NEW DELHI, (Reuters) – As an election campaigner, Narendra Modi promised sweeping market reforms to revive India’s economy and put the country to work. As prime minister, he has dismayed admirers, apparently reverting to the script of the hapless government he defeated.
To some of the economists and business leaders who as his campaign cheerleaders dared to dream of a Thatcherite revolution, he seems not to be listening. Three months after his win, it is dawning on them that their views count for little.
“As of now, the momentum is lost. They might still recover it, but we have lost the moment,” said Bibek Debroy, a prominent economist who co-wrote a book laying out a reform agenda that the new prime minister himself launched in June.
Debroy told Reuters that so far there had been no signs of the promised change at institutions sapped by graft and over-regulation that many Indians have grown to revile.
Back in the heady days of the election campaign, Modi and his supporters seemed much more in tune, all lambasting the last centre-left government for years of waste and policy paralysis and building expectations of a regime of “minimum government and maximum governance” that would unshackle key sectors of the economy from the state. But now there is a sense that the 63-year-old Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) strongman, who made his reputation putting his home state Gujarat on a high growth path, has somehow stumbled in New Delhi.
To be fair, the government has a five-year term to achieve Modi’s goal of transforming India into an economic and military power able to withstand the rise of China on its doorstep.
On Friday, Modi will make his first Independence Day speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Old Delhi, and the expectation within his party is that he may use the occasion to announce bold changes that have so far been absent. According to economists at HSBC, the government has already moved with “unaccustomed alacrity” on a number of fronts, such as opening up the state railways to foreign investment and providing new guidelines for a more streamlined bureaucracy.
“But the stuff that will lift economic growth over time … requires deft and delicate handling,” they said this week, noting resistance to reform from the country’s states and the challenges of pushing legislation through the upper house of parliament, where the BJP does not have a majority.
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Modi won India’s biggest election mandate in three decades in May after promising to revive growth that has fallen below 5 percent, choking off job opportunities for the one million people who enter the workforce every month.
He dangled the prospect of new roads, factories, power lines, high-speed trains and even 100 new cities. So far, there has been little movement on any of these gigantic tasks, which will require an overhaul of India’s land acquisition laws, faster environmental clearances and an end to red tape.
He has refrained from cutting food aid that is estimated to cost 1 percent of gross domestic product, or tackling costly welfare programmes.
Last month, his government blocked a global trade reform pact, saying there must be movement on a parallel agreement on stockpiling that is necessary to run a programme to distribute cheap food, the world’s largest.
A leader with such a strong mandate “should be making policy with conviction, not emulating tactics of a defunct government,”