Express Adda: ‘This government has turned us all into cynics’

Express Adda: ‘This government has turned us all into cynics’

At Express Adda in Delhi,Shekhar Gupta,Adil Zainulbhai,Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Mallika Sarabhai.

At an Express Adda in Delhi,moderated by Shekhar Gupta,Editor-in-Chief of The Express Group, Adil Zainulbhai, Chairman of McKinsey India, Pratap Bhanu Mehta,President of Centre for Policy Research and Contributing Editor of The Indian Express,and dancer-activist Mallika Sarabhai — ran the scanner on the UPA, the civil society and the nature of Indian democracy.

On Election 2014

Mallika Sarabhai: Narendra Modi’s rise worries me. The lies being spread worry me. The corruption of the system of all the parties worries me. The public has given a lot of surprising results before and I’m wondering what surprises they’re going to give at the state and the national elections.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta: How much you are worried depends on how much faith you have in Indian democracy,and Indian democracy has always had a way of surprising us. I often share the worry that this election could have been about India’s progressive moment,which is saying there’s an old regime,old style of governance and this old idiom of politics that needs to be done away with,and there’s some political party that would grasp the new India that is emerging. I have much more faith in what’s happening on the ground. I don’t think either of the major political parties understands or sees the new dynamics yet.

Adil Zainulbhai: As some authors in the book (Reimagining India) talk from a political standpoint,I’ll give you two vignettes. One is we should be grateful that there are places where we can,even during election season,express our views openly. The second thing is that,over 15-20 years,which is the development level one has to look at to make fundamental changes,all sorts of governments will come into play. It’s not going to be one specific party or rule for that long. Our development and rule in the country has to be such that,in spite of the governments that come in play,you can sit back and say,‘It’s inevitable’.

On Rahul vs Modi


Sarabhai: Modi is a brilliant speaker. He creates his own reality as we’ve been seeing. He also creates his own history. He is speaking to the very,very frustrated,young and middle-age person,mostly urban. I’ve heard Rahul Gandhi speak very little,and never on serious policy issues,not that I’ve heard Modi speak of these,either. Modi speaks of himself.

Mehta: What is astonishing is that both Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi are taking refuge in false and counter factual histories. I think Rahul’s construction of recent Congress history shows that Congress could not only not come to terms with its history but also not understand it. Secularism and welfare should be the two main cards of the Congress and it’s batting on a weak wicket there. On Mr Modi,I think the one interesting twist is that he seems to be trying to be ahead of the game. If there’s an issue,he will address it,whether you like it or not,in his own way.

On 2002 and Modi

Mehta: Whether 2002 has been a burden or a fuel depends on the context and what your opponents do. A year or two ago,we would have said this was a burden. Everybody in the BJP said Modi could never make it to the top. The mood in the public changed.

Sarabhai: It seems one party has it in its constitution that all Indians are not equal. The other party,even if they completely defaulted on it,does have ‘all Indians are equal’ in their constitution. That makes a huge difference.

On investments in India

Zainulbhai: There has been a lot of talk that people are not investing in India. Let’s break that down into two — there’s a set of people who are money managers who invest hot money. They really worry about whether they can make money in the next quarter or the next year. For them,in a very bad situation,if the prices are right they will buy. In a very good situation,when the outlook is fantastic but the prices are too high,they wouldn’t buy. In the last two months,India has seen a massive inflow of foreign investment,which is hot money. People are investing,either because they believe the prices are so low that even if things go too bad it’s okay. Or because they expect that thing will get better. The second one,is FDI (Foreign Direct Investment). From 92 to 2002,on average,India got about $2 billion incoming FDI. It stayed at roughly that level. From 2002 to 2009 or 2010,it went up to $45 billion. Of course,after 2011,it went down. But it went down from 45 to 27,and it’s now coming back up to 35-37. You could look at it in two ways. In comparison to 18 years before,we’re still at a very good level. It’s only not as good as during the wild times that we had. Secondly,many of them want to see a change in the regulations,rules and to see an improvement in infrastructure. At some level,I don’t think they’re making a judgment about who can deliver it. They just want that to get better.

On the AAP effect

Mehta: We can debate Arvind Kejriwal and,when the movement started,I counted myself as one of the critics and still there are lots of worries. Whether you agree or disagree,he has taken the debate to the question that does need to be answered about institutions. I don’t like the institutional imagination he brings but the fact is,in that vacuum about debating these institutions,he’s beginning to fill that.

