Former prime minister Manmohan Singh of the Congress and his successor Narendra Modi of the BJP. On a slew of real-time economic indicators, the average Indian was much better off under UPA-II than NDA-II. (AFP & HT)
Former prime minister Manmohan Singh of the Congress and his successor Narendra Modi of the BJP. On a slew of real-time economic indicators, the average Indian was much better off under UPA-II than NDA-II. (AFP & HT)

Manmohan Singh vs Narendra Modi: The real India growth story

  • The quality of India GDP data came into question when GDP growth in FY17 was revised to 8.2%—the highest in any year between FY12 and FY19, despite demonetisation
  • GDP growth under Narendra Modi was faster than under Manmohan Singh. The question, though, is: does this pass the basic smell test?

The quality of India’s economic data in general, and gross domestic product (GDP) data in particular, has come in for questioning in recent months. Those questions only acquired more urgency in January, when the GDP growth in 2016-17 was revised to 8.2%—the highest in any year between 2011-12 and 2018-19.

In 2016-17, a large section of the informal economy, which forms a significant portion of the Indian economy, was severely hit by demonetisation. Hence, the question: how did the economy grow at 8.2% during the year?

Between 2009-10 and 2013-14, the period during which Manmohan Singh was the prime minister, the Indian economy grew by 6.7% per year. Between 2014-15 and 2018-19, the Indian economy is supposed to have grown at 7.5% per year. Narendra Modi has been prime minister during this period (from 26 May 2014 onwards).

Hence, the economic growth during the Modi years has been faster in comparison to the growth during the Manmohan Singh years. The question, though, is: does this pass the basic smell test? One way of figuring this out is to take a look at real-time economic indicators which capture the economic decisions of the average Indian.

Since January 2015, when India adopted a new way of calculating the GDP, the growth figure has not been in line with high-frequency economic indicators that reflect the economic decisions of individuals. Unlike GDP growth, the economic indicators used here, from domestic car sales to steel output, are real numbers (except inflation) and not theoretical constructs. So, if domestic car sales are growing, it is a reflection of robust urban consumer demand. If steel production is growing, it shows a robust car industry which uses a lot of steel, and a better physical infrastructure that can be used by individuals, among other things.

Let’s look at 15 economic indicators and see what they suggest. The growth of 11 out of the following 15 economic indicators was better during the second term of Manmohan Singh than Modi’s term. It is worth reminding here that the United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA’s) second term was by all accounts worse than its first term. Hence, we are comparing the worst of Manmohan with the best of Modi.

(1) Domestic two-wheeler sales: Motorcycle sales during the Manmohan Singh’s era grew by 12.44% per year. In Modi’s era, growth was at 5.35% per year. Scooter sales during Singh’s era grew by 25.7% per year. In Modi’s era, the growth was at 13.21% per year. Scooters sell more in urban India than rural India. Motorcycles sell in both urban as well as rural India. The growth rate of 5.35% per year in motorcycle sales during the Modi years is indicative of the agricultural distress and, accordingly, the slow rise in the consumption power of rural India as well.

(2) Domestic car sales: Car sales are an important indicator of how urban India is feeling on the economic front, because no one forces anyone to buy a car. When an individual buys a car (or a two-wheeler for that matter), he or she feels confident enough to make a down payment and pay an equated monthly instalment on the car loan. Car sales grew at 4.42% per year during the Modi years in comparison to 7.92% during the Manmohan years. The major jump during the Manmohan Singh years came in 2009-10 and 2010-11, when car sales increased by 25.22% and 29.08%, respectively.

What this again tells us is that urban India, in particular corporate India, has not been very confident on the economic front during the Modi years, irrespective of what they say in public forums. Of course, the growth of cab aggregators Uber and Ola has also played some role in the slowdown of domestic car sales growth in recent years.

(3) Domestic tractor sales: This is a good indicator of how rich farmers are feeling on the economic front. During the Modi years, the tractor sales are expected to grow at 4.49% per year. In comparison, tractor sales grew by 15.73% per year during the Manmohan years. This shows the presence of agriculture distress hurting farmers during the Modi years. In fact, domestic tractor sales in 2013-14 had stood at 634,000. The sales fell over the next two years, and in 2015-16 stood at 494,000. Since then, they have recovered to 724,000 during April 2018 to February 2019.

(4) Incremental retail loans growth: This is an indicator of how a reasonably large section of the population is feeling about their economic future. People usually take a loan when they are confident enough about repaying it. This may not be true about loans given to the industry but is true about retail loans (i.e. home loans, vehicle loans, etc.), given that the bad loan rate of retail loans stands at just 2%. Bad loans are loans which haven’t been repaid for 90 days or more.

Retail loans given out by banks during the Modi era are expected to grow at 19.92% per year in comparison to 22.47% per year during the Manmohan era.

(5) Airline passenger traffic: This is one point that is perpetually brought up by everyone who believes that the Modi government has done well on the economic front. In the Manmohan years, the number of airline passengers grew by 9.20% per year. It is expected to grow at 15.28% per year during the Modi years.

