Sweet little lies

Despite the frenzy of distractions since, by now you have likely heard the news that demonetisation failed. As NDTV’s Sreenivasan Jain put it in Truth vs Hype, the news sent the government into “a spiral of deflection, of moving goalposts and of swamping us with cherry-picked data”. He’s being very polite, avoiding the accurate and efficient word: “lies”.

Take this blatant example from the 31 Aug 2017 Ministry of Finance release titled “Demonetisation immensely beneficial to Indian Economy and People”:

The Government had expected all the SBNs to come back to the Banking system to become effectively usable currency.

Oh yeah? Here are four examples that show otherwise:

  • In his 8 Nov speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated: “The 500 and 1,000 rupee notes hoarded by anti-national and anti-social elements will become just worthless pieces of paper.”
  • Two days later, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley told News18 that, of the 14 lakh crore notes outstanding, “some would certainly get extinguished” because “people who have used cash for crime purposes are not foolhardy enough to try and risk and bring the cash back into the system”.
  • On 10 Dec, Attorney General Mukul Rohtagi informed the Supreme Court that “the government had expected ₹10 or 11 lakh crore to be returned out of a total of ₹15 lakh crore of ₹500 and ₹1,000 notes that were demonetised”.
  • One month later, on 10 Jan, NITI Aayog member Bibek Debroy predicted that some 10% of the notes in circulation would not return.

Some other big holes in the government’s defence of demonetisation are now widely acknowledged. That the proportion of fake notes in the system is small and remains so, and that the cash crunch failed to impede the activities of militants in Kashmir and in Naxalite areas (here, here and here). That demonetisation has brought in fewer taxpayers than the government claims.

So what’s left to be said?

Quite a bit, it turns out. The big fibs are defended by a ring of smaller lies and half-truths, to the point that honesty seems absent in the entire defence of demonetisation. It’s one thing for politicians to spin or massage the truth, quite another for an official government statement to do so.

Let’s look at the claims in that document, one by one.

A significant portion of SBNs deposited could possibly be representing unexplained/black money… Since November 2016 and until the end of May 2017, a total of Rs 17,526 crore has been found as undisclosed income and Rs 1003 Crore has been seized.

Duh, that’s obviously what happened. It is possible that the income tax department’s Operation Clean Money exposes a good proportion of that money in the coming months, and thereby contributes to the original goals of demonetisation. But the evidence so far is unimpressive.

₹17,256 crore sounds like a lot, but is actually well within historical averages, even if we exclude the unusually large 2013-14 haul – which we really shouldn’t since demonetisation was supposed to be this bold, never-seen-before move (see chart below). The best-case scenario is that future revelations await, the worst-case scenario is that wily citizens successfully convert black money to white.

Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 10.41.18 PM.png

Takeaway: Wake us up when you have something solid.

The total assets under management (AUM) of Mutual funds (MFs) rose by 54% by the end of June 2017 from March 2016.

This is simply ridiculous as a defence of demonetisation. The bulk of this asset growth happened prior to demonetisation, between Apr and Oct 2016, when it rose 32% (according Association of Mutual Funds in India data). Following demonetisation, mutual funds assets grew a more subdued 16% between Nov 2016 and Jun 2017. But 54% sounds so much cooler than 16%, doesn’t it?

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Takeaway: They do take us for fools.

Thanks to demonetization led efforts, zero balance accounts under PMJDY declined from 76.81 % in September 2014 to 21.41% in August 2017.

More bunkum, I’m afraid. The proportion of zero balance Jan Dhan Yojana accounts had already fallen to 24.1% by 26 Sep 2016, several weeks prior to the demonetisation announcement. In fact, the reduction from 24.1% to 21.4% that occurred after demonetisation is the slowest since 2014 (see chart below), quite the opposite of what the Finance Ministry is implying.

Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 2.06.41 PM.png

Takeaway: Still taking us for fools.

As part of fillip to digitalization, about 52.4 crore unique Aadhaar numbers have been linked to 73.62 crore accounts in India. As a result, every month now, about 7 crore successful payments are made by the poor using their Aadhaar identification. The government now makes direct transfer of Rs. 74,000 crore to the financial accounts of 35 crore beneficiaries annually, at more than Rs. 6,000 crore per month.

Congratulations, but this has nothing to do with demonetisation. It’s to do with Aadhaar and PMJDY, which were ticking along nicely long before demonetisation, and would have continued to do that in its absence.

Takeaway: Irrelevant.

Digital payments have increased by 56% from 71.27 crore transactions in October 2016 to 111.45 crore transaction till the end of May, 2017.

