India election 2019 – the economy and Modi versus Gandhi

April 17th, 2019 by Hubert Fromlet, Kalmar

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Indien – maktkamp mellan Modi och Gandhi i det pågående valet

Svensk sammanfattning

Det stora och komplicerade parlamentsvalet i Indien pågår för närvarande för fullt. Sittande premiärministern Narendra Modi rankas alltjämt som favorit. Gandhi-dynastin är dock på väg tillbaka. Många eller rentav flertalet västerländska finansmarknadsaktörer verkar tydligt starkare sympatisera med Modi än med Gandhi. Vissa ekonomiska framgångar har Modi också uppnått. Dessa är dock inte riktigt i linje med alla västerländska applåder. Behovet av omfattande strukturförändringar kvarstår som mycket stort.

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The big election event

India is currently heavily occupied with its ongoing election for the federal government, the Lok Sabha (“House of the People”). 900 million people have the right to vote but as much as 300 million of them are illiterate. The result of this major event is expected for May 23. “Major event” seems even underestimating the magnitude of the Indian election with its 11 million public election workers and more than 1 million polling stations in 29 federal states and 7 territories – in all respects also an enormous logistic challenge. Election costs are estimated at incredible USD 10 billion.

In PPP terms, total Indian GDP is already the third largest economy in the world after China and the U.S. (but, of course, not when measuring as GDP per capita). India has indeed developed into a global player in the past 10-15 years or so. On the other hand, comparing India’s total GDP to China’s also shows that India – with almost the same population as China but a younger one – not even reaches half of China’s GDP. Regarding this fact, India’s current GDP growth of around 7 percent is not particularly high as India’s former central bank governor and outstanding economist – Raghuram Rajan – has been pointing at more lately.

More about the political background

Certain economic and political background information was already given in my blog from February 26 this year, including the probable need of a broader majority in parliament – both with re-elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi (BJP) or with Rahul Gandhi from the oppositional Congress Party as the new Prime Minister.

There is no doubt: The Gandhi Dynasty is moving forward again. More recently, this is true of Rahul, the son of assassinated former PM Rajiv Gandhi and grandson of assassinated former PM Indira Gandhi. But Rahul Gandhi’s charismatic and empathic sister Priyanka Gandhi right now is gaining new sympathy points even faster than her brother. Many observers see her as a future prime minister. This time, however, a potential Rahul Gandhi-led coalition must find extremely strong support from Modi opponents. On the other side, the BJP suffers from sensitive losses in two important federal state elections at the end of last year. Generally spoken, Modi’s overwhelming victory from 2014 will not be repeated this time even if he remains in office.

When it comes to foreign policy, Modi achieved obviously some improvement of India’s relations to the U.S. and to China. However, tensions with Pakistan escalated more recently again, including some exaggerated noise from India.

Remaining homework

Going back in history 20 years or so, there is no doubt that India has achieved remarkable economic progress. When I came to India for the first time in the early 1990s, India was in many respects a different country. Progress is visible at least in the urban areas. Modi managed, for example, the implementation of a unified VAT system (after attempts during many years before him), revised bankruptcy laws, achieved re-capitalization of banks, FDI reforms and improved water (toilet) quality. However, the puzzling money reform was not really successful and damaged many small companies.

Altogether, reform needs are still enormous, partly because of India’s mostly very slow legislative procedures through all the federal states. Provided the assumption that no very negative exogenous or domestic shock occurs any time soon, reform velocity between a Modi or a Gandhi government will not make any dramatic difference. This means continued moves forward but in most cases cautiously and relatively slowly. In other words: the remaining homework is substantial.

Finally, some examples of areas that need real improvements (the sooner the better):

¤  institutions (corruption, etc)

¤  infrastructure,

¤  education on a broad scale,

¤  youth unemployment (also for academics) and other job creation,

¤  agriculture (employs still around half of the working population),

¤  conditions for small businesses,

¤  energy,

¤ national health,

¤  tax system and government finance/debt,

¤  efficiency of the political system.

Hubert Fromlet
Affiliate Professor at the School of Business and Economics, Linnaeus University
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