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India's economic mandarin
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"IF people miss out on India now, they will be missing out on a lot," said India's Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, in answer to a question from the audience during a dialogue session last week with DBS chief executive officer Piyush Gupta.
The gloom that surrounded the Indian economy up to 2014 has lifted, he said. India is now the fastest growing of the so-called BRIC countries, the emerging economy group that also includes Brazil, Russia and China. But it wants to go even faster.
The 62-year-old lawyer-turned-politician talked for some 90 minutes, without missing a beat, about all his government has done during its 18 months in office. It has introduced clarity and consistency in policy where there was none, he claimed. Liberal in its approach to economic management, it has opened up defence, insurance, railways and real estate to foreign investment. It has put an end to retrospective taxation.
Thanks to a more decisive administration, many stalled ventures have re-started - businessmen don't visit his office any more with complaints of held-up projects, he said. The government is determined to further shorten the time between the decision to invest and the launch of new ventures. It is simplifying procedures and streamlining the bureaucracy; setting up infrastructure funds and embarking on building 100 "smart cities". It has launched gigantic and unprecedented financial schemes to help the poor.
Ultimate Delhi insider
A few key reforms, notably, the passage of the goods and services tax have been held up because of "obstructionist tactics" by the opposition which has a majority in the upper house of the Indian Parliament, but this will change when the composition of the upper house changes next April. He acknowledged that India has been lucky to reap the benefits of lower prices for oil and other commodities (of which it is a net importer). But with the new government, a sense of change is in the air. "Political hurdles have been marginalised," he said.
Mr Jaitley is the ultimate Delhi insider, cut from a different cloth compared with most other members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - often described as India's Hindu nationalist party - to which he belongs. Socially liberal, urbane, in many ways Westernised, and seemingly secular in outlook, he has been described as "the right man in the wrong party".
A one-time student activist, he was jailed for 19 months during former prime minister Indira Gandhi's repressive "emergency" rule during the mid-1970s, which he had opposed. During his career as a lawyer, he has successfully defended BJP leaders who have faced all manner of charges, as well as taken on high-profile corporate cases.
Despite his many years in politics, Mr Jaitley does not have a mass support base. But he knows just about everybody who is anybody in India's corporate world, judiciary, media and politics. A consummate networker, he has known Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi long before the latter became a national figure. He is said to be the cabinet minister who is closest to Mr Modi, who has entrusted him with three ministerial portfolios - Mr Jaitley is not only India's Finance Minister, he is also the Minister for Information and Broadcasting as well as Corporate Affairs. He could lay claim (though he does not) to being India's second most powerful individual.
A "people-person" who delights in the company of his friends and sometimes even strangers, he is a raconteur with an impish sense of humour who loves to hold court, even in such unlikely places as Delhi's Lodhi Gardens where he goes for his morning walks. In 2009, India's Outlook magazine put him at the top of its list of "India's best gossips". For Mr Jaitley, it pointed out, "gossip is not just social currency or amusement, it is a genuine passion".
He has a natural curiosity. While he is being miked up for his interview, he enquires about the camerawoman's name and remarks that he finds it unusual. Meeting him, you soon realise that he does not have a trace of the hauteur that afflicts some holders of public office. During our conversation, I ask him something a lot of people wonder about: how is his government's economic policy and strategy different from that of the previous government?
"I'm not sure what the economic strategy of the previous (Congress) government was," he replies. "Pre-1991, India was a regulated economy. Post-1991, India was a reformed economy. In the reform economy, one of the strategies India followed consistently was to try and ensure that levels of productivity, efficiency and individual inititiave must go up and the state must step out, except in certain specific areas.
"The Congress government in 1991 had also followed the strategy that continued right until (former Prime Minister from the BJP) Mr Vajpayee relinquished power in 2004."
