Saturday, 11 November 2017

Ease of doing business in India: who deserves gold medal?

(Beyond satire)

Oommen Chandy deserves Gold Medal
 for his contribution to the “Ease of Doing Business”

The “Ease of Doing Business in India” has improved significantly under Prime Minister Modi, so says the World Bank in its report: “Doing Business 2018”. The Modi government is patting its back and going gaga over the World Bank certificate.

However, I have a solid reason to assert that the Modi government does not deserve gold medal for that. The World Bank has considered business only in the economic field which is not the sole or primary field for large number of our ‘entrepreneurs’.

The primary field of business for large number of our enterprising people is politics, which gives quick and substantial return, often without investment of own capital or with nominal capital. During the decades of its rule, the Congress party had made it easy to make quick progress from rag to riches. We have large number of such ‘entrepreneurs’ who entered the business of politics and built rich empires from scratch, without making any investment from their own pocket. This was an important part of the ‘Garibi Hatao’ mission launched by Indira Gandhi. Not just Indians, even large number of foreigners are aware of famous names. In case any reminder is needed, here are a few examples: Lalu Prasad Yadav, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Behan Mayawati, Sasikala and her late mentor-cum-friend Jayalalitha and Dayanidhi Maran.

Perhaps, the golden era in the Indian history was the rule of the UPA (2004-14 AD) when Dr Manmohan Singh, portrayed as economist, was graciously given the driver’s seat with a dummy steering wheel. The real steering will was some time at 7, Janpath, New Delhi  and some time at 12, Tughlak Lane, New Delhi. It was unparallel in the world history. The person occupying the driver’s seat was to receive blame for all the accidents and those really controlling the steering wheel claimed credits for smooth driving. The arrangement suited all the three. Manmohan Singh could not have become prime minister without the mother and son at his back. The mother lacked confidence to control the steering wheel from driver’s seat. The son was an apprentice though he often behaved as if he was the real master, making the people bewildered. Perhaps, he will always create this confusion.

During that ‘golden era’, it was so easy to combine business of politics with trade, commerce and industry. It was so easy to get coal blocks. 2G spectrum could be obtained without knowing the meaning of spectrum. The Commonwealth Games made making money the most important ‘game’. A foreign company gave money in advance, much before getting the contract, for VVIP choppers. It was a much better situation than Bofors, which is now part of history. Even (Tatra) trucks carried money. Before most of the shareholders could realise, the National Herald had become private property of the ruling family. As railway Minister, Laluji got real estate in lieu of putting clearance of tenders on the fastest track. The Indian Railways remained on the slow track, though.  Some politicians wanted only money without any fa├žade of indulging in commercial activities. The result was what the critics say “cash-for-vote” scam.

The term ‘scam’ was suffixed, unfairly in the opinion of beneficiaries, not just to “cash-for-vote” but also to most of the activities covered by the ‘ease of doing business of politics’ during the ‘Garibi Hatao’ era.

With so many persons contributing to the ‘ease of doing business of politics’, the million dollar question is, who deserves the Gold Medal?

In my humble opinion, the most suitable candidate is a lesser-known worthy,  Oommen Chandy, Congress Chief Minister of Kerala from May 18, 2011 to May 20, 2016. He extended the facility of making payment to the facilitator (he himself) by the beneficiary of political largess in easy instalments. Please note, he did it for a good cause, providing cheap solar energy to the people of Kerala. The ‘reform’ reduced the financial burden on the company engaged for the good cause and the facilitator expected that the instalments would not attract public attention. Unfortunately, Chandy’s expectation proved wrong. His adversaries proved smarter and forced an enquiry that confirmed his contribution to the “ease of doing business”.

I must add that he was not the first to introduce this method nor is it free from risk of default. In the early 1970s, an important aide to a powerful central minister had told a friend of mine that the people had become very ‘dishonest’; they paid half of the ‘fee’ (as he described the deal) before the work was done and promised to pay the remaining half after the work was done but many times they did not fulfil the promise. Such a betrayal is bad for long-term relationship and growth of business.

Despite Chandy’s personal failure, I still consider him the best candidate for the Gold Medal. He revived an old practice and gave an idea to his fellow entrepreneurs in the business of politics. While using the method, they may take necessary precautions to avoid the type of trouble Chandy is likely to face. They may consider issuing ‘bonds’ with a reasonable coupon rate to be redeemed when it would not attract public attention.

Unfortunately, Prime Minister Modi has not taken kindly to that sort of “ease of doing business”. Investigating agencies like Income Tax, CBI and Enforcement Directorate are raiding empires of many engaged in business of politics and even confiscating their assets. Well, this is all part of the game. History bears testimony to the fact that kingdoms and empires have always fallen prey to enemies. Even under the present regime, large number of ‘startups’ have ‘died’ pre-mature death.

A ray of hope is that our judiciary takes years to give verdict on what the Modi government is doing to the ‘business of politics’. No wonder, all those who are facing the music have been expressing their ‘full faith in judiciary’. (I hope, I will not be hauled up for ‘contempt of court’.)

Devendra Narain
November 11, 2017