Sep 25 • 25M

#187 Seek Not To Alter Me

British monarchy. Russian defence companies in a bind. India's semiconductor game. 6 key questions in public finance.

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Frameworks, mental models, and fresh perspectives on Indian public policy and politics. This feed is an audio narration by Ad Auris based on the 'Anticipating the Unintended' newsletter, a free weekly publication with 7000+ subscribers.
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Programming Note: We will be on a short ‘writing’ break. Normal service will resume from Oct 29.

Global Policy Watch: When Traditional Institutions Work  

Insights on topical policy issues in India


King Charles III was coronated last week. I saw the pictures of the event, and if you did not know the history of the British monarchy, the whole thing looked like a Monty Python sketch on a Nolan-esque budget. The King wore a costume that might have appeared outdated even in the 12th century when the Westminster Hall was built. The political class in their finery bowed, the aristocracy in splendid robes kept a stiff upper lip, the media continually upped the circus quotient for public consumption, and the Yeomen of the Guard marched in precise steps while some grand music (Handel?) played on. It was all pomp and circumstance (Elgar would have approved).

I watched this with mild bemusement. I mean, here’s King Charles III, a man who is reputed to speak to his plants, iron his shoelaces, show strange interest in red squirrels and, who often, rails against scientific revolution and the modern economy. What a strange man to ascend the throne of a nation vastly different from him. He must have found the quaintness of the pageantry to his taste. On the other hand, I’m sure he would have some time during the ceremony contemplated the history of the other Charles (Charlies?), who might have ascended the throne with similar accompanying pageantry.

Charles I was beheaded for treason by the parliament led by Oliver Cromwell at Whitehall, not too far away from where Charles III was seated. The second King Charles led a charmed life with childhood exile, a triumphant return to the restoration of monarchy, and finally, a long suspension of parliament in the last years of his rule marking his legacy.

Uneasy may not lie the head that wears the crown these days (there’s really no day job here), but Charles III cannot be too careful about the institution that he represents. The institution is in a perilous state, and he’s seen by many as an oddity unfit for the role. The commonwealth states don’t have any time for the monarchy. The link to the colonial past is no longer about nostalgia. That’s been erased and replaced with an indifference bordering on disdain for monarchy and its role during the excesses of colonialism. Among the young in Britain, the support for the monarchy is on the wane. Only 33 per cent in the age group of 18-24 support monarchy today compared to the 59 per cent who did a decade back. Some feel with the passing of Queen Elizabeth II, the institution of the monarchy will struggle to remain relevant or to serve its vital role of being the ceremonial head of the state. An elected president could do it better. I mean, what’s the point of monarchy barring providing grist to the paparazzi mill, occasional photo shoots with visiting heads of state and announcing a few royal honours every year? Why spend enormous money and effort propping up an archaic and undemocratic institution? Why have a democratic constitution and then have a hereditary basis for choosing the head of the state? Isn’t that a traditional and conservative imposition on the people?

I have more than one reason to support such traditionalism in a democratic polity.

Firstly, people need symbols and customs that represent continuity with their past. This assurance that you are part of an unbroken chain that holds all that’s good and great about your culture gives meaning to many people's lives. That it extends beyond the personal (faith and family) to the political in how you organise your community and run your nation makes it both an anchor to hold a society steady and an escape valve that lets off any built-up steam of anger. Old institutions build up their influence over the ages. This is how they become easier to follow at any given time. This is a vital capability to preserve in any democracy.

Writing in the mid-1860s, Walter Bagehot, the editor of the Economist then, made an insightful observation of how to create and nurture a good Constitution that will clarify this capability further:

In ..constitutions there are two parts (not indeed separable with microscopic accuracy, for the genius of great affairs abhors nicety of division) first, those which excite and preserve the reverence of the population — the dignified parts, if I may so call them; and next, the efficient parts — those by which it, in fact, works and rules. There are two great objects which every constitution must attain to be successful, which every old and celebrated one must have wonderfully achieved every constitution must first gain authority, and then use authority, it must first win the loyalty and confidence of mankind, and there employ that homage in the work of government.

There are indeed practical men who reject the dignified parts of government. They say, we want only to attain results, to do business: a constitution is a collection of political means for political ends, and if you admit that any part of a constitution does no business, or that a simpler machine would do equally well what it does, you admit that this part of the constitution, however dignified or awful it may be, is nevertheless in truth useless. And other reasoners, who distrust this bare philosophy, have propounded subtle arguments to prove that these dignified parts of old governments are cardinal components of the essential apparatus, great pivots of substantial utility; and so they manufactured fallacies which the plainer school have well exposed. But both schools are in error. The dignified parts of government are those which bring it force which attract its motive power. The efficient parts only employ that power. The comely parts of a government have need, for they are those upon which its vital strength depends. They may not do any thing definite that a simpler polity would not do better; but they are the preliminaries, the needful prerequisites of all work. They raise the army, though they do not win the battle.

