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India à la Modi (The Weekly Standard, June 2, 2014)

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Hope and Change on the Subcontinent

The Indian elections that ended with a resounding victory for the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi and an even more resounding defeat of the ruling Congress party have huge implications not just for India’s potential prosperity, political evolution, and unity but also for the region and the world economy.

For most of the seven decades since independence, the Indian National Congress party—and therefore the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty—has ruled India and dominated Indian political life. The Fabian socialism, bureaucratic protectionism, and tiers-mondiste “nonaligned” inclinations of Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi set the tone for mainstream Indian politics for well over half a century. And that family’s quasi-hereditary hold on the prime ministerial residence has been reproduced on a smaller scale in parliament, with seats that are essentially passed on from one family member to another, and in the states by hundreds of hereditary political fiefdoms.

The fact that up to a third of India’s citizens still lack access to clean water or reliable electric power, that a quarter of the population is illiterate, and that the country’s transport infrastructure is decades behind that of China can largely be laid at the door of the Congress party and the Gandhi family—although the country’s leaders have a habit of blaming their failure to improve the population’s lot on the legacy of colonialism, the restraints imposed by democratic politics, or the “foreign hand” (i.e., the malign influence of the CIA and Pakistani subversion).

It was only in 1991 after a huge balance of payments crisis and decades of feeble growth that India’s leaders finally began to liberalize the economy, allow some foreign direct investment, and dismantle parts of the notoriously corrupt “License Raj,” in which permits were required for almost every form of economic activity. These reforms, as limited as they in fact were, unleashed long-suppressed entrepreneurial energies and led to a massive leap in growth and the emergence of a new, ambitious, 300-million-strong “middle class” (characterized by owning at least one major electrical or motorized device, like a fridge or scooter).

However, the reform drive petered out in the face of opposition from the hard left, from an intellectual elite whose reflexive hostility to capitalism, “globalization,” and “neoliberalism” remains undiminished, and from business families and associations that benefit from a system founded on cronyism, connections, and monopoly. Corruption scandals, often involving government programs supposed to be “pro-poor,” have grown larger in scale and more frequent.

Partly as a result of all this, India’s economic rise has stalled. Annual growth of more than 8 percent has dropped to 4 percent. These days you no longer hear nearly so much ebullient talk in New Delhi about India as a “superpower” or this being “the Indian century.” Foreign companies, many of which have fallen prey to red tape and bureaucratic protectionism, or to New Delhi’s habit of retroactively imposing punitive taxes, are now much more cautious about investing in India. Millions of Indians who believed the hype about the irresistible rise of “Incredible India” feel betrayed by their rulers.

All except in one Indian state—Gujarat—where Narendra Modi has been chief minister since 2001, and where businesses, foreign and domestic, not only don’t have to fear the destructive whims and ruthless predation of bureaucrats and politicians but feel positively welcome. Since Modi came to power Gujarat has become a hub for pharmaceuticals and the automobile industry and boasts the country’s largest oil refinery as well as its biggest private-sector, deepwater port. It has grown much faster than India as a whole. And while India has dropped on the Fraser Institute index of economic freedom, Gujarat has gone up.

It is hard for foreigners to appreciate just how extraordinary this is without understanding how little purchase free-market ideas have had in India—and the extent to which the Indian right has tended to be as protectionist, statist, and xenophobic as the center and left. For instance, only last year Modi’s party, the BJP, opposed allowing foreign direct investment in “multibrand retail,” i.e., supermarkets. (The current mom-and-pop system of distribution leads to some 30-40 percent of food produced in India being spoiled.)

Of course, Modi cannot take all the credit for the economic success of his state. Gujaratis have long been known as one of India’s most entrepreneurial peoples and are among the most successful ethnicities in the Indian diaspora. Moreover there have been scores of articles in the English-language Indian press claiming that Gujarat has not in fact been such a success and that its poverty indices are actually worse than those of other states. These are not all agitprop on behalf of a political and cultural establishment that has long loathed Modi: There is still great poverty in Gujarat, and the state’s unique growth has not benefited all its citizens.

On the other hand there has been something bizarre about the inability of many mainstream Indian commentators to admit that Gujarat is obviously better governed and economically healthier than much of the rest of India. An outsider can hardly help but notice the difference between Gujarat and the rest of India within moments of crossing into the state. Most obvious is the quality of the roads, and the fact that Gujarat enjoys electric power 365 days a year, a boon painfully rare in the rest of India.

