Prem Shankar Jha

A statesman is one who admits when he has made a mistake and has the grace to correct it before it does any more harm. The prime minister, unfortunately, has shown no signs of having either of these virtues.

New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the nation from the ramparts of the historic Red Fort on the occasion of the 71st Independence Day, in New Delhi on Tuesday. PTI Photo / PIB (PTI8_15_2017_000059B) *** Local Caption ***

There was a discernible note of self congratulation in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech this year. As usual, it was replete with claims – “In our country everyone is equal”, “Those who have looted the nation and looted the poor are not able to sleep peacefully today” – and exhortations – “Bharat jodo“, “Let us create a new India” – that are entirely devoid of content. But these are not the sources of his satisfaction. That arises from his confidence that he has ensured a continuation of the BJP in power for the foreseeable future. He has done this by ensuring that the opposition is unable to unite to face the BJP in 2019; and by relentlessly undermining the constitutional safeguards upon which India’s secular democracy has rested, should it become necessary to retain power through constitutional sleight of hand.

The path India is being taken on

In the last three years, Modi and Amit Shah have removed virtually every institutional hurdle to the creation of the ‘new nation’ he talked about. The BJP now has a president and vice-president of its choice, thus ensuring that any conceivable future head of state will follow Modi’s instructions.

After its successes in Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal and Assam, the party will soon have the majority in the Rajya Sabha that it needs to enact transformative legislation.

By overturning the seniority-cum-merit system of promotion in the army, Modi has sent the message out loud and clear to the army that henceforth, it does not serve the constitution but the prime minister. The spate of statements from all and sundry in the armed forces that have begun to equate dissenting with the BJP with treason shows that the army has got the message.

The obstacle of the Supreme Court remains. But Chief Justice J.S. Khehar, who had overturned the judicial accountability Bill and saved the collegium system for the appointment of Supreme Court and high court judges, will retire in a few months and it is a safe bet that Modi will renew his struggle to destroy the higher courts’ capacity for judicial review after he is gone.

Modi’s ideal state

Only the electoral system, the beating heart of our democracy, will remain standing in the way. Despite all their bluster, Modi and Shah are acutely aware of the fragility of the BJP’s hold on power. In 1967, the Congress had required 40.7% of the vote to win 282 seats. In 2014, the BJP did it with under 31% of the vote. They will never, therefore, feel truly secure till they have captured that additional 10%.

Since that extra vote is not yet in sight, they have been following a two-pronged strategy to regain power in 2019. The first is to woo away the crucial 10% of the electorate by creating paranoia among caste Hindus in order to create a ‘Hindu’ identity as distinct from caste. The second is to ensure, by hook or by crook, that the opposition remains fragmented. To do this, the Modi-Shah duo launched a no-holds-barred campaign to destroy state-level parties like the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi, the Janata Dal (United) in Bihar and the Trinamool Congress in Bengal, that enjoy a measure of constitutional autonomy and therefore the capacity to form an alliance capable of defeating the BJP in 2019.

But what is the goal that Modi believes is now in sight? Behind the camouflage of his grandiose and so far unfulfilled promises lies a single unswerving aim. That is to build a Hindu rashtra. There are hints of this in his speech, but three years into the BJP’s reign one does not need these pointers to understand the kind of India that Modi, and the RSS, intend to build.

This state will confront, not accommodate, its neighbours; this state will not tolerate cultural heterogeneity, but seek to replace it with a single homogenised culture that Modi mistakenly believes to be Hindutva. Muslims, and other minorities, will be tolerated in this entity so long as they know their place. Religious pluralism will be tolerated (but not accepted), as former vice president Hamid Ansari pointed out in Bengaluru, but cultural pluralism will not. For the minorities, the path to success will be through cultural assimilation. In sum, Modi is intent upon changing the very idea of nationhood upon which India’s political identity has been based not just for the past 70, but the past 2,000 years.

Is such a profound change even possible? If not, where will its pursuit lead us? Three years on from his swearing in, the answer can no longer be ignored. In every single sphere of governance, Modi is leading India into deadly peril. If he continues down this road, India’s failure as a state is guaranteed.

 

New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi inspect a guard of honour before
addressing the nation from the ramparts of Red Fort during the 71st
Independence Day function, in New Delhi on Tuesday.
PTI Photo by Shirish Shete (PTI8_15_2017_000139B)

Zero tolerance in Kashmir

Let us look at where he has taken India in the past three years. In Kashmir, he has let loose a regime of absolute terror based on the idea of zero tolerance for political dissent. Today there are no militants in Kashmir, only terrorists who are being hunted down and killed without even being given a chance to surrender. Modi says the Kashmiris are itching to be freed from them. That of course is why hundreds of thousands of youth poured out into the streets and were able to close down the whole of Kashmir for five months last year.

What mainstream and separatist leaders have made clear, repeatedly, is that while they want ‘azadi’ from India, they do not want to become a part of Pakistan. Nor do they want to sever their links with India. All they want is not to be ruled by Delhi, especially on matters concerning their politics, culture and religion. Today, mainstream and separatist leaders are frantic in their pleas for the resumption of a political dialogue with Delhi because the absence of dialogue and Modi’s sole reliance on the gun is driving the youth steadily towards Pakistan, and more recently al-Qaeda and ISIS. Modi has only to live up to the promises he made a year ago to opposition leaders from Kashmir, to discuss any solution within the Indian constitutional framework, for Kashmir to start calming down. But he is dead set against this because a willingness to negotiate with a local government or movement goes agains the very grain of the hard nation state that Modi wants to turn India into and makes him, personally, look weak.

A dangerous foreign policy

Not only is Modi’s hardline policy pushing Kashmir into the arms of Pakistan and jihadi Islam, but it has given the Pakistan army the excuse it had been looking for since 2007 to steadily weaken Pakistan’s democratic establishment and concentrate power in its own hands. This has reversed the trend that India’s helpful and accommodating attitude to civilian governments there, since its foreign exchange crisis in 2012, had created. Indian firing across the LoC has killed 39 persons and injured 133 in 2016, and killed 24 and injured 170 so far this year.

