The GST is operational today due to a strategy of incrementalism, driven by the need for building inter-government consensus.
Rajiv Kumar, the new vice-chairman of the Niti Aayog, has made development of an organic, Bharatiya model of development as his mission. He is likely to encounter three problems in this endeavour.
First, in a post-ideology world, marked by rapid technological transformations, economic models become outdated even before they can be tested. In these uncertain times, feeling the rocky river bed with one’s feet carefully, while crossing turbulent economic and social currents, seems the wisest option.
Second, isn’t this what Bharat has always done. We have been obsessive about the “uniqueness” of India, which seemingly requires all international experience to be adapted for use locally. This is not necessarily a bad thing, though it has its downsides.
Consider that in the five decades after Independence we have stuck, like leeches, to the Nehruvian development model of ersatz socialism based on a massive industrial public sector accompanied by the outrageous neglect of agriculture, private enterprise or international quality education and health facilities. This, when most other emerging countries, in East Asia, Southeast Asia and Latin America, switched over to a modified Anglo-Saxon, neo-liberal strategy from the 1970s and reaped the benefits of rapid growth.
To be sure, even after 1991, the reform model we followed was Bharatiya. Its core ingredients were incremental rather than big-bang reform — a strategy Russia followed with disastrous results — and careful sequencing of sector reform to minimise the pain from reforms.
It is unclear, however, whether Bharatiya incrementalism helped the poor. Chancel and Picketty (July 2017) estimate that over the period 1980 to 2014 the share of growth accruing to the bottom 50 per cent of adults was 11 per cent in India; 13 per cent in China and only one per cent in the United States. Meanwhile, the top one per cent of adults garnered 29 per cent of the growth in India. China did better by containing the share of this segment at 15 per cent, while the US did worse at 34 per cent. More worryingly, the next nine per cent of adults, from the top, garnered 37 per cent of growth in India, significantly more than in China (29 per cent) and the US (32 per cent). Where we failed spectacularly was in protecting the middle 40 per cent of adults, who got only 23 per cent of the growth versus 43 per cent in China and 33 per cent in the US.
One Bharatiya innovation which succeeded spectacularly was the phased introduction of currency and capital convertibility. This modified-market approach was validated by India escaping the ill-effects of the 1997 Asian currency crisis. It is significant that Malaysia followed our innovative approach, endorsed by Jagdish Bhagwati, by reimposing capital controls after 1997, and Iceland did similarly in 2008.
Similarly, our choice of shying away from “big bang” privatisation of the public sector, unlike Latin America in the 1980s and Eastern Europe in the 1990s, worked well. We chose instead to liberalise controls over private investment, thereby enabling private companies to grow and compete with the public sector. This strategy has paid dividends in civil aviation, telecom, minerals and electricity generation. Incremental private sector investment now dominates these sectors and a competitive market-based economy has emerged.
Simultaneously, we contained the social cost of reforms. But a similar policy has not worked in banking. We were too hesitant to give up the political power which comes with the government owning public sector banks. Private banks today account for just one-third of banking assets. The massive economic problem of stressed loan accounts, amounting to around 14 per cent of publicly owned bank assets, is a consequence of our not following through by liberalising the financial sector. Bharatiyata has, unfortunately, become synonymous with crony capitalism in banking.
The GST is operational today due to a strategy of incrementalism, driven by the need for building inter-government consensus. Early indications are positive both on the increase in revenue collected and the enhanced compliance by taxpayers. But the jury is out till the final results come in by April 2018.
In a nutshell, Bharat’s economic policies have always been unique and contextual. Some observers would even say we obsessively reinvent the wheel. It will thus be a tall order for the Niti Aayog to evolve a new Bharatiya model of development, which is completely unknown to us, or the world.
Third, do we need a new model of development? The existing model has served us well. The areas for deeper reform are well known and agreed. Indeed, many are already on their way. Hopefully the 15th Finance Commission will continue the task of decentralising fiscal resources, by increasing the share of devolved resources from the 42 per cent existing today towards 50 per cent. This would push the Union government to be more selective in its interventions based on the time-tested principle of subsidiarity — not doing anything that can be efficiently done at a lower level of government. The government is already allocating more resources to agriculture, education and healthcare, which had fallen through the gaps earlier, while also stepping up allocations for defence and infrastructure.
At the helicopter level of grand plans and policies, there is no gap which the Niti Aayog can address. In fact, it would do well to exercise forbearance in areas where individual ministries are better equipped to take the lead. Where Niti can add value is in addressing the root causes of poor implementation. Tony Blair’s Service Delivery Unit did this to marvellous effect in the UK. Malaysia and Tanzania thereafter copied the template.
Niti should focus on the nitty-gritty of getting the plethora of good intentions, embedded in policies, implemented on the ground. This goes beyond close monitoring of targets or punishing laggards. The devil lies in clogged delivery chains, poor metrics to measure results and misaligned incentives, all of which need to be painstakingly mapped and then innovatively declogged. It’s a plumber’s job that needs to be done. Is the Niti Aayog willing to get its hands dirty?