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Friday, April 14, 2017

India’s Best Chance to Reform

The spectacular performance of the ruling party of the nation at the recently concluded elections to the most populous State of India, UP—a state with a poverty ratio of about 30% as against the national average of 21.9%—offers the most opportune time for its leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi to launch economic reforms that will pave the way for some of his poll promises made in 2014 to fructify.
Its performance also vindicates greater maturity of the electorate: it gave a go-by to ‘caste politics’ by wisely opting for ‘economic development’. The overall performance of the ruling party at the elections vindicates that people at the grassroots level gave a thumbs-up to Modi’s demonetization exercise perhaps believing that: one, the government will match individual deposits with their tax returns and unaccounted deposits will be taxed; and two, by compulsorily forcing consumers to go for digital payments, the government is paving the way for increased tax-compliance, besides widening the permanent tax-base. And importantly, they hoped that the so increased revenues will only lead to increased social expenditures.
Taking a cue from these results, Prime Minister Modi must now boldly go for reforms including those that call for long-term program. For, today people appear to be willing to put up with short-term anxieties in anticipation of long-term gains. Perhaps, the first and foremost task under this list would be: ensuring that the introduction of the national Goods and Services Tax scheme will have a smooth sail to accomplish the envisaged objectives.
Similar urgency and deftness is warranted in addressing the bad debts menace of the banking system, for, it is likely to derail the much-desired growth process. Restructuring of banks’ bad loan portfolios is, however, suffering from a glitch: any restructuring of stressed loans calls for haircuts, that too, of substantial nature. And no banker is ready to take this risk, for, no one wants to be dragged to courts at a later date for having caused losses to banks in terms of granting write-offs. That is where the government has to step in, offering a kind of political cover to such decision makers. Now, with the new-found political capital, the present government needs to push the banks to take speedy action to restructure bad loans/write them off under one time settlements by offering a kind of assurance not to haul them to courts for granting haircuts in setting right the bad loan portfolio.
Similarly, the government should do away with the present policy that differentiates ‘single-brand’ and ‘multi-brand’ retailing for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). In the same vein, trivial issues such as local sourcing attached to FDI must be cleared. In short, the need for a liberalized, comprehensive retail policy must be addressed forthwith. Any concrete action in this direction is likely to give a boost to agricultural production in the country, which in turn shall help eliminate supply side chinks under food inflation.
Similar initiative is needed to roll out the much-needed labor reforms, including defining the modus operandi to privatize at least the unviable PSUs. Land acquisition laws must also be looked into afresh and suitable enactment must be passed to facilitate speedy implementation of infra projects. Simultaneously, it must make efforts to increase government spending on improving healthcare and education, and if required, by reforming the administration of inefficient subsidies.
That said, it must also be admitted that the present election results may not right away give the benefit of requisite numbers in the Rajya Sabha for the BJP-led government to pass the reforms. Yet, Prime Minister Modi, leveraging on his surging popularity as a ‘pursuer of development’, needs to carry out economic reforms and attract foreign investment boldly to prove himself as a man of action and not a politician of slogans. Else, the nation is certain to miss the opportunity to realize its potential.


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