Close to 500 poor and utterly innocent families have therefore suffered grievous losses in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and possibly a similar number in Jammu and Kashmir, over something that Modi and the Pakistani generals know perfectly will yield them not a stitch of territory or military advantage.

A more immediate peril into which Modi has gratuitously pushed India is the mounting confrontation with China on the Doklam plateau in Bhutan, adjoining Tibet’s Chumbi Valley. Only those willing to gamble recklessly on India’s future have not recognised that the Chinese official position paper released on August 2 is in effect an ultimatum to India to leave the Doklam plateau, or be forcibly ejected from it. It concludes by stating baldly that “No country should ever underestimate the resolve of the Chinese government and people to defend China’s territorial sovereignty. China will take all necessary measures to safeguard its legitimate and lawful rights and interests. The incident took place on the Chinese side of the delimited boundary. India should immediately and unconditionally withdraw its trespassing border troops back to the Indian side of the boundary. This is a prerequisite and basis for resolving the incident” (emphasis mine).

The Chinese ambassador in Delhi underlined this the next day by stating that the presence of even one Indian soldier in Doklam will be considered an act of aggression. But another fortnight has passed and Modi has refused to budge.

Instead, as the South China Morning Post has reported, India is reinforcing its military presence at the India-Bhutan-Tibet tri-junction, and analysts are warning China of the possibility of  a blockade of the Malacca straits by the Indian Navy if China wages war in the Himalayas. Thus, after deriding Jawaharlal Nehru day in and day out for irresponsibly pushing India into the 1962 war, Modi is doing exactly the same thing – pursuing a reckless policy with China and gambling everything upon its not daring to strike back.

I have written extensively in my columns, as have many others, on the Sangh parivar’s relentless assault on Indian Muslims, on secular and Left intellectuals, and on the BJP’s political opponents, using and abusing every instrument of law the government could lay its hands upon, so I will not dwell on it any further.

Nor, for the same reason, will I dwell on the catastrophic decline of the Indian economy in the last four years and the many stratagems the Modi government has used to hide it. Suffice it to say that after taking into account those who have lost their jobs, the net employment growth in these years has been close to zero.

But Modi is as unable to step back from his gigantic blunders with Pakistan, with China, with Nepal and in the handling of the economy, as he was in admitting his bungling of the demonetisation. An essential requirement in a statesman is the self-confidence to admit when he has made a mistake and the grace to correct it before it does any more harm. India’s greatest peril arises from the fact that Modi has not shown any signs of having either of these virtues.

Prem Shankar Jha is a senior journalist and the author of several books including Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger: Can China and India Dominate the West?

Modi Is Taking India to a Dangerous Place

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Demonetisation has hit every sector of the economy from construction to automobile at the same time and its ripple effects are likely to be felt for months to come.

Remember the old adage, ‘You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time?’ Narendra Modi’s government is reluctantly learning its truth now. Exactly a month after the sudden announcement of the demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes, even the tame audio-visual media has, almost unanimously, turned against his government on this issue. Their consensus echoes an epitaph favoured by Bismarck, “ it was not a crime; it was a mistake”.

The mistake is so elementary that it leaves no room for doubt that Modi announced the demonetisation without consulting either the Reserve Bank of India or the economists in the finance ministry and NITI Aayog. One of the most basic equations in economic theory – MV=PT – seems to have been forgotten. It is the base of the quantity theory of money upon which the whole neoliberal macroeconomics of today rests.

In layman terms, the equation states that the money supply in an economy (M) multiplied by the number of times it changes hands in a year (V) equals the average price level (P) multiplied by the number of transactions (T) that take place during the year. PT is the gross revenue generated in the economy during the year. Take away double counting – the resale of intermediate goods from one producer to the next – and you arrive at the GDP of the country.

Neo-classical economists use it to show that if you double the money supply, prices will simply have to double in the long term. But implicit in this is the belief that the velocity of circulation of money is very stable as it reflects the culturally determined habits of saving and consumption, and will therefore remain unchanged. The volume of transactions in any given period is, therefore, constant.

This assumption does not, in fact, hold true all the time. In his book General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, J.M. Keynes showed that in actual fact, V rises or falls depending on the optimism or pessimism about the future course of the economy. Thus prices can, in fact, increase ­– and output can respond – without an increase in money supply, and fall without a reduction in it. This is the basis of Keynes’ theory of the trade cycle, one of the two that together fully explain this endemic seesaw in a market economy.

But Keynes never envisaged the possibility that a government would, of its own volition, bring the circulation of money to a near halt and force V down close to zero. For, since anything multiplied by zero is zero, it would, therefore kill the market economy and drive it back to barter. That is precisely what the demonetisation is doing. For an already tottering economy, this is a disaster. For the political future of the BJP, it is a self-inflicted goal that may well cost it the match.

I got some idea of how much V had fallen after demonetisation when a sweet shop owner told me that on the day after demonetization, his sale had fallen from Rs 30,000-40,000 per day to a mere Rs 700. A bookshop owner in Connaught Place told a friend that his sales had fallen from Rs 20,000-30,000 a day to Rs 12,000 in the past month. A high-end optician in Khan Market, New Delhi told me that his sales had fallen by 25% in the past month. Automobile sales, which had been rising at 11% a year in the first half of the year, fell by 38% for Mahindra & Mahindra, 28% for Tata Motors, 20% for Hyundai and 22% for Renault in November. There is not a single retailer who does not have a similar story to tell.

If this is the condition of demand in the urban areas, where more people have bank accounts and use credit cards, it is not hard to imagine what the situation is in rural areas where where moneylenders still meet four-fifths of the demand for credit, and nearly all the transactions are done in cash. Two-wheeler sales have fallen by 35-40% because 65% of all the sales are done in cash and tractor purchases have fallen by a whopping 63% because only farmers and a few construction companies buy them.

