Economic development, illiberalism, and a middle path between Washington and Beijing
We've been talking a lot about age in the context of American presidential politics, but Modi is no spring chicken himself. He's 72 years old. Younger than Joe Biden, sure, but not "young". This post talked a lot about the politics of "Modi" as though he was a unitary executive figure, but of course he's a prime minister put in power by the support of his political party.
I guess where I'm going with this is that instead of talking about whether "Modi" has illiberal tendencies, maybe the more important thing is to ask what the internal politics of his party the BJP are like. What sorts of leaders are competing within the BJP to be its next leader in five years or ten years? Are there separate "economic development" and "Hindu nationalist" strains within that compete with each other? Will the party be able to hold itself together without Modi as a unifying figure?
If we want to talk mid-term future, where India will be in fifteen years or so, then Modi will shape that future but he won't be that future. Because the future, as ever, belongs to the young (or at least middle aged).
Good article but correction needed: Quad refers to US, India, Australia, and Japan***. South Korea is only in "Quad Plus".
As far as Modi’s illiberal tendencies go, one thing that I have heard persistently from left-leaning and liberal Indians is that most of the Indian media is run by friends of Modi and is ridiculously pro-Modi.
I also happened to catch an episode of the NDTV English-language news recently (there is a free to air channel in Australia that broadcasts a variety of foreign news programmes from around the world) NDTV was, as I understand it, one of the best regarded Indian news organisations. Recently, the Adani Group (run by one of Modi’s billionaire friends), bought the network.
It was 30 minutes of advertising for Modi.
Yes, speculating from a tiny piece of data, but it sure seemed consistent with the “Modi has autocratic tendencies and the place is veering away from liberal democracy” take to me.
Some background on the Gujarat riots.
For a long time, Gujarat has been a Hindutva laboratory. Or to be more precise, central Gujarat is a Hindutva laboratory. RSS activists are everywhere on the ground, running everything from soup kitchens, children's activities, to paramalitary organizations. The RSS at every moment has been fanning the flames of Hindu / Muslim conflict, making every every day legal , cultural etc. dispute between Hindus and Muslims into an existential threat. The result is that every conflict can turn into bloody riots. Ahmedabad has seen three major riots in the past already, in 1969 , 1985 and finally in 2002.
The fundamental difference between the previous riots and the 2002 riots was that the BJP was in power. After Muslim rioters burned down a train killing 300 Hindu pilgrims, a Congress would have called for calm and restraint. We saw radio silence from Modi. Moreover, for years, followed by deeply religious rhetoric. Moreover, Modi and his BJP predecessors had been hiring and promoting bigotted policemen for years, who personally could care less about anti-Muslim violence. As a result, anti-Muslim arose in far more places and took for longer to end than in normal circumstances.
The overwhelming majority of anti-Mulsim violence is incited by the RSS in non-BJP controlled states. The BJP portrays itself as the party of law and order. Violence in non-BJP states both polarises voters on religious lines and makes opposition look weak. As the BJP loses power in more and more states, I expect violence to become more common.
None of this is to exonerate Modi. While he himself might not have instigated the riots (although people like Amit Shah the home minister do know where to bodies are buried), Modi and his movement spent decades creating the environment where explosive violence became possible.
Good article. I too struggle with Erdogan and Modi. Both are unquestionably popular and I think unquestionably were elected democratically. But they’re also illiberal. Usually democracy and Liberalism (of which most conservatives and progressives across the world are adherents of, even if different sides of the philosophy). Usually Liberalism and democracy go hand in hand; the fact many non-Liberals can win democratically is both a point in democracy’s favor (I like to say democracy and Liberalism are the only ideologies and governments which would willingly hand power over to a different ideology), but a weakness as well.
