Econ Mom meets the State Election Commissioner

Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics is doing a research project with the State Election Commission on Maharashtra. The idea is to create some academic understanding of the dynamics of local elections that happen under the Panchayati Raj Institutions. Given my political economy leanings, I have been working on this closely. The entire team has been on it, reading, researching, talking to stake holders, meeting with political scientists. We are yet to go on field though, for the survey.

So when we received a call from the Election Commission for a meeting in Mumbai, the agenda of which was to finalize the survey proceedings, I was really excited. Excited, that finally the survey can start. My experience so far tells me that 2 days on the field are worth 2 weeks spent in literature review; any survey is a huge growth curve for any economist and I came home from work, happy and excited.

Lil One met me at the door with a worried face. “It’s unit tests next week. And I have English and Civics on Monday,” he declared, glum at the prospect of studying over the weekend. I stared at him in horror. “Monday?”I said. “I have to go to Mumbai on Monday!”

“Mom, please teach me Civics over the weekend. I hate it and I really don’t understand it!”

Gawd! Ohk, so I browsed through his textbook and was amused to find that he was to write an exam on Democracy and Elections on Monday, the same day when I was to meet the Election Commissioner.

“Okay, fill in the blanks,” I said in a crisp teaching tone. “Holding ……and …….. elections in India is a corner stone of Indian democracy.”

“Ummm….political and five-yearly?”

Startled, I said with gritted teeth, “Free and fair. We need free elections; anyone can contest and any citizen can vote. Also, they should be fair. Your teacher is definitely going to ask this in fill in the blanks. Free and fair, okay?”

Lil One said, “Okay, chill! I don’t understand why that RIT helps in controlling corruption.”

“Okay, firstly, that’s RTI. Right to Information. So if we pay taxes for building a road and the road is built poorly, then I have a right to information. I can ask our corporator which company constructed this road. Why did you give my tax money to people who are not experts in construction? Why was my tax money wasted on this excuse for a road?” I said, my voice steadily climbing as I glared at a cupboard, imagining it to be our corporator.

Lil One was impressed. “Did you really ask him that?”

God! Corporator vanished, leaving behind the wooden cupboard and me, with an equally wooden expression. “I am only giving you an example. I didn’t ask him, but I can. And the fact that people can, scares corporators into behaving.”

We ploughed through the election process over the weekend, both of us preparing for our respective tests on Monday.

Monday arrived. I left early morning for Mumbai, before Lil One was up. At 7:30 a.m. my phone rang. It was Lil One. “I have to go to school in 5 minutes. I just saw this one and I don’t know the answer. Answer in one sentence. What are the roles and duties of the Election Commission?” he wailed into the phone.

“Ask Dad,” I was tempted to yell back from my end. Control!

“Ok, that’s simple, right? Holding free and fair elections every 5 years is the duty of the Election Commission!”

“Oh! Is that it? Brilliant! Thanks, Mom! You are the best!” Lil One hung up happily to climb into his school bus on time, courtesy Hubby, who can be tough competition to any politician in making promises he cannot deliver on, but seemed to have done his bit Monday morning.

Well, at the State Election Commission’s office, we ploughed through and struggled through the details of the survey. Which talukas, how many districts to be surveyed. We argued about the type of methodology that would be followed; these arguments and detailing with the client often helps us to fine tune our research proposals.

Finally, once we had sufficiently detailed the proposal, it was time to meet with the Commissioner to report the latest and take his comments too on the upcoming survey work.

The Commissioner, as always, was very positive. “I have only two major instructions to give as you begin the field work,” he said.

“The first is that we want to be involved into this work on a daily basis. So please stay in touch with our team here. If some Government officials refuse to co-operate, just call us and it will be handled.”

“Secondly and most importantly, there are laws that create the framework for Panchayati elections. But sometimes, the law is silent on things. That is where I have to frame rules or pass administrative orders so that proper action can be taken. If you come across any such instance, I want to know directly about it.”

