100 days of Modi govt: It’s been ekdum thanda on the economic front

narendra_modiVivek Kaul

In an essay titled Political Leadership (The Oxford Companion to Politics in India edited by Niraja Gopal Jayal and Pratap Bhanu Mehta) historian Ramachandra Guha writes about the various styles of political rhetoric: “The modern idiom is often expressed through a rhetoric of hope—the offer of a better and fuller life, whether expressed in material terms or otherwise. The traditional idiom, on the other hand, privileges a rhetoric of fear—warning the members of a caste, or religion, or region, that they would be swamped by their enemies if they do not bind together.”
Indian politics, over the last seven decades since independence, has largely been fought on what Guha calls the traditional idiom of fear. Given this, Narendra Modi’s campaign in the run up to and during the 16th Lok Sabha elections came as a breath of fresh air. Modi campaigned around the idiom of hope. “
Acche din aane waale hain,” was the line that he tried to sell to the voters of this country. And voters bought it lock, stock and barrel, giving an absolute majority to the Modi led Bhartiya Janata Party(BJP). This was the first time that a single party other than the Congress got an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha.
Once the majority was in place, the hope among analysts, economists and everybody who had some sort of an opinion on Modi and his politics, was that he would push big bang economic reforms, like the kind that had happened in 1991, when the Indian economy was thrown open to the world. Nevertheless, nearly 100 days since the Modi government assumed power on May 26, 2014, nothing of that sort seems to have happened. This is not to say that no economic reform has happened. The government allowed 100% foreign direct investment(FDI) in several areas in the railways sector. It notified that the FDI limit in the defence sector would be increased to 49% from the current 26%, through the approval route. At the same time it has cleared the FDI limit in the insurance sector to be increased to 49% from the current 26%. Further, land acquisition laws put in place by the Congress led UPA government are set to undergo a transformation.
But other than the “proposed” change in land acquisition laws these are not big bang reforms exactly. This is minor tinkering at best. The union budget presented by Arun Jaitley lacked a vision of what the Modi government plans on the economic and the financial front over the next five years. Also, it continued with the unrealistic estimates of both revenues and expenditure made by the previous finance minister P Chidambaram.
Given this, it is highly unlikely that the fiscal deficit number projected by Arun Jaitley and his team is a realistic one. In that sense Jaitley has continued the process of projecting lower expenditure and higher revenue, started by Chidambaram.
Also, like Chidambaram, Jaitley has started to suggest that the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) should start to cut interest rates.
But as I explain here, there is very little that the RBI can do to cut interest rates. Interest rates will only come down once the government starts to manage its fiscal defict, borrower lesser and leave more money on the table for everyone else to borrow. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends. The government spends it through borrowing money.
Over and above this, there has been almost no talk about what the government plans to do on the Goods and Services Tax(GST) and the Direct Taxes Code (DTC) front. These are two big bang economic whose implementation has been pending over the last few years.
In his independence day speech Modi announced that his government was doing away with the Planning Commission. There is no doubt that it was an institution that had outlived its utility, nevertheless, with what and how does the government plan to replace it. More than two weeks after the independence day speech, there is almost no clarity on this front. As economist Bibek Debroy,
wrote a recent column in The Economic Times “We are in end-August. In 2014-15, what happens to the (central assistance) money disbursed to states through the Planning Commission? Will that be released in December 2014 to be spent by March 2015?”
Oil prices have been falling for a while now. Given this, it was widely expected that the government would use this lucky streak to move towards market determined price for diesel and do away with some of the “under-recoveries” that the Oil Marketing Companies have to face everytime they sell diesel, cooking gas and kerosene. It was also expected that the cooking price would be raised by an equal amount every month and the “under-recoveries” on it would be done away with over a period of time. But nothing of that sort has happened.
Also, no moves have been made to sort out the food subsidy mess that the country finds itself in.
A recent new report pointed out “Food corporation of India has informed the food ministry that dues on the food subsidy have piled up to Rs 50,000 crore at the end of 2013-14 over the last three-to-four years as it has not been allocated enough funds.” This is something that needs to be sorted out immediately.
A possible explanation for economic reforms being put on the back-burner being bandied around by Modi sympathizers has been that economic reforms will start streaming in after the Maharashtra elections are done with. The government does not want to make any publicly unpopular decisions before the Maharashtra elections are over. The thing is that state assembly elections will keep happening all the time. After there Maharashtra there is Bihar in 2015. And by the time the state assembly elections are over, the next Lok Sabha elections will be upon us. The government, like most other governments in the past, is likely to get into the election mode by 2017, two years before the next Lok Sabha elections are due. So, when will it actually get around to implementing any big-bang economic reforms is a question worth asking? Given this, the explanation does not really make much sense.
If the government is serious about economic reforms, the best time to do it is now. These are the early days for the government and it still has a lot of leeway to push through these reforms. An excuse offered here is that the Modi government does not have a majority in the Rajya Sabha and hence, legislation required to push through these reforms can get stuck there. This is indeed true, but then the government also has the option to call a joint session of Parliament and pushing through these reforms.
To conclude, it is worth pointing out what Guha writes about being the bane of almost all the governments in India over the last 25 years, before the Modi government came to power: “[The] deepening of Indian democracy has come at a cost, namely that there is now no political leader who can really think of or act for the country as a whole. When a single party was dominant at the Centre, it was possible to design long range policies; now, when the government is constituted by a coalition of a dozen or more parties, each representing a specific sectarian interest—these based variously on caste, language, region, or religion—its policies are determinedly short-term, aimed at placating or satisfying one or other of those interests.”
Modi doesn’t have to go through all this. His government has absolute majority on its own and it can use this opportunity to push through economic reforms, which will be beneficial for India in the days and years to come.

The article originally appeared on www.FirstBiz.com on September 1, 2014

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He tweets @kaul_vivek)

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About vivekkaul
Vivek Kaul is a writer who has worked at senior positions with the Daily News and Analysis(DNA) and The Economic Times, in the past. He is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. Easy Money: The Greatest Ponzi Scheme Ever and How It Is Set to Destroy the Global Financial System , the latest book in the trilogy has just been published. The first two books in the trilogy were published in November 2013 and July 2014 respectively. Both the books were bestsellers on Amazon.com and Amazon.in. Currently he works as an economic commentator and writes regular columns for www.firstpost.com. He is also the India editor of The Daily Reckoning newsletter published by www.equitymaster.com. His writing has appeared across various other publications in India. These include The Times of India, Business Standard,Business Today, Business World, The Hindu, The Hindu Business Line, Indian Management, The Asian Age, Deccan Chronicle, Forbes India, Mutual Fund Insight, The Free Press Journal, Quartz.com, DailyO.in, Business World, Huffington Post and Wealth Insight. In the past he has also been a regular columnist for www.rediff.com. He has lectured at IIM Bangalore, IIM Indore, TA PAI Institute of Management and the Alliance University (Bangalore). He has also taught a course titled Indian Economy to the PGPMX batch of IIM Indore. His areas of interest are the intersection between politics and economics, the international financial crisis, personal finance, marketing and branding, and anything to do with cinema and music. He can be reached at vivek.kaul@gmail.com

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