Evaluating Narendra Modi’s two years of governance

If Monsoon 2016 is as expected, then the first three years of the Modi government will be the best three years for India’s economy since 1996, and possibly the best three consecutive years since Independence,

Two years and counting is what Prime Minister Modi and the BJP are saying. After their unexpected victory in May 2014, and the change in course they have attempted for the Indian economy since, two years is enough of a time to begin to pass judgment. How good, or bad, economically speaking, have these two years been?

But how does one evaluate performance? One criteria could be that performance is measured as the difference between reality (what actually happened) and expectation. If the difference — let us call it Delta — is positive, then performance is better than expectation; if it is lower, then perfomance will have to be deemed as worse.

Now, whose expectations are we considering as the benchmark? If one peruses the outpouring of literature on the second anniversary, it is clear that expectations are different for different people. Some people mention that acche din were promised, and if one looks out of the window, and two successive droughts, it is “clear” that the good news days are not here. But is this the correct method of evaluation? It isn’t. It is like saying that Djokovic wanted to win the Grand Slam but lost the French Open, and, therefore, clearly is not the “best” tennis player.

Yet another method would be to evaluate what we, the “judges”, expected Modi to do, policy wise, in the last two years. Here, besides looking at success, we should also look at failures. For example, the BJP has been unable to pass legislation regarding the Goods and Services Tax (GST). But can we really blame the BJP for non-passage of the GST? It is a failure, but whose failure is it? Could it not be deemed the failure of the Congress for deviously obstructing the bill? Blaming the BJP for non-passage of the GST reminds me of that evocative phrase, ulta chor kotwal ko daante.

But there is an objective method of evaluation. It is a method that can be applied to economies, sports players, etc, which is to compare performance among peers. This is an objective method, a simple method, and one that can stand the test of time and space.

modi-economy-graph

The reference group (peer) for India is developing economies with a population greater than 30 million in 2011, excluding both India and China and, hereafter, EM (for emerging markets). But what are the indicators to be used? An important warning here to all those who make such attempts: Comparison should not be about levels of performance (for example, infant mortality rate) but should be about change, about Delta. Regarding Delta, several economic indicators can be used: Export growth, change in the share of fiscal deficit in GDP, change in investment rates, change in savings rates, etc. Each indicator has its advocate. In the mid-1960s, distinguished American economist Arthur Okun came out with a misery index for the US, and this index was a simple average of two negative indicators, the inflation rate and the unemployment rate. Higher the index, worse the economy.

Unfortunately, data on employment (and unemployment) are available only on a five-year basis in India (that is, on the occasion of the large sample NSS survey of employment and unemployment). But a performance index can be formed for India (and other countries where frequent employment data are not available) as follows. The three-step procedure is as follows:

Step 1: Compute the difference (dG) in the GDP growth rate of the country and the population weighted growth rate of its peers.

Step 2: Compute the difference (dC) in the median CPI inflation rate of the peer group and the CPI inflation rate of the country. A lower than peer inflation rate is positive, a higher than peer inflation rate is a negative.

Performance is defined by dG for growth and dC for inflation. Both incorporate global effects, and both ignore domestic shocks. US interest rates, oil process, commodity prices, slump in world growth, etc. all affect the computation of dG and dC. There is one final computation — and assumption — involved before we can reach a conclusion as to how good the two years of Modi government have been.

How does one aggregate growth and inflation performance? This is the first (and only) subjective element we bring to our analysis. Any weighting of the two indicators will be subject to criticism and accusations of bias. Since time immemorial, social scientists have taken refuge with the “average” and we do the same. Maybe the “average” was invented to settle debates about performance!

How good have the first two Modi years been? The first major result emerging from the table is that the Modi years are the third best in the last 20 years (since 1996, data not shown for 1996/97 and 1997/98). The best two-year period was the NDA’s Vajpayee-Sinha years of 1998/99 and 1999/00. Macro-economic performance in those two years averaged 152 basis points, that is, on average, India was 1.5 percentage points (ppt) better than the EM peers. Note that GDP growth in India was 2.7 ppt (or 270 basis points) higher than EMs. Somewhat surprisingly, CPI inflation was also lower than EMs — 3.6 per cent versus 4 per cent.

The second best two-year period was the first two years of the Sonia GandhiManmohan Singh government of 2004/5 and 2005/6 (hereafter UPA I). Average performance index, 130 basis points with GDP growth being almost 300 basis points above average. Marginally behind, the third best two-year period are the Modi years with an average index of 125, only five basis points behind the UPA1 average of 130.

It is instructive to look at two other factors. The nature of the economy inherited by the two regimes (UPA I and Modi I) and rainfall. On both counts, UPA I was decidedly luckier. The economy was booming and inflation low when the UPA came to power in May 2004. The economy was in a shambles and inflation very high when Modi assumed office. Further, average rainfall during UPA I was five per cent below the long run average (the normal range is +/- 6 per cent from the average); during Modi 1, it was 13 per cent below the long-run average. All things considered, it is only fair to conclude that economic performance during the first two years of Modi were the second-best in the last 20 years. Now think about this: If the Monsoon in 2016 is as expected, then the first three years of Modi will be the best three years since 1996, and possibly the best three consecutive years for Indian economy since independence.

(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Evaluating Modi’)