Sarabhai: The fact that in today’s political scenario,a new party can come in with no backing except individuals who believe in this dream and actually get two major parties worried,is a very welcome sign in a democracy. I remember when I stood for election,how suddenly all the parties became a club against me,the independent.

On agricultural policy and execution

Zainulbhai: There are two sets of things one has to think about — policies and ability to execute. We may have fantastic policies but we just don’t execute it well. Agriculture is an interesting area — India has actually done well in this. For example,though I hate to say this,we’re actually a banana republic. We’re the largest producer of banana in the world. We’re also the largest producer of mangoes and about 10 other crops. One part of the policy,the ability to grow,is going really well. The second part is to get it in the hands of the right people. Over a 40-year period,the issue of starvation has been taken care of to a large extent. On the other hand,on the issue of malnutrition,the statistics are terrible,we have never put in place a focused set of efforts to ensure that the right kinds of foods and the supplements gets to children in their first five years,which is when most of the malnutrition occurs and it’s difficult to recover from.

On mistakes of the govt

Zainulbhai: You can have many kinds of governments but you can’t get away from the basic rules of economics. I’ll give you two examples — we had a crisis in our fiscal deficit and the current account deficit simultaneously which had lots of effects on the rupee and our industry,has been a huge mistake. The second thing here that we as investors — both in India and outside India — have less to do with central government policy and more to do with the combination of the central government,the bureaucracy,the CAG,etc,which combine in some way to stop things. You can’t blame any one institution,but the net of it is that things have just slowed down.

Mehta: Do not underestimate the institutional damage this government has done to every institution — from the parliament to the CBI to police.

Sarabhai: This government has turned all of us into cynics. People find it difficult to believe that anything or anybody can be without an agenda. The second awful thing is allowing the kind of corruption that cheats the poorest of the poor in something such as the NREGA.

On what the govt can fix

Mehta: The government’s immediate concern should be to restore the office of the Prime Minister. The second issue is of parliamentary committees. If these two issues can be fixed,the rest will follow.

Sarabhai: I think that the legitimacy of all the institutions of governance has to be given back.

Zainulbhai: The steps necessary to have a functioning government would be to have a leader of the government in charge.

Question Hour

Rajiv luthra,Founder and Managing Partner,Luthra & Luthra

I would like you to tell us what the UPA government is doing right.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta: I think the Land Acquisition Bill will turn out to be pretty good,all the fears about it are hugely exaggerated. I think that Manmohan Singh’s framework on Pakistan was the right one. It’s a pity his party didn’t back him on it,but it would have been a game changer.

Adil Zainulbhai: In the last seven to eight years,there are two or three industries that have done very well. India would be in a lot more trouble with its current account deficit and growth rate had the IT services and BPO industry not grown to an $80 billion industry. There were times when decisions could have been taken that could have hurt the industry or changed it in a particular way. Decisions were made in the right way — the government got help when they needed it and kept their hands off when the industry didn’t need their help.

Kulsum Merchant,McKinsey

What would you like to see changed in the country?

Adil Zainulbhai: The challenge of improving the condition of 1.2 billion people cannot be reduced to one thing that you can do to make a difference over a long period of time. Unless we make some fundamental improvements for a large section of the population that is not getting good education at the primary and secondary level,and improve healthcare for the people,it will be very difficult to achieve the kind of life that we want for people as well as the growth of the country as a whole. The debate about whether one has to improve social infrastructure or GDP reflects a false dichotomy at the end of the day — both have to go hand in hand. If one goes a little bit too far from the other it is a disaster,social or economic. If we have to do well,we have to improve those two elements at least of the social infrastructure.

SY Quraishi,Former Chief Election Commissioner

My concern is that ‘government’ is increasingly becoming a dirty word. And when the political executive becomes weak,other institutions start declaring independence. The CBI and CBC want independence,everybody wants independence.

Pratap Bhanu Mehta: Powerful and weak don’t really capture it — what they want is an effective government. But your question is right. Every known principle of the constitutional government has been subverted. That’s no other way of describing what’s happening.

Nidhi Arora,lawyer

What do you think is the most urgent governance issue that you would want the next government to address?

Sarabhai: I would like people across India to understand that we can,each of us,change hundreds of lives,because each of us is capable of it. It’s an opportunity like none other. A study by Harvard Medical School found that the thing that makes us feel best is helping somebody with expectations at zero.


Mehta: In any modern society,the anchor of morality and values are the professionals. One big crisis in society today is that we don’t have professionals whose sense of bearing or responsibility derives from his position —whether it’s the Prime Minister,a judge,a journalist or a teacher. We’re telling each other do everybody else’s job. But the simplest anchor is just go and do your job.