The worst affected sector is construction. After being starved for funds for nine years, the construction industry has been pushed further down by demonetisation. The immediate impact has been on employment, for not only is it India’s second largest employer – providing jobs to 45 million people – but since employment in agriculture stopped growing a decade and a half ago, it has also been the principal creator of new jobs.

But the bulk of its workers are migrants from other states who are paid by the day, or at best by the week, and they ask for their wages in cash. Therefore, in order to pay them, their employers need to maintain large daily stocks of cash. Those were the cash reserves that Modi made worthless overnight. What is worse, even their current overdraft facilities, and their bank deposits, are not available to them because the government has put a Rs 24,000 a day limit on all withdrawals.

Unsurprisingly, anecdotal evidence suggests that the industry has virtually ground to a halt. The employers’ shortage of cash has translated into a shortage of jobs and stalled construction. Earnings by have fallen by 80-90%. Until November 8, for instance, the mazdoor naka near the Madhuban garden in Bhandup in Mumbai was among the largest in the city, with nearly 500 construction workers thronging it every morning. On November 30, there was just a trickle of 30 workers waiting hopefully for jobs there.

In desperation, more and more workers are accepting payment in the old currency notes, and sending a member of their family to queue in front of banks all day to exchange it for legal tender. But as the employment opportunities have continued to dwindle, an increased number have joined a return flow of migrants to their villages in order wait until the times get better. Bus companies that brought migrant workers from Orissa to Gujarat are now plying in the opposite direction. There is a similar return of migrant workers to Andhra and Telangana from Mumbai and other cities in Maharashtra, and now, increasingly, from Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Rajasthan.

Construction is not the only sector in which jobs have disappeared. A fortnight after demonetisation, the Engineering and Export Promotion Council estimated that more than 400,000 workers had been laid off in the textiles and garments industries and as many as 60,000 in the leather industry. These are only a few lightning flashes illuminating the storm that is enveloping India’s poor.

Demonetisation is also laying waste to small and medium-sized producers and artisans in the country. It has not even spared the service industries, for except in software and domestic service, income and employment in every other service industry is directly related to production in the primary and secondary sectors of the economy.

The story of a utensils manufacturer in Noida that has lost more than half of its employees is the story of hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of SMEs all over the country. In the month after demonetisation his sales have dropped by 90% for only one dealer has placed orders with his company during this period. More than half of his 40 workers, nearly all of whom are migrants, have been forced to go home, a journey that the government is considerately facilitating by asking the railways to accept old currency notes.

He has so far been able to retain the remaining employees only because a grocery store has been willing to provide basic food on credit. But the latter’s finances are not endless either. What is more, the remaining workers still need some money to send home. So the company’s finance manager has been standing in bank queues until 1:30 p.m. every day to withdraw money. However, after ten days of doing so, he was unable to withdraw any cash.

Demonetisation has not even spared the service industries, for except in software and domestic service, income and employment in every other service industry is directly related to production in the primary and secondary sectors of the economy. An idea of the hardship and loss of employment that it is causing, even if it is temporary, may be had from the fact that 90% of the country’s 300 million workers are in the unorganised sector and, with few exceptions, are paid entirely in cash.

What Modi has inflicted on India, therefore, is far worse than a natural calamity or a recession. For the first hits only parts of a country, while the second often spares agriculture and exports. But demonetisation has hit every part of a country and every sector of an economy at the same time.

Today, as the data for November pours in, a few of the government’s spokespersons and apologists are still trying to minimise the damage demonetisation has done by quoting the data for the whole of November, not just slurring over the fact that the first eight days saw the small surge of demand that had begun in April, but also on last-minute festival season rush.

But the retail sales data for December confirm that the post-November 8 data cited above, that the decline in sales is continuing. Even the automobile sector, where cash is least used is still experiencing a shortfall of over 20%, and two wheeler sales remain down by half.

The government spokesperson is reassuring customers that that demand will bounce back as soon as the cash crisis is over, but while this happens in sales, production will have to wait for three months’ accumulation of inventories to be liquidated in order to revive.

So the impact of demonetisation will not end when the currency replacement is complete because of the ripple effects that the sudden, two-month long contraction of demand has set off in the economy.

These effects that J.R. Hicks – another great 20th-century economist – dubbed the “accelerator,” are well known to any student who has studied his theory of trade Cycles. But if anyone in his government pointed them out to him, he chose not to listen.

As many experts have pointed out, not only was demonetisation unnecessary but also badly bungled. It was unnecessary because the government knew from its income tax raids that people hold merely 5-6% of their undeclared income in cash, and the balance is in gold, precious gems, real estate and benami shareholdings.

It was inept because not only had the government not printed the more than 20 billion new currency notes needed to replace the old, but it also changed their size to ensure that they could not be dispensed from the 150,000 ATMs in the country without extensive modifications. In the end, therefore, demonetisation has created no gainers, only losers. They now have two and a half more years to remember that they owe their hardships to a government and a prime minister who had promised them acche din, but has so far failed to deliver.

Prem Shankar Jha is a senior journalist and author of Twilight of the Nation State: Globalisation, Chaos and War, and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger: Can China and India Dominate the West?

 https://thewire.in/86086/modis-note-ban-may-spell-catastrophe-bjp/
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Security forces in Kashmir during the violence in Srinagar following the killing of Burhan Wani. Credit: PTI

 

When I read that Burhan Wani, the iconic leader of the new militancy in South Kashmir, had been killed, I should have felt at least a twinge of relief. Instead all I felt was overwhelming pity for his family and despair for my country. For his death has not brought peace nearer in Kashmir, any more than the killing of Osama bin Laden has ended the threat from Al Qaeda, or brought peace to the Middle East.

Instead, as the eruption of rage after Wani’s death shows, it has only deepened the estrangement between Kashmir and the rest of India, and brought the moment closer when, if this killing goes on, insane rage will grip the youth of that benighted paradise once more and plunge it towards its own, and perhaps India’s, destruction.

Every titbit of information that has surfaced suggests that the encounter, if not the actual killing, was choreographed. Despite the extraordinary precautions that Wani had taken to make his group in South Kashmir difficult to infiltrate, the Kashmir police had succeeded in doing so. It knew that news of his death would set Kashmir on fire, so it chose a day of the week, a time of the year and, if reports are to be believed, a time of day that would minimise the impact of his death on the people.

