Modi in the Valley

There are lessons and reflections for Narendra Modi in Silicon Valley

This is the original English version of an op-ed published in Hindi, in Nai Dunia, Indore, today.

If California were an independent country, it would be one of India’s important trading partners: last year we imported more than $5.3 billion worth of goods from that state. While IT services exports catch most of the limelight, India also exports items like cashew nuts, coffee, tea, engine parts, metal screws, rice and vegetable extracts. California hosts more than 4,75,000 Indian-Americans and is deeply connected to our technology industry. Silicon Valley companies have invested heavily in India over the last twenty years, and their presence contributes to the livelihoods of several lakhs of people in India — from IT & BPO employees to the taxi drivers who drive them to work. So much is Bangalore’s technology sector connected to America’s that we like to joke that the traffic in the city is lighter during public holidays in the United States.

So there are very good reasons for Prime Minister Narendra Modi to visit California, instead of limiting himself to the usual New York-Washington circuit that India’s political leaders usually do. Reaching out personally to top investors and business leaders helps promote India as a destination for investments, where we are in competition with China, East Asia and Eastern Europe. Whatever may be the domestic criticisms of the “Digital India” initiative, it is a good calling card for the Indian prime minister as he engages the some of the world’s most influential technology leaders. His personal charisma and public speaking skills make him a fantastic salesman and marketer of the India story.

Also, unlike our own businesspeople, it is likely that foreign business leaders will be more straightforward in telling him why they find it hard to do business in India. The country will benefit from such candid feedback, especially if Mr Modi diligently follows up on it once he is back in New Delhi.

That, essentially, is the real problem. Even without Mr Modi visiting Silicon Valley, it is a well-known fact that India has the talent, the resources and the market to make it a potentially exciting destination for investment. Yet, much of this potential cannot be realised because of the government gets in the way. Complicated tax laws, for instance, raise costs of doing business, increase corruption and invite political rent-seeking. Poor contract enforcement is merely the tip of the iceberg of a pervasive lack of trust in society, which deters investors. Lack of attention to basic public services, like water, electricity, education, health and transportation shifts the costs onto the private sector. This not only raises costs for investors (and makes India more expensive a place to operate from than it should be) but also creates social divisions, because others do not have them. We all know the problems with land acquisition and labour reform.

Mr Modi can’t be unaware of these issues. In his interactions with investors, he would probably have reassured them that his government will address these challenges. While he might get away with these responses as this is his first visit, he might not receive a patient hearing the next time. In other words, he has staked his personal credibility on addressing the challenges faced by investors and he will now have to deliver on them. This is not easy because it is unclear if his government realises that the entire Delhi Straitjacket has to be removed from our economic lives, not mere tweaking at the margins. We have not seen any sign of that since the Modi government came to power. Worse, even as Mr Modi promotes Digital India, his government scores such shocking self-goals like the recent one concerning a very poorly drafted National Encryption Policy that it was forced to withdraw after strong public criticism. The Modi government has done nothing to repeal the horrible IT Rules (including the infamous Section 66A) that were introduced by the UPA government.

After the success of the visit, Mr Modi will have to pay attention to the essential task of economic reform. Whether to satisfy the aspirations of the domestic population or demands of foreign investors, the answer is the same: economic liberalisation on a much bigger scale than Prime Minister Narasimha Rao’s in 1991.

While no one might have told him this, but Mr Modi would do well to reflect on why Silicon Valley creates companies like Google, Tesla or Facebook that have a global mindset. Most startups there begin with a plan to capture the global market. Their dreams are big. Of course, the ecosystem enables them to fulfil those dreams, but the big dream is the starting point. Most of our entrepreneurs in contrast, limit their dreams to the borders of our own country. The Delhi Straitjacket is partially responsible for this, but there is also a mindset problem, in that we are content to think within our “narrow domestic walls”. Elon Musk wants to transform the way the whole world travels. He wants to even transform the way humans travel to space. If there is something Mr Modi should learn from Silicon Valley is the need to unshackle our richest, most capable and most talented people to open their minds and push the envelope of human achievement.

Those who criticise Mr Modi for going on too many foreign trips miss the point, for his trips help raise India’s profile abroad. What we should discuss is whether his government delivers on the reforms necessary to meet the additional expectations he has created at home and abroad.

On net neutrality and the national interest

Net neutrality might be an optimum compromise in the absence of full liberalisation of the telecom industry

This is a comment I wrote for the Hindi newspaper Naidunia (Indore). Given that Takshashila might submit an official response to the TRAI public consultation on the subject, it is important to state that this is my personal opinion.

