Two years of Modi: Reforms on track but toughest economic tasks still pending

On 26 May, 2014, the former Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, took over as India’s Prime Minister with the promise of good days (achhe din) for all. There was euphoria all over. Has he delivered the promises after two years? The answer would depend on how you define good days, who you would ask and in what context.

Prime minister Narendra Modi

Prime minister Narendra Modi

But even his political enemies wouldn’t doubt Narendra Modi’s intent and ambition to push forward the reforms process. In an interview given to Wall Street Journal, Modi spoke on his government’s efforts to continue with the reforms process and his ‘enormous task ahead’. Modi told the WSJ journalist that when he took over two years back and asked experts to define what are big-bang reforms “nobody could tell me”. We don’t know who the experts Modi spoke to. They are either dimwits who pretend to be experts or experts who pretend to be dimwits.

Whatever it is, the fact is India’s agenda on the so-called big bang economic reforms were listed and discussed across forums from day 1 of the Modi-government. One would broadly categorise them into taxation (read GST), land acquisition, labour, banking, investment liberalization and subsidy reforms.

Reforms on track

Two years after he took over the charge from the UPA-government with a historic mandate and 3-years before his term comes to an end, Modi is right on track of reforms front — not through big bang reforms, but several small, baby-steps.

Most notably, the government has set the juggernaut in motion by kicking off the process in the area of subsidy reforms. It has done so by promoting Aadhaar-bank account linkage for the roll out of Direct Benefit Transfer (DBT). The LPG subsidy roll out through DBT was indeed a great move by this government to curtail leakage and diversion of government funds--something that distorted the system for long.

In the next three years, the government should enhance the reform task to food, fertilizer and other government benefits to the poor. The passage of Aadhaar Bill is a great enabler. The whole subsidy reforms process, which was first kicked off by the UPA-regime, is built on the DBT channel, based on the unique identity number, or Aadhaar card provided to each citizen. It holds particular importance for the Narendra Modi government, and the success of its financial inclusion push under the JAM (Jan Dhan, Aadhaar and Mobile) trinity. With 99.21 crore Aadhaar cards already been issued to almost 97 percent of the country's adult population, taking ahead the subsidy reforms process using this channel is a logical step for Modi.

Now let's look at the investments scenario. Liberalization of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) norms and ‘Modi roadshows’ in numerous foreign trips, with the ‘India is where you should be” slogan, have evidently helped to the spike in inward fund flows.

The FDI inflows has grown by 29% to $40 billion in the fiscal year ending March. But, that doesn’t mean the task is accomplished. The absence of revival in private investment cycle is still acting as a drag on the economy on multiple fronts. New projects are yet to happen in a major way and the existing stock of stalled projects continues to be a pain.
According to this report in Mint, an increase in the number of stalled projects for three successive quarters has brought them to their highest level since Modi became the PM. The chunk of stalled projects has gone up from Rs 9.6 lakh crore in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2015 to Rs 11.4 lakh crore in the fourth quarter of fiscal year 2016.

The absence of fresh private investments becomes even a greater problem seen in the backdrop of bank funding drying up to industries. Huge NPAs on bank balance sheets have forced banks to shut funding channels. Also, severe capital scarcity in the case of state-run banks has further constrained banks' ability to fund the economic growth.
Over the next three years, Modi’s big task would be to convince the private investors to finance India’s infrastructure projects--something essential to fire up an aspiring economy.

When it comes to banking sector reforms, the passage of the bankruptcy law is a major step in the process of overhauling the country’s Rs 101 lakh crore banking sector, even though implementation is key. Bankruptcy code passage also helped the Modi-government to break the reforms jinx in successive parliament sessions battered by controversies and political blame games.

But big challenges remain

But Modi's task is half-done yet. If the ongoing spike in bank NPAs continue for another few quarters, state-run banks will face a crisis situation if the government fails to bail out these entities. Averting a banking sector crisis will be one of the three major tasks that will be used to evaluate Modi’s tenure as pointed out in this article. 
The NPA situation in the banking sector offer warning signals. At least 11% of the total loans in the banking sector are tagged under the stressed asset category. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) beginning the clean-up exercise has shown the actual depth of the trouble on the books of Indian banks (hidden bad loans), especially state-run lenders.

With over 90% of the total bad loans (of Rs 4,00,000 crore) on the books of Sarkari banks controlled by the government, the onus of capitalising these lenders and making growth capital available to them is on the government. In the March-quarter, PSU banks have reported record level of bad loans resulting in cumulative losses of over Rs 14,000 crore in the quarter.

While the clean-up exercise should be done sooner than later, the question is whether the government has an action plan to address the problem. What it has already announced — Rs 70,000 crore by 2019 — is too little and has come too late. A crisis in the banking sector can upset the calculations.

The government will have to seriously reconsider its privatisation strategy and let go of control of some of the state-run banks to facilitate inflow of private sector money. In the long-term, the biggest reform banking sector need is privatisation since government cannot keep on feeding banks. In other words, time is running out for Modi to undertake radical reform measures in the banking industry.

The issue of land reforms is more or less off the table now. Since land acquisition is more or less is a state–specific affair now, there isn’t much the central government can do about. Secondly, GST remains a paper dream and an unfulfilled promise of Modi-government. Subsuming several state levies into one, GST can significantly push up the GDP by 1.5%-2% going ahead. But, the challenge for Modi is to gain consensus of opposition to push through GST. Even though the composition of Rajya Sabha, where BJP is currently weak in numbers, will change in 2016-17, it wouldn’t be enough still to gain majority support.

The BJP will have to devise a strategy garnering the support of regional parties and thus force the Congress to return to the consensus path. Of the three major demands the Congress party has raised on GST — inclusion of the GST rate in the constitution, doing away with the inter-state levy and constituting an independent dispute resolution mechanism — the major point of difference is capping GST in the Bill. The government has failed to push the GST bill and has yet again promised the same in the monsoon session. It will be a test of Modi’s political strategy.

Thus, if one looks at the broader picture, in the two years of its rule, the Modi-government has set the stage ready for a big reforms push. But, what is certainly not warranted is the chest-thumping on 7.6% GDP growth chorus by Modi and his ministers. The tag of a fastest growing major economy is, as of now, just a small arithmetic comfort.

The situation hasn’t changed much on the ground with pain visible on account of absence of fresh private investments, huge stock of bad loans, faltering rural economy and 17-months of consecutive contraction in exports.

In his recent interview to NDTV, former disinvestment minister Arun Shourie said Modi is mostly managing headlines than addressing the actual problems in the economy. With baby-step reforms well on track, Modi should now focus on addressing the big-ticket items in the list (GST, banking sector reforms) and let the result of his work manage the headlines rather than his talks.

Updated Date: May 26, 2016 14:27 PM

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