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 Chinese submarine base everyone knew about

Well, almost everyone

That a British newspaper should get its readers all excited about China’s ‘secret’ submarine in Sanya, Hainan is explicable, for this is the time when the Western world is purposefully discovering the Orwellian nature of the term “peaceful rise”.

Reports, satellite images, and analyses of China’s commissioning of Class 094 nuclear missile submarines (SSBNs) have been around in the blogosphere—also logged on this blog—for a few years now. [See Arms Control Wonk’s coverage, dating back to August 2004] The only thing new—but entirely predictable—is that China’s base in Sanya is probably already operational.

You would expect the intelligence communities in key capitals around the world—including India’s own—to know this. So, if media reports do not exaggerate, it should come as a surprise that the Indian cabinet needs to convene a special meeting to discuss the Sanya naval base, as if it were a fresh new revelation.

During a recent interview with Pragati, K Subrahmanyam pointed out that the political leadership only gets interested in intelligence briefings after the fact. From what we can tell, that’s perhaps the case with this one too.

Pragati May 2008: Towards liberal nationalism

Issue 14 - Apr 2008

Issue Contents


Liberals, culture and nationalism Ravikiran S Rao
An opportunity exists for a new politics

Changing the broken wheel Raj Cherubal
The secular-right must champion economic freedom

Towards “that heaven of freedom” Gautam Bastian
A free nation of free citizens

Out of court Rohit Pradhan, Shashi Shekhar & Mukul Asher
Carry on the battle, but respect the court’s verdict


India as a rising great power; climate change and national security; India-Iran relations; to the brink; and trade across the Line of Control


The new currency of power Nitin Pai & Aruna Urs
A discussion on strategic affairs with K Subrahmanyam


Use the Tibet card Zorawar Daulet Singh
To settle the India-China dispute

Consensus must endure Dinesh Wagle
Maoists have the upper hand in the construction of the republic

Bottom-up dynamics Sushant K Singh
What attracts Africa to India and how it can be strengthened

Pressed by inflation Gulzar Natarajan
Easing supply bottlenecks is the right way to go


Memories of 1971 Amardeep Singh
A review of Tahmima Anam’s A Golden Age

Read excerpts | Download

How wrong Manmohan Singh is

He advocates a false morality to disguise his government’s failures

Dr Manmohan Singh the prime minister has routinely relied on platitudes (instead of on incentives) to motivate the UPA government’s policies. But he is getting even the platitudes wrong. In a country where the average annual per capita income hovers around an unacceptably low US$1000, he wants people to earn less. Why? Because, according to him, earning less, and expecting to earn less, is a national duty.

By equating a degree of self-sacrifice with national duty, the PM has tried to make a moral argument. He has said that this is what corporates and highly paid executives owed in the endeavour to contain prices and keep the overall growth momentum on track. While this has a populist touch and will appeal to an opinion that is ready to view corporates as “fat cats”, private employment is increasingly the preferred option for most educated persons.

Sectors characterised by “significant market power” in the hands of a few producers have a societal obligation to assist the government in moderating inflationary expectations, the PM rounded off. [TOI]

He has gotten it exactly wrong. The national duty of every citizen is to make as much money as legally possible. Anyone who suggests otherwise cannot have the best interests of the Indian people at heart. Oh, he’s only referring to the top executives, you say? Well, first, depressing wages at the top will cascade down and result in lower earnings for everyone in the pyramid (just as increasing wages at the top will increase wages for everyone). And as a matter of principle, just how does making the rich earn less help the nation? In fact, it does just the opposite. It would have been one thing for Dr Singh to call upon the rich to deepen the culture of philanthropy. But to equate “self-sacrifice” with “national duty” is dangerous nonsense.

Dr Singh shamelessly masks his government’s failure to ensure free, competitive markets—and prevent the build up of significant market power—by claiming that monopolists have societal obligations. That’s dangerous nonsense too. The solution to the build-up of market power is further liberalisation and effective regulatory oversight. Dr Singh’s admission that there are sectors where companies have significant market power calls for moving forward with the economic reform process. Just what happened to the privatisation (okay, disinvestment) agenda?

We have said this before, and we say again: Dr Manmohan Singh has done immense harm to India’s future. The evil that he has done will live long after him. The good was interr’d with P V Narasimha Rao’s bones. Corporate India would do well to ignore the shameless moral poseur. Yes, it’s late in the day for this government. But Dr Singh should go. [See previous calls.]

From helping farmers to hurting them

Who gets hurt when grain exports are banned?