He could read from our faces that the second point had not been understood properly.

“Let me give you an example. There is a law that states that every candidate must do asset declaration at the time of filing nomination papers. We later extended this to 6 months. So an elected Panchayat member has to file his papers within 6 months of getting elected. This is what the law says. The law tells us what should or what ought to happen. But there was an instance in which this gentleman refused to submit the documents even after 6 months. Now can he be removed from his position? The law is silent. It is here that the role of the Election Commission is important. I cannot create laws; that is a function of the Government. But if a law is silent on something harming the spirit of democracy and elections, the Commission has been given powers to pass an administrative order and the Government HAS to obey it.”

“There’s another interesting example. According to the Panchayat Act, every member filing nomination has to have a toilet in his home and has to be a user of the facility. Only the Gram Sabha can give verification of this. However, there is a village where the Gram Sabha did not meet at all before the election! So who verifies this fact? The law is again silent on what to do if the Gram Sabha does not meet. So we passed an order mandating that Gram Sabhas meet before elections.”

“So, the Election Commission’s role stretches into anything that helps the process of democracy along.” We sat there, taking notes, listening carefully, appreciating the wisdom that higher Government officials have.

And then the Commissioner said something that jerked me out completely from my quiet thought zone. “My role is not to hold just elections,” he suddenly said aggressively.

“WHAT?” I thought, thinking madly about the survey, economics, research methodology, toilet blocks, Gram Sabhas and incredibly, Lil One, all at the same time.

Looking at my disturbed countenance, he said with a serious tone, “My role is to hold free and fair elections in this state. And hold it, I will. Whatever it takes, will be done.”

I smiled quietly at the way he emphasized the words to me, pretty much like I had emphasized them to Lil One over the weekend. My mind was buzzing. What an incredibly complicated role the Commission plays, I was thinking.

After the meeting was over, I told him that Lil One is studying the role of the Election Commission, but doesn’t quite believe that I know the Commissioner. Would the Commissioner agree to a photograph?

The entire Commission broke into laughter and joined me for a wonderful photo-shoot post-meeting.

I left for Pune in the afternoon. My mind was still mulling over the things I’d learnt in the morning. The processes, the laws, the Government creating laws to create a Commission, which can then create machinery that controls the Government.

How does one put into one simple sentence all of the machinery that these folks have created and upheld in order to protect the election processes in Maharashtra, and in India too? Just then, my cell phone buzzed. It was Lil One, back from school.

“I am getting full marks in Civics, Mom. They had asked us such simple things in the paper,” he said pompously. “Answer in one sentence. What are the duties of the Election Commission? Hmph. So simple.”

“What did you write?” I squawked suddenly into the phone, conscious that this is one thing that cannot possibly be put into one sentence.

“I wrote that holding free and fair elections in India to uphold the true spirit of democracy is the duty of the Election Commission. Correct, Ma?”

Full points on that one. Even the Commissioner would agree.

——————————————————————————————

The photograph on the blog is the one post-meeting. From R to L, that’s Deepak Negi from Association for Democratic Reforms, Hemant Wasekar from Yashada, Mr. Saharia, State Election Commissioner, me representing the Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics, Mr. Pradeep Vyas, Secretary, Election Commission, Ms. Chaitra Redkar from SNDT, Mr. Surya Krishnamurty, Assistant Commissioner and Sanjay Patil, Political Science Department, Mumbai University.

 

Advertisements

Econ Mom on Orchids and Fiscal Consolidation

After experimenting with almost all the regulars (coriander, lemons, spinach, chillies, roses, pansies, radishes, mustard) one can grow in a terrace garden, we are now proud parents to a couple of beautiful orchids. And these babies are fussy.

When we got our first orchid home, there was a lot of excitement as we tried to figure out the optimal place for it. Place it too much in light and the leaves turn light green. Too less light and the leaves turn dark green.

