Modi risks backlash in bid to cut interest rates

Move to slash rates on small savings testing PM's resolve as he seeks to spur growth

NEW DELHI • Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi risks a political backlash among the middle class as he seeks to coax banks into lowering interest rates.

Criticism is growing against his government's move last week to slash interest rates on small savings programmes used by as much as a third of India's 1.3 billion people. Banks have long cited the government-backed schemes as a reason for failing to transmit rate reductions from the central bank.

The shift to link the programmes with market rates is testing Mr Modi's resolve as he seeks to kick-start growth that remains shaky despite outpacing other major economies.

A backlash already prompted him to backtrack on a budget proposal to tax the provident funds of 37 million employees, a sign of his reluctance to stick with difficult political decisions ahead of a slew of state elections.

Mr Satish Misra, an analyst at the Observer Research Foundation in Delhi, said of the rate reductions: "It will affect the political interests of the government.

  • MORE EXPENSIVE 

  • Here are some of the items that contributed to India's inflation since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in May 2014:

  • EDUCATION COSTS: Up 13 per cent

  • HOUSING: Up 10 per cent

  • HEALTHCARE: Up 14 per cent

  • ELECTRICITY: Up 8 per cent

  • REUTERS

"If economic growth revives, it will definitely benefit the government and they will say more jobs have been created. Whether they will succeed is the question."

Mr Modi has struggled to fend off opposition attacks that his government favours the rich over the poor, a narrative that prompted him to drop efforts to make it easier to acquire land.

After his party got crushed at the polls in India's third most-populous state Bihar in November, Mr Modi sought to pivot with a pro-farmer federal budget last month.

Still, the cuts to small savings rates - by as much as 130 basis points - reflect the tensions over his broader goals to revive investment while keeping inflation under control in a nation where the majority lacks social security and lives on a few dollars per day.

The main opposition party Congress called the move "a criminal breach of trust with hapless people", while similar barbs followed on social media.

Small savings include cash deposited at post offices which dot the nation, including in areas where there may be no bank branches.

There are special incentives for vulnerable sections of the population such as senior citizens and girls, and the returns are often exempted from tax.

Indians invested a net US$93 billion (S$127 billion) in small savings programmes of post offices in the year to March 31.

That is less than 7 per cent of the US$1.4 trillion poured into commercial bank deposits.

Post offices, which have the major share of small savings, had 399 million accounts last fiscal year.

The number of customers may be smaller as many people have multiple accounts.

A reduction in small-savings rates is bad news for those with large balances in fixed deposits, especially senior citizens, said researchers at Angel Broking.

After the latest cut, a one-year fixed deposit in postal savings will fetch 7.1 per cent from April 1, against 8.4 per cent now.

India's largest lender State Bank of India pays 7.25 per cent on a deposit of similar maturity.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 24, 2016, with the headline 'Modi risks backlash in bid to cut interest rates'. Print Edition | Subscribe