Gandhi Vs. Modi: An American Perspective

Narendra Modi of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Rahul Gandhi of the ruling Congress Party

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Washington, DC – When I was in India last month, I met with Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi at his “Vibrant Gujarat” investment conference. I was also in Jaipur at the time of the Congress Party meeting during which Rahul Gandhi acceded to the vice-chairmanship of his party. I came away from my latest visit to India convinced that for all practical purposes the candidates and terms of the next contest for prime minister of the nation are established.

Nationwide parliamentary elections that will determine the next premiership may be as much as a year away and in politics a year can be forever. However, I believe the stage is set. Further, it seems to me that the contest which is about to take place can be helpful in renewing Indian politics and US-India relations no matter which side wins.

The political and economic successes of Narendra Modi are undeniable and the gathering of thousands from around the globe at a brand new governmental and convention center in Gandhinagar was obviously designed to broadcast that message.

Modi’s face was everywhere. In an auditorium reminiscent of China’s “Great Hall of the People,” Modi was center stage among the titans of India industry, heads of trade associations, and some foreign government leaders, such as the Canadian ambassador. All provided testimonials for the accomplishments of Gujarat and Modi.

Having just been elected to a third five-year term, Modi can claim a decade of double-digit growth that basically equals that of China during a period when India’s growth has always lagged that of China and is presently falling further behind. Indeed, Gujarat seems much different from most of India with a manufacturing hub featuring the world’s largest refinery, a power surplus that provides electricity to all its villages, a forward-looking solar and wind program that welcomes foreign participation, and one of the world’s top ten business schools, among other leading institutions.

Against this background, Rahul Gandhi has ascended to a power position in the Congress Party second only to that of his mother, who is in ill health and obviously preparing to step aside for the fourth generation of leadership in the Nehru/Gandhi familial line.

The historic accomplishments of the Congress Party and the Nehru/Gandhi line of prime ministers are well known. Congress led India to independence as India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru famously declared India’s “tryst with destiny.” As really the only nation-wide party of consequence, it held India together and managed enough reform to put India on a path to prosperity and international leadership.

Of course, Congress presently is the most powerful party of the United Progressive Alliance that has ruled India since 2004 and had some successes, including the civil nuclear deal and considerable progress in sharing prosperity with India’s agricultural masses.

But the last years have not been kind to India. The worldwide recession of 2007-2009 showed that India is not a special case immune from the economic trends of the globe. Growth has slowed markedly. Price controls and subsidies have devastated national finances. Necessary reforms have been deferred. Most Indian leaders are aged by any standards and are widely perceived by many Indians as corrupt or countenancing corruption. Even security and law and order are thrown into doubt by homegrown and foreign terror and a continuous string of rape and molestation events.

Little wonder that younger Congress Party stalwarts were literally dancing in the streets and lighting fireworks to celebrate Rahul’s decision to assume leadership in the run-up to the nationwide elections. The 42-year-old with no history of corruption brought hugs, kisses and tears with a US-style speech of personal emotion in which he promised a “revolution” to “change India.”

And there is no question that Congress and its supporters will not allow the coming contest to be just about economic progress and who gets what, when, where, and how.

Rather, Modi’s actions and non-actions during the Gujarat communal riots of 2002 in which hundreds, if not thousands, of Muslims were killed in response to the burning deaths of scores of Hindu pilgrims will not be ignored. Rather, Congress Party chiefs will seek to position Rahul as leader of the non-sectarian, non-ethnic, non-caste forces acting upon the principles espoused by his great-grandfather Nehru in founding the nation. Indeed, charges of “Hindu terrorism” have already emanated from at least one member of the present Congress-led cabinet.

Under these circumstances, some might see the coming election as reinforcing the centrifugal forces in Indian politics. The worst outcome would be a divisive contest that will make the V.S. Naipaul vision of “A Million Mutinies Now” more likely to come true; that is, India fragmenting along religious, ethnic, caste, linguistic, economic, and geographic fault lines.

However, I see another possibility: that Modi will provide an example of what market-based economic reform with engaged political leadership can accomplish while Rahul will move to involve the youth and urban middle class through his own party. Modi could continue to move in the direction of moderation and religious conciliation while Rahul uses his status to move against endemic corruption.

As for US-India relations, reinvigoration of Indian politics through a vigorous national campaign can be a good thing. Right now, leaders in both the United States and India say the right things and there are some positive developments in such areas as economic reforms, defense contracting, and military-to-military cooperation.

However, the reality is that the engine of the relationship—economic engagement— is slipping sideways in large part because there is little political capital left on the Indian side to push through the sort of game-changing measures necessary to keep the relationship on a steep upward curve.

Of course, many Indians would argue that the United States suffers from the same deficit. However, we have had our election, and I think a contest between an economic reformer who is not afraid to engage with foreigners and a youthful leader who can help clean up Indian politics can be positive for all concerned.

© 2013 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s). 

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