Twenty Years Ago in New Delhi March 18-23 1991: Excerpt from “Rajiv Gandhi & the Origins of India’s 1991 Economic Reform”

Twenty Years Ago in New Delhi March 18-23 1991: Excerpt from

“I returned to Delhi on Monday, March 18, 1991 as new elections had been announced.  Rasgotra said I should be in touch with Krishna Rao, and the next day March 19 Krishna Rao met me for several hours. I told him what I thought were the roots and results of the Gulf war. He in turn generously told me what had happened while I had been away. He said the group had met Rajiv in December with the proposal that Rajiv better organize his time by having an “office manager” of larger political stature than George. The name of a UP Congressman of integrity had been put forward, but nothing had come of it. Rajiv had been advised to keep Chandrashekhar in power through the autumn of 1991, as Chandrashekhar was doing Rajiv’s work for him of sidelining V. P. Singh. The idea was to cooperate with Chandrashekhar until he could be pushed up to the Presidency when that fell vacant. Rajiv had been advised not to work in a Chandrashekhar cabinet, though in my opinion, had we been like the Scandinavians, it was not impossible for a former prime minister to enter another cabinet on the right terms in the national interest of providing stable government, which was imperative at the time. Things seem to have slipped out of control when Chandrashekhar resigned. At that point, Rajiv called the group together and instructed them to write a draft of the manifesto for the impending elections. I had advised readiness back in September but the lack of organization had prevented much tangible progress at the time. Our group was to now report to a political manifesto-committee of three senior party leaders who would report to Rajiv. They were Narasimha Rao, Pranab Mukherjee and Madhavsingh Solanki. Krishna Rao liased with Narasimha Rao, Krishnamurty with Mukherjee, Pitroda with Solanki. While Rajiv would obviously lead a new Congress Government, Mukherjee was the presumptive Finance Minister, while Narasimha Rao and Solanki would have major portfolios though Narasimha Rao was expected to retire before too long.

Krishna Rao said I should be in touch with Krishnamurty who was preparing the economic chapters of the draft of the manifesto. Krishnamurty told me he had brought in A. M. Khusro to the group, and there would be a 5 p.m. meeting at Khusro’s office at the Aga Khan Foundation. I arrived early and was delighted to meet Khusro, and he seemed pleased to meet me. Khusro seemed excited by my view that India and Pakistan were spending excessively on defence against each other, which resonated with his own ideas, and he remarked the fiscal disarray in India and Pakistan could start to be set right by mutually agreed cuts in military spending. (Khusro was eventually to accompany Prime Minister Vajpayee to Lahore in 1999).

Krishnamurty had prepared a draft dated March 18 of several pages of the economic aspects of the manifesto. After our discussions, Krishnamurty was hospitable enough to open the draft to improvement. That evening, the 19th, I worked through the night and the next morning to get by noon copies of a revised version with all the members of the group. At 4 p.m. on the 20th there was a meeting at Andhra Bhavan of the whole group except Pitroda, which went on until the night. The next day the 21st , Krishnamurty, Khusro and I met again at Andhra Bhavan for a few hours on the economic aspects of the draft. Then in mid-afternoon I went to Rasgotra’s home to work with him and Krishna Rao. They wanted me to produce the economic draft which they could then integrate as they wished into the material they were dictating to a typist. I offered instead to absorb their material directly on to my laptop computer where the economic draft was. Rasgotra was reluctant to let go control, and eventually I gave in and said I would get them a hard copy of the economic draft, which they then planned to re-draft via a stenographer on a typewriter. At this, Rasgotra gave in and agreed to my solution. So the work began and the three of us continued until late.

That night Krishna Rao dropped me at Tughlak Road where I used to stay with friends. In the car I told him, as he was a military man with heavy security cover for himself as a former Governor of J&K, that it seemed to me Rajiv’s security was being unprofessionally handled, that he was vulnerable to a professional assassin. Krishna Rao asked me if I had seen anything specific by way of vulnerability. With John Kennedy and De Gaulle in mind, I said I feared Rajiv was open to a long-distance sniper, especially when he was on his campaign trips around the country.

