The Fine Art of Orchestrating Bluffs

The Prime Minister, Shri Narendra Modi playing a traditional Mongolian music instrument at Mini Naadam Festival, in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia on May 17, 2015.

Mr. Modi is at his best when speaking. He’s articulate. Persuasive. Satirical. Entertaining. It won’t be inappropriate to say that he spoke his way to the top job in the country in 2014.

Other factors helped too. Gujarat model. Though people knew little about it, was an easy as Gujarat is among the more prosperous Indian states. Most Gujaratis are successful businessmen. It has wonderful roads – jo dikhta hai woh bikta hai. Stories of Modi’s quick decision-making, his efficient administration and enormous investments in the state were doing the rounds. (Perhaps, orchestrated).

Three more aspects further fuelled his credibility. Congress’s sarcasm on his modest background – chaiwalla. His reputation to implement programs on ground. And his promise to bring a sea-change in governance, especially transparency and efficiency.

The package was irresistible.

He knew India’s priorities too. Rather, how to usher achhe din? Jobs, industrialization, healthcare, farmers distress, education and corruption.

Once he took office, he was omnipresent.

Working tirelessly. Launching programs. Addressing rallies. Inaugurating something somewhere almost every week. Speaking at events. Tweeting.  Hugging foreign heads of states. He even had tears in his eyes when he entered the parliament house, stressing that ‘parliament was his temple while the constitution the scripture’. He was no other Prime Minister India had seen in recent memory.

A Rockstar PM!

Now, five years later, it’s difficult not to be suspicious. As outcomes don’t befit a Rockstar.

A number of programs and polices that were hailed as radical turned out to be bluffs. Because facts don’t seem to support claims. A situation we often find ourselves when we buy cleverly advertised products.

The list of ‘bluffs’ is long. I can easily list at least 15 big ones, but I’ll take you through to the less obvious ones.

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Demonetisation bluff. Demonetisation was catastrophic. It put India back by years, paralysing the momentum economy had. More important, it had no impact on objectives it was set to achieve: kill black money, stop terrorism and clean-up fake currency. Instead, it killed jobs. Legitimised black money. Converted fake currency into real money. It also turns out that RBI, the custodian for such decisions, was over-ruled. However, it did help put Harishchandra stamp on Mr Modi’s image. Sufficient to help him win big in UP and Uttarakhand elections. Was that the unstated objective?
10 million jobs bluff. Mr. Modi was aware how acute the situation was. Which is why his promise of 2 million new jobs a year seamlessly dove-tailed into his campaign promise. He knew India was experiencing job-less growth over past few years. He had all the solutions. Rather gave an impression he did: He went about the task with purpose. He hired the world’s best brains as his advisors. He disbanded Planning Communion to create NITI Ayog. Then launched a slew of programs that would propel India to what would have led to rapid growth in jobs. Make in India. Start-up India. Digital India. Skill India. Easier loans to small and medium businesses so they could become net-employers. He even risked launching a half-baked GST. 

However, all of these initiatives, and several others he announced, turned out to be duds. Neither did we see growth nor the promised jobs. On the other hand, nearly 5 million existing jobs disappeared.

The results signal either the programs didn’t address the issues, or were poorly implemented, or both.

Further, unemployment has hit a 45-year high. Instead of owning up responsibility and working overtime to correct the situation, his government has conveniently suppressed all employment related data, so no one can get the true picture. He and his ministers continue to concoct bizarre statistics to convince even the unemployed that there is no unemployment in India! They’ve used Provident Fund membership data, sale of cars and commercial vehicles, and number of Mudra loan disbursements to support their argument. This is nothing but bluffing. In fact, even Indian law treats suppression of facts as a criminal offence. Mr Lokpal, I hope you are listening?

Our oil import bill has been dropping since 2014-15, though we are importing more and more
The Consumer Price Index bluff. Compared to Dr. Manmohan Singh’s 2nd term, our oil imports over the past four years went up 21%, but the import bill dropped 4%, bringing in a net savings of Rs.130,000 crores. Imagine, we imported a lot more, but paid less!

During the same period, direct tax collection on petroleum products brought in massive gains on three counts: brought an end to a subsidy bill of over Rs. 516,000 crore  between 2010 to 2014; turned around loss-making oil companies to bring in unprecedented profits – 31,000 crores in 2017-18; and doubled the tax rate on petrol and diesel, bringing Rs.382,000 crores in 2017-18 alone.

Enormous, unprecedented amount of money!

The government cleverly used the bounty to game inflation numbers. Let me explain how:

Petroleum sector contributed Rs.16.67 lakh crores over the past three years and 9 months - an amount that's twice of government fiscal budget deficit
Petroleum sector in the past 3 years and 9 months – till 2017-18 (Apr-Dec) has contributed Rs.16.7 Lakh crore to exchequer. This is roughly 2.5 times the fiscal deficit of 2018-19.

