certain expected growth in traffic becomes obsolete by the time it is commissioned as it usually takes 3 times longer time than planned. A very good case in point is the Chembur-Santacruz Link road in Mumbai which was opened amidst much fanfare and talk of smoother East- West connectivity and how one can reach the airport from Ghatkopar in 15 mins. 3 years after commissioning its already bursting at the seams. And in all these cities, there is very limited scope for road widening or expansion anymore. So this naturally calls of holistic planning with alternative modes of transport (like Metro) and also project conception and execution today with 25 years hence traffic in mind.

Ease of Traffic which essentially means less time on commuting has to become a National charter now. It won’t be too far when along with Bijli, Sadak, Paani and Bandwidth – Roadwidth gets into the National discourse during elections. So from a political perspective as well, focusing on less traffic on roads will become a game changer in the future. And the party which appreciates that and works on the same gets to reap the dividend. So I urge that the present Govt. to start work on “GST-II” asap. Just like how the central govt has to work jointly with the states for a smooth roll out first and then implementation of the GST reform, on the traffic also the Central Govt. must work with the states to give this a high priority work to a plan in all the key cities.  And like how “One nation, One tax” is becoming a reality considering India’s highly complicated historical tax regime, “Single nation, Smooth traffic” will soon become the need of the hour if not it is already.

I am not sure if the Minister for Road Transport and Highways Nitin Gadkari’s children are politically inclined. I would presume so. If he starts work on this idea of a GST-II bill now, most likely it would become a reality during their time!!!

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!!!