At an e.Adda held last week, NK Singh, Chairman, 15th Finance Commission, spoke on financial and banking sector reforms, being active partners in the gains of trade, privatising state-owned banks and his book Portraits of Power: Half a Century of Being at Ringside.
NK Singh was in conversation with Shankar Acharya, economist and former Chief Economic Adviser; Anant Goenka, Executive Director, The Indian Express Group; and P Vaidyanathan Iyer, Executive Editor (National Affairs), The Indian Express
P Vaidyanathan Iyer: We have just seen the outcome of the Bihar elections. Mr Nitish Kumar has sworn in, along with several ministers. But as we covered the elections, on the ground, we were kind of hearing this a lot from our reporters, that there is this huge anti-incumbency factor playing in. How do you read the verdict today, as the ministers take oath in Bihar?
NK Singh: It’s a difficult question which you have posed, just by sheer coincidence, the last book, which I wrote was about Bihar. It was jointly edited by Lord Nicholas Stern of the London School of Economics and I on what I called, at that time, the new Bihar and the essence of that book was that will Bihar ever grow out of this stratified social order, and be able to merge the kind of stratified caste and class and other distinctions with greater mobility of labour and capital, and whether development politics will ever trump identity politics. And as I see the entire Bihar election, I see the play of identity politics and development politics. One of the important factors that played out in Bihar, was that the central leadership, the Prime Minister, was clearly able to carry the message to an average voter psyche that he was opting decisively for development, and that identity politics should increasingly occupy a lower priority. So I read the Bihar election as a reaffirmation of an average Bihari’s quest for better life quality, not being forced out of Bihar into migratory patterns driven by compulsions of poverty, quest for better education, a quest for better health. And all electoral choices and electoral cycle is driven by options. They opted for development in comparison to identity politics.
P Vaidyanathan Iyer: This brings me to a very interesting point that you make in your book on whether there is a need for or a time to rethink constitutional reforms. You introspect and talk a lot about the Westminster model of parliamentary democracy being kind of de jure, if not de jure, then de facto replaced by the presidential model. When you say that it was the PM who carried the message so clearly, what do you think about this kind of feature playing out in India and the rest of the world?
NK Singh: You have raised an important issue, which I touch in my book in some detail. Particularly if you looked at the chapter on the evolution of the Prime Minister’s Office, the relationship between the Cabinet Office and the Prime Minister’s office. I do point out that initially, in the first few years of our independence, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru really was served by what Lord Wavell had described in a letter, that the Cabinet Office, namely the Secretary to the Cabinet, was also the principal private secretary to the Prime Minister. And he writes, perhaps tongue in cheek, that this was to deliberately prevent Nehru from going astray, and from the institution of the Cabinet Office being diluted in any way. This tradition continued for very long. It continued till the diminutive Lal Bahadur Shastri decided to appoint LK Jha for the first time as secretary to the Prime Minister, an identity distinct from the cabinet secretary. And for the first time at that time, the rules of the transaction of business were amended to have a new insert in the rules, namely, the recognition of the Prime Minister’s office as an entity recognised under the transaction of business rules. That was, if you ask me, for a watershed point. Now, over a period of time, the relationship between the Cabinet Office and the Prime Minister’s Office has been an evolving dynamic.
Depending on the temperament and depending on the needs of the time, they have settled the kind of different working equilibrium. But let’s not forget two important things. If we look at global tendencies, you are seeing the emergence of strong leaders or prime ministers — how many of us thought that the electoral mandate in the United Kingdom was being sought in the name of who was likely Home Secretary, or who was going to be the Chancellor of the Exchequer, they knew that the candidate for the prime minister in the United Kingdom was Boris Johnson. And if we look at other patterns too, in some ways, this is beginning to already dilute the traditional Westminster model. Because the Westminster model is based on one central principle, the Prime Minister is the first among equals. The moment that is really altered, you’ve altered the gene particles of the Westminster model. And why is this so? This is because after all votes are garnered, votes are realised, elections are won on the basis of who is going to lead the country. It’s hardly of much relevance to an average voter increasingly, what kind of a governance institutional framework he has; what matters to him is who is more likely to deliver on the aspirations which they expect from any elected government. And the altered nature of technology and aspirations have, to a large extent, been important factors in diluting the traditional rubric of the Westminster model. If not de jure, then de facto, and it is this unsettled equilibrium in which the Cabinet Office then increasingly becomes the traditional role, namely the Cabinet secretary is the secretary of the Council of ministers.
