In a piece titled Farewell to Incredible India, which deals with the current economic problems in India, The Economist writes: “The Congress-led coalition government, with Brezhnev-grade complacency, insists things will bounce back.”
Leonid Brezhnev was the General Secretary of the Central Committee (CC) of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). He ruled the country from 1964 till his death in 1982.
I guess The Economist looked too far. They could have found someone right here in India to describe the complacency of the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance(UPA) government. The man I am talking about is none other than Lalu Prasad, the former railway minister and former chief minister of Bihar.
Yes, you read it right. Before I get into explaining why I just said what I did, let us go back a little into history.
The lucky Lalu Yadav
Lalu Yadav re-entered politics in 1973, just by sheer chance. He didn’t have to struggle for it. The opportunity just fell into his lap.
As Sankarshan Thakur writes in Subaltern Sahib: Bihar and the Making of Lalu Yadav, “On the eve of elections of Patna University Students Union (PUSU) in 1973 non-Congress student bodies had again come together, if only for their limited purpose of ousting the Congress. But they needed a credible and energetic backward candidate to head the union. Lalu Yadav was sent for.”
The only trouble was that Lalu Yadav was no longer a student, but was an employee of the Patna Veterinary College. He had quit student politics in 1970, after having lost the election for the presidentship of PUSU to a Congress candidate. Before this, Lalu had been the general secretary of PUSU for three consecutive years.
But Lalu got around the problem. “Assured that the caste arithmetic was loaded against the Congress union, Lalu readily agreed to contest. He quietly buried his job at the Patna Veterinary College and got a backdated admission into the Patna Law College. He stood for elections and won. The non-Congress coalition in fact swept the polls,” writes Thakur.
And from there on Lalu Yadav went from strength to strength. In 1974, the students’ agitation against then prime minister Indira Gandhi spread throughout the country. As Thakur points out, “An agitation committee was formed, the Bihar Chatra Sangharsh Samiti to coordinate the activities of various unions and Lalu Yadav as president of PUSU was chosen its chief.”
These events catapulted Lalu Yadav into the big league. In the 1977 elections, Lalu was elected to the Lok Sabha as a Janata Party candidate at a young age of 29.
Chief Minister of Bihar
VS Naipaul once described Bihar as “the place where civilisation ends”. Lalu Prasad first became the chief minister of Bihar in 1990. Between him and his wife Rabri Devi they largely ruled the state till 2005, and almost brought civilisation to an end.
When India was going from strength to strength with economic growth rates that it had never seen before, the economy of Bihar was shrinking in size. As Ruchir Sharma writes in Breakout Nations – In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles , “Bihar was the only Indian state that not only sat out India’s first growth spurt but also saw its economy shrink (by 9 percent) between 1980 and 2003.”
Lalu and his wife Rabri ruled for the major portion of the period between 1980 and 2003. Economic development was nowhere in the agenda of Lalu and on several occasions when questioned about the lack of economic development in the state, he replied that economic development does not get votes. And he was proved right.
In fact such was Lalu’s lack of belief in development that even money allocated to the state government by the Central government remained unspent. As Santhosh Mathew and Mick Moore write in a research paper titled State Incapacity by Design: Understanding the Bihar Story, “Despite the poverty of the state, the governments led by Lalu Prasad signally failed to spend the money actually available to them: ‘…Bihar has the country’s lowest utilisation rate for centrally funded programs, and it is estimated that the state forfeited one-fifth of central plan assistance during 1997–2000.’”
Between 1997 and 2005, the Ministry of Rural Development allocated Rs 9,600 crore. Of this, nearly Rs 2,200 crore was not drawn. And of the money received only 64 percent was spent. Similarly, money allocated from other programmes was also not spent.
How did he survive?