This was one of several attempts I made since October 1990 to convey my clear impression to whomever I thought might have an effect that Rajiv seemed to me extremely vulnerable. Rajiv had been on sadhbhavana journeys, back and forth into and out of Delhi. I had heard he was fed up with his security apparatus, and I was not surprised given it seemed at the time rather bureaucratized. It would not have been appropriate for me to tell him directly that he seemed to me to be vulnerable, since I was a newcomer and a complete amateur about security issues, and besides if he agreed he might seem to himself to be cowardly or have to get even closer to his security apparatus. Instead I pressed the subject relentlessly with whomever I could. I suggested specifically two things: (a) that the system in place at Rajiv’s residence and on his itineraries be tested, preferably by some internationally recognized specialists in counter-terrorism; (b) that Rajiv be encouraged to announce a shadow-cabinet. The first would increase the cost of terrorism, the second would reduce the potential political benefit expected by terrorists out to kill him. On the former, it was pleaded that security was a matter being run by the V. P. Singh and then Chandrashekhar Governments at the time. On the latter, it was said that appointing a shadow cabinet might give the appointees the wrong idea, and lead to a challenge to Rajiv’s leadership. This seemed to me wrong, as there was nothing to fear from healthy internal contests for power so long as they were conducted in a structured democratic framework. I pressed to know how public Rajiv’s itinerary was when he travelled. I was told it was known to everyone and that was the only way it could be since Rajiv wanted to be close to the people waiting to see him and had been criticized for being too aloof. This seemed to me totally wrong and I suggested that if Rajiv wanted to be seen as meeting the crowds waiting for him then that should be done by planning to make random stops on the road that his entourage would take. This would at least add some confusion to the planning of potential terrorists out to kill him. When I pressed relentlessly, it was said I should probably speak to “Madame”, i.e. to Mrs. Rajiv Gandhi. That seemed to me highly inappropriate, as I could not be said to be known to her and I should not want to unduly concern her in the event it was I who was completely wrong in my assessment of the danger. The response that it was not in Congress’s hands, that it was the responsibility of the V. P. Singh and later the Chandrashekhar Governments, seemed to me completely irrelevant since Congress in its own interests had a grave responsibility to protect Rajiv Gandhi irrespective of what the Government’s security people were doing or not doing. Rajiv was at the apex of the power structure of the party, and a key symbol of secularism and progress for the entire country. Losing him would be quite irreparable to the party and the country. It shocked me that the assumption was not being made that there were almost certainly professional killers actively out to kill Rajiv Gandhi — this loving family man and hapless pilot of India’s ship of state who did not seem to have wished to make enemies among India’s terrorists but whom the fates had conspired to make a target. The most bizarre and frustrating response I got from several respondents was that I should not mention the matter at all as otherwise the threat would become enlarged and the prospect made more likely! This I later realized was a primitive superstitious response of the same sort as wearing amulets and believing in Ptolemaic astrological charts that assume the Sun goes around the Earth — centuries after Kepler and Copernicus. Perhaps the entry of scientific causality and rationality is where we must begin in the reform of India’s governance and economy. What was especially repugnant after Rajiv’s assassination was to hear it said by his enemies that it marked an end to “dynastic” politics in India. This struck me as being devoid of all sense because the unanswerable reason for protecting Rajiv Gandhi was that we in India, if we are to have any pretensions at all to being a civilized and open democratic society, cannot tolerate terrorism and assassination as means of political change. Either we are constitutional democrats willing to fight for the privileges of a liberal social order, or ours is truly a primitive and savage anarchy concealed beneath a veneer of fake Westernization.

The next day, Friday March 22, I worked from dawn to get the penultimate draft to Krishna Rao before noon as planned the night before. Rasgotra arrived shortly, and the three of us worked until evening to finish the job. I left for an hour to print out copies for a meeting of the entire group, where the draft we were going to submit would come to be decided. When I got back I found Rasgotra had launched an extended and quite unexpected attack on what had been written on economic policy. Would someone like Manmohan Singh, Rasgotra wanted to know, agree with all this talk we were putting in about liberalization and industrial efficiency? I replied I did not know what Manmohan Singh’s response would be but I knew he had been in Africa heading something called the South-South Commission for Julius Nyrere of Tanzania. I said what was needed was a clear forceful statement designed to restore India’s credit-worthiness, and the confidence of international markets. I said that the sort of thing we should aim for was to make clear, e.g. to the IMF’s man in Delhi when that person read the manifesto, that the Congress Party at least knew its economics and was planning to make bold new steps in the direction of progress. I had argued the night before with Rasgotra that on foreign policy we should “go bilateral” with good strong ties with individual countries, and drop all the multilateral hogwash. But I did not wish to enter into a fight on foreign policy which he was writing, so long as the economic policy was left the way we said. Krishnamurty, Khusro and Pitroda came to my defence saying the draft we had done greatly improved on the March 18 draft. For a bare half hour or so with all of us present, the draft was agreed upon. Later that night at Andhra Bhavan, I gave Krishna Rao the final copy of the draft manifesto which he was going to give Narasimha Rao the next day, and sent a copy to Krishnamurty who was liaising with Pranab Mukherjee. Pitroda got a copy on a floppy disc the next day for Solanki.