The ongoing debate on net neutrality reveals clashes of several public goals and interest groups. Should service providers have the freedom to sell products of their choice to customers of their choice, or should they not have this freedom? Do consumers have the right to use internet services as they have always been used to? Should the open “ethos of the internet” continue to remain so even after it has passed out of the US government’s management and into the hands of the international community? Will an internet with different lanes for different traffic remain the internet as we know it? Should application and content providers like Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp enjoy greater profits despite making much smaller investments than telecom service providers?

The issue is complex and entangled, and we should resist the temptation to see it as a fight between good guys and bad guys. There is nothing wrong in corporations trying to maximise their profits as long as they conduct business in a legal and ethical manner. It would be wrong to project telecom service providers who are seeking to improve their profitability as villains. Similarly, it is rather pointless for them to look at over-the-top (OTT) services like Facebook and begrudge them their profits. Different industries have different risks and different rewards. Consumers too cannot claim that things should be as they are and every change is a negative development.

So what should we make of this issue? I would like to answer this question by asking “what is India’s national interest with regard to IT in general and the internet in particular?”. There are three aspects to our national interest:

First, given that less than one in ten Indians has access to broadband, it should be a national priority to increase penetration. There is a correlation between broadband penetration and economic growth rate. India’s development needs our economy to leapfrog into the information age: for this we need reliable, affordable services. So when thinking about net neutrality at this stage, the government must give the highest priority to ensuring the maximum number of people take up broadband in the shortest duration possible.

This, however, should not come as a result of price regulation. Fixing prices and a government that worships at the altar of “low cost” will result in damage. Low prices should come as a result of market forces and competition.

Second, given that India’s IT industry is an engine for growth and development, we must ensure that it remains globally competitive. The industry is worth more than 100 billion dollars and employs more than 10 million people. There are thousands of startups in the country aiming to become the next Infosys and FlipKart. Our IT policy should not create more hurdles for entrepreneurs and ensure that they have the best possible start to build world-class companies. Without Net Neutrality, the risk that startups will face even greater “unfair disadvantages” against established firms is higher.

Third, it is in the public interest for the telecom and mobile service provider industry is healthy and competitive. In the past decade, the regulators pursued the goal of forcing the telecom providers to lower user tariffs. While India has one of the lowest costs of telecom services in the world, the service quality is patchy. Calls drop frequently. Broadband service often is of lower speed and suffers outages. Billing services are terrible. Anyone who has tried calling the customer service helpline of any telecom provider will attest to the fact that it is very difficult to get anything done. All this is because telcos are cutting costs in these areas. There are few lucrative or premium services left where they can increase their profitability. The only protection they enjoy is through licensing — the government limits the competition they face.

When deciding what to do about net neutrality, we must keep all three considerations in mind, and optimise them simultaneously. If the government opens up the telecom service market to greater competition, perhaps by issuing unlimited licenses, then there is a case to allow them the freedom to discriminate among customers. As the state-owned carrier, BSNL can provide a neutral internet. However, if the government does not open the sector to further competition, therefore shielding the telecom service providers from more competition, then mandating net neutrality provides a reasonable approach to promoting the public interest.

The current debate calls for the government to review the entire licensing regime and consider full liberalisation of the telecom industry.

Robbery is not right

The ‘rights-based approach to development’ is immoral and illiberal

Why was there ideological collusion in the passage of a bill that promises ‘food security’ but is certain to severely undermine India’s development path? Several reasons can be adduced—from the electoral to the conspiratorial—but what gave both the terrible bill and the even more terrible scheme it seeks to implement the impression of inevitability was the underlying narrative of a “rights-based approach”. And, as Narayan Ramachandran writes, “[the] apostle of the rights-based approach in India is the National Advisory Council (NAC).”

Over the last decade, the NAC’s narrative of a “rights-based approach” to development has acquired dominance. It has pervaded government policy because Sonia Gandhi, its chief and Congress party president, in all likelihood, genuinely believes in it. The power of narratives is such that even if you replace Mrs Gandhi and her NAC with another political leader and his or her own clique, they will be compelled to persist with the same policies as before, or undertake the Hanumanian task of countering the rights-based narrative before rolling back or changing tack on the massive entitlement schemes. (See my previous post on this).

Narayan argues that the rights-based approach is the wrong development model for India. In fact, “rights-based approach” is a misnomer. It is a clever way to refloat the failed policies of socialism under a new, fashionable but dubious political philosophy. In essence, this ‘development model’ identifies an ever-growing list of life’s needs and necessities, declares that they are ‘rights’ and suggests that these be provided by the state.