Cereals account for highest weightage in CPI – 12.37%. All food items together weigh 54%. Fuel and light (includes petrol and diesel) account for mere 7.94%. It’s easy to  make the Index look favourable by keeping the prices of higher weighted items low, even when low weighted items get dearer. The government has systemically depressed the food prices and raised petrol and diesel prices. See CPI parameters.

Besides filling government coffers, the strategy created acute farm distress, leading to over 3 lakh farmer suicides up to 2016, according to Mr. P Sainath. Post that year, the government stopped releasing data! Never in India’s history we’ve had so many farmers march and protest across the country as in the last 24 months.

 

International policy bluff. An impression has been created that India has arrived. Rather, Mr. Modi has propelled India ahead of several developed economies. We have seen him visit nearly half of the world’s countries, receiving a hearty welcome everywhere. The bonhomie between heads of other nations and Mr. Modi is also on show when these leaders visit India. Fantastic pictures. Unique settings. Great stories. All aimed at convincing us that the  world now truly recognises India’s growing power.

Mr Modi with Japanese Premier Mr Shinzo Abe
Mr Modi hugging Russian President Mr Vladimar
Mr Modi with Israel counterpart Mr Netanyahu

 

 

 

 

 

Or does it? Let me cite a few examples.

If USA loves us, why has it withdrawn the most favoured nation tag and are set to impose tariff on Indian imports? They’ve also imposed restrictions that directly affect our IT professionals. If UK is respectful of us, why did Theresa May cold shoulder us on work visas for Indians? If China views us as equal, why does it snub us at crucial junctures?

The real policy at work is what Vinod Dua calls Jhappi Puppie Ki policy. I’ll suffix it with Deal-Dole. It appears Mr Modi’s strategy is akin to buying personal appreciation from developed nations. We offer them a lot of business on attractive terms. This makes these leaders look good in their own countries. They reciprocate by doing a few gigs with Mr Modi, played to our music. Gullible Indians take this to mean respect for our newfound stature. Rafale from France, bullet train from Japan, arms from Israel, missiles from Russia. Each deal runs into billions of dollars. See the connection?

The political funding bluff. BJP has stealthily (by wrapping inside financial bill thus avoiding a debate on it in Rajya Sabha) changed the law, ensuring Indian citizens never get to know where a political party gets money from in future. The new law has even legitimized the dubious funding political parties received from abroad over the past 40 years!

We will never know which corporate house or individual is paying how much money to which political party in lieu of an immediate or future favour? The wrong-doing by any party in the past related to their funding cannot even be challenged in court! Though Supreme Court has delivered an interim order against the law, it doesn’t unfortunately go far enough. Read here.

On the other hand, every rupee you and I spend, or even exchange, is under scanner. We can’t even lend a friend more than 10k in cash now, as it would get treated as his income!

Swatchh Bharat bluff. Government claims 12 crore toilets have been built. An estimated Rs.130,000 crores has been spent  to equip India to fight squalor and disease by improving hygiene across the board.

Is India cleaner now? The toilets haven’t had any impact on sanitation related disease. In fact, in absence of sewage treatment system, the toilets have increased the incidence of disease. Human excreta is simply collecting inside small septic tanks connected to the toilets. This invites two serious problems: return of human scavenging (who else will clean the septic tank?) and pollution of soil where piles of untreated excreta ( dumped whenever these tanks are cleaned). Also keep in mind, a far bigger priority, running tap water still eludes crores of homes with toilets. Read more details.

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I’d like to mention a few more bluffs in the passing:

Instead of doctors and hospitals, we now have health insurance. Consequently, more business for insurance companies and existing private hospitals.

Expansion of crop insurance. Bulk of the premium is paid by central and state government but most farmers don’t receive sufficient compensation. In other words, tax payers money is being used to drive insurance companies’ profits.

Pollution Bluff. This is big. We already have 22 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities. Research after research warns us about ill-effects of pollution on health. Yet, we hear nothing about it from our policy-makers. What we hear, on the other hand, is our chest-beating proclamation: ‘India is set-to become  $5 trillion economy by 2025’.

Education bluff. While public institutes are being choked for funds and teachers, lakhs of teacher and professor positions remain in educational institutes remain un-filled. The objective, is seems, is to push students to expensive private education.

PSU’s are faced forced to splurge their CSR funds for constriction of statue, an activity not permitted by law

The world’s tallest statue is fine example of monumental ostentatiousness. Achieved, even more sadly, by forcing several public sector companies (see list), to contribute their CSR funds for its construction. As you may know, CSR funds go towards social impact initiatives. And  ‘statues’ don’t qualify under CSR! Had any private company committed such a divergence, you can well imagine the consequences. 

 

Mr Modi and his team has demonstrated how bluffs can be orchestrated. While it may work for them, though I hope it doesn’t, they have educated all future governments the fine art of bluffing. 

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