Posts Tagged ‘Economy’

Plain Truths About the Economy

July 30, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

Every so often someone promises to turn Pakistan into an Asian tiger. It is not a bad ambition but it hasn’t happened yet. Not just that, we don’t seem to be moving forward much. All the more reason for an honest examination because knowing where one is starting from is just as important as knowing where one wants to go.

With help of some illustrative numbers one can establish three points. The Pakistani economy is existing at a low level; it is in relative decline; and too many of its citizens are struggling at or below subsistence level. Getting from here to Asian tiger status would require something beyond more of the same.

First, the state of the economy. The Federal Bureau of Statistics website shows that in 2015 per capita income in current prices was Rs. 153,620 per year or about Rs. 13,000 per month (in round numbers) which is also the current minimum wage. This means that if Pakistan’s total yearly income was divided equally among its citizens, each person would get Rs. 13,000 per month – a household of four would have around Rs. 50,000 a month to live on. Add up essential household expenditures and it is obvious this is a survival-level allocation implying that the Pakistani economy in aggregate is a survival-level economy for its citizens.

Easily available data allows for comparisons with Malaysia, an Asian tiger cub, and South Korea, an Asian tiger. Adjusting for purchasing power, the respective yearly income per person in the two countries is five and seven times that of Pakistan. In other words, instead of Rs. 50,000 a Pakistani household of four would require Rs.2.5 lakh or 3.5 lakh per month to attain the average standard of living in Malaysia or South Korea. That is the difference between a survival economy and a prospering one. No wonder people would like to leave Pakistan to work in Malaysia but none would want to migrate in the other direction.

To achieve the status of an Asian tiger like South Korea, Pakistan’s income per person needs to multiply seven times. How long would that take? Even if the economic rate of growth increases from the existing 5% to 7% and is sustained year after year, it would take over 25 years to reach where South Korea is today. Getting there in 15 years would require a growth rate of 12% which is way beyond anything Pakistan has ever achieved.

Second, while the Pakistani economy is growing, it is declining relative to most other developing economies. In 1990, India’s per capita income was 40% lower than that of Pakistan; by 2009 it had drawn level; today, it is around 20% higher. China’s per capita income in 1990 was 50% less than Pakistan’s; today it is 200% higher. At these relative rates, far from becoming an Asian tiger Pakistan will soon be relegated to the status of an also-ran.

Third, if income were equally shared and every individual received a monthly amount of Rs. 13,000 the reality of the survival economy would be inescapable. It is masked by the illusion of opulence created by a highly unequal income distribution – so unequal that half the total national income goes to just the richest 20% of households.  A recent news report discussing salaries of bank CEOs revealed that Rs. 50 lakhs per month was not an outlier. With some individuals living at first world elite levels, it follows there must be others living below the average in order to keep the total income constant. In fact, the majority of individuals in Pakistan have monthly allocations well below the survival level of Rs. 13,000.

Given the extreme inequality, independent estimates suggest that over half the individuals in the country could be classified as vulnerable in the sense that any unforeseen expense can plunge them into poverty. Thus not only is the Pakistani economy a low-level economy in the aggregate, the majority of its citizens are living at well below an acceptable survival income, in fact in various degrees of deprivation.

How do individuals exist at this level of deprivation? By being poorly educated, in fragile health, increasingly indebted, and overworked because of dependence on multiple jobs. Care to follow the story of someone earning the minimum monthly wage of Rs. 13,000 and you will appreciate the real state of the Pakistani economy. Given this human capital, how do its leaders propose to turn Pakistan into an Asian tiger in our lifetimes?

Understanding our existing predicament raises the real question: How did Pakistan get left behind in this impoverished state? Obviously it is not Pakistan’s fault – nothing says this was its fated destiny – but that of those occupying the driver’s seat all these years. How come China and India starting way behind have overtaken the Pakistani economy and moved so far ahead all in a matter of a few decades? Or how a small country like South Korea became so prosperous with limited natural resources? How come Malaysia has leveraged its strategic location and managed its ethnic diversity while Pakistan has not?

