It’s the economy, stupid. That’s why Narendra Modi is about to become prime minister of India because Indians, rightfully, believe he can make India work, both figuratively and literally. India needs to create more than 50 million jobs in the next five years to just employ the young that will come of age in the next five years. Keep that number in mind as results are announced on Friday.
Opinion polls are predicting a Modi government will come to power. Why? Simply, the Indian economy has stopped working. Heck, everything in India stopped working. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, the head of one of India’s leading think tanks, Centre for Policy Research, wrote a famous essay, “While We Were Silent” chronicling the poor performance of the current government. Parliamentary Research Services, an independent think tank, called the current legislative assembly, the 15th parliamentary session of India’s since independence, the “the least productive” in Indian history.
It’s Modi’s performance in Gujarat in making things and people work that attracts his supporters. Modi has been elected chief minister three times in his home state of Gujarat, serving a total of 12 years. In a country where businesses complain that it’s impossible to do business, businesses from all over the world come to Gujarat to build plants and create jobs. In the last decade, Gujarat has emerged as the place to do business in India. Besides becoming a hub for both the automobile and pharmaceutical industry, Gujarat has become home to India’s largest oil refinery and India’s largest private-sector deep water port. While infrastructure and business projects languish across India, in Gujarat they get built. The New York Times noted that when Tata Motors was unable to build a plant for the production of its cheapest car yet, the Nano, Tata came to Gujarat to build its plant. Less known but more telling is global rail giant Bombadier’s choice to build its rail coach manufacturing plant in Gujarat. In an interview with BBC, the Bombadier president Benoit Cattin Martel, said “building the plant in Savli (Gujarat) in 18 months was a world record for it.” Moreover, Bombadier now sees the Gujarat plant as potentially serving all of the burgeoning Asian market. In short, Gujarat works.
Some may argue about Gujarat’s growth record under Modi, but the voters of Gujarat have resoundingly elected Modi three times. India has undergone a quiet revolution in her states over the last decade. Chief ministers, essentially governors of states, that perform well are re-elected. Chief ministers who perform poorly are thrown out. Not surprisingly, Modi has now become one of the longest serving chief ministers in the country.
Reportage and op-eds in the Western press, if there has been any (see John Oliver’s skit on how the US media has ignored the world’s largest election) has been mostly negative about Modi’s candidacy. Articles generally start with the horrific riots in Gujarat in April 2002 where more than 1,000 Muslims died. There is no doubt that the riots were horrendous. But as the Wall Street Journal reported on May 3, “Last year, an investigation approved by the Indian Supreme Court absolved Mr. Modi