India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata party is no stranger to changing history. In 2016, it omitted India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru from a state-level textbook. A few days ago, the central statistic offices revised down an estimate of annual Indian growth during the previous period when the rival Indian National Congress was in power, from 8.1 per cent to 6.3 per cent. That put it below the 7.3 per cent average for the first four years of BJP prime minister Narendra Modi’s term — and distracted from a slowdown to 7.1 per cent in the third quarter, from 8.2 per cent in the second.
While the statistical office purports to be politically independent, opposition politicians alleged political interference was behind the revision. Mr Modi certainly has reason for nervousness, with key regional elections under way and a general election due by May next year. Despite the apparently healthy growth, much of the BJP’s promise for working Indians has yet to materialise. The decision to stop releasing official employment data earlier this year suggests that electoral promises to create good-quality jobs have not been met. Many Indians, including much of the large youth population, remain locked into informal and poorly paid occupations.
Mr Modi has, meanwhile, pursued an economic policy of grand promises and bombast. Recent clashes with the Reserve Bank of India have centred on his attempts to boost growth. The outlook was clouded by defaults from a finance and infrastructure group in September. That led to fears for the stability of India’s shadow banking sector.
The shadow bank crisis stems in part from the BJP’s grand strategy of demonetisation, removing larger-denomination notes from circulation as a way of delivering on a campaign promise to cut down on the black economy. With Indians forced to deposit old notes at banks, there was a flood of money into the financial sector. Much of this flowed to a growing collection of non-bank lenders, which became a big driver of credit growth as the big state-owned banks grappled with a rash of bad corporate loans.
Many Indians supported demonetisation on the premise that it would hurt the undeserving rich. But it failed to remove more than a small portion of black money, while contributing to a sharp economic slowdown last year. In a recent speech before elections in the state of Chhattisgarh, Mr Modi likened demonetisation to a necessary but “bitter medicine”. Unfortunately, the poor have tasted that medicine disproportionately.
Mr Modi’s other campaign promises, including infrastructure overhauls and improving manufacturing, have not yet been delivered. Some grandiose pet projects do not help his case. A planned bullet train in his home state of Gujarat epitomises a taste for the high-tech above the practical: it will be too expensive for most citizens. Building the world’s tallest statue, also in Gujarat, cost around $500m. Make in India, Mr Modi’s attempt to turn the country into a manufacturing powerhouse, has so far amounted to little.
The BJP’s failings are by no means guaranteed to cost it next year’s election. But winning an election because of a broken opposition should not give Mr Modi’s economic policies a free pass. There have been some successes under the BJP, including revisions of bankruptcy laws. But the BJP has largely failed in its supposed goals to transform India for the better, relying instead on buzzwords, fudging statistics and rebuking its admittedly scandal-tainted opposition. It must begin to fulfil its promises or risk repeating the failures of administrations before it.
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