After a decade in power, India’s Congress party appears to have lost both the ability and the will to push through the reforms the country needs to grow and provide jobs for the millions of young Indians who are joining the labor market each year.
The only alternative in the elections that start on Monday is Narendra Modi, the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate.
Modi’s record in the northwestern state of Gujarat, where he has been chief minister since 2001, is encouraging.
Unlike in other parts of India, electricity in the state, which has a population of more than sixty million, runs 24 hours per day. With some forty ports and a prosperous petrochemical industry, Gujarat handles 20 percent of India’s cargo and 80 percent of its oil imports. In stark contrast to areas ruled by Congress — which, until late last year, included the capital Delhi — Gujarat’s infrastructure is modern and reliable (it takes less than a day to move goods to any port from anywhere in the state) and is consistently hailed by businessmen as one of the reasons for investing in the state; the others being its efficient regulatory regime and the absence of major corruption.
Growth in Gujarat has averaged nearly 11 percent since 2004, when Congress took over the national government, with agriculture, manufacturing and services each contributing to the economic boom.
Modi’s election pitch is simple and convincing. He will do for the rest of India what he had done in Gujarat: encourage investment, improve the nation’s infrastructure and create jobs.
Emphasis on growth
Critics point out that Gujarat’s human development has stalled under Modi’s watch. The state is still the thirteenth most poorest out of 28 and near the bottom in terms of education. Congress counters with a promise of “inclusive” growth, including guaranteed access to health care and housing.
However, such an expansion in entitlements risks exacerbating a deficit that is likely to come in at 5 percent this fiscal year, according to Citigroup. Already, the party doles out huge subsidies, equivalent to 2.2 percent of economic output, to buy the loyalty of rural voters — money it could have used during the boom years to invest in roads and utilities.
“Growth by itself is not sufficient,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said as his party kicked off its election campaign.
This is a ruse.
Singh, who spearheaded India’s economic liberalization as finance minister in the 1990s, has lately been unable to unite his coalition, which covers the entirety of the left-wing political spectrum, behind a credible economic program. Growth has been cut in half from an almost 10 percent high before the global financial crisis to under 5 percent in 2012 and last year. Inflation peaked at over 11 percent in late 2013 and now stands at just over 8 percent.
Shifting the emphasis away from growth is therefore convenient for Congress but when more than ten million Indians join the jobs market every year, what the country needs above all really is higher growth.
The government has also been rocked by unceasing corruption scandals, an endemic feature of Indian politics that is, in part, the legacy of decades of Congress rule. Nearly every minister in the cabinet owes his or her election to the sort of wasteful spending and socialist engineering that continues to hold the country back.
Modi might finally break with this sad tradition. With India sometimes described as a bureaucratic dictatorship in which civil servants do more to inhibit its growth potential than exploit it, the man who successfully tamed and then streamlined the bureaucracy in Gujarat looks certain to bring a much needed rationalization to Indian governance if he is elected prime minister.
Moreover, in terms of foreign policy, Modi’s image as a hardliner should allow him to further improve ties with neighboring Pakistan.
The previous conservative government managed two rounds of intensive peacemaking after Pakistan tested its first nuclear weapons in 1998 and the 2001 terrorist attacks on the Indian Parliament in New Delhi. Congress, by contrast, has failed to improve the relationship since the Mumbai attacks of 2008 which were likely carried out with the support of Pakistan’s intelligence services.
Similarly, Modi shows signs of being able to reverse nearly seven decades of stagnation in his country’s relations with China. While India tends to play down security concerns and play up fears of being swamped by Chinese products, Modi advocates a liberal trade policy that would encourage Chinese firms to invest more in India while mincing no words in putting China on notice in terms of security.
While known to be unforgiving of those who have wronged him, he has shown surprising statesmanship in receiving and engaging, without rancor or triumphalism, the ambassadors of Western countries who previously shunned him.
Skeleton in the closet
That boycott was due to the one skeleton in his closet: the outburst of sectarian violence in Ahmedabad and surrounding towns and villages in 2002 that followed the murder of Hindu pilgrims. Hundreds of Hindus and Muslims were killed in the rampage and while Modi’s government responded by imposing curfews in the cities and called in the army to prevent the crisis from worsening, he was still accused of, at best, doing too little to stop the riots. Others believe he deliberately let the violence go on for days.
None of these charges have stood up to closer scrutiny. Even the admirably impartial Supreme Court acquitted Modi of wrongdoing. While other states have seen outbursts of religious violence since 2002, Gujarat has had its longest stretch of unbroken peace in a half century with no repeat of the communal tension that was once so endemic in the state which has a 10 percent Muslim population.
There is also nothing to suggest that Modi’s Hindu nationalism will disadvantage India’s 138 million Muslims. If anything, religious minorities in Gujarat are better off than anywhere else in the country. The Bharatiya Janata Party has also toned down its support for Hindu religious causes and focused almost exclusively on the economy in its campaign. This is noteworthy because much of the divisive identity politics and demagoguery in the past came about as a result of poor economic conditions.
A win for Modi would decisively change India’s political discourse. Since independence, politicians have obsessed over how to best divide the economic “pie.” Modi’s priority is making it grow.
In Gujarat, he has shown that Indians are not victims of historical circumstance who need handouts and subsidies to improve their lot but rather a proud nation that is perfectly able and willing to pay for a government that is efficient and fair and helps them prosper.
While acknowledging his checkered past, the Atlantic Sentinel must endorse Narendra Modi as he is the only candidate with a record of economic success, efficient governance and the first credible alternative to Congress to emerge in a long time.