As we move into the election cycle we should be asking political parties some tough questions about their visions and development plans. We should not be fobbed off with easy answers. Corruption is not a good enough reason; it exists everywhere and the sizes of scams are in fact much greater in India. Overpopulation is also an unconvincing explanation given that both China and India are six times more populous. We should also not be distracted by the promise of CPEC. Even if it comes off perfectly it will add at best another 2.5% to the rate of growth of national income without any accompanying reforms of a fundamental nature.

Pakistan’s predicament is clearly related to some very poor policy choices, badly misplaced priorities and shockingly abysmal governance. We can infer some of these from the comparative experience of China which trailed us less than three decades back and is now so far ahead that we look upon it as a saviour. Such an exploration would be the subject of a subsequent article.

This opinion appeared in Dawn on July 25, 2017 and is reproduced here with the author’s permission. The writer would like to thank the following colleagues and students for very valuable suggestions on a number of early drafts: Dr. Ali Cheema, Dr. Farrukh Iqbal, Dr. Ijaz Nabi, Dr. Nadeem ul Haque, Dr. Anupam Khanna, Mr. Shahid Mehmood, Mr. Faizaan Qayyum and Ms. Marwah Maqbool. Any residual errors are the responsibility of the author.

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Silly Season in Pakistan

April 5, 2017

By Anjum Altaf

The last shred of doubt regarding the reality of climate change should have been removed by the unnaturally early arrival of the silly season. One warming outcome has seen the hot-air balloon of the Pakistani economy lifting off into the stratosphere without anyone ever noticing what happened.

First there was the upward draft in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post that removed the veil from the transformation we had failed to observe. Not wanting to leave anything to our blinkered visions, the WSJ blared it all out in one breathless headline: “Pakistan’s Middle Class Soars as Stability Returns: Consumer spending rockets as poverty shrinks, terrorism drops and democracy holds.”

Before the excitement could die down and lest a couple of eyebrows be raised, the redoubtable Economist added the gravity of its authoritative voice with an article titled “Pakistan confronts something unfamiliar: optimism” reiterating thereby that we were too befogged to see what was happening before our eyes.

Leave aside the fact that the land wouldn’t know real pessimism if it were staring it in the face, populated largely, as it is, with optimists of which one can count three types. First, those who can only be called ‘resigned optimists’ who subscribe to the Allah maalik hai philosophy that everything would come good in the end because we are God’s chosen people. And who can quarrel with them given that the nation has survived the most incredible stupidities that any ruling class can visit on a country.

Second, the ‘oppositional optimists’ who indulge in temporary pessimism only because it is not their charioteer that is leading the charge. Give a chance to the theocrats or the autocrats or the bureaucrats or the cricket bats and watch how we emerge roaring as the tiger of Asia if not of the entire world.

Third, the ‘incorrigible optimists’ who really need no excuse to feel positive. After soberly recalling all the gross errors committed over the past seventy years and recounting all the obvious but unfortunately missed chances, he or she arrives inevitably at the cheerful “I remain staunchly optimistic” conclusion. For this set, optimism need not be based on any evidence; it is more a genetic trait like green eyes – one is just born so. Press them a bit and they will pluck anything out of the air as the reason for their buoyancy – a very youthful population would do as well as anything else. Never mind we haven’t invested a penny in potty training.

For the EconomistA cricket match and an obscure administrative reform” in FATA are sufficient signs for the great leap forward. Add to that the handy standby: “Pakistan’s stock market has risen faster than any other in Asia over the past 12 months, by a heady 50%.” Heady, indeed. For years the Economist has been warning of dreaded bubbles underlying the heady rise of the Chinese stock market but no such qualms are warranted in the case of Pakistan even as its own regulator cracks down on malpractices in the exchange. It is all a matter of the balloon one wishes to float.

One does wonder though what caused the Economist to so radically change its story. It was just a couple of months back that it posted its last roundup of the Pakistani economy under the title “Roads to nowhere: Pakistan’s misguided obsession with infrastructure” with the despairing subtitle “The government is building more airports, roads and railways, even though the existing ones are underused.” That article labeled our last great economic corridor, the Lahore-Islamabad motorway, a “$1.2bn white elephant” and compared the Prime Minister to Sher Shah Suri. It ended with dripping sarcasm: “the railways minister, recently admitted to parliament that the country would not be getting a bullet train after all. “When we asked the Chinese about it, they laughed at us,” he said.”