But these tactics did not work and Kashmir is now perceptibly closer to the tipping point than ever before. So why is the government persisting with a counter terrorism strategy that, it must know, will only make things worse?

It was not as if it had no other options. Wani was only 22 when his life ended. Although he had joined the Hizbul Mujahideen seven years ago, he had not committed any truly heinous crimes. The Kashmir police had registered four serious cases against him, two of firing upon and injuring sarpanches, and two others of firing upon the police and the Rashtriya Rifles.

None of these had resulted in a death. So why was it so necessary to kill him? Why was no attempt ever made to persuade him to give up violence and pursue his goals peacefully? That is what governor Girish Chandra Saxena’s administration had succeeded in doing with Yasin Malik, Shabbir Shah and the militants of the 1990s. Why did no one even try?

The answer is that in the early ‘90s it was the militants who were on the offensive. The Indian state had resorted to violence with reluctance. Apart from defending themselves, the security forces used force mainly to protect civilians involved in the administration of the state, political cadres of mainstream parties and government buildings and facilities. Force was also used to underline the futility of challenging the writ of the state, but the goal was always to use a mixture of force and persuasion to make the separatists eschew violence in favour of negotiation and accommodation.

Vajpayee’s strategy

This strategy came close to success in 2002 when Atal Bihari Vajpayee rammed through a free and fair election over the strenuous objections of then Kashmir chief minister, Farooq Abdullah, facilitated the formation of a government that the Kashmiris did not consider a tool of New Delhi and launched a visionary initiative to settle the Kashmir dispute with President Musharraf of Pakistan.

The process continued with Manmohan Singh and a high point was April 5, 2005 when the first buses between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad crossed the Jhelum at Kaman post on the cease-fire line after a lapse of 40 years. Men, women and children lined the road to Srinagar dressed in their best clothes and greeted the bus form Muzaffarabad with flowers and song. It was a spontaneous outpouring of joy, such as Kashmir had not witnessed in a quarter of a century.

But the healing process that began then ended abruptly with the UPA government’s crackdown and return to police raj after the Amarnath land scam, and the BJP’s blockade of the Srinagar-Jammu highway in 2008.

That ‘crackdown’ began the return to the nightmare days of the early ‘90s. When, inspite of it, there was an unexpectedly high turnout in the valley in the December 2008 elections, Delhi seized this to claim that militancy had ended; all that was left to do was mop up its remnants and seal the border to keep infiltrators out of the valley.

That unfortunate boast ended Delhi’s dialogue with the Hurriyat. Throughout his second term in office, Manmohan Singh did not meet its leaders even once. This left capturing or killing ‘terrorists’ the only way to mop up the disaffection that remained. The task was delegated to the Kashmir police.

The resurgence of militancy today can be traced back directly to this self-serving deceit. To obtain information the police use the only methods it is familiar with: round up all known suspects and apply third degree methods to sweat information out of them. In the last six years this has turned the Kashmir police into a terror machine.

Loss of civic rights

Credit: Sunandita Mehrotra

Credit: Sunandita Mehrotra

All those who get onto its charge sheets, be it as a militant, a stone pelter or an agitator, immediately lose their civic rights. From then on they are liable to be  summoned to the police station at any time of the day or night and insulted, humiliated, tortured or beaten up, at the will of the station house officer. This has turned life into an uncertain hell not only for them but also their families, who face suspicion and ostracism once they begin to receive visits from the police.

One way out is to become an informer. The other is to become a militant. Wani chose the latter. There was nothing in his family background that had predisposed him to rebellion. His father was the principal of a secondary school, his elder brother had been studying for his PhD in economics when he was killed by the police last year. Burhan was 15 when he and his brother were stopped, abused and humiliated by the police while on a joyride with a friend who was testing out a new motorcycle. Whatever happened then was sufficiently humiliating to turn him into a militant and bring him onto the police’s history sheets.

By the time he was killed, Wani had become the single most potent threat to the Indian state in Kashmir. But the threat he posed was ideological. By the yardsticks of the ’90s, his movement was still tiny and the wounds it had inflicted on the Indian state were no more than pinpricks. What made him a threat was his capacity to inspire. For there was a ‘purity’ in his revolt that the movements of the ‘90s had lost long ago. He had never crossed the border into Pakistan; he was not motivated by religious ideology, he did not want to join Pakistan and he was not in anyone’s pay. His was an apolitical revolt born out of pure rejection: he represented a Kashmiri nationalism that simply wanted to cut its links with India and become free to be itself.

But it was precisely these qualities that made it worth the government’s while to open a channel of communication with him with a view to restarting the search for a political settlement. Killing him was therefore the most self defeating thing the Indian state could have done.

If the government does not want Kashmir to spin out of control once more, it must stop the killing now. The first step would be to declare a unilateral cease-fire, wipe the police’s history sheets clean and give all those on it a respite from fear. The second would be to give full support to chief minister Mehbooba Mufti in her efforts to heal the wounds inflicted on the Kashmiri psyche. The third would be to equip the police to deal with stone pelters and others without using lethal force, inspite of every provocation to do so.

Only if these steps bring back peace will the government be able to look for ways to bring Kashmiri nationalists back to the negotiating table once more. The door to this room has been shut for so long that there is no way of knowing whether it can be opened again. But that does not exempt the government from the need to try.

Prem Shankar Jha is a senior journalist and author of Twilight of the Nation State: Globalisation, Chaos and War and Crouching Dragon, Hidden Tiger, Can China and India dominate the west?
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The media is rife with speculation about why the government refused to extend Raghuram Rajan’s tenure as Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor. The ideas are endless: the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh was unhappy with his remarks on intolerance; his policies were, to quote Subramanian Swamy, “anti-national in intent”; he orchestrated a huge campaign in the media to make the government keep him on; P. Chidambaram, and therefore, one presumes, the Congress, was still backing him. Therefore, Rajan deserved the same fate, of summary ejection, that 360 consultants to the United Progressive Alliance government suffered when the Modi government came to power.