A lot of well-meaning people are fooled by this sophistry. Since few good people will dispute that people need food, education, healthcare and jobs to live in this world, they become susceptible to the argument that such necessities are rights. Moreover, since a lot of famous people, including Nobel laureates and rock stars, advocate this approach, the notion that such things are rights acquires wings.

Yet for all the celebrity endorsement, warm fuzzy feelings it creates, the so-called rights-based approach is immoral and illiberal. The only true rights are those that do not come at anyone else’s cost. Preetam’s right to life, equality, freedom and property do not come at Palani’s cost, and vice versa. The state might have to incur a cost to protect these rights, but not to provide them. [Meet Preetam and Palani, in Redistribution as Theft]

The entitlements that the NAC-types call ‘rights’ are different. It costs someone something to provide them. If Preetam and Palani are the only two citizens in a hypothetical state, the cost of providing Palani’s right to food, education, healthcare and jobs must be borne by the state. If the state, in this example, is financed by Preetam’s tax payments, Palani’s entitlements come at the cost of further infringing on Preetam’s rights (in this case, the right to use his money as he pleases).

It is sometimes reasonable to argue that Preetam must be made to pay for Palani’s necessities in order to have a equitable society. Or because Palani might be contributing to Preetam’s welfare in other ways. What is wholly wrong, though, is to contend that food, education, healthcare, internet connections, jobs and suchlike are ‘rights’, in the same way as life, freedom and property are rights.

However desirable, however necessary, if it costs (someone else) to provide, it is not a right. It is an entitlement. Liberal democracies can agree to make some entitlements obligations of the state. But it is important to keep these obligations distinct from rights. The framers of the Indian Constitution made this distinction when they separated Fundamental Rights from Directive Principles. Unfortunately, their successors in parliament lacked the same moral clarity, and proceeded to undermine Rights even as they attempted to rightify the obligations that fall under the Directive Principles.

Because it violates (someone else’s) rights, the rights-based approach is universally immoral. India cannot afford the luxury of this ‘international development’ fashion. The cost of providing an ever-growing list of entitlements is prohibitively large, and will severely undermine India’s future. Right-minded people and political parties (no pun intended) should reject the rights-based approach.

1. The Two-Person Test to determine what is a right (also known as the Preetam & Palani Test). If it costs Preetam to provide Palani something (and vice versa), then, however desirable it might be, it is not a right.

2. If we accept the rights-based approach, then we urgently need to legislate the “Right to Richer Spouse.” If every citizen has an enforceable right to marry a richer person, then poverty will disappear fairly quickly. Such a right will take away some freedom from the richer persons, but that’s no different from the rights to food, education, jobs and suchlike. If you find the Right to Richer Spouse absurd or repugnant, just remember that it is based on the same logic as the right to food, education, healthcare, jobs, internet connections and so on…

3. A storified series of tweets on the topic.

Redistribution as theft

Alleviating poverty requires economic growth alone.

It is not often that Indian public discourse seriously discusses big ideas. So it was nice to see, a few days ago, a debate in large sections of the mainstream and social media on economic growth vs redistribution. This debate received wider public attention because it was conflated with a personality clash between Jagdish Bhagwati and Amartya Sen, because it became entangled with the hottest political topic of our times and because it came at a time when the issue itself is important.

When faced with two sharply different points of view, it is common—not least in India—to insist that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. This is celebrated as being reasonable, as representing the compromise that is the hallmark of democratic practice and as being the mystic middle path. So when some economists insist that growth is the best way out of poverty while other champion redistribution of wealth, it is to be expected that there will be reasonable people who will say “we need both more growth and more redistribution”. This is a good way to end the debate amicably and drink to reasonability and democratic compromise.

Unfortunately, there’s a difference between appearing reasonable and being right. “We need more growth and more redistribution” is not a reasonable middle position. It is essentially an argument for redistribution but stated in a different form.

Without growth, redistribution is at best a transfer and at worst, theft. If a community earns the same amount of money (or produces goods of the same value) every year, then redistribution takes from Preetam to pay Palani. If Preetam consents to the arrangement, it is a transfer. If he doesn’t, it is theft. Over a period of time, it will make the community more equal, but it doesn’t necessarily make the community less poor, for even after achieving income equality, the average income can be below what is required to subsist.

