Does Modi Deserve a Second Term?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Four years ago this week, Narendra Modi was sworn in as India's prime minister amid the kind of excitement and expectation not seen in decades. Not for 30 years had a single party won an electoral majority. Modi's success, his rhetoric and his background all seemed like a decisive break with India's past -- one which many Indians were eager to embrace.
What precisely was expected from Modi? Surely, that's one fair way to judge how his government has done as he makes a bid for reelection next year. As far as economic policy goes -- which was where the previous Congress administration had disappointed the most -- voters hoped to see three things: less corruption, greater decisiveness in policymaking and more market-friendly reform.
Even Modi’s critics have to admit – and welcome – the fact that he’s made real progress on all three. Even his fans, though, must acknowledge that given its advantages, his government hasn’t lived up to its potential.
Take the first metric. Modi's top officials have certainly avoided getting caught up in the sort of big scandals that paralyzed the previous government towards the end of its tenure. If anything can be said to be Modi's number one political priority, it’s this -- to avoid any hint of financial impropriety. More than anything else, an image of probity helps the prime minister cast himself as the champion of ordinary Indians against a historically venal political class.
It’s equally true, however, that the ability of those Indians to judge the government has diminished. The freedom of information requests that previously drove reporting on corruption and cronyism are now being routinely denied; the opposition, at least, openly questions the independence of institutions, such as the Supreme Court, that are supposed to keep an eye on the government. While things look like they’ve improved, we may not have the full picture.
What about decisiveness? Well, Modi -- a leader with enormous political power, leading a majority in parliament and a party that controls most of India's states -- has both the opportunity and the desire to be more decisive than any prime minister in years. Nobody would claim, as they could have four years ago, that India's federal government was so weak and vacillating that it was unable to make a real choice or change a law or institute new policy.
Of course, being decisive isn’t enough: What you decide also matters. And Modi’s decisiveness has led to some big blunders as well as undeniable achievements. Consider, for example, the one decision that will define Modi's term in power: his overnight withdrawal, in November 2016, of 86 percent of India's currency from circulation. To this day, nobody knows how and why this decision was made; who was in the room; why the Reserve Bank of India, the custodian of India's monetary stability, signed onto the plan; and whether it succeeded in its nebulous aims.
What India needs most is a more efficient state. But, creating a structure that enables timely, evidence-based policymaking requires more than a prime minister who knows his mind. It demands administrative reform up and down India's dysfunctional bureaucracy -- the one challenge Modi has been reluctant to undertake.
Finally, there's economic reform, where Modi's government boasts of definite progress. It passed landmark tax reform, which completely overhauled India's system of indirect taxes and has the potential to knit India's disparate states into one economy -- and even, perhaps, to increase tax compliance and raise government revenue to a new, higher level. India's banking system, burdened by bad loans, has been given new hope thanks to an insolvency and bankruptcy code that might help free some of the capital that's been sunk into stalled or mismanaged projects. Debt-ridden electricity utilities have been given an opportunity to clean up their books, which together with a continued emphasis on rural electrification might finally give all Indians a chance at 24x7 power.
What the government hasn’t been able to do is render Indian companies more competitive. India's exports are historically low as a proportion of GDP and job growth has been minimal. That's because the Indian private sector is still waiting for truly flexible labor markets and for processes that allow them to engage with the world on equal terms.
Modi’s supporters will no doubt argue that he should be given a second term precisely in order to attack these lingering problems. Yet his government has recently seemed to move backward on reform, raising tariff walls and seeking to protect entire sectors from competition. If India's prime minister has disappointed some of those who were most enthusiastic when he took office four years ago, it isn't because he lacked energy but because he didn't expend his political capital on the right purposes. It's hard to see why that would change in a second term.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.