For years, India suffered from what came to be called the “Hindu rate of growth” — a result of Jawaharlal Nehru’s policy choices. India’s first prime minister had a fascination for the Soviet Union and championed socialism. In India, this socialist economic model was incongruously implemented by a colonial bureaucracy with a penchant for red tape.
Consequently, the license, quota and permit raj, a system in which bureaucrats commanded and controlled the Indian economy through byzantine regulations, throttled growth for decades. Once the Soviet model started collapsing in 1989, the Indian economy came under increasing pressure. A balance-of-payments crisis led to the 1991 economic reforms. Thereafter, India consistently grew at a rate of more than 5% per year until 2019.
What Ails Corporate Governance in India?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, that growth has stalled. In the first quarter of India’s financial year that begins on April 1, the economy shrunk by a record 24%. Forecasts estimate that it will shrink further, although the rate of the contraction will decelerate considerably over the next two quarters. This contraction has left little elbow room for a government fixated on redistributive policies and fiscal restraint. This fixation is a hangover from the past.
Historically, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been more market-friendly than other political parties. In fact, the BJP broke new ground in the early 2000s by targeting and achieving a growth rate in excess of 8% when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister. Despite such high growth, the BJP lost the 2004 election.
Foreign Investment Hits Record Figures
The BJP has not forgotten Vajpayee’s defeat. In particular, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has drawn a key lesson and focused on providing services to the masses. As a result, the government has focused on redistribution and taxation. It has put growth on a backburner. In 2018, the Modi government embarked upon what these authors termed Sanatan socialism, a policy that courts the poor with financial transfers and private provision of services. This strategy was vindicated by a resounding electoral victory in 2019.
Today, COVID-19 is posing fresh challenges to the economy and to the Sanatan socialism policy. The growth slowdown in India is greater than in other emerging economies. The opposition has upped the ante and is blaming the government. Some business leaders are questioning the government’s lockdown strategy. This puts the BJP on the defensive regarding the economy.
Yet even during such a growth shock, foreign direct investment (FDI) and foreign portfolio investment (FPI) have been pouring into India. Surprisingly, the FDI has hit record figures. In the first five months of this financial year, $35.7 billion has come into India. The FPI figures are also at an all-time high. In November, foreign investors plowed $6 billion into Indian capital markets, beating figures for Taiwan and South Korea. What is going on?
Three key facts explain this inflow. First, corporations from the US and the Gulf have bought big stakes in Reliance Industries, India’s biggest conglomerate. They are also buying shares in Indian companies. In effect, they are betting on future growth.
Second, the Production Linked Incentive (PLI) scheme has gained some traction. The purpose of the PLI is to boost electronic manufacturing in the country. So far, India has been too dependent on China. Current tensions along the border have led India to change tack and give financial incentives to companies who manufacture in-house. Players like Samsung, Pegatron, Foxconn, Wistron and AT&S have responded well to the PLI.
Third, global corporations might be diversifying their supply chains to mitigate the risk of manufacturing exclusively or mainly in China. This strategy to tap alternative supply chains to China is widely known as China Plus One, and India might be benefiting from it.
Modi has doubled down on an advantageous situation. Sovereign wealth funds, pension funds and organizations with over $6 trillion of assets under management attended a summit organized by the prime minister in the first week of November. In addition to Modi, India’s business leaders such as Mukesh Ambani of Reliance Industries Limited, Ratan Tata of the Tata Group and Deepak Parekh of Housing Development Finance Corporation pitched to these investors. More foreign investment might follow soon.
What Lies Ahead?
If investment is flowing in, what are its implications for the Indian economy? First, India will experience a growth spurt within three to four quarters from now. In recent years, private investment has been weak because of a banking crisis. Indian banks lent large sums to big borrowers who had no intention or ability to pay back their debts. This meant that they had no money or appetite to lend to bona fide businesses. A credit crunch ensued, investment suffered and so did growth. Increased FDI will reverse this trend and fuel growth by restoring investment.
Second, India will experience job growth thanks to higher FDI. The entrance of new players and the revitalization of older ones will increase employment. The government has already instituted major labor market reforms to encourage manufacturing and other labor-intensive activities.
Third, increased employment could boost domestic demand, raising growth rates. These might materialize by the 2022-23 financial year, just in time for the next general election. The FDI flowing in right now might be boosting the BJP’s 2024 reelection chances.
Finally, the record FDI is giving the Modi administration a leeway to achieve geopolitical goals. With cash coming in from friendly economies, the government is limiting economic engagement with nations hostile to India, especially in core sectors such as power, telecommunications and roads. Aimed largely at Chinese and probably Turkish entities, the move could benefit European, American and East Asian companies from Japan, South Korea and Taiwan.
India’s new economic direction reflects the seismic shift in the global economy. The post-1991 era is over. As during the Cold War, countries are now mixing politics and business again.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.