The Secretary to the Prime Minister is to carry out the orders, initiatives of the Prime Minister. So this is really the new model which seems to be emerging globally, by the way, not only in terms of the management of the Central government, (but) powerful chief ministers have also adopted the similar replication of this model. So it is the changing voter psychology all over the world, which has been the most important guiding factor in moving away from whatever traditional models of governance which you may have. And by the way, the pandemic has demonstrated one more thing, namely, that the very important role of a central unifying factor in being able to work out social security systems, in expectations that in the post pandemic period, you may have to do a reset button. You may have, in fact, to write a new social contract. A social contract that embeds many more features than the traditional social contract may have.
Anant Goenka: We’re seeing, as you’ve said in your book, a very strong Prime Minister, both in Indira Gandhi and now with Modi, and all the different types of Prime Ministers we’ve had in the middle. In your experience, in the autonomy given to bureaucrats and the strength of democratic institutions, in which of these two models do institutions actually thrive more?
NK Singh: So there are no perfect answers. There will be no perfect fits either. And I think that what we need to opt for is the hybrid mix between the two. The permanent bureaucracy has an important role to play. It’s the most important institution, particularly in a federal polity like ours. It lends permanence to any volatilities and uncertainties in the governance rubric. They have an important role to play, fearlessly being able to put across their point of view, leaving the policy options to the political masters. In this framework, of course, there are other questions, does meritocracy always pay off in the changing dynamics to other factors that come into play. But as I said, there is no perfect answer.
Anant Goenka: Dr Acharya, there is this notion that coalition governments have actually delivered more reform, have been more decisive and faster with economic reform. Do you subscribe to that view? And do you see that post-Covid the rule of coalition governments doing more reform actually changing now?
Shanker Acharya: First of all, I’m not sure that we have got enough data points to really come to a definitive view. I think there is evidence on either side. In the Indian context, and particularly if I think on the economic side, and over the last 40 years, which I’m more familiar with, two of the best periods for economic policy, both policy and reforms, were the Narasimha Rao government years, that is from 1991 to 1996 and the Vajpayee years from 1998 to 2004. Now what happens is that both of them were at one time or other coalitions. But I would not say that this is the only way to get good economic policies. I don’t think we have enough data points to come to that. But I would like to ask you, NK, that first of all, do you agree with my possibly rather bold characterisation — and I’m taking 40-50 years of Indian economic history that two of the richest periods for good economic policy — the Narasimha Rao years, which was essentially a Congress government and the Vajpayee years, which was a BJP-centered coalition. This essentially spanned almost 13 years, with a hiatus in between. A lot of things got done. But when you look back, what do you think are the things that we should have done better in those 13-14 years, by way of economic policy?
NK Singh: I want to make two observations to your comment, Shankar. Suppose we both asked ourselves the mutual question that in case the Narasimha Rao government had been what it was, in case Manmohan Singh was the finance minister, which he was, but India did not have a balanced payments crisis, India was not on the verge of a default. If we ask ourselves how much of those reforms were acts of conscious choice, products of compulsion? I wonder what the reply would be. I have sought to argue that we seem to be a nation acting with an amazing amount of coordination in moments of crisis. But that complacency sets in rather quickly. Having said this, the Vajpayee government being the first BJP government, wanted to naturally prove on the record, both on the economic and the political side, what he had inherited. So on the political side, of course, which has been recounted in some detail here in the book, he took the audacious step, notwithstanding sanctions, of (making) India a nuclear power and went on to have a strategic partnership with the United States. Equally on the economic side, he continued with some far-reaching important economic reforms, which were left somewhat incomplete in the 1991 to 1993 period. To your second question, what did we fail to achieve in the 13 years, well, again, I want to raise the issue that you and I know, that we got out of the fund bank arrangement in 1993. Having got off the fund bank arrangement, we perhaps felt that there was no compulsion to undertake some other important reforms, which would have made a qualitative difference. These were structural reforms, reforms in the factors of production, in terms of land labour. The financial sector reforms went on a back burner, that has come to haunt us even till today. Issues of labour reforms continue to be elusive even today. Land reforms have become more complicated, issues of social sector reforms, in terms of education, and in terms of health, also did not occupy the kind of priority which they should have. We have to again ask ourselves whether we got out of the crisis so lightly in 1993, which put us thereafter in the mode of complacency, and that therefore, in 10 years, where Dr Manmohan Singh, who had led these reforms as finance minister, became the Prime Minister, on many of these was far less satisfied.
