The Leader and the Sign of the Times
India, the world’s fastest growing major economy, has been one of the few bright spots in an increasingly volatile world that has seen global risk rising. A comprehensive reforms programme implemented by the Modi government helped economic growth accelerate to c.7% even as global growth has slowed, sharply increasingly India’s ‘Growth Multiple’ (defined as Indian GDP growth as a multiple of global GDP growth). With global political and economic uncertainty set to increase for the foreseeable future, India has a unique opportunity to further cement its position as pillar of growth and stability globally. India’s finance minister, in her maiden budget speech predicted India as a US$5tn economy by 2024, which will require an average GDP growth rate of 8% over the next five years to achieve. The Sign of the Times in February 2019 laid out the case for a US$5 trillion economy and its key drivers and in April further laid out the structure of India’s trajectory into a new phase of this growth. While India’s ability to sustainably grow at this rate is largely driven by a series of country specific macro-drivers independent of government policy, India of course is not immune to the global slowdown underway. The recent slowdown in growth over the last few quarters – GDP growth for Q2 2019 was c.5%, the slowest in six years – is at least partially attributable to on-going global macro-economic volatility. Against this backdrop, for India to defend or even increase its Growth Multiple over the rest of the world it will need to accelerate and deepen its current reform program (alongside tactical monetary and fiscal policy actions to manage global volatility and risk). If India can deliver on this, it has the potential to leapfrog most large western economies over the next decade, in a similar fashion as China did following the Global Financial Crisis. In addition, not to be underestimated, the government will need to avoid the traps that derail growth, such as wars and conflicts. The Modi government will need to steer a careful course through a looming global crisis and its own challenges, leveraging the positive drivers of its democracy, demographics and development.
Liberal democracy is perhaps the most successful political ideology in history and has led to unprecedented global development, peace and prosperity. While it has suffered numerous external shocks in the past two decades, it has until now stood firm and continued to underwrite the Western global order it gave rise to in the 20th century. However, its natural dissolution appears to be inevitable in the face of major long-term forces that are reshaping the world. Given the progress made by global society along so many fronts and the myriad transnational institutions it has established, there is an opportunity to manage an orderly transition to the next world order, using the levers created by the current one.
However, liberal democracy is now facing an internal threat in the form of national populism that by its very nature it is not equipped to handle, and one that combined with external factors threatens the very existence of western civilisation as we know it. Over the past three years national populism has grown from a fringe movement, supported by money, media and personalities into a powerful ideology, National Populism. The resulting clash of ideologies between National Populism and liberal democracy is being fought not just between nation states and power blocs but primarily within them, and this clash threatens to weaken the West just as its dominance is being challenged by emerging superpowers that do not share its values. This may be the first world order whose fate will be determined at the ballot box, where citizens in the West have the opportunity to choose which kind of world they wish to live in.
This month’s Sign of the Times examines the world’s position at a crossroad, where the actions and choices of western industrialised countries will impact the trajectory of the world for potentially decades to come, determining whether the liberal world order can be reformed and rejuvenated or whether the world is facing a less prosperous, more fragmented and darker future.
The “Asian Century” has been a long-time dawning. First referenced in 1988 by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in a meeting with Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, the intervening years have been tumultuous, witnessing the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US’s ascendance to hyperpower status, 9-11, the global financial crisis and the weakening of the global liberal world order. Through this period, however, Asia has risen (more or less steadily), gradually shifting the world’s centre of economic, political and potentially military gravity towards the East. Following the initial success of Japan and the Asian Tigers in the late 20th Century, China, and now India, have in the early 21st Century established themselves as the two fastest growing major economies in the world. Both countries, given their absolute scale and high growth rates, are today exerting an increasing amount of economic and geopolitical influence globally. More recently, a series of “newer” developing Asian economies like Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Thailand, are stepping into their predecessors’ footprints, delivering high economic growth and development rates. The continent accounts for more than 50% of the world’s population and is home to almost half of the world’s middle class. Moreover, the region is a global engine for consumption, the world’s investment and trade destination of choice, and is playing an increasingly important role in matters of global geopolitics and strategy.
Mr. Modi has secured a historic victory and has the chance to steer India in one of the most important phases, which has the potential to take hundreds of millions out of poverty and place India on the stage of world power. The ‘world’s largest exercise in democracy’, the Indian general election, concluded earlier this month with over 600m votes cast across seven phases of polling, spread over a period of five weeks, with more than 67% of India’s voting population turning out to express their preference. While Prime Minister Modi’s approval ratings have remained high over the last five years, the vast majority of opinion polls leading up to the general election seemed to indicate that the National Democratic Alliance (“NDA”), led by Mr. Modi’s Bhartiya Janata Party (“BJP”) would fall just short of a majority. However, the election results, announced on May 23rd, have proven this opinion polling data to be significantly off the mark. In a repeat of the 2014 general election result, the NDA was voted back into office with a significant majority, winning 352 out of a total 541 parliamentary seats in the Lok Sabha (India’s lower house of parliament), and with the BJP itself winning 303 seats directly, 21 more than in 2014.