INDIA: WINTER OF DISCONTENT, SPRING OF HOPE
By Gurdip Singh
India's sacred text of Ramayana mentions of a character, Kumbhakaran, a mighty warrior and brother of Ravan, the king of ancient Ceylon. Despite his martial qualities and indomitable strength, Kumbhakaran slept and stayed awake for six months each at a stretch, thereby negating his otherwise immense power.
India too is strong against several economic yardsticks but has failed to realize its full economic potential, thereby suppressing its growth under its own bundle of contradictions.
Lest not forget that it was India who gave this world the indispensable number of zero. Now is the time for India to become from zero to hero. Just as the world can't do without zero, India's economy is also an important cog in the global economic wheel.
India's vast pool of human resources is full to the brim and even overflowing. One doesn't need to look beyond the blue chip global corporates to get a feel of the immense managerial talent India has contributed to the world's economy.
India has produced some of the world's best top executives who are managing multinational corporations with multi-billion dollar annual turnovers from businesses across the world.
At home, India has some of the most seasoned executives managing government affairs and state enterprises that are generating multi-billion dollar equivalent of services and values.
But alas! Such vast pool of talent is living and working in a winter of discontent. Due to political shenanigans, some sectors of the economy have slowed down the proud market and talent pool of 1.3 billion people, often rated as second to none. The vibrant democracy has become a noisier democracy, making it the butt of many jokes circulating around in text messages on smartphone Apps.
Traders, analysts, stock brokers and economists are left wondering that a country with such vast economic potential which was expected to clock double-digit growth year after year for at least a decade or even more has slowed down with a thud. What is happening to the Indian Economy and why? A mega market, which offers growth opportunities not only to the Indians but to Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) and foreign investors, is going bust.
India is culturally and resource-wise rich. There is a wealth of opportunities for investors. However, the door to these opportunities can only be unlocked if India undertakes a massive dose of reforms. Make no mistake, the liberalization of Indian economy and the reforms that were undertaken in 1991 and subsequent years is now history. As the advertisement of one of the world's premier corporates, Pepsi Inc. for its Indian consumer in a typical mix of English and Hindi mentioned, "Yeh dil maange more" (my heart wants it more). A similar mix of Indian entrepreneurship and foreign investment can only work if the next round of economic reforms is unleashed.
Reforms beget reforms. Economic reforms need political dynamism.
Indian politics is plunging new depths and every time we think it has hit a nadir it goes down further. There is no bottom to these falling principles, ethics and standards. Parliament is not allowed to function due to sectarian politics. This shows that there is complete disregard for parliamentary decorum and matters of national interests. More than 60 per cent of the country's population, mostly from the lower rung of the society, has voted a government to power. Voters have shown maturity in standing in queues and patiently exercising their electoral right but the Voted have shown utter disrespect to the verdict. They are not debating and passing crucial legislation from the Floor of the house but are instead rushing to and fighting among themselves in the Well of the House (Parliament).
The electorate will get their chance to punish the lawmakers in the next elections but crucial time for reviving the economy is getting lost. Foreign investors believe that many among “the haves” have not voted and the “have-nots” had voted under political influences and peer pressure.
While the temporary executive or the lawmakers are stuck in a political quagmire the permanent executive or the ever-powerful bureaucracy is warming its own nest. Under political pressure or otherwise it is showing no inclination to come out with solutions for the multiple problems plaguing the Indian economy.
Senior Indian bureaucrats have acknowledged to me that they weren't able to and aren't supposed to work out of the parameters set by their politician bosses. They are candid enough to accept that most among them fear of being transferred from their cushy positions to remote areas or else ignored for the rest of their career. And there is no denying that such transfers of bureaucrats who have a mind of their own have happened innumerable times in the past.
A young member of parliament had recently conceded that since his party had only a handful of seats in the Lok Sabha, it had to stall the proceedings to forcibly have its voices heard and faces seen in the well of the house.
To be sure, because of acute pressure from investors both within the country and abroad, New Delhi continues to make efforts to improve the system. But these efforts were of little importance and failed to have any significant impact in comparison to what is happening across the country—multi-billion rupee scandals, stalled economic projects, deferred economic legislation and the widespread corruption. The problem is not economic alone, it is also social in nature. The weak, including the women, are outraged, violated and raped.