This implies steady growth in digital transactions, when in fact the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology – clearly more honest than the Finance Ministry – admitted in the Lok Sabha on 2 Aug that “digital transactions increased during November-December 2016 and have plateaued thereafter”. In other words, people shifted to digital payments when they had no cash, got accustomed to it to some extent, and then reverted to their old habits. This is clear in the chart below — and recent National Payments Corporation of India data show no increase in later months either.

Screen Shot 2017-09-03 at 11.07.24 PM.png

So we sacrificed millions of jobs and two percentage points of economic growth for a temporary bump in the growth rate of digital payments.

Takeaway: If only the spin would also plateau.

Some people had expected a very large shock to economic growth on account of demonetisation.  Their expectations have been belied.

I don’t know what the Finance Ministry is smoking, but it’s obviously potent stuff (see below). To be fair, the 5.7% GDP number came out the day after the demonetisation defence, but the 6.1% growth in Q4/2016-17 was already down 1.8 percentage points from 7.9% in Q4/2015-16. The only expectations belied here are the Finance Ministry’s.

Takeaway: The Finance Ministry can’t read statistics. Worrying.

It’s not easy to defend a failing flagship policy, especially when the central premise is shaky.  When the foundation is built on wishful thinking, the supporting ‘evidence’ is bound to stray into fictional realms too. Let’s hope the Finance Ministry doesn’t have to rely on such storytelling skills in the future.

 

 

When Harry met Modi

In a Forbes magazine article that caused a happy stir in right-wing social media, Harry G. Broadman argued that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “governing prowess” had “boosted India’s GDP growth” and “produced sizeable increases of inflows of foreign direct investment (FDI)”. He stated that the reforms implemented by Modi in his first three years were “sizeable, though not huge”, but still impressive in the context of a “messy” system of democracy, and “against the backdrop of decades of reform inertia and inaction by successive governments in Delhi”. Furthermore, Modi’s reforms “are destined to make lasting, rather than transitory, changes in the structure of the Indian economy”.

It sounded a lot like the claims that pro-Modi commentators used to make until demonetisation and farm loan waivers broke their spirit. Take a dash of genuine policy accomplishments, toss in some tweaked (or, worse, simply renamed) pre-Modi initiatives that have carried on, add some hyperbole, underplay the blunders and voila! you have a Strong Reformist Government.

But don’t take my word for it, let’s evaluate the list of claims presented to prove that a “cunning and effective” Modi is transforming India in an unprecedented way.

Broadman starts with FDI, arguing that Modi has contributed not only to a big jump in FDI flows to India (which is plausible) but that India under Modi has equalled China, the great economic story of our time. That’s because India’s FDI in 2015 (as a share of GDP) rose to 2.1%, approaching China’s 2.3%. Furthermore, “between 2005 and 2015 (obviously a period that in part predates Modi)”, he writes, India’s FDI (as a share of GDP) doubled, while China’s halved.

It’s unclear why India deserves the credit for a slowing of FDI flows to China, and the World Bank chart (below) is self-explanatory. FDI to India has picked up, but is still in line with the historical trend. But don’t let that stop anyone overselling this accomplishment.

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Broadman then goes on to list eight “notable” reforms, which we analyse below, starting with those that are, in fact, correct:

A revised law on bankruptcy, which will generate freer flows of capital and the flexibility for them to be invested in their highest value in use, thus promoting a more robust, competitive Indian market both for new business start-ups as well as for forcing stale companies who cannot make ‘a go of it’ to close shop and sell their assets.

Few people realise that India’s investment rate is currently at a 14-year low, and a major reason is the inability of some of India’s biggest companies to pay off their debts, which has hurt banks’ ability to lend. The 2016 Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code is aimed at reversing this by speeding up the resolution of bad loans. This will be a complex and drawn-out process, but putting this law in place was necessary, and counts as a win for the Modi government.

The introduction of a nationwide sales tax, which will integrate an otherwise excessively complicated disparate system of different state and federal taxes, a reform that will not only increase tax collections but also help reduce interstate barriers to trade and distortions arising from gaming where within the country purchases should be consummated.

There’s a heated debate underway over how much India’s complex Goods and Services Tax (GST) will benefit the economy, and many will recall that Prime Minister Modi was instrumental in blocking the United Progressive Alliance (UPA)’s original GST proposal as Gujarat chief minister. But hypocrisy aside, the Modi government has shepherded the GST into existence, helping transform India into something close to a single market, and gets the credit for this major tax reform.

Elimination of subsidies for diesel fuel, which will help plug a fiscal hole in government revenues, and even more important create disincentives for using an energy source that adds to, rather than diminishes, pollution and greenhouse gases.

