With Mandate From India’s Voters, Modi Must Deliver on Economy

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NEW DELHI — Now it is time for the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, to start delivering on the promises he did not make in his re-election campaign, which last month ended in a landslide victory.

On Thursday, his new administration will announce its most urgent priorities for his second term. But the issues expected to top the list are the sort of bread-and-butter ones that were conspicuously absent from his campaign, which instead focused on Hindu nationalism and national security.

Supporters and critics alike say they are expecting Mr. Modi to use his Bharatiya Janata Party’s huge win to address the economic issues that were largely ignored during the elections.

The unemployment rate was 6.1 percent last year, the highest in 45 years, with city dwellers hit especially hard, according to data the Modi administration suppressed until after the election. That went along with sluggish growth in gross domestic product, which slipped to a five-year low of 6.8 percent in 2018-19.

Mr. Modi swept into power in 2014 at least in part on promises to create millions of new jobs and to make India an economic powerhouse to rival China. But with unemployment already at historic highs well into his first term, this year’s election campaign focused on national security, with B.J.P. members casting themselves as “watchmen” against terrorists and neighboring nations like Pakistan.

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The B.J.P. also vowed to pass a Hindu nationalist agenda, including abandoning India’s official secularism and making Hinduism, the religion practiced by about 80 percent of the population, the guiding ideology of the government.

“The voters have given him another chance, but this time he will have to get down to addressing these basic economic issues,” said Arati Jerath, a columnist and political analyst in New Delhi. “The big gorilla in the room is employment, creating jobs. It’s been incredible just the past few weeks, downsizing across the board.”

Mr. Modi’s signature economic achievement in his first term — the replacement of a host of smaller taxes by a single goods and services tax — was badly needed, economists say. But business investment has nevertheless slowed. Consumers have also cut back on spending: Sales of cars, trucks and motorcycles have plunged in recent months. And India is only beginning to contend with the mounds of bad debt that hobble its banks and private lenders.

Whether Mr. Modi has an effective plan to pump up the nation’s economy remains unclear. This week, the prime minister told top state officials that he wanted their help to nearly double the size of India’s economy to $5 trillion by 2024 — a wildly unrealistic target that would require India to increase its annual growth rate from last year’s 6.8 percent to an average of 14 percent over the next five years.

Mr. Modi’s legislative agenda is expected to be unveiled in a speech by India’s president, Ram Nath Kovind, to Parliament on Thursday. Mr. Kovind, as India’s head of state, holds a largely ceremonial role, and his speech is expected to be dictated by Mr. Modi’s government.

CreditRajesh Kumar Singh/Associated Press

Since his re-election, Mr. Modi has publicly sought to downplay his party’s divisive rhetoric, saying that he was elected to work for all people, including India’s Muslims and lower castes. Yet he appointed a Hindu nationalist hard-liner, the B.J.P. chief, Amit Shah, as home minister, one of the most powerful posts in the government.

One important test of the sincerity of Mr. Modi’s proclaimed inclusiveness will be whether he introduces legislation to fulfill his campaign promise to expel illegal Muslim immigrants, mostly from Bangladesh, while granting citizenship to non-Muslim immigrants from neighboring countries.

He is also expected to reintroduce so-called triple talaq legislation, which would outlaw traditional Muslim divorces — in which a husband can divorce his wife by repeating the word talaq, or divorce, three times.

Such divorces were already declared illegal by the Supreme Court in 2017, and some critics view the follow-up legislation as an unnecessary attack on Muslim families; others see it as an attempt to curry favor with Muslim women voters.

During the campaign, Mr. Modi struck a populist tone, emphasizing achievements such as the building of tens of millions of toilets for people who previously had to visit fields to relieve themselves — never mind that many of the new facilities went unused. Similarly, he announced a vast new public health care program for the poor, nicknamed Modicare, but has yet to adequately fund it.

CreditAtul Loke for The New York Times

He may very well announce similar programs for his second term. Farmers, who provide vital support to half the nation’s households, are also hurting, struggling with low prices for their crops, frequent droughts, heavy debts, and the failure of the government to deliver on promised support programs.

In recent meetings with top aides, Mr. Modi discussed pet projects such as doubling farmers’ incomes, providing running water for all and universal electric service, according to a report in the newspaper Business Standard.

Ms. Jerath, the analyst, said that the B.J.P. had avoided economic issues during the election because its record had been so poor.

“These were not issues they wanted to bring up,” she said. “Nationalism and security were easy to use to divert attention from bread-and-butter issues. The great failure of the opposition was they completely failed to make these issues the center of their campaign. But now the government cannot avoid them.”

The striking thing about the election results, according to Gilles Verniers, an assistant professor of political science at Ashoka University, near New Delhi, is that the B.J.P. did particularly well in areas that were pummeled by the economic crisis.

“We’re in a bit of a curious situation here, a month after a verdict largely analyzed as being disconnected from economic issues, which does not make sense,” Mr. Verniers said. “Still, the B.J.P. knows that if it doesn’t address the long-term economic issues it’s going to hit a wall.”

Given that, when the Modi government’s legislative agenda is announced on Thursday, Mr. Verniers said, “I would expect a lot of long-term initiatives.”

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