In its constructive aspects, the March 22 1991 draft of the Congress manifesto went as follows with regard to economic policy: “CHAPTER V AGENDA FOR ECONOMIC ACTION 1. Control of Inflation …. The Congress believes the inflation and price-rise of essential commodities… is a grave macroeconomic problem facing the country today. It has hit worst the poorest and weakest sections of our people and those with fixed incomes like pensioners. The Congress will give highest priority to maintaining the prices of essential commodities, increasing their production and supply using all appropriate economic instruments. 2. Macroeconomic Policy Framework To control inflation of the general price-level, the Congress will provide a predictable long-term policy framework. The average Indian household and business will not have their lives and plans disrupted by sudden changes in economic policy. Coherent monetary policy measures will be defined as called for by the Report of Experts of the Reserve Bank of India in 1985. The Long-Term Fiscal Policy introduced by the Congress Government of 1984-1989 will be revived. Medium and long-term export-import policies will be defined. The basis for a strong India must be a strong economy. The Congress believes a high rate of real growth is essential for securing a strong national defence, social justice and equity, and a civilized standard of living for all. As the party of self-reliance, Congress believes resources for growth must be generated from within our own economy. This means all wasteful and unproductive Government spending has to be cut, and resources transferred from areas of low priority to areas of high national priority. Subsidies have to be rationalized and reduced, and productivity of investments already made has to be improved. The widening gap between revenue receipts and revenue expenditure must be corrected through fiscal discipline, and the growing national debt brought under control as a matter of high priority. These policies in a consistent framework will create the environment for the freeing of the rupee in due course, making it a hard currency of the world of which our nation can be proud. Public resources are not unlimited. These have to be allocated to high priority areas like essential public services, poverty-reduction, strategic sectors, and protection of the interests of the weaker sections of society. Government has to leave to the initiative and enterprise of the people what can be best done by themselves. Government can now progressively vacate some areas of activity to the private, cooperative and non-government sectors. Black money in the parallel economy has become the plague of our economic and political system. This endangers the social and moral fabric of our nation. Artificial price controls, excessive licensing, capacity restrictions, outmoded laws on rent control and urban ceiling, and many other outdated rules and regulations have contributed to pushing many honest citizens into dishonest practices. The Congress will tackle the problem of black money at its roots by attacking all outmoded and retrograde controls, and simplifying procedures in all economic spheres. At the same time, the tax-base of the economy must be increased via simplification and rationalization of tax-rates and coverage, user-fees for public goods, and reduction of taxes wherever possible to improve incentives and stimulate growth. 3. Panchayati Raj India’s farmers and khet mazdoors are the backbone of our economy. Economic development is meaningless until their villages provide them a wholesome rural life. The Congress will revitalize Panchayat Raj institutions to decentralize decision-making, so development can truly benefit local people most effectively. 4. Rural Development Basic economic infrastructure like roads, communications, fresh drinking water, and primary health and education for our children must reach all our villages. The Congress believes such a policy will also relieve pressures from migration on our towns and cities…… Through the Green Revolution which the Congress pioneered over 25 years, our farmers have prospered. Now our larger farmers must volunteer to contribute more to the national endeavour, and hence to greater equity and overall economic development. Equity demands land revenue should be mildly graduated so that small farmers holding less than one acre pay less land revenue per acre…. 9. Education and Health The long-run prosperity of our nation depends on the general state of education, health and well-being of our people. Small families give themselves more choice and control over their own lives. Improving female literacy, promoting the welfare of nursing mothers and reducing infant mortality will have a direct bearing on reducing the birth-rate and improving the health and quality of all our people. Primary and secondary education has high social returns and is the best way in the long-run for achievement of real equality. Efforts will be made to reduce the cost of education for the needy through concessional supply of books and other study materials, scholarships and assistance for transportation and residential facilities. The Congress Party pledges to dedicate itself to promoting education, especially in rural areas and especially for girls and the weaker sections of society. The next Congress Government will prepare and launch a 10-year programme for introduction of free and compulsory primary education for all children of school age. It will continue to emphasize vocational bias in education, integrating it closely with employment opportunities…. 11. Industrial Efficiency Our industrial base in the private and public sectors are the core of our economy. What we have achieved until today has been creditable, and we are self-reliant in many areas. Now the time has come for industry to provide more efficiency and better service and product-quality for the Indian consumer. The public sector has helped the Indian economy since Independence and many national goals have been achieved. Now it has become imperative that the management of public sector units is made effective, and their productivity increased. Major steps must be taken for greater accountability and market-orientation. Failure to do this will make our country lose more and more in the international economy. Budgetary support will be given only for public sector units in the core and infrastructure sectors. Emphasis will be on improving performance and productivity of existing investments, not on creating added organizations or over manning. Units not in the core sector will be privatised gradually. Even in core sectors like Telecommunications, Power, Steel and Coal, incremental needs can be taken care of by the private sector. The Government-Enterprise interface must be properly defined in a White Paper. The Congress believes privatisation must distribute the profits equitably among the people of India. In order to make our public enterprises truly public, it is essential that the shares of many such enterprises are widely held by the members of the general public and workers. Congress pledges to allot a proportion of such shares to the rural Panchayats and Nagarpalikas. This will enhance their asset-base and yield income for their development activities, as well as improve income-distribution. 12. Investment and Trade Indian industry, Government and professional managers are now experienced enough to deal with foreign companies on an equal footing, and channel direct foreign investment in desired directions. Foreign companies often bring access to advanced technological know-how, without which the nation cannot advance. The Congress Government will formulate a pragmatic policy channelling foreign investment into areas important to the national interest. Every effort must be made also to encourage Indians who are outside India to invest in the industry, trade and real estate of their homeland. Because of the protected and inflationary domestic market, Indian industry has become complacent and the incentive for industrial exports has been weakened. When all production is comfortably absorbed at home, Indian industry makes the effort to venture into exports only as a last resort. This must change. A Congress Government will liberalize and deregulate industry to make it competitive and export-oriented, keeping in mind always the interests of the Indian consumer in commercial policy. Export-oriented and predictable commercial policies will be encouraged. Existing procedural constraints and bottlenecks will be removed. Quotas and tariffs will be rationalized. Thrust areas for export-development will be identified and monitored. Efforts will be made to develop a South Asian Community. Trade and economic cooperation among South Asian countries must be increased and simplified.”

This March 22 1991 draft of the Congress’s intended economic policies got circulated and discussed, and from it rumours and opinions appeared that Congress was planning to launch a major economic reform in India. Economic Times said the manifesto “is especially notable for its economic agenda” and Business Standard said “if party manifestos decide election battles” Congress must be “considered home and dry”. A senior IMF official told me three years later the manifesto had indeed seemed a radical and bold move in the direction of progress, which had been exactly our intended effect.

When I met Manmohan Singh at the residence of S. S. Ray in September 1993 in Washington, Ray told him and his senior aides the Congress manifesto had been written on my computer. Manmohan Singh smiled and said that when Arjun Singh and other senior members of the Congress had challenged him in the cabinet, he had pointed to the manifesto. Yet, oddly enough, while the March 22 draft got discussed and circulated, and the Indian economic reform since July 1991 corresponded in fundamental ways to its contents as reproduced above, the actual published Congress manifesto in April 1991 was as tepid and rhetorical as usual, as if some party hack had before publication put in the usual nonsense about e.g. bringing down inflation via price-controls. Certainly the published manifesto was wholly undistinguished in its economic aspects, and had nothing in it to correspond to the bold change of attitude towards economic policy that actually came to be signalled by the 1991 Government.

On March 23, our group was to meet Rajiv at noon. There was to be an event in the inner lawns of Rajiv’s residence in the morning, where he would launch Krishna Rao’s book on India’s security. Krishna Rao had expressly asked me to come but I had to wait outside the building patiently, not knowing if it was a mistake or if it was deliberate. This was politics after all, and I had ruffled feathers during my short time there. While I waited, Rajiv was speaking to a farmers’ rally being held at grounds adjoining his residence, and there appeared to be thousands of country folk who had gathered to hear him. When it was over, Rajiv, smiling nervously and looking extremely uncomfortable, was hoisted atop people’s shoulders and carried back to the residence by his audience. As I watched, my spine ran cold at the thought that any killer could have assassinated him with ease in that boisterous crowd, right there in the middle of Delhi outside his own residence. It was as if plans for his security had been drawn up without any strategic thinking underlying them.