It is true that the Modi government formally decontrolled diesel prices on 18 Oct 2014. But all the heavy lifting had been done by the UPA, which on 17 Jan 2013 permitted retailers to increase the price of diesel by 50 paise/month.  As a result, the gap between the actual cost of supplying diesel and its subsidised retail price dropped from ₹9.21/litre to ₹2.80/litre between Jan 2013 and May 2014 (according to Ministry of Petroleum data). It continued under the Modi government until a collapse in global oil prices starting Aug 2014 eliminated the price gap entirely. By the time the Modi government decontrolled diesel prices, oil prices had crashed to the point that decontrol produced a diesel price cut (rather than a hike) of ₹3.37/litre, a freebie no politician could refuse.

If anyone deserves credit here, it is Manmohan Singh.

Removing regulations that forced companies to repetitively renew their business licenses at an artificially high frequency simply to generate revenues to be collected by local bureaucrats.

This one is mystifying. India abolished licensing for most industries on 26 Jul 1991, and the list of industries that require a licence has declined to four: aerospace & defence, industrial explosives, hazardous chemicals and tobacco products. The process of renewing licenses for this handful of industries has indeed been simplified — most notably in defence, where the duration of a licence has extended from three to 15 years, but this hardly qualifies as major reform.

Relaxing rules that reserved specific sectors to be the province of only small and medium sized enterprises even if large firms could produce the goods or deliver the services at lower cost and create economies of scale.

This one is just wrong. The number of items reserved for small-scale enterprises fell from 836 in 1995 to 20 in 2015 under successive governments, and the Modi government’s sole contribution here was to de-reserve the last 20 items. The perils of Googling your way to economic analysis?

Using transparent and competitive auctions for allocating access to the telecom spectrum.

There’s no doubt that the Modi government held telecom spectrum auctions in Mar 2015 and Oct 2016, and is planning one more in 2017. But there’s nothing new here. Even the UPA conducted a “transparent and competitive” auction of 3G and 4G spectrum in May-Jun 2010, before its reputation had been tarnished by what the Supreme Court termed an “arbitrary” and “capricious” 2G spectrum allocation in 2008. Following the Supreme Court’s cancellation of that allocation, the UPA held 2G auctions in Nov 2012, Mar 2013 and Feb 2014. Essentially, the Supreme Court has ensured that no government can allocate resources without holding an auction, and Modi’s being PM is frankly incidental here.

Opening investment in the railway network to majority foreign ownership, thus allowing India to tap into new sources of capital to build out its infrastructure and help the country integrate into a unified economic space to create economies of scale in both manufacturing and agriculture and thus enhance its international competitiveness.

Sounds promising, one problem: foreign investors are still substantially barred from “investment in the railway network”, which remains the preserve of Indian Railways. Where they are permitted is in railway infrastructure, specifically suburban corridors under public-private partnership (PPP), high speed rail, freight corridors, railway electrification, signalling, freight and passenger terminals, rail projects in industrial parks and mass rapid transport systems. This is a solid set of investment avenues, although there was already foreign participation in mass rapid transport and freight corridors before Modi took office. More importantly, any investment in railways depends crucially on the decisions made by a cautious railways bureaucracy. Raising FDI limits may be helpful, but they were never the main barrier to private participation in India’s rail story.

This could count some day as a win for the Modi government, but it’s still very much a work-in-progress.

Permitting foreign investors to participate in construction projects that otherwise were reserved for only domestic service providers, thus generating opportunities for joint ventures and other businesses to incorporate world-class construction techniques and materials.

Another misfire, it would seem. FDI has been freely allowed in construction for more than a decade, and accounted for 7% of total FDI flows between Apr 2000 and Mar 2017. However, stagnation in the sector has slowed FDI flows in recent years, and the Modi government has eased minimum area restrictions, investment lock-in periods and the like (here and here), winning approval from the real estate industry. But the reforms haven’t yet worked: FDI flows to the sector in the last two years were US$218 million, one-twelfth (I kid you not) of the US$2.6 billion that came in during the UPA’s final two years. These reforms may be desirable, but they are far from transformational.

It turns out that only two of the eight reforms proposed as evidence of Modi’s reformist chops add up; five are simply wrong, and one seems too minor to count. To top it all, Broadman concludes with a familiar defence of demonetisation, repeating the widely-known benefits of going cashless without any real examination of the heavy costs of demonetisation, something even Modi supporters now acknowledge (here and, ahem, here).

To sum up, I’ll have what he’s having. 

Spinning an electricity turnaround in Uttar Pradesh

An Economic Times (ET) report on 26 Apr credited the newly elected Bharatiya Janata Party government in Uttar Pradesh (UP) for a dramatic turnaround in the state’s electricity situation. The news report claimed that UP had “shed blackouts within a month of the BJP taking over the reins, moving from perennially running short of electricity to ‘zero-shortage’ in April”.

Soon enough, Power Minister Piyush Goyal shared the article with an approving tweet:

https://twitter.com/PiyushGoyal/status/858150103776931840

That’s a whopper.

