Modi and the road not taken
There are two competing narratives regarding what to expect from Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His acolytes keep switching between overlapping descriptions of him to convey their adoration of their idol – Loha Purush (Iron Man) and Vikas Purush (Development Man).
They believe passionately that Modi will put their country back on a high-growth track, root out corruption, and resort to a new, muscular foreign policy that enhances India’s global standing. Last Friday night, Modi said in a victory speech in his home state of Gujarat, “I didn’t get a chance to sacrifice my life in India’s freedom struggle, but I have the chance to dedicate myself to good governance. I will develop this country. I will take it to new heights».
A second narrative, on the contrary, is of ‘Apocalypse Now’, almost entirely borne out of Modi’s background as a pracharak or activist of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh [RSS], a far-right paramilitary organization founded in direct imitation of European fascist movements, which believes as the centerpiece of its ideology in India being essentially a Hindu nation. The founder of the RSS Madhav Golwalkar wrote, “foreign races… must either adopt the Hindu culture and language, must learn to respect and hold in reverence the Hindu religion, must entertain no ideas but those of glorification of the Hindu race and culture… or may stay in the country wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment – not even citizen’s rights».
Modi himself said in a recent interview, “I got the inspiration to live for the nation from the RSS. I learned to live for others, and not for myself. I owe it all to the RSS».
The hard truth, as it often happens, must lie somewhere in between the above two narratives. Without doubt, the key issues in this election have been the economy and good governance. Now, neither is possible to achieved without stability and security. Economic growth and development cannot take place in a vacuum and they demand social mobility and inclusive governance. What worked in Gujarat may not work in the rest of India. Many constraints will slow down the drive to centralize the government around a single personality.
Aside a pugnacious press and an active judiciary, India is a hugely diverse country with a federal structure with more than half the states being run by non-BJP governments, and India’s history is replete with instances when the ruler ultimately was compelled to embrace diversity in order to rule effectively.
Besides, the task of development itself is huge – lifting hundreds of millions of people from poverty and creating jobs for them, dealing with iron-ore mafias, revamping the rotten banks, repairing public finances, creating clusters of manufacturing, modernizing the infrastructure, investing in social sectors and so on. A new report by the global investment bank Credit Suisse says that the elections per se will not revive an investment cycle in India.
It warns, “Hopes are high among investors that elections can re-start the investment cycle. Even if the electoral verdict is favorable, such misplaced optimism ignores the realities of the business cycle, and overestimates the powers of the central government. Only a fourth of investment projects under implementation are stuck with the central government; the rest are constrained by overcapacity, balance sheets, or state governments».
Two-thirds of the projects awaiting approvals from the federal government are in the power and steel sectors, both of which are wracked with massive overcapacity, making new investments unnecessary. Credit Suisse expects the recent rally in the Indian markets to continue for a few months until the end of the year by when the markets will realize the government’s inability to drive rapid changes.
Indeed, the problems run deep. For instance, no matter how hard the central government may try in the power sector, the reforms actually need to take place at the state level. Again, boosting coal production is a critical necessity but any overhaul will take several years. As for the steel sector, mining of iron ore is, again, a state subject (and in some cases, it happens to be at the discretion of the Supreme Court.)
On the other hand, there is nothing to show that the BJP is not serious about its social agenda. Modi has openly espoused the Hindutva ideology throughout his career. The last time the party was in power (1999-2004), the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee could plead that he was constrained by coalition partners of the National Democratic Alliance government, but there is really no such counterweight to Modi today. He is not only “unbound» but, most certainly, far “more equal» than others in his government, and within his party itself, including the party’s president, he stands like a Colossus. It could be a fair guess that his heavy emphasis on economics and governance may mean that he may have little surplus political capital to expend on a aggressive social agenda. But then, it remains a mere guess at this point.
Of course, there is going to be a foreign-policy dimension to all this. The fate of the Indian Muslim will be under international scrutiny, especially in the Muslim world. Israel has rejoiced, but Modi’s rise has raised concerns in the Muslim world. In reality, Modi’s experience in international diplomacy is nil and he truly faces a learning curve on foreign policy issues. It is one thing to fire up the electoral base with strident and provocative rhetoric but it is another to take a confrontational approach toward Bangladesh or Pakistan and China.
Modi has demanded the expulsion of Bangladeshi Muslim migrants from India and has openly expressed admiration for the US President Barack Obama’s grit to hunt down Osama bin Laden in violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. (Modi’s supporters openly demand a “hot pursuit» strategy toward cross-border terrorism from Pakistan and for calling Pakistan’s “nuclear bluff».) Similarly, Modi has blasted the Manmohan Singh government for being “soft» on China’s border incursions.
However, this may sound a paradox but the heart of the matter is that Modi enjoys the political space to seek accommodation with Pakistan and China, if only he chooses to take the road not taken by the Hindutva ideologues. A known unknown here is how far ambitious Modi himself could be, now that he is at the pinnacle of power, to become a truly historic national leader – like China’s Deng Xiaoping. Deng also had his share of “2002 Gujarat riots» – Tiananmen Square – but when history is written, what stands out is his profound contribution to the transformation of China and in lifting hundreds of millions of his countrymen out of poverty even while answering to his authoritarian roots.