Saturday, May 24, 2014

An american visits Un-India (discovers Modindia)

We are not sure how Daniel Berman (is he Jewish??) figured out that BJP/NDA will win big by visiting the un-India belt of Kolkata and Chennai but that is just our cynical, suspicious selves.

Overall analysis is pretty much up to the mark. The new paradigm (as we see it) is: Modified Indians think that India is a sleeping developed country. Better not tell that to S Anand or else he will be back with a five hundred page essay (without commas, apostrophes and full stops).

Bottomline, Obama is not amused with a Modi victory (he counts Manmohan Singh as one of his five top global friends) but Modi will want to bond closely with the USA (really? we thought he was a China fan. Perhaps if he is smart enough he will play one against the other).

BTW Daniel's reference to a major city with rolling blackouts must be Chennai (Kolkata has no industry to speak of and hence no power cuts either).  So by this limited measure at least Kolkata wins (also in IPL cricket where the Kolkata Knight Riders won massively due to a blitz by Yusuf Khan- 72 runs in 22 balls and presently ranking above Chennai Super Kings). Ho ho ho.

I had the pleasure this winter of visiting India for three weeks. Unlike many Americans who head to India in University or after, I did not go with the intention of finding spiritual enlightenment, to walk India Gandhi’s footsteps, or to learn more about development. Nor will I attempt to claim any special insight into the nature of India from my trip. I recognize that what I saw in Kolkata(Calcutta) and Chennai(Madras) was only a small slice of India, even if I was blessed to meet with diplomats and leading business figures during the trip, as well as representatives of local newspapers.

Nonetheless, as someone interested in electoral politics around the world, I could not help questioning those around about India’s upcoming elections. Those elections, which pit the Indian National Congress against the right-leaning Bharatiya Janata Party, and its leader Narandra Modi have largely been portrayed in the west as a choice between two bad options. Congress is portrayed as corrupt, while a large degree of focus is attached to Modi’s role in the 2002 riots in Gujarat where over 2000 Muslims were killed in retaliation for an attack on Hindu pilgrims that saw a number burned to death. Modi was first Minister at the time, but has been cleared of responsibility bythe Indian Supreme Court.

Where one comes down in the coverage in the West tends to come down to what you care about regarding India. If your interest is primarily financial, as the Economist is, you’re likely to see the race as a trade-off between better economic performance and human rights. If, on the other hand, you are deeply invested in the idea of India as some sort of romantic image of a spiritually-inclined indigenous culture that threw off colonial rule, as far too many Western twenty-something’s who spend time in India before returning as amateur analysts are, then you are likely to be horrified by Modi as he represents a challenge to the Nehru paradigm that has dominated India since 1947. In either case however, one is inclined to project those concerns onto the Indian electorate, with the result that outside analysts expected a weak Modi performance, perhaps with major gains for third forces.

I did not believe that was going to happen. When I was India I saw a poor country. For all the talk of India as a rising superpower, I saw a country with no traffic lights in major cities, one where it was impossible to get back correct change at any establishment without haggling, and one where one of the major cities in the country has rolling blackouts on a daily basis. This is not to in anyway condemn India, only to point out that I failed to see much spiritual or noble in streets that are dangerous to drive on, and where it takes over an hour to go seven kilometers.

Most importantly, when I spoke to people I saw a country that was tired of being poor. For all the discussion about BRICs and solidarity with rising powers like Brazil to undermine Western dominance, I found that most of those I met had no time for those flights of fancy that seem to entertain Western political scientists and which have been a staple of Congress’ Foreign Policy ever since Nehru co-founded the non-aligned movement. Instead I saw people who while admitting that Modi had drawbacks, saw him offering a different narrative and wanted it. Almost everyone over 45 who I spoke with opposed him; every single person I spoke with under 40 was voting for him.

Why? Because Modi this year offered a different narrative, one that is far more attuned to Indian aspirations than the one it has been cast in. Rather than seeing India as a leader of the developing world and a peer of Brazil, Modi and the BJP portray it as a sleeping developed country, a peer of European and Chinese civilization as one of the three great cultures of world history, condemned by invasion, Arab in the 9th century, not British in the 19th, to weakness and underdevelopment. 
For Modi and the BJP, Congress by embracing non-alignment and its sequel in the BRIC concept had condemned India to underdevelopment, using its affirmative action programs to turn one of the most effective civil services in the world into one of the world’s least efficient and corrupt.