Growth is the only way to increase the overall income of a community. It can raise the respective incomes of both Preetam and Palani, although Preetam’s income might rise faster than Palani’s. Inequality will rise in such a community—perhaps because Preetam was born into a better endowed family, perhaps because Preetam works harder or perhaps because Palani faces greater social hurdles—but because both Preetam’s and Palani’s incomes rise, the whole community can climb out of poverty. There is vast empirical evidence for this, and growth is the best antidote to poverty. It’s the most effective anti-poverty scheme known to humankind.

Here’s the best thing: in such a society, there is no inherent need to take from Preetam to pay Palani on the grounds of poverty alleviation. There might be other issues—for instance, progressive taxation to finance public goods based on the ability to pay, but not to help a poor Palani out of poverty.

Hey, wait a minute! Isn’t inequality rising? Isn’t that a bad thing? Aren’t Palani’s prospects not handicapped by historical social hurdles? Aren’t Preetam’s disproportionate gains coming from exploiting Palani? The reasonable people who argue that “we need both more growth and more distribution” usually raise these questions to argue for more redistribution. (There are unreasonable people who raise these questions for other reasons, but let’s stick with responding to the reasonable).

Yes, inequality will rise, especially during periods of high growth. But inequality is a social problem only if it is permanent and ossified. However, growth is the best way to ensure that it is not—with growth comes mobility, and the expectation that one can improve one’s life allows societies to thrive despite the inequalities. Ask migrants to New York or Mumbai. Many also see a moral problem with inequality, but why expect the state to solve moral problems? Let the moral conscience of society address its moral problems.

Shouldn’t we account for historical social hurdles that hobble some citizens? Yes, but these are addressed by creating equality of opportunity, not by insisting on equality of outcomes (where Preetam and Palani end up earning the same income). You can achieve equality of opportunity without redistribution—affirmative action and reservations (without subsidies) are ways to address this challenge.

Isn’t Preetam exploiting Palani? This blog post will not attempt a comprehensive critique of Marxist thought. However, the ideas of economic freedom, property rights, voluntary exchange and comparative advantage together prove that Preetam’s gain is not at Palani’s cost. Although the sort of people who argue that Preetam exploits Palani will seldom acknowledge that redistribution, by definition, means that Palani’s gains come at Preetam’s cost. Unlike redistribution, growth creates non-zero-sum or win-win situations. Only growth creates such situations.

From this alone, we should conclude that “we need growth, not redistribution”. But reasonable people will go to great extents to be reasonable. It’s about sequencing, they’ll say, and contend that some redistribution is necessary for growth. It’s unclear why this is called a reasonable argument—if we accept that both Preetam and Palani will be better off with growth, then the decision to take some from one and give it to the other is unnecessary, whimsical and entirely arbitrary. Instead, why not spend extra effort to ensure that there are no constraints to growth in areas that benefit Palani?

Ergo, what appears reasonable is not quite reasonable: we need growth, not redistribution. The state can ensure growth by getting out of the way of private enterprise, ensuring public goods are provided, acting as an impartial referee, ensuring equality of opportunity and a level playing field. Governments are not good at redistribution: it involves taking money from people who don’t want to give it up and passing it through a system where everyone wants to grab as much as they can get. That is why redistribution is attractive to politicians who are keen to listen to intellectuals who say it is necessary.

Why sports betting must be legalised

An industry that operates above ground is less likely to engage in fixing

The ongoing spot-fixing controversy in Indian Premier League cricket has evoked the usual response. We need a new law—to criminalise cheating in sports—, with harsh punishments, strict enforcement and so on. Given statements made by politicians who are also cricket administrators, it is possible that such a law will indeed be enacted. But if you think the problem of fixing will come down substantially because of this, you will be mistaken.

First, let’s be clear—no matter what you do, it is impossible to completely eliminate illegal activity. There will always be some people who will cheat. What you can do, however, is to reduce the incentives for cheating to such a level that very few people cheat and tighten enforcement enough to catch some of those who do. If this is done, there is a possibility that eventually a culture of integrity will emerge and you’ll have few errant cases to deal with.

In other words, you need to drain the swamps. In the world of Indian cricket, the swamp consists of the illegal economy of betting. Because betting is considered illegal, it is mostly under the control of underground international syndicates that are usually mixed up with other, more dangerous types of illegal activity—like arms trafficking and terrorism. These syndicates operate outside the law and often with key operatives located outside the country, beyond the reach of Indian authorities. The criminal syndicates bribe policemen, bureaucrats and politicians in order to be able to carry out their activities. They also employ thugs and other unsavoury characters to enforce ‘contracts’. And yes, it also creates a lot of unaccounted money that then goes into other underground activities.