Talking about the post-2004 period when the Congress Party led the government, Mr Jaitley says: "There was an effort which moved in a slightly different direction. As a result, decisions were not being taken, there was no implementation at all, and there was a changed policy directive. Instead of concentrating on increasing productivity and wealth generation and letting the advantages of that accrue to everyone including the underprivileged, the new strategy focused on essentially the redistribution of existing resources. And that is why we came down to below 5 per cent in terms of growth.
"When the going was good, we were still doing well, but when the going got challenging globally, we slowed down terribly, and that is the stage at which the previous government relinquished power."
The previous government also had some "retrograde policies", he points out, such as corruption in the allocation of natural resources and over-aggressive tax policies with retrospective legislations, which investors objected to. "India needed a break from those kinds of policies."
His own government, he says "is essentially going back to 2004 and continuing from where India moved from 1991 to 2004. Now you have a government which is decisive, which is much cleaner, whose direction is absolutely clear, and which wants to take India to a much higher growth trajectory". The BJP which won the 2014 general election by a landslide, had fought largely on issues of basic material needs. Candidate Narendra Modi and his fellow campaigners had barnstormed the country, talking about bringing electricity, water, sanitation, roads, schools and hospitals to India's masses. This was in stark contrast to the winning formulae of elections past, which often turned on issues of caste and other forms of identity. I ask Mr Jaitley, who is one of the BJP's key electoral strategists, whether this marks a fundamental transformation in the nature of India's politics.
Growing increasingly aspirational
"I think so," he says. "This has all to do with an important change taking place in India. The Indian middle class has grown. Thirty-five to 40 per cent of India is middle class, so now you're looking at 350 to 400 million people. Below the middle class are those who aspire to get into the middle class, and I'll refer to this group loosely as the neo-middle class. Even below that, the people who are not privileged to either be part of the middle class or the neo-middle class, they want to get out of the curse of poverty. So India, as a whole, has become increasingly aspirational. The villagers are no longer willing to live the life of the underprivileged. So with programmes such as 'Swachh Bharat' (Clean India) or a toilet in every home, water supply in every home, schools for everyone, a pukka (proper) road for every village - these programmes have been launched to improve the quality of peoples' lives, that's the change India is going through.
"This change is evident from the fact that a 7 to 7.5 per cent growth rate is not satisfying India. India is restless, India is becoming impatient. Therefore, the agenda of politics is going to change into developmental politics.
"Of course, there will be issues of identity in a complex society such as India, but those issues will not occupy centre stage anymore. The 2014 election almost defied caste. I had used an expression on the eve of the election, that this election is no longer about arithmetic. This is about a changed chemistry, and that almost came true."
He makes a prediction about next month's election in the northern Indian state of Bihar, where the arithmetic of caste has traditionally been of decisive importance. "It is also going to be more about chemistry than about arithmetic," he says.
During the dialogue earlier, Mr Jaitley had said: "India is the world's largest democracy and also the world's noisiest democracy."
"And we love that noise," he added. But seriously, is the noise of India's democracy an obstacle to policymaking? "It's both a strength and an obstacle," he says. "It's a strength because noise makes people more aspirational. It keeps knocking policymakers on the head, that they must immediately take decisions. Noise also throws up a loud-mouth populace, and loud-mouth populaces are in the habit of deflecting policy agendas." In other words, the noise keeps India's policymakers on their toes, he suggests.
We turn to the right-leaning BJP government's policies for India's poor, which some economists (particularly those whose sympathies lie with the Congress Party or left-leaning parties) have criticised as inadequate. In October last year, 28 eminent economists from India and abroad wrote a sharp open letter to Prime Minister Modi alleging that the BJP government was attempting to dilute the landmark rural jobs scheme, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNRega) launched by the Congress government in 2005. Under the scheme, every rural household is guaranteed 100 days of wage employment a year.
Such allegations are unfounded, according to Mr Jaitley, who suggests they are based more on political point-scoring than on fact. "There is a set of people in Indian politics who were so entrenched in the earlier system that they developed a vested interest," he says. "They have never been able to digest either the BJP or Prime Minister Narendra Modi."