Main issues are swept under the carpet and the ruling coalition government concedes to the demands from its alliance partners and pressure from the vociferous opposition. Even the alliance partners keep getting changed. Corruption cases including those relating to disproportionate assets against top leaders of regional and national parties are pursued or put on the backburner depending on which side of the aisle they are sitting on.
To say that foreign and domestic entrepreneurs are shocked to watch these political games will be an understatement. Political standards across party lines have deteriorated abysmally in recent years with the blocking of important pieces of legislation in the august Parliament. Investors have waited long for these bills on land, pension, insurance and foreign direct investment to be made into law for robust economic growth and prosperity in the country.
While parliamentary bills on burning economic issues are stuck in political logjam, rampant corruption has led to two cabinet ministers resigning on the same day—Pawan Bansal and Ashwini Kumar. A resignation or two a day keeps a mid-term election away.
Bansal resigned after his nephew was reported to have accepted a bribe for arranging a plum appointment for a member of the Railway Board.
Kumar had to quit after India’s top court chided him for exercising his influence in re-writing a draft investigation report relating to controversial coal deals, and save the government from embarrassment. It alleges the government had given coal block concession to private companies without competitive bidding at a time when the portfolio was held by none other than the Prime Minister himself, who ironically also happens to be the father of India's 1991 round of economic reforms.
Investors with billions of dollars are still waiting, though frustratingly. If such delays continue they may turn to other attractive destinations in East Asia, Africa and Latin America. Failure of some sessions of parliament to pass the much needed land acquisition bill was among one such delayed pieces of legislation. Businessmen will be keeping a close watch on proceedings of the upcoming sessions of Indian parliament. Investors from the United States have just extended their due diligence on venturing into businesses in India. Their scope of risk analysis is expanding to add new parameters, particularly state-specific, because of the political bickering in the country. The level of uncertainties in India is increasing by the day as precious little is done to address burning issues such as land rights, mining in tribal areas and incentives for the manufacturing sector. Threats to national security are increasing, particularly from the Naxalities but the government is more interested in building up fantasy towers of food security.
The food security bill was first passed not by the lawmakers in Parliament but through an executive ordinance signed by the President. It was only later that the Parliament gave its nod. Furthermore, it is a social gimmick which will not be able to address the lingering issue of starvation deaths. Expenses in the name of food security are a huge drain of taxpayers’ money through the channel of mounting subsidies. India’s farm output has increased impressively due to the ingenuity of the growers. India has become one of the leading suppliers of agricultural commodities in the global market after taking care of its domestic consumption. In such a scenario, food subsidies should be curtailed and private agricultural entrepreneurship encouraged so that the grains reach the poor. India is doing precisely the opposite.
Poor people of this great country are being left in a lurch. They had voted for parliamentarians to address their concerns and increase their purchasing power, but as the food security ordinance shows, these voters are being left “high and dry” through the politics of populism.
Most ordinary Indians are constructively accepting criticism from their non-resident brethren who have settled in developed world – the United States, Europe, Australia/New Zealand some advance Asian countries like Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand. However, the politicians and bureaucrats are living in their own ivory towers, claiming that all is well and the economy will bounce back. It is good to be a proud and patriotic Indian. But the pace of economic development not benefiting the poor masses is a matter of concern for all including the Indians living overseas, who have shown increasing interests in the development of the country and the well-being of the people, including their kith and kin. The Indian ministers have travelled across the world urging businessmen to invest in India. They have also urged the overseas Indians, commonly termed Non-Resident Indians (NRIs), to do their bit in contributing to Indian prosperity by investing in the land of their forefathers.
These NRIs, living though in the much more comfortable environs of the developed world, are keen to respond to the SOS of Indian ministers. It is in this context that they are raising concerns about the daily events taking place in India—be it in parliament or on the unruly streets of the ever expanding towns and cities full with discontented populace. NRIs are upset when some spoilsports rebut the concerns flagged by them. Even though NRIs are living across the proverbial seven seas, their antennae are well tuned to the problems plaguing Mother India. Recent developments in India have put the country a notch or two behind in key economic development parameters. The NRIs had high hopes when India haltingly and hesitatingly began opening its door to foreign investment. They felt that the hesitation will gradually go away and they chalked out investment plans in double quick time, even to return home and be part of the new era of prosperity. Dreams of prosperity are now turning sour. The banking industry estimates that the US-based Indians have as much as US$1.3 trillion direct or indirect cash reserves for investments. Such cash will come to India only if the country is serious about its plans for economic growth.