You almost wonder if the establishment’s apparent blindness to Gujarat’s economic superiority is somehow connected to that general complacency about poverty and degradation that so baffles foreigners visiting the subcontinent. Similarly, when Modi gets little credit from the political class for the fact that he is not personally corrupt and runs an administration that by Indian standards is remarkably efficient and honest, you wonder if the postcolonial establishment has not become deeply, cruelly complacent about graft.

That said, there are plenty of reasons why a fair-minded Indian who accepts and appreciates Modi’s accomplishments in Gujarat might still be worried at the prospect of his becoming prime minister. After all, conceding that he has achieved the economic equivalent of making the trains run on time would hardly lessen the gravity of the crimes Modi has been accused of, chief among them responsibility for a horrifying 2002 massacre in his state.

Nor is it clear that Modi’s party at the national level is genuinely enthusiastic about or capable of bringing the “Gujarat model” to the rest of India; since it was last in power in 2004 the BJP has arguably seemed more concerned with Hindu nationalist cultural and symbolic sectarian issues.

However, Modi’s success as chief minister of Gujarat enabled the party—which in many parts of the country has proved itself to be every bit as venal and incompetent as its rivals—to campaign convincingly on a platform of administrative competence and friendliness to enterprise. And because Modi is in so many ways an outsider (and had to fight long and hard to achieve supreme power even in his own party), the BJP was able to cast itself as a party that is fighting the system on behalf of ordinary people.

That the apparent economic success and relative honesty of Modi’s administration in Gujarat inspired so many Indian voters shows how desperately fed up much of the electorate is. It also suggests that India’s democratic institutions may be becoming less amenable to control by a small, English-speaking, quasi-hereditary political class that has coasted for years on the prestige of having achieved independence from Britain.

Rahul Gandhi, the handsome but feckless scion of the Nehru-Gandhi clan, seemed visibly shocked by the lack of deference he encountered campaigning in traditional Congress strongholds. It was as if decades of broken promises of “bijli, pani, sadak” (electricity, water, roads) had finally come home to roost. Hundreds of millions of Indians, who now enjoy some access to mobile telephony, satellite TV, and the Internet, no longer accept poverty as their destiny.

Just the fact that Modi was his party’s candidate represents a breach with Indian politics as usual. At 63, Modi qualifies as youthful in a system in which many powerful figures are well over 70, and is the first prime minister born after independence. He has been able to leverage his dominance of a single state into the leadership of a major national party, something that other charismatic outsiders, like the film star Jayalalithaa and the Dalit (untouchable) leader Mayawati have not succeeded in doing. Most significant of all, Modi actually comes from the people. 

Modi is the largely self-educated son of a humble railroad station tea seller who comes from the Ghanchi caste of oil pressers. (The Ghanchis count as one of India’s “Other Backwards Castes,” an official category that entitles members to certain affirmative action benefits.) He himself sold tea from a bus station stall as a child.

Barrel-chested, bespectacled, neatly bearded, Modi doesn’t look like anyone else in Indian politics. He’s an equally far cry from both the gangsters and caste-activists who achieve political power in lawless districts of central India and the smooth talking political families of New Delhi. He is a traditionalist who made inspired, almost Obama-like use of social media in his campaign. He is known to be ruthless, thin-skinned, and vengeful, though probably no more a threat to a free media in India than the Congress party, which tried to clamp down on Internet freedom in 2012.

Moreover, not only has Modi not made a fortune as chief minister (and you can get seriously rich in Indian politics), he is famously abstemious. This has huge appeal in a culture steeped in religious asceticism, and which is heartily sick of flagrant political graft. As important as his personal rigor, Modi is celebrated for imposing his morality on the Gujarat government and making it stand out in India for its accountability, transparency, and (relative) honesty. It may help that he has no immediate family of his own. Though married at 18 (probably not consummated), he lives alone, and for politics.

For all that, Modi is deeply controversial and inspires as much fear as hope, in particular among India’s 150 million Muslims but also among those concerned with press freedom, women’s rights, and human rights violations in the many Indian states where security forces are battling local insurgencies.

Observers who should understand the term better have inaccurately or at least prematurely labeled Modi a fascist. But there is no question that he and the BJP have been involved in some of the darker and more frightening events in modern Indian politics, beginning with the violent 1992 destruction in the town of Ayodhya of a celebrated 16th-century mosque that Hindu fundamentalists believed had been built on top of the birthplace of the god Ram.

