Everyone loves a good outrage

The reform agenda must be defended from Montek Singh Ahluwalia’s attackers

As far as op-eds go, this one marks a new low from P Sainath. It is not uncommon for him to frame grave issues in a divisive manner by conflating them with unrelated matters—like, for instance, agrarian crises and beauty pageants. This technique seeks to arbitrage outrage, as if decent people cannot be anguished at a tragedy without having to contrast it with an unrelated celebration. But when Mr Sainath links the poverty line, expenses incurred by the Planning Commission chief while traveling on official business overseas, the lavishness with which some tycoons spend their private funds and dubious dealings of crony capitalism, it can’t merely be his usual, unfortunate and misguided conflation.

Make no mistake: Mr Sainath’s hatchet job on Montek Singh Ahluwalia is part of an internal campaign against reform-minded individuals within the UPA government. This week’s manufactured controversy over renovation expenses of toilets in the Planning Commission’s headquarters is another manifestation of the same campaign.

Let us examine Mr Sainath’s cleverly framed allegations. His case is that at Mr Ahluwalia’s travel expenses are exorbitant, at an average of $4000 per day abroad. You would think he would give you some comparable data to prove Mr Ahluwalia has been unusually proliferate in spending public funds. Say, for instance, the average daily expenditure when cabinet-ranked Indian officials travel abroad on official business. Or for instance, the average daily expenditure incurred by Mr Ahluwalia’s counterparts from other countries. These would be like-for-like comparisons. Mr Sainath, however, does not do that. He compares these to a income of a person on India’s poverty line. All this proves is that $4000 is much higher than Rs 28. It does not even come close to proving that public funds were misspent, nor does it show that Mr Ahluwalia was unusually liberal with his expense budget. The onus of doing this research is on Mr Sainath, the person making the argument.

How Mukesh Ambani spends his personal wealth is irrelevant to the argument—he is free to spend his money as he pleases, even if it does not suit our tastes—, so is a discussion on cronyism and corruption in IPL. You don’t need to read the Planning Commission’s response to conclude that Mr Sainath’s allegations are sensationalistic nonsense.

But why choose Mr Ahluwalia at all? Mr Sainath’s arguments against profligacy would have been worthy of respect if he had compared the travel expenses of the top officials of government—from President Patil to the lowest ranking minister of state. How much, for instance, does Sonia Gandhi, as chairperson of the National Advisory Council, spend on her foreign trips? Whatever her political role, she’s an official of equivalent rank. How much do the members of the National Advisory Council spend on their foreign and domestic trips? Unless we have some numbers to compare with, we can’t say anything about Mr Ahluwalia’s trips.

What we do know is that Mr Ahluwalia is among the few people known to be advocating economic reforms in the UPA government. Singling him out with a view to making him the lightning rod for public outrage has all the signs of a political hatchet job. The objective is to discredit the reformist agenda by associating it with imaginary wrongdoing. After running the Indian economy to the ground, the socialists that haunt the UPA government’s policymaking are now trying to bury the narrative of reform, liberalisation and markets through subterfuge and intellectual dishonesty.

It’s no different with the renovation expenses of public toilets in Yojana Bhavan, the Planning Commission’s headquarters. One of the earliest reports on this, in the Times of India, again compared toilet renovation expenses with the the poverty line. Few in the mainstream or social media bothered to ascertain the scope of the renovations and compare it with similar renovations conducted in New Delhi’s public and private buildings. The purpose of the revelations was to insinuate wrongdoing on the part of Mr Ahluwalia, rather than to establish whether there was any wrongdoing at all.

Mr Ahluwalia is guilty: of not throwing his credibility on the line to compel the UPA government to launch the second-generation reforms, and to prevent it from engaging in monumental fiscal irresponsibility that has put India’s future at risk. Like his mentor Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, he becomes complicit in the UPA’s misgovernance. He will have to answer these charges both to the nation and to history. This does not mean he’s lavishing public funds on unnecessary foreign excursions, building gold-plated toilets or taking a cut from the renovation contractor.

It is fair for the Opposition parties to politically exploit the situation to their advantage. However, it is in the national interest not to allow a campaign of unfair personal calumny to discredit the reform agenda—or indeed, to prevent Mr Ahluwalia from a chance to redeem his reformist record—to succeed. The Acorn completely agrees with Mint’s editorial defence of Montek Singh Ahluwalia. Mr Ahluwalia has “done far more for the poor than the busybodies and peddlers of poverty porn who are now attacking him.”

