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Modifying Modi!

| by Rajinder Puri

( February 15, 2014, New Delhi, Sri Lanka Guardian) One should never blindly trust the experts. All their knowledge and expertise might be used for interests inimical to the public good. There is no dearth of financial experts operating in the US. They did not prevent but actually created a global financial meltdown. As one ignorant about the economy this writer trusts plain common sense more than what all the experts with their esoteric jargon might convey. Often their jargon is intended to obfuscate rather than highlight the truth. These thoughts arise when one considers the electoral prospects of the BJP prime ministerial candidate Mr. Narendra Modi and the political response he elicits from his rivals.

Mr. Modi’s campaign is on the crest of a very strong anti-incumbency wave. The Congress is perhaps at its lowest ever popularity ebb. But Mr. Modi’s rivals are desperate to somehow block his ascent. Therefore they latched on to the Gujarat riots of more than a decade ago. That did not wash because no communal trouble had visited Gujarat since then. Then the argument was reinforced by talking of an inclusive economy indicating thereby that all sections of society should benefit from economic growth. The unspoken hint was that the minorities were being excluded. This encouraged Mr. Modi to reach out to the Muslims with various symbolic gestures and promises for the future. This led the Congress to embark upon an economically counterproductive policy of distributing sops to the disadvantaged sections through subsidies and fresh legislation. It resulted only in alienating the big corporate sector that became even more committed to Mr. Modi.

In the midst of all this the Aam Admi Party (AAP) emerged. The powers that be created it as the spare stepney wheel to replace the Congress and mop up the anti-incumbency vote that otherwise could go to Mr. Modi. A punctured Congress is incapable of exploiting its traditional vote bank. Unfortunately since the goal of AAP remained as negative as that of the Congress, namely to somehow block Mr. Modi’s ascent, its policies were targeted only to the polls through wild populism. The approach towards subsidies was not abandoned but reinforced by AAP. Wild populism suggested a move away from stability and not towards it as is sorely sought by the public. Mr. Modi’s strongest electoral card remains his promise to restore stability to national politics. AAP too therefore is fast deflating in the perception of the elite and corporate segments. It remains to be seen whether like the Congress it too is punctured.

It is in this overall context that a fitting response to Mr. Modi is needed. What might it be?

The first requirement would be to stop focusing on Mr. Modi and start focusing on his agenda. The second requirement would be to stop rubbishing his agenda and start highlighting its shortcomings and offer an alternative approach to overcome them. After all, what the nation requires is the best possible agenda regardless of who is empowered to implement it.

Recently Mr. Modi outlined his vision of the future and listed the priorities of his agenda. He wants to create 100 new “smart” cities, bring back money stashed in Swiss banks, and start bullet trains to modernize the railways. He has promised to create quality higher educational institutions in every state. In other words his vision approximates to the high growth model obtaining in China and what Prime Minister Mr. Manmohan Singh unsuccessfully aspired to accomplish during a tenure hampered by corruption, administrative bottlenecks and the sops enforced by Mrs. Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council (NAC). But the intentions and the economic goals of Mr. Modi and the UPA government are not different. That is why earlier I had described Mr. Modi as a muscular version of Mr. Manmohan Singh. I felt emboldened after a Mumbai based analyst well versed in economics, Mr. Yogi Aggrawal, in a newspaper article endorsed this view by writing: “On the face of it, Mr. Modi’s economic program seems just a rejig of current program of investment for higher growth.”

Mr. Aggrawal in his commentary has listed Mr. Modi’s failure to optimize his priorities by over emphasizing investments in industry to the neglect of agriculture. He has also pointed out that some of his goals, such as installing bullet trains, are not the best option. Being ignorant about the economy this writer would not like to comment on this view. But it seems to me that the heart of the differences is exemplified by the debate between renowned economists Mr. Amartya Sen and Mr. Jagdish Bhagwati.

Whether fastest growth relying on the trickle down effect is best for the economy or is there special need to cater to the disadvantaged in order to protect them? Going by a layman’s common sense it seems to me that there is only a difference of nuance in the two approaches. The disadvantaged should not of course be helped mainly through subsidies and sops. These result in creating crutches for the poor without empowering them and liberating them from poverty. However, investment for growth is of two kinds. There is investment for fast growth and quick profits that is sought by the big corporate sector. There is also investment with slower growth and longer gestation period for profit that is of more lasting economic benefit to society.

Consider this example.

Investment in universal compulsory primary education would invest in human talent for exploitation in the future. But immediately to implement this policy there would be needed new schools, new teacher training institutes and new quality teachers. By creating this human and resource infrastructure fresh substantial employment would be generated. Consider the employment created by just the mid-day meals! Armed with purchasing power this new class would strengthen demand in the market. The much greater long term benefits of investing in the most valuable natural resource in the nation, its human talent, would be visible only later. Although investment in this would have more lasting benefit than several short term investments for fast growth and quick profits, there would be few takers among businessmen in the big corporate sector. That is why it is up to the government to take the longer view and ensure that the right priorities are maintained. This is one example. Experts could provide better ideas.

Mr. Modi undoubtedly has removed all glitches in the way of big corporate investment to ensure fast growth which is why he has become a hot favourite of big business. But now should he not resist corporate pressure to ensure that the pattern of national investment addresses society’s long term interests? Mr. Modi’s emphasis on fast and high growth should be welcomed. But does it not need fine tuning by altering the direction of national investment towards long term benefit? What India needs is a Head of the State and not just the head of the corporate world. It is time to forget personalities, to bury egos, and to focus on the best possible agenda for the nation. That is what India desperately requires. It matters little whether Mr. Modi or someone else sits in the driver’s seat.

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