It is certainly true that UP’s energy deficit (measured in million units) hit a record low in Mar 2017 of 0.2%, compared to a much bigger gap of 10.5% a year ago in Mar 2016. However, it would be ridiculous to give the new government credit for this improvement: the UP election results were declared on 11 Mar, and a new government sworn in on 19 Mar.

The ET article cited unpublished data from the National Load Despatch Centre, which oversees the national electricity grid, to show that this improvement continued into April, but we’ll have to wait for numbers from the Central Electricity Authority to get a clearer idea.

But regardless of how April turns out, the ET claim completely elides the fact that power shortages in UP, and indeed all over India, have strongly diminished over the past year, as this chart vividly shows:

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India’s energy deficit fell sharply in the first half of 2016, and particularly so in UP. UP’s deficit (shown here as a 3-month moving average) converged with north India’s around Sep 2016, and by Dec 2016 had fallen below that level. This was unanticipated: the Central Electricity Authority’s 2016-17 Load Generation Balance Report had anticipated that UP would have an energy deficit of 6.5%, but it turned out to be only 1.7%. Since the BJP ran the state only 13 of those 365 days, the decline in UP’s power shortage had little to do with it, Goyal’s celebration notwithstanding.

Even so, fewer blackouts and less load shedding can only be good news, right?

Yes and no. As much as India’s power capacity has risen in recent years, it is more weak growth in demand that accounts for the disappearance of India’s once-chronic electricity shortages (see chart below):

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The chart above shows a steady decline in the growth of energy demand since 2014-15, both in UP and in India. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing; many economies display lower energy intensity as they grow, and technological advances could also play a role. Consider the UJALA scheme to promote energy-efficient LED bulbs: government claims likely overstate the energy savings by a factor of two (see Why you shouldn’t be bedazzled by Modi’s LED claims), but their adoption probably shaved a percentage point off 2016-17 energy demand. However, if the decline in demand reflects industrial weakness, and the lingering effects of demonetization, that would be an unhealthy sign. And the rapid decline in the growth rate of energy demand in the past two years is worrying.

Either way, one thing is clear: the ending of UP’s power shortage is part of a broader structural story that has little to do with the new UP state government. And no amount of PR claims dressed up as news reports can change this reality.

(This article was originally published in The Quint.)

 

 

Why you shouldn’t be bedazzled by Modi’s LED claims

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is proud of the government’s scheme to distribute millions of low-cost, energy efficient LED bulbs. And why not: Modi told the Lok Sabha on 7 Feb that the distribution of 21 crore LED bulbs had helped households save ₹11,000 crore in electricity bills. Even the name bears his unmistakable imprint: “Unnat Jeevan by Affordable LED for All”, whose acronym is UJALA, Hindi for illumination.

Unfortunately, these numbers are mostly fiction.

First, a brief history.  As with many other schemes that Modi has hogged the credit for, UJALA was designed and piloted by the UPA under the much less catchy name DELP (standing for — I kid you not — “Demand Side Management-based Efficient Lighting Programme”). DELP followed in the footsteps of the semi-successful Bachat Lamp Yojana that had resulted in the sale of 2.9 crore CFL bulbs at a price of ₹15 each and, the government contends, boosted demand nationwide by driving market prices down. In 2013, the UPA decided to apply this strategy to pricier but even more energy-efficient LED bulbs; while the first scheme was subsidised by carbon credits, DELP would be paid for by power distribution utilities out of the savings generated by shifting from incandescent to LED bulbs.

A Nov 2013 pilot project in Puducherry led to the distribution of 6.5 lakh LED bulbs to 2.5 lakh households at a subsidised price of ₹10 each. The government’s bulk order of 6 lakh LED bulbs caused the price to fall from ₹800 per bulb in 2012 ₹Rs 310, proof that the concept worked. As the chart below shows, successive orders caused bigger and bigger price drops, falling most recently (and controversially) to ₹38.

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There’s no question that the Modi government has taken UJALA forward, scaling it up with sales of 23 crore LED bulbs (as on 21 Apr). But if you think this was in any way a brainchild of Modi’s, or that Power Minister Piyush Goyal did much more than implement a roadmap already laid out for him, think again.

Still, how does it matter who came up with the idea, as long as it benefits the nation, right? The problem is that the claim of financial and energy savings is based on dodgy maths.

The government’s claims are based on a Sep 2015 PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) study that it sponsored, that looked at LED usage during pilot projects in Puducherry and in four Andhra Pradesh districts. The report stated that, once you factor in defective and unused bulbs, each LED bulb would produce an average saving of 134 kilowatt hours a year. Which translates into the savings Modi claimed in the Lok Sabha.

