For an irrationally exuberant market yearning to look up, the politically-untenable legislative reforms proposals that climaxed after 40 months and changing partners may be good enough to deliver a 1,000-point Sensex return. For international rating agencies that have a lower fiscal tolerance for emerging economies, the word ‘reforms’ may push their fingers away from the downgrade button, bringing short-term relief to the rupee and keep global investors happy.
But the two key legislative bills — insurance and pensions — based on which this enthusiasm has mushroomed into a wealth cloud may not see the light of day. Despite the fact that the BJP initiated the pensions bill, the clause that allows FDI to be increased to 49% if that’s the limit for insurance, may be a smart move by UPA. But, will it be able to get the insurance bill passed in the first place?
There are specific problems that will push debate. “I don’t like the mandatory CSR in the Companies Bill,” said economist Bibek Debroy. And then there are conceptual issues. “These reforms have little to do with economic gains and much to do with political risk,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president, Centre for Policy Research. Broadly, the thinking is that these are not genuine reforms but to tell the rest of the world not to downgrade us.
All is not lost, however. The real reforms lie not in legislations but in the green shoots of hope in the government’s executive decisions. A renewed thrust on infrastructure through the creation of a mega debt fund and modernising three airports will convert savings into investments, create jobs, wealth and broaden the foundations for future growth.
Since most of these are statements of intent, we need to cool the champagne in the deep freeze of time before raising a toast. The big-bang legislative reforms are only the first step of a longer walk through Parliamentary procedures. But the passage of bills is not even relevant today --- the exercise seems more to do with signalling investors that we will not fall below a certain reforms threshold.
And in an overarching atmosphere of cynicism the government will have to deliver more than mere promises. If these are first steps towards freeing the Indian economy from the shackles of policy inertia, corruption and crony capitalism, the UPA must get kudos for daring to do what’s needed — may its reformist strides get longer.
One final question: why did it take another crisis for UPA to act?