Macro Economy

Modi government’s anti-UPA white paper: Nirmala Sitharaman’s political, polemical document can’t hide economic failures

From manufacturing and growth to social sector spending and agriculture, Manmohan Singh’s government outperformed Narendra Modi’s on the economic front

Praveen Chakravarty
February 09, 2024

Budget session to be extended by a day till Feb 10

In her interim budget speech, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had said that the central government would release a ‘White Paper’ comparing the state of the Indian economy before and after 2014. (PTI)

If a five-year-old girl turns 15 after a decade, how inanely bizarre would it be if her parents crowed, gloated, and released a “white paper” proclaiming that the child turned 15 entirely due to their efforts? This is exactly what the finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman and her team have done by releasing a “white paper” to claim India’s economy and infrastructure have grown in the last decade, only due to the untiring efforts and the inordinate skills of the Narendra Modi government. With due respect, even if cricketer Ravindra Jadeja or actor Akshay Kumar had been the Prime Minister in this period, GDP would have grown, more toilets and houses constructed, more airports, ports and highways built, and India would have been the Chair of the G20. The real question is not whether the child has grown in age, which is largely inevitable, but how tall, healthy and happy the child is for her age.

Sitharaman’s Annexure 2 in the white paper boasts that India’s average per capita GDP has grown from roughly $4,000 in 2014 to $6,000 in Modi’s tenure. Of course, the per-capita GDP will only grow every year in a developing economy like India. The unsaid truth is India’s annual average per capita GDP growth fell from 5.9 per cent during Manmohan Singh’s tenure to 3.8 per cent in Modi’s. In other words, the average Indian’s income grew much faster when Manmohan Singh was PM than in Modi’s tenure.

The paper gloats that foreign investment and reserves have nearly doubled under Modi. The fact is net foreign investment was 1.2 per cent of GDP (UPA) versus 0.8 per cent (NDA), foreign reserves nearly tripled (not just doubled) and foreign exports were 17 per cent of GDP (UPA) against 14 per cent (NDA). Simply put, foreign investors and consumers gushed over India’s economy and products far more during the tenure of the silent and estimable Manmohan Singh than during the loud and bombastic Narendra Modi.

For all the obsequious praise that corporate India showers on Modi publicly, they have voted against this government with their wallets. Private investment by corporate India fell from 26 per cent of GDP during Manmohan Singh’s time to 22 per cent in Modi’s. Despite the glitzy ‘Make in India’ shows, corporates made fewer goods in India. Manufacturing rose from 15.3 per cent of GVA in 2004 to 17 per cent of GVA in 2014 and fell to 14 per cent in 2024. Clearly, manufacturers were more confident in making goods in India under Manmohan Singh without the need for fancy slogans or events. Not just private corporates but even farmers didn’t show confidence in Modi’s tenure. Growth in food grain production fell from 34 per cent in UPA to 31 per cent in NDA. It is not even the case that domestic stock markets loved Modi’s tenure more. The BSE Sensex grew 13.4 per cent annually during UPA versus 8.2 per cent under NDA.

The other narrative that the Modi government has been shouting from its South Block rooftop, amplified by obsequious media and supported by the white paper, is that infrastructure development grew fastest in this tenure. While overall capital expenditure, rail electrification and the number of airports grew rapidly, national road highways were built at a faster pace during UPA with 1.7 times increase in total length vis-à-vis 1.5 times under NDA.

Beyond all these material development indicators, the Modi government’s track record is abysmal in the most vital social indicators. Budget expenditure on education more than doubled from 2.2 per cent in 2004 to 4.6 per cent in 2014 and nearly halved to 2.9 per cent in 2024. Despite India’s ignominious record of the highest number of Covid deaths in the world, the Modi government did not increase its health expenditure from the 1.7 per cent during Manmohan Singh’s time. Subsidies for the poor were 16 per cent of total expenditure in 2014 and fell to 9 per cent in 2024. Longevity of life (life expectancy), perhaps the primary pursuit of all humans, increased by nearly five years between 2004 and 2014 but reduced by two years between 2014 and 2024. Simply, a child born when Manmohan Singh was Prime Minister could expect to live up to 69 years while a child born when Modi was Prime Minister could expect to live only up to 67 years.

Here is the real rub – despite spending more on education, health, subsidies and increasing life expectancy, the Manmohan Singh government demitted office with a 4.5 per cent fiscal deficit while the Modi government exits with a 5.8 per cent deficit. For all the bickering by political pundits and economic commentators, the UPA did a much better job in even managing deficits. The Modi government goes on and on about how it tamed high inflation. What it does not tell you is that inflation is driven primarily by global crude oil prices which rose from $30/bbl in 203 to $105 during UPA and fell to $80 during NDA.

Aside from these facts, the white paper is plain duplicitous in cherry-picking timeframes for comparison. Table 5 picks randomly different start and end years for comparing parameters such as toilet construction or rural electrification or maternity benefits and so on. While it is naïve and foolish to believe that a higher exchange rate is always better for the nation, the white paper is intellectually dishonest in comparing exchange rates from just January 2011 to November 2013. The white paper is filled with such rampant deceit.

The white paper has 12 damning comments on the economy made during UPA’s tenure by outsiders ranging from industrialists like Ratan Tata to Kumar Birla, IMF executives and economics editors to buttress the claim that the economy was flailing under Manmohan Singh. Ironically, it only serves to show how people could express themselves freely and fearlessly, in direct contrast to the environment today. Public conversations during Manmohan Singh’s tenure are now private drawing-room conversations, cloaked in disguise by public praise. It would be foolhardy for Sitharaman to take refuge under what the Germans would call “Gleichschaltung”, an artificially controlled narrative to prove her handling of the economy.

The white paper is really a political and a polemical document with an intellectual façade. The bottom line is beyond all the high decibel, shrill and in-your-face propaganda, the data is unequivocally clear – the Manmohan Singh government grew the economy faster, attracted more foreign investments, gained the confidence of the private sector more, exported more, built highways faster, spent more on education and welfare, braved global crisis and yet was more fiscally prudent than the Narendra Modi government. Now, which television anchor is going to scream this fact?

The writer is chairman, All India Professionals’ Congress

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