Indian elections are particularly cacophonous affairs. As the largest democratic exercise in human history comes to an end after six weeks of highly charged voting, many will be relieved that normal life can resume. However, those hoping for an uneventful result may be in for a rude shock. Exit polls released after the final vote was cast on Sunday pointed to a strong Narendra Modi led BJP majority which looked increasingly unlikely just a couple of months ago. Having shocked global markets five years ago by triumphing with the strongest Indian government seen in a generation, Modi may have even bettered his performance in 2014. The polls pointed to the BJP securing over 300 seats of the 543 assembly which would represent improvement from his 2014 scalp of 282 seats. Markets celebrated with the Sensex rallying close to 4% on Monday.
It is worth noting that exit polls have struggled with accuracy in the past. Whilst this should come as no surprise to readers in the UK and the US, India’s 2004 exit polls pointed to the BJP winning between 230 and 275 seats. Instead they ended up with only 187 and were kicked out of government. However since then, polling methodologies, sampling and data granularity have improved significantly which diminishes the likelihood of such a severe miscalculation.
However, assuming the exit polls have some predictive power, why should this matter for investors and which elements of the reform agenda would then be prioritised?
In a period of global policy turmoil, it’s clear that investors seek consistency and predictability. If an emerging market administration is willing to commit to this whilst embarking on a progressive reform agenda, the market will pay up. Whilst debates continue about whether Modi’s first five years had the hallmarks of a Bernie Sanders style administration rather than that of Ronald Reagan, solace can be found through the comfort of BJP’s fiscal conservatism and peerless focus on execution. This will remain in place. Key reforms such as a sturdier Bankruptcy Law, a well-functioning Goods and Services Tax, a flexible inflation targeting regime and success in financially including more than 300m Indians through the biometric identification system have been institutionalised. These will help expand Indian’s productive capacity and propel the country to faster and more sustainable growth. India’s longer term cost of capital will continue to fall.
Looking ahead, a BJP led government will likely take less risks in the short term. The rural economy and small businesses have been disrupted by the short term pains of the Goods and Services Tax implementation, whilst demonetisation was largely viewed as a failed and disruptive experiment. The BJP will reward these two sectors for their continued support through a more supportive policy framework. Encouraging private sector participation in agriculture through introducing a regulatory framework for contract manufacturing would be a positive step. The development of modern, large scale warehousing and storage would reduce wastage, boost farm incomes and dampen inflationary pressures.
The longer term reforms of addressing bottlenecks in the factor markets of land and labour will be perhaps be the defining feature of Modi’s next five years. Land acquisition continues to be a debilitating constraint to the creation of mid and large scale infrastructure and setting up businesses. Difficulty in acquiring land continues to be the top regulatory hurdle that stalls projects. Addressing this through a transparent auction process, a creative alternative form of compensation and the acceleration of the digitalisation of land records will go some way to relieve manufacturing stress. Tight and constraining labour laws continue to hinder the scale up of organised large scale manufacturing. State government approval is required for firms employing more than 100 workers to lay off staff. It is instructive that the proportion of businesses that employ more than 100 people in India is dwarfed by the respective share in South East Asia and China. India’s much vaunted ‘demographic dividend’ could quickly deteriorate into a ticking time bomb unless job creation is addressed.
Clearly a challenging agenda is set out for whoever emerges as India’s next premier. If the exit polls are correct, whilst continuity will remain in place with Modi at the helm, much change will be required to drive India onto a higher plane of growth.