Swaminathan Iyer took the words out of this bloggers mouth. The UPA government, he writes “has suddenly shifted from protecting Indian farmers against cheap imports to protecting the consumer by cheapening imports”. He is referring to the ban on rice exports (which follow the export of wheat late last year, followed by the ban on export of maize and pulses).

The April 2008 issue of Pragati called for the government to free the farmers. The UPA government did just the opposite—far from allowing Indian farmers to benefit from selling their produce at record prices, the government is forcing them to sell at artificially low prices. So who is hurting the farmer? And why is silence replacing Sainath? And next year, when farmers find themselves unable to repay their loans, the UPA government—if it is in power at that time—will simply increase payouts and write-offs.

In the end the consumers pay the farmers: only the government gets itself into the equation causing unnecessary leakage and wastage.

Unnecessary? Why, isn’t it at least helping curb inflation? Not quite. As Mr Iyer explains:

The lesson is clear. Curbing exports is a form of national hoarding. If every country tries to hoard food, food prices will naturally rise. Governments would like to believe that hoarding by traders is terrible, whereas hoarding by governments promotes the public interest. But the impact on prices is exactly the same in both cases. Indeed, when governments start to hoard food out of panic, the panic itself stokes further inflationary fears.

That is why I am not optimistic about the Indian government’s anti-inflation package. The government thinks it is improving domestic supplies and hence bringing down prices. In fact the government is adding to the global hoarding problem, and stoking panic too. So, expect food inflation to keep rising in coming months. [TOI]

It’s all very well, you say, but what should the government do when poor people can’t afford food? Well, it should buy food grain at market prices and distribute it to those who need it. That way it will least distort the price signals that farmers receive and allow them to benefit from the good times. And by spending taxpayers’ money in a targeted manner—only the poor will enjoy cheap food—it will spend less. That is, if the government actually wanted to address the policy challenge, and not flail about paranoid of losing votes.

The power of the taboo

Politics ‘R Us, or how the constitution can be painted in Congress Party’s colours

Even the strongest believers in constitutionalism and rule of law will concede that in the end, the system is only as good as the willingness of the people to respect the norms that form its ‘spirit’.

One of those norms is the taboo: the notion that some things are just not done. Indeed, in many instances the taboo is the only latch that keeps the floodgates of wholesale perversion firmly shut.

So in the long list of the UPA government’s damaging acts, undermining the dignity of high constitutional officers is one of the most significant. The elevation of a dubious political retainer to the position of the president of the republic, the recycling of S M Krishna, from a defeated politician to state governor—an apolitical constitutional office—and back into the partisan fray of electoral politics, and now, the appointment of a former chief election commissioner as a minister breaks many taboos. The floodgates have been jerked open.

The Congress Party’s attempt to use the Election Commission for its partisan ends is extremely dangerous. M S Gill might well have been the chief election commissioner a decade ago, but no one can deny that the implicit promise of future rewards can act as an incentive. The mere perception that election commissioners are partisan not only undermines public faith in the electoral system but makes electoral officials more susceptible to pressure from politicians. Mr Gill’s appointment reinforces the serious misgivings caused by the presence of Navin Chawla— a person declared “unfit to hold any public office which demands an attitude of fair play and consideration for others”—at the Election Commission.

In terms of long-term damage, the UPA government has done much worse that V P Singh’s Janata Dal government of the late 1980s. The bad news is that it still has some months to go.

Podcast Trial

Listen to the voice of the revolution

Pragati will be available in a specially produced podcast edition, from April 7th onwards. It will provide a broad overview of the articles in the month’s issue of Pragati. Mohit Satyanand, your host, will read out key segments from the articles. You’ll be able to listen to the podcast online or download the podcast in MP3 format.

Here’s a sample track Mohit recorded last month. The purpose was to make sure that the technology works as intended. Unlike the the podcast edition of Pragati here he just reads one article from last month’s issue.


To listen to it you’ll need Flash enabled on your browser and a broadband connection for optimum listening experience. You can also download the file onto your computer.

Tell us what you think.

Bureaucratic remedies

Blaming the civil service for India’s failings allows the political class to escape blame

What’s holding India back? According to The Economist (link via Abhishek)

Without India’s strength, the world economy would have had far less to boast about. Sadly, this achievement is more fragile than it looks. Many things restrain India’s economy, from a government that depends on Communist support to the caste system, power cuts and rigid labour laws. But an enduring constraint is even more awkward: a state that makes a big claim on a poor country’s resources but then uses them badly.