Shankar Acharya: Reading your book, I was struck that even in the bad old days, long before reforms and so forth, you were fairly consistently in favour of sort of modernisation and a liberal outlook as far as economic policy was concerned. And so to a large extent, and I think you would agree, what happened in the 90s, and continued to happen in the 2000s for a good long time, was essentially an opening up of the Indian economy, and opening up with success, I should say, not under duress, not only under crisis, but voluntarily, in the areas of trade, capital flows, technology transfer, and all those things. And we obviously reap some good rewards from that. I have a sense, of course, I’m not in government for so many years, from the newspapers and so forth, that in the last two to three years, some of our actions, particularly in trade policy, appear to have been reversing course, whether it comes to increasing tariffs on goods from abroad, whether it comes to not engaging, as we perhaps might have in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with the rest of Asia, which just got signed by 15 countries. Now, to me, this is disquieting. Because all of us want fast and rapid economic growth for India and I don’t frankly see us achieving those unless we really integrate with the rest of the world, particularly the most dynamic parts of the world, which I think is going to be East and Southeast Asia. So is this a worry that you share? And if you do, how do you think we should move forward?
NK Singh: First and foremost, who can disagree with anyone that trade must be an important engine of growth, that countries which seek to grow at seven to eight percent or more, must really use trade, which historically we have known, has been an important impetus to countries in achieving higher rates of economic growth. And countries that have followed policies, which are anti-trade, have really not been able to achieve the kind of growth rates that have brought about prosperity. Our second issue is, shall we ask ourselves again the question: has the world increasingly become more protectionist? Have the comparative factor advantages and factor efficiencies of reaching a better place in the value-added chain yielded place to a different model of the arrangement of the international economic order? Multilateral institutions, including the World Trade Organization, are languishing. We can continue to believe that India believes in multilateralism and multilateral institutions, but the fact remains that suddenly it has become less relevant by the very people who practice the virtues of this. Now, I would like to believe with you that this is a transient phase. And I would like to believe that we will go back to what common sense would tell us, namely the importance of trade and trade policies, and making once again, trade as an engine of growth, we will have to wait for perhaps January to see how the new policy framework by the United States in this particular way, pans itself out. Your third important point was that should we not look at therefore trading arrangements with nations where the benefits will be significant? Now, I think that there it would be somewhat naive to forget that geopolitics has an important role to play. And that we can separate geopolitics from economic choices, which may be made in a kind of a sensible way. So I think that they would be a constellation of many of these. And I’d like to end by saying that while certainly, we cannot afford to be a protectionist country, we need to be active partners in the gains of trade. We need to watch the transient nature in which the economics of value added chain plays itself out. We also need to be mindful of the way in which geopolitics plays itself out.
Anant Goenka: You talk about protectionism and we’ve always seen that in America, the government acts almost as agents of their businesses, they’re so aggressive in how they’ll sell Boeing aircrafts, how they’ll lobby for Harley Davidson. Do you see that the government and Corporates in India also will be able to cultivate a much closer and mutually beneficial relationship, much like it is in the US?
NK Singh: Well, there’s no doubt that you require a much greater fusion partnership of government and the corporate sector for promotion of economic interests in an increasingly interdependent world. In fact, we have traversed quite a distance. In the old days, you required organisations like the CII or FICCI or Assocham to interlocute because individual business corporates were not exactly the most welcome people in the corridors of decision making. You were required to hitch on to a trade body to be able to put across even legitimate points of view to the government. All that has changed, I think in a meaningful way. And the openness of engagement between the decision-making process and the corporates have certainly grown. They need to grow much more because in an increasingly interdependent world, you need to really optimise the synergy between both of them, between government and the private sector. And I see much more of that happening, particularly given the geopolitical uncertainties.