The Economist clearly doesn’t expect much of Pakistanis not least to pay attention to what they read. The conclusion to its suddenly upbeat and optimistic gushing notes with genuine surprize: “For Pakistan, however, even to be debating the subject is encouraging.”  

Just to prove wrong the charge that Pakistanis are unable to recognize optimism when they see it a motley set of experts jumped into the fray adding colour to the silly season. Some excoriated the detractors for failing to appreciate the economic takeoff. Others claimed we were already much richer than we believed. Yet others asserted poverty was a thing of the past. I can only presume the malnutritioned children (nearly half of all children in the country) must be so because their parents have better things to do with their wealth much as the unemployment in the Great Depression had been an outcome of the voluntary trade- off between work and leisure.

Wake up Pakistan: feudalism is dead, we are all urban now, poverty is licked, every city is a growling tiger cub, and the Chinese are coming. The writing is on the wall. “Yes, how many times can a man turn his head / Pretending he just doesn’t see? / The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind / The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”

Think what you may. It is the silly season. It is the season for feeling good. March madness has barely ended. April is the kindest month in our part of the world. But still, why the obsession with the economy? Why not just fly a kite?

This opinion appeared in The News on April 4, 2017 and is reproduced here with permission of the author. See related article Economic Bullshit.

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Fifty Years of Activism in Pakistan: A Sea Change

January 11, 2016

By Anjum Altaf

Pakistan today is very different to what it was fifty years ago. An aspect that has changed significantly – literally turned on its head – is the nature of political and social activism, i.e., the very dynamic that leads to change in society. I describe this transformation based on my interactions with the young – as a student at the beginning of the period and as an instructor of students at its end.

Needless to say, the majority in any society is content to swim with the tide. Members of this majority may hold opinions about desirable changes but they are not involved in the process of bringing them about. On the other hand, there is always a small minority of individuals who become actively engaged in efforts to change society. Such activists mobilize varying numbers of the majority for or against in different situations but the fact remains that most internal movements are initiated by this small number of activists.

As one would expect, activists are motivated by a range of concerns and inspired by varied sets of ideas. Since both concerns and dominant ideas change over time, it is reasonable to think that the nature of activism itself might undergo changes of various kinds. The transformation in the nature of activism in Pakistan over the last half century is the focus of this discussion.

At one level, the situation fifty years ago was simple. The 1960s, with the ongoing Vietnam War and decolonization, was the height of anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist sentiment, both reflected in the popularity of Marxist-oriented alternatives. These had an appeal to those segments of the young who were open to external ideas and focused primarily on political change in the nature of the state. This orientation was supported by the influx of heavily subsidized literature from Soviet and Chinese sources.

There was another set of the young who were motivated much more by internal ideas and focused primarily on moral improvement of individuals in the belief that such moral improvement would result in a better society. These were primarily Islamic moral and religious ideas for a better future.

There were a number of important differences in these two broad categories of activists. The left-oriented political activists articulated the views of a small minority of the total population but were a fair proportion of this population. The right-leaning social activists articulated the views of a large majority of the total population but were a relatively lower proportion of this population. On balance, because of the large difference in the relative sizes of the population pools, the absolute number of right-leaning activists exceeded the number of left-leaning activists.

Other salient differences were quite obvious. Left-leaning activists subscribed to secular ideas, sought systemic political change, and attempted to mobilize collective movements to achieve their objectives. Right-leaning activists derived their inspiration from religion, focused on individual moral improvement, and furthered their objectives through schemes providing social welfare to communities. It would also be fair to say that in Pakistan left-leaning approaches were top-down while right-leaning ones were bottom-up.

Fifty years later, the situation appears significantly more complex. External ideas offering alternative models of state structure have lost much of their appeal. Marxist approaches, in particular, have little credibility to offer and various articulations of hybrids remain too vague to have sufficient resonance in large enough groups of people to be relevant. Internal ideas, on the other hand, have grown from a focus on individual moral reform to offering political alternatives of various shades supported extensively with subsidized inputs from the Middle East. These mark the transition from the Islamic to the Islamist orientation in Pakistan.

What one sees today is a world of activism almost upside down. The segment of youth that fifty years ago would have been in the vanguard of left-leaning, secular, political activism is engaged now in a very different manner. Most are involved in efforts to improve individual social welfare through NGO-sponsored community projects while at the same time being quite at ease with religious prescriptions to achieve a better society. The latter is manifested by initiatives centered on promoting inter-faith harmony.

