By Nantoo Banerjee
In its fourth year in the government, the top brass in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party may be finding it quite embarrassing as more and more senior party members are becoming critical about the country’s sudden economic slowdown, especially since November, 2016. The big dip in the 2017-18 first quarter (April-June) GDP growth figure to 5.7 per cent has provoked an intense debate on the state of economy from both the opposition and some of BJP’s own senior party members and economists. The latest to publicly express his concern over the economic slowdown is no other than RSS chief Mohan Madhukar Bhagwat himself. The Sarsanghchalak of the Hindu nationalist organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), is recognised as the most powerful external influencer of BJP. The Sangh chief is never known to criticise the party in public. Bhagwat expressed his concern over the current economic slowdown during his annual Dussehra lecture. Interestingly, BJP veteran Lal Krishna Advani was a special invitee at the meeting, for the first time.
The country’s economic growth reached its peak by 7.9 per cent in the January-March quarter, last year, to consolidate India’s position as the fastest growing major economy with a five-year-high growth rate of 7.6 per cent for 2015-16. It overtook even China. India’s GDP grew by 7.2 per cent in the previous fiscal. The government said the growth rate can go up to 8 per cent in 2017-18 on the back of good monsoon. However, the country’s economic growth nosedived to barely 5.7 per cent in the first quarter of the current fiscal, the slowest pace in three years. It may have underlined the disruption caused by the uncertainty related to the rollout of the goods and services tax (GST) at a time when the economy is struggling to recover from a shock demonetisation. Almost all sectors of the economy are impacted. Economists may bicker about whether the first quarter economic slowdown is just a blip or cyclical or structural, consumers are getting gloomier and gloomier with every passing quarter. That is the message from the Reserve Bank of India’s Consumer Confidence Survey for September 2017, released last week.
Things seem to be drifting out of the government control. Else, the economic downtrend and gloomy consumer confidence could not continue for this long. Worse still, the government does not seem to be managing its expenditure well. Going by official statements, the government’s both direct and indirect tax revenues are maintaining uptrend. But, so far, expenditure is far outstripping the income. The additional expenditure is hardly funding new large projects that would have automatically generated new jobs, new income and new demand. On the contrary, the ministries are busy to promote social sector schemes. The prime minister’s most talked about ‘Make in India’ programme seems to have taken a back seat. Both the core and manufacturing sectors are underperforming.
The telecommunications ministry may claim the arrival or possible arrival of several dozens of foreign units to manufacture cellphones, the consumption of which are booming mostly through imports from China and Korea. But, the truth is there is no government initiative to manufacture core inputs such as microchips and batteries to support the domestic production of cellphones. The government has pondered over the domestic microchip production for the last three decades without result. The increasingly uncontrolled and surreptitious imports of a host of manufactured and farm products, mostly from China, are posing as the biggest challenge to the country’s SMEs and ‘Make in India’ programme. Official reports say the number of new internet and technology start-ups launched in January-September, this year, has slumped to 800 from more than 6,000, last year.
The government’s unplanned drive against black money too have slowed down local investment especially in the construction and housing sectors. The black money hoarders seem to be investing big in gold, instead. Amidst the growth gloom, gold import, this year, has surpassed all previous records. International estimates say gold imports are likely to jump by a third or more in 2017. The Switzerland-based World Gold Council (WGC) is very happy. During the last April-June quarter, when India’s GDP growth showed the sharpest dip, its gold demand showed the biggest surge. The country’s gold demand in the three months rose 37% to 167.4 tonnes, said WGC. In the first seven months of the 2017, imports more than doubled to 550 tonnes from the same period a year earlier. India’s Mumbai-based bullion merchants were innovative to use routes such as South Korea and Indonesia to import gold by taking full advantage of the country’s new trade agreements. Going by industry estimates, this year’s gold import may cross 900 tonnes against the average imports of 709 tonnes in the past five years, and the import bill is expected to cross $40 billion (over Rs.2.6 trillion).
The government appears to be more busy with fringe issues such as mandatory Aadhar linkage with cellphone numbers, bank accounts, digital economy, mobile banking and cheaply selling the painfully-built national assets under public sector enterprises (PSEs) to meet budget expenditure. The government is banking a lot on economic impact of its half-hearted multi-level GST, which has upset a large section of industry, trade and the opposition-ruled states. Last week, RBI lowered the GDP growth forecast to 6.7 per cent from 7.3 per cent for 2017-18. Surprisingly, the government is yet to come out with a clear policy statement as to how it proposes to tackle the on-going economic slowdown, create quality jobs that are permanent in nature and additional demand for goods, leading to higher production and growth. Less than two years to go for the next Lok Sabha election, the ruling BJP may face more internal and external criticisms at least until the economy looks up. However, the prime minister is confident that the economy will soon overcome the first quarter gloom and promised further reforms to reverse the trend. (IPA Service)