There is an economic rationale for this entire criminal economy to exist—there is a lot of money in betting. According to FICCI, illegal betting in sports is worth Rs 12000 crore to Rs 20000 crore per annum. If betting is legalised, this rationale begins to weaken. If people have a choice to place their bets at licensed betting counters—like they do for many sports in many countries—the likelihood that they will prefer to deal with unlicensed bookies will be lower. How much lower depends on the regulatory framework—competition among operators, taxation and anonymity, for instance—but to the extent that it does, the illegal operators will suffer.

It makes ample sense, therefore, to legalise betting and regulate it with the purpose of prevent the industry from falling into the hands of criminal syndicates. As the swamp is drained, the likelihood that it will breed disease-causing mosquitos will go down. There will always be unscrupulous individuals who will attempt fixing, but they will be a lot more isolated from the underground criminal networks than they are today. It is riskier to be an individual crook than to be a member of a big criminal syndicate; so fewer people will be tempted. Law enforcement authorities will be able to do a better job apprehending them because they are fewer in number and operate as individuals or small gangs.

Is it necessary to legalise betting? Won’t law enforcement alone suffice? Well, merely tightening laws and enforcement is likely to have the effect of raising the price of fixing. Spot fixing, like match fixing, will continue, but players and bookies will demand higher prices.

From my archives: On legalising prostitution and two thoughts from Amsterdam

In defence of lobbying

The lobbying industry must be allowed to function transparently within the ambit of the law.

This is an unedited draft of today’s column in Business Standard.

A famous Indian politician was searching for an issue that could energise his party cadre and move the masses. An group of businessmen produced a report on “making India self-contained in her supply” of a particular commodity. It had arguments on the rationale on consumption of the commodity, why it was necessary and why the poor needed it more than the rich. One of the politician’s close associates forwarded the report to the party leadership across the country while his personal secretary echoed the report’s arguments in an op-ed article the subsequent week.

The politician embraced the cause and triggered off a historic agitation, the basis of which, partly at least, was the output of corporate lobbying. The politician was Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, the industry group was FICCI and the commodity common salt. The historic event in question, of course, is the Salt Satyagraha (see this post for details). It would be hazardous to suggest that a FICCI monograph singularly triggered off Gandhi’s famous march to Dandi. It would, however, be equally hazardous to discount the importance of lobbying on national politics then, as indeed in contemporary times.

The current debate over corporate lobbying conflates two separate issues: one, the legitimate persuasion of politicians on the merits of a certain policy measures and two, the illegal activity of bribing them in pursuit of this goal. The latter is wrong. The former is necessary. We might be in the throes of moral panic, but we should not mix up the two.

Lobbying is inevitable in a modern representative democracy: the more rules you make, the more complex the economy, the more the need for ‘specialists’ to intermediate between citizen, corporation and the state. That’s why we have lawyers, who help individuals and firms navigate the legal system. That’s why we have chartered accountants, who interpret the arcana of tax laws. These intermediaries play an important economic role by specialising in such matters and saving you and I the trouble of mastering law and the tax code when all we want is to go about our business.

Lobbying serves a similar function. It is far more efficient for businesses to hire public affairs specialists and lobbyists rather than involve the management in the byzantine world of Indian politics. If we consider lawyers and chartered accountants as legitimate professionals, why not lobbyists?

One argument against mainstreaming lobbying is that lobbyists risk making democracy a plaything of the rich. Those with deeper pockets will get to unduly influence government policies. This is reasonable in and of itself. However, isn’t it true that richer people can afford better lawyers and bend justice in their favour? Isn’t it true that richer people have smarter accountants who can find ingenious ways to pay less tax? More importantly, isn’t it the case that richer people already influence government policies, but in opaque, shady, dubious or wholly illegal ways? Those who doubt this can contact Mr Kejriwal for details.

Hey wait! What about the Niira Radia controversy? Doesn’t that connect shady corporate lobbying to high corruption? Yes, it does. However, that controversy arose in a country where lobbying is not only unregulated by perceived by many as a dubious activity. Had lobbying been a recognised as a legitimate profession, bound by its own norms and governed by a set of rules—like law and accountancy—we might have been spared some of the scandal.

This is, in fact, a good time to have a public debate over lobbying. Before 1991, most corporates would line up outside government offices as supplicants pleading for licenses, quotas and permits. After 1991 and until the exposure of big corruption scandals of 2010, canny businessmen sought to create legislative loopholes that would allow them to squeeze through, but keep their competitors out. This approach is becoming untenable.

