June 2017


Perspectives: The Month Through India’s Eyes

Indian media coverage in the past month focused on a combination of domestic and international issues in the aftermath of Prime Minister Modi’s recent visit to the United States, multiple reports of mob lynching in India and the government’s latest attempt to reform the country’s banking system.  While views on Mr. Modi’s meeting with President Trump and the government’s policy actions yielded divergent views, coverage on mob violence in India was uniform, with columnists united in their condemnation of what appears to be a growing trend.

Prime Minister Modi’s US Visit

In late June, Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the United States for the first time since Donald Trump took office as the President.  Unlike previous trips that were built up with significant fanfare, particularly among the Indian diaspora in the United States, this trip was short (only one day) and relatively low key, with officials from both delegations keen to play down expectations.  Despite this, the meeting between the leaders of the world’s two largest democracies was extensively covered in the Indian press, with divergent views emerging on the implications of the meeting on Indo-US relations.

India’s relationship with China vis-à-vis the United States was a recurring theme in the press coverage of Mr. Modi’s trip.  The Indian Express opined that one of the Prime Minister’s biggest objectives is “weaning” the United States away from China.  Certainly, India needs the US to invest back home, so as to create jobs – this is what his outreach to US top CEOs, including Sundar Pichai of Google, Tim Cooke of Apple etc. was about.  But Modi is also saying that he is willing to create US jobs through all these lollipop defence deals – as long as Trump also begins to look more favourably at India, and less so at China.  Note that Modi himself has stopped berating the Chinese publicly. He knows that he can only wean Trump away from China – and back to making him say rude things about Beijing, including it being a “currency manipulator” – if he can offer something in return.  This, something, is the huge Indian market.  Inviting US CEOs to make money in India, while India bails out the US civil aviation and defence aviation in the US is a small price to pay for Trump’s kindly eye towards Delhi.”

An editorial in Live Mint echoed a similar sentiment, and stated that the “question for Modi isn’t whether he can get along with Trump, but whether he can manage the relationship better than Chinese leader Xi Jinping has… It’s unclear how deep the disillusionment with China runs within the White House, or whether Trump truly believes that China “tried” its best to deal with North Korea. But having little to show for his investment in Xi isn’t likely to sit well with the transactional US president.  Neither are China’s overt attempts to draw a contrast with the Trump administration’s cavalier approach to US global leadership, for instance on free trade and climate.  By contrast, Modi benefits from the fact that both US and Indian military leaders and foreign-policy elites see the interests of their nations converging.   And while he, Trump and Xi all put something of a premium on the restoration—or the construction—of national glory, the rise of India will continue to be seen as being in the US’s larger interests in Asia.  As long as Modi can keep Trump focused on this larger picture, rather than minor irritants such as tech visas, he will receive a very different welcome in Washington than his Chinese counterpart.”

Finally, a column in Firstpost chose to focus on an altogether different theme, the impact of Mr. Modi’s interactions with President Trump on the Indian diaspora in the United States.  “It may be noted that it is in the Indian diaspora in the United States that India has a powerful constituency to influence American decision makers for strengthening the ties between New Delhi and Washington. And when this “constituency” of India is not given its due importance by the Trump administration, it is a matter of concern… [Further] it is also a fact that only about half (51%) of Indian Americans are Hindu, according to a 2012 survey by PRC.  In this study, 18% of Indian Americans identified themselves as Christians and 10% said they were Muslim.  This religious denomination could be important as non-Hindus in the Indian diaspora may not like the frequent reports of discrimination and harassment of minorities in India under Modi.  And that being the case, the Indian diaspora may not work that sincerely and powerfully to generate a favourable climate of opinion in the US Congress, approve pro-India legislations and defeat anti-India measures through “India caucus” there, as was the case in the past (for example, Kargil War and India-US nuclear deal).”

Mob Violence in India

In the last month, there were an alarming number of incidents of mob violence in the country, with almost all being motivated by religious sentiments.  These include the lynching of two Muslim men (in separate incidents) by Hindu mobs, on the pretext of cow protection, and the killing of a police officer suspected to be Hindu by a group of more than 200 people in Kashmir.  The media was unanimous in its condemnation of these attacks, with columnists prescribing different methods for how to deal with the recent uptick in sectarian violence.

An editorial in the Hindu argued that India’s response to these incidents needs to be more forceful than it has been so far.  Bookkeeping cannot be the response to the events unfolding around us today and certainly not a response to gratuitous mob violence.  When a boy is lynched, being human doesn’t allow us to patiently draw out a pipette and measure out outrage in millilitres to be jotted down in registers against incidents that came before. That is not who we are. This ‘nationalism’ we tout so often now, if it means anything it possibly means recognising that we are not ledger-toting clerks but a people who can be moved to tears by a boy’s murder.  When Mahatma Gandhi went on a five-day fast and called off the Non-Cooperation Movement in 1922, it was to protest the outbreak of violence in Chauri Chaura that saw 23 policemen burnt to death.  He had the courage to call off a movement that epitomised the revolt against colonialism to express outrage at mob violence against policemen who represented the same regime.  He would do this over and over again in the course of his career.  That is the legacy of protest we have inherited.  Let’s not substitute it with mere accountancy.”