After the first week, our baby orchid had only two leaves, one dark green and one light green. “Typical!” I said, totally frustrated with what the orchid is trying to tell me. Lil One’s eyes were already lighting up wickedly as he realized how bothered I am about this. “I totally like this plant,” he said grinning evilly at me. “It so belongs to the family. Totally weird and crazy. Orchid Phadke.”

Orchid Phadke…nice! The name stuck. We’ve also had Tomato Phadke, who grew out of what we were told are capsicum seeds. Ggggrrrrrr! And then, it wouldn’t bear fruit quickly. Lil One wickedly told me that I need to express my love for the plant more profusely than just watering and fertilizing it. So I added singing to my care routine, much to the delight of Lil One. Well, still no fruit, prompting Lil One to make rude remarks about my singing prowess. Finally, one day, in great exasperation, I actually sang a Yo-Yo Honey Singh routine to Tomato Phadke and voila! Next day, we got some pretty little buds. Aaaaaargh! The damn thing likes Yo Yo Honey Singh….Insufferable! Lil One, who lustily sings the Yo Yo songs just to get on my nerves, immediately put his stamp of approval and the plant was duly christened Tomato Phadke. Grrr!

Well, so to get back to pretty Ms. Orchid Phadke, she’s a little phalaenopsis with beautiful yellow flowers. She gave some gorgeous blooms on two flower spikes, but by now the flowers have fallen off. Now, what to do with the flower spikes after an orchid has finished flowering is a matter of great debate with orchidists. Even Milton Friedman didn’t fight Keynes that viciously.

Some believe that you can cut the spike partially, “forcing” the plant into bloom again. But then, there are others who tell you that the plant needs rest and hence if we cut the spike off completely, we’ll get new spikes and gorgeous big new blooms in the next cycle.

The Phadkes, known for their argumentative skills, got into the debate with great gusto. Oh, we read pages and pages on it and saw videos and spoke to experts. Hubby favoured giving the plant a break whilst I wanted to experiment and see whether a second spike can actually flower.

Whilst bickering over dinner as to what should be done, Lil One (I suspect with some bribing from Daddy dearest) made a surprisingly mature observation. “Well, I feel its okay not to have flowers this year if there’ll be flowers forever later. I support Dad. Let’s give Orchid Phadke a break, Mom.”

Econ Mom started. No flowers for a year, so that we can enjoy blooms for a lifetime. Accept lower performance in the short run, so that there’s more robust numbers in the long run. That’s precisely the game in the Finance Ministry currently.

It’s been playing on the news channels and on my mind too, for the past couple of days. Even as the FM crafts out the Union Budget, he’ll stick to the fiscal deficit target of 3.9% for FY16. But what should the target be for FY17? Some economists, notably Arvind Subramaniam and Mahendra Dev, have opined that the fiscal consolidation target can be softened for the next year. So, for FY17, we can actually do a fiscal deficit of 4.2% or something like that.

Now, a bigger fiscal deficit is bad news because it creates inflation and interest rate pressures in the system. Normally, the RBI would raise eyebrows right into the oily Indian hairline with such possibilities, but with oil prices smooth, the crucial link between fiscal deficit and inflation does seem to have become weaker.

Further, if we look carefully at the numbers, we find that the entire growth this fiscal is led by the Government spending. So, if the Government gets unduly fussy about spending next year, our growth rate will go down.

Add to this the fact that private investment normally follows Government spending with a lag, and you’ve got a good argument for continuing the spending by the Government. We economists sometimes get too hung up about fiscal deficits. So much so, that we miss the larger picture at times.

So, next year, we may have a higher FD. Moody’s and Fitch are bound to react with threatening sounds. Let them. FIIs may behave more treacherously than usual. Let them. We may look a bit more vulnerable on paper. That’s okay. No blooms in the next year, so that you’ve a healthy plant in the future.

Epilogue:
I cut off the flower spike completely. I feel a bit bad when I look at the plant minus its spike, but then, that’s that. And, as Lil One informed me cheerfully, “Oh, we’ll get the blooms back, Ma. And if nothing else works, there’s always Yo Yo Honey Singh!” I wonder if the FM also hums Yo Yo songs…

Hard Targets: Inside the FM’s mind!