Cultivating authority, evading responsibility

“Those who are politically strong are constantly running away from political responsibility,” writes Pratap Bhanu Mehta

You should read his piece in the Indian Express in full. Excerpts:

The prime minister will take you only up to a point. The Centre does not carry any credibility, because there it has no genuine interlocutors. There is no other leader who can carry the imprimatur that they are acting on behalf of the nation, who can provide a healing touch when needed. More and more of our conflicts will require this kind of constant political engagement. Rahul and Sonia Gandhi, in political terms, carry that mantle as much as anyone does; but they steadfastly refuse to risk it on anything other than politically easy welfare schemes. The scandal of Indian politics is not simply that the prime minister is politically weak; it is that those who are politically strong are constantly running away from political responsibility.

And it has sent a message: the purpose of politics is not solving problems; it is the evasion of responsibility. [IE]

No excuses left, Dr Singh

Can Manmohan Singh redeem himself?

Dr Manmohan Singh has an altogether more difficult job this time. When he become prime minister in 2004, it was after Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NDA government had begun the strategic tango with the United States, galvanised the ‘peace process’ with Pakistan and arrived at a positive bilateral relationship with China. The neighbourhood was also relatively stable. The external environment that Dr Manmohan Singh inherits from Dr Manmohan Singh is significantly worse in some places, and in crisis mode in many others.

The Obama administration is determined to be in the “not-Bush” mode as much out of ideological conviction as out of antipathy for George W Bush and his policies. The ‘peace process’ with Pakistan has proven to be a disaster and after 26/11, the UPA government has put its Pakistan strategy on auto-pilot mode. China is off the great power launchpad and is flexing its muscles. The neighbourhood is in crisis. Dr Manmohan Singh could not have left a worse legacy for Dr Manmohan Singh. (And we’re not even talking about the economy)

The good news is that the old millstones are gone: the new UPA government won’t have to depend on Prakash Karat and his comrades and might even be free of the Congress Party’s own albatrosses like Natwar Singh and Mani Shankar Aiyar. So Dr Manmohan Singh will have greater freedom to—and fewer excuses not to—push the kind of foreign policy that India needs. The presence of the DMK in the UPA might complicate Sri Lanka policy, but otherwise, there’s little to constrain Dr Singh.

The Acorn does not subscribe to the Manmohan Singh fan club (okay, that’s an understatement) but it has strongly supported the UPA government on the India-US nuclear deal. We now challenge him to use the current crises and set right the course of Indian foreign policy right.

Mr Chawla must go

He should not have been appointed to the Election Commission in the first place

Let’s be clear: if the institution of the Election Commission is becoming politicised, and if the controversy over Navin Chawla’s continuance in that office leads to a constitutional crisis, the entire blame lies unambiguously at the door of the Congress Party.

Just how hard would it have been to find a decent, uncontroversial, experienced serving or former bureaucrat to occupy the office that acts as the most respected guardian of India’s electoral politics?

Why choose a person who the Shah Commission declared “unfit to hold any public office which demands an attitude of fair play and consideration for others”?

So let’s not lose a sense of perspective amid all the sanctimonious sophistry about whether it was “proper” for Chief Election Commissioner N Gopalaswamy to have recommended Mr Chawla’s sacking. Appointing Mr Chawla to the Election Commission was an unpardonable act of cynicism by a party that has so totally run the country to the ground.

The only honourable course is the for UPA government to accept Mr Gopalaswamy’s recommendation and proceed to remove Mr Chawla. Or, perhaps, persuade him to ‘resign in order not to drag the office into controversy’.

The man who knows exactly how to fix India’s problems

But still won’t

This blog would be remiss if it missed pointing out an excellent post by Raju Narisetti, the editor of Mint, on his blog. Dr Manmohan Singh, he writes, should be an op-ed writer.

Usually, it is the opinion page editors of newspapers who are in the habit of telling the government and the people as to what ought to be done. In India, however, it is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s speciality as the man who can get things done and who is supposed to get things done has increasingly turned into an editorial writer (or editorial speech maker), often simply telling the country what ought to be done rather than actually doing it. [A Romantic Realist]

Next year, a grateful Indian electorate should allow Dr Singh to do what he does best.

Toasting the UPA’s four years in power

Notes from a party-goer

And you must read Saakshi Dutta’s post:

I wanted to go to the UPA party, and since I do not belong to any party which Congress can form a coalition with, I had to fight hard for it. Finally, the only condition imposed upon me was to come in Khadi. I also gained permission to make a toast to the 4 years bygone. I prepared hard and long to prepare a list of achievements that the UPA had made and wrote them in the book that I carried that day. [Saakshi—Tracking Thoughts]

Sack Shivraj

Incompetence is perhaps his lesser crime

In one of his famous annual reports, General Electric’s Jack Welch classified managers into four types, according to their performance and their values. The first were those who delivered results and lived by the values espoused by the organisation. For them, the “sky is the limit”. The second were those who missed their targets, but lived by their values—these, according to Mr Welch, deserved a second chance. For Mr Welch the “the toughest call of all was the manager who doesn’t share the values, but delivers the numbers”. This type of manager had to sacked “because they have the power, by themselves, to destroy the…culture we need to win.” He didn’t have to say it, but the easiest call of all was the manager who “doesn’t share the values; doesn’t make the numbers”. That person had to be shown the door.