Alongside these ideas are predictions of the harm that the Indian economy is likely to suffer from Rajan’s expulsion: foreign investment will stream out of the country because his removal will signal a return to autarchy, and therefore unpredictability, in policy-making; the rupee will depreciate dramatically and inflation will re-surface. The timing of the government’s move, only days before Britain’s Brexit referendum, has also faced criticism, because it will magnify all these effects, should Britain decide to leave the EU.

Buried in all the speculation is the possibility that the government sacked Rajan because of his stubborn refusal to lower the interest rates. But even that is being seen as a political move designed to assuage the wrath of powerful industrial and construction lobbies in the country, and not as a hugely belated response to a decade-long dear-money policy that has each year destroyed industrial growth, bankrupted the entrepreneurial class and blighted the future of six to seven million youth who would otherwise have found jobs.

The pressing priority

The truth is that Rajan should have gone earlier. He had to go because he had continued to oppose rate cuts for two years even after his own, invented justification for keeping them up – namely, the persistence of inflation – was no longer relevant. Today, the only thing that responsible media should be discussing is how to minimise the immediate fallout his departure will cause. But that, unfortunately, is the last thing on everyone’s lists.

There is no doubt that the timing of Rajan’s departure is unfortunate, but whatever turbulence follows Brexit (if it happens) will be short-lived. The main threat to the economy will stem from the uncertainty that the change of so key an official will create, especially among foreign portfolio investors. The longer the government keeps the position vacant, the worse the situation will become. Should some of the investors pull their money out, the resulting fall in share prices will trigger the herd mentality and cause further, much larger, withdrawals.

So, no matter who did what, the government’s absolute first duty is to announce a successor without any further delay. That successor has to meet several requirements:

Firstly, their professional qualifications must be stellar and beyond question. Only then will the international financial community be convinced that the government is only changing the governor and not undermining the autonomy of the RBI.

Then, they must be a first-class economist who can explain and justify his or her decision to lower interest rates with sound economic logic. This must not be seen as another victory of crony capitalism.

Finally, the transition from the regime of Rajan to that of his successor – the time they take to become familiar with subordinates at the RBI and the members of its advisory committees, as well as learn the technicalities of the bank’s working – should be as short as possible.

The best candidate

There are any number of excellent Indian economists who meet the first two qualifications. And any one of the RBI’s present deputy governors meets the third. But finding a successor who meets both the first two and the third requirements will not be easy.

There is, however, one person already associated with the Modi government who meets all three needs to the fullest extent. That person is Bimal Jalan.

Jalan is an economist by profession and has numerous books to his credit. He is perhaps the only ‘outsider’ (to the Indian Administrative Service) who has risen to become the finance secretary, an achievement that speaks volumes for his ability and tact. He was the governor of the RBI for six years, from 1997 to 2003, and is therefore well-known among, and held in high regard by, the international financial community. Most of all, it was he who, while working closely with the then finance minister Yashwant Sinha, steered the Indian state through the aid cut-off that followed the May 1998 nuclear weapons tests, and then out of the recession of 1997-2002, onto the 8 to 9% growth path, by halving bank lending rates between 2000 and 2003.

To do the former, Jalan had to attract Foreign Direct Investment from Indians living abroad, and he did so by raising interest rates at the beginning of 1999. This killed an incipient industrial recovery that had begun under the spur of huge harvests in 1997 and the sudden jump in disposable income caused by the Fifth Pay Commission awards a year later. But Jalan began to lower interest rates less than two years later as NRI money poured into the Millennium and India Resurgent Bonds that the government floated in international markets to offset the sudden cut-off of foreign aid.

By the beginning of 2003, lending rates had halved, but the share markets were reviving as promoters turned to them to raise risk-free capital for investment. It took only one spark to ignite the sharpest stock market boom India has experienced to date, and this was provided in May, 2003, by Maruti Udyog’s decision to sell 20% of its shares to the public. This sale was oversubscribed 13 times, and the gold rush began. It did not peter out till eight years later, in 2011, and then, as in 1995, it was the morbid fear of inflation in a Congress government that brought it to its end.

Rajan was a stranger to those events, as he was in the US as they unfolded. Jalan, however, was completely a part of the whole experience.

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Jaitley’s effort included many significant policy plans but had little to offer on reviving economic growth. Unless interest rates are lowered sharply, there is no possibility of recovery.

Only a drastic cut in interest rates can get the economy moving again. Credit: Shome Basu

Only a drastic cut in interest rates can get the economy moving again. Credit: Shome Basu

The Budget presented by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley on Monday contains a number of new departures that merit unstinting praise. Chief of these are a national crop insurance scheme for farmers, a health insurance scheme to protect families from the impact of illnesses that incapacitate the breadwinner and a three-year programme to provide 50 million families in villages with cooking gas facilities.

But on the revival of economic growth, the central challenge facing the country today, the Budget has little to offer. Instead, Jaitley implicitly absolved the government of responsibility for it’s failure to revive growth, by laying the blame on the “serious crisis” in the global economy but said the Indian economy held its ground despite the global headwinds.

The bad debt problem

The self praise, however, is muted. Both the Budget and the Economic Survey have admitted that all is far from well in the economy. The 2014-15 Survey had estimated that 880,000 crore rupees of investment was locked up in stalled projects, concentrated mostly in the heavy industry, construction and infrastructure sectors, and this year’s Survey dealt at length on the mountain of bad debt that this has created in the banking system. On December 31, 2015 the non performing assets (NPAs) – debt on which banks are not able to recover their interest and amortisation – of 24 listed public sector banks, including the State Bank of India and its associates, stood at a whopping 3,93,035 crore rupees, or about 11% of their loans. Private banks had not done much better; although they accounted for less than 20% of outstanding loans, their NPAs added up to 45,000 crore rupees.

