India's BJP manifesto cautious on FDI, focus on jobs: sources

NEW DELHI Wed Mar 26, 2014 6:01am EDT

A worker operates a machine to print banners of Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi (R), prime ministerial candidate for India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), along with other leaders of the party ahead of the general elections in Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of New Delhi, March 24, 2014. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

A worker operates a machine to print banners of Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi (R), prime ministerial candidate for India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), along with other leaders of the party ahead of the general elections in Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of New Delhi, March 24, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India's main opposition party would welcome more foreign direct investment in defense, if elected, but would delay opening up big-box retail to global players now barred from the country's market of more than 1.2 billion people.

The nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which opinion polls show is on course to win the most seats in an election starting April 7, would also introduce a general sales tax and overhaul the financial sector, its manifesto is likely to say.

Party sources told Reuters these concrete steps form the core of a pitch to voters that sets aspirational goals of creating 250 million jobs over the next decade, building up to 100 'smart' cities and constructing a high-speed rail network.

"The manifesto's priorities, in this order, are jobs, investment, manufacturing and infrastructure," said one BJP official involved in drafting the document due out next week.

He declined to be identified due to the sensitivity of the topic.

The BJP's candidate for prime minister, Narendra Modi, is campaigning on his economic record in running his home state, Gujarat, where the party trumpets an unemployment rate of less than a third of the national average.

By contrast, the Congress party, which was unveiling its own manifesto on Wednesday, is running campaign ads that depict smiling artisans making bricks or weaving by hand - an appeal to its core constituency of poor voters.

While the BJP platform seeks to tap into the hopes of 100 million first-time voters whose job prospects have been hurt by a slowdown in economic growth, the tenets of 'Modinomics' remain nebulous beyond a broad focus on supply-side reforms.

"Most of these proposals have been discussed by other parties too," said Shumita Sharma Deveshwar, a director at Trusted Sources, a policy advisory firm. "The key is implementation of these policies. That is the bigger challenge."

CAUTIOUS OPENING

The BJP's policy platform takes a cautious stance towards opening up the Indian economy, Asia's third largest, to foreign direct investment.

There will be no quick move to allow the likes of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. or Tesco to enter so-called 'multi-brand' retail, which would pose an existential threat to small traders who form a key BJP constituency.

"The domestic retail industry needs to be first made competitive before allowing foreign investment," a second BJP source said.

However, the BJP would propose raising a cap on foreign ownership of Indian defense industry enterprises to 49 percent from 26 percent now.

Although India spends only a third as much as China on defense, it is the world's largest market for arms exports - reflecting a failure of past governments to turn around the state-dominated domestic defense industry.

The legacy of dependence on the Soviet security umbrella has been prolonged by corruption scandals that have held up deals with foreign partners that would have moved production to India.

"We can save huge foreign exchange by producing defense equipment at home," the source said.

"(We would) raise the FDI cap, (and) allow Indian companies to enter into joint ventures with foreign companies. It could be an arrangement where Indian partners hold the majority stake, say 51 percent."

In other points, the BJP is expected to propose a national general sales tax - key to getting rid of a hodge-podge of existing levies. More broadly, the BJP will seek to improve tax collection by lowering rates and closing loopholes.

A "broad consensus" exists to overhaul the financial sector to turn India into an international hub, the source said.

Analysts caution that the BJP and its allies, which polls show falling around 40 seats short of a majority, may end up having to strike a series of compromises to cobble together a parliamentary majority.

"A lot of this is theoretical and open to question right now," said Deveshwar. "Let's see what kind of coalition is formed after the election."

(Reporting by Shyamantha Asokan and Rajesh Kumar Singh; Additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel; Writing by Douglas Busvine; Editing by John Chalmers and Clarence Fernandez)

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