Krishna Rao arrived and graciously took me inside for his book launch. The event was attended by the Congress’s top brass, including Narasimha Rao whom I met for the first time, as well as foreign military attaches and officers of the Indian armed forces. The attaché of one great power went about shaking hands and handing out his business card to everyone. I stood aside and watched. Delhi felt to me that day like a sieve, as if little could be done without knowledge of the embassies. One side wanted to sell arms, aircraft or ships, while the other wanted trips abroad or jobs or green cards or whatever for their children. And I thought Islamabad would be worse — could India and Pakistan make peace in this fetid ether?

Proceedings began when Rajiv arrived. This elite audience mobbed him just as the farmers had mobbed him earlier. He saw me and beamed a smile in recognition, and I smiled back but made no attempt to draw near him in the crush. He gave a short very apt speech on the role the United Nations might have in the new post-Gulf War world. Then he launched the book, and left for an investiture at Rashtrapati Bhavan.

We waited for our meeting with him, which finally happened in the afternoon. Rajiv was plainly at the point of exhaustion and still hard-pressed for time. He seemed pleased to see me and apologized for not talking in the morning. Regarding the March 22 draft, he said he had not read it but that he would be doing so. He said he expected the central focus of the manifesto to be on economic reform, and an economic point of view in foreign policy, and in addition an emphasis on justice and the law courts. I remembered our September 18 conversation and had tried to put in justice and the courts into our draft but had been over-ruled by others. I now said the social returns of investment in the judiciary were high but was drowned out again. Rajiv was clearly agitated that day by the BJP and blurted out he did not really feel he understood what on earth they were on about. He said about his own family, “We’re not religious or anything like that, we don’t pray every day.” I felt again what I had felt before, that here was a tragic hero of India who had not really wished to be more than a happy family man until he reluctantly was made into a national leader against his will. We were with him for an hour or so. As we were leaving, he said quickly at the end of the meeting he wished to see me on my own and would be arranging a meeting. One of our group was staying back to ask him a favour. Just before we left, I managed to say to him what I felt was imperative: “The Iraq situation isn’t as it seems, it’s a lot deeper than it’s been made out to be.” He looked at me with a serious look and said “Yes I know, I know.” It was decided Pitroda would be in touch with each of us in the next 24 hours. During this time Narasimha Rao’s manifesto committee would read the draft and any questions they had would be sent to us. We were supposed to be on call for 24 hours. The call never came. Given the near total lack of system and organization I had seen over the months, I was not surprised. Krishna Rao and I waited another 48 hours, and then each of us left Delhi. Before going I dropped by to see Krishnamurty, and we talked at length. He talked especially about the lack of the idea of teamwork in India. Krishnamurty said he had read everything I had written for the group and learned a lot. I said that managing the economic reform would be a critical job and the difference between success and failure was thin.

I got the afternoon train to Calcutta and before long left for America to bring my son home for his summer holidays with me. In Singapore, the news suddenly said Rajiv Gandhi had been killed. All India wept. What killed him was not merely a singular act of criminal terrorism, but the system of humbug, incompetence and sycophancy that surrounds politics in India and elsewhere. I was numbed by rage and sorrow, and did not return to Delhi. Eleven years later, on 25 May 2002, press reports said “P. V. Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh lost their place in Congress history as architects of economic reforms as the Congress High command sponsored an amendment to a resolution that had laid credit at the duo’s door. The motion was moved by…. Digvijay Singh asserting that the reforms were a brainchild of the late Rajiv Gandhi and that the Rao-Singh combine had simply nudged the process forward.” Rajiv’s years in Government, like those of Indira Gandhi, were in fact marked by profligacy and the resource cost of poor macroeconomic policy since bank-nationalisation may be as high as Rs. 125 trillion measured in 1994 rupees. Certainly though it was Rajiv Gandhi as Leader of the Opposition in his last months who was the principal architect of the economic reform that came to begin after his passing.”

 rajiv_gandhi Rajiv Gandhi 20 August 1944- 21 May 1991

. See also


Nandan Nilekani’s Nonsensical Numbering (Updated to 11 January 2013)

Original post: 14 Sep 2009

I have been a rather harsh critic of Indian English-language media but I was pleased to see Mr Karan Thapar with good research systematically expose the other day the nonsense being purveyed by Mr Nandan Nilekani about the idea of branding each of a billion Indians with a government number. This is not Auschwitz.   Nor can India create an American-style Social Security Administration.  Mr Nilekani seems not to have the faintest idea about India’s poor and destitute, else he would not have made a statement like “We need one single, non-duplicate way of identifying a person and we need a mechanism by which we can authenticate that online anywhere because that can have huge benefits and impact on public services and also on making the poor more inclusive in what is happening in India today.”  (italics added)

What does he plan to do?  Haul away the hundreds of thousands of  homeless from the streets  and  flyovers of our major cities and start interrogating, measuring, photographing and fingerprinting them against their will?  On what ploy?  That without the number  he will give them they will not be able to continue to live and do what they have been doing for half a generation?  Or that they will get a delicious hot meal from the Taj or Oberoi if they cooperate?  And what about rural India?  Does he plan to make an aerial survey of India’s rural landscapes by helicopter to find whom he can catch to interrogate and fingerprint? It will be grotesquely amusing to see his cohorts try to identify and then haul away India’s poor from their normal activities — he and his friends will likely come to grief trying to do so!  Guaranteed.  And the people will cheer because they know fakery when they see it.

Mr Nilekani needs to ask his economist-friends to teach him about asymmetric information, incentive-compatiblity theory etc.  There have been several  Bank of Sweden prizes given to economists for this material, beginning with FA Hayek in 1974 or even earlier.

