Modi won the Gujarat elections because of his administrative competence and, as he looks to move to national politics, the US will have to change tack and reach out to him if it wants better relations with India.
Gujarat, India’s western seaboard with 60 million people, reelected Narendra Modi to power. A charismatic orator, Modi has a reputation for being an honest and effective administrator in a country where politicians are known for corruption and incompetence. He is also self-made in a culture where social mobility is still low and politicians, especially from the Congress party, are either dynasts or owe their power to the patronage of dynasts.
Is he Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde?
To say that Modi is controversial is an understatement. Some celebrate him as the next great hope for India, the man who will take on the corrupt, vicious and vacuous Nehru dynasty and bury them ten feet under. It is assumed that Modi will bring his no-nonsense governing style to Delhi, build roads, ports, power plants, encourage industry and generate employment. He might be the Deng Xiaopeng who could replicate what he has done in Gujarat and finally unleash the economic potential of India.
Others view him as Satan incarnate. They hold him to be a mass murderer who personally ordered the slaughter of thousands of Muslims in the Gujarat riots of 2002. They view him as an Indian Hitler who will build autobahns with the same enthusiasm as gas chambers for Muslims.
The truth as a wise man once said is rarely pure and never simple. Modi is not quite the single handed architect of Gujarat’s prosperity and he is certainly not the pantomime villain his detractors make him out to be. He is neither Dr. Jekyll nor Mr. Hyde. Even his detractors concede that he has done a good job governing Gujarat. Gujarat is a relatively small state in a country of over 1.2 billion. Yet with 5% of India’s population it produces 16% of India’s manufacturing and 22% of its exports, compelling even critics such as The Economist to refer to it as India’s Guangdong. At the same time, even his supporters agree that he has some way to go before acquiring pan-national appeal despite his impressive record. While he has wooed industry successfully, he has not been able to reach out to political leaders in other parts of the country or build a national power base in his own party.
So what happens now?
There are three clear conclusions to be drawn from Modi’s victory. First, Indian voters reward good governance. Modi has risen despite all odds. The Delhi English speaking elite has been carrying on a vitriolic campaign against Modi for years. It has lived off the patronage of the Congress party and feels uncomfortable with the rise of a rustic politician such as Modi. He actually represents a real and potent threat to these cozy elites that mask their discomfiture in the language of democracy and secularism. Over time, those who govern well will win power and more leaders such as Modi will emerge. Second, Modi will now turn his attentions to the national stage and seek power in Delhi. His victory speech was in Hindi and not Gujarati, a clear signal that he is spreading his wings. It is unclear how far his appeal lies outside Gujarat. He has powerful enemies in his own party who envy and fear him. Nevertheless, even if Modi does not become prime minister, he would be in pole position for important positions such as the home or finance ministries. Third, Gujarat is going to forge ahead and emulate Guangdong. The foundations of strong growth are there. Gujarat has always been the most entrepreneurial of Indian states with its location on the Arabian Sea. For years, merchants from this state imported goods from the wider world and exported Indian goods westwards. The Gujarati Diaspora is settled all across Africa and has a strong presence in Canada, the UK and the US. With a business friendly government and first rate infrastructure, investment will pour in fuelling strong economic growth in the years to come.
What about Washington DC?
Modi’s success is not only making Delhi elites uncomfortable but also putting Washington DC in a bind. Policy makers in the national capital of the US have been highly foolish in locking themselves into a doctrinaire opposition to Modi. The US even denies him a visa. Washington elites have always viewed Modi’s party, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), as the Indian equivalent of the Muslim Brotherhood. Just as they preferred Mubarak, the devil they knew, they prefer the dynastic party of former Soviet stooges, the Congress. Washington elites continue to support many dictators and human rights violators. Modi’s record is mild when compared to Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev or Israel’s Bibi Netanyahu, neither of whom have been censured in the same way. Singling out Modi for censure when he has not been convicted of any crime is incongruous, hypocritical and downright foolish. What happens to US-India relations if he becomes India’s prime minister or finance minister?
In recent years, other powers have been establishing closer ties with Modi. He hosts a summit for investors from around the world, cannily branded as Vibrant Gujarat that has attracted billions of investment dollars and the likes of Abbott, Bombardier, Ford, Peugeot, and Suzuki to the state. The UK has reversed its policy of diplomatic boycott of Modi and Russia’s Ambassador to India has welcomed Modi’s election victory. The US risks jeopardizing its relations with India if it continues with its misguided opposition of Modi. The people of Gujarat have spoken and it is time for Washington DC to listen.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.