An Agenda For The First Hundred Days

In less than a month we will have elected the seventeenth Lok Sabha. The seat tally across parties will determine who gets to form the next government.

Since exit polls have been banned during the six week long national elections, we can’t depend on feedback from those who have already voted. The forecasts have ranged from an absolute majority for the NDA, to a possibly hung parliament, with no pre-poll alliance crossing the half-way mark.

Since poll forecasts in India are even more difficult than predicting the stock market or cricket matches, it is best to desist till the final outcome is announced officially.

 However Prime Minister Modi has already instructed his team to work on the agenda for the first hundred days of the new government. This signals his extreme confidence of getting elected for a second term as the Prime Minister. Or in any case, he is laying out the priorities and a possible blueprint for his successor. Either way this is an admirable exercise, and will enable the new government to hit the ground running. Due to restrictions imposed by the code of conduct, the economy does go into a lower gear during election campaigning. More importantly the investors, who create new capital, growth and jobs, also prefer to adopt a wait and watch stance. Even the bureaucrats are cautious during this phase.

So what would a hundred-day agenda look like? It would include executive decisions, sanctioning spending, initiating projects, and moving bills in Parliament. All of this would follow from the urgent priorities facing the nation. For this column let’s focus on the development and economic agenda. But before that, we need to emphasise that on May 23, the date of the results, the “election mode” should be completely turned off. In the last few years it looks increasingly as if the Indian polity is in permanent election mode.

 It is true that the election calendar in India is such that some State or the other is on the verge of holding elections. But that does not mean, that national leaders, including the Prime Minister, his cabinet colleagues and other ministers, who are occupying office, should spend a disproportionate time in electioneering and campaigning? The candidates represent the party, but the elected MP’s and MLA’s represent the entire constituency.

And the office bearers running the government, who have taken oath of office, are accountable to everybody, not only those who did not vote for them, but also those who did not vote at all, or who are not even eligible to vote (like people below the age of 18).  This basic consciousness needs to be reiterated by one and all, the ruling and opposition parties.

The milieu during campaigning is mostly about hate, anger, trading of charges including that of being “anti-national”, some below-the-belt and vicious attacks too, which unfortunately escape the Election Commission’s scrutiny. But post-election, just like after a bitterly fought cricket match, it is important that everyone goes back to “normal mode”, i.e. losers gracefully accept the poll verdict, and winners don’t rub it in and avoid vulgarity. India’s democracy is seven decades old.

For a large and diverse country, to have achieved sixteen, and soon seventeen national transfers of power, mostly without bloodshed, is a matter of great pride. But this success requires all citizens to display a high degree of democratic “sportsmanship”, especially when the voting game is over.

So when the dust settles, and cooler heads prevail after the formation of the new government, the agenda becomes obvious. Just see the latest diagnosis. India is facing declining economic growth in the past several quarters.  Investment spending as a proportion of GDP has been falling, and the share of the private sector has fallen rather sharply. It used to account for 62 percent of all investment spending, but is now below 20.

Exports have started picking up only recently.  But they do not yet display the kind of dynamism and growth that is needed. We are losing out in crucial sectors like textiles, clothing, and in tourism. The still too strong exchange rate is hurting exports.

They are still not zero rated in GST, and refunds are delayed. Manufacturing sector growth, which is closely tied to exports, has been unable to break out of 4 or 5 percent. The infrastructure spending by the government, especially in roadways has helped, and that momentum should be continued. 

But the power sector is still struggling, with potential bad loans of 3.2 lakh crores. Without electricity there cannot be robust growth. The manufacturing sector has been adversely affected by a surge of imports, in a variety of industries, like metals, chemicals, plastics, polymers, electrical equipment and even ancillaries. Why can’t the Make-In-India impetus be given so that the import share in these industries is substantially reduced? The local manufacture of mobile phones is a recent success story, that can be emulated.

Agriculture will be vulnerable to the monsoons, even as more than forty percent of the country is facing drought like conditions. Drought proofing activity, and upscaling rural employment through MNREGA is imperative. Most importantly and the highest priority item is on jobs and job creation. There is an estimated vacancy of two million government jobs, all of which are sanctioned, but not filled.

This should receive urgent attention, even if it means busting the fiscal red line. All skilling initiatives, and accreditation programs need to be accelerated. The labour-intensive sectors are construction, textiles, agriculture including agro-processing and tourism.

These four should get special focus. That would in turn mean large scale projects for affordable housing, boosting farmer producer companies with fiscal and other measures, ensuring better terms of trade for agriculture, and a new textile and tourism incentive package.

The first hundred days is when political capital is cheap, and decision making can be quick. This period needs not just announcements, but actual rollouts of projects, signing of cheques, release of funds and many ground breaking ceremonies.

     (The writer is an economist and Senior Fellow, Takshashila Institution)

          (Syndicate: The Billion Press) (