The Hindustan Times also called for a similarly strong response by the country, while drawing parallels to Nelson Mandela’s actions in the aftermath of apartheid being removed in South Africa.  “The protests are against mob violence. Yet goons presume an invisible green light from Modi.  It calls for drastic measures.  When apartheid was removed, Nelson Mandela faced a resentful, divided South Africa.  Dealing with it head on, he creatively established the Truth & Reconciliation Committee. It bled raw wounds and was controversial in giving amnesty to 1,500 perpetrators of humanitarian violations out of 7,000 applicants.  But the nation moved on from a dreadful past.  Today India must confront the violent national character that is destroying us.  We have to be as creative as Mandela.  Create a Ministry of Living Together in Peace.  This would include programmes throughout the country to create a new culture of harmony. Create a nationwide media campaign on Vaishnav Janate’s 15 edicts in all the languages.  Yes, this can be easily dismissed as Utopian dreams, fanciful, silly. It could be but what, indeed, will work?”

The Indian Express, while equally outraged, targeted its ire towards the government, rather than the people of India.  “The quietude of the BJP-ruled governments in the states and of the Narendra Modi-led Centre — in stark contrast to their regular drum-beating on definitions and tests of nationalism/Indian-ness — and the heavy-footedness of the law enforcement machinery in the aftermath, implicates them in every such attack.  It makes the next one possible.  The randomness of the violence, its apparent banality, makes it more difficult to prevent and to address.  But the state has no option not to do so.  Else, the conclusion is inescapable: The lynching is carried out by the mob, but the mob is emboldened by the state… The party that dominates the Centre and rules a growing number of states in India must ask itself if, despite its several electoral successes, it can call itself a victor if the very polity it presides over is hollowed of its richness, if it can no longer boast of being a safe house for minorities.”

The NPA Ordinance

India’s banking sector is addressing non-performing assets (NPAs) that default on their interest and debt obligations.  Over the past 12-24 months, the government has made addressing these issues a priority, and has announced a new initiative aimed toward the speedier resolution of NPAs.  Press coverage on the policy was mixed, with some praising the government’s intent, but others arguing that there was still significant work to be done.

The Hindu Business Line was full of praise for the ordinance, stating that there finally appeared to be some light at the end of the tunnel for India’s banking sector.  “Three years after coming to power, the Narendra Modi government has at last taken a key step which has a chance of making a reasonably quick impact on the critical problem of unbearably high levels of non-performing assets of public sector banks.  These (gross non performing assets) have gone up from 3.6 per cent in 2013 to a colossal 9.3 per cent of advances for 2016 on repeated central bank prodding to stop hiding things.  Under an ordinance, the government may now authorise the Reserve Bank of India to direct banks to initiate insolvency proceedings against defaulters under the bankruptcy code.  Indeed, the RBI on Tuesday listed 12 NPA accounts for insolvency proceedings. Government authorisation means the highest political backing for the insolvency proceedings.  This takes care of two reasons why, instead of slowly declining, the NPA problem has only gotten worse.  One is that political connections have a lot to do with large corporate loans going sour.  So for resolution the issue has to be addressed on the say-so of the political authority of the day.  This the ordinance does.”

Live Mint was a little more circumspect, stating that while the ordinance was a step forward, more deeper lying issues needed to be fixed to truly reform India’s banking sector.  “Simply put, it is unfair to blame the bankers alone for the current mess.  We need to sensitize the bankers on risk management and monitoring of projects as much as we need to address the core issues in real economy to avoid the nightmare of certain banks being buried under the pile of bad loans.  The steps taken by the steel ministry to revive the sector can be emulated by others.  For instance, many of the old power plants of NTPC Ltd have served their lives and they need to be decommissioned.  It will take a while for the new plants to come up and their tariff will be relatively higher. NTPC Vidyut Vyapar Nigam Ltd, NTPC’s trading arm, can buy from the 15,200MW power projects that do not have PPAs.  The blended cost—the cost of power purchased from these plants and NTPC’s new generation plants—will be less and bring down the cost for the discoms.”

Finally, The Indian Express claimed that there was a credibility crisis within India’s banking sector, and the Reserve Bank of India should use the banking ordinance to drive greater transparency in India’s lending process, thereby bridging this credibility deficit.  “The RBI must require rating agencies to make their processes transparent, objective and subject to public scrutiny.  Further, in the proposed mechanism wherein the RBI makes part payments to rating agencies, it may find itself conflicted between the need to obtain a cost-effective and a high-quality credit rating.  Consequently, alternatives like independent bodies to select credit rating agencies could be explored.  Hitherto, the RBI has adopted an incremental approach in dealing with the bad debt issue and offered several lifelines to the banks and borrowing companies.  Unfortunately, this has not borne fruit.  The RBI must use its enhanced powers under the ordinance to adopt a transformational approach to deal with bad debts, and regain trust in the regulator.  This can happen only when it takes hard decisions including designing transparent decision-making process, fixing accountability, and punishing non-compliance, especially its own officers.  It must encourage the culture of dissent and debate, promote public disclosures, and welcome scrutiny to regain its credibility and public confidence.”






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