This mounting bad debt has reduced banks’ willingness and capacity to lend, slowed the growth of credit to less than half of what it was during its heyday a decade ago and locked the entire secondary economy in the jaws of stagnation. Not surprisingly, industrial growth has been stuck at just over 3% for the last five years. This is close to 2% lower than the growth it recorded in the 1960s and 1970s, during the worst period of the closed economy. Judging from the quarterly data collected by the labour ministry, the slowdown in the growth of employment has been equally sharp.

It is in suggesting a remedy for the crisis that North Block is strangely reticent. Both the Economic Survey and the Budget reflect the conviction that the remedy lies in drastically simplifying and speeding up the procedure for declaring firms bankrupt and liquidating their assets. The Survey has likened the Indian economy to the Chakravyuhain the Mahabharata – easy to get into but very hard to get out of. Enabling companies to exit easily will release what Joseph Schumpeter called “the gales of creative destruction,” for it will free land, buildings and other assets for sale, and bring the capital locked in them back into useful circulation. Citing academic studies, the Survey has claimed that this will improve the productivity of capital by 30-40% and trigger an economic revival.

Jaitley has taken his cue from the Economic Survey. In paras 90-94 of his Budget speech he unveiled a spate of measures that will make it easier to set up asset reconstruction companies, to speed up the working of debt recovery tribunals by digitising the collection of information and recapitalise  public sector banks in order to free up the flow of credit.

Persistence of widespread insolvency

It was these announcements that sent the Sensex up by 800 points, the biggest one-day increase in seven years. But as a panacea for economic stagnation they will not suffice, for implicit in them is the belief that investment is going bad mainly because of the greed of investors who borrow too much and therefore run up very high interest costs, and because of cronyism and unprofessionalism in the management of public sector banks.

These are not the only, or even the main, causes of the malaise in the economy. One key indicator is the large number of companies with restructured loans that have once again become insolvent. In 2014-15, 57,000 crore rupees of restructured loans had gone bad, double the amount from the previous year.

The persistence of widespread insolvency despite the restructuring of debt shows that its cause is not episodic but systemic. Every single one of the economy’s problems can be traced back to the very high interest rate regime that has existed, with one short interlude, since 2007. This has drastically reduced demand by discouraging purchases made on instalment plans, including the purchases of housing and office space, automobiles, electronic and digital equipment, and home and office furnishings. These make up almost half of industrial production. It has also caused a collapse of the share market in all but a few sectors and a virtual disappearance of initial public offerings of shares since 2007. Finally, it has forced promoters to rely almost exclusively on bank loans to finance investment just when the cost of borrowing has gone up. This has greatly increased the risk of investment and is responsible for the large scale abandonment of infrastructure and heavy industrial projects that were highlighted in the 2014-15 Economic Survey.

The interest rate quagmire

Jaitley has urged the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) to lower interest rates on several occasions, and in July his chief economic adviser, Arvind Subramaniam, wrote an article in The Indian Express arguing that the cost of living index is no longer a satisfactory measure of inflation and urged the use of the GDP deflator instead. It is thus surprising that Jaitley did not say anything in his Budget speech about lowering interest rates, a point left out in the Economic Survey too.

This may be out of respect for the RBI’s autonomy in determining monetary policy. But central bank chief Raghuram Rajan has shown no inclination to lower the interest rate so far as he believes, with the cost of living index still averaging 5%, the RBI’s current policy rates – ranging 7.75-5.75% – are already low enough in real terms not to merit much further reduction. Additionally, he firmly believes that most of the problems of industry can be traced back to the mistakes of the promoters, who “do not have a divine right to stay in charge regardless of how badly they mismanage an enterprise, nor … have the right to use the banking system to recapitalize their failed ventures”.

But the RBI’s policy rates do not reflect the actual cost of borrowing. Today the average borrowing rate, including various bank charges, is over 11%. With inflation, measured by the GDP deflator, close to zero the real rate of interest for borrowers is prohibitive. Till it is brought down, and that too very sharply, there is no possibility of a revival of investment and an economic recovery.

The real test for the government will therefore come when the RBI announces its next policy review at the end of this month. If Rajan does not bring down interest rates substantially, Jaitley and Prime Minister Narendra Modi will have to choose between foregoing economic recovery or foregoing the services of Rajan. The choice, either way, will not be easy.

Prem Shankar Jha is the Managing Editor of Financial World and a senior journalist.

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Last month the RBI  governor Raghuram Rajan  defended his decision not to cut interest rates by saying “ It is not the RBI’s business to deliver booster shots to the stock market so that stock markets can soar for a short while, only to collapse when reality hits….What is important for us is sustained low inflation…the RBI will have no hesitation in delivering once we are assured of the low inflation”.  At the time when he said this wholesale price inflation was minus 4.1 percent; primary product inflation was minus 3.7 percent, fuel and power was minus  12.8 percent and manufactures minus  1.5 percent.   So what inflation measure was Rajan talking about?  The answer is the cost of living index.

But  chief economic adviser Arvind Subramanian pointed out in an article in the Indian Express as long ago as  June 12, that  this is the only index he should avoid  using, because its stickiness, and the widening gap between it and all other measures of inflation,  makes it suspect.   Subramanian had written  that pegging policy interest rates  to the cost of living made sense in “normal times”, but not in ‘unusual times’. ‘From the context it was clear that by normal times he meant those that had  existed till 2007, when the CPI., although much more volatile than the WPI, had traced the same long term path.

Times became ‘unusual’ after  2007.  Except for a few months  at the bottom of the global recession in 2010-11, the gap between CPI and WPI has widened steadily from 3 percent in 2010 to an  unprecedented 8 percent in August.  What is more this has happened inspite of the RBI using every monetary instrument to squeeze demand  and force prices down. The only conclusion one can draw  is that whatever is keeping the CPI inflation up, it is not an excess of demand.

If not demand then what is it measuring? There is only one remaining candidate: shortages of supply. The association of inflation with excess demand is so hard-wired into our thinking that it is often hard to remember that inflation can also be caused by  shortages in  supply. The idea of politically inspired, artificially engineered, shortages that last for long periods, is alien to economists’ thinking because it comes from the dangerous realm of political economy.  But once we open ourselves to this possibility it does not take long to see that it is, indeed, the reason why the behaviour of the CPI has changed so radically.