Lalu survived by building a potent combination of MY (Muslim + Yadav) voters. The Yadavs are the single largest caste in Bihar. Such was his faith in the MY voters that Lalu did not even promise development, like most politicians tend to do. As Mathew and Moore write: “He finessed this problem…by departing from the normal practices of Indian electoral politics and not vigorously promising ‘development’. For example, if during his many trips to villages he was asked to provide better roads, he would tend to question whether roads were really of much benefit to ordinary villagers, and suggest that the real beneficiaries would be contractors and the wealthy, powerful people who had cars. He typically required a large escort of senior public officials on these visits, and would require them to line up dutifully and humbly on display while he himself was doing his best to behave like a villager. He might gesture at this line-up and ask ‘Do you really want a road so that people like this can speed through your village in their big cars?’”
So what was Lalu Yadav trying to do here? “Lalu Prasad Yadav was not trying to fool most of his voters most of the time. He was offering then tangible benefits: respect (izzat – a Hindi term that he employed frequently) and the end of local socio-political tyrannies
Where does Manmohan Singh fit in here?
Some time after Lalu Yadav became the chief minister of Bihar, India had a financial crisis. PV Narasimha Rao was looking for a technocrat for the Finance Minister’s position. He first approached Dr Indraprasad Gordhanbhai Patel, who was the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India(RBI) from 1977 to 1982. Patel refused and suggested the name of his successor at the RBI, Manmohan Singh, who had been the Governor of the RBI from 1982 to 1985. Singh had just taken over as the Chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC) in March 1991. He was pulled out of there and made the Finance Minister of India. And thus started Singh’s second career. Like Lalu, Singh’s career got a second life.
And he, like Lalu, before him went from strength to strength and finally became the Prime Minister of India. A few days ago, Mamata Banerjee had even proposed his name for President. He would make for an excellent President given that the Indian President doesn’t really do anything, except what the government (in this case Sonia) wants him to.
If Pratibha Patil, who no one had ever heard of, could become the President of India, so can the much more loyal Manmohan. He fits all the parameters Sonia Gandhi is looking for in a President. But the trouble, of course, is she wants the same parameters in her Prime Minister as well. And he can’t be at two places at the same time. So Singh’s name as a presidential candidate has been rejected by the Congress party. It would have been a rather glorious end to an “illustrious” career.
However what is ironic is that a man, who once spearheaded the economic reform process in India, has now totally withdrawn himself from the same. In fact, at times one wonders whether it is even a priority with him and his government? Now that Pranab Mukherjee is leaving the finance ministry for Rashtrapati Bhawan, we will find out what Manmohan has in store.
There has hardly been any response from the UPA government to the recent low GDP growth rate number of 5.3 percent for the period between January and March 2012. Pranab Mukherjee has blamed the slow growth on the problems in Greece in particular and Europe in general. This is a typical Lalu response where the old adage “if you can’t convince them, confuse them” is at work. The problems of India are not because of problems in Greece or Europe, but because of the economic policies of the Manmohan Singh-led UPA government. (It’s not Greece: Cong policies responsible for rupee crash).
As The Economist puts it, “India’s slowdown is due mainly to problems at home and has been looming for a while. The state is borrowing too much, crowding out private firms and keeping inflation high. It has not passed a big reform for years. Graft, confusion and red tape have infuriated domestic businesses and harmed investment. A high-handed view of foreign investors has made a big current-account deficit harder to finance, and the rupee has plunged.”
In fact, there is a state of total denial within the UPA that there are serious economic problems facing India. The spin-doctors of UPA are even working overtime to sell the country that famous song from 3 Idiots “All is Well“. On a recent TV show, Montek Singh Ahulwalia, the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, kept insisting that a 7 percent economic growth rate was a given. As it turned out the GDP growth rate fell to 5.3 percent.
Economic development doesn’t matter
The way the UPA government has been working over the last few years, it is very easy to conclude that economic development of this country isn’t really top of the agenda. Like was the case with Lalu Yadav.
The solutions to the problems are simple and largely agreed upon by everyone who has an informed opinion on the issue. As The Economist puts it, “The remedies, agreed on not just by foreign investors and liberal newspapers but also by Manmohan Singh’s government are blindingly obvious. A combined budget deficit of nearly a tenth of GDP must be tamed, particularly by cutting wasteful fuel subsidies. India must reform tax and foreign-investment rules. It must speed up big industrial and infrastructure projects. It must confront corruption. None of these tasks is insurmountable. Most are supposedly government policy.”
