By R.Jagannathan/Times of India
New Delhi, July 17 (Times of India): There is an important parallel in the challenges faced by Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government two years before the General Election and Narendra Modi’s. In both cases, growth has been sluggish, though formal growth numbers on Modi’s watch have been higher, possibly due to a change in the methodology of calculating the GDP.
In the Vajpayee era, growth was partly affected by a political decision he took in 1998 to conduct nuclear tests. This led to global sanctions and the economy bore the consequences.
In Modi’s case, the growth retarding political moves involved lighting fires under tax evaders. He demonetized high value notes in November 2016, then pushed GST. We don’t know if tax evaders got singed, but the first measure slowed down an already slowing economy.
The jury is out on ongoing implementation of GST but there is little doubt it will be a huge disruption, with consequences for short term growth.
If we assume that the new tax regime will take most of the remaining nine months of fiscal 2017-18 to settle into a fine rhythm – and we are assuming it won’t create a blowout, either politically or economically – we are left with just one year before general elections are held in 2019.
The big question is whether growth can revive even in 2018-19. The bigger question is whether reviving growth in the last year of a government’s tenure will be enough to remind voters that ‘acche din’ are finally here.
That’s another parallel with the Vajpayee years. After struggling with growth from 1998 to 2003, growth took off vertically only in 2003-04, but voters didn’t start experiencing the gains at that point. As a result, the “India Shining” story didn’t sell.
Will the same happen for Modi, with the benefits of growth not being felt till it is too late for the voter to acknowledge it?
The Modi juggernaut has rolled across India largely on the political goodwill and brand power of the Prime Minister himself, with minor hiccups in 2015 when BJP lost Delhi and Bihar.
But the Vajpayee brand was as strong in 2004 as in 1998. That he stood head and shoulders above every other leader didn’t matter when the economy failed to take off for four years.
Will Modi’s charisma, which now looms larger than that of Vajpayee, succeed where Vajpayee’s failed?
There is always a close connection between a voter’s sense of whether her lot is improving and how she votes in general elections. The bad news for Modi and party chief Amit Shah is that there is little possibility of an economic pick-up before 2018-19, and even then one cannot be sure it will be visible to the average voter.
Here’s why the economic outlook looks cloudy even three years after Modi took over.
First, the NDA government’s political focus on going after black money has impacted growth. Two disclosure schemes, one for illegal foreign assets and another for domestic undisclosed incomes, have not yielded any great tax bonanza. Nor has demonetization.
Additionally, the government has closed tax loopholes by renegotiating treaties with Mauritius, Cyprus and Singapore. This has had the net effect of crimping clandestine black money flows. While this is ethically laudable, it has made economic revival slower.
The negative effects of the clampdown on black money are front-loaded, while the benefits, in the form of higher tax collections, will be back-loaded. The price of a high focus on black money is slower short term growth.
Second, Modi has changed between Gujarat and now. In his previous avatar as Chief Minister, he was happy to be seen with business and lauded for being business friendly. Not anymore. This is perhaps where Rahul Gandhi’s “suit boot ki sarkar” jibe has had an impact. It has had consequences for growth.
The government has been wary of reviving bank lending by quickly recapitalizing them after writing off unrecoverable loans, for fear of being seen as favoring big business. If around Rs 1 lakh crore had been provided for banks in the initial two years, by now bank lending would have been roaring, bringing back the animal spirits of India Inc. Instead, the government has opted for the longer term remedy of forcing the liquidation of bad businesses and seeking a slower resolution of bad loans, now in excess of Rs 7 lakh crore and set to rise even further in 2017-18.
Since the bulk of the recapitalization will need to be done this year, it means government will have less fiscal muscle to invest in infrastructure and social spending.
And if we assume that GST’s first year will involve compensating states for revenue losses, Arun Jaitley’s fiscal math is going to go for a toss. There will be very little headroom for a stimulus.
Third, while the central government itself will be standing firm on not announcing farm loan waivers the states are under no such restraint. Already UP, Punjab, Karnataka and Maharashtra have succumbed to pressure. Chhattisgarh has waived interest on farm loans, and in 2018 (another big election year) one can expect more bounties from MP and Rajasthan.
Put together, the Centre-state fiscal math is set to go out of control once more unless GST delivers an unexpected bonanza. This leaves little room for raising minimum support prices for farmers, making even a limited farm stimulus difficult in 2018-19.
It will need an economic miracle of sorts for the economy to be kicking in favor of a Modi wave in 2019. Growth is unlikely to revive early enough to give him a tailwind.
(The featured image at the top is that of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi)