BJP self-goals rub-off the shine

 BJP, Sanjeev Ahluwalia, ahluss, Indian Economy, Domestic Politics
Source: jynxzero

It is not often than an innocuous government statement becomes the fulcrum of a storm. The sudden announcement that Minister Nitin Gadkari’s plan to announce a policy for 100% electrification of transportation by 2030 was off the cards, sent shock waves through the industry and political analysts.

To be fair, not having a narrow policy just for electric vehicles makes sense. Nesting actions, needed to achieve cost-effective electrification in transportation, within a broader “alternative fuels policy”, ostensibly, being prepared by the NITI Aayog, as disclosed by Amitabh Kant – the NITI CEO, who works directly with the NITI Chair – Prime Minister Modi, makes perfect sense.

It is good practice not to choose specific technical options via a policy. Instead, good policy formulation should specify a generic pathway to achieve the final outcomes- in this case lower carbon emissions, clean air and reduced congestion. In the best-case, simplistic scenario, tax incentives for the transportation industry, should be linked to the carbon emissions and road area saved per unit of travel, irrespective of the technology option adopted by them.

Leaving the technology option to industry – electric, hybrid or hydrogen-fuel powered, ensures that the market for innovation is not artificially distorted in favour of any technology.

But, life is rarely that simple. Consider that China has emerged as the leading low-cost manufacturer of electric vehicles. They have also firmed-up supply chains of lithium for the manufacture of associated high efficiency batteries. Natural resource constrained Japan, is in contrast likely to push for a clean, hydrogen powered vehicle.

Strategically, our relationship with China is cool if not chilled. We lean towards a “Triad” of the US, Japan, India – for collaboration in security and transnational infrastructure development. The choice of Japan, as the partner for the Industrial corridors project to link Indian metros by fast passenger and freight trains and for the proposed Asian Africa Growth Corridor, are illustrations of such cooperation. Closer logistics integration with the US and Indian military forces, is another. Joint patrolling of the sea lanes in the South China Sea is yet another.

Clearly, relying solely on electrification of transportation, has strategic implications with respect to tying our future to China, which begs a more nuanced approach. Ministers Nitin Gadkari and Piyush Goyal might have thought up the electrification push, early in 2017 when Minister Goyal was in charge of Power, Coal and Renewable Energy, to absorb the stranded capacity of 30,000 MW in the power sector.

The capacity of distribution utilities to absorb electric power is constrained by the low, regulated retail tariffs versus the higher grid cost of delivering power using coal or gas generation. This makes it sensible to explore alternative options for using power. If additional solar capacity comes up to meet the target of 175 GW of renewable power by 2020 at grid supply prices of 4 cents per unit (kWh), capacity utilization in coal and gas-based generators will fall even lower than 60%.

At the best of times there is more politics than economics in public policy formulation. But with elections around the corner, every action of government, acquires heightened importance. So, for example, could the trashing of Mr. Gadkari’s policy initiative be an indication that Prime Minister Modi is showing him who is the boss? Ministers Gadkari and Goyal are perceived to be the most effective members of the cabinet. With reverses in recent bye elections in Rajasthan and a perceived tough fight ahead in Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, has it become necessary for PM Modi to flex his muscles to keep the cabinet orderly?

Political leaders are notoriously sensitive to perceived loss of power. Given PM Modi’s larger than life persona, this is surely, his personal Achilles heel. The BJPs lucky run over the first four years seems to be petering out. They could avoid responsibility for the Rs 10 trillion of non-performing banking assets they inherited from the UPA. But the most recent case of a fraud of Rs 110 billion in the Punjab National Bank due to poor controls and oversight by a clutch of banks shows that things have not changed.

More worryingly, the market capitalization of listed jewelry companies has become less than one half of their debts. Their profitability is plunging. Their interest cover ratio is barely above the red line of 1.5X with sundry debts increasing to 43% of sales.

Difficult to value jewels have always been a favoured route for hawala (over invoicing imports and under invoicing exports), which is one way to safely transfer black money abroad. Much of this is often brought back as FDI or more likely foreign portfolio investment in the stock market where returns have been generous, inflation has been subdued and the Rs artificially stable such that even exchange risk was minimized, at the cost of exports and at the cost of making domestic production uncompetitive versus imported goods.

More importantly it is the timing of the expose which is like rubbing salt into the wounds of bye-election losses for the BJP, which campaigns based on “zero tolerance for corruption”. Unfortunately, Finance Minister Jaitley will be in the line of fire too, much as Minister Suresh Prabhu, was hounded out for recurring railway accidents.

With barely a year to go for elections, the number of moving parts is increasing by leaps and bounds. The French Rafale fighter jet deal was also poorly managed. Even worse, communications outreach has failed to dispel the fiction, that it is another “Bofors scam”. Champions get moving when the going gets tough. The BJP had a fabled communications team leading up to the 2014 elections. Today, ensconced in power, the last thing on its mind seems to be, sharing carefully thought through public policy positions with citizens, in a credible manner. Not having an opposition has its own downsides. Or is it the BJP’s unerring instinct to dim the light, just when it is shining.


This commentary originally appeared in The Times of India.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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