Modi

Attention must be paid to Narendra Modi. A good place to start is the article The Emperor Uncrowned in the Caravan by a Malayali journalist, Vinod K. Jose. The story of the attack on Gulburg Society is chilling.

Modi has been compared to Ronald Reagan (small government conservative supported by the religious right), Margaret Thatcher (Iron Lady), Deng Xiao Ping (economic reform), Nixon (went to China), Putin (wears a shirt sometimes) and inevitably, Hitler. All of this is nonsense. The leader Modi most resembles is Indira Gandhi, whom he admires more than his own party colleague, Vajpayee.

The contrasts with the Prime Minister’s daughter are more obvious: he is the son of a humble chai shop owner who came up the ranks of the secretive religious voluntary organization RSS. But Indira was not the anointed successor to Nehru: she had to fight back a syndicate of veteran Congress leaders, by crafty and secretive back room maneuvers. Not unlike the way Modi became CM of Gujarat, as explained by Jose.

Indira Gandhi’s election victory in 1971 was even more impressive than Modi’s now. She won two thirds of the seats in Parliament, the supermajority allowing her to amend the constitution at whim. Boosted by the humiliation of the Pakistani army and nationalization of all the major banks, it marked a turn to the left just as Modi has now swung the country to the right. Just as with Modi, expectations were sky high.

She turned out to be a thin-skinned leader, unable to take even the slightest criticism. Surrounded by sycophants murmuring “Indira is India and India is Indira”, she could never separate her personal success from that of the country. All opposition had to be crushed. When the promised economic miracle did not happen, protests broke out. Her response was to declare all opposition, right, left and Gandhian, as “Fascists”. She declared an Emergency and put them all in jail. Used emergency powers to extend the term of Parliament for two years. Believing herself to be wildly popular, she finally declared an election in 1977. And was soundly defeated .

Modi also, believes himself to be the Indispensable Man. There is no one in his court to tell him otherwise. Instead, they speak of a “Modi wave”, a “TsuNaMo”. No one mentions the possibility of a “Modi bubble”. He is thin skinned. Any criticism of him is an attack on Mother India. There is no trace of a sense of humor in either Modi or Indira. You are either with them or against them. Neutrality is treason. Modi too, has raised expectations too high. It seems unlikely that he can magically turn around the Indian economy. How will he handle the coming backlash?

On the positive side, Modi is a strong leader like Indira, able to deal with provocations from Pakistan. Even if the civilian leadership has another agenda, the Pakistani military and the shadowy network of terrorist organizations they nurture, will soon test Modi’s resolve. As the US withdraws from Afghanistan, the jihadists will attack India. Not just in Kashmir. It is about time India had a leader who threatens to “reply to a bullet with a bomb”. He is off to a good start by inviting the Pakistani PM to his inauguration, balancing his reputation as a hard-liner with some diplomacy.

It is also positive that Modi understands the need to reform Government. There is a Power ministry and a separate Coal ministry. A Railway ministry and a Transportation ministry. He will bring some sanity to the bureaucratic mess. In return he will enhance the power of the Babus by dealing directly with them over the heads of his Cabinet colleagues. This style of governing worked in Gujarat. Roads were built and electricity flows without interruption. No mean task and vital for development.

Modi has hinted at changing India’s policy of no first use of nuclear weapons. (Denied by his party chief, but that could be an election tactic.) This was the stance of the losing side of the Cold War. Neither China nor Pakistan has a similar position. Just as he moves India away from Soviet-style state control of the economy, Modi needs to modernize India’s defense doctrine. And he needs to do it before the glow of his election victory fades. This is unspeakable but essential.

India is a conservative country, with a culture focused on family and religion. Small businesses like farms and chai shops dominate the economy even now. Paradoxically, the political choice for a long time has been between Socialism and Communalism. During the struggle for independence, India’s natural allies in Britain were the Socialists and the Labor movement. So it is not surprising that Nehru started the country on a Socialist path despite his own aristocratic background. There was no right wing to balance this. Economic reform had to come from within the bureaucracy, not sanctioned directly by the electorate. Indian politics used to be like a bird trying to fly on one left wing.

Modi has changed that. He led a brilliant campaign, focused on development. Even if the euphoria of the Mumbai stock market is not justified, Modi will change India for the better. He has taken the stigma out of business. The problem is that he may have succeeded too well. There is no left wing to check his own excesses. Who will insist on regulating the banks, or on ensuring worker safety? A good sign for the moment is that the less powerful chamber of Parliament, the Rajya Sabha, is still in the hands of the opposition.

If Congress could reform itself and become a center-left party to counter a center-right BJP, Indian politics will fly on two wings finally. For this, it has to overcome the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that is stifling it. There are many able politicians (A.K. Anthony and P. Chidambaram for example) who can lead an effective opposition. (Anthony is a member of the Rajya Sabha, so is well positioned to put the brakes on Modi.) They are currently made to sing the praises of the moronic Rahul Gandhi who says things like

You should stop asking your politicians how they’re gonna do it.

Over the years, the Indian electorate has made the right choices for itself. Each election has taken the country forward. It is possible to stay on course by swinging to one side and then the other. Perhaps the right metaphor for India is a boat sailing against the wind. By tacking to the left and then right, it moves ever forward.

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