Newspaper article International New York Times

Modi's Economic Failure

Newspaper article International New York Times

Modi's Economic Failure

Article excerpt

When the prime minister was elected two years ago, he promised serious market reforms. He has yet to deliver.

May is a month of haunting heat in this city. The temperature hovers over 100 degrees. There are dust storms and, despite the white skies, the trees are heavy with flower. The apocalyptic climate serves as a fitting backdrop to political upheaval.

Two summers ago I witnessed one: After a long campaign, Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., won the first outright majority in India's Parliament since 1984. It had come at the end of 10 years of Congress Party rule, the last five of which were marred by corruption and an economy that left many people frustrated. I have followed campaigns since I was a child -- my mother is a journalist -- and Mr. Modi's election was one of the most hopeful of my lifetime.

What Mr. Modi understood was that India's conception of itself had changed. It was not yet a middle-class country, but it had begun to think of itself as one. When I first heard Mr. Modi speak in September 2013, what surprised me most was the change in the average voter. A new kind of person had emerged, young and energetic, representing the happy conjunction of denim, phone and television. For many people I spoke to these were their prized possessions. (They didn't have cars or houses.) Their restlessness revealed a hunger and they had none of the fatalism of old India.

"They are poor but their self-image is not of being poor," Yogendra Singh, a sociologist, said of the B.J.P.'s supporters in an interview earlier this month. Mr. Modi spoke directly to their ambition. They didn't want the populism of the Congress Party. They didn't want handouts; they wanted jobs.

Mr. Modi was the first Indian politician to speak seriously of prosperity. In a country with a socialist past whose first prime minister is said to have described profit as "a dirty word," Mr. Modi made making money sexy. He has a way of explaining complex economic ideas in direct terms. "I don't want my cotton grower to wander from place to place, trying to sell his cotton," he said in an address to the Sri Ram College of Commerce in 2013. "I have a 'five F' formula: farm to fiber, fiber to fabric, fabric to fashion, fashion to foreign."

It was revolutionary. No candidate for prime minister since economic liberalization began in 1991 had bothered to explain the global economy to the average Indian voter, to connect the dots in its supply chain, to speak of its possibilities. The Congress Party, famous for its "reforms by stealth," had made liberalization seem like something done at the expense of the poor. Mr. Modi sold it as essential to the fight against poverty. The response was electrifying.

Two years later, India is still waiting to turn a corner. At times it can feel close, but the socialist mind-set still has an outsized influence. …

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