Moreover, Modi is a lifelong member of the RSS (for Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which roughly translates as “national volunteer association”), an association of Hindu militants founded in 1925 that has a distinctly paramilitary style that reflects the admiration of its founders for Europe’s fascist movements. (Its members march in white shirts and khaki shorts like Boy Scouts but carry sticks and practice military drills.) It was a former RSS member who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi.

It is true that Hindu nationalist parties and politicians have been unfairly caricatured by the Indian establishment in much the same way that the American media caricature Christian evangelicals. But there is also little question that Hindu nationalist parties and politicians have been responsible for some very nasty, atavistic manifestations of intolerance in recent years.

Although Modi and his party have issues with the phrase “Hindu nationalist” and claim to be genuine secularists, they do espouse Hindutva, a vague but compelling ideology that combines Hindu religiosity with social conservatism and a deep sense that India’s core culture has been suppressed by first Muslim and then Christian conquerors.

For them the great unsettled question about what it means to be an Indian has a simple answer: It means to be culturally if not religiously Hindu. For the postcolonial elite the answer was more complicated and had to do with Nehru’s upper-class, British-educated, Bloomsbury-influenced worldview, and his obsession with Mao’s Great Leap Forward.

Modi and the BJP also oppose caste and religious affirmative action policies and the existence of a separate legal code for India’s Muslim citizens. For decades Congress successfully cultivated certain minorities—Muslims,adivasi hill tribes, dalit untouchables—by establishing various forms of affirmative action including “reservations” in government hiring. Arguably this led to deepening social division and even greater inefficiency and cronyism. Modi says he believes in “a bigger pie, which would benefit everyone.”

Modi himself has opposed some of the more extreme manifestations of the Hindutva ideology by calling for “toilets not temples” and “development not deity.” On the other hand, if he carries out BJP election promises to build a temple on the Ayodha mosque site or to bring the already tense Kashmir Valley under central control, it will be surprising if communal violence does not result.

Modi is most controversial because of his alleged role in the Ahmedabad massacres, in which more than a thousand people were killed, most of them Muslim. The violence was triggered by an incident on February 27, 2002, at a train station in the town of Godhra in Gujarat. A train carrying Hindu activists and pilgrims from a demonstration stopped at the station, where passengers got into an altercation with Muslim vendors on the platform. A Muslim mob then attacked the train, apparently in the belief that the activists had kidnapped a Muslim girl who had been helping her aged vendor father. One of the train cars then caught fire, and 59 people died. The next day, February 28, Modi called the burning an act of terrorism. Simultaneously, mobs of angry Hindus started attacking the neighborhoods of Muslims in Ahmedabad and other cities. 

The savagery was eye-watering. There was mass rape, looting, arson, and murder by blade and flame. Children were forced to drink kerosene or gasoline and then set on fire so they burst like bombs. The violence continued for four days, some of it in front of the cameras of India’s new 24-hour news networks. A curfew imposed after the first day of rioting seems to have gone largely unenforced by the police, and the savage attacks ended only after troops were deployed and given a “shoot to kill” order.

In general, sectarian riots in modern India tend to be orchestrated or tacitly condoned by politicians and community leaders rather than spontaneous eruptions of communal hatred of the kind that occurred towards the end of British rule. In this case the Hindu mobs of Ahmedabad had in their possession copies of the electoral rolls—which list the religion of each household—and so were able to quickly find their victims.

A Gujarat court later found the chief minister guilty of “inadequacy, inaction and negligence.” Modi, who is famous for keeping a close eye on all his officials, has never apologized for the failure of the authorities to stop the riots or even expressed much regret that they took place. Nor has he responded to the claim that it was his speeches following the train fire—at one point saying that every action has a reaction, on another occasion saying that the “people of Gujarat have shown remarkable restraint after grave provocation”—that inspired some of the violence. The closest he came to condemning the massacre was to say that he felt about the rioting as he would about the accidental running over of a puppy in the street: “If something bad happens anywhere, it is natural to be sad.”

While there is no conclusive evidence that Modi himself authorized or directed or overtly enabled the violence, and a special investigation ordered by the Indian supreme court did not find him legally culpable, his role seems analogous to that of Russian officials during the anti-Jewish pogroms under the czars. He may not have ordered or encouraged the riots, but the shocking inaction of his police force certainly ensured that they spread and took many lives. It is common knowledge in India that if a riot goes on for more than a couple of days, it must have some kind of official approval. After all, disturbances are not uncommon here, and the country’s various paramilitary security forces are large, well-armed, and well-prepared to deal with disorder—and not at all hesitant to use deadly force when they deem it necessary.