Multiply this by 77 crore LED bulbs, the planned total under UJALA, and you have a saving of 20,100 megawatts of peak load demand, equivalent to five ultra-mega power projects costing US$15-20 billion (₹97,000-1,29,000 crore), for only ₹3-4,000 crore. What’s not to like?

The issue is, the PwC study made overly strong assumptions to attain these savings. It assumed that all 77 crore 7-watt LED bulbs would replace 60-watt incandescent bulbs (which is fine) and, more problematically, that each would be used for an average of 8 hours/day, 320 days in a year, equal to 2,560 hours/year. Now this is perfectly reasonable if you live in Leh, India’s northernmost district, and every day is the winter solstice when you get 10 hours of proper daylight, and everyone sleeps only six hours; then you might conceivably leave all your LED lights on for 8 hours. But, seriously?

Indeed, a 2008 World Bank study calculated that a light bulb will be used 913 hours/year. Even the state-owned Energy Efficiency Services Ltd (EESL) that actually runs UJALA assumes that a light bulb is used for 3.5 hours/day, 300 days/year, for a total of 1,050 hours. These more conservative figures translate into savings that are only 36-41% of what Modi claimed in the Lok Sabha.

More reason to take a dim view of the Modi government’s claims.

Update 25 Apr

The state-owned EESL, which oversees LED bulb distribution, took issue with this analysis in a lengthy rebuttal carried on BloombergQuint on 23 Apr. EESL disagreed that LED bulb usage should be taken as 3.5 hours/day rather than 8 hours/day, pointing out that the former figure was recommended by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change for carbon credits when actual usage data are unavailable.

EESL stated that a nationwide survey of 35 DISCOMs, and a study by PwC in Andhra Pradesh, showed that LED bulbs are used for 5-6 hours/day, and that “a conservative estimate of 5 hours has been taken for calculation”. Furthermore, it said that an Andhra Pradesh government monitoring survey carried out by “two leading educational institutions” found that actual usage was even higher at 8 hours/day.

Since EESL has not provided copies of these reports, it is difficult to independently verify these claims. For one, it is erroneous for EESL to state that “5 hours has been taken for calculation” when the original PwC report cited, and available on the government’s UJALA website, clearly states on Table 24 that bulbs are assumed to be operating 8 hours/day, 320 days/year.

It was also widely reported on 21 Feb 2016 that the Andhra Pradesh government-sponsored study of the districts of Guntur, Anantapur, Srikakulam and West Godavari (the same ones covered by PwC), by Andhra University in Vishakhapatnam and the Hyderabad-based Engineering Staff College of India, found that the actual average energy saving per LED bulb was 73.7 kilowatt hours (kWh), considerably lower than the 133.6 kWh that PwC projected. Assuming that both reports used the same methodology, this suggests that the actual LED bulb savings are 55 percent of what the government claims.

After the original analysis was published, Twitter user Somnath Mukherjee pointed out that the PwC study assumed an electricity price of ₹3.50/kWh, which may have further inflated the projected financial savings from LED adoption.

Consider the electricity tariffs offered by the Uttar Gujarat Vij Company Ltd in northern Gujarat. Depending on whether you are a rural, urban or “below poverty line” user, your first slab of 50 kWh/month of electricity costs somewhere between ₹1.50 and ₹3.50 per kWh; with nighttime usage between 10 pm and 6 am attracting a charge of ₹2.60/kWh. The true cost of the electricity used by LED bulbs, in northern Gujarat at least, is likely less than ₹3/kWh for the first slab in which the bulk of households will fall, rather than the assumed ₹3.50/kWh. This suggests that savings may in fact be inflated at two compounding levels: (1) the calculation of average use of a bulb and (2) the rupee savings per hour of usage.

To sum up, these inconsistencies need to be clarified, and I look forward to EESL releasing the methodology and findings of the various studies mentioned above. Until then, there is still reason to believe that the government’s projection of savings from LED bulb adoption is based on dodgy maths.

Long way to go for Make in India

A look at “Make in India”, published as an oped in the Hindustan Times:

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How does one judge Make in India? Recent news that foreign direct investment (FDI) flowing to defence in 2016-17 was an absurd trickle of 61,000 (or perhaps $61,000, the Ministry of Defence didn’t specify) seems to have not caused much of a ripple. Nor has the fact that FDI in defence in the past three years has been – this isn’t a typo either – $174,000, notwithstanding several liberalisation announcements.

Defence is just one, albeit telling, sector, with its own peculiarities such as the much-delayed “strategic partners” policy and a single buyer – the Ministry of Defence. But it is an exaggerated version of the story playing out across the high-profile Make in India campaign, which promises to generate millions of jobs in India by increasing the share of manufacturing to 25% of gross domestic product (GDP).