(As for the wholly different stated agenda of preventing crime and terrorism using Mr Nilekani’s numbering, might we recall that Kasab’s dead companions have remained unclaimed in a Mumbai morgue for almost ten months now?)

The whole exercise that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has with such fanfare set Mr Nilekani is ill-conceived and close to complete nonsense  — designed only to keep in business the pampered industry that Mr Nilekani has been part of as well as its bureaucratic friends.   The Prime Minister has made another error and should put a stop to it before it gets worse.   The poor have their privacy and their dignity.    They are going to refuse to waste their valuable time  at the margins of survival volunteering for such gimmickry.

A Discussion Regarding Mr Nilekani’s Public Project

September 15, 2009 — drsubrotoroy | Edit

In response to my “Nandan Nilekani’s Nonsensical Numbering”,

Friendly Critic says:

I don’t think registering everyone in the country is such a bad idea. It may be difficult. But the post office reaches letters to anyone in the country, even the homeless. I don’t think it is doing anything wrong.

I replied:

The post office reaches letters to those with an address.

Friendly Critic replied:

You are mistaken. It reaches letters to beggars, addressed to the nearest pan shop. To repeat, I do not think it is wrong to register all residents; there are some good uses for it. If it is all right to enumerate residents once every ten years, there is nothing wrong in maintaining a continuous inventory. Only the British have an aversion to doing so, on grounds of piracy. But even their electoral registers are based on enumeration. And to attack Nilekani simply because he has taken on a job offered seems excessive to me.

I replied:

Thanks for this correspondence.  We may be slightly at cross-purposes and there may be some miscomprehension.  Of course if a beggar has a pan-shop as an address, that is an address.   But we are not talking about the efficiency or lack thereof of our postal services.

We are talking about the viability and utility of trying to attach a number, as an identification tag, to every Indian — for the declared purposes of (a) battling absolute poverty (of the worst kind); and(b) battling terrorism and crime.

Many Indians have passports, driving licenses, Voter cards,  PAN numbers, mobile numbers etc.    I am sure giving them a Nandan Nilekani Number will be easy.  It will be, incidentally, lucrative for the IT industry.

It will also be pointless to the extent that these people, who may number into the hundreds of millions, are already adequately identifiable by one or two other forms of photo id-cards.   (By way of analogy incidentally, Americans used to cash cheques at supermarkets using one or two photo ids — but the Social Security Card or number was not allowed to be one of them as it had no photo.)

Neither of the two declared objectives will have been explicitly served by giving Nandan Nilekani Numbers to those already adequately identifiable.

My point about incentive-compatibility is that the intended beneficiaries in any program of this kind (namely the anonymous absolute poor) need to have clear natural incentives to participate in order to make it work.  Here there are none.  Taking the very poorest people off the streets or out of their hamlets to be interrogated, photographed, fingerprinted and enumerated against their will, when they may have many more valuable things to be doing with their time in order to survive, is a violation of their freedom, privacy and dignity.   Even if they submit to all this voluntarily, there are no obvious tangible benefits accruing to them as individuals as a result of this number (that many will not be able to read).

If those already adequately identifiable easily get an NNN (at low cost and without violation of indvidual freedom or dignity), while those who are the intended beneficiaries do not do so (except at high cost and with violations of individual freedom and dignity), that would enhance inequality.

Because such obvious points have failed to be accounted ab initio in this Big Business scheme paid for by public money, I have had to call it nonsensical.

Some follow-up  11 January 2013

From Facebook 11 January 2013

A biometrically generated large number is given to a very poor barely literate person and he/she is instructed that that is the key, the *sole* key, to riches and benefits from the state. The person lives on the margins of survival, eking out a daily income for himself/herself plus dependents under trying conditions. It is that absolute anonymous poor — who are *not* already identifiable easily through mobile numbers, voter id cards, drivers’ licenses etc — who are the intended beneficiaries. Suppose that person loses the card or has it stolen. Has the key to the riches and benefits from the state vanished? Those who are already easily identifiable need only produce alternative sources of identification and so for them to get the number as a means of identification is redundant, yet it is they who will likely have better access to the supposed benefits rather than the absolute poor. What New Delhi’s governing class fails to see is that the masses of India’s poor are not themselves a mass waiting for New Delhi’s handouts: they are *individuals*, free, rational, thinking individuals who know their own lives and resources and capacities and opportunities, and how to go about living their lives best. What they need is security, absence of state or other tyranny, roads, fresh water, electricity, functioning schools for their children, market opportunities for work, etc, not handouts from a monarch or aristocrats or businessmen….

Memo to GoI CLB: India discovered the Zero, and 51% of Zero is still Zero

We in India are justly proud to have once discovered the Zero, which arose, as far as I recall, from a philosophical notion of possible Nothingness (Shunya), though of course there is a long history that came to follow in Indian mathematics.

The Government of India’s Company Law Board (and the pompous honchos they have gone about appointing here and there) may need to be reminded that by any system of mathematics, 51% of Zero still remains, uhmmmm, Zero.

Bankrupt companies get sold for nominal prices like Rs 100 or perhaps $2.  But of course it is not impossible a notorious Government contractor or two will pump money in as a backdoor public subsidy aimed at creating a zombie.

Subroto Roy

Kasab, the young misguided Pakistani mass-murdering terrorist, needs to be given political asylum in India! (Matt Damon, Will Smith: here’s a real-life case!)

Life imitates art or rather Hollywood again as young Kasab, the misguided primary-school dropout Pakistani mass-murdering terrorist caught by Indian police after the Mumbai massacres,  becomes a kind of Jason-Bourne/Enemy-of-the-State character who is said to be being targeted now by Pakistan’s terrorist masterminds for not being dead already! There have been all kinds of weird assassinations by and of government agents using poisoned umbrellas and radioactive pills etc in real life, and who is to say that young Kasab is not going to be given a small cyanide capsule along with a letter of farewell from his parents when His Excellency the High Commissioner’s consular agents receive access to him?

