Finance Minister P. Chidambaram’s confession that the government made a mistake by taking the foot off the accelerator of economic reforms might reflect not only the past but also the future. The reason is that the deceleration may continue even if there is a change of guard in New Delhi.
For a start, large sections of the Indian political class and the academia remain defensive about the reforms two decades after they were initiated and lifted more than 150 million people in India out of poverty.
Yet, as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said, the “benefits” of an open economy “are still not widely understood among the general public. The instinctive reaction of many is to revert to a state-controlled system”. Behind this preference for statism is a distrust of the private sector, which is seen as rapacious.
In view of the belief that Narendra Modi will focus on development if he becomes prime minister, it is possible that the private sector is no longer an anathema as before. But it is still not certain whether his supporters make a distinction between state-driven growth via the public sector or a market-oriented approach, which, to quote Manmohan Singh, is considered “anti-public welfare”.
In any case, there is an influential protectionist lobby in the saffron brotherhood, the Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), which has already voiced its opposition to foreign investment in general, and not in the retail sector alone which has already been declared out of bounds for foreign investors by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Although Modi has called upon the small traders, who have long constituted the BJP’s vote bank, to prepare to face the global challenge, it is unlikely that he will overturn this aspect of the party’s policy in the near future – notwithstanding what the pro-Modi economist Jagdish Bhagwati says.
But it isn’t only the SJM’s protectionism of which the foreign investors will be wary. They will be even more watchful of the social scene. The guiding principle of investment is social and economic stability. If there is the slightest sign of uneasiness among the minorities in the aftermath of Modi’s rise to power, they will back off.
It is noteworthy how organizations like the SJM, of which little was heard in the last 10 years, have crawled out of the woodwork in view of the possibility of the BJP entering the corridors of power at the centre. So have Hindu extremists like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s (VHP) Pravin Togadiya with their call for segregating Hindu and Muslim localities by preventing the latter from buying property in Hindu-dominated areas.
None of this is conducive to social peace. In fact, it is what the SJM and the VHP say which will interest the investors more than Modi’s assurances. But if Modi is at least formally committed to an open economy even if some in his camp are not, this cannot be said of a large section of those on the “secular” side of the divide.
These nay-sayers to markets will include the Congress, especially now that the “neo-liberal” Manmohan Singh is retiring and Chidambaram says that he will no longer be in public life although he will still be “active”. Their departure may encourage the “socialists” in the party led by Sonia Gandhi to seek a return to a closed economy.
They will be eagerly joined by the Left considering that Prakash Karat of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) has expressed a willingness to help the Congress support a prime minister from a regional party, as in 1996. There will be other socialists as well, notably Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Nitish Kumar, Mayawati and Mamata Banerjee.
Against such a formidable line-up, the few who still see some virtue in foreign investment like Naveen Patnaik, some of whose favoured projects were sought to be scuppered by Left-of-centre Congress ministers like Jairam Ramesh and Jayanthi Natarajan, will have a great deal of explaining to do.
The end result will be that the growth story will continue to falter. Mayawati’s fear that there will be riots if Modi wins may be exaggerated, but a defining feature of a BJP-led government will be communal tension and that of a Third Front-Congress combine will be a renewed emphasis on sops and subsidies based on casteist politics.
It isn’t only the economy which will suffer, but the social scene will come to be dominated by antediluvian personalities who will express their aversion to English and modern lifestyles with greater fervour than before. The only way out is for Modi to be far more stern against the fundamentalists in the so-called Sangh Parivar – the fraternity of Hindu nationalist groups – who continue to live in medieval times.
Similarly, it is hard to think of anyone in the “secular” camp other than Patnaik and Sharad Pawar who can be said to belong to the modern age. But it is open to question whether they will be willing and able to fob off the obscurantists and dogmatists in their ranks. The overall scene, therefore, is gloomy.