Foodgrain and cash crop prices ( hich account for more than 40 percent of the CPI) have become progressively less sensitive to  demand because   state governments  are setting minimum support prices for  more and more commodities. Today there are procurement , or minimum support, prices for more than 20 groups of food and cash crops, and the central and state governments have been raising these by  five  to seven  percent every year for more than a decade.

The rise in price of urban housing, which  accounts for 9.77 percent of the index,  is  almost entirely accounted for by the  growing shortage of urban land.  Tariffs on  transport, fuel and lighting, which   account for  another  17.1 percent, rose sharply  because of a  revival  of international oil prices till mid-2014,  a 40 percent fall in the value of the rupee after 2011;  a simultaneous removal of subsidies on diesel, gasoline and LPG, and a growing reliance on coal, imported  at four times the domestic price, for power generation.  All these are cost push factors that get  translated into an increase in the cost of living  through  administered changes in price.

Health and education make up another  9.04 percent. The cost of the former has risen because of drug price decontrol – another administered price change  — and because of a growing reliance on private health  services. The rise in the latter reflects the final collapse of the public schooling system.

In sum , whatever the  cost of living index may signify  in  countries where more than half of the population lives on pensions,   in  India it is an index not of excess demand but of the  failures of past governments. To use these  as a yardstick of inflation and curb industry  is to destroy India’s future and administer the kiss of death to its poor.

The right policy is not to leave   interest rates solely to politicians but link them to a measure that has been purged of all pressures caused by administered prices and  shortages of supply. The only one in India  that fully does this is   CRISIL’s Core  rate of Inflation Index (the CCII) .

The CCII is derived from the RBI’s Non-Food Manufactures Index (NFME) but excludes oil and metals because their prices are heavily influenced by global price trends. But it also  includes manufactured foods and beverages, which the NFME excludes. This measure of inflation has stayed close to the wholesale prices index, but is far more stable. In September 2014 when the fall in oil prices had just begun to bring down all indices of inflation, the RBI’s NFME fell to 2.8 percent and the wholesale price index to 2.38 percent, CCII index will not have fallen as much as the WPI but is almost certainly also showing deflation. Today, India desperately needs investment in infrastructure, and therefore the lowest possible long term interest rates. With the CCII at a long term rate of at most two percent thus there is not an iota of economic logic for keeping bank lending rates at 12 percent.

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WITCH DOCTORS AT THE HELM
Prem Shankar Jha
Coming on the heels of July’s 0.5 percent, the 0.4 percent growth of industrial production in August shows that the Indian economy is not on the road to recovery. The reason is the sustained high interest rate regime of the past four years. Industry has been begging for cuts in the cost of borrowing since March 2011. When Modi came to power it thought that its troubles were about to end. But on August 5, RBI governor Raghuram Rajan surprised the country by announcing that he would not lower interest rates, because at 8 percent consumer price inflation was still too high. He also announced that he would not lower rates till inflation, measured by the cost of living, had come down to six percent. So his September 30 refusal to bring down interest rates came as no surprise.
But Rajan went a step further and unveiled an inflation forecasting model which estimated that under the very best of conditions CPI inflation would not fall to 6 percent till January 2016. To Indian industry, which ceased to grow three years ago, this was the kiss of death.
Today there is not a spark of demand anywhere in the entire economy. Inspite of every inducement the growth of credit in the festive season till the 3rd week of September was Rs 17,800 crores against 108,000 crores in the comparable period of last year. Two of the RBI’s own reports have shown that capacity utilization in industry has been falling since the early months of 2012. But Raghuram Rajan remains fixated only on bringing down inflation.
What is worse he is using only one of four measures of inflation—the consumer price index, and ignoring the other three. These are the wholesale price index (WPI), the Reserve Bank of India’s non-food manufacturing index, and the ‘core rate’ of inflation. The WPI is an approximate measure of the rise in production cost. It is therefore crucially important for manufacturers and builders. The RBI’s non-food manufacturing index is a rough measure of the pressure of excess demand on prices because it filters out the impact of weather and export policies on agriculture. But CRISIL’s core rate of inflation is the most precise measure as it includes manufactured food items but excludes globally traded fuels and metals to filter out the impact of world commodity price changes.
Today WPI inflation has fallen from 9.6 percent in 2010-11 to a record low of 2.38 percent. The RBI’s NFMI has also fallen from 8.4 percent in June 2009 to 2.8 percent, mainly on the back of declining world commodity prices. CRISIL’s core rate of inflation is therefore higher, but only by 0.2 percent.
So why has the Consumer price inflation rate remained so stubbornly high? The answer is that the new method of calculation introduced in January 2011 has, in an unforeseen way, become a measure of the effect on prices not of excess demand but of bottlenecks in supply and the failure of the State to provide the infrastructure for growth. .
Primary foods, whose prices are determined almost entirely by supply constraints such as rainfall, area sown, and in the case of vegetables , the amount exported, account for 42.2 percent of the index. Housing accounts for 9.77 percent, but the index includes only urban housing whose supply is severely constrained by the shortage of urban land and the severe curbs the government has imposed on loans to builders.
Health and education make up another 9.04 percent. The cost of both has risen because of drug price decontrol and a growing reliance on private doctors and schools that reflects the failure of the state The only manufactured products included in the CPI are clothing , bedding and footwear (4.6 percent) and manufactured foods ( 8.2 percent). If housing is taken as a proxy for basic industries the total weight of manufacturing in the index comes to just 21 percent. The rest of this index reflects constraints in supply that high interest rates cannot remedy.
This is why four years of ‘inflation targeting’ using the CPI as the yardstick, has failed to make any dent in the CPI inflation. Today people are expecting the RBI to lower rates , but only because CPI inflation has fallen to 6.38 percent and, with diesel prices falling, will go lower.. But the cause — a sharp fall in world commodity, and particularly oil, prices—has nothing to do with India. And we have no idea how long it fall will last. Should domestic interest rates go up again if ISIS captures Basra, or China goes on another investment spree?
The Government has belatedly realized that interest rates determine not only money supply but also economic growth. So it is setting up a joint finance ministry and RBI panel to decide what it should be. But even this is not a sufficient safeguard. The Congress learned to its cost that inflation indices misinterpreted, and interest rates misapplied, can not only sink the economy, but the government as well. If interest rates are to be indexed to inflation it must be to the core rate of inflation, and be subject to whether the government wants growth or price stability. That is a decision that only the cabinet and the prime minister are qualified to make.