Perhaps the most infamous modern example of a riot with official approval was that of November 1984, when in the wake of Mrs. Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards, anti-Sikh mobs took control of Delhi and other cities and killed, raped, and burned for four days. Congress party politicians and officials led rioters into Sikh neighborhoods, openly exhorted them, and in some cases provided them weapons, including the kerosene that was used to burn victims alive. It is said that when Rajiv Gandhi was asked why the army had yet to be sent in to suppress the violence he told his interlocutor: “When a great tree falls, the earth shakes.” At least 3,000 people were killed in Delhi and some 5,000 in other cities. Over the next 30 years there were multiple, mostly bogus government investigations into the riots, but it was only in 2013 that a few relatively minor figures were actually prosecuted and convicted. This is one of the reasons why Modi supporters scoff at jeremiads about Ahmedabad from supporters of the Congress party. 

There is little reason to believe that a Modi premiership will mean more pogroms. There has been no recurrence of anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat in the 12 years since the riots, not even after the Pakistani-sponsored terror attack on Mumbai. And while Modi has never admitted the abject failure of his government to protect Muslim citizens, he has not otherwise engaged in dangerously divisive or sectarian activity since then. Moreover his achievements in Gujarat have won him surprising support from some prominent Muslims, including various film stars and M.J. Akbar, one of the country’s leading editors. Pre-election polls showed as many as 13 percent of Muslim registered voters supporting the BJP.

There’s no question Modi campaigned as a moderate and a modernizer. His was not a divisive or rabble-rousing campaign, and it had nothing in common with the campaigns of Hitler and Mussolini. Modi’s emphasis was on economics not enemies, internal or external, with no talk of restoring Hindu honor or avenging humiliation by Muslim and Western conquerors. And Modi is probably unique in the annals of populism, especially in India, for wanting less protectionism and more foreign investment.

All that said, there is always a possibility that Hindu or Muslim extremists could exploit Modi’s election as an opportunity to engage in communal violence. If that happens Modi’s claim to be a leader for all Indians will be put to the test.

Some observers think the Modi-led BJP may be more likely to achieve a workable, sustainable peace with Pakistan than Congress has been. Modi will have the advantage of a majority government that speaks with one voice. And the fact that no one in India doubts his nationalist and anti-Pakistan credentials might make it easier for him to make necessary concessions to Pakistani paranoia. Certainly the last BJP government in 1998-2004 could count among its achievements not just economic liberalization but a better relationship with Pakistan.

But these things aren’t predictable. A Modi premiership could well lead to even greater tensions between the two mutually hostile, nuclear-armed neighbors. Modi has always talked tough about Pakistan, and quite a lot of support for the BJP comes from Indians who feel that their country has been too feeble in its reaction to Pakistan’s many provocations. Many BJP voters want India to have a much more assertive or even aggressive foreign policy, as befits a regional superpower and a great civilization.

While Pakistan is not as responsible for outbreaks of ethnic separatism as the post-independence elite would like to believe, there is no question that it trains, arms, advises, and sends militants—sometimes led by its special forces—across the border into Indian-controlled Kashmir in the same way that it sponsors the Taliban in Afghanistan. In 2008, it sent terrorists to attack Mumbai. New Delhi, for its part, has long responded to Pakistan’s ceaseless sponsorship of India’s insurgents with some covert proxy warfare of its own, reportedly backing separatist rebels in Baluchistan and the MQM militants in Karachi. It is possible that Modi will order the Indian intelligence service to step up paramilitary efforts against Pakistan, especially if Islamabad engages in acts seen as provocative.

Modi may also seek to grow his country’s military and economic support of Afghanistan, a country India had close relations with until the Taliban takeover. This would fan Pakistan’s already hysterical fears of an Indian-sponsored knife at its back, increasing the likelihood of an Afghan civil war that is largely a proxy war between the countries.

Modi has had so little concrete involvement in foreign policy that it is hard to know if his hard line on Muslim terrorism in India and what seems like a general unfriendliness to Islam will have ramifications for India’s foreign relations. Will he want to or be able to maintain India’s close relationship with Iran? India is now one of the Islamic Republic’s biggest trading partners, and under Congress rule, New Delhi has positively relished defying American admonitions about doing business with Tehran.