Shortly after Kasab’s remorseful confessions (which flowed from his natural gratitude at having survived and having been treated humanely by Mumbai’s police), I said here that if I was the judge trying him, I would send him to an Indian prison for 20 or 30 years (given his 20 or 30 murder victims), but I would add that he should be occasionally, say once a year, permitted to offer namaz at India’s grandest mosques. He could become a model prisoner,  possibly a potent weapon against Pakistan’s terrorist masterminds who have ruined his life and now wish him dead.

(Message to Matt Damon, Will Smith and assorted Hollywood cinematic personalities:  there is a confessed, remorseful mass-murdering 20-year old Pakistani terrorist in an Indian prison who is being targeted by the very people who sent him on his vile mission.)

In present circumstances, young Kasab needs to seek political asylum in the Indian Republic as his life in his own Pakistan Republic is as good as over for political reasons. He would become the first person ever in history to receive political asylum in a country that he attacked despite being a confessed terrorist mass-murderer.   But Mahatma Gandhi would have approved and smiled at the irony of it all!  Ahimsa paramo dharmaha in practice.


RAND’s study of the Mumbai attacks

RAND’s study of the Mumbai attacks


Subroto Roy  January 25 2009

The conspicuously good thing that can be said about the RAND Corporation’s study of the Mumbai massacres (“The Lessons of Mumbai”, RAND January 2009) is that there is no sign of it having been affected by the powerful Pakistan lobby.  Far too many purported studies emerging from American or British “thinktanks” cannot say the same.

If anything, the ten American authors of the 25-pages of the RAND text have among them two prominent advocates of better US-India relations.  This is helpful to truthfulness because of the simple fact India has been in this case a victim of aggression that originated in Pakistan. Whether elements of the Pakistan Government were involved is almost the wrong question – if some retired underemployed former soldier drawing a Pakistan Army pension helped the Lashkar-e-Taiba’s commando training of the Mumbai terrorists, the existence of Pakistani state involvement is proved. Commando training requires technical skills of a sort that can only originate with a military.

In Pakistan as in any other large populous country including India, the state tends to be a hydra-headed monster and it may be foolish to imagine instead a rational, unified, well-informed or even a benevolent political entity.  State involvement in Pakistan, India, China or elsewhere is something hard to isolate when there is so much mixing of private and public property or misuse of resources arising from the public exchequer.

What Pakistan’s PR campaign has done after Mumbai is not so much raise the Kashmir dispute as to obfuscate things by shedding crocodile tears and pretending to share victimhood saying, oh we sympathise with you but please sympathise with us too as we have been victims of even bigger terrorist attacks by the same kind of people, we have lost Benazir, we have lost many more people than you have, therefore  cooperate with us and we will try to do what we can to help you in this matter.  English-speaking liberals educated at places like Karachi Grammar School have then appeared on Indian TV stations (owned by Delhi people from places like Doon School) purporting to represent Pakistan on “the Mumbai incident”; none of them can have much credibility because the real India-haters in Pakistan might cheerfully make them murder victims too given half a chance.

The RAND study deserves credit for avoiding all misleading Pakistani rhetoric about the Mumbai massacres and at least intending to try to get to the bottom of things in a systematic manner.  Beyond that, unfortunately, it has made logical and factual and methodological errors which cause it to fail to do so.

The key logical error made by the RAND authors arises from combining a central front-page statement

“Evidence suggests Lashkar-e-Taiba, a terrorist group based in Pakistan, was responsible for the attack”

with assertive suggestions about Mumbai’s police being backward, incompetent, cowardly etc (“passive”).  Yet how precisely did evidence about LeT culpability come to light?  Only because Mumbai’s police and the Railway police engaged, injured and then captured Kasab using their antiquated equipment the best they could.  There is no evidence of police cowardice at CST Station; to the contrary, it took courage to aim .303’s at adversaries firing back with assault rifles.  Kasab received his first hand injury there. ATS Chief Karkare and his fellow-officers may seem foolhardy in hindsight to have been driving in the same vehicle but they did engage their unknown enemy immediately they could and died doing so, crippling Kasab badly enough that he could be captured in due course at Chowpatty.  [Correction: it appears that though Kasab was fired upon by the police at CST Station  he  received both his hand injuries from the firing by the ATS squad.] And the Chowpatty police action showed obvious bravery in absorbing injury and death in order to kill Ishmail and capture Kasab.  (Kasab, among the youngest, had been paired with Ishmail, the apparent leader of the group.)

Furthermore, Kasab upon capture was treated humanely and lawfully.  His injuries were treated, he was produced before a magistrate within a week who asked him if he was being mistreated to which he said no.  Slumdog millionaire may get undeserved Oscars portraying torture of a British actor by Mumbai police but it is ridiculous fiction – Kasab the captured Pakistani terrorist mass murderer was not tortured by Mumbai’s police.

Contrast such Indian police behaviour with the “enhanced interrogation techniques” the Bush Administration used with negative results in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib – which President Obama has now started to end.  Kasab, an ignorant misguided youth, was grateful enough for the humane and civilized treatment to start singing like the proverbial canary.  The result of that has been precisely all the evidence the Government of India has now presented to the world and Pakistan about the LeT’s culpability.

As for the anti-terrorist actions of the Indian Army, Navy and NSG, the RAND study is right to point to multitudinous errors and it is useful to have these listed in orderly fashion.  But many of these errors were obvious to millions of lay Indian citizens who watched events on TV.  The central fault was the scarcity of trained NSG officers and men, and the failure to apply standard emergency management protocols.