P Vaidyanathan Iyer: Proximity to corporate or industry leaders is still seen as something which politicians or bureaucrats would want to keep themselves away from. In your book, you could talk about your relations with the Ambanis, the Tatas, the Birlas. But how many bureaucrats today or politicians today talk about that in a manner that doesn’t invite criticism from within?
NK Singh: I think corporates have easier access to the top decision making much more freely than, if I reflect back, in my time. And this is because I think there is a greater and easier relationship…and also because I think that as we move away from direct controls into the regulatory framework, you now have independent regulators in a whole host of activity. I would tend to believe that looking back in the long journey in public policymaking, the trust component between the private sector, and the government has certainly deepened and broadened, and suspicions are much less, given the fact that the reforms have also created new species and entities of independent regulators.
Shankar Acharya: My sense is that the average quality of the senior civil service that we now have is distinctively less good than it was say 50-55 years ago when you entered service. First, would you agree with that assessment, which is sort of lurking in your book? And if you do, what should one do about it? We’ve had all these different administrative reforms commissions and so on to solve various issues. But it’s not clear to me that a great deal has emerged from them in terms of implementation, or whether there are other solutions we should be looking for.
NK Singh: It’s a very complex issue, Shankar. But yes, I have mentioned the fact that and that is also connected in the chapter on the Prime Minister’s Office and the evolution of the Prime Minister’s Office, that within a span of four months, four very important, well recognised civil servants were transferred out of the positions in which they had acquired great domain knowledge. Was that a signaling effect to the system, that what really mattered was not domain knowledge, but it was the Prime Minister’s Office at that time, which I mentioned quite starkly…and there is no shying away from that. Now, your second question of the fact that do I lament necessarily the fact that the new breed of civil servants, or the new civil servants who are in important positions, do not match up to what they were earlier. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that. Because my own experience seems to be that given an opportunity, the present class of civil servants, both intellectually, in terms of acumen, domain knowledge, are in no way inferior or less bright than the ones earlier. But the third and last point, what does one do to improve the way in which skills and quality are recognised? Should meritocracy be judged by systems and methodologies which are transparent? And should that be respected? How to usher a merit-based order? Now in a complex society like ours, which has many other problems of social inclusiveness, and so on, one shouldn’t really commit the mistake of trying to give answers. But yes, it is an issue that needs to be addressed by successive administrative reforms committees or commissions, which you mentioned, have not been able to do.
Anant Goenka: You mentioned the next generation of bureaucrats. If I can draw you to the next generation of politicians. Most of the next generation political leaders, arguably aren’t ready or aren’t showing signs of really filling the shoes of their fathers, their parents, grandparents. Would you agree with that notion? And, if yes, then why do you think that is?
NK Singh: It is, I think, an oversimplification to make a generalisation of this kind. I, for instance, feel that some chief ministers were certainly far more proactive on development fronts than some of their predecessors.
I would say that the academic embellishments, if I may use that expression, of say someone like Jyotiraditya Scindia, are not inferior to the academic qualifications of his father Madhavrao Scindia. I think that the academic embellishments of someone like Sachin Pilot are not inferior to his father’s. So I think that, in general, the newer generation is, in fact, improving. I find that the newer generation of the political species of the same family are better educated, more talented, and more in tune.
Anant Goenka: Do you see that academia and populist ideas and views are actually turning more and more at odds with each other?
NK Singh: I would say not really. Shankar and I have participated in so many international conferences where there is a blend between the political entities and the academia. I would say that I see the future as a more interactive process between academia and policymakers.
P Vaidyanathan Iyer: Mr Singh, if I may just draw you to the book again. One of the interesting things that you talk about is bank nationalisation during Indira Gandhi’s time. And you point to your father, how he was opposed to it and as Finance Secretary and was not even kept in the loop because of his known opposition at that point of time. So, we have come a long way. On banking or financial sector reforms in general, what are your views? Have we done enough? And I would like Dr Acharya also to chip in.
NK Singh: I feel that we have not done enough on banking and financial sector reforms. For instance, trying to give greater autonomy to banks, the fact that the Insolvency Bill was a very major step, the exit process, the culture of ‘evergreening’, which many banks had begun to follow, has come to wear off. But if you want to ask the question, have we allowed the freedom and flexibility for new entrants to come to the banking and financial sector, the answer is that this was a can kicked down the street. When the crisis of 1991 had come, we appointed this Narasimhan Committee report, which Shankar was very connected with. But I don’t think that the reforms which have been undertaken are something which really are the best for 21st century India.
