India’s Faltering Economic Revolution: Lost Opportunity, Lost Future

Last year Narendra Modi won an unusually strong majority in India’s parliamentary election. Modi subsequently visited the U.S. and was warmly welcomed by both the Obama administration and Indian-Americans.

Although ethnic Indians circled the globe as entrepreneurs and traders, the Delhi government turned dirigiste economics into a state religion. Mind-numbing bureaucracies, rules, and inefficiencies were legion.

Eventually modest reform came, but even half-hearted half-steps generated overwhelming political opposition. Last May the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, led by Modi, handed the venerable Congress Party its greatest defeat ever. He seemed poised to transform his nation economically.

As the anniversary of that visit approaches, the Modi dream is fading. He simply may not believe in a liberal free market.

Moreover, few reforms of significance have been implemented. The failures overshadow the Modi government’s successes and highlight its lost opportunities. Critics cite continuing outsize budget deficits and state direction of bank lending.

Former privatization minister Arun Shourie observed last December: “when all is said and done, more is said than done.” Unfortunately, Modi has missed the “honeymoon” period during which his political capital was at its greatest. Time is slipping away.

Indeed, Indian politics quickly began shifting back to business as usual. Modi has been forced to fend off charges of corruption and other misbehavior.

None of this is unusual by Indian standards, but voters are getting fed up. Disappointed Delhi voters gave a landslide victory to a new anti-corruption party in February.

Religious violence also is on the rise, largely instigated by Hindu extremists. While serving as Gujarat state’s chief minister, Modi was implicated in the 2002 riots which killed more than 1200 people, mostly Muslims. Since his election sectarian attacks are up, on Christians as well as Muslims.

Modi has not encouraged the rising violence, but his government has catered to Hindu nationalist sentiments. Only after an assault on a Christian school—the vast majority of whose students and teachers are Hindus—did he promise that his government would give “equal respect to all religions.”

Sectarian violence obviously harms innocent Indians. It also provides foreign investors another reason to go elsewhere.

Despite his disappointing economic record so far, Modi still has an opportunity to liberalize India’s economy. In upcoming years his party will take control of the appointive upper house, which has impeded some of his initiatives.

Argued Sadanand Dhume of the American Enterprise Institute, “in Gujarat, too, he started slowly, but ended up presiding over a long boom.” However, it is not enough for his government to tinker with nonessential reforms.

On Dhume’s to-do list are tax reform, privatization, subsidy cuts, and electricity restructuring, India also should limit government spending, liberalize its labor rules, simplify the visa process, modernize bankruptcy procedures, streamline legal processes, and strengthen private property rights.

As I point out on Forbes online: “India desperately needs strong growth for years, even decades, to move to the first rank of nations, as China has done. India has extraordinary potential. But for decades the Indian government has squandered its future.”

Despite the high hopes generated after the BJP’s dramatic victory, nothing has really changed. While growth has picked up in India, that improvement is not sustainable absent far more fundamental and comprehensive reform.

Without sustainable growth, India will not follow China’s example to build a competitive manufacturing sector, generate broad-based income growth, and create a new great power capable of influencing global affairs. Such reforms will not be easy, but making tough decisions presumably is why the Indian people elevated Modi.

Some people predict the 21st Century will be the Chinese century. It is more likely to be the Asian Century, at least if Narendra Modi takes advantage of his unique opportunity. Leading India into a better, more prosperous future obviously would benefit India and the Indian people. It also would benefit the rest of the world.