A strange thing happened when I heard the Prime Minister tell Lok Sabha that we must cherish those who create wealth for India. I remembered a big reason why I was once a strong supporter of Narendra Modi. When he then added that it was wrong to believe that civil servants were the only people capable of running the old, unprofitable public sector companies, my sense of an eye-opener grew. Modi used to say things like that a lot before he became Prime Minister. Most memorable, he said: The government has no reason to be in business.
As someone convinced that India would have eliminated extreme poverty decades ago had we allowed a true market economy to develop, instead of sticking to the Nehruvian socialist path, I thought that Modi deserved a chance. It was the bad luck of India which, in its first term, seemed to forget the economic ideas it had once adopted. He returned to the Nehruvian socialist path either because he didn’t think the people were ready for a radical change of leadership, or because Rahul Gandhis was joking about him running a ki sarkar in a suit-boot where it was intended. During his second term, the cultural agenda of the right Hindutva was at the top of his agenda. So, we have seen the removal of Section 370, the Ayodhya temple, the love jihad laws in BJP states and an amendment to our citizenship law that excludes Muslims from seeking refuge in India. .
If the Prime Minister now makes the economic changes he once promised, this column will give its full support. But, with a caveat. He must do more than express good intentions. If he spends some time examining whether his government has really made it easy to do business, he will find it has not. If he becomes more accessible to businessmen, he will hear from them that they face so many regulatory hurdles that he feels his officials are crafting new regulations every day. He will discover that his officials waste endless time figuring out ways not to pay their bills by getting big, important projects into arbitration. He will find that the mindset of most Indian government officials remains unchanged.
An anecdote from when Arun Jaitley was finance minister could serve as an example. Jaitley was in Davos on his first official visit and was the star of the annual India Night Dinner. During this event, I ran into a senior secretary from the Ministry of Finance and raised the issue of tax retroactivity. I said that a good signal to the foreign investors that they had come to woo in Davos would be to get rid of this tax. The official got an ugly look in his eyes and said: Why should we do this? Why should the Indian government reduce its powers? Having known Jaitley from the days when he was a student leader and I was a young reporter, I took it upon myself to tell him he should be wary of his officials. He ignored my advice and the tax is still with us. Taxpayers’ money is wasted suing Cairn Energy despite the company winning international arbitration. Cairn gave us our biggest oil discovery on earth, but left India when it was retroactively taxed Rs 10,247 crore.
Why does the retroactive tax still exist? Why are officials still allowed to propose a settlement after a settlement? Why do the rules of business conduct change at the discretion of junior officials? The Prime Minister must ask himself these questions and the most important question he must ask himself is why, if he has made so many economic reforms, do we not yet see the kind of optimism and hope that spread across India after the 1991 reforms? Why do we still see no signs of the dramatic changes that have resulted from these reforms?
As someone who remembers those times well, I can say that it was a defining moment in the economic history of India. It was because of the dismantling of the Raj License that we saw the first signs of prosperity seep into the middle classes. It was the first time we saw the middle class grow exponentially in the years that followed and the first time we saw Indian private sector companies stand alongside the best in the world. This sense of optimism continued to grow as the prime ministers who succeeded PV Narasimha Rao stayed on the path to opening up the economy to market forces and free enterprise. For the first time, young Indians stopped relying on government jobs and sought employment in the booming private sector.
Sadly, the optimism began to dissipate when Congress returned to the socialist path by slowing down the private sector while plotting it for the huge funds needed to finance the expensive and leaky welfare regimes that were created. They serve primarily to keep desperately poor people in poverty, but Modi has continued with them. He led them better, and that’s why he won his second term. Now is the time for him to realize that it is only if he delivers on the pitch what he put into words that we will see a renewed optimism that we saw in 1991.
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