India has seen strong FDI flows in the last couple of years, but most of this is going to ride-sharing services like Uber and Ola and e-commerce providers like Amazon and Flipkart. FDI in manufacturing hit a high of US$9.6 billion in 2014-15 (slightly better than the previous 2011-12 record), but actually fell the next year to US$8.4 billion. A major pickup in 2016-17 seems unlikely.

Despite rising costs in China, India has made little headway into becoming a global manufacturing alternative, particularly at the low end that generates the most jobs. Textiles and clothing jobs from China are moving to Myanmar, Cambodia and, yes, Bangladesh, while Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia are gaining in electronics production. India has become a global small-car hub over the last couple of decades, but this relatively high-end segment is not a massive job-creator.

Things are slowly changing. India has a large domestic market to leverage, and the two dedicated freight rail corridors it is now building (connecting Delhi with Mumbai and Kolkata) should contribute to a major reduction in logistics costs in a few years. But, for now, southeast Asia is eating India’s lunch.

There are limits to what a government can do. India’s can’t, and arguably shouldn’t, try to emulate China’s labour suppression that kept manufacturing costs down, which Myanmar, for instance, could. This government isn’t even pushing the smaller measures forcefully enough. The focus on “ease of doing business” reforms is commendable, but only four of 31 states have implemented meaningful labour reform in the last three years. Even if the opposition doesn’t want to cooperate, the BJP could certainly prod its 12 other states to follow suit.

And let’s not forget the self-goals. Demonetisation might have contributed to the BJP’s political victory in Uttar Pradesh, but it has shredded the informal sector. Large companies in sectors from automobiles to consumer goods have laid off thousands of workers, as have their suppliers. Demonetisation may have delayed the goals of Make in India by months, if not years.

It’s not a bad thing for India’s aspirations to exceed its political grasp, but a trending social media hashtag won’t generate jobs. India has always done its bit of manufacturing, and the true test of Make in India lies in whether its GDP share meaningfully rises, not in photo-ops.

The compelling logic of a Grand Alliance in UP

There’s nothing like the word Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance) to make even the most boosterish Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporter sweat a little. And it’s not just because of what happened in Bihar in 2015, when an alliance of the Rashtriya Janata Dal, Janata Dal (United) and Indian National Congress (INC) inflicted a defeat on the BJP. Ever since 1977, dominant parties – the INC until the 1980s, the BJP now – have been vulnerable to a united opposition challenge. Which is why Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad Yadav have both urged the INC to engineer a national-level grand alliance to break the BJP’s current ascendance.

Uttar Pradesh (UP) is of course the lynchpin of the BJP’s national dominance, having contributed 71 of its 282 Lok Sabha seats in 2014. That is why its recent state election victory was such good news for the party, since it places the BJP on a strong footing for the 2019 election, only two years away now.

The best way to stop the BJP juggernaut, at this point, seems to be a Mahagathbandhan in UP. After the Emergency, an opposition alliance forced the INC’s Lok Sabha seats in UP down from 73 (of 85) in 1971 to exactly zero in 1977. Its state assembly tally fell from 215 in 1974 to 47 in 1977. Little more than a decade later, another grand alliance knocked the INC down from 83 Lok Sabha seats in 1984 to 15 in 1989. In the state assembly, the INC dropped from 269 seats in 1985 to 94 in 1989. Grand alliances in UP have proved effective in countering dominant political parties.

Like the previous instances, a UP grand alliance might not be more than a stopgap. The Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and Samajwadi Party (SP) have a history of animosity that won’t be easy to overcome, though the INC could play mediator between former rivals as it did in Bihar.

So what impact might a Mahagathbandhan have had on the just completed state elections? Here’s what the new UP state assembly looks like:

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A simple addition exercise shows that the BJP and its allies exceeded the combined vote share of the SP, BSP and INC in 115 state assembly seats. If we include the Rashtriya Lok Dal (RLD), this number drops to 101.

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What about the Lok Sabha? The BJP and its allies won more votes than a theoretical Mahagathbandhan in only 25 seats (24 if you include the RLD), compared with its 2014 tally of 73. The BJP would still have won the national election, but its Lok Sabha tally would have been down to (a still impressive) 236.

There are obvious caveats: it’s not clear that parties’s vote banks will seamlessly transfer to grand alliance partners. Some portion of BSP and SP voters who dislike the other party could instead vote for a third party, which could even be the BJP. Or party workers could be unenthusiastic for a candidate in their constituency from a different party. For instance, INC candidates on average won fewer votes in the 2017 UP election than did SP candidates, which political scientist Gilles Verniers sees as evidence that “SP supporters did not transfer their votes to Congress supporters to the same extent that Congress supporters did”.

On the other hand, a grand alliance that looks like a potential winner could gain votes purely on momentum. The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies’ 2014 National Election Study found strong evidence for such a bandwagon effect: 43% of voters said that they chose the party they thought was leading the race.

