Tuesday, November 27, 2012

India at Crossroads: Waiting for Mr Modi?

India faces a momentous election in approximately 18 months time, but next week, its first battles will be fought. Gujrat's enigmatic Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, will face elections in his own state, and most probably win. A big win, as predicted, will set him on course to be the Prime Ministerial candidate for the Hindu Chauvinist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), which will, given the woes of the current ruling coalition, put him in a pole position to win the premiership.

This will be a tragedy for three reasons. 

First, this will turn the debate about India's future into a debate about its past: Mr Modi, despite his new development-friendly avatar, represent a Hindu supremacist view of India. His track record, which he is desperate to leave behind, irreversibly features the pogrom he organized or encouraged or tolerated (depending on what one believes), which killed more than 2000 muslims and displaced ten times that number, making Gujrat a more homogeneous state than it was before. His possible ascendency in Delhi will revive the possibility that he may wish to do the same across the country. While his strategists assiduously deny that this could ever be the case, pointing out the vast minority population of India, they leave unsaid that without a strategy of that nature, it would be impossible for Mr Modi, at best, to be a more than one term Prime Minister. Mr Modi, and BJP in general, has failed so far to present a coherent idea of India which is any way different from what the current Congress government is talking about, except to emphasize 'efficiency'; with Mr Modi in ascendency, everyone will see that this is only a shorthand for authoritarianism.

Second, this will also represent a win for a tyocoon-friendly top-down vision of economic development, which India already has enough of. This is a model dependent on export revenue, foreign investment and a free-for-the-rich play. Last few years have shown that Indian economy's resilience comes from its chaotic bottom-up structure and domestic demand. While this makes a less spectacular story than the shiny new factories, big investment MoUs and prosperity of a few as developments in Gujrat have shown, the bottom-up people-driven model may be the only one that may suit the wider country, which includes more people than just the Hindu Male Gujrati businessmen. India remains a resilient, large, diverse country, with many competing visions and different interests: However inconvenient that may seem, this has allowed India to build a more sustainable grassroots model of prosperity and development. Going back to Mr Modi is going back to the 'India Shining' days, which meant a lot of easy credit fueled middle class hoopla, without an expansion of productive capacity or sustained consumer demand.

Third, this may mean further strife with India's neighbours, who will be uneasy dealing with Mr Modi given his track record. Indeed, one may argue that it does not matter what they think, but that is precisely the mistake Mr Modi and his advisers will be prone to make. India's foreign policy, like everyone else's, may now need to pivot to Asia, as this is going to the most exciting, as well as most dangerous, economic play and strategic arena in the world. Whatever we have seen so far, this is not what Mr Modi or his advisers will be comfortable dealing with (though one must also recount how little the UPA government has done in this regard, and the only Premier to have seriously tried an Asian pivot was Atal Bihari Bajpayee, the only BJP Premier that India has ever had).

Indeed, one may not need to take a Modi premiership for granted. The UPA government has all these 18 months to make amends, and it is finally getting back into action. Even if BJP comes to power, Mr Modi will be unacceptable as a Premier to half the country, and various regional politicians, with whom a coalition must be formed, would prefer a more benign candidate. The BJP has proved to be an extremely fractious party itself, and may fail to fall in line behind Mr Modi. And, Mr Modi, who is currently testing the waters, may settle for the bird in hand, and may never want to leave Gujrat politics for an uncertain future in national politics. 

Whatever it is, there are clear and present dangers, and those rooting out for a more tolerant India, with a sustainable model of economic development and sensible foreign policy, must remain forewarned of a lurch towards extreme right and extreme uncertainty. 

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