By Simon Denyer and Surojit Gupta
NEW DELHI, July 23 (Reuters) - India’s government has regained political momentum after surviving a confidence vote in parliament, but optimistic talk about restarting stalled economic reforms could be overblown, analysts said.
India’s stock market rose more than 5 percent to one-month highs on Wednesday after the government said it wanted to push ahead with its reform agenda, but with elections less than a year away, its room for manoeuvre appears limited.
“Talk of reforms is all hyped up,” said A. Prasanna, economist at ICICI Securities Ltd in Mumbai.
“It will take lot of effort and floor management to pass the pension, insurance and banking bills. I don’t see any immediate electoral benefits from these bills. So I don’t think the government will make the effort.”
The government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh won the confidence motion by 19 votes, a much more handsome margin than anyone expected, after its former communist allies withdrew support over a nuclear cooperation deal with the United States.
Newspapers heralded a “triumph” for Singh, and analysts said it gave the government a tail wind that could see it survive until elections due by next May.
The government will now push ahead with the civilian nuclear cooperation deal, which could unlock tens of billions of dollars in investment over the next 15 years.
And after four years of frustration, when efforts to liberalise the economy were blocked by the communists, Singh and fellow reformist Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram would surely love to go out with a bang.
“We have a majority,” Chidambaram told reporters after the vote. “Therefore we have to work with other parties to carry forward the reform process.”
But with inflation nearing 12 percent, and after a string of defeats in state-level elections over the past year, the coalition’s appetite for controversial reforms could be limited.
Saumitra Chaudhuri, a member of Singh’s Economic Advisory Council, is not expecting too much.
“In the next eight to nine months, the United Progressive Alliance government is likely to selectively push legislative issues that are not contentious,” he said.
“The pension bill will most probably come up, but we will have to see where else progress happens,” he said.
Pension reforms would allow private fund managers to compete for state pension funds and for foreign companies to invest in the sector.
Insurance reforms would allow more foreign direct investment in the sector, and are also possible.
A LACK OF SELF-BELIEF
Goldman Sachs says the coming month is critical “if the government is to take advantage of the tail wind and power ahead with reforms”.
But time is running out before the elections, and there may be more of a temptation to be populist than reformist, it warned.
Allies who voted for the government on Tuesday need to be placated, and the opposition is likely to disrupt parliamentary business after alleging the government bribed several of its MPs to win the confidence vote.
Given also the “lack of self-confidence the government has shown so far in pressing ahead with reforms”, Goldman Sachs said it was unlikely to implement more than a small fraction of reforms on the table.
Singh’s reputation for personal integrity was also bruised after incredible scenes in parliament on Tuesday, when opposition lawmakers brandished huge wads of cash, a quarter of a million dollars worth, they said they had been given to throw the vote.
Rebutting those corruption charges, battling inflation -- or at least hoping it comes down -- and reinforcing its credentials as defenders of the poor, are likely to occupy more of the government’s time than ambitious reforms.
But the sale of stakes in some state-run companies could be a relatively painless way to raise some cash, especially with the fiscal deficit ballooning dangerously, analysts said. (Editing by John Mair and Jerry Norton) REUTERS