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India’s Economy Slows, With Global Implications

NEW DELHI — India’s coalition government just celebrated the third anniversary of its tenure with a self-congratulatory banquet that could not have been more poorly timed: India’s currency, the rupee, is falling; investment is down; inflation is rising; and deficits are eating away at government coffers.

ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 24: An Indian flag is flown high during day one of the Fourth Test between Australia and India at Adelaide Oval January 24, 2008 in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by Simon Cross/Getty Images)
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ADELAIDE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 24: An Indian flag is flown high during day one of the Fourth Test between Australia and India at Adelaide Oval January 24, 2008 in Adelaide, Australia. (Photo by Simon Cross/Getty Images)

While short-term growth has slowed but not ground to a halt, India’s problems have dampened hopes that it, along with China and other non-Western economies, might help revive the global economy, as happened after the 2008 financial crisis. Instead, India is now facing a political reckoning, as the country’s elected leaders must address difficult, politically unpopular decisions — or risk even deeper problems.

“When India was being run comparatively well in 2008, they seemed to cope with these external shocks, at least from a financial perspective,” said Glenn Levine, a senior economist at Moody’s Analytics in Sydney, Australia. “I think people are starting to question the long-term Indian story. That is the difference now.”

India’s difficulties come as the global economy is wobbling once again. Europe is grappling with a sovereign debt crisis that could shatter the continent’s economic and political union. The United States is still not producing enough new jobs. China’s growth has weakened, with a real estate downturn and stalling exports, while important emerging economies like Brazil are slowing down, adding to pessimism about the world economy at a critical time.

India is often viewed as a rising global powerhouse and, not too long ago, Indian officials were predicting growth rates of 9 percent or higher. The Obama administration, eager to tap into such a booming market and envisioning India as a regional counterweight to China, trumpeted the United States-India partnership. Some analysts even saw the global downturn as an opportunity for India, making it more attractive for foreign investors wary of putting money into declining advanced industrial countries.

Today, India’s economy is still expanding, with growth projected between 6 percent and 7 percent this year. And analysts say India’s long-term strengths remain significant. It has one of the world’s youngest populations, and polls consistently show they are overwhelmingly optimistic about their future. Meanwhile, India’s businesses are competing more aggressively on the global stage.

But the slowdown has punctured the once bubbly mood in the business and political classes and brought sharp criticism of the government. Indian business leaders, foreign investors and analysts say India’s strengths are being undermined by growing political dysfunction: the populist tendencies of Indian politicians, a lack of action by top leaders and allegations of corruption that have undermined the authority of policy makers.

India is desperate for investment in mining, roads, ports, urban housing and other areas, but Indian businesses and foreign investors are starting to shy away. Indian corporations, unable to obtain governmental licenses or permissions for projects, are investing overseas instead. Foreigners are also pulling back; their investment in Indian stocks and bonds totaled only $16 billion in the last fiscal year, compared with $30 billion the year before. The trend accelerated in recent months after the Finance Ministry, trying to stem a rising budget deficit, proposed a raft of new taxes on foreign institutions doing business in India.

“A quiet crisis of confidence is building up,” said Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi. “There is no certainty over the regulatory regime. There is no certainty over the tax regime.”

Indians have long thrived amid adversity, often by creatively — at times, illegally — subverting onerous regulations with a workaround ethos that has spurred economic activity. Even today, industries like pharmaceuticals, information technology and consumer goods, which do not need many licenses and official approvals, are prospering. But those sectors tied to the government, including mining, construction and manufacturing, are struggling.

“We have consciously kept away from businesses where we would have needed lots of permissions,” said Ajay Piramal, who heads a Mumbai-based conglomerate focused on pharmaceuticals.

"“A quiet crisis of confidence is building up.”" -President, Center for Policy Research in New Delhi, Pratap Bhanu Mehta

At the core of the political uncertainties is the weakened status of the Indian National Congress Party, which leads the coalition government, known as the United Progressive Alliance. Since 2004, the government has operated under an unorthodox partnership between Sonia Gandhi, president of the Congress Party and the governing coalition, and Manmohan Singh, her handpicked prime minister.

The division of duties worked during the government’s first term. Mrs. Gandhi managed the coalition partners, rode herd on the Congress Party, championed safety net programs for the poor and oversaw election strategy; Mr. Singh, a quiet economist considered a father of India’s reform era, moved India closer to the United States and oversaw a booming economy where growth topped 9 percent.

In 2009, voters returned the U.P.A. to power amid expectations that India, having shrugged off the 2008 global recession, was on an inevitably upward growth track. But analysts say the contradictions in the Singh-Gandhi partnership have since been exposed. Mr. Singh holds the most politically powerful job in the country, yet is seemingly reluctant to wield power and often must seek approval on policy questions from Mrs. Gandhi. She oversees an advisory panel largely consisting of social activists that her critics regard as a shadow government.

The result has been a lack of a clear political agenda emanating from the top, analysts and business leaders say, allowing the bureaucracy to fall back into its traditional resistance to making decisions. When officials do act, they often change course after encountering political opposition.

“The last year was wasted,” said Sanjaya Baru, a former spokesman for the prime minister who is now at a research institute. “We’ve had a crisis of leadership on the economic side.”

Moreover, the government has been on the defensive since a series of corruption scandals, dormant for several years, exploded into public view. Attempts by technocrats to push through a so-called “second generation” of deeper economic changes were undermined by the inability of the Congress Party to corral its coalition partners.

In December, Mr. Singh’s cabinet announced that foreign retailers like Walmart would be allowed for the first time to open stores in the country with local partners. But Mr. Singh was forced to reverse course after an ally, Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of the state of West Bengal, balked and threatened to bring down the government.

Then in March, facing pressures to raise revenues and stem the rising fiscal deficit, Pranab Mukherjee, the finance minister, released a budget that proposed new taxes on foreign entities in India, including levies on past deals that the Indian Supreme Court had ruled were not taxable in the country. Foreign investors were stunned, and analysts say the outflow of capital is one reason the rupee has tumbled13 percent since the end of February.

“We are fed up and our investors are not keen to even talk about India,” said a senior executive at an American bank in Mumbai, asking not to be identified so he could speak bluntly. “They are sick and tired.”

Kaushik Basu, the government’s chief economic adviser, acknowledged that the government had made mistakes and had missed opportunities to better position India as the global economic landscape shifts. Yet he said that the rising pessimism was unwarranted and that India was still growing, still had high investment and savings rates, and should take advantage of the depreciation of the rupee to push exports. He said India’s problems were no worse than those in other emerging economies.

“It is a difficult stage,” Mr. Basu said in an interview. “But I do remain very, very optimistic. Six months and we will pull up.”

In the meantime, the immediate challenges are piling up. This month, in a move to raise revenues, the government raised gasoline prices, drawing public fury. Now the question, analysts say, is whether the administration can muster the political courage to trim the bigger subsidies affecting diesel fuel and cooking gas.

Mr. Singh warned last week that the government would have to make some unpopular decisions. Many experts, however, say they expect more stalemate.

“It has always been tough,” said Mr. Levine, the Moody’s economist, “but there is a sense, at the moment, that it’s too difficult. For the time being people are just giving up on it.”

Jim Yardley reported from New Delhi, and Vikas Bajaj from Mumbai, India.

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