Economic growth, globalisation, the Right to Information (RTI), urbanisation and the penetration of social media have changed the nature of how India’s corporations and governments engage each other. Businesses that try to create and exploit loopholes have a greater chance of being exposed, with the attendant loss to reputation and valuation. Like their counterparts in mature democracies, Indian businesses will have to engage in public affairs in cleaner, more professional, and transparent ways.

This can only happen if we allow the lobbying industry to function within the law. It is far better to regulate it rather than drive it underground. Indian democracy will be better served by placing the lobbying industry in a regulatory environment that requires companies to declare their lobbying activities and expenses, lobbying firms to disclose their activities and lobbyists to adhere to professional codes of practice. This is what the United States does. It’s not a silver bullet, but certainly an improvement over hypocritically persisting with a sanctimonious moral blindfold and pretending to be surprised that odious things happen in our country.

Copyright © 2012. Business Standard. All rights reserved.

The dogmas that undermine our defence

Reforming defence procurement, mindset first

This the unedited version of my op-ed in today’s Business Standard.

Why is it that on the one hand India is the world’s biggest arms buyer, and on the other, the outgoing army chief has complained that we are short of basic war-fighting equipment like tank ammunition and field guns? Why is it that our defence procurement takes years to complete and can be halted or reversed by allegations of corruption? Is corruption so rampant within the top echelons of our armed forces that the both the army chief and defence minister could shrug off a brazen attempt to bribe the general in his office? How come the defence ministry has spurned and blacklisted vendors from countries whose geopolitical interests are aligned to ours?

It is easy to treat these issues as merely the failings of individuals and the shortcomings of the latest procurement rules. It is easy to park the unholy affair under the general head of how corruption is undermining our nation. To do so would be to ignore the underlying causes of why things have some to such a pass.

The first is the dogmatic pursuit of indigenisation, a mindset that pervades the defence establishment. It has resulted both in policy capture by public sector unit (PSU) network and introduced layers of complexity in procurement rules. Ordinarily, as end users, the armed forces would want the best possible equipment for the rupee, but they too are prisoners of a narrative that involves the pursuit of a chimerical indigenisation. For in New Delhi, it is still nearly heretical to suggest that an enemy killed by a foreign-made bullet is as dead as an enemy killed by a partly-indigenous bullet.

This is not say indigenisation is an unworthy goal. Rather, it is to suggest that the longstanding approach to indigenisation has not only met with limited success but also that the same goal can be achieved using different means. Back in the 1970s and 1980s the government couldn’t produce an indigenous passenger car no matter how many it purchased from Hindustan Motors and Premier Automobiles. It was only after the liberalisation of the economy and the entry of foreign competitors that Tata Motors, Mahindra and others could produce automobiles that are not only indigenous but also in the same league as their foreign competitors. The route to effective indigenisation, therefore, is counter-intuitive. We must open our defence sector to foreign investors so that Indian industry can acquire the capabilities to produce the equipment our armed forces need.

This cannot be achieved by offsets that require foreign suppliers to spend part of the contract price in India. Offsets might re-inject part of the defence expenditure into the domestic economy but will not result in the transfer of knowledge, skills and human capital that are essential for India to build a modern defence industry. The most effective way to get there is to open doors for foreign direct investment in defence manufacturing. Capping the foreign equity at 26% has attracted few investors. Instead of arguing over another arbitrary level at which to set the cap, we should do away with it altogether.

The second is the equally dogmatic anti-middleman mindset. Going by the statements of the defence minister, it would appear that middlemen—like their lobbyist cousins—are uniformly evil and therefore ought to be banned outright. Yet middlemen are not the cause of corruption. Rather, both middlemen and corruption are the twin offspring of the same parent—complex procurement rules.

The more complex a set of rules, the more the need for ‘specialists’ to help navigate through them. The reason lawyers and chartered accountants exist is because the law and the tax code are complex. Middlemen exist because they perform a useful economic role. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong or immoral about them. It is our rules that make them so, driving underground a genuine economic activity.

Why do we have complex procurement rules? Because we have overcrowded them with multiple, sometimes conflicting objectives. Changing our approach to indigenisation as argued earlier can simplify them to some extent. Even so, it is unlikely that they can be simplified enough to eliminate the need for agents. That is why instead of prohibiting middlemen in defence procurement, a far better policy would be to create a regulatory framework under which they can operate legitimately.