(6) Passenger revenues of Indian Railways: One point which people forget to mention is the fact that the growth in air travel has come at the cost of people upgrading from travelling by Indian Railways. This has led to a slowdown in the growth of passenger revenue of Indian Railways. In the Manmohan years, this was at 10.81% per year. In the Modi years, it is expected to be at 7.32% per year.

(7) Domestic commercial vehicles sales: Robust consumer demand should translate into more investment, with companies expanding to cater to the increasing demand. A good way to check whether this is happening or not is to take a look at domestic commercial vehicle sales. Faster sales indicate robust activity on the infrastructure front as well as the industrial front, which ultimately benefits individuals. Commercial vehicles are used to move around finished as well as semi-finished goods.

During the Modi years, commercial vehicles sales grew at 9.74% per year. In the Manmohan years, they had grown at 10.50% per year. In fact, the growth in commercial vehicles sales during the Modi years has been robust, though it might have been slower than that of Manmohan years. This is primarily on account of the road building programme carried out by the Modi government (as we shall see later).

(8) Cement production: Cement production during the Modi years is expected to grow at 4.32% per year against 7.05% per year during the Manmohan era. The cement consumption has grown at a slow pace during the Modi years despite a massive road building programme.

This essentially tells us two things. First, private sector investment has been slow. Second, the real estate sector, which uses a lot of cement, has been down in the dumps. People aren’t buying new homes. Interestingly, the history of economic development suggests that once people start getting out of agriculture, real estate and construction are the two sectors which they move towards, primarily because both these sectors offer a lot of low-skill jobs. The slow growth in cement production is another indicator that India is not generating enough low-skilled jobs.

(9) Consumption of finished steel: Steel consumption is another great indicator of the investment scenario in the country, as the construction of any new infrastructure requires steel. And better infrastructure essentially leads to an improvement in the ease of living of individuals. Data from India Brand Equity Foundation, a trust established by the ministry of commerce and industry, suggests consumption of finished steel is expected to increase 5.18% per year during the Modi era, in comparison to 7.18% per year during the Manmohan era.

This is indicative of the fact that the investment scenario in India continues to be dull. A dull investment scenario basically means that enough jobs aren’t being created. It also means that the incomes of those who already have jobs are rising at a slower pace.

(10) Income tax growth: This is a good indicator of whether the income of individuals working in the formal sector of the economy is growing or not.

The Modi administration has over the years talked a lot about the income tax collections improving significantly. The income tax collections in the Modi years are expected to grow at 16.85% per year. In comparison, the growth in tax revenue in the Manmohan years was 17.53% per year. The government has also talked about the fact that more people are filing income tax returns now than before. While this is true, this hasn’t exactly translated into faster pace of growth in tax revenue.

(11) Corporation tax growth: Companies pay a higher tax when they sell more stuff, and consequently make a higher profit. They sell more when people consume more. People consume more when they are doing well on the financial front. And that’s possible when the overall economy is doing well. During the Modi years, corporation tax collections are expected to grow by 11.20% per year against 13.09% in the Manmohan years.

(12) Consumption of petroleum products: The consumption of fuel in an economy which is doing well tends to grow at a faster rate. The consumption of fuel products during the Modi years is expected to grow at 5.91% per year against 3.47% during the Manmohan years. This is another economic indicator that has fared better in the Modi years than the Manmohan years. A simple explanation for this lies in the fact that oil prices were much higher between 2011 and 2014 than they have been since then.

(13) Inflation: One of the genuine successes of the Modi government has been on the inflation front. In May 2014, when Narendra Modi took over as prime minister, inflation, as measured by the consumer price index (CPI), stood at 7.72%, with food inflation at 9.21%. In February 2019, inflation was at 2.57%, with food prices falling by 0.66%. During 2018-2019, food prices have risen by just 0.13%.

On the flip side, the lack of food inflation is hurting farmers.

(14) Household financial savings: This is an indicator which tells us how much people are saving. The problem, in this case, is that data is available only from 2011-12 onwards, which is what we will consider. The gross household financial savings when Manmohan Singh was the prime minister grew at 13% per year. In the Modi years (up to 2017-18) they grew by 11.94% per year. As far as net household financial savings (gross household financial savings minus the financial liabilities of households) are concerned, they grew by 13.79% per year in the Manmohan years. In comparison, they grew by 7.38% per year during the Modi years (up to 2016-17).

(15) Road construction: This is another area where the Modi government has done significantly better than the Manmohan Singh government. As of 31 March 2009, the total length of national highways stood at 70,548 kilometres (km). By 31 March 2014, this had increased to 91,287km, at the rate of 5.29% growth per year. By March 2019, the length of national highways is expected to touch 135,676km, with 10,000km of road expected to be constructed during 2018-19. This means an increase of 8.25% per year. Between April and December, 6,715km had already been built.

To conclude, the Manmohan Singh years come out to be much better than the Modi years, in 11 out of the 15 indicators.

This essentially brings us back to the question: When so many economic indicators grew faster in the second term of Manmohan Singh vis a vis the first term of Modi, why doesn’t this reflect in the GDP growth figures of the two eras? The Modi years growing at a faster pace than the second term of Manmohan doesn’t make much sense.

Vivek Kaul is an economist and the author of the 'Easy Money' trilogy.