Watch out BJP, you’re trailing behind the UPA in your bypoll performance

How can Modi be beaten in 2019? Following the Bharatiya Janata Party’s byelection reverses last week, the consensus in the commentariat clearly leans towards a grand alliance (or mahagathbandhan) of opposition parties of the sort that humbled BJP in Bihar in 2015 and in three recent Uttar Pradesh parliamentary byelections. The subtext is that an “arrogant” Indian National Congress should be more generous towards regional parties, possibly even putting forward a non-Congress candidate as prime minister to cement a grand alliance.

https://twitter.com/sardesairajdeep/status/1002079250424434688

https://twitter.com/sardesairajdeep/status/1002079250424434688

But is it valid to extrapolate from parliamentary bypolls to national politics? Gilles Verniers and Rajkamal Singh argue not, saying “bypolls do not have a predictive value for the following state or general election” and that they reflect mostly local factors, such as the interplay among influential political families in Kairana. There does seem to be some truth to this — the United Progressive Alliance won 6 of 12 bypolls in 2012 and 2013 and the simple average of its vote rose 2 percentage points vis-à-vis the 2009 general election. Yet it was routed in 2014.

If you look closely at parliamentary – as opposed to state – byelections though (see charts below), there does seem to be a correlation in terms of vote swing between how the UPA did in the by-elections and in the subsequent general election. The simple average of the vote swing away from the UPA in the seats that had byelections is similar to the national swing in 2014, implying that they may have been representative of the national picture.

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It is striking how poorly the BJP has done in comparison with the UPA, winning only one of the 13 seats that had parliamentary byelections in 2017 and 2018. It seems difficult to imagine the BJP reversing all of the ground it has ceded in those seats between now and 2019. Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra are all states that were central to Modi’s 2014 victory. It might be challenging for the BJP to make up these losses with evident gains in eastern states such as West Bengal. There is reason for the BJP to worry.

Do the byelection results support the proposition that the opposition cannot win in 2019 without a mahagathbandhan? Not really. Of the 15 seats that just had elections, only four were won by an opposition grand alliance. Non-BJP parties won three seats fighting alone and another five were won by longstanding state alliances in Bihar (RJD-Congress) and Maharashtra (Congress-NCP).

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The case for a mahagathbandhan is obviously strongest in Uttar Pradesh. The BJP remains ahead of the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party individually by quite a margin. It suffered a major vote erosion only in Phulpur; in Gorakhpur and in Kairana it slipped but still polled strongly in the high 40s.

That doesn’t mean that a grand alliance is the answer everywhere. The BJP and its allies rule 12 of India’s 20 biggest states, and the INC is in a position to defeat it – either singly or with its existing allies – in all but Uttar Pradesh. The one ally that could make a difference is the BSP whose vote base overlaps with that of the Congress, as in Madhya Pradesh where an alliance seems to be in the works. In a close election, the addition of the BSP vote could make the difference between victory and defeat in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, states that contributed 62 of 65 seats to the BJP in 2014 and will hold elections in a few months.

Whether Mayawati is amenable to a broader alliance, and on what terms, remains to be seen. It is often said that the BSP suffers because allied parties do not transfer their votes even as they they benefit from the BSP’s vote bank. However this does not appear to be the case in the BSP’s biggest alliances. In 1993 and 1996, the BSP allied with the SP and the INC respectively in the Uttar Pradesh state elections. The BSP’s vote share in the seats it contested was only about percentage point lower than its partners’, suggesting that a smooth transfer of votes occurred.

To sum up, the BJP is facing a serious erosion of votes that is making the 2019 election much more competitive than in 2014. But with the exception of Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka, the results suggest that the INC should be judicious about ceding ground to potential allies rather than rushing into a mahagathbandhan. In 2004 and 2009, the INC became the single-largest party by winning 35% and 47% of the 417 and 440 seats it had contested respectively. If the party cedes more space to a mahagathbandhan and ends up contesting, say, 300 seats, it will be difficult for it to come close to the 150 mark needed to block the BJP’s claims and to form a stable coalition.

(Originally published on NewsCentral24x7.)

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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. 

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.

Arvind Panagariya spins an infrastructure tale

There’s something about serving in the Modi government that converts seemingly sensible people into inept spinmeisters. Consider the respected Columbia University economist and NITI Aayog Vice Chairman Arvind Panagariya. In an 8 May 2016 Business Standard op-ed titled The turnaround in infrastructure, he reeled off the Modi government’s many accomplishments in this arena. Following which he warned critics to “ponder the fate of infrastructure in the country had the previous administration continued.”