Secondly, in this age of polarisation and tribal loyalties trumping reason, the idea of an apolitical sovereign reigning as the head of state is appealing. There’s a hope there that such a sovereign might not help rally people toward a populist cause but could perhaps hold them back from falling prey to raw emotions and passions. This moral authority, however undeserved, can constrain any political movement that threatens to derail democracy in the name of populism or majoritarianism. There’s an additional element to the exercise of undemocratic sovereign power. When things are going good, the checks and balances of power between the legislature, executive and judiciary work effectively. There are debates and consultations before a consensus on the way ahead is arrived. But in times of crisis and exigencies, there’s a need for an additional reserve of power or authority that can supersede or expedite the usual decision-making process of a democracy by imposing its will. A constitutional monarchy run on a parliamentary system has that reserve. A presidential style of government lacks this and runs the risk of not being agile enough to counter such exigencies.

Like Bagehot put it:

“at a quick crisis, the time when a sovereign power is most needed, you cannot find the supreme people. There is no elastic element, every thing is rigid, specified, dated. Come what may, you can quicken nothing and retard nothing. You have bespoken your government in advance, and whether it suits you or not, whether it works well or works ill, whether it is what you want or not, by law you must keep it.”

Lastly, a functioning and aware monarchy helps assuage the deeply embedded anxieties about identity in society while gradually accepting the inevitable change that times bring with it. One of the things that the British monarchy, with Queen Elizabeth II at the helm, did well was to stand for what was to be British in times of tremendous upheaval. She was resolutely Christian, proud of the empire, rarely apologetic about its excesses, devoted to her duty as the unelected sovereign and funny in a very British way. Each of these was (and is) a fault line in a society wanting to modernise and cast away the sins of its past. She carried them along because maybe she understood the importance of being a gradualist. Or it is likely the legacy of the institution guided her to be one.

It is strange, but the monarchy, the most top-down of the institutions, perhaps has been the bulwark against any hastily concocted plans of a top-down imposed change in societies. I went back to some of the early speeches of Queen Elizabeth II to see if she always knew this was what she had to contend with being a modern constitutional monarch. It could be her speech writers who saw this, or it could be her imprint on them, but her early speeches give a sense of her awareness about this. In her coronation day address, she said:

The ceremonies you have seen today are ancient, and some of their origins are veiled in the mists of the past. But their spirit and their meaning shine through the ages never, perhaps, more brightly than now. I have in sincerity pledged myself to your service, as so many of you are pledged to mine.

Therefore I am sure that this, my Coronation, is not the symbol of a power and a splendour that are gone but a declaration of our hopes for the future, and for the years I may, by God's Grace and Mercy, be given to reign and serve you as your Queen.

Parliamentary institutions, with their free speech and respect for the rights of minorities, and the inspiration of a broad tolerance in thought and expression - all this we conceive to be a precious part of our way of life and outlook.

During recent centuries, this message has been sustained and invigorated by the immense contribution, in language, literature, and action, of the nations of our Commonwealth overseas. It gives expression, as I pray it always will, to living principles, as sacred to the Crown and Monarchy as to its many Parliaments and Peoples. I ask you now to cherish them - and practise them too; then we can go forward together in peace, seeking justice and freedom for all men.

Listen, much of this can seem like pompous drivel to the more cynical among us. But it is uplifting and meaningful to a lot more. There’s a lot worse that was being said—then and now—to people from positions of authority. I’d rather have thousand-year-old institutions rooted in modern or outdated traditions speak uplifting drivel like this. People should get more of this.

It applies to India too.

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Matsyanyaaya: The Chips are Down for Russia's Defence Companies

Big fish eating small fish = Foreign Policy in action

— Abhiram Manchi & Pranay Kotasthane

(An edited version of this post first appeared in the Times of India’s September 23 edition)

Russia is considered a dependable defence partner to India, and rightly so. An underlying assumption is that Russia will continue to be a reliable supplier even in the future. But this assumption fails to consider that Russia’s defence production capabilities will continue to decline well after the ongoing war in Ukraine ends. Here’s why.

Consider these telltale signs first. Russia has delayed the delivery of two Talwar-class stealth frigates for up to six months. There are also short-term delays in the supply of S-400 Triumf missile systems and spares for Kilo-class submarines, MiG-29 fighters and Kamov Mi-17 military transport helicopters. These setbacks shouldn’t be dismissed as routine. They indicate a deeper problem: Russia’s inability to access semiconductor chips for defence platforms going ahead.