To cut to the chase I think we have more in common with Erdogan, Modi and Orban than we don’t. They’re still somewhere in that grey area between autocrat and Democrat; liberal and despotism. All three benefit from popular support and democratic institutions. They are what George Washington would have been had he declined to leave office, and what FDR effectively was (a man so popular he couldn’t be beat). Which is to say Turkish, Hungarian and Indian democracy would benefit from more institutional reform. Term limits for the executive are a good idea. It remains to be seen if these men will end their National democracies or leave as merely popular, illiberal nationalists.
Enjoyed the piece. Something else that should be injected into this discussion is India’s strategic status as a nuclear power actively pursuing expansion of its capabilities (especially on the submarine front) while remaining in a precarious position vis-a-vis Pakistan. It would be good for everyone if we could get those two pursuing steps to establish a safer posture.
One important difference between Modi and Erdogan is that the BJP's dominance is only at the national level. The BJP has suffered a series of losses at the state and local level, including most recently in Karnataka. The BJP and it's allies have net lost states in more or less all of the last 3 years, and roughly 60% of India lives in opposition controlled states, with the percent likely to continue going down.
Moreover, while the BJP has a commanding majority in the Lok Sabha, it won this majority with only 37% of the vote. There are a lot of constituencies won with the narrowest of margins. Indeed in the upper house, the BJP and its coalition is already in a minority (although pseudo allies mean that the upper house doesn't really act as a check).
While the INC coming to power in 2024 is extremely unlikely, even a modest loss of votes will force the BJP to form a genuine coalition government, which will (for better or for worse) both temper the BJP's autocratic tendencies. While the opposition winning seems unlikely, a return to more small-d governance after 2024 is at least somewhat plausible.
I grew up in India in the 70s thru 90s, and, fwiw, I think the article is mostly correct and balanced. Couple of comments:
1) The Hindu-Muslim hostility is mutual and dates back centuries; several acts of communal violence, especially before 1980s, were often initiated by muslim vigilantes against the Hindus. Lately, it has been the other way around.
2) Congress ruled virtually unopposed after independence (1947 - 1977), when Indira Gandhi, after imposing emergency, lost to a united coalition of opposition parties; she came back to power in 1981, but was assassinated in 1984. The Congress formula for winning elections was simple: they had a lock on the backward caste Hindus (SC/ST) (23%), Muslims (12%) and upper class Hindus (7%) for a total of 42% All other vote was divided between several regional and national parties, BJP being one of them.
3) Congress leaders would often instigate communal riots to ensure muslims voted en-bloc for Congress; and Congress was often seen pandering to these groups. Did you know India was the first country to ban Satanic Verses, even before Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or Iran? This was in late 1980s. That is when the BJP decided to exploit this pandering and began uniting Hindus across castes into a large enough vote bank to be able to win elections nationally. BJP was predominantly urban and middle class. Key events: Advani's Ram rath yatra (1990), Bombay bomb blasts (1993), Indian Parliament attack (2001).
4) BJP first came to power in 1998, and Congress made a comeback in 2004. Finally, BJP won again in 2013 under Modi's leadership. Congress, meanwhile, became increasingly known for dynastic rule (PM had to be from Nehru/Gandhi family) and corruption.
5) Modi, coming from a lower caste family, and by implementing policies that benefit the poor, has significantly expanded BJP's vote base, and the BJP won the last national elections with 37.4% of the vote (Congress got about 19%). So, a good opposition leader should be able to win nationally against Modi, but there is no leader of that stature today. Rahul Gandhi is widely reviled and mocked.
One final point regarding Rahul Gandhi's elimination from the parliament: what Rahul Gandhi said was worse than what has been reported here; he mentioned two absconding criminals with Modi last name, and then suggested he saw a pattern with ALL the Modis. So an individual with last name Modi took offense to this statement and filed a defamation case and won. I am sure there was politics involved, but a leader must face consequences for calling an entire community thieves for the actions of a few, especially in a country that is divided by caste, religion and region.
Really enjoyed this piece. I've said this before, but I think it would be really cool get more content like this on SB - smart takes about different countries that try to inform Americans about things they may not be aware of. (It reminded me of Matt's Italy piece from last summer, which is one of my favorites on here.)