P Vaidyanathan Iyer: So what would you like, if you were the Finance Minister today, to be on the agenda for banking reforms?
NK Singh: Well, first and foremost, to complete the ongoing reforms, which are there — which are really — banking amalgamation is taking place. The Indradhanush program, which this government adopted, shortly after it came to power. Many ingredients of the Indradhanush program need to be completed in a significant way. We need to have greater accountability of shareholders, we need to accord the banks the necessary autonomy which they like, and then look at the manner and modalities in which, based on rules of transparency, more room can be provided and space can be given for new entrants, who can add to the competitive efficiency of financial intermediation.
Shankar Acharya: I would on the whole want to have gone further than what NK has just done. I’ve long felt that our experimentation with essentially a public sector owned banking system dominantly, which is still the case– 65 to 70 percent of the total number of assets and liabilities are held by government banks or government majority-owned banks — hasn’t really worked. Every few years, we have to recapitalise them because they are just on the ropes not making enough money for what they need to do. And the capital has been eaten away by bad loans and so forth. And this has been a recurring phenomenon. It’s not just in the last few years, it’s been going on certainly since the 1980s and 1990s. And I think that no government, so far, has really bitten the bullet. The nearest we came to a bullet being bitten, was during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure, when, if memory serves me right, in the finance ministry, a bill was drafted, where at least a cabinet note was drafted, which would have amended the relevant banking legislation in a way that the minimum 51 percent ownership would be reduced to 33 percent. That’s the closest we’ve come to what I would regard as the desirable outcome. Nothing can be done overnight. Let’s be realistic. We should essentially do what we’ve done in other sectors– privatise, not just do ‘offers for sale’ and reduce the number of shares held in the public sector, but privatise one or two of our now amalgamated public sector banks and see what happens. It’s not an easy process. I entirely accept that. But I think the time has come, because otherwise we know the cycle. You know, three years down the road, we capitalise again.
NK Singh: You’re absolutely right and then I must complete the story. At that time, there was huge opposition from the Congress party. But who can disagree that the path forward would be, at least in the case of one or two banks, to move forward in being able to do away with the kind of present ownership structure which we have inherited from a decision. And that if we look back historically, maybe that decision may have served its purpose. And we need to move on.
Anant Goenka: You’ve seen so much politics play out in India, you’ve seen political parties, political legacy start and stop. What do you see going wrong in the Congress?
NK Singh: I can’t give you an answer because I don’t know one. I’m not trying to be politically correct, I have no reasons to be. But I think that I really frankly do not know what coherent reply to give. It’s easy enough to say that the Congress must genuinely become more democratic and look for leadership which is more broad-based, but I do not know whether that is the answer.
Anant Goenka: Let me try to push you and say have you seen any political party in a situation like this in India before?
NK Singh: What was the lowest number of parliamentary seats that the BJP got once? …The BJP at one stage had done so badly as to get a rather low number of parliamentary seats. And I think, if my memory serves me correct, Mr Vajpayee himself had lost an election. But that did not prevent the party from rejuvenating itself, and to come up to where it has become the most dominant party. So other political parties have gone through this phenomenon earlier, but have reinvented, rejuvenated and restructured themselves. In a manner which is really great for us to see as part of the evolution of political history.
P Vaidyanathan Iyer: Mr Singh, what made you sit down and write this book?
NK Singh: When I look back on a generation of iconic civil servants like LK Jha, MP Singh, none of them left behind a scrap of paper. They would have seen a lot of India’s economic struggle in the first few years of India’s independence, and they would have lots to say, in comparison, but I felt that since circumstances have placed me where I could see and witness a lot of the drama, political decision making, I felt that this needed to be written and recounted.
Q and A
Kirit Parikh, Chairman, Integrated Research and Action for Development: Is the Finance Commission more important than the Planning Commission because it is allocating more funds to the states? Also, how is it that our allocations for education, healthcare, and development have been far from adequate?
