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What Narendra Modi can learn from Narsimha Rao

Narendra Modi & his government need to make the best of the election free window that starts from January 2015 and try and make the best of it

Before PV Narsimha Rao took over as the prime minister of the country, the finances were in a bad shape. Under the previous regime, the foreign exchange reserves had fallen to a level which was enough to pay only for three weeks worth of essential imports. In this scenario India had to take an emergency loan of $2.2 billion from the IMF. This was done by offering 67 tonnes of gold as a collateral.

Given this, Rao realized that he needed a 'technocrat' as his finance minister. IG Patel, a former governor of the Reserve Bank of India(RBI) was approached first. Patel, had been the fourteenth governor of the RBI between 1977 and 1982. After retiring from the RBI he was the director of IIM Ahmedabad. Between 1984 and 1990 he was the director of the London School of Economics.

Patel refused Rao's offer and instead recommended Manmohan Singh. Singh had taken over from Patel as the governor of the RBI. He had a three year tenure at the RBI. After that he took over as the deputy chairman of the planning commission. In March 1991, Singh was appointed as the Chairman of the University Grants Commission(UGC). And this is when Narsimha Rao came calling and on June 21, 1991, the day Rao took over as the prime minister of the country, Singh was appointed as the finance minister.

Singh with the firm backing of Rao unleashed a spate of economic reforms which unshackled the moribund Indian economy and placed it on a much better footing. What is interesting nonetheless is that the entire period of Rao's rule was not reform oriented. The economic reforms happened in the first three years and after that election considerations for the next Lok Sabha took over. Hence, the last two budgets of Manmohan Singh were of the 'populist' nature. There is a lesson in this for the current prime minister Narendra Modi. Modi is likely to have elections on his mind more than Rao for the simple reason that his party and his allies are outnumbered in the Rajya Sabha. And if he has to establish a majority in the upper house, he first needs governments of the Bhartiya Janata Party in states. The BJP currently has 43 MPs in the Rajya Sabha and the NDA 63 MPs. This makes it difficult for the government to enact any legislation unless it calls for a joint sitting of both the houses.

Hence, elections for state governments are very important for the Modi government.

In this scenario it might is quite possible that economic reforms and even simple administrative decisions for that matter, may take a back seat. A very good example of this is that Modi had to wait for elections in Maharasthra and Haryana to get over before the government could announce the decontrolling of the price of diesel.

State election calendar till 2016

StateLikely election timelineLS Seats% of total LS seats
JharkhandNov-Dec, 2014142.6
J&KNov-Dec, 201461.1
BiharNov, 2015407.3
AssamApril, 2016142.6
KeralaApril, 2016203.7
Tamil NaduApril, 2016397.2
West BengalApril, 2016427.7
Source: Deutsche Bank; Election Commission of India

The good news is that an election free window of almost 11 months is coming up. As analysts Abhay Laijawala and Abhishek Saraf of Deutsche Bank Market Research point out in a recent report titled Policy action to intensify “Following three state elections in December - Jharkhand, Jammu and Kashmir - there will be a near eleven month election free window, before Bihar state goes to the polls around November 2015.”

As can be seen from the accompanying table, after elections in the states of Jharkhand and Jammu and Kashmir are over, there is an election free window of close to 11 months. This table does not account for elections in Delhi, which also may happen soon.

The next big election is scheduled only in November 2015 in Bihar. The state has around 7.3% of the country's Lok Sabha seats. It also elects 16 members to the Rajya Sabha. The Rajya Sabha has 241 seats in total. Hence, the Bihar election will be of significant importance. And it may not be possible to push economic reforms around the time elections happen in the state.

Hence, the time to push reforms is early next year, when the election free window starts.

A good place to start with would be take the deregulation of diesel prices further, and start gradually increasing the price of cooking gas. Currently, the oil marketing companies make an under-recovery of Rs 393.50, every time they sell a cooking gas cylinder.

As was done in the case of diesel, prices can be increased gradually at the rate of Rs 10-20 per month. Currently, the oil marketing companies face an under-recovery of Rs 188 crore per day on the sale of cooking gas and kerosene. A part of this amount is reimbursed by the government. This leads to an increase in the expenditure of the government and hence, its fiscal deficit. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends. An increase in price will also ensure that over a period of time the black marketing of domestic cooking gas to hotels will become unviable.

Also, over a period of time as the government is able to increase its numbers in the Rajya Sabha it needs to introduce land and labour reforms as well. As Laijawala and Saraf point out “Most of the reforms in India, since 1991, have been broadly focused towards product and capital markets. Reforms in factor markets, other than capital, principally land and labor, have been broadly left out by all political administrations since 1991. We believe that a long era of coalition governments may be the reason for this anomaly.”

Narendra Modi's government is not held back by the coalition dharma, as almost all governments since 1996 have been. Hence, it is in a position to push through some real economic reforms on this front. These reforms are of great importance if Modi's call of “Make in India” is to be take seriously.

Other than this, the Goods and Services Tax (GST) bill which has been in the works for a while, needs to be passed as well. The benefits of GST over the long term will be tremendous. “It has a very ambitious objective to wean away inefficiencies in India's indirect tax value chain and ensure smoother movement of goods and services by converting India into a one common market, versus the current status where different states levy different types and rates of taxes, which introduces several inefficiencies,” write Laijawala and Saraf.

To conclude, Narendra Modi and his government need to make the best of the election free window that starts from January 2015 and try and make the best of it.

(Vivek Kaul is the author of the Easy Money trilogy. He can be reached at [email protected]