After Modi’s party won the first majority in the lower house of parliament in 30 years, he pushed to ease regulations related to land, labor, taxes, subsidies and foreign investment. He also started a Make in India campaign to revive manufacturing, implemented more market-based energy pricing and opened millions of bank accounts for the nation’s poor. The moves won praise around the world, with foreign direct investment on pace to reach a record high. By mid-2015, however, he’d seen a series of setbacks. Opponents who control India’s upper house of parliament blocked a goods-and-services tax and rallied farmers against a decree to ease land acquisitions, prompting Modi to withdraw the measure. His Bharatiya Janata Party got crushed in two major state elections as opponents highlighted its pro-Hindu agenda. Modi has faced criticism for failing to quickly condemn the public lynching of a man accused of eating beef, which his adversaries say is emblematic of a renewed threat to India’s traditions of tolerance and public debate.
Jolted by a balance-of-payments crisis caused by four decades of Soviet-style economic planning, India changed course in 1991 to embrace foreign investment and set the stage for an economic boom. The Congress-led government and its Nehru-Gandhi dynasty redistributed the wealth, expanding subsidies for the poor fivefold over the last decade. The spending provided subsidized food, free education and even guaranteed work in rural areas, where about 70 percent of the population lives. The share of people living below India’s official poverty line was cut by more than half to 22 percent. Per-capita income rose to $1,240 in 2013 from about $250 in 1992, though that success still pales in comparison to China’s. Modi’s BJP consolidated the Hindu vote in the 1990s and led the government from 1998 to 2004, when it pursued a partial privatization of state companies. After more than a decade in office, the rival Congress Party suffered its worst-ever performance in the 2014 election amid allegations of graft and economic mismanagement. Still, the vote was divisive: Parts of the population will never forgive Modi for his handling of riots in 2002 that killed 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, in the western state of Gujarat, where the 65-year-old ruled as chief minister for 13 years. Tensions between Hindus and Muslims have played a defining role in politics since Britain divided the subcontinent into India and Pakistan in 1947. Hindus make up about 80 percent of the population, while 13 percent are Muslim.
India’s democracy has traditionally divided spoils along the lines of religion and caste. As aspirations of an expanding urban population rise, the divisions are now more about ideas: how to power faster development, the appropriate role and size of the state, how to weed out corruption and new ways to deliver public services. Modi’s supporters see him as a leader who can transform India by shifting toward a more market-based economy and empowering those at the bottom of the country’s ancient caste system. His critics doubt that he’ll take measures that increase competition for India’s tycoons or move against religious factions of his party, which oppose opening the economy to foreign companies and want to erode the country’s secular foundations.
The Reference Shelf
- “Why Growth Matters: How Economic Growth in India Reduced Poverty and the Lessons for Other Developing Countries,” a book by Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagriya.
- “An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions,” a book by Jean Dreze and Amartya Sen.
- Charlie Rose roundtable on India’s May 2014 election, broadcast on the U.S. television network PBS.
- Website of the Election Commission of India and map showing voting for the May 2014 election.
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