NK Singh: Whether there is a permanent institutional mechanism for a dialogue between the Centre and the states is a larger issue. And whether, in the absence of the Planning Commission, the current functions of the Niti Aayog enable this important consultative mechanism between the Centre and the state to be purposefully used, is a much broader issue. About education and health – yes, there can be no doubt that these have been neglected. In fact, the Finance Commission’s recommendations on the health sector are important, particularly given the context of the pandemic. The implementation of the new education policy, which has come after 30 years, and the new health policy of 2017, which is relevant particularly in the pandemic context — these past inadequate public outlays need to be rectified. We need to look at both public and private outlays in important areas of health and education.
Ashok Khemka, Principal Secretary, Government of Haryana: What was the level of the cascading effect of taxes in the pre-GST regime? In the post-GST regime have tax collections improved as a percentage of GDP?
P Vaidyanathan Iyer: On federalism, you are seeing a strong Prime Minister similarly. Some of the state Chief Ministers are also very strong personalities. How do you see the Centre-state relations? Is there a sense that things are more shrill? Does that worry you as we go forward, because states have to be equal partners, if not more, in kind of ensuring eight to nine percent GDP growth rate?
NKS: I do believe that federalism as a concept is philosophically far more broad-based than fiduciary federalism, that federalism must not only be embedded in resources being shared between the Centre and the States. There needs to be greater partnership, on the achievement of national priorities. The cooperation with the states extended to the efforts of the central government in dealing with this pandemic — this is an example of federalism in action beyond limited fiduciary obligations because it dealt with human lives and their livelihood. Secondly, do we need a different institutional mechanism for continuing dialogue between the Center and the states after the abolition of the Planning Commission? Perhaps the Niti Aayog can be restructured, perhaps the Centre-state council can be rejuvenated or perhaps I think a different kind of institution structure needs to be crafted, which does allow this Centre and the states to be in continuous dialogue with them, so that each one can have a particular voice. Other countries have different models like for instance Australia, South Africa and others have a permanent Finance Commission in which they look into this. They look into expenditure outlays, evaluation of expenditure outlays, and then indications along the line.
P Vaidyanathan Iyer: We have a single-party majority government for the last six years and the opposition space seems to be shrinking. What does it mean for economic policymaking? How does it play out in the economy with a very strong government at the Centre, and little opposition?
NK Singh: You can argue on the merits and demerits of majority government which have less of the kind of checks and balances in which opposition parties are apparently much more strident. It does give the government an opportunity to undertake economic reforms and measures, which the governments that are more dependent on coalition partners, would find more difficult to take. So it is a challenge and an opportunity that stable political parties and stable political governments are not dependent. And now I think that with the changing configuration, even in the upper house, even though money bills were never subject to the decisions of the upper house, the NDA will have a majority. So I think it certainly provides an opportunity to undertake deeper and far-reaching economic reforms that were stymied by the absence of parliamentary majorities.
Anant Goenka: At one point in time in America, five to six percent control of any market was considered too much control and antitrust proceedings would start. Today we’re living in a world where each and every industry you’re talking about, 20-30 percent is controlled by single companies, especially the digital world where 90 percent of the market is controlled by one or two players. Is this something that concerns you about India or do we have a really long way to go and right now we should only be encouraging and giving more wings to corporates rather than be concerned about things like too little competition?
NK Singh: We are in an evolving phase but I would say that there is a need for the Competition Commission of India, whose primary objective is to deal with issues of this kind. In addition to independent regulators, you have a regulatory framework for the entire digital and telecom world, you have other independent regulators, so I think the regulators must act in tandem with the competition commission to prevent this kind of market abuse or predatory pricing of many other evils associated with excessive market dominance. But certainly, there are no simple answers to this because we are in an evolving phase. But that is no use for the regulators who are duty-bound under the law to look at the objectives and why they were created to undertake the necessary decisions.
Mudit Jain, Managing Director, DCW Ltd: Oxford University teaches a very popular degree course called ‘Philosophy, Politics, and Economy’. India has exemplary philosophical thinking. Why hasn’t this excellence translated into good governance and into a developed nation? Why this disconnect between philosophy and reality?
The course you mentioned at Oxford should be something which we should also consider here. It’s a good blend of politics, philosophy, and economics. Why hasn’t that kind of learning replicated itself in the governance of the country? Well, there are many complex reasons, some of which are based on legacy. These are the kind of issues which I have endeavoured to address in the book.
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