On the other hand, the segment of youth that fifty years ago would have been in the vanguard of the right-leaning, religious, moral activism has split, with a significant element moving on to religiously inspired activism directed towards political change. (The reader would no doubt register that these are broad generalizations and not applicable to every single individual in either group.)

The bottom line is that there has been a marked rightward shift in activism in Pakistan over the last fifty years. This shift includes both the sources of ideas and the nature of the activism itself. A large proportion of the segment that earlier contributed political activists has transitioned to social welfare approaches while those who earlier contributed moral activists have split into two – a section continuing in the older tradition and another moving on to political activism inspired by internal religious ideas.

This much should be acceptable to the reader who takes the time to reflect on these changes. It is less clear, however, as to what might be the forces driving this change itself. At one level, the erosion of the credibility of externally inspired models is a convincing enough reason for the decline of left-leaning activism. In parallel, the emergence of a seemingly real clash of religions at the global level can explain the rise of right-leaning political activism.

However, there might be a less obvious factor that has facilitated this transition and helped give it the specific character we see today. This relates to the evolution of the labor market in Pakistan over the last fifty years. At the beginning of this period the balance of economic growth and the supply of labor was such that almost anyone with some education was guaranteed a reasonable employment. This assurance was sufficient to allow many young people to indulge their idealistic aspirations whether on the left or on the right.

Fifty years later, the pool of educated youth has expanded manifold and greatly outpaced the growth in the number of acceptable jobs created by a consistently anemic economy. This outcome has pushed even the better educated to struggle for decent employment which has become the over-riding priority. Idealistic aspirations are now satisfied through part-time or incidental social work. At the same time, the job market for the less well-educated is so bleak that many of them have found attractive the promise of political change that would skew the distribution of resources in their favor. One might almost claim that the activism of idealism has been replaced by the activisms of anxiety and resentment.

A counterfactual thought experiment might prove useful to probe the plausibility of this hypothesis. What would have happened if the Pakistani economy over the past fifty years had been propelled by East Asian rates of growth? Would we have seen the same patterns of activism even in the face of the decline of Marxism and the rise of the clash of religions?

If not, what might we have seen instead? Perhaps much more activism centered on human rights, participatory governance, and basic freedoms. It is plausible that the concerns could have been quite different. If so, the conclusion supports the contention that the evolution of the labor market is a factor that must be considered in understanding how our society and the nature of its activism have evolved over the preceding half century.

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Reflections on Eid

August 6, 2014

By Anjum Altaf

It was fall last year that I was teaching the introductory course in economics and had drawn four concentric circles on the board to illustrate how the market was embedded in the economy which was embedded in society which, in turn, was embedded in the extra-terrestrial outerworld.  The objective was to spark a conversation about how the outer spheres limited what could or could not take place in the inner ones as also to point out the fact that while the economy and society had always existed, the market as an institution was a relatively recent phenomenon.

From there we moved on to discuss how the reach of the market was expanding and its ambit growing to include aspects that were previously never within its domain to the extent that reading the standard textbooks one could well believe that the market economy was all one needed to consider to understand everything that needed to be understood including births, deaths, marriages, crime, you name it – everything that mattered was the ‘Economy of Something’ and subject to the calculus of supply, demand, prices, and ability to pay.

It was in that context that it occurred to me to remark on the fact that all of the past Ramadan the Pakistan cricket team had been somewhere or the other playing a series of international matches. Only a few decades earlier this would have been unthinkable but now the market had engulfed the game and the governing body had laid down the schedule – defy it and lose millions of dollars. And dollars had won. So the direction of influence that used to be from considerations of afterlife to the economy was now clearly running the other way.

I thought we had laid this to rest when lo and behold the big Eid arrived during the semester and now the Pakistani cricket team was elsewhere and Eid was on the third or fourth day of the test match and, to my horror, it was not a rest day – the Pakistan cricket team was actually playing on Eid day.

