September 24, 2020

Its Economy Slowed, India Faces Critical Budget Decisions

But on Thursday, when the current finance minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram, arrives in Parliament, his steps will be heavier, and the mood is likely to be, too. Faced with slowing growth, persistent inflation and sagging investor confidence, India’s government is pinned between conflicting pressures: economists warn that tough steps are needed to avoid long-term fiscal problems, even as political leaders are leery of introducing unpopular measures before important elections later this year.

For its part, the government on Wednesday sought to change the pessimistic narrative, as the Finance Ministry released its annual economic survey and projected that economic growth would jump somewhere above 6 percent during the next fiscal year, predicting that the downturn was “more or less over and the economy is looking up.” Some economists were skeptical, given that similar rosy predictions in recent budgets have proved wrong.

“Let me remind you that last year the economic survey spoke of about 7.6 percent projected growth — and what we had was 5 percent growth,” said Ajay Bodke, head of investment strategy and advisory at Prabhudas Lilladher, a Mumbai brokerage. “That is not just a miss but a humongous miss.”

The consequences of the budget plans are especially high because India, once a darling of global investors and an anointed power-in-waiting, is struggling to regain its lost luster.

India’s estimated growth rate for the current fiscal year is 5 percent again, compared with 8 percent in 2010. Ratings agencies have threatened to downgrade the country’s investment rating to “junk” status. Meanwhile, India’s political class has spent more than three years enmeshed in scandals, as a bickering Parliament has accomplished almost nothing.

“It’s a supercritical moment, actually,” said Rajiv Kumar, an economist with the Center for Policy Research, a think tank in New Delhi. “If you get it right, and this is a budget that can shore up the government’s credibility, they can turn it around.”

For investors and business leaders, the question is whether the government will make tough calls to address the country’s large fiscal and account deficits, curb huge subsidies for diesel fuel and petroleum products, unclog bureaucratic bottlenecks on stalled manufacturing, energy and infrastructure projects and create incentives to entice new investment.

Only a year ago, Pranab Mukherjee, then finance minister, unveiled a budget now regarded by many analysts as a major mistake. Desperate to increase revenues, the government spooked investors by giving broad latitude for tax collectors to pursue multinationals for billions of dollars in new, unexpected taxes. Investment slowed markedly, while investors and political opponents complained that India’s coalition government, led by the Indian National Congress Party, was endangering one of the world’s fastest growing economies.

“The economy is in a deep crisis at the moment,” said Yashwant Sinha, a former finance minister with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, “and I only hope the crisis doesn’t become any deeper with more pre-election sops.”

Mr. Sinha and many independent economists warn that the economy cannot afford a repeat of 2008, when the government was preparing for national elections the following year. Then, the pre-election budget was filled with big spending measures, including pay raises to government workers and the forgiveness of billions of dollars in loans to farmers. The government was easily re-elected in 2009, but the new spending contributed to a fiscal deficit that rose to roughly 6 percent, from about 2 percent the previous year.

Neha Thirani Bagri contributed from Mumbai.

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