Except, if anybody bothers to look closer, Panagariya’s claims turn out to be irrelevant, misleading or simply false. In fact the “previous administration” equalled or exceeded many of the Modi government’s infrastructure achievements.

Consider highway construction. Panagariya points out that the government has unblocked Rs 3.5 lakh crore out of Rs 3.8 lakh crore worth of stuck road projects, and that “the construction (sic) of national highway projects awarded has risen from 3,500 kilometres in 2013-14 to 8,000 kilometres in 2014-15 and 10,000 kilometres in 2015-16.” So far so good.

But then he proudly adds:

“Road construction has risen from 8.5 kilometres a day during the last two years of the previous government to 11.9 kilometres in 2014-15 and 16.5 kilometres in 2015-16.”

A near doubling of the highway construction rate, pretty impressive right?

Not even close. Real data show that, in its last two years, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) built 13.7 km/day of highways, compared with 14.3 km/day built in the first two years of the Modi government. That’s pretty much the same pace. In Panagariya’s defence, his fibs aren’t as blatant as Roads Minister Nitin Gadkari’s ravings (see Nitin Gadkari’s highway jumla), but they’re still way off.

As the chart below shows, there is no need to lie. The UPA did well, and in 2015-16 the Modi government did a bit better.

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Let’s look at railways next. Panagariya claims that:

In railways, the average rate of expansion of tracks has risen to 7 kilometres per day during 2015-16 from 4.3 kilometres per day during the previous six years. Investment in railways during 2015-16 has been double the average during the preceding five years.

An impressive increase, at least at first glance. But hold on. Panagariya is conflating track expansion with track commissioning. This detail is taken from Rail Minister Suresh Prabhu’s 25 Feb 2016 budget speech, in which Prabhu changed the measure of rail expansion from “completion” to “commissioning” because “nothing has started functioning until it has been commissioned”.

Fair enough. But, just out of curiosity, what does the old “track completion” metric, used for so many years, show?

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Say it ain’t so! What the Modi government claims to be a six-year track expansion high under this convenient new metric turns out to be a six-year low according to the now-discarded metric. Could the policy paralysed, rudderless UPA really have built tracks faster than the 56-inch Modi Sarkar? We’re still waiting to hear whether the government has hit its more ambitious 2,500 km target for 2015-16 (according to the old measure), but keep in mind that even this just about tops the UPA’s 2,300 km plus record in 2010-11 and 2011-12.

What about the claim that the Railways’ investment in 2015-16 was “double the average during the preceding five years”? A former Railways official points out in a 10 May 2016 Indian Express article that the Rs 94,000 crore railway investment figure for 2015-16 includes Rs 15,081 crore in funding for joint venture partners, a category not previously included. A like for like comparison shows the Railways’ investment to amount to Rs 70,000 crore in 2015-16, a record number but nowhere close to double the previous five-year average of Rs 48,000 crore. Busted.

(This propensity to spin isn’t new, as Manoj K noticed in Railway Ministry: 8 Achievements That Really Aren’t in July 2015.)

There are other claims in Panagariya’s op-ed, including some that may be true. Consider:

In domestic civil aviation, the total number of passengers carried has jumped from 66.4 million in 2014 to 80.8 million in 2015.

Great, but this had almost nothing to do with government policy.

In power, the government has already electrified 6,816 villages in the last two years compared with 5,189 villages in the three years before that. The prime minister has now announced his intention to bring electricity to the 12,000 villages or so that are yet to be electrified, by May 1, 2018.

A good effort, no doubt, but still modest once we look at a longer period. Turns out that rural electrification under the UPA in 2006-07, for instance, proceeded at four times the NDA’s rate. Cherrypick much?

Furthermore an investigation by The Hindu‘s Samarth Bansal shows even this 7,000 number to be exaggerated, and “that unelectrified villages have been counted as electrified”. To be fair the UPA’s numbers could be considered similarly suspect, but the fact is that the UPA vastly outperformed the Modi government in this arena.

One could go on, but it seems clear that Panagariya, like so many others in the Modi government, is guilty of cherry-picking or distorting data to make the government’s case. Not only is this futile, it obscures and even undermines the government’s genuine achievements. But in the interpretive dance that is the Modi Sarkar, facts don’t seem to count for much.

