Big potential, big risks? Indian capitalism, economic reform and populism in the BJP era
This paper reviews India’s aggregate economic performance under the Modi/BJP/NDA administration through the prism of political economy. It argues that the inheritance of the UPA period was a combination of an unfolding “oligarchic capitalism” and a half-baked social democratic project. While the 2014 election victory was formally on a platform of “Minimum government, maximum governance” it always had deep ambiguities between a pro-business, pro-rules regime and an essentially nationalist project which subordinates commercial considerations. Some policy changes under this government, that we call Modi 1.0 – notably the GST reform and the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code – constitute potentially substantive shifts to an efficiency-improving and rules-based approach. However, their effectiveness has been compromised by substantial delays, additional administrative burdens and increased uncertainty, not least over the actual implementation of the new rules. All this coincided with the legacy of a severe overhang in the financial system. This contributed to a chilling effect on private corporate investment. It has also gone alongside a continued major role of public sector banks and PSUs in the economy. The combination of an apparent increased concentration of mega-deals in some of the largest business houses, and continued, if anything rising, importance of state-managed subcontracting for infrastructure, has further contributed to the sense of an, at best, half-baked effort to reform India’s capitalism. A top-down economic nationalist stance, state-driven action, political resistance to reforms, and attacks on accountability institutions, will actually continue to threaten long-run development dynamics. The demonetization episode was only the most vivid example of a growth-dampening policy. At the beginning of the new government – Modi 2.0–these contradictions are intensifying. With the Covid-19 shock, the associated tensions will only become sharper.