Well, well! The ICC was clearly not foostering around with solemn looking men sighting the moon with naked eyes. Rot-in-Hell, they were saying – play or be damned which in our time is nothing more than being out of cash. And these fellows were playing – the same fellows who started every conversation with thanks be to Almighty Allah, the boys played very well but Allah did not want us to win while under the breath wondering if they could have made more if they had arranged for another no-ball on the fifth ball of the third over.

Clearly the market had triumphed and trampled Eid underfoot. All that came back to me as I woke up this Eid day to the incessant buzzing of my cell phone with waves of inane messages from people I had had the misfortune of having my trousers stitched or my head massaged years ago. It took me considerable time deleting the felicitations most of them without reading. It was then that I found that the same ladies and gentlemen had been ardent enough to make doubly sure they reached me by forwarding the same messages to my email account. Another round of feverish deletions ensued in the midst of which a truly determined soul decided to actually call to make sure his messages had been registered. It was then that I lost my cool.

Just about then a dozen mosques burst alive at the same time competing with each other in the true spirit of the market economy. I should have thought what a wonderful gift competition is and how blessed we are to be showered with it but by this time I had a terrible headache and felt deeply desirous of a dose of creative destruction. I decided that if the shaking of my hands could be stopped, some of the fragments of the afternoon might be collected, and I concentrated my attention with resigned despair to that end.

Readers interested in more on the embedded nature of the economy in society should refer to Part I (Economy and Society) of Primitive, Archaic and Modern Economies: Essays of Karl Polanyi (George Dalton, ed. 1968). Note the following comment on page 3: “No society could, naturally, live for any length of time unless it possessed an economy of some sort; but prior to our time no economy has ever existed that, even in principle, was controlled by markets.” The debt to Eliot is also acknowledged.

Anjum Altaf is dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

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Analysis: Vision and Management

November 27, 2010

Can Pakistan, or any country for that matter, prosper simply on good management without a national vision?

This question is prompted by a recent column of Irfan Husain in which he makes such a claim:

In Benazir Bhutto`s first term, the late Eqbal Ahmed bemoaned her lack of vision. I replied that rather than a visionary, we needed a good manager at the helm. We argued about this, as we often did over other issues, without either of us convincing the other.

I still believe that good, solid management is more important than having a grand vision that is not translated into reality. After all, we know what our problems are; what we need is a team that sets about solving them in a serious and effective way. (more…)

The World is Too Big to Fail But…

November 18, 2009

Who is Going to Bail it Out?

By Anjum Altaf

We have all read the stories about very big entities failing and being bailed out – these include cities like New York, countries like Mexico and Pakistan, and corporations like General Motors and Bank of America whose businesses were bigger than the economies of many countries. All of them defaulted on their debts – went bankrupt – and were bailed out by an entity that was bigger than them, the US Government alone or in concert with other developed countries.

The combination of size and of the existence of a savior, the protector of last resort, gives rise to a dilemma that is known as ‘moral hazard.’ When an entity believes its failure would damage the rest of the system and that there is someone who will not allow that to happen, then it loses the incentive to manage its risks prudently. (more…)

Gujarat: What Miracle?

March 18, 2009

By Dipankar Gupta

[Note from The South Asian Idea: This article forms part of the series (Governance in Pakistan) on this blog that deals with issues of analysis. The preamble to this piece by Professor Dipankar Gupta is an article on Narendra Modi by Robert Kaplan in the April 2009 issue of Atlantic Monthly (India’s New Face). The bottom line of Kaplan’s article is that “Under Modi, Gujarat has become an economic dynamo.” Professor Gupta’s op-ed originally appeared in the Times of India on January 31, 2009 under the caption Credit Misplaced. Note how much difference it makes when all the evidence is taken into account and the starting point is not chosen arbitrarily. Note also the varying explanations for the same set of events. Readers are invited to join this discussion and give their opinion on which of these two analyses is more robust.]

Gujarat grew at approximately 12 percent in 2006-7 against India’s overall growth of about 8 percent that year. Fantastic, said Montek Singh Ahluwalia, and lauded Gujarat’s achievement. He must have stuttered on this praise, because all credit on this score would go to Narendra Modi.

But wait! What is so great about this statistic? In 1994-1995 Gujarat surged at the rate of 13.2 percent. Where was Narendra Modi then? In the years 1994-2001, Gujarat’s state domestic product registered a growth average of between 10 and 13 percent. At the tail end of this period Modi stepped in as Chief Minister. What then has Modi done that is so special?

