Modi is no Margaret Thatcher. I see no honest drive to undo India’s crony capitalism, and an excessive reliance on populist slogans
Watching Narendra Modi govern India, one laments a lost opportunity. His victory in May last year had offered independent India its first clear shot at a free-market conservative government. Sixteen months later, one struggles to find any sustained commitment to market reforms. His recent speech to the Delhi Economic Conclave was a mixture of complacency and platitudes.
Modi is no Margaret Thatcher. I see no honest drive to undo India’s crony capitalism, and an excessive reliance on populist slogans — of which there have been more in his 16 months in office, I wager, than in all of Indira Gandhi’s years in power. In any case, how is ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas (Together with all, Development for all)’ any less banal than ‘Garibi hatao, Desh bachao (Abolish poverty, Save the country)’. And in terms of sheer rhetorical electricity — supposedly Modi’s forte — the latter slogan from Indira’s days wins hands down.
As for Modi’s conservatism, there’s much too much in it of Amit Shah, his party’s manipulative president, and not enough of Edmund Burke. Before nationalist critics hyperventilate over a “foreign” philosopher, let me explain. Modi has done nothing to arrest the galloping tyranny of the majority, thus putting at risk India’s social order. Burke was okay with a reining in of individualism in the interests of social cohesion. But under Modi, we’re experiencing curbs on individual rights that result directly in a social unravelling. This isn’t conservatism, it’s the very opposite.
Some of us who were not Modi’s most natural supporters, but who believed that an end to Congress rule was necessary to drag India out of an almighty rut, understood the use of the Amit Shah Way in the campaign to win the elections last year. After all, Modi had to win power in order to exercise it, and the BJP’s election strategy — a combination of chest-thumping nationalism, some promises of economic change, and a tactical deployment of Hindutva — wasn’t particularly outlandish by the low moral standards of Indian electioneering.
There were clear indications from the more sophisticated sectors of the BJP that once the dirty business of the elections was done — once the campaign bullhorns and dog-whistles were put away — Modi & Co. would get down to the business of finding ways to let India grow. But increasingly, it seems that we were swindled.
The conservatism that we see today is not fiscal but religious. The order we see being imposed on India is not national but Hindu. After campaigning the Amit Shah Way, Modi is now governing the Amit Shah Way. There is no calm, there is no reflection, there is no attention paid to what ails the nation. Instead, we have a Nonstop Campaign. There is scarcely a moment or opportunity when Modi thinks of the nation first, and not of his party and its saffron fellow travellers.
The BJP had to win elections in Bihar, so the issue of the Madhesis in Nepal was stoked up, Indo-Nepalese relations be damned. Indian citizens were lynched on accusations of consuming or transporting beef, and the Prime Minister of India — the Prime Minister of all Indians — found it impossible to utter three plain words: “Lynching is abhorrent.” In both cases, the party’s interests came first.
This is what I mean when I point to a victory of Amit Shah over Burke. One side says: the party’s ideology is paramount. The nation can fall into place later. The other side says: nothing is more important than the nation.
In India, the wrong side is winning.
The writer is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
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