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Modi gets good grades from economists for 4 years of reforms

But rising oil prices test Indian leader's management skills ahead of election

NEW DELHI -- Prime Minister Narendra Modi enters his fifth year in office Saturday enjoying praise from many business leaders and economists for achievements resulting from his bold policies, yet rising crude oil prices suggest his support may hinge more on management than reform heading into India's 2019 general election.

N.R. Bhanumurthy, a professor at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy in New Delhi, credits the prime minister for following through on his so-called Modinomics reforms.

"I am not a great fan of this government," Bhanumurthy said. "But in May 2014, many people wrote about the 'agenda of the new government,' and if you look at this agenda, the government has done many things. There is a tick mark against almost every box."

Jayant Sinha, the minister of state for civil aviation and Modi's top policy maven, touted the government's achievements over the past four years during a recent interview with the Nikkei Asian Review.

"There are six areas where we have done historic work," Sinha said. The minister cited improving macroeconomic stability, shrinking the informal economy, building infrastructure, launching the nation's Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code and aiding both agriculture and social security.

The Modi administration should focus on "execution" leading up to the spring 2019 election, Sinha said. "We have fantastic policies and great programs underway," he said. "We have to get it done."

Bhanumurthy tabbed financial inclusion and the bankruptcy code as the "top reforms" achieved by Modi.

The professor did note the complicated rates in the Goods and Services Tax introduced last July by the Modi administration, saying, "We are not at the ideal situation." But he added that "we need to give credit to the government" for these reforms.

Nikita Sud, associate professor of development studies at the University of Oxford in England, tempered the praise for Modi. "There are all sorts of downers in the global economic scenario," Sud said. "But the current government has done a lot to contribute to that."

The disruptive abolition of high-denomination banknotes in November 2016 dampened economic activity in India, as did the introduction of the GST. Government data set for release Thursday may rate India's growth at the 6% level for the full year ended in March, the slowest in four years.

Yet India appears to be regaining cruising speed, as gross domestic product growth on a quarterly basis bottomed out at 5.7% in April-June 2017 and returned to the 7% level at the end of the year.

"In the calendar year of 2018, we might have some quarters where we exceed 8%," Sinha said.

People get their two-wheelers filled with gasoline at a fuel station in Ahmedabad, India, on May 14.   © Reuters

But rising crude oil prices and the depreciating rupee put dark clouds on the horizon, even as economists and those in industrial circles increasingly expect soaring growth. Gasoline prices in New Delhi surged to a record on May 20 for the first time in about four and a half years. Prices of diesel fuel, widely used by the public, have continued setting all-time highs since the end of last year.

The Indian government had liberalized fuel prices by 2014. Full decontrol, permitting daily price fluctuations, started in June 2017. But state-owned oil retailers began hitting the brakes on daily fluctuations April 24, sparking speculation that the administration will resume controlling prices.

"Because of the government's widening fiscal deficit, [state-owned oil refiners and retailers Oil & Natural Gas and Oil India] could be asked to bear part of the Indian government's fuel subsidy for oil, if prices stay above $60 per barrel for the fiscal year ending March 2019," Vikas Halan, a senior vice president at Moody's Investors Service, wrote in a recent report.

The Modi administration, which has operated under a banner of deregulation, risks running counter to its reformist image if it resorts to state-controlled economic measures. But rising fuel prices cannot be addressed based on the question of image.

"Global crude oil price movement tends to have an important bearing on macro-stability risks and, hence, economic growth prospects," UBS economist Tanvee Gupta Jain warned.

India's currency demonstrates one such risk. The rupee has depreciated to a two-year low of around 68 per dollar, the Reserve Bank of India said. As India relies on imports for 80% of oil demand, rising crude prices worsen the country's balance of payments.

Fuel prices last hit a record in 2013, and inflation at that time compounded the unpopularity of the Indian National Congress party. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which named Modi as a candidate for prime minister, ousted the Congress from power in the 2014 general election.

With fuel prices once again rising before an election, Modi may be judged by macroeconomic management as much as his administration's reforms.

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