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Four months ago Narendra Modi rode to power on a promise to revive the Indian economy and restore to the people of India the future they had lost. But tendrils of doubt had begun to surface well before he completed his first hundred days in office. In the last week these have hardened into certainty.

In normal circumstances four months would have been too soon start judging the performance of a new government. But the BJP came to power in a moment of crisis on a huge wave of anger against the UPA government. Economic growth had crashed, industrial production was contracting, and almost no new jobs had been created since 2008, leaving an estimated 40 million new job seekers stranded. None of those who voted for Modi had expected an instant miracle, but they had expected the new government to unveil a credible, well worked out plan to revive the economy.

They didn’t get one. There was no hint of any change in the macro-economic policies that the UPA had followed in Finance minister Jaitley’s budget speech and there was none in Mr. Modi’s Independence Day speech. Instead as the government’s 100th day approached it’s spokespersons plucked at straws to showcase its success – a 3.9 percent growth in Industry and, on its back, a one percent rise in GDP growth from 4.7 to 5.7 percent. July’s data for industrial production pricked this balloon. Not only had year-on-year industrial growth fallen to 0.5 percent and manufacturing contracted, but the 3.9 percent growth in the first quarter turned out to be a statistical illusion. To those on the ground for whom nothing had changed, this began to look like proof that nothing would change in the near future.

The policy change needed to restart growth is a simultaneous, very sharp lowering of interest rates and a firm containment of the fiscal deficit. The interest cut will revive consumer spending, especially on durables, start a rise in share prices, and bring down the cost of new investment. If synchronized with a reduction of the fiscal deficit it will bring about a non-inflationary transfer of resources from government consumption to corporate investment.

The time for making this shift of policy could not be more opportune. The balance of payments deficit has been brought down from an unsustainable 4.7 percent of GDP in 2012-13 to a healthy 0.8 percent in the last nine months of 2013-14. Exports are growing at 10.2 percent, and engineering goods exports at 22 percent. Foreign exchange reserves have crept up in the past 12 months from $ 279 billion to $ 320 billion. The threat that a sudden rise in investment and consumption will trigger a foreign exchange crisis has therefore receded. In his budget Mr. Jaitley made a determined bid to contain the fiscal deficit by increasing tax collections, and announcing plans to improve delivery and save money. But he made no mention of interest rates. His budget announcement therefore became a bird with a broken wing.
One has only to look as far as the Reserve Bank of India to see why. In his latest Policy Review the RBI governor, Raghuram Rajan, again did not lower interest rates, even by a fraction. Instead as one justification for keeping them high has dissolved, he has hurriedly replaced it with another. Today the wholesale price inflation is at a five year low of 3.7 percent, and consumer price inflation has fallen to 7.8 percent, but commercial bank lending rates (including bank charges) remain at 13 to 14 percent even for financially sound companies. This gives a real rate of interest for manufacturers of 10 percent — a figure unheard of in mature market economies even in good times and suicidal in times of recession. Even by the yardstick of CPI inflation the real rate is over five percent, a rate at which investment is not possible. Is it surprising then that bank lending has grown by less than ten percent this year against 23 percent five years ago; that there have been only six new share issues so far in 2014, against an average of 110 in the same nine months of 2006 and 2007, and that the sales of all consumer durables, from autos to TVs, computers and office equipment has fallen by eight to fourty percent in the last one year?

In his 14 months at the RBI, Rajan has not mentioned economic growth. This may be kosher in the West, which does not strictly need growth. It is not kosher in India, where people have to earn something before they can start worrying about how much their money will buy.

Prime Minister Modi has promised to give India world class roads and ports, high speed trains ‘smart’ cities, rural electrification and water supply. These are all infrastructure projects, and infrastructure devours capital. In the best planned and executed projects the ‘bare’ construction period, when the money has actually to be spent, stretches from five to 12 years. Where will Mr. Modi find Indian entrepreneurs willing to take up such projects when interest charges alone can add 25 to 100 percent to his costs?

The answer, of course, is nowhere. So Raghuram Rajan must give up his obsession with inflation, and his attempt to fight it single-handed by choking India’s economic growth, or he must leave. If the Modi government cannot persuade him, and has not the courage to fire him, then the people will fire it at the next elections.

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Till as recently as two years ago India was enjoying a dream rate of growth, of close to 9 percent a year. Then the bottom fell out, and it happened so suddenly the few people even now fully understand why. In my WIKI I have posted an article that appeared in “The Hindu” ( all editions) on why this happened and why the situation is far from hopeless. If you are interested, I would greatly appreciate a feedback.

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For more than five years, the Indian economy has been growing progressively more slowly. The chief victim has been industry – which should be the muscle and sine of economic growth. The Indian government and its Central Bank have spared no effort to put the blame for this on the global recession. But the truth is that it is its own policies that have all but killed the economy. Today overall growth has collapsed from 9.4 percent three years ago to 4.8 percent. Industrial growth has almost disappeared, from 12.8 percent in 2009-10 to less than 2 percent.
No one in government even wants to talk about the fall in employment. The single cause of this catastrophe is that in the face of recession the Indian Reserve Bank has steadily raised interest rates instead of lowering them.

To justify this suicidal action it has put forward different justifications at different times. The most consistent is that India is suffering from a high rate of consumer inflation. This cannot be brought down without raising interest rates. What the Central Bank refuses to do is distinguish between demand pull and cost push inflation. This is suicide.

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