Power structure needs reform

GST became a reality as a process of cooperative federalism was followed led by the finance minister.

 GST, GST Council, Power Structure, Reform, Sanjeev Ahluwalia, Indian Economy

Citizens expect governments to intervene when the markets fail. If the Chinese Army is to be stopped on the Doklam plateau well north of the tri-junction between India, Bhutan and Tibet/China, then only the Indian forces, funded by taxes, can do the job. This is a satisfactory arrangement for all Indian and Bhutanese citizens, who otherwise may be hard-pressed to secure their territory.

But not all government actions have an obvious rationale. Demonetisation was unleashed in November 2016 to end black money. Few believe that this objective has been achieved. Black money is not an outcome of market failure. It is an outcome of governmental failure to tax income effectively; control corruption or control crime. Poor governance only encourages the generation of black money, which then requires another intervention to root out black money. Economist Shanta Devarajan of the World Bank believes such iterative interventions are ineffective in improving the quality of governance, and can reduce the legitimacy of governments. Far better instead to rethink how to deal with the underlying market failure.

So why do governments tax ineffectively? Most commonly, multiple objectives in the tax policy are to blame. The sale of loose groundnuts — the ordinary person’s food — may be tax-free but packed groundnuts, even if unprocessed, are taxed. This creates a five per cent tax differential for arbitrage between the two categories, which are difficult to administer separately. A single rate of tax levied on a non-evadable tax base is the most effective. But consider that this would be akin to the colonial “poll or head tax” — levied on each person uniformly. Effective, but terribly inequitable.

Admittedly, mechanisms like transfer of a basic income to the poor can neutralise such an inequity. But transfer of a similar amount of cash, to each poor person, itself creates huge inequities, even among the 40 percent population vulnerable to poverty. Transferring differential amounts, depending on need, attracts the same inefficiencies as trying to administer progressive tax rates fairly.

Why is corruption or crime so hard to control in India? At the heart of these failures of the state is a market failure.

In this case relating to the market for political power. If citizens feel that political power can be acquired by subverting the “popular” vote, it reduces their faith in the power of their vote. It also delegitimises the government and undermines its ability to rule, in the eyes of those who voted against the government. Bihar faced this conundrum for two decades. It does not help that, in India, governments can be formed even with a minority of the total votes cast in elections, so long as each elected member of the ruling party gets more votes than the next candidate. This first-past-the-post system fractionalises politics. It encourages parties to form coalition governments, which are unable to discipline errant behaviour by their constituents. This “coalition dharma” fosters crime and corruption. An alternative explanation for pervasive crime or corruption is that laws are out of sync with local customs. And not enough has been done to change social behaviour beyond legislating transformative rights and duties. Ending open defecation — a prime driver to reduce the vulnerability of women to crime — is one such example. The benefits from ending open defecation are dependent on collective action. One reason why we did not do more earlier could be that the political incentives are perverse. They favour exaggerating, rather than bridging, the social cleavages of caste and religion, which inhibit collective, progressive decision making.

Low public accountability and lackadaisical collective action can also be traced to the continuation of feudal traditions of governance and poorly distributed income growth.

Richer citizens are more resilient to state encroachment of their rights and less dependent on state largesse. Luckily, over the past three decades, we have become less poor, better educated and more aware of our rights versus the state.

But the extent of inequality remains significant as does the infrastructure deficit across rich and poor areas. The privileged crust is thinner than a hand-tossed Neapolitan pizza — possibly just 10 per cent of the population. The rest seethe in forlorn frustration. Can we get away from this low-level equilibrium? Yes, we can by fixing the market for political power.

First, bridge the trust deficit and distance between citizens and the state. Empower state governments versus the Union government and local government versus state governments. Hopefully, the 15th Finance Commission will carry forward the trend of forcing the Centre to devolve functions and Central taxes to states and directly to local governments based on performance criteria.

Second, cut the colonial fat; abolish the titular but unedifying position of state governors. These are unelected nominees of the Union government exercising oversight over elected state governments. Transfer this role to the President, who is elected. This will level the playing field between states and the Centre versus the presidency.

Third, make Parliament and state Assemblies more representative. Sharply reduce the size of constituencies. Only directly-elected members should be eligible to become Prime Minister or chief minister. A candidate should be able to contest an election for only one seat at a time. The winner must secure a simple majority of the available votes and two-thirds of the votes cast. Municipalities must be headed by elected mayors.

Fourth, the functioning and finances of recognised political parties must be made transparent. Inner-party elections must conform to common but effective guidelines. The Election Commission must be empowered to determine constituency boundaries and diversified beyond the administration, to include citizen representatives and the judiciary with the chief election commissioner chosen specifically.

GST became a reality as a process of cooperative federalism was followed led by the finance minister. Reforming the market for political power could benefit from a similar approach.

This commentary originally appeared in The Asian Age.




Sanjeev Ahluwalia