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Markets: A game between traders and common men

By Kanika Datta
May 14, 2009 10:24 IST
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On Tuesday, the stock markets rose 475 points reportedly in anticipation of a victory by the National Democratic Alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Given the very fluid state of national politics where a party can emphatically say diametrically different things at different times, it is hard to understand the basis on which brokers made this judgment. As a group they have, of course, been the BJP's natural support base, so maybe this was their way of signaling approval for something that the lines at the hustings may or may not deliver.

But the outlook of the trader community does not necessarily reflect the desires of the business community. The former have narrow concerns: low interest rate, low tax regime (L K Advani's "black money redux" agenda, which may have worried them, can safely be considered an election issue rather than a committed policy agenda).

No doubt businessmen struggling to run their factories, retail chains, hotels, airlines and IT services would like such a dream regime too. But judging from the anxious queries of those businessmen and CEOs with few political connections, their worry is more what it does to push economic reform and growth.

This is the remarkable point about the public discourse on the economy. Unlike in the early nineties, when businessmen and political parties were aligned along pro- and anti-liberalisation lines -- remember the Bombay Club and swadeshi? -- economic reform has acquired a political acceptance across the political spectrum.

The differences are broadly over method and, sadly, levels of corruption and rentiering, not the general direction of the policy.

Indeed, the fact that there are sharp divisions even within the Left over economic reform -- Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee's lone struggles in West Bengal being a case in point -- only highlights the point.

We know that even Mayawati's BSP is not liberalisation-averse -- the party's candidates are among India's richest and full beneficiaries of India's reform-led growth. In UP, notwithstanding a new level of amorality in governance, businessmen are generally not averse to Mayawati because of her understanding of the need to facilitate employment.

Thus, even as the BJP staunchly supported a protectionist, Swadeshi agenda till the mid-nineties, the coalition it led till 2004 probably did more to further liberalisation than any other government, with the exception of Narasimha Rao's --they called it second-generation reform.

Under Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, the Golden Quadrilateral project saw the addition of more than 2,000 km of highways. The United Progressive Alliance's record on this front is scarcely worth boasting.

The disinvestment agenda also saw some significant progress with the sale of Balco and the Centaur Hotels (not without some controversy, of course).

And in global trade talks, in place of the old arguments against opening markets, India found itself pitted against the European Union and the US for lower trade barriers, an agenda Congress' Kamal Nath exploited to the full.

All of this certainly signalled India Rising if not Shining and, in a country like India, even these achievements cannot be written off. Despite the dark black marks in the form of Kargil and the Gujarat carnage, it seemed as though businessmen and traders wouldn't mind another NDA stint if some of its more talented ministers were back in harness.

Yet, for all the spin doctoring, the NDA's regime delivered little. In the five years of NDA rule (1998-99 to 2003-04), Gross Domestic Product grew at 5.3 per cent, significantly slower than 6.6 per cent in the preceding five years when the Congress and then a short-lived (and patently inept) United Front government were at the helm. Both industrial and agricultural growth under the NDA were roughly half those of the previous six years.

The shock loss at the 2004 elections, therefore, held the clichéd lesson: reform works electorally when it benefits the aam aadmi. It was a problem Narasimha Rao grappled with way back in 1991 and to which he failed to find an answer.

To be fair, the NDA's regime started out when the Asian currency crisis struck and then fell into the rut of the dot-com bust that slowed the world economy. And it could be argued that the 9-plus per cent growth that the UPA has delivered partly rested on the achievements of the NDA, most notably in infrastructure.

In contrast, the UPA has delivered little in terms of progressing the liberalisation agenda (the Indo-US Civil Nuclear deal hardly counts in the sense that its impact will be felt many years later). Instead, the aam aadmi message was picked up by Sonia Gandhi, whose advisors read election results that gave Congress a slender lead over the BJP more realistically.

The key result has been a hugely expensive National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme that would have made Ms Gandhi's mother-in-law proud.  Still, for all the hype, the transformational benefits of these schemes on the  aam aadmi have been unclear so far.

Only May 16 will show who holds the key to India's future: the business community or the common man.

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