Dear Reader,

Hi! Here’s a fun take on what must be happening to the poor FM whilst creating the Union Budget. This piece appeared under my column “Tweakonomics” which is carried by the Hindu Business Line. You can read it there at http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/hard-targets/article8093074.ece; else read it here directly.

Keep reading, keep smiling!

————————————————————————————

The Finance Minister is a worried man. It’s Budget time after all. The top season for unreasonable demands has just begun at the ministry.

On hearing that the FM met with the “captains” of the Indian industry, Mr Bedi alleged that this kind of a “cricket huddle” should not be allowed in the budgeting process. After all, the Finance Ministry is the Deep Deficit Cutting Association aka DDCA. With personal blessings from AAP, he has asked that the FM step down from this DDCA as well.

But the muffler has more to demand from the business suit. “Why is the FM suddenly backtracking on the fiscal consolidation path for the year 2016-17? We are against this. We are basically against everything that the government does. Book the Jantar Mantar for a Dharna! Be fiscally prudent, keep deficits in check. And be physically prudent, wear a muffler in Delhi.”

“Hmph! Prudent or not, he is definitely impudent,” is what the FM was thinking. But then not for nothing is our FM known for keeping his temper in the most trying of circumstances. The good man sent an entire team from Delhi School of Economics to the AAP office to teach them the basic Keynesian model. “When the private investments won’t pick up, the Government spending has to spur the system. Hence, we may have to go soft on fiscal targets next year, so that growth can be on track.” AAP reacted by sending leftists from JNU to the Finance Ministry, causing a nervous breakdown amongst the younger, innocent economists at the Ministry.

In a wild attempt to get some economic sense going, the FM gave personal assurances to AAP that fiscal targets will only be softened for those financial years ending in odd numbers. Thus, we will stick to the FY16 target of 3.9 per cent like a leech, but we go soft in FY17. AAP has finally okayed the proposal.

The NCP in the meanwhile, believes that it has a master solution for the entire macroeconomic framework. It has asked that tax exemptions be given for not only buying the second home, but also the third, fourth and fifth properties. The moment you give these exemptions, people will start buying properties. Voila! Construction will begin anew and all problems concerning low private investment levels will disappear. Not only that, but as this huge inventory of unsold houses reduces, the banking system will also become robust. This is good fiscal and monetary policy, all rolled into one. Dr Rajan, who shuddered after receiving such out-of-the-bank ideas, has said curtly that there is no need for the NCP to get worried about banks.

The UPA scion, fresh from the Europe sojourn, insists that the Indian states are like the European Union. “I know what needs to be done in the Budget! We need to have a common market and a common currency!” On being informed that we already do (just pass the GST!), the UPA has declared that all brand new ideas pertaining to Europeanising Indian markets will only be discussed on the Arnab Goswami show. Rumour is that Mr Goswami has gone into hiding and will only be seen post-Budget.

The PM has suggested from a remote location in Antarctica, that the FM incorporate a “Lambi Udaan, Sasti Udaan” Yojana to give a boost to the airline industry. Subsidies could be declared for frequent fliers.

The poor FM is left wondering how to handle flights of fancy.

The V M Dandekar Memorial Talk on Skilling India

Dear Reader,

Hi! Each year, the Symbiosis College of Arts and Commerce hosts the V. M. Dandekar Memorial talk in January. This year’s theme was “Skilling India’s Demographic Dividend.” There were industry representatives, entrepreneurs, bankers, economists, all of whom spoke about different aspects of the skilling debate.

Here is the presentation that I made at the discussion forum.  

  As always, it is more the talk rather than the presentation format that makes more of an incision, but there were many requests for a share, so here goes…

Should you feel any disconnect whilst going through the same, or need any inputs, just write in and I’ll take care of the query. Happy skilling!