The NRIs and foreign investors were disappointed to see the economic growth halved to five per cent in 2012-13 fiscal year. Many among them are not accepting this rate of economic growth, given the huge potential the country has left unlocked. This abysmal rate of growth is nothing but “recession” or the new Hindu rate of growth, comparable to the three per cent to five per cent growth seen after independence from British rule in 1947 through to 1990.
Politicians have let down both the Aam Aadmi (common men), who are more active in voting during the elections, and also the businessmen who fund the electoral activities of the parties.
There is some silver lining. A spring of hope is on the horizon. Investors note it is heartening that the government is pushing through a new law on match fixing, following the fracas caused by cash rich stakeholders in manipulating some of the cricket matches by placing dubious bets. They are hopeful that this bill and other investment related bills will also be passed for the sake of economic development of the country. Cricket is the No. 1 sport in India and the government’s action indicates that it wants to maintain a modicum of credibility in the Gentleman's Game. The Indians simply love cricket and the Indian Subcontinent is one place where fans are still glued to television sets supporting their cricket heroes despite the ever-lengthening string of scandals.
Despite the strong competition from Latin America, Africa and East Asia, the Indian market can still offer business growth opportunities of much higher scale to global investors. For this to happen, the parliamentarians should use their sittings and sessions to build consensus for approving the much-needed laws to support new investments. India's trillion-dollar economy needs big-ticket investments in manufacturing and infrastructural projects to forge ahead. Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs) are usually among the main drivers of growth in emerging markets, and India needs them urgently to propel itself higher.
While Indian businesses are also apprehensive about making local investments, they have earned the respect of the global business community for being among the best and most sensible players in the global market, acquiring assets and raising funds from international financial institutions. Likewise, the international business community has also gained the confidence of participating in Indian companies' global businesses. In the past, foreigners were cautious of venturing into a tie-up with an Indian business but now it is turning out to be a win-win situation.
Why India? Why this mess?
There was a time when India was proudly called the Sone ki Chiria (The Golden Bird) because of its immense wealth of human and natural resources and innovations in science, yoga and mathematics. Indian society has rightfully claimed its unique syncretic nature where respect for women is unquestionable and insult is unpardonable.
During their foreign junkets Indian ministers and bureaucrats tirelessly wax eloquent about the success stories of society and economy back home. But they were left speechless when on 16 December 2012, a young educated girl and a budding physiotherapist was raped and mutilated in a moving bus right in heart of the plush locales of the capital city of New Delhi. The police had picked up the girl from the roadside after her injured boyfriend appealed for help while they were left for dead following the horrendous rape. The government arguably made the right decision to give the girl best medical treatment at one of the world's leading hospitals in Singapore.
However, businessmen, sociologists, lawyers and even the Aam Adami (common man) today question the very rationale of shifting the ill-fated girl for treatment overseas. The government back home wanted to turn off the heat as demonstrators were raising the social and political temperature in the capital. The Singapore hospital later confirmed that she was brought to the city-state in an extremely critical condition.
This takes us to the key issue of social laws and their implementation. As with crucial economic bills, the legislations to strengthen women's rights also get delayed because of the logjam in parliament. Indian lawmakers seem to be ignorant of the fact that the world is watching them closely, all the more after the criminal incidents and social upheavals.
Rape is a global evil that occurs due to human weaknesses. But the Delhi Brave Heart Girl or Nirbhaya or Damini, call her what you may, was in a way also a victim of economic malaise plaguing the country. Her parents invested in her education and made her a good citizen with qualification to prosper in a country that holds high promises for the vibrant youth. Her predators were early dropouts from school and in a psychological way took “revenge” on one of those who has advanced ahead. It was also result of a sheer lack of proper public transport system and civic sense in the people of Delhi.
The National Crime Records Bureau’s (NCRB) statistics on rape cases are disturbing. Registered rape cases in India increased by an unbelievable 873.3 per cent to 24,206 in 2011 from 2,487 in 1971. Unrecorded numbers will be even more shocking and traumatizing for a country where respect for woman has eroded over the years.