Either way, the compelling logic of a grand alliance in UP suggests that the parties the BJP defeated in 2017 will put in a serious effort to get one going. Whether it happens or not is the 80-seat question.

An upper hand in the Upper House

Now that the dust has settled on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s historic victory in Uttar Pradesh, let’s get down to the big question: how close does it get the ruling National Democratic Alliance to a Rajya Sabha majority, and when? The government’s minority status in the RS has slowed and even halted important elements of its legislative agenda, such as the GST and land acquisition amendments. An upper house majority would greatly strengthen its ability to pass bills, but it could also embolden the Sangh Parivar to push its core ideological issues such as a uniform civil code, eliminating Article 370 and perhaps even transforming India into a “Hindu Rashtra”.

Here’s what the Rajya Sabha currently looks like:

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UP is clearly the prize in the RS: it contributes 31 of the upper house’s 245 seats, of which ten will have elections in 2018 and another ten in 2020. With a supermajority in the UP state assembly, the BJP is likely to win seven new seats from UP in each round (it already has three RS MPs in UP).

Adding up all the states, the NDA will gain a total of 18 seats in 2017 and 2018 (including two grabbed from the Congress Party in Goa and Manipur), while the Congress Party and its allies’ tally will drop by a similar amount.

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Those are meaningful shifts in seats, but not enough to give the NDA control of the upper house, where it will remain short by about 30 seats (as this blog anticipated in 2014). It will continue to require the support of regional parties like the Trinamool Congress, AIADMK and Samajwadi Party to pass bills through the RS.

Things improve for the NDA in 2019 and 2020. If we assume no major changes in the state elections held in 2018 and 2019 (a strong but unavoidable assumption since we can’t predict the future), the NDA approaches an RS majority only in 2020.

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The ruling coalition will still fall a few seats short, but should be able to corral support from a wide selection of regional parties to pass bills. The good news, at least for people wary of the BJP’s Hindutva agenda, is that the BJP will lack the power to change India’s constitution. But it should be able to push economic reform bills through both houses if its allies are supportive.

The bad news: the BJP has every intention – as revealed by Adityanath’s anointment as UP chief minister – to push ahead with hardline Hindutva. And if the environment is polarized enough, there is no guarantee that the BJP’s allies won’t cave to an aggressive right-wing assertion. Assuming, of course, that 2019 is in the bag for the BJP.

Uttar Pradesh is the BJP’s to lose. Or is it?

As counting day on 11 March approaches, it seems as difficult as ever to gauge which way the political wind in Uttar Pradesh (UP) is blowing. Even before the campaign began, pre-election opinion polls offered little help, showing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP)-Congress alliance neck and neck, with the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) lagging.

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We know from elections in Delhi (2015), Bihar (2015) and West Bengal (2016) that a dead heat in pre-election polls is almost never a good predictor of the eventual outcome.

So what are the BJP’s chances of pulling off a win? If the starting point is the BJP’s historic 2014 victory, its lead seems unassailable. The BJP won 328 of 403 assembly segments, including 253 with more than 40% of the vote, and as Praveen Chakravarty states, for it to win fewer than 200 seats even if “two of the opposition parties get together, the BJP would still have to lose more than 10% of its voters”.

But if the baseline is the 2012 state election, the SP-Congress alliance begins to look formidable. As Karthik Sashidhar writes: “it will take a 7 percentage point swing from the 2012 elections to pull the Samajwadi Party-Congress alliance below the halfway mark”. While this sounds big, it is well within the realm of possibility: in 2014, the SP dropped seven percentage points from its 2012 tally, giving the BJP a sweep in that four-cornered contest.

So which is it? The opinion poll numbers suggest that 2014 is, in fact, the appropriate baseline: 33% represents a near doubling of the BJP vote in the past three state elections and a decisive break from UP’s two-party dominant system. Yet it is undeniable that the SP-Congress alliance has raised the threshold of votes any party needs to attain a majority, transforming the contest from a seeming BJP walkover to a tough fight.

One way to resolve this impasse is to look at UP by-elections. Since the 2014 general election, the state has had 18 assembly by-elections: 11 in 2014, two in 2015 and five in 2016. These constituencies are fairly representative of the state: they are distributed across UP, and their combined 2014 general election vote shares approximate how the whole state voted in 2014, albeit with a slight bias of 3-4 percentage points each towards the BJP and INC (see table below).

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And this is how those 18 constituencies’ votes moved, from 2012 to 2014 to the subsequent by-elections:

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Note that the BJP’s vote share fell about 11 percentage points in the by-elections, while that of the SP rose more than 24 percentage points. The BJP retained only three of the 14 assembly constituencies in which it had a lead in 2014, and lost 11 to the SP. That’s a sharp fall in votes compared with 2014.