The RAND study, by relying overly on government sources, has failed to point to what ordinary Indian citizens already know – the NSG is being utterly wasted protecting our politicians.  India has no proper equivalent of the US “Secret Service”, and even if we did, we would probably waste that by spreading it too thinly among politicians.  As it happens if almost any politician in India today did happen to be unfortunately assassinated, the main mourners would be family-members and not the general Indian public.  Despite politicians constituting rather “low-value targets” for terrorists, India’s scarce anti-terrorist and police resources have been misallocated to protecting them.

Finally, the RAND study makes the lazy-man’s methodological error of supposing outfits like the LeT think and behave in a manner explicable by American political science textbooks, or ought to do so.  What Western analysts may need to do instead is learn from the old Arabist and Orientalist traditions of how to think and see the world from Eastern points of view.    But that may require greater self-knowledge than the modern world tends to permit.


My December 6 2008 analysisA Quick Comparison Between the September 11 2001 NYC-Washington attacks and the November 26-28 2008 Mumbai Massacres (An Application of the Case-by-Case Philosophical  Technique of Wittgenstein, Wisdom and Bambrough)” is republished below.  I have corrected “Rome Airport” with “Lod Airport” on the basis of  reading the RAND report, though may not have received the courtesy of aknowledement for the reminder of the  Japanese Red Army attack.


“In my book Philosophy of Economics (Routledge, 1989) and in my August 24  2004 public lecture  in England  “Science,  Religion, Art and the Necessity of Freedom”, both available elsewhere here, I described the “case-by-case” philosophical technique recommended by Ludwig Wittgenstein, John Wisdom and Renford Bambrough.  (Bambrough had also shown a common root in the work of the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce.)   Herewith an application of the technique to a contemporary problem that shows the “family resemblance” between two modern terrorist attacks, the September 11 2001 attack on New York and Washington and the Mumbai massacres last week.

Similarity:  In both, a gang of motivated youthful terrorists acted as a team against multiple targets; their willingness to accept  suicide while indulging in mass-murder may have, bizarrely enough, brought a sense of adventure and meaning to otherwise empty lives.

Difference: In the 9/11 attacks, Mohammad Atta seemed to have been a single predominant leader while each of the others also had complex active roles requiring decisions, like piloting and navigating hijacked jumbo-jets.  In the Mumbai massacres, the training and leadership apparently came from outside the team before and even during the operation  – almost as if the team were acting like brainwashed robots under long-distance control.

Similarity:  Both attacks required a long prior period of training and planning.

Difference: The 9/11 attacks did not require commando-training imparted by military-style trainers; the Mumbai massacres did.

Difference: In the 9/11 attacks, the actual weapons used initially were primitive, like box-cutters; in the Mumbai massacres, assault rifles and grenades were used along with sophisticated telecommunications equipment.

Difference: In 9/11, the initial targets, the hijacked aircraft, were themselves made into weapons against the ultimate targets, namely the buildings, in a way not seen before.  In the Mumbai massacres, mass-shooting of terrorized civilians was hardly something original; besides theatres of war, the Baader-Meinhof gang and the Japanese Red Army used these in the 1970s as terrorist techniques (e.g. at Rome Airport  Lod Airport; Postscript January 26 2009: I make this correction after reading and commenting on the RAND study which unfortunately  did not have the courtesy of acknowledging my December 6 2008 analysis) plus there were, more recently, the Columbine and Virginia Tech massacres.

Similarity: In both cases, Hollywood and other movie scripts could have inspired the initial ideas of techniques to be  used.

Similarity: In both cases, the weapons used were appropriate to the anticipated state of defence: nothing more than box-cutters could be expected to get by normal airport security; assault rifles etc could come in by the unguarded sea and attack soft targets in Mumbai.  (Incidentally, even this elementary example of strategic thinking  in a practical situation may be beyond the analytical capacity contained in the tons of waste paper produced at American and other modern university Economics departments under the rubric of  “game theory”.)

Similarity: In both cases, a high-level of widespread fear was induced for several days or more within a targeted nation-state by a small number of people.

Similarity: No ransom-like demands were made by the terrorists in either case.

Similarity: Had the single terrorist not been captured alive in the Mumbai massacres, there would have been little trace left by the attackers.

Difference: The 9/11 attackers knew definitely they were on suicide-missions; the Mumbai attackers may not have done and may have imagined an escape route.”


Satyam and IT-firms in general may be good candidates to become “Labour-Managed” firms

Satyam may be able to summarily solve the problems caused by its high-level corporate fraud by transforming itself into a “Labour-Managed Firm”.

One of the new Government-appointed board members has stated publicly today that the company has little or no debt.  If this is true it would be interesting because not only were the vast cash-assets non-existent, the liabilities-side of the balance-sheet also may be small, which could mean the company was simply far smaller in terms of value than it had made itself out to be.  In a bankrupt firm, the remaining assets normally come to belong to the creditors but what if the main creditors happen to be the work-force?  If that is in fact the situation in this case, Satyam may be a prime candidate to be transformed into a “Labour-Managed Firm” of the sort discussed by Jaroslav Vanek (The General Theory of Labour Managed Firms and Market Economies, 1970) and James Meade (The theory of the labour-managed firm and profit-sharing, Economic Journal 1972), and surveyed by e.g. Louis Putterman in the New Palgrave Dictionary and by Martin Ricketts in The Economics of Business Enterprise 2003.

As I had briefly mentioned earlier here, the transition could be made by Satyam’s existing  technical and other staff being allowed to participate (with their personal savings and claims to future income) in any auction of the “works-in-progress” that constitute the client contracts the company presently has around the world and which constitute its major intangible asset.   This may be the single best way to preserve the firm’s value as well as the income-streams of its staff.

The staff would have to make a transition from being employees to becoming self-managers which may not be easy in practice, although in theory the information-technology industry may be well-suited to labour-managed firms given the peculiarly intangible nature of their products.  The marginal cost of production of (true) information is typically very high but the marginal cost of dissemination of information  is near- zero.

