In India these days, don't believe everything you read.
By Jason Overdorf
Sept. 5, 2005 issue - Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's yearlong reign has been a balancing act, as he endeavors to live up to his reputation as the father of India's economic reforms without alienating the left-wing parties that his coalition government needs to survive. But lately, as his Congress party wrangles with the communists, the balance has been tipping. One by one, bold reforms are getting killed or shelved. These days Singh talks of the need for politicians to compromise in order to survive in office.
The question is whether Singh has fallen from compromise to capitulation on reform, as the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party claims. Labor, pension and banking reforms are going nowhere. A new law creating special economic zones for foreign investors was so watered down by the left, it won't have much impact. The commission set up to do away with monopolies and restrictive trade practices is moribund. Last week Finance Minister Shri P. Chidambaram, widely seen as Singh's right-hand man in the reform cause, announced that the government was scrapping plans to sell its stakes in 13 state companies, including an oil refiner, an aluminum maker and a shipping firm. This latest move "is another nail in the coffin of reform," says Arun Shourie, BJP Disinvestment minister in the previous coalition government.
Certainly the story dominating headlines in India is the Death of Reform. But despite all the evidence, the declaration may be premature. The prognosis of most investors is much more optimistic: the Bombay Stock Exchange showed no reaction to Chidambaram's announcement on privatization. The following day the benchmark Sensex index closed at a record high on buying by foreign funds. Investors had expected the shelving of privatization, which was foreshadowed in a common platform released by the ruling coalition partners last year. Meanwhile, the government has achieved progress on other fronts, lifting a rule that limited the ability of foreign joint-venture partners to expand inside India, as well as a cap on foreign direct investment in telecommunications. "Arun Shourie is just being a politician," says Saumitra Chaudhuri, an economic adviser at Indian credit-rating agency ICRA Ltd. "Privatization is not all there is to reforms."
This is about the politics, not economics. Chidambaram's announcement came shortly after every major Indian news outlet carried graphic photographs of striking Honda workers being beaten by police in Gurgaon, Haryanaone of the hotbeds of outsourcing and foreign investment. It also comes a few months before state elections in Bihar, as well as Kerala and West Bengal, where communists have dominated the polls. When the elections are done, many analysts say, the reform effort will resume. "This is only a minor hiccup," says S. A. Chari, executive director of the credit-rating agency Onicra Ltd. "Everybody is seeing the results of the reforms. Even in places like Calcutta [in West Bengal] you can see things changing very dramatically."
The danger, however, is that by positioning itself for these state elections, Congress could be creating expectations that will be hard to live down. In southern states like West Bengal, the communists are so well entrenched that they can throw open the door to foreign investors even as they spout Marxist slogans on the national stage, in order to solidify their one base in the north: trade unions at state-owned companies. Meanwhile, Congress must make good on populist election promises to gain ground in the south if it is to restore itself as a dominant national party.
That explains why, rather than pushing free-market reform, Congress party legislators recently passed a bill that guarantees every rural household in India at least 100 days of paid employment each year. Though they are still bullish now, the markets eagerly expect Congress to lift the many barriers to foreign direct investment: India attracts less than 1 percent of global FDI, while China attracts 10 percent. "It's a generous interpretation to say that reforms are on hold for elections," says Chaudhuri. "If you wait for elections to be over, thinking you will have a little more freedom, then those political positions become written in stone." And that stone could mark the real death of reform.
© 2005 Newsweek, Inc.