For those observers then who see a decision to vote for Modi as a clash between the good(economic development) and the bad(communalism and Hindu nationalism) fail to grasp that in his case the two are intrinsically linked. Modi is offering to make India great again, and if his promises are excessive or likely to prove difficult to keep, they may well be the only way to justify necessary reforms of the labor system, tariff  controls, and monetary policy that are going to be painful for many.

Witnessing this in my conversations, I became convinced that not only was Modi likely to win; he was likely to win big. Just as Obama offered hope in 2008, the vote was a choice between more of the same and potential for change. That may be the case in any election, but in this case the “more of the same” was the state policies since 1947, and the “change” was something entirely new.

Furthermore, his opponents in the Congress party blundered in making the campaign about Modi rather than presenting any form of positive vision. This meant that while the BJP ran a campaign promising reform and economic growth, Congress talked endlessly about the 2002 riots. 
The mistake here was not that the riots were an asset to Modi; on the contrary, they were a liability. It was rather that they were less important to many voters than pocketbook issues, and Congress, by attacking Modi personally, failed to engage or provide a competing narrative to his policies. As a consequence, Modi was allowed to promote the narrative of his economic wizardry unchallenged, and in a choice between fear for minority rights and a desire for economic growth and national success, the voters are likely to chose the latter.

Exit polls so far show that the BJP’s performance likely exceeded all expectations, with the party winning anywhere from 240 seats to more than 280 in the Lok Sabha out of 545. We will find out the truth tomorrow when official results are announced.

What will this victory mean for the United States? Currently Modi is denied entry into America, a procedural decision of a Bush Administration which at the time was trying to build support in the Islamic world, and one undoubtedly continued by the Obama administration out of sentiment; Obama named incumbent Indian PM Singh as one of his five closest friends among world leaders.
Nonetheless, if Obama may dislike a Modi victory, the feelings are not reciprocated. The BJP is pro-American and Pro-Western because it sees India fundamentally as Western; it sees America, Europe and Japan as its peers, not Iran, South Africa or Brazil. The BJP has had a table set up at every Republican National Convention for a decade, and has bought space at the Conservative Political Action Conference. A BJP ruled India is a potential ally of America in a way and manner a Congress-ruled India can never be.

That requires Obama to let it. By instinct the very definition of a man too broadminded to take his own side in quarrel, Obama has always had difficulty with Nationalists, whether they be Putin or Modi. He seems to believe everyone should be as broadminded as him. Yet beyond that he has embraced an Asian pivot, and recognize the need to contain China, and hence the need for good relations with India.



1 comment:

  1. Obama "broad minded" ?puh leez he is just another petty lefty tyrant. If he seems "broad minded" with regards to international affairs it is only because he doesnt care about his country's standing in the world as long as it doesnt interfere with his domestic policies(the agenda closest to his heart)
    Anyway Obama being broadminded is contradicted by his assertion that MMS is one of his top five global friends. I have to ask if Obama was that broadminded wouldnt his top five friends include Netanyahu(who gave Obama a drubbing in his own living room) and Putin(who made Obama a laughingstock of the entire world)?
    That Obama prefers a spineless jellyfish beaureucrat like MSS as his top friend doesnt exactly convince me that he has a very strong personality.

    And the BJP isnt philosophically pro Western. Half of that lot believe that Christian missionaries are some sort of Western scheme to destabilize India while in reality most Westerners both elites and masses are only guilty of ahem outsourcing this what they see as a nuisance to distant lands so they would be left alone. An average BJP "intellectual" sees conspiracies by whites everywhere and their handiwork be it the Khalistan, Kashmir,Tamil Tigers or the North Eastern guerillas.

    My fear about Modi is that like most BJP he talks about a free market but actually prefers crony capitalism for his preferred constituents. I mean managing the economy of a naturally enterprising Gujarati people is one thing but making Ambanis out of bookworm Bengalis ,lazy Marathis, happily rustic Biharis, sullen Tamils or unimaginative Telugus is quite another task! The most tempting solution to his eyes is give tax breaks and business loans disproportionately to his own people rather change the cultural mindset and economic practices of aforementioned ethnic groups.

    Who is S Anand?