Regarding the thesis, I think the Erdogan analogy is a good one, and one I've thought of myself for Modi. But I think it's worth remembering...while Erdogan is, at this point*, quite bad, but he's never gonna be the Chinese Communist Party. India's a lot bigger than Turkey, so if Modi goes full Erdogan he'd probably be more powerful, but it's difficult for me to imagine him marshalling repression on the same scale as the CCP, and I'm not sure there are mechanisms by which the Indian government could really intimidate Western businesses the way the Chinese government has (though maybe there are, I don't know - would be curious if someone more knowledgeable could weigh in). Point being, Modi-as-Indian-Erdogan would be bad, but my inclination is to think that is someone the West can do business with.
*While the West kinda had blinders on about Erdogan in the early days (in the 2000s, The Economist invariably referred to him as "mildly Islamist"), I think you could argue that some of his macroeconomic and infrastructure policies were successful. But - even ignoring the authoritarianism - at this point he seems intent on undoing a lot of that with his embrace of monetary quackery.
Good article Milan, I’m continually impressed by the quality of your work on these difficult subjects. Finding your writing voice isn’t an easy process but you are well on your way.
Good post, but I have some issues.
First, this quote: "We should also remember that opening our markets to China created an incentive to suppress criticism of the CCP and its policies in the West, and we should be cautious about the risk that pivoting to India will do the same."
-- I don't think we should ever apologize for a policy that led to hundreds of millions of people being able to escape grinding poverty, certainly not if the cost was to (temporarily) "suppress criticism of the CCP in the West." This should be the least of our concerns vis a vis India.
Second, we *do* want India to advance up the economic ladder in the same manner as China (and South Korea etc), and for the same reasons as above. And as that happens, I think we should worry less about India "playing Moscow and Washington off each other." Moscow has nothing to offer India (I can't imagine anyone wanting Soviet-style arms anymore). And economic development will embed India more in Western and (non-China) East Asian economies which will naturally lead to more shared interests.
Third, Modi makes me queasy but I don't know what to do about that. I dislike his democratic authoritarianism and his ugly ethnic politics but he (and India) won't change because we call them out. India is fundamentally a far more democratic and liberal country than China ever has been (or sadly probably ever will be), so I have hopes that economic development and greater interaction with developed economies will tame Modi-like politics over the longer term.
It's unfortunate if Modi is authoritarian-leaning, but that's just how developing countries work. I'd argue India has an exceptionally good democracy for a country with a GDP per capita of $2200! The US is presently allies with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, etc. etc.
We should be working to strengthen India militarily regardless, because a strong India is a counterweight to China even if we're not traditional allies with them. They share a 2100 mile border, have fought several wars over it, and my understanding is that Modi doesn't fan nationalist sentiment against China now merely because India is too weak and he doesn't want to badly lose a border war with them. Our goal should be two gigantic, militarily powerful countries in Asia pre-occupied with each other. Thousands of years of human history tell us there's no way two superpowers can be allied when they're nextdoor neighbors. Meanwhile, America will continue to rely on one of her greatest strengths- that we're separated by two oceans from any potential trouble. A powerful India can help check a powerful China.
Realpolitik is ugly, cold and Machiavellian sometimes- let's play the long game here
This is really good, but I think more attention needs to be paid to the abject failure of Congress Party. From the listless and unengaged PM Singh to the rank nepotism of the Gandhi family. I don’t think Raul deserves the charges against him obvie, but why the eff are the Gandhis still running CP?? It’s be like if Dems nominated Chelsea after Hillary lost in ‘16. CP and the Indian left have basically ceded the country to rightist Hindu nationalists and it really irks me.
I think that observers might give Modi and the BJP a bit too much credit on economic performance— growth has been lower and unemployment and inflation higher than they were under his predecessor, Congress’s, Manmoham Singh.
How much does China’s success influence the Indian public in terms of authoritarianism? If you look at Singapore, South Korea and especially China it sure looks like you need some political illiberalism to go from the third world to the first world in a generation or two.