Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS

Hong Kong/New Delhi — As Indian officials held last-minute talks on joining the world’s biggest regional trade deal at a summit in Bangkok, farmers back home were launching nationwide demonstrations — chanting, holding up placards and burning signs in protest.

Opposition from powerful groups representing millions of farmers — the most important electoral constituency in the world’s largest democracy — showed why Prime Minister Narendra Modi pulled India out of the 16-member trade deal known as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). Despite a landslide re-election win in May, he’s facing a prolonged economic slowdown and unemployment at its highest in four decades.

Modi, nonetheless, is looking to turn the trade setback into a win. Like US President Donald Trump, who said he withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal to protect American workers, Modi and his ministers are now selling his refusal to join RCEP as a victory for India’s poor.

But it doesn’t necessarily mean Modi is giving up on big economic reforms. His past record with disruptive policies such as demonetisation, a strengthened hand in India’s upper house of parliament, and more than four years left in his second term might mean he could still surprise investors with structural reforms such as a long-awaited loosening of restrictive land and labour rules.

“If you look at the macro-situation, he has to create a better climate for investment,” said Niranjan Sahoo, who has authored two books on Indian politics and is currently a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation research group in New Delhi. “And that will not happen unless you liberalise land and labour and other areas that have been untouched for several decades.”

‘Significant slowdown’

For Modi, the current domestic situation could not have been less conducive to signing an international trade pact designed to more closely integrate India’s economy with the countries of RCEP, which include China, Japan, Australia, South Korea, New Zealand and the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).

India’s economic slowdown has worsened dramatically since Modi won re-election on the back of popular welfare programmes and a firm military response to a terrorist attack blamed on Pakistan. And although Indian politicians are averse to freer trade at the best of times, it would’ve been extremely risky to open India’s markets to cheap goods from China, as well as agricultural imports from Southeast Asia, at a time of rising discontent.

India already has free trade agreements with some parties to RCEP, including Asean, South Korea, Malaysia and Japan

The angst started to show up at the polls, with Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) only narrowly winning elections in the states of Haryana and Maharashtra, where they were heavily favoured. Both states have substantial farmer populations that could have been hit by more competitive rice imports from Southeast Asia and worries were growing about India’s manufacturing sector, which has seen carmakers suffer a major fall in sales.

“The decision by Modi to pull India out of the RCEP negotiations reflects considerable concerns domestically about the potential impact of RCEP on Indian industry,” said Rajiv Biswas, Asia-Pacific chief economist for IHS Markit. “The Indian economy is experiencing a significant slowdown in growth momentum currently, with sectors such as automotive and capital goods experiencing a severe slump.”

‘Unequal deal’

India already has free trade agreements with some parties to RCEP, including Asean, South Korea, Malaysia and Japan. One Indian official, who asked not to be named, criticised these deals for dramatically increasing India’s trade deficit and hurting domestic industry, and said the government couldn’t go ahead with RCEP before renegotiating parts of these deals.

India could still join RCEP at a later date. A group statement at the end of the summit said all participating countries would work to solve outstanding problems “in a mutually satisfactory way”.

Japan, in particular, expressed hope that India could still be included, not least because it would act as another counterweight to China in the group. Similar to Trump’s exit from the TPP, which reduced US influence in the Asia-Pacific region, India’s absence puts it on the sidelines of key discussions and could cost it investment down the road.

Still, Indian commerce and industry minister Piyush Goyal noted that India’s exit from the trade deal was not rancorous, despite its “tough stand” on the need to balance its trade deficit and protect the domestic industry from an “indiscriminate surge in imports”. Goyal told a conference in New Delhi on Tuesday evening “India has not got out of the pact in an acrimonious manner”.

At least for now, Modi gets some political capital back among his core supporters. The question is whether he’ll use that to take some other measures that can unlock growth in Asia’s third-biggest economy.

“This will help the government politically,” said Biswajit Dhar, a professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, who has advised Indian governments on international trade. “The government can certainly take credit for this and they can say that they listened to the concerns of every stakeholder.”

Bloomberg