On the day Congress released its 2019
election manifesto, Sensex recorded an all-time high of 39,056 while Nifty ended above 1700. Unsurprisingly, the rise of the Sensex didn’t deserve a mention in the Congress economy view. Neither would the Sensex march (from a low of 23, 815 on May 14, 2014) to its being at a kissing distance of 40,000 now likely make it to the upcoming BJP manifesto.
While Congress has kept it out to deny BJP any brownie points on the economy, BJP would most likely steer clear of courting Sensex for the fear of being seen to be pro rich (the suit book Sarkar jibe would trigger a recall).
Sensex, when headed south, is handy to the opposition. A northward trajectory is proof of economy doing well on some count for the ruling party. But not a favourable pitch during election time given the competitive push for entitlement politics.
When Sensex was not doing all that well February last year, Rahul Gandhi took a dig at Narendra Modi saying the stock market has given a “no confidence motion” against the Budget after Sensex fell by 800 points.
Love Hate Currency Politics
A similar pattern is on display when it comes to the currency market. The rupee performance (god, bad and ugly) isn’t a favourite election theme.
Rewind to October last year to see the news cycle for a (falling) rupee. While the opposition leaders went hammer and tongs against the government for a free fall, official mandarins went into an overdrive hedging the damage by courting external factors.
Rahul Gandhi hit out at Modi for being in “silent mode” when rupee crossed 73. He sustained the attack tweeting two days later that “Rupee slips to 73.77. It isn’t breaking – it is broken.”
Now rupee has completely slipped off the opposition radar. Had the fall sustained, the currency would definitely have made election headlines. But the twist in the tale is that rupee has staged a smart recovery. From being the worst performer Asian currency emerged being the best performer towards the end of last month.
Ironically, the rupee recovery has a political quotient to it. The recovery is attributed to a perceived poll edge to NDA (under Modi) post Pulwama attack in February.
But even for BJP, the rupee isn’t a prime election asset. In the party economic narrative, it is about welfare economics that makes the grade rather than any currency upswing.
This, though, isn’t without political logic. In the narrative management, key economic indicators like currency, Sensex, foreign investment don’t cut much ice. But everybody loves to offer and talk about doles.
Poll Economic Narrative
The economic narrative for the opposition is primarily about joblessness and lack of private investment apart from alleged interference in institutional autonomy and sanctity of data.
For the government it is about pitching to the voter relatively easy to understand economic pluses. These include India being the fastest growing economy, its rise to be the fifth largest economy and the big jump in the ease of doing business in India.
NDA is keen to present an easily digestible score card. The pattern is visible in its welfare state strategy – trot out numbers on claims of having improved last mile quality of life for millions and millions of citizens.
That is why we have so far seen no major reference in election rallies either to Sensex or to impressive Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) inflows. FDI inflows rose from US$27 billion in 2010 to US$40 billion in 2017 (about 48 per cent rise).
By contrast, FDI flows during the period under review fell 31 percent in China. This of course can be attributed to the ever growing mutual economic hostility between China and its traditional partners.
Inflation, which has historically been an election issue, is getting a cold shoulder. The opposition is keen to avoid any reference to inflation given its relatively patchy record. NDA most likely will showcase it in its manifesto but it will only be as a reference.
The taming of inflation is a political plus but if it is triggered by falling farm prices the restraint is obvious. Modi is battling the charge that farmers’ plight worsened during his tenure.
Demonetisation, demonised by the opposition, would yet find modest favour with BJP given party’s enduring campaign against black money.
Competitive Dole Campaign
This leaves us with the ever-competitive sops narrative as the key political economy election slogan. While Congress manifesto took a deep dive into its NYAY promise, Modi is already talking proactively about his farm income scheme.
It is election time. Politicians are a smart lot. They know what works with the voters. They are not making an investor pitch where due diligence is paramount.
For gullible voters, even the promise of a free lunch sounds like a major facelift in life.
That is why a MNREGA (began in UPA era), which is primarily a crutch, has not only endured but also grown (during NDA 2).
This even as it has permanently disabled the ‘beneficiaries’.
A free modest lunch can just about keep you alive but kills for ever your inherent capability to stand on your feet.
Rakesh Khar is senior editor, Special Projects, Network 18. He writes at the intersection of politics and economy.