But then there is hardly any policy coming out of the government. So what is top of the agenda? To stay in power and enjoy its fruits? And by the time the 2014 elections come around, set the stage ready for Rahul Gandhi to take over? But the question that crops up here is this: like Lalu, does the Manmohan Singh-led UPA have a MY formula? And even if it does have a formula, will it work?
Lalu found out in 2005 that formulas become useless over a period of time. “We could not make it because of overconfidence and division in Muslim-Yadav (votes),” Lalu told India Today magazine after his defeat to Nitish Kumar in the 2005 election.
Overconfidence is the word the Manmohan Singh led UPA needs to watch out for.
(The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on June 16,2012. http://www.firstpost.com/politics/is-manmohan-following-lalus-no-growth-bihar-strategy-345933.html)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])
The rating agency Standard and Poor’s(S&P) has warned that India could lose its investment grade credit rating. In a report titled Will India Be the First BRIC Fallen Angel?, the rating agency said “Slowing GDP growth and political roadblocks to economic policymaking could put India at risk of losing its investment-grade rating.”
The agency revised its outlook on India’s ‘BBB-‘ long-term sovereign credit rating to negative from stable. What this means is that India runs the risk of losing its investment grade credit rating and being rated as speculative or junk.
Let us try and understand what this really means for India.
What is investment grade?
In 1970, the Penn Railroad, the largest railroad in the United States, went bankrupt. This was something that the rating agencies did not foresee. One of the repercussions of this bankruptcy was that the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC, the American equivalent of the Indian Sebi) decided to penalize brokers who held bonds of companies that were less than investment grade. But who would decide what was investment grade?
As Roger Lowenstein writes in an article titled Triple-A Failure “This prompted a question: investment grade according to whom? The SEC opted to create a new category of officially designated rating agencies, and grandfathered the big three – S&P, Moody’s and Fitch…Bank regulators issued similar rules for banks. Pension funds, mutual funds, insurance regulators followed…Many classes of investors were now forbidden to buy non investment-grade bonds at all”.
Every rating agency follows different ratings. The rating agency Moody’s has 21 different type of ratings of which the top 10 are deemed to be investment grade. The remaining 11 are deemed to be speculative by the rating agency and “junk” by the market.
S&P has 12 different level of ratings of which the top 5 are deemed to be investment grade. India’s rating is BBB-, which is the last rating in the ratings which are deemed to be investment grade. If India’s rating is downgraded, then the next rating is BB+. S&P defines it as a rating which is “considered highest speculative grade by market participants”. Hence BB+ is the first rating at the junk level. The ratings are essentially meant to be an estimate of probabilities. Hence, the bonds of a country which has a BB+ rating are expected to default more than the bonds of a country which has a BBB-rating, thus making them more risky.
What will be the impact if India gets downgraded?
One clear impact will be foreign investors who are not allowed to invest in non-investment grade securities staying away from India. This would mean that pension funds and other long term funds will stay away from India. It could also mean that for foreign investors who have investments in India exiting their positions and the stock market might go down in the days to come. This after the brief rally it has seen recently in expectation of an interest rate cut by the Reserve Bank of India.
The way foreign investors think about India is very important in deciding how well the Indian stock market performs. Since the beginning of the year foreign institutional investors have been net buyers (the difference between what they have bought and what they have sold) of stocks to the extent of Rs 34,551.33 crore. During the same period the domestic institutional investors have been net sellers of stocks to the extent of Rs 18,666.06 crore.
This buying by the foreign investors is the major reason behind the BSE Sensex, India’s premier stock market index, giving a return of 7.85% since the beginning of the year. The threat of downgrade to junk status obviously does not put India in a good light in the eyes of the foreign investors. Given this, the stock market is likely to go down, and bring down the overall economic confidence in the country as well. It would also mean that Indian corporates looking to raise money from abroad would have to pay a higher rate of interest.
