Once the remaining two phases of India’s seemingly never-ending elections are done and dusted and the results are declared, for whoever it might be that wins and gets to form the government, the first thing on the agenda should be to get down on their knees and pray to the rain gods and wish that the monsoon doesn’t disappoint this year — that it comes on time and is normal.
Such thoughts, at least for now, seem to be far from the minds of political leaders, especially those in the two big parties, who’re busy testing how much lower they can sink at the fag end of their campaigning, which has turned out to be murkier and more distasteful than anyone imagined it would be. They couldn’t be more detached from the cold reality of the economic challenges that the next government will likely face.
Predictions by India’s official met department as well as other forecasters say that India’s June-September monsoon will bring below normal rainfall and may even be of a shorter duration. In addition, there is a threat of the emergence of the El Nino weather pattern, a global oceanic phenomenon that is marked by higher sea temperatures, which could weaken India’s monsoon further.
For those waiting for the elections to end and for the results on May 16, the quality of this year’s monsoon will likely be a boring subject to ponder but the kind of rainfall India will get may make a bigger difference to the economy than who comes to power at the Centre. A weak monsoon can adversely affect the Indian economy even when the going is good; if, however, as is the case now, the economy has recorded poor growth two years in a row (4.5% in 2012-13 and an estimated 4.9% in 2013-14), a weak monsoon will wreak havoc.
Poor rainfall can deal the economy a two-pronged blow. First, by resulting in reduced farm output and, therefore, higher food prices; and second, by reducing farm incomes, which would shrink demand for manufactured goods and services. Farms, which account for just 15% of GDP, provide livelihood to more than half of Indians. Also, already food inflation is on the rise — in March, wholesale food inflation was 5.7%, up from 4.58%. And at the retail level, food inflation in March was higher than 8%. Lower food output could push prices higher — not something any new government would welcome, particularly when rising prices have been a big issue for voters during the ongoing elections.
The thing is that the next government will inherit an economy that is quite a piece of work. Besides two years of less than 5% growth, slow job creation and persistent inflation, the rupee has fallen 11% since May 2013, making imported inputs and foreign loans dearer, which hurts Indian companies and their output; and interest rates have remained high, which have hit people’s loan repayments and household budgets. Plus there is a yawning trade gap, which at $32 billion may be lower than last year’s $88 billion but it is so because of curbs imposed on gold and silver imports and not because we’ve been able to export more; and, last but not least, there is a fiscal deficit, which at 4.6%, may be a sliver lower than the 4.8% of 2012-13 but that is because the outgoing government has deftly rolled over some spends, including oil subsidies of Rs. 35,000 crore, to 2014-15.
The generally high turnout in seven phases and 438 seats that have already polled is an indication of the huge expectations that people have from the next government. Much, if not all, of those expectations has to do with jobs, prices and incomes. People will want quick results. They could get impatient too. For whichever party comes to power and whoever gets to sit in a particular hot seat in New Delhi’s North Block, getting the economy back on track won’t be a job that will be the envy of many.