Though it may not look it on the ground at times, India is one of the few bright spots in a global economy with decidedly dim prospects in 2009. It is forecast to grow at 5 to 6 percent this year—which is more than it averaged in the 1990s. Yes, its stock market has crashed, unemployment is spiking, swaths of the real-estate market have more than a passing resemblance to Miami Beach and it now turns out that Satyam Computer Services—one of the country's top five IT companies—has been cooking its books. But a one-off incident of fraud in the flagship IT sector won't knock the country off the rails. India boasts an unlikely growth driver all its own: legions of poor whose incomes have risen just enough in recent years to create powerful demands for basic goods and services.
The rise of India's aspiring middle—a group that lives above the poverty line but hasn't yet attained true membership in modern consumer society—is hardly a new story. But what's surprising is the resilience of this cohort, and the extent to which it has counterbalanced the global credit crisis and the slump in the global export economy of which India is a key player. In part, this is a consequence of New Delhi's past failures; policymakers were never able to make India the export powerhouse that China has become over the past three decades, so now they don't rely nearly as heavily on growth driven by demand from foreign markets.
The idea that Indian backwardness is a plus may sound absurd. But it is always easier to grow from a poor base, so the fact that India is not yet a major economy is an advantage in a downturn. Such a large population subsisting at so low an economic base is a powerful economic driver if it can be mobilized—and for India this group is proving resilient to the prevailing headwinds in the global economy. "It's kind of a self-sustaining process," says Subir Gokarn, chief economist at Crisil, the Indian arm of Standard & Poor's. "There's a huge underpenetration of most commodities and services, and you have enough people at the bottom experiencing enough of an increase in income to sustain growth."
So even as middle-class consumption wanes in India—signified by a sharp drop in auto sales, airline travel and fine-restaurant dining since mid-2008—demand for basic goods and services remains strong thanks to aspiring consumers, many still tied to the farms, who spend their rupees on essentials like soap, medicine and the shoes and clothing that they wear to work. As Gokarn puts it: "If you go back to the economic textbooks, they will tell you that the poorer you are, the stronger your propensity to consume."
The contrast with China, Asia's other economic giant, is stark. Domestic demand makes up three quarters of the Indian economy, compared with less than half for China, which is "why, relative to East Asian economies, India is somewhat insulated from the global trade slowdown," says Shankar Acharya, a former chief economic adviser to the government. Another Indian mainstay—agricultural growth—should remain steady this year, and the services sector, which now accounts for about 55 percent of India's GDP, is expected to be "more resilient" than manufacturing, says Acharya. And despite the financial crisis, the nation's IT sector managed to grow some 20 percent in 2008, according to India's National Association of Software and Services Companies, and IT firms have already extended 100,000 job offers for 2009. "China has been highly focused on the export market, while Indian businesses have been highly focused on the domestic market, and their exports have been incidental," says Saumitra Chaudhuri, chief economist at ICRA, an Indian creditratings agency affiliated with Moody's. That makes India, more than China, a master of its own destiny.
The biggest risk to India in 2009 at this point may not be the global economy but domestic politics. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's United Progressive Alliance will see its term expire in May, and India's election rules mean that he can no longer enact any significant policies—a measure adopted to prevent incumbents from stacking the deck with populist sops. That means as much as five months of paralysis, precisely when speedy, creative action is the order of the day. Moreover, though the nemesis of Singh's Congress party—the Bharatiya Janata Party—mostly favors similar policies, a change in government would likely result in some further slowing of infrastructure projects that are already running behind schedule. And elections in India can be tricky. In the last one, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance lost despite rapid economic growth, because poor voters rejected the BJP's campaign claims of an "India Shining."
With the light bulb flickering, Singh's Congress may face an even bigger challenge winning them over. The poor don't care how much faster than other nations India is growing, only whether their lives are better than they were five years ago.