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India à la Modi

Hope and change on the subcontinent

Jun 2, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 36 • By JONATHAN FOREMAN
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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.

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