The man who can’t

India needs a can-do leader

If you wanted some irony supplements today, consider this. When his cabinet colleagues demanded that the Government of India take action against a glorified thug, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh helplessly said “what can I do?”

Oh, but that didn’t stop him from setting in motion a communal socialist policy that will force private primary schools to set aside one out of every four places for economically underprivileged children in the neighbourhood. Those who want to continue believing that he is a genuine reformer and other childhood fairy tales would perhaps say in his defence, “what can he do?”

If he can’t, perhaps he should just step down. Like he should have done a long time ago. For what good is a prime minister who can’t?

Stating the obvious

Nothing ideological about it

First he said that his government had no ideological view on anti-terrorism laws. Now Prime Minister Manmohan Singh—he who is the much celebrated ‘father of the economic reforms’—says he has no ideological commitment to markets either.

Asked if the current global financial disorder was an occasion to revise the faith in the markets, he argued that “we have no ideological positions. We have been cautious reformers, [carrying out] reforms with a human face. We do not have a strong ideological commitment to the markets; markets are useful servants but markets also need regulations, purposeful regulations.” [Hindu]

Well, it shows.

What is even more revealing is that Prime Minister Singh should think that purposeful regulations should somehow be inconsistent with an ideological commitment to markets.

And it is left to your imagination whether it was caution or lack of ideological commitment that has entirely buried the ‘second generation reforms’ that were being talked about just before he became prime minister.

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

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.]