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India: Modi on the defensive

Could Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party lose this year's national elections?

Until recently, that would have been a ridiculous question. But after five years in power, during which he has dominated the Indian political scene, the strongman premier looks vulnerable - as James Crabtree, an associate professor in public policy at the National University of Singapore, argues in a recent perceptive analysis. Last autumn, the BJP was heavily defeated in a string of state elections in the Hindi north by a revived Congress party under Rahul Gandhi. Suddenly, it no longer seems impossible that the Modi government could lose this April's national polls.

This seems all the more surprising since India's economy continues to do well. Growth for the current year is likely to come in at a very decent 7.2% and the IMF has just revised its outlook for 2019-20 to 7.5% - one of the few upgrades it made as it revised its global forecasts lower this week.

The problem is that macro-economic expansion has not led to the creation of the kinds of high-paying and sophisticated private sector jobs that India's swelling middle class voters long for. On top of that, the government has increased uncertainty and deterred investment with some spectacularly wrong-headed policies: from the forced demonitisation of 2016 to the overly-complicated move to a single, national value-added tax in 2017. Most recently, Mr Modi has forced a second governor of the nominally independent central bank from office. No wonder that the prime minister has suffered a sharp drop in the public's view of his competence as an economic manager.

Just as important as the self-inflicted mistakes are the things that haven't happened. Despite a healthy fiscal position and an overwhelming parliamentary majority, the Modi government has done very little to cut back the state sector, clean up loss-making banks and promote growth-enhancing reforms.

Take the automotive industry as an example. Under India's ambitious "Automotive Mission Plan 2016-26", this sector is supposed to more than quadruple in size during that 10-year period and end up accounting for 12% of national GDP and 40% of manufacturing output, while creating 65m new jobs. In response, most of the global auto makers have invested heavily to set up local factories alongside home-grown (or partly home-grown) champions like Tata Motors, Maruti Suzuki and Ashok Leyland. Yet, foreign direct investment has actually been falling since 2015 and, hurt by the demonitisation and sales-tax initiatives, sales of motorcycles, cars and commercial vehicles are on a downward trend.

Given India's young and growing population and steadily increasing household incomes, auto sales (and much else) should revive in time. With just 2% of Indians owning a car, the forecasters at EMIS expect both vehicle production in India and domestic sales to return to their historic annual compound growth rate of around 7%. But once again, the question is when?

The prospect of political upheaval this year, whether in the form of a new government or one still led by Mr Modi, but perhaps much weakened or even without a parliamentary majority, suggests that 2019 could be yet another year when India underperforms and reform and deregulation take a back seat.

Incredible India, as the tourism slogan has it, always seems to fall a little short of its potential.





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