There are two obvious caveats. One is that ruling parties tend to do very well in by-elections. Voters calculate that having a ruling party legislator is more beneficial for their constituency, and parties in power tend to win by-elections about 2/3rds of the time. The second is that the BSP does not generally contest by-elections, so the 2014-16 numbers aren’t strictly comparable to 2012 and 2014 when the BSP was in the fray.

But that’s also the bad news for the BJP. One reason it did very well in the general election is that many BSP voters – including Dalits and MBCs – preferred Modi in 2014. But in the subsequent by-elections, the BSP’s vote appears to have gravitated towards the SP rather than to the BJP. It’s possible that incumbent advantage, including control of the state’s law-and-order machinery, contributed to this shift, but the BJP will have to fight to retain its 2014 voting bloc.

Such big drops in vote share are not unheard of in the wake of “wave” elections, such as in 1984. In November that year, the INC won 51% of votes in Uttar Pradesh, only to slip three months later to 39% in the state election that followed. Even bigger dips have occurred: in 1987, the INC won 29% in Haryana, a sharp drop from the 55% it received in 1984.

Now 1984 was a long time ago, and the obvious counter-argument is that UP has seen many big political events since the by-elections that could put wind beneath the BJP’s wings. These include the army raid across the Line-of-Control, demonetisation, the civil war in the SP and the high-pitched election campaign in which the BJP has brought out its big guns. And voters could decide that the BJP deserves a chance to run UP after successive BSP and SP governments.

But the reality is that the BJP’s vote share has dropped substantially since its 2014 victory, and the SP-Congress alliance has built a vote chest that makes it imperative for the BJP to outperform. As it happens, in the 2015 Bihar election, by-election vote shifts overstated the ruling alliance’s vote share but captured the drop in the vote share of the BJP and its allies. The BJP should hope that it won’t be the same story in UP.

India’s economic freedom plunge

For a government so devoted to rankings and ratings, India dropping 20 places to 143 in the 2017 Index of Economic Freedom must have been a bummer. If Prime Minister Narendra Modi felt it worthwhile to approvingly cite India’s 19-place improvement in the World Bank’s Logistics Performance Index, surely such a dramatic fall in economic freedom should send alarm bells ringing?

Compiled by the conservative Washington DC-based Heritage Foundation, the Index of Economic Freedom has an unambiguous free-market tilt. It ranks countries based on 12 factors:

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And on the face of it, India seems to have taken quite a hit:

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But the jittery libertarians can relax. India’s dip in the index is the result of a methodological change, not a big deterioration in economic freedom. Low scores in two new variables – “judicial effectiveness” and “fiscal health” – pushed India’s 2017 ranking down the list. If we compare 2017 with previous years on a like-for-like basis, India stands at 121, pretty much the same. The bad news? India has shown no improvement either, so Acche Din are as distant as ever.

Now you might say that these indices are arbitrary, opaque or irrelevant, and you would have a point. Heritage doesn’t tell us how individual scores are calculated, and only five of the 12 variables are drawn from concrete data, as opposed to more subjective surveys by the World Economic Forum, the World Bank, Transparency International etc. The way the index is calculated, modest changes in one or two variables can send a country up or down five to 10 places.

Since many of these appear to be subjective measures (e.g. “property rights”, “judicial effectiveness”, “government integrity”), small rank changes could simply reflect random measurement error. Furthermore, it’s debatable whether saying that India ranks three spots higher than Brazil under “property rights” is truly meaningful.

There are conceptual issues too. If you give Sudan, Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo top billing under “government spending” and code the welfare states of Finland, France and Denmark as low in this case, are you not implausibly suggesting that weak government capacity produces prosperity?

More broadly, a 2012 paper by economists Aleksander Kešeljević and Rok Spruk finds that country rankings can change once you account for endogeneity – the fact that richer countries will already tend to be freer economically – as well as for how various components of the index affect prosperity differently (e.g. fiscal and monetary variables have a bigger impact than rule-of-law variables).

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The point is, there’s no need to get hung up on such indices. They can be a periodic reminder of how far there is to go to liberalise the Indian economy, but they are also constrained by a specific ideological perspective. No one in India seriously disputes that it’s desirable to make it easier for firms to do business, but reasonable people can disgree whether the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act enhances or limits economic freedom.

And think about demonetisation. If it were to reduce corruption in a sustainable way (count me as a sceptic), it would certainly contribute to economic freedom. But it has also imposed a tax on all holders of currency (i.e. everyone), devastated India’s informal sector and facilitated Raid Raj by all-powerful income tax authorities. The irony is that India may be holding its position as far as the Heritage Foundation is concerned, but its economic freedom is moving in reverse gear.