India has had women as President, Prime Minister, Chief Ministers, Ministers and top administrators. India does celebrate women. We have Rakhi Bandhan, a religious festival that bonds the brother and sister in a strong relationships of siblings and the brother's commitment to protect the sister forever and yet such social evils are putting a black spot on the body politic.
The 2014 General Election
The next test of the Indian electorate and politicians at the hustings by May 2014 will be a verdict on the social and economic issues a that we have discussed above.
Many businessmen, social scientists and lawyers have already forecast that the next election will deliver a hung parliament. However, in India the voter has proved time and again that he is smarter than the politician and has given subtle messages that he or she wants to be governed well. Voters want that the politicians should put their sectarian agenda aside. Their clarion call is that the political leaders should work for the national cause.
The next election will probably lead to another multi-party coalition at the Centre though its shape, colour and texture is yet to be known. Struggle for alliances and leadership is already obvious several months ahead of the scheduled election in May 2014. To look at it from another angle, the Indian voter is punishing the rulers by not giving the mandate to a single party. The voter has lost trust in the politicians. He or she doesn't want to give a brute majority to a single party or politician lest it be misused. Single party majorities, which were a norm until 1989, gave the country very slow economic growth that was termed as mentioned earlier in this essay as the Hindu rate of growth.
On the other hand and in stark contrast, many coalition governments since 1990 have been on their toes, worried that they can lose power anytime. The 1990 coalition government of Prime Minister Vishwanath P. Singh was the country's first major experiment in alliances at the Centre and changed the social landscape—though after a bout of violence—by implementing the Mandal Commission report for reservations in central government jobs for the Other Backward Classes. Love it or hate it, the decision was a game changer for the Indian society and economy.
The second major coalition government of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao unleashed the liberal economic forces in 1991. Later the coalition government of Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee undertook the much delayed and keenly awaited nuclear tests in 1998 within two months of assuming power.
No matter which party emerges as the single largest in the next (May) Lok Sabha elections, the government will be formed by a multi-party coalition. It will do well to remember that in the previous two-decades-and-a-half, key decisions on social reservation, economic liberalization and national security were taken and implemented by similar coalition governments within months of taking the oath of office and secrecy.
If these lessons are learnt and imbibed well, India will again be on the trajectory of fast economic growth, or else the next government would never be able to give a clear direction to social and economic policies. In such a scenario, the lawmakers will continue to fight for their nefarious self-interests, as has been the case in the recent sessions of Parliament.
Interests of the voters, mostly poor and the middle class shouldn't be ignored. They take great pains in making their two ends meet, to get a job for themselves, educate their children and build a property to retire in peace.
The latest emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) should be looked as a major step to bridge the gap between the rulers and ruled. Sick and frustrated by the disgusting machinations of the rulers, now the ruled are themselves striving to become the rulers through a new party like the AAP. Just around the time when the support base of the Congress, which used to pride itself as the natural party of governance, is shrinking and Bharatiya Janata Party was optimistic of getting more than 200 or even 250 seats in the Lok Sabha, in the next elections, AAP has emerged as a serious contender for power. It has brought municipal and mayoral politics to the national forefront. In the polls of 2014, the AAP will probably will be the single most important factor that will stand between the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance and a Lok Sabha simple majority magic figure of 272.
However, there is a lack of clarity on AAP’s views on the national economy. One should not lose sight of the fact that the entrepreneurs and bankers are willing to inject multi-billion dollars into the Indian economy, insurance companies have big plans to facilitate coverage of international trades, stock exchanges are keen to introduce trading technologies and retailers are eager to introduce their India-centric products to the country's burgeoning middle class.
If this message is ignored by the current fledgling and the upcoming government, the Poscos, Mittals and Warren Buffets of this world will just walk away to other more attractive economic destinations without batting any eyelid. Unfortunately, some of this is already happening.
Mr Singh is an international journalist with more than 35 years of experience and has reported on economy, society and politics from 15 countries. He is currently the Singapore Correspondent for The Press Trust of India. Singh also reports on Asian Petroleum, Petrochemical, Plastics, Steel industries among others. The views expressed by him in this book are his own.