"We have retained MNRega," he points out. "We have increased the allocation of MNRega. We have eliminated a lot of the middle agencies, such as state governments, district administrations and even panchayats (village councils), where monies could be held up, or even diluted. We are now transferring funds directly from the centre... into accounts of the beneficiaries.
"If somebody says MNRega is shrinking, well, the recipients of MNrega are getting more money. We have adopted MNrega and increased the allocation to MNrega essentially because India has seen two less-than-average monsoons. Therefore, it's important to empower people in the rural areas."
And his government has done even more for the poor, he claims. "This government's social security programmes are unprecedented in the history of India," he says, pointing out that some 180 million people have been linked within a few weeks to banks through "Jan Dhan" accounts (a people's money scheme launched in August 2014, under which basic banking accounts were provided to India's masses) and 120 million people have benefited from two government insurance schemes. A pension scheme for the poor is also in place and the government is considering providing crop insurance. "There is no inconsistency between economic reforms, a higher growth rate and service to the poor," he says.
India's government can now target benefits to individuals via its data platforms, which also include the "adhaar" scheme - a biometric national identification card project launched by the previous administration, and accelerated under the BJP government. Funds for state-provided scholarships, old age pensions, widow pensions and other benefits are now transferred directly to individuals' bank accounts. "Nobody can claim a central benefit and a state benefit twice if it's on an adhaar platform," says Mr Jaitley. "The misuse can only take place if it's only done manually. It can save a lot of money and the money can be utilised constructively elsewhere. Our experiment in the area of the provision of cooking gas subsidies has been very good - we've been able to use the platform and save almost 30 per cent of the money."
In keeping with its campaign pledge, the government is also cracking down on illegal assets stashed overseas by Indian residents, which India's Central Bureau of Investigation estimates at US$500 billion.
In May 2015, the government passed the so-called "Black money and Imposition of Tax Bill" which provides a window of opportunity for resident Indians to declare their overseas assets and pay taxes and penalties after which they face hefty fines and jail terms.
Does Mr Jaitley expect large sums of money to return to India from overseas?
"I don't know - this depends on the people," he says. "We have opened a window for people to comply with the new law. It depends on how many people have money abroad and how many comply. Those who don't comply run the risk of future action. But I certainly think that this culture of taking monetary assets outside the country illegally will, because of this deterrent, come to an end. The success will be more for the future."
Having completed half a dozen interviews back to back, Mr Jaitley has another one lined up.
I end by asking him how he juggles his time between three ministerial portfolios. Isn't he a bit overstretched?
He hesitates, and I think for a moment he might agree. Finally, he says: "I think in public life we have to find the time for discharging a lot of responsibilities. I can only tell you that I sleep well."
Minister for Finance; Minister for Corporate Affairs; Minister for Information and Broadcasting, India
Leader of the House, Rajya Sabha (Upper House of India's Parliament) since September 2014
Political party affiliation: Bharatiya Janata Party, since 1980
Born: New Delhi, Dec 28, 1952
B Com (Hons), Shri Ram College of Commerce New Delhi(1973); LL B, Delhi University, Faculty of Law (1977)
President, Student Union, Delhi University, 1974
1980: Designated Senior Advocate, Delhi High Court, subsequently at the Supreme Court of India
1989-1990: Appointed Additional Solicitor-General
POLITICAL CAREER HIGHLIGHTS
April 2000: First elected to Rajya Sabha
Nov 2000 to July 2002; and July 2003 to May 2004: Minister of Law, Justice and Company Affairs (in BJP government led by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee)
July 2002-Jan 2003: Secretary-General and national spokesman, BJP
Jan 2003-May 2004: Minister of Commerce and Industry
June 2009-May 2014: Leader of the Opposition, Rajya Sabha