Ukraine put out an alleged shopping list of semiconductors, connectors, transformers, etc., that Russia is desperate to purchase. Politico, a US-based media company, divided this list into three parts Critical, Important, and Not-so-important. The Critical list has some chips of basic complexity, such as connectors, and memory chips, besides digital signal processors and Field Programmable Gate Arrays (FPGAs), which fall slightly higher in the complexity grade. There are no cutting-edge chips on the list. These items are pretty standard and can be manufactured on a large scale in most cases. This surprising lack of complexity in Russian equipment has also surprised the US. There have been claims that college students majoring in electrical engineering could reverse engineer and build most of the electronics used. Also, there have been instances of Russian-guided missiles missing their mark purely due to the old versions of navigation systems.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, the US quickly banned selling semiconductors used in defence systems to Russia. The new controls target chips, encryption software, lasers and sensors, etc., for Russia’s defence industry. The other three pillars of the semiconductor industry, i.e. Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, also banned the export of items through the export control list provided by the US. These controls essentially mean that none of the high-end chips will be available for use by Russia. Russia also does not have the infrastructure to manufacture these chips domestically. Only two Russian companies, Angstrem-T and Mikron Group, are reported to have elementary production-grade chip manufacturing capabilities.

As a result, Russia is feeling the pinch. It is running low on hypersonic weapons because of the unavailability of microchips. Examination of the remnants of the missiles Russia launched on Ukraine showed the usage of older technology parts with elementary GPS systems. Sometimes Russia even used chips taken out of dishwashers and refrigerators.

This puts India in a precarious position. India is the largest importer of Russian weaponry in the world. Even after the ongoing war ends, it is unlikely that the West will remove these high-tech sanctions. With these constraints to negotiate, Russia could proceed in two ways, neither of which augurs well for India.

As seen in most weapons in Ukraine, Russia could use chips from western manufacturers by indirectly sourcing them. It is tough to track chips once they leave the foundry, as there may be multiple unregulated second-hand markets for them. There are also third-party firms sourcing chips and then directly selling them to Russia. While Russia has been a reliable defence partner of India, it would prefer to replenish its declining stocks of chips before considering India’s requirements. From the Indian perspective, even if Russia does continue the supplies, India has to think twice before using chips obtained from these dark markets.

The other option for Russia’s defence industry is to approach China and obtain the chips from them. While this may work for Russia and be advantageous for China to have Russia in their debt, India has to be wary of these Chinese chips entering into the defence equipment being sent to India. Do we want Chinese chips in our missiles and submarines?

Whatever the option Russia opts for, India must prepare for a sharp drop in Russia’s ability to deliver on defence purchase orders. Their technology is dated, and the chips would come from the black market or China. There will also be delays and cost overruns, with supply chains disrupted, financial systems in tatters and Russian manufacturers closing shop. India will now also face issues with its exports to other countries, a case being the partnership with Russia to work on assault rifle export.

Given the reality of Russia’s defence sector, India must diversify its weaponry in the short term and focus on local manufacturing over the long term. Regardless of Russia’s intentions, its capability to meet India’s defence needs has taken a big hit. India must utilise partnerships with the US, Japan, Australia, France, and Israel to secure defence equipment and chip supplies. 

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India Policy Watch #1: India’s Semiconductor Policies v2.0

Insights on burning policy issues in India

— Pranay Kotasthane

Earlier this week, the Union Cabinet approved modifications to three of the four schemes introduced in December 2021 for developing a domestic semiconductor ecosystem. Several news websites have claimed that with the government “sweetening the deal”, investments in this sector will be more forthcoming. I agree, but not without some fundamental reservations. Here’s why.

Semiconductor Fabs

To attract chip manufacturing companies, the original programme promised up to 50% upfront financial support for leading-edge nodes (28 nanometres and below). The promised fiscal support for trailing-edge nodes employing older technologies dropped commensurately, going down to 30% for a fab that produces chips at the 45-65 nanometre nodes. (The node size is a rough measure for the size of a building block in a chip. The smaller that number, the more building blocks that can be packed in the same area resulting in higher performance).

Under the new scheme, the government promises upfront fiscal support of 50% for all node sizes. The change reflects two realities. First, trailing-edge fabs are crucial for India. The demand for older node sizes will not disappear anytime soon. Future applications such as 5G radios and electric vehicles will continue to require manufacturing at these nodes. Most current defence applications also require trailing-edge chips.

Second, many countries are wooing the leading-edge node foundries with much larger incentive packages. Companies such as TSMC are being courted by all major powers, and it’s unlikely they will pick India for the most-advanced nodes. India’s chances are better for securing older technologies.