Nitin Gadkari’s highway jumla

Roads and Shipping Minister Nitin Gadkari likes to present himself as the singlehanded builder of Indian highways. He has repeatedly claimed — most recently at the 2016 India Today Conclave — that the pace of highway construction has increased by close to ten times under his watch:

This would be brag-worthy if it were true, but it isn’t. Check the table below:

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There has been an increase of 30% in the pace of highway construction between 2014-15 and 2015-16, from about 12 to just under 16 km/day. While that’s commendable, it is the same pace of highway building that the policy-paralysed United Progressive Alliance (UPA) achieved in 2012-13.

Mr Gadkari has a penchant — like others in his government — for exaggeration. Perhaps he should hold the boasts for when the pace of highway construction actually exceeds the (did I mention demotivated and paralysed?) UPA’s.

Sugar-coating urea

At a 21 Feb 2015 rally in Bargarh, Odisha, Prime Minister Narendra Modi accused an array of “unscrupulous forces” of trying to bring down his government. In the rogues’ gallery he included the owners of chemical factories who he said were angry at his government’s distribution of neem-coated urea, which had ended the profitable diversion of subsidised urea — meant for farmers — to their factories.

Compared with standard urea, neem-coated urea is said to improve productivity and reduce the diversion of subsidised fertiliser to those who can afford to pay market prices. It doesn’t make a meaningful dent in the country’s gigantic fertiliser subsidy bill (see below), but there are some savings.

So what’s the problem? As usual, Modi’s tendency to hog credit for initiatives that his predecessors have substantially contributed to. For once, Modi managed to acknowledge previous governments in his 15 August 2015 Independence Day speech, in which he identified urea pilferage as an issue. Modi admitted that neem-coating was “an idea propounded by scientists and this idea has not only been brought before my government, it has come before previous governments as well.” But he went on to imply that those governments had done little, and stated that “pilferage of urea cannot be stopped unless we go for cent per cent neem-coating of urea”. Modi has since taken “cent per cent” credit for the scheme (here and here).

So what are the facts?

One is that state-owned firms like National Fertilizers Limited have been making neem-coated urea for the past decade:

Another is that the UPA in 2011 raised the ceiling on neem-coated urea production from 20% to 35%, which led to sales of 63 lakh tonnes in 2013-14, about 28% of total urea production in the country. This represents genuine momentum.

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The figure for 2014-15 isn’t available yet, but neem-coated urea sales for National Fertilizers Limited and KRIBHCO were up 8% and 25% respectively, which appears to be in line with this trend.

The next big push came from the government’s 25 May 2015 decision to make all domestically-produced urea neem-coated, which should lead to a big jump in its output in 2015-16. A recent Department of Fertilizers presentation stated that 77% of domestic urea production already consists of neem-coated urea. If so, Modi should genuinely be able to take credit for a substantial jump in neemification.

That said, all this rhetoric about neem-coated urea distracts from the government’s failure to raise the highly subsidised price of urea, unchanged for six years at Rs 5,360/tonne — about a third of what it costs to make. The urea subsidy not only adds Rs 50,000 crore to the fiscal deficit but contributes to the rampant overuse of urea (neem-coated or otherwise), harming soil productivity and poisoning our food chain. If the “weak” UPA was able in February 2010 to decontrol non-urea fertilisers and increase the urea price (by an admittedly token 10%), what’s holding back Modi’s “strong” majority government?

Modi’s autopilot achievements

In a 13 Feb 2016 speech at the recent Make in India jamboree in Mumbai, Prime Minister Narendra Modi took credit for many economic achievements. These included India’s climb in various World Bank and UN indices, and all-time records in coal and vehicle production, software exports and cargo handling by ports.

The claims were taken from the BJP’s 31 Jan 2016 press release, which proclaimed that “it is necessary to show the statistics because in the Congress-led UPA-1 & UPA-2 regime, many of these indicators were moving in the opposite direction” and to counter “baseless propaganda and criticism”.

And this is what it had to say:

That’s quite a collection of achievements. The problem with claims of this nature is that there is a good chance — particularly in an economy that’s been among the world’s fastest-growing for a couple of decades — that each year will break some record or the other.

So how to judge? One way is to examine how commonplace these achievements actually are:

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Pretty common, it turns out.

The good news for the BJP is that only two of its 13 claims are outright false. But the fact remains that most of these economic achievements are so much the product of past momentum that the UPA, supposedly paralysed into inaction in its second iteration, could also have made 12 of the 13 claims, one more than the BJP. Even the short-lived United Front government in 1996-97 could have made at least four of these claims without batting an eyelid.

Political parties are entitled to seek credit wherever they can. But the current government’s obsession with topping lists and rankings produces empty claims such as these. Instead, Modi should spend more time listing what he sees as the main hurdles to faster growth, and what he did to fix them.