Now, that Shivraj Patil has been an “unmitigated disaster” at the home ministry has been clear for some time. The charitable explanation for his brazen denial of his ministry’s decision to intern illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in camps is cluelessness—that he didn’t quite know what policies his ministry was coming up with. Considering that the question of illegal immigration is among the more important ones for his ministry, his cluelessness further confirms the allegations of incompetence against him.

If competence were the only criteria—as it ought to be in a country were a significant fraction of the population is poor, and hence can least afford the luxury of incompetent leaders—Mr Patil should have been sacked a long time ago. In fact, voters had already sacked him in the Lok Sabha elections of 2004. It was the Congress Party that inserted him—like Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself—into the Cabinet.

Mr Patil’s failings though are not merely in the area of competence. His greater failing, arguably, is in the domain of values. Now it is acceptable—though highly objectionable—for someone to see moral equivalence between the death sentence of an Indian citizen guilty of terrorism in India by the Supreme Court of India and the death sentence handed out to an Indian citizen pronounced guilty of espionage and terrorism in Pakistan by the Pakistani judiciary. But that someone cannot be a member of the Cabinet. There are such things as values: constitutionalism, due process, transparency, independence of institutions and rule of law. If Mr Patil can’t see the difference in the processes that led to the similar result—the death sentence—he reveals a lack of basic values that disqualify him from any position of constitutional office. [via Rational Fool]

In fact, Mr Patil’s comparison of the two cases reveals a deeper flaw in his understanding. If Sarabjit Singh was indeed a spy, then the UPA government should not have succumbed to the pressure to ask for the waiver of his death sentence. In this scenario, official intervention on Mr Singh’s behalf was a foreign policy mistake. On the other hand, if the UPA government knows that Mr Singh is innocent, then surely, hanging him is injustice. So how is Pakistan’s hanging of an innocent man similar to India’s hanging of a man declared guilty by the Supreme Court? The only explanation is that Mr Patil is implying that Mr Mohd Afzal is innocent. He has no authority to do that—the task before the President, and the Cabinet which will advise her, is whether or not Mr Mohd Afzal deserves clemency, not whether he’s innocent or guilty. [See an earlier post on death sentence dilemma].

India must be the only country in the world where the government finds ever more dubious reasons to prevent a convicted terrorist—guilty of planning an attack on the national parliament—from being punished according to the law.

Just how shameful is Mr Patil’s statement? Compare his views with those of Sukhpreet Kaur, Mr Singh’s wife. “Myself and my daughters would never like Sarabjit freed in exchange for any hardcore Pakistani terrorist lodged in Indian jails” she said, “nothing is above the nation and we can’t go against the interests of our motherland.”

Neutron Jack would have no qualms in sacking Mr Patil. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, though, is quite unlikely to do so. Neither performance nor values matter to this government. It has already robbed from India’s material future. It is also robbing India’s national dignity. Yet it is important for us, the shareholders, to demand his sacking.

A version of this post appears in Saturday’s Mail Today, in an op-ed titled “It’s high time Shivraj Patil was shown the door”

The knave of bad times

They destroyed the paddle. Schitt creek* is coming up

Growth in industrial production fell to 3%, the lowest in six years, indicating that bad times might be ahead. There’s worse. As Niranjan Rajadhyaksha demonstrates, the UPA government has frittered away the opportunity to put the economy on the footing to handle the coming problems. In the “misery index” he constructs, among emerging market economies, only Pakistan and Egypt fare worse than India.

But there is little doubt that the economic fundamentals are deteriorating. The hole in the government’s finances is getting bigger. It could now be close to 1991 levels, if measured correctly. The current account deficit, too, is growing and could conceivably touch 1991 levels by the end of this year. The foreign exchange market has already picked up these worrying signs. The rupee has been slipping against most major currencies over the past few weeks. Somewhere in some tax haven, a few hedge funds must be seeing these trends and sharpening their claws.

It is unfortunate and inexcusable that India is now at a point when it seems far more vulnerable than most other emerging market economies. The government should have used the splendid five-year economic boom and soaring tax collections to slash its deficit and prepare the economy for an economic downturn. It did not.

History will not judge the United Progressive Alliance government too kindly on this score. It is distressing that some of the same people who helped pull India out of trouble in 1991 have done so little to prepare for the next round of economic turmoil. One expected more from a team led by Manmohan Singh.[Mint]

Mr Rajadhyaksha is being charitable to Dr Singh and the UPA government. Not only did this crew fail to prepare for the coming storm, but actually damaged the boat. It’s a sin of commission. [Also see Swaminathan Aiyar’s piece on fiscal deficit]

* Thanks to Chidanand Rajghatta for revealing the decorous use of that euphonious euphemism