Agents could be required to declare their past and current affiliations, and disclose relevant family connections. Former defence officers and their civilian counterparts could be required to serve out a cooling off period before getting into the business. The policy objective ought to be to align—to the extent possible—the economic incentives of the middlemen to the organisational interests of the armed forces. We don’t have to like lawyers and chartered accountants in order for us to let them discharge their economic roles. Why should it be any different with middlemen?

The final cause of the mess in our defence procurement is that we often ignore the geopolitical consequences of our purchases. Awarding the tender to the lowest bidder might be the best method to resurface parade grounds but not for billion dollar purchases of equipment. To treat both purchases the same way would be to lose strategic leverage that comes from being able favour a country which can give us something else that we need. Blacklisting companies from friendly powers exposes us to purchases from less friendly ones.

The biggest argument for indigenisation is that reliance on foreign suppliers is risky because supplies can be withheld in order to coerce us. That risk can be mitigated if we procure military equipment from countries with which we have extensive economic ties, and vice versa. Reducing the incongruence between our top trading partners and our top arms suppliers ought to be an important policy goal.

The ghost of Bofors continues to haunt our defence procurement. Avoiding stepping on the dung on the road is now more important than getting to the destination. As the defence minister admitted in parliament, the pace of modernisation is slow because every allegation of corruption is investigated. This leaves us with the unfortunate implication that that anyone, from an inimical foreign power to a disgruntled equipment vendor, can apply brakes on the modernisation process. The ghost must be exorcised by liberalising the defence manufacturing sector and getting rid of the superstition that passes off as strategy.

Copyright © 2012. Business Standard. All rights reserved.

Making defence procurement uncontroversial

Fixing complex procurement rules and getting over our hypocrisy over middlemen

Sadly but unsurprisingly public debate over General V K Singh’s comments to the media is overwhelmingly concerned with personal motives, interests and conduct of the individuals involved. Given what has made it to the public domain is a fraction of a whole saga most “Why?” questions have no known answers, forcing people to impute motives and connect dots. Since everyone loves a good ‘scam’ we can expect the heat and decibel levels to go up in the coming days. [See a related post on “What to debate while debating in the dark.”]

The most important question though has answers that are not cloaked in secrecy but are in plain sight. That question is: Why are there endless controversies over defence procurement, for things ranging from frozen meat to coffins, from trucks to helicopters? Inability to make defence procurements uncontroversial is not merely a corruption-related issue. It is a national security issue. If all you need to do to slow down India’s military modernisation is a plausible scandal, everyone from India’s strategic adversaries to disgruntled equipment vendors have an inexpensive option to do us in.

So why, despite endless revisions of procurement policies and rules, despite putting personally incorruptible ministers in charge, despite the efforts of honourable general officers to clear things up, do we still have a situation where someone can allegedly walk up to the army chief’s office and offer him a bribe? [See Nitin Gokhale’s report]

The answer is because our defence procurement rules are too complex and we have made it illegal for those who can help navigate through these byzantine rules to operate openly. As I wrote in a 2007 op-ed in Mint:

Given their remarkable resilience, there has been no attempt towards examining why middlemen exist in the first place. Ironically, is this inability to come to terms with the fact that middlemen might play a useful economic role in a system with complex regulations has not prevented this government from further complicating regulations to keep them at bay. [Mint]

To make defence procurements uncontroversial then either we must simplify the procurement procedures or allow middlemen to operate under a regulatory framework. But why are procurement procedures complicated in the first place? That’s because we add too many objectives to a single purchase. Beyond whether a given purchase is effective, we are concerned about indigenisation, technology transfer, offsets and suchlike. At the same time we are frequently oblivious to the geopolitical implications of large purchases. My colleagues and I have argued in favour of liberalising the defence procurement regime so that the armed forces get the best bang for the buck. [See this Takshashila Discussion Document]

Others might disagree with the need to liberalise defence procurement and that argue that complex procurement rules are unavoidable. Even in this case, the policy on middlemen must still change. If rules are complex there will be those who can make money from navigating through them. That’s how lawyers, chartered accountants and travel agents make a living. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong or immoral about middlemen, agents and lobbyists. It is our rules that make them so, driving underground a genuine economic activity.

Instead of prohibiting middlemen in defence procurement, a far better policy would be to create a regulatory framework under which they can operate legitimately. Agents could be required to declare their past and current affiliations, and disclose relevant family connections. Former defence officers and their civilian counterparts could be required to serve out a cooling off period before getting into the business. The policy objective ought to be to align—to the extent possible—the economic incentives of the middlemen to the organisational interests of the armed forces.