…India’s 10m-strong civil service is the size of a small country, and its unreformed public sector is a huge barrier to two things a growing population needs. The first is a faster rate of sustainable growth: the government’s debts and its infrastructure failings set a lower-than-necessary speed-limit for the economy. The second is to spread the fruits of a growing economy to India’s poor.[The Economist]

There is no doubt that making the public administration more efficient is necessary to improve governance. In a long series of Dr Manmohan Singh’s NATO (no action talk only) measures, civil service reform was the first one. As The Economist notes, the UPA government’s only achievement in this regard is the maintenance of the hiring freeze instituted by the previous one. Yet before concluding that it is the bureaucracy that is holding India back, it is necessary to consider two things. First, the size of the problem. Changing the organisational culture of 10 million people (the size of a small country) cannot happen overnight, or even within the term of one government. It will need sustained, non-partisan political leadership. So while reforming the bureaucracy is important, given the timeline involved, India cannot wait for this to happen.

Second, good policy design can circumvent or mitigate the inefficiencies of the bureaucracy. As Mukul Asher writes in the in-depth section of this month’s Pragati the state of Gujarat has been able to achieve relatively better policy outcomes within a similar overall environment. Given good policy design—for instance, paying attention to incentives—it is possible to deliver efficient public services. Policies that empower the people—school vouchers, for example—achieve better results than those that empower public officials—like the obnoxious rural employment guarantee scheme.

Unlike fixing the bureaucracy, an exercise involving changing the behaviour of at least 10 million civil servants, resolute, responsible political leadership, an exercise that doesn’t involve more than a 1000 leaders, is likely to yield faster results. It is here that the UPA government has not merely failed—but set the clock back—despite having people like Dr Singh and P Chidambaram in the cabinet. The proximate answer to what’s holding back, therefore, are two three letter acronyms: UPA and CMP.

Stalin’s papa

Disinvestment is dead. Nationalisation on the cards

(Tamil Nadu) Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi said on Thursday that his government was firm on the announcement made on Wednesday on nationalisation of some industries.

In an attempt to make available cement at an affordable rate, the State Government on Wednesday decided that cement will be sold through the Civil Supplies Corporation’s warehouses at cost price.

At a function to mark handing over 1,094 buses to transport corporations here, the Chief Minister refrained from naming the industry the government intended to take over, but referred to it as “some industries that the government announced yesterday [for nationalisation].”

Mr. Karunanidhi recalled that when the DMK government decided to nationalise private transport corporations and approached them, owners of the corporations had cooperated.

They even attended the function held to mark the transport nationalisation project.

“Like that in the future, the government has announced that it will nationalise some industries. When an event of that nature is happening, I believe that the industrialists will come and felicitate us,” he said. [The Hindu]

Now what kind of industrialist will felicitate the government for taking over his business? Ans: (a) the kind that is glad to get rid of a troubled, loss-making venture and (b) the kind that is forced to grin and bear it.

But really, it’s not just a question about whether industrialists line up to garland Karunanidhi. It’s a question of whether ordinary people will be any better off. It is only a scriptwriter’s fantasy to believe that selling cement at cost in government shops will make it available, and at affordable rates.

Only when all the non-grinning industrialists, non-lossmaking industrialists had fled the state did another chief minister realise:

“We have to accept capitalism; where is State capital? This is being realistic in a situation where there is no alternative,” (West Bengal chief minister) Buddhadeb Bhattacharya said while addressing an audience on the occasion of the 42nd foundation day of Ganashakti, the Bengali daily and mouthpiece of the Communist Party of India (Marxist). [The Hindu]

But Tamil movies are not know to take ideas from Bengali ones.

Good governance needs trained people

Addressing the dearth of public policy professionals inside and outside government

“More than a quarter of India’s $1,200 billion gross domestic product,” Mukul Asher writes in his DNA column, “is intermediated through the public sector. Increasing size and complexity of the economy, and economic, social and political challenges facing the country require an urgent shift towards better public policies and management.”

And the way to go about that, he argues, is to transform the public policy education in India: India needs good public policy schools, certainly. But what is interesting is that he argues that “it is essential that professional public policy education be made accessible to those who have not yet joined public service, or do not intend to join but work in related areas such as media, non-profit sector and business firms requiring understanding of public policy processes.”

Think of ‘government relations’ or ‘regulatory affairs’ people in those Indian corporations that have such people these days. It is quite likely that these would either be fixers skilled in the art of moving files through the bureaucracy, lawyers, or, very occasionally, a management graduate. As much as India needs well-trained people in government, it needs well-trained public policy professionals in the private sector. [Related Post: Dear Mr Nilekani]