India is also a consistent supporter of the Assad regime in Syria and the remaining tyrannies of the Middle East, partly on the grounds of 1970s-style Third World solidarity (India is the only big country that still takes the Non-Aligned Movement seriously). It seems unlikely that Modi will adopt a less cynical and more pro-democratic approach to the Middle East. But it will be worth watching to see if a Modi-run India might be more protective of its millions of poorer citizens who work in the Gulf states, often in brutal and appalling conditions.

In general it is not clear if Modi’s undoubted dealbroking skills, honed in the electoral wards and bazaars of Gujarat, will translate into international politics. His education is limited. He is uncomfortable in English. He is not well traveled. The BJP slogan of “modernization not Westernization” suggests that he might be more comfortable with foreign leaders like Shinzo Abe of Japan than with Europeans and Americans. Indeed, what Modi’s prime ministership will mean for relations with Washington is a fascinating question.

Modi was barred from entering the United States in 2005 because of his alleged role in the Ahmedabad massacre. His visa was revoked under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, thanks to lobbying by an unusual coalition of evangelical Christian, Muslim, and Jewish groups, human rights organizations like Amnesty International, and Republican politicians.

Yet despite his hyperpatriotism and what he considers to be his own mistreatment by U.S. authorities, Modi and his people do not come from a milieu that is instinctively hostile to or suspicious of America. In general, the BJP has tended to be the most pro-American (and pro-Israel) of India’s parties, and the financial contributions of U.S.-resident Indians to the party continue to influence its attitude to America. So it is certainly possible that his premiership could change Indian-American relations for the better.

Relations have cooled dramatically since the Bush presidency, partly because of Obama administration incompetence but mostly because of ferocious Indian reactions to perceived insults such as the arrest last year of an Indian diplomat for exploiting her servant and lying on immigration forms.

This cooling might continue if a Modi government should bring about a worsening human rights situation in India. As it is, India’s armed forces and security services enjoy almost total impunity for crimes committed in counterinsurgency operations in the several states that are wracked by rebellion. Torture, the disappearing of alleged militants, and “encounter killings”—executions disguised as shootouts—are common. Under Modi, India’s vast internal security apparatus, much of it set up along Soviet lines, is likely to have an even freer hand, especially in Kashmir.

It would also be hard to imagine Indian-American relations improving if the status of women in India is seen to decline. In the recent past, BJP officials have made notoriously noxious statements about the place of women in society, even justifying rape and other violence against women in retribution for scandalous behavior such as going to bars unchaperoned. Set against these is Modi’s claim that he is a law and order candidate and the relative safety of Gujarat’s streets for women and even Muslims.

If Modi really were to initiate a reorientation of Indian foreign and defense policy away from implicitly anti-American “nonalignment,” New Delhi would find a genuinely enthusiastic ally in America and its military. The timing is propitious for a major reconciliation given that America’s imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan means Washington will no longer be so vulnerable to Pakistani blackmail concerning our main supply routes to Kabul. American policy towards Pakistan may, finally, take account of multiple betrayals by our supposed allies in Islamabad. Freed from most of the need to cultivate Pakistan (and perhaps in a state of open hostility to it), the United States would have much to offer India, and a great deal to gain from a new, formal alliance. This might include access to her superb intelligence sources in Pakistan, and the possibility of fruitful cooperation with her powerful and expanding navy—something especially useful at a time of growing tensions in Southeast Asia and increasing Chinese aggression.

In the salons of New Delhi and Mumbai, and among most of the people who went to the 10 or so private schools that almost everybody who is anybody in India attended, Modi’s name has long inspired disgust and horror. For them his victory has provoked dismay, and the kind of bafflement that Pauline Kael famously expressed when Richard Nixon was first elected (“but nobody I know voted for him”).

Deepak Lal, one of the most interesting writers on contemporary India, says the question about Modi is whether he is a Margaret Thatcher or an Adolf Hitler. Lal prefers to think of him as a Thatcher, but the jury is certainly out. And he could well turn out to be something in between, like a Putin. The Indian electorate deserves full credit for finally and convincingly turning out the complacent, corrupt, and incompetent Congress-led coalition, but it has gambled an astonishing amount of hope on Narendra Modi.

Jonathan Foreman is the founding editor of a Mumbai-based magazine, The Indian Quarterly.