Sunday, 30 September 2018

Putting Consumers First: Essays in honour of Pradeep Mehta. (CUTS 2018) Book Review by Ajay Singha former Head of AmCham India and former Deputy DG Indo-German Chamber.

This book celebrates the 70th birthday of Mr. Pradeep Mehta, the founder of CUTS International.  Written by prominent personalities who have shaped economic policies in the global trading regime, the authors represent a lot for those engaged in international business and multilateral institutions. Prof. Jagdish Bhagwati outlines the range of activities undertaken by CUTS and concludes his foreword by regarding Pradeep Mehta as a “Living Treasure”. Views expressed appear personal but in fact reflect a lifetime of experiences in each writers’ career and their own interaction with the CUTS movement. Noted political economist Dr Sanjay Baru has edited the book along with Abhishek Kumar and refers to Pradeep as a great advocate for competition reforms in the developing world. He goes on to add that he was best Chairman that the Competition Commission of India never had.

Consumer interest is central to the book and essays reflect the critical nature of this subject in the well being of functioning democracies globally. There is common understanding that better governance, effective regulations and rules based trade nurtures and protects consumer interest across continents.  The essays collectively reflect the core ethos of CUTS, namely: Creating value for the People. The book confirms that across nations there is a basic convergence on issues which promote the concept of: “Putting Consumers First”.

The power pendulum has now shifted from the West to the East. Distrust caused by the North South divide has perhaps led to the present state of affairs in the global trading order. Multilateral trading systems are stressed like never before and likely to give way if further deterioration goes unchecked. The WTO and other global organisations have come into existence after tremendous deliberations between nations over a sustained period of time. Nations realize that at the core of each country’s democratic values lies consumer interest of their ordinary citizens. The Nation State has come a long way from the policy of “Caveat Emptor” to multiple regulations protecting not only individual consumer interest but collective national issues relating to competition and freedom of choice.

Global trading and regulatory organisations reflect the realities of the time when they were created and may no longer be relevant to the present world order. An important reality pointed out by C Raja Mohan is that today no region in the world can be an exclusive area of influence. Greater collaboration is the need of the hour, when in fact the world is moving away from multilateralism. Suresh Prabhu’s efforts at converting railway passengers to active consumers and co-creators is a welcome initiative. It should be replicated in other spheres where consumers interact with government.

Ashok Ganguly rightly states that every aspect of Globalisation was not necessarily positive. The liberalisation of banking regulations generated a sense of unnatural exuberance which led to the banking crisis of 2008. Unprecedented growth of wealth in advanced countries rewarded a small fraction of the already well to do. The bulk of the population received only the dregs and there was no significant impact on the health, nutrition and poverty levels of the people. Globalisation also witnessed the Arab Spring which soon became a nightmare, terrorist attacks in New York and war with Iraq were other notable setbacks.

Some of the authors have suggested specific solutions emanating from their individual area of expertise in order to address larger socio-economic challenges. Isher Judge Ahluwalia projects Cities as engines of growth, Shakti Sinha emphasises Green power and Pawan Munjal suggests housing as a great multiplier. What all should be included in the ambit of consumer welfare remains debatable and offers a wide scope for discussion. Signals suggest that the world might be slipping from the lofty goals of globalisation into a period of disorder and uncertainty. UK’s Brexit, political developments in Europe and the American position on WTO are key pointers in this direction.

Pradeep Mehta’s favourite line: “There are no failures only deferred success” gives hope for succour to the multilateralists.  Pradeep’s life story of showing the way when odds confront progress could do its bit in motivating many of us. His advice of “Converting every setback into an opportunity” is most relevant for addressing the unfolding global economic challenges today. The book is recommended for scholars of economics, development studies and international relations as well as officials engaged in trade and economic diplomacy.
September 2018, Jaipur-India.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

“Pakistan At the Helm” by Tilak Devasher (Harper Collins 2018). A book review by Ajay P Singha

Peppered with anecdotes and incidents from the lives of those who ruled Pakistan, the book shares some deep insights into human nature. Personalities matter more than policies in this part of the world, becomes evident from this study in emotions, complexes, strengths and weaknesses of individual characters. As political leaders move from high prominence into most certain ruin, history seems to repeat itself over and over again.

Tilak, an alumnus of the Mayo College and St. Stephen’s is indeed a great story teller and has infused good interest into a subject of concern to those watching the constantly evolving politics of the Indian subcontinent.  As former Special Secretary Cabinet (Government of India), Tilak had a ringside view of foreign and political affairs unfolding in the region.  Based on evidence supporting his research, the author takes us on a chronological course through uncertain and perilous times which Pakistan seems to perpetually find itself in. Through snapshots of individual lives we move from one momentous event in the country’s history to the other. He weaves a story which is well grounded in facts and skillfully interwoven with interesting vignettes.

Tilak argues that right from the beginning the Pakistani leadership had a “tactical” mindset, seeking short term solutions rather than looking at the long term picture. With the demise of Jinnah in 1948, the Muslim League was driven into low level intrigues and factions emerged with the sole aim of capturing personal power and wealth.  The constitution of Pakistan was unceremoniously abrogated in 1958. The one who ordered this act, the first President of Pakistan, Iskander Mirza found himself ousted from the country and later died a pauper in England.  As it turns out President Mirza was a descendant of Mir Jafer of Plassey notoriety.

“One suffering from megalomania in it’s worst form” is how Lord Mountbatten describes MA Jinnah, the central figure in Pakistan’s hall of fame.  The author points out that while the country had seven PMs during 1951 to 1958 the army chief remained the same. The army had undoubtedly got well entrenched, much before any democratic institutions took root in the country. The two Indo-Pak wars and the Kargil intrusions reflect the troubling mindsets of Pakistani Generals. An astonishing act of betrayal and deceit with India was that PM Nawaz Sharif knew about Pakistan’s planned intrusion into Kargil well before the friendly Lahore bus yatra with Indian PM Vajyapayee.

A strange paradox becomes evident to the reader when Pakistani dictators seem to move from a one man show towards a faux democracy whereas elected civilians tend to shift in the reverse direction ending up as autocrats. Another reality which gets highlighted is the continuous close meddling by the Americans in Pakistan’s internal affairs. The US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is reported to have spoken six times in one day to sort out certain differences between Parvez Musharraf and Benazir Bhutto shortly before she was assassinated.

Pakistan continues to be a deeply feudalistic State and there are mentions of several degenerate celebrations which took place to further social relations between members of the ruling class. Shikar parties and bacchanalia dating to colonial times stick like dead weight and continue to dominate the life styles of the power elite in the country.

The deadly ingredients of corruption, crime, embezzlement and political machinations create a heady mix and emerge as the preferred choice of the country’s political leadership. This cruel and uncertain reality is yet to be effaced from their history and exemplifies the old adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. 

Scholars of history will appreciate that human nature has indeed remained unchanged over the centuries. Political personalities appearing in this book bear uncanny similarities with historical characters from the past. Greed, avarice, ruthlessness and a single minded devotion to personal wealth seem to dominate the minds of the so called great leaders from our neighboring nation.

“The entire empire was the personal estate of the ruler, instead of the rule of law there was the law of the ruler” this sums up the state of affairs in present day Pakistan. This continuing tale is therefore of grave relevance for India in the present geopolitical context and the undulating power play in our neighborhood. The book is recommended for everyone interested in a deeper understanding of Pakistani politics and their relations with India.  (September 2018, Ajay P Singha)