Let us take a long look at Gujarat. This state was already among the top three in India by 1990. It took Gujarat 20 years after it was created in 1960 to climb up from the eighth rank to the third spot. Twenty years of hard work, led primarily by Congress governments, it may be added. Over 35 percent of its infrastructural augmentation for power generation happened between 1995 and 2000. If Gujarat today can show off its treasure chest, it should gratefully remember its pre-Modi past.

Besides other riches, Gujarat processes 49 percent of the country’s petroleum products. It also has India’s largest shipyard in Bhavnagar, as well as the giant Reliance refineries in Jamnagar. Even on something as pedestrian as Soda Ash, Gujarat is responsible for 90 percent of India’s production. All this happened well before Modi cut his political incisors.

So what is so dazzling about Gujarat’s current prosperity? Nothing really! In spite of decades of growth as usual, as much as 93 percent of Gujarat’s workforce toils in the informal sector. This is why growth is not always development. In fact, on the Human Development Index, Gujarat fell one place in 2003-2004, and now ranks below Kerala, Punjab, Tamilnadu, Maharashtra and Karnataka. In terms of rural prosperity Gujarat is at number five and well behind Punjab, the front ranker.

Now this is a hard one. Workers employed under the National Rural Employment Guarantee (NREG) scheme in Gujarat receive half of what their counterparts get elsewhere. Interestingly, this fact was recently released by a Parliamentary Committee headed by none other than Kalyan Singh, a one time BJP stalwart.

Ernst and Young, consultants for Vibrant Gujarat conclave of 2005, ranked Gujarat’s investment climate behind Kerala, Maharashtra, Tamilnadu, and on par with Karnataka. In terms of Workforce Quality, however, the same professionals gave Gujarat a very average “B grade” as it failed to measure up on a number of counts. It may be recalled in this connection that the Asian Development Bank in 1996 had ranked Gujarat as number two in India in terms of its investment climate. But in 2005, it was rated at number five. Perhaps the 2002 riots had something to do with this. 

Why then does it seem that Modi invented Gujarat’s golden wheel when it was already spinning? There are probably two reasons for this.

The first is the simplistic assumption that all communalists are intellectual clunks who can’t hold two ends of a book together. Modi was read as a one-talent wonder, good at leading riots from the front, but little else. Hence, Gujarat would soon show negative economic figures and, before long, its heirloom would be up for sale. But when that did not happen, Modi’s skills at book keeping, rather than bloodletting, began to draw attention. Instead of serving just death by culture, Modi cleverly stirred Gujrati garv (pride) into the pot. This made the state’s usual growth rates taste nicely different.

It was Modi’s highly personalized executive style, rather than his tidy store minding that attracted Indian corporates. They gave as much thought to Gujarat slipping in the development index as they would a drain inspector’s report. What mattered to them was the manner of delivery. Modi did not just give Nano shelter, but also readied permits for Ratan Tata in three days flat. Democratic stage fright? Never heard of it! Here was a man who could bend the law at will, but you had to be good to him. Sweetening politicians is easier than playing by the book.

So when Modi welcomed private capital to Gujarat, many Indian entrepreneurs, big and small, rushed to his side. They had at last found the patron they always longed for. The one feature that has endured India’s liberalization regime is the way our native entrepreneurs crave for political goodwill and protection. It was not as if only the riff raff ran to Modi, the big shots did too. And some of them were regular four star generals of corporate governance. So much for Business Ethics!

True, Modi is partial to business, but this isn’t news either. Gujarat consistently attracted a disproportionate slice of India’s private investment. But Modi’s tune was hard to resist not because it was new but because he delivered it with a bang. The first to sing along was Anil Ambani. After splitting from his brother he found an uncle in Amar Singh. But today he is a card holding Modi groupie. In the Vibrant Gujarat conclave he even advocated him as India’s Prime Minister. Sunil Mittal soon joined in, and then the chorus began. CEO’s now look at Modi just as ancient Israelis must have looked at Moses.

Beauty, in such cases, does not lie in the eyes of the beholder. It rather lies in the eyes of the beholden.

Dipankar Gupta is Professor of Sociology at the Center for the Study of Social Systems, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, India.

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