Display Fabs

Most display panel manufacturers are located in East Asia — companies from China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan dominate this industry. The scheme was designed with the explicit aim of import substitution. The original scheme promised up to 50% upfront financial support subject to a cap of ₹12,000 crores. As part of the changes, this upper cap has been struck off.

To me, this scheme didn’t make sense even when it was announced. I have four reasons for the scepticism.

  1. Even during the high peak of supply chain disruptions during COVID-19, there was no shortage of display panels, indicating that there are no constraints to increasing production, as is the case for chips. (The only shortage related to displays was for the driver chip, not the panels by themselves).

  2. Apart from China and Taiwan, South Korea and Japan have leadership in specific segments of displays. So we aren’t dependent on one vulnerable source, as in the case of chips.

  3. Import dependence on China won’t go away. Even if these fabs manufacture displays in India, the input materials will have to be imported from elsewhere. So the bottlenecks will shift but don’t disappear.

  4. The industry is moving to newer technologies apart from LCDs and AMOLEDs. Samsung is focusing on Quantum-dot displays instead of LCDs. The scheme might be able to get old-tech here, but for newer technologies, imports might continue.

Thus, to spend ₹12000 crores for a product in the pursuit of a failed notion of import substitution doesn't justify the opportunity costs. Moreover, removing the upper cap after Vedanta-Foxconn got into this game raises concerns about rent-seeking — the tendency of businesses to distort policies to serve their own interests.

Assembly, Test, Packaging Units, and Specialised Low-volume Fabs

For assembly, test and packaging firms, & compound fabs, the promised financial support has increased substantially, from 30% to 50%. More importantly, the original scheme allowed disbursal once a facility had begun production. Under the modified scheme, the financial support will be upfront. Prepaid, not postpaid.

These changes again warrant scrutiny. Is it another case of rent-seeking?

At the margin, I am okay with the changes in this segment. India has a potential advantage because of the need for a large, mid-level trained workforce for this segment of the supply chain, in comparison to conventional semiconductor fabs.

Semiconductor Design

Surprisingly, there were no modifications in the one area where India does have a comparative advantage - semiconductor design and design services. The capital requirement for this segment is at least two orders of magnitude lower than the first three segments. And yet, the response to the scheme for encouraging design firms seems less than lukewarm. We propose two changes in the policy for that segment in an article for Hindustan Times earlier this month:

  1. To receive deployment-linked incentives under the current scheme, a design firm has to be registered in India with a 50% local stake. That clause could be watered down. Companies should qualify as long as the workforce is majorly Indian and the development happens here.

  2. Reducing tariff and non-tariff barriers are also crucial for India’s semiconductor design companies to increase operations in India.

On both these counts, the status quo prevails.

To summarise, the modifications reflect the government’s seriousness in attracting investment in this sector. Through these changes, the government is acknowledging that India must start its chip manufacturing journey at the lower end and climb its way up. Getting good at this game takes a couple of decades. At the same time, a thin line separates responsive government policies from regulatory capture by businesses. All industrial policies run this risk, and we need to be vigilant.

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India Policy Watch #2: Six Essential Questions in Indian Public Finance

Insights on burning policy issues in India

— Pranay Kotasthane

Longtime readers might recall what I say about public finance: it is an underrated discipline that offers insights across all public policy domains. Many good public finance textbooks exist, but there are few books which explain the subject in the Indian context. Luckily, we now have a book which does that — M Govinda Rao’s Studies in Indian Public Finance (SIPF).

To make it easier for all readers, I have a book essay that distills the insights from the book as answers to six questions of contemporary relevance. They are:

  1. What do we know about the quantity and quality of India’s public expenditure?

  2. Should India reintroduce wealth and inheritance taxes?

  3. Is an imperfect Goods and Services Tax better than no GST?

  4. What is the single-largest expenditure item in the union government budget?

  5. What ails Indian Fiscal Federalism? and

  6. How many centrally sponsored schemes should the union government run?

To know how the book answers these questions, read my Indian Public Policy Review essay here. And if you are serious about learning public policy, the book is unmissable.

My book essay


Reading and listening recommendations on public policy matters
  1. [Podcast] Who should pay for the UPI? We have a fun Puliyabaazi on this topic.

  2. [Post] Big Think’s Progress Issue is a must-read, especially Hannah Ritchie’s essay An End to Doomerism.

  3. [Blog] Morgan Housel on Three Big Things: The Most Important Forces Shaping the World

  4. [Paper] Down with Legalese. In this paper, authors confirm that “Poor writing, not specialised concepts, drives processing difficulty in legal language”