The bond market in India will largely remain unaffected because it doesn’t have much foreign presence.
The Azhar Syndrome
But the threat of a downgrade by S&P according to me is a smaller worry than the Azhar syndrome. So what is the Azhar syndrome? The term was first used in a report of the name brought out by First Global more than three years back in March 2009. As the report pointed out: “The Azhar Syndrome is all about Azhar… the kid from the slums in Slumdog Millionaire. He flew to LA for the Oscars, slept on clean sheets in an air-conditioned hotel room, for the first time (and possibly the last time)…came to his Bombay slum home…and moaned to the press “It is so hot here, and the mosquitoes…I can’t sleep”. He is finished. A few nights in a clean hotel room, and the guy can’t adjust back to the reality of his slum existence.”
Like Azhar assumed that the “five-day” party that he had in Los Angeles would continue forever, so has the Congress Party led United Progressive Alliance (UPA assumed that all is well and the economic growth that India saw for the last few years will continue forever on its own. India enjoyed a GDP growth averaging 8.7% during 2004-2008 and 7.8% during 2009-2011.
Pranab Mukherjee, the finance minister, rejected the threat of the S&P downgrade. In a press release said that the Government is fully seized of the current situation and he is confident that there will be a turnaround in our growth prospects in the coming months. Mukherjee expects the Indian economy to grow by 7% in this financial year. “A reversal of interest rate cycle, weak crude prices and a normal monsoon were likely to improve the economic conditions and the slowdown would not be as sharp as widely feared, and that the economy would grow closer to 7 percent this fiscal,” Mukherjee told a conference of chief commissioners and directors general of Income Tax on June 11,2012.
The things that Mukjerhee expects will help India grow at 7% are things he has no control over. This is the Azhar syndrome, which has plagued the Congress party led UPA for a while now, at work. The confidence that come what may, economic growth will happen continue on its own. Mukherjee and the UPA seem to be big believers in what Paulo Cohelo wrote in the bestselling The Alchemist – A Fable About Following Your Dream “Here is one great truth on this planet: whoever you are, or whatever it is that you do, when you really want something, it’s because that desire originated in the soul of the universe. It’s your mission on earth… And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.”
The world might conspire to give India its economic growth. Interest rates might fall. Oil prices might fall. And the country might have a normal monsoon. But this is no way of running a country.
And the assumption that economic growth will happen because Mukherjee and his ilk say that it will happen, is clearly worrying. As Ruchir Sharma writes in his recent boo k Breakout Nations – In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles: “India is already showing some of the warning signs of failed growth stories, including early-onset of confidence.”
Hardly any constructive steps have been taken to revive economic growth which is falling. Just talking about growth does not create economic growth. The solutions to the economic problems currently facing India are simple and largely agreed upon by everyone who has an informed opinion on the issue. As the Economist put it in a recent article titled Farewell to Incredible India “The remedies, agreed on not just by foreign investors and liberal newspapers but also by Manmohan Singh’s government, are blindingly obvious. A combined budget deficit of nearly a tenth of GDP must be tamed, particularly by cutting wasteful fuel subsidies. India must reform tax and foreign-investment rules. It must speed up big industrial and infrastructure projects. It must confront corruption. None of these tasks is insurmountable. Most are supposedly government policy.”
But there isn’t much hope going around. As the S&P report explains: “The crux of the current political problem for economic liberalization is, in our view, the nature of leadership within the central government, not obstreperous allies or an unhelpful opposition. The Congress party is divided on economic policies. There is substantial opposition within the party to any serious liberalization of the economy. Moreover, paramount political power rests with the leader of the Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, who holds no Cabinet position, while the government is led by an unelected prime minister, Manmohan Singh, who lacks a political base of his own.”
(The article originally appeared at www.firstpost.com on June 6,2012. http://www.firstpost.com/economy/sp-downgrade-and-indias-return-to-slumdog-status-340605.html)
(Vivek Kaul is a writer and can be reached at [email protected])