While there can be a genuine debate over the best approach to military modernisation—on what is the right balance between liberalisation, indigenisation, public and private sectors—it is hard to see how we can continue to justify the failed policy on middlemen. Unless you are blind to reality, blinkered by sanctimoniousness or bound by hypocrisy, it should be clear that the consequences of the anti-middleman mindset are eating into the moral fabric of our defence services.

Related Post: A military modernisation manifesto

The Great Middle Indian Churning of 2011

Where do we go from here?

Here’s a piece that I wrote for The Atlantic online last week:

India’s Great Middle-Class Moment
After decades on the sidelines, the growing ranks of Middle India are starting to find their voice. But can the political system respond?

NEW DELHI, India — What should the world make of the remarkable political churning in India this year? People around the world are braving bullets for the right to vote but here we were, turning out in the streets in large numbers, supporting demands made by such self-appointed leaders of civil society as the hunger-striking Anna Hazare for a draconian anti-corruption law.

Parallels with an “Arab Spring” in India don’t fit, not least because we last did that kind of anti-regime business in August 1942, when Indian nationalists mobilized non-violent protests to get the British to quit India. And when Indira Gandhi dispensed with constitutional niceties and assumed dictatorial powers in the mid-1970s, we threw her regime out in 1977 not by shouting her down in the town square but by voting her out at the polling booth. Her return to power a couple of years later, again through the electoral route, proved the regime changing power of India’s electoral democracy.

India’s political churning this year probably heralds a new phase in Indian politics, with the urban middle-class joining the political process. For a long time, this group has seen politics as a spectator sport, to be watched on television in between cricket and Bollywood. Repulsed by the choices on offer in the political menu, unenthused by the anachronistic agenda of mainstream parties and therefore unwilling to spend the time to go out and vote, the middle class Indian has, in terms of political involvement, practically seceded from the Indian republic. Meanwhile, economic growth has propelled ever-greater numbers of people into the middle class, inflating its numbers and amplifying its expectations from the Indian state.

The mainstream political parties missed the plot entirely. The Indian National Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition government, which first came to power in 2004, set back the process of economic liberalization, by stalling on economic reforms, ostensibly in the name of the “common man.” This led to cronyism on the top — the last decade saw the expansion of family-held conglomerates rather than the start-up successes of the ’90s. It also led to rampant corruption in sectors of the economy that were untouched by reforms. The Congress and its allies purchased electoral mileage by introducing entitlements for the rural poor, but Middle India was too rich to be bought off and too poor to be sold to. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which demonstrated a reformist outlook when it led a coalition government at the turn of century, has since become loath to challenge the Congress party’s economic idiom, even after this approach failed it in the 2009 elections.

For the Middle Indian, stalled reform, cynical manipulation of constitutional institutions by the UPA government, and the entrenchment of an entitlement economy all meant inflation, corruption, and insecurity. Continue reading The Great Middle Indian Churning of 2011

On NDTV: The consequences of Hazaremania

A crossroads, not a victory

(You can also view it on NDTV’s website)

The points I made (or wanted to):

1. The conclusion of Anna Hazare’s fast after a compromise is not a victory for anyone. It’s a crossroads. In fact, there are two crossroads here. First, whether we will pursue political agenda by restoring and strengthening faith in constitutional methods or by taking recourse to street protests. Second, whether we will proceed along the path of economic freedom, openness and reform, or retreat into a new form of socialism that has so utterly failed us.

2. Parliamentarians behave the way they do not because they are idiots but because of incentives. The anti-defection law has made them automatons controlled by the party leadership. When they can’t debate substantive issues they choose to raise their volume or engage in disruptive behaviour.

3. Anna Hazare and his colleagues managed to galvanise the disappointment, outrage and exasperation that has built over the last 8 years. The fundamental cause of this is the stalling of the economic reform process. Political parties failed to understand and capitalise on Middle India’s growing but silent dissatisfaction with the state of affairs. We must not conflate Middle India’s sentiment with an endorsement of Lok Pal or indeed of Anna Hazare and his colleagues. The latter are at best trustees and custodians of public sentiment—they must not see this as license to pursue their own ideological and political agenda.

4. Because the moment is so extraordinary, it behoves Anna Hazare and the leaders of the India Against Corruption movement to act with humility, responsibility and good sense. Here they have fallen short.

5. The second freedom struggle is not about a bill. It’s not about a Lok Pal. It’s not even about making India corruption-free. It is about a quest for economic freedom to be pursued using constitutional methods.