India’s new PM likely to remodel our world

Narendra Modi is promising to spread the perceived successes of Gujarat to the rest of the country

Narendra Modi, the next prime minister of India, in Ahmedabad yesterday. He will change Indian politics and economics. Photograph: Amit Dave

Narendra Modi, the next prime minister of India, in Ahmedabad yesterday. He will change Indian politics and economics. Photograph: Amit Dave


Surjit Bhalla, an Indian economist, has written to me that India’s is “the most momentous election in world history”. I disagree: the elections of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt were more significant. But the idea is not absurd. India’s population is 1.27 billion. Soon it will overtake China as the most populous country. If the election of Narendra Modi were to transform India, it would transform the world.

It is already possible to identify at least three ways in which the election is remarkable. First, India has shown yet again the virtue of democracy: the peaceful transfer of legitimate power. That this is possible in such a vast, diverse and poor country is an inspiring political achievement.

Second, Indians have rejected the dynastic politics of the Congress party, which, alas, brought to a sad end the distinguished public service of Manmohan Singh, a man I have known and admired for four decades. The most important Congress-led government since the days of Jawaharlal Nehru was that of Narasimha Rao in the early 1990s, under whom Mr Singh served as reforming finance minister. If Modi succeeds, it will be because he builds on that foundation.

Third, Modi is a self-made man. Even though his party won just 31 per cent of the vote, he has gained an overwhelming majority in the lower house. He has done so by promising to spread the perceived successes of Gujarat to the rest of the country. There is debate in India over whether Gujarat is the model it is alleged to be. Yet that is not the main point. What matters more is that Indians have chosen a man who promises to improve their lives. He is not chosen for his origins. That is testimony to India’s transformation over the past quarter of a century.

Hidden truth
The outgoing government is condemned as a failure. Yet, as Shankar Acharya, former chief economic adviser to the Indian government in the 1990s, points out, “economic growth has averaged 7.5 per cent a year, the fastest in any decade in Indian history. This rapid growth in gross domestic product has raised average income . . . by nearly 75 per cent in real, inflation-adjusted rupees.” This sounds good. But, he adds, it also hides the truth.

Growth slowed sharply over the past three years “because of the cumulation of bad economic policies”, while consumer price inflation has risen to between 9 and 11 per cent over the past five years. At the same time, Acharya says, the government’s policies became steadily worse. He points to exorbitant spending on subsidies for oil, food and fertilisers, wasteful entitlement programmes, exorbitant pay settlements and huge fiscal deficits. Other failures include the refusal to lift disincentives to employment, crony capitalism, capricious regulation, retrospective taxation, excessive jumps in food procurement prices and corruption.

Acharya argues all this has contributed to a daunting legacy: a failure to create jobs for the 10 million young people entering the job market each year; stagnation in manufacturing; inadequate infrastructure; huge overhangs of incomplete projects; vulnerability of agriculture due to water stress; badly run entitlement programmes; the weakening of the country’s external finances; and further deterioration in governance itself.

Acharya is a sober analyst of Indian economic realities, who worked closely with Singh in the 1990s. His damning assessment is persuasive. Yet India can surely do better. The latest estimates suggest that GDP per head is just a tenth that of the US, and half that of China.

Modi has above all been elected to accelerate development. But if one recalls the failure of his Bharatiya Janata party’s “India shining” campaign of a decade ago, he must do so in ways seen to benefit the vast majority, not just elites.

It is not clear whether Modi can rise to such big challenges. His motto – “less government and more governance” – has caught the public mood.

‘Economic thinking’
An analysis by JPMorgan suggests “there is a remarkable convergence of broad economic thinking” between the two main parties. The difference, if so, might be more in implementation, an area Modi’s supporters also stress. This suggests the goods and services tax might be put into effect, investment projects might be accelerated, energy prices might be liberalised, shares in public enterprises might be sold – albeit without full privatisation – and fiscal consolidation accelerated.

This would be to the good, but probably not enough to bring about the needed acceleration of growth and jobs generation. Vital further reforms would be in employment regulation, education and infrastructure, with a view to making India a base for labour-intensive manufacturing. With Chinese wages rising, this is a plausible ambition. Improvement in the administration of law is crucial. Agriculture needs big advances, including a more modern supply chain. The states need to be forced to compete with one another.

This election might prove to be a big step towards the economic modernisation of India that was relaunched in 1991. But these reforms will also be far harder. It is not now just a matter of pulling the state out of the way. It is more about making the government an effective and honest servant of the Indian people. – (Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2014)

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