MODI MANIA hits the Markets

With the steady rise of the Sensex and FIIs since the September 2013 announcement of his candidacy, Modi may have been holding the bull’s horns the entire time
Sukumar Muralidharan DelhI 


Notions about India’s 2014 general election being determined by the stock market may be exaggerated, but they’re not off the mark. There is, in fact, an unmistakable correspondence between the recent surges in the stock market and Narendra Modi’s ascension towards political pre-eminence.

The Bombay Stock Exchange’s Sensitive Share Price Index (Sensex) showed an upswing in April last year, which coincided with Modi breaking out of the Gujarat milieu and eying the national stage. The fervour persisted with minor interruptions throughout the campaign season, cresting new waves of bullish optimism with the first exit poll results, broadcast soon after the last ballot was cast in the seven-phase election. Since then, the mood has turned euphoric. As at least one commentator has pointed out, bull runs on the stock market tend to be self-fulfilling. The more people expect prices to go up, the more they invest in the market, and the more prices actually go up—until, that is, they ask for a payback, and the market finds that it does not have sufficient real money to pony up.

It is instructive to look back to the days of the 2004 election surprise, when the Congress beat the odds amidst the BJP’s deafening cacophony of “India Shining”. In the immediate aftermath of the Congress’s shock victory, it became accepted wisdom that the BJP and its friends had been turfed out because of a mass upsurge of those at the receiving end of its economic policies. The “feel good” mythology was turned on its head. By that logic, it seemed appropriate for the Congress to reverse course. Investors in the market soon stepped up with an explicit warning that the smart political course could well be economic suicide. Just days after the results were in, on May 14, 2004, foreign institutional investors (FIIs) with strong positions in the stock exchanges pulled out in droves, driving down the Sensex by 330 points, or six per cent. As one of its top stories the next day, TheTimes of India (ToI) reported that the drop in the Sensex was the sharpest in over four years and had wiped `57.3 billion (`5,730 crore) off the aggregate value of the market.

The didactic purpose of that particular mass evacuation of the market had seemingly not been served. When the markets reopened after the weekend break, the FIIs drove down the index by 842 points, or 17 per cent, in a mere 22 minutes. After emergency measures to staunch the haemorrhage, the Sensex closed the day 565 points lower. The erosion of value was estimated by  ToI the next day at `133 billion (`13,000 crore). Under a headline that described an ostensible “quit India” movement by the FII s, ToI reported that Manmohan Singh—then believed to be the finance minister-designate—had called up Finance Minister Jaswant Singh to ensure that effective measures were taken to “stop the stock rot”.

That very day, May 18, Sonia Gandhi gave up her putative claim to the prime minister’s post, nominating Manmohan  instead to lead the complex political coalition that had emerged in the 2004 general election. And Manmohan was instantly seen as a rather amenable figure from the perspective of the markets. On May 20, the ToI reported on its business pages, with some satisfaction, that the markets were on a “recovery trip” and had gained 129 points.

Manmohan Singh retained his cautious and unadventurous attitude towards policies that might potentially step outside the bounds of strict fiscal rectitude. Within the Congress party, though, it was recognized that despite lustrous patches, most parts of the country remained in a slough. A semblance of social and economic equity had to be restored to sustain the democracy. With Manmohan Singh reluctantly playing along, the Congress saw political salvation in revisiting the populist commitments of the 1970s and early 1980s. This meant providing stimulus to the rural economy in an effort to directly address poverty.

The miracle of the economic populism inaugurated in 2005, with the passage of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), is that it lasted quite as long as it did—indeed, was even extended from the 200 poorest districts to the entire country in 2008. Till the early years of the UPA’s second term, which began after a convincing electoral triumph in 2009, there was no hint that the fiscal commitments made by extending the right to work were a serious strain. In August 2010, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee spoke with absolute confidence about further extending the charter of rights and entitlements to every Indian citizen. The right to education would be the first step, after which the priorities would be to make operational rights to food and health. This level of ambition, Mukherjee said, would have been beyond imagination in the 1980s, when the government—despite best intentions—found itself stymied in all efforts to directly address poverty. What had made the unthinkable a distinct possibility was the turning of a page in the 1990s, which generated the second wind in India’s growth story.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JUNE 2014