India’s New Leader Risks Violent Disruption for China-style Growth

India’s New Leader Risks Violent Disruption for China-style Growth

REUTERS/Anindito Mukherjee

Indians made a potentially fateful choice when they voted Narendra Modi and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party into power in stretched-out elections this spring. With the BJP’s victory official as of late last week, India is now a nation to be watched carefully and wished luck, for it may need a lot of it.

Modi’s promise of a return to the 8 percent growth India achieved a decade ago drew a record turnout—66 percent of 800 million-plus voters—and helped the BJP win a convincing parliamentary majority, leaving it free of any need for coalition partners. But the electorate’s soaring aspirations on the economic side now look unrealistic, and the risk that Modi will disappoint his huge constituency is medium to high. 

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Changing the fundamental character of India’s traditional political economy is only one of Modi’s challenges and not the most fraught. Modi’s political and ideological background could lead the nation into a far bigger mess than a set of so-so GDP numbers.

Put it this way: “Hindu nationalist” describes the BJP adequately. But in a nation with a Muslim minority of roughly 15 percent, many party members are Hindu chauvinists, and Modi’s roots are deep in this regrettable tradition—one much given to sometimes savage communal violence.

Modi’s allies and apologists make as little of the new prime minister’s very troubling background as possible, but this is mere spin. It reduces the danger of new outbreaks of anti-Muslim extremism not an iota.

Neither will Modi’s past and his ideological genes make diplomatic relations with New Delhi any simpler—especially for the U.S., which has pushed the “two largest democracies” theme to promote a strategic partnership since the 1990s. And Modi’s people on the foreign side should quickly explain what his assumption of office means for “Indo-Pak,” as Indians term their highly touchy ties to Muslim-majority Pakistan.  

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Modi has advocated fashionably neoliberal economic policies at least since he served earlier as chief minister of Gujarat, a state in the northwest long noted for the acumen of its merchants and entrepreneurs. Now, having dealt the long-governing Congress party the worst battering in its history, he proposes to turn India decisively away from the redistributive policies that remain the most prominent legacy of the Nehru era.

Two problems here. One, Modi now takes on many decades of densely elaborated subsidies, entitlements, formal and informal obligations, and bureaucratic trade-offs. This is the warp and woof of Congress’s brand of Fabian socialism, and Modi just sent Congress packing, true. But it is also the dye of the Indian fabric, and we have to see how easily Modi can rinse it out. Voters want the zippy growth rates, but let’s see what happens when achieving them means dismantling Congress’s paternalist state structure and the benefits that came of it.

Two, it is logical to ask what is so wrong with redistribution in the Indian context. Setting aside the obvious moral dimension, a lasting growth strategy means cultivating demand (as, ahem, leaders in Europe and the U.S. are taking too long to learn). Modi’s neoliberalism, straight off the West’s shelf, went over well in Gujarat, where he was elected chief minister in 2001 (a post he will resign this week), but Gujarat is India’s third-richest state by GDP per capita, trailing only those encompassing Delhi and Bombay.

A failed or badly calculated economic policy will bring political problems, but political leaders in gloriously contentious India have always faced these. Modi’s Hindu-chauvinist ideology, known as Hindutva, is another matter. It will be seriously de-stabilizing if he takes it into the prime minister’s office.

This threat cannot be dismissed. Modi was chief minister when an anti-Muslim pogrom claimed a thousand lives in Gujarat 12 years ago. The Supreme Court in Delhi never charged him with complicity, but that judgment remains questionable.

Related: Advisers to India’s Modi Dream of a Thatcherite Revolution

A 2007 investigation by Tehelka, a reputable national weekly, implicated Modi and many of those close to him. Exhaustively reported, it was a bombshell when published, has never been discredited, and continues to haunt the Indian political conversation. Read it here. This is India’s new leader.

Hindutva arose out of a self-image among Hindus of weakness and waywardness imparted during the colonial era. Muslims were considered muscular, masculine, brilliant in battle, and resolute by comparison. The story of Hindutva is one of psychological and emotional compensation, played out in politics since the 1920s: “We will prove ourselves virile and the masters of a pure Hindu nation.” This is the story line. The “Other” of the Hindu became the Muslim.

It is early days, but Modi’s first moves in this connection are worrisome. In Delhi after his victory, he termed India “a shining nation,” and pledged to make it “self-reliant and strong.” He then repaired to Benares, the Hindus’ holy city, and to the temple of Shiva, “the one who is eternally pure,” the virile god who destroys so as to recreate.

Related: If Modi Wins, Neighbors Can Expect a More Muscular India

The language is code and the gestures are signals. Neither brings good news.

It is too soon to forecast calamity as the BJP installs Modi in the prime minister’s office. It is instantly evident that India will walk a path dense with pitfalls, at home and in its relations abroad. It would be easy to say Indian voters chose to overlook Modi’s questionable record in favor of Modi the high-growth strategist, the technocrat. But for a very surprising proportion of Indian voters, few endorse Gujarat-style violence; many endorse Hindutva.

Washington, which refused Modi a visa for years after the 2002 violence, instantly congratulated him last Friday and offered him a state visit. The White House needs to be more cautious about this man. India’s Muslim community, disadvantaged across the board, sees warning signs already.

This columnist confesses to a personal view, borne of time spent in the Subcontinent. India holds the promise of greatness, precisely because it has been the scene of centuries of syncretism, as scholars say—in plain English, it is a salad of cultures, traditions, faiths, languages, and what have you blended into the unique thing called “Indianness.”

Hindutva’s tragic mistake lies in the seeking of greatness by erasing the source of greatness from history. Have Indians now chosen a leader who makes an ideology’s mistake India’s mistake?

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