If this happened and a corrupt bankrupt Satyam-I transformed itself into a viable Labour-Managed Satyam-II, the newly appointed board would become redundant even more quickly than it would have done otherwise — though this board may be even less likely to know of Vanek and Meade than to be familiar with modern corporate finance.  Time perhaps to hit the textbooks, gentlemen, and burn that midnight candle!  Is that something we can expect from some of the key lobbyists of India’s organized business sector?

Subroto Roy

Postscript  1 :  Of course if the asset-side has been fraudulently exaggerated while the liabilities-side has been small, the fraud has been directly perpetrated on equity-holders who held stock that was overvalued  by the market as a direct result of the fraud.

Postscript 2:  I find (grotesquely) amusing the new found emphasis on “Independent Directors” in view of the obvious fraud in the advertised biographies of some rather notorious Independent Directors in the IT-business and other sectors of corporate India and the higher bureaucracy!   There seems in fact to have been a wild hyperinflation of reputations generally, especially in Delhi,  Mumbai,  Bangalore, Pune and other such hip with-it places  — people claiming to have earned PhDs when they have none,  people calling themselves “Dr” on the basis of some defunct Soviet management institute  having once paid them off, people claiming to be Harvard postgraduates on the basis of  some outsourced executive development programme of a few weeks’ duration, people claiming academic publications and academic affiliations which are non-existent, etc etc.   All that for another day!  (But any former students of mine who may find the above pertinent to themselves may please know their old prof is cross with them! Tsk tsk!)  (And then there was the one of the senior government economic planner who told his astrologer on the  telephone his correct date  of birth but had lied to the Government of India by a couple of years…. clearly he did not want to get his own Ptolomaic horoscope wrong even if his plans for India in the Copernican world went awry!)

And now for the Great Satyam Whitewash/CoverUp/Public Subsidy! The wrong Minister appoints the wrong new Board who, probably, will choose the wrong policy

The old Satyam, call it Satyam-I, is dead.  It was a “Limited Liability” company which means its ordinary shareholders can walk away with zero value and not be personally liable to pay the creditors and preferred shareholders (who are and ought to be considered its new owners).  “Satyam” as a brand name, a logo and a trademark might be salvageable after a reconstitution in due course.

Besides physical plant, fixed assets and other similar tangible things, the main assets of Satyam-I consist of “works-in-progress”, namely all the existing ongoing contracts around the world.  What should happen is that all these contracts — while maintaining client confidentiality (e.g. by using generic terminology) — should be auctioned off to other similar IT companies, big or small.

Satyam-I’s existing technical staff associated with these ongoing contracts can go with them to the new buyers (with the new buyers negotiating individual wage contracts).

Alternatively, existing staff can offer to participate too in such auctions themselves as buyers and use their personal savings to buy off old Satyam contracts.

All the proceeds from such auctions should go to a trust fund that Satyam-I’s liquidator  should use to pay off  the creditors, or at least come to an agreement with creditors about a future structure of payments.  If assets have been siphoned off or misused or embezzled by the previous owners and management, then these need to be pursued and located and retrieved to the extent possible.  (Some reports say there has been some transmutation into real estate and some transfers abroad).

If all this happened, there might be a Satyam-II or New Satyam some years down the road which can use the same brand-name and logo and trademark comfortably again.

But not much of this seems likely to happen.  The best thing this Minister could have done was to have turned in his papers saying that the problem was beyond his intellectual capacity as he had never done a course in Corporate Finance.  Instead he has appointed three persons  whom he considers “eminent”.   One has been involved with the software lobby and another with the real estate business (and associated with the idea of using India’s forex reserves for “infrastructure”, not realizing  forex reserves are hardly like tax revenues).  As things stand presently, this Board, themselves unfamiliar with standard  modern textbook Corporate Finance, and far too close to the previous Board, is unlikely to take the right decisions because such decisions will require more intellectual and moral effort than may be forthcoming.

Instead they will probably lobby hard for a vast public subsidy to be injected into the financial corpse that is Satyam-I, so that a zombie company can attempt to be resurrected (we  in India have many such zombies walking around in the organised business sector).

The PM who is also now his own Finance Minister has, in his long career as a top economic bureaucrat and a politician, never met a public subsidy he did not like or approve of.   So watch out for a billion or two dollars of public money in India injected into the corpse, adding to India’s vast and growing public debt.  Parliament will hardly disapprove when the PM and his acolytes soon announce it in unison.

Ask yourself then how such a vast public subsidy can possibly benefit ordinary Indian people who live in, say, Imphal, Agartala, Ajmer,  Lalitpur or Balasore, or even Guntur and Telengana.   The answer is that it won’t — it will hurt them and their succeeding generations for decades.  Such has been the pattern of economic-policy making in India whether under this political party or that; it is organised lobbies, especially organized business as represented on this new Board, that call the shots. The relatively few people who can convert Indian rupees into forex do so with impunity while the vast unknowing masses continue to use a currency damaged by waste, fraud and abuse.

Jail terms for the Rajus and their friends?  Hmmmm.  Perhaps the few weeks or months that are due to wealthy criminals.

Somebody in Delhi yesterday apparently told the visiting Cambridge Vice Chancellor that Kolkata “does not count”;   to the contrary, it is New Delhi that remains entirely bankrupt intellectually and morally, and that bankruptcy will continue to be revealed in coping with Satyam’s bankruptcy.

Subroto Roy

Postcript:  The above was written and published here before the new Board’s press-meet.  Nothing the Board said has given reason to alter the opinion above.  Rather, the Board seemed exceptionally dull in failing to see that once the new accountants have done their work, it seems likely if not inevitable that Satyam’s balance-sheet calls for “winding up” in the Indian term, i.e. declaring bankruptcy.   The news that the Government of Inda would also likely subsidise Satyam with public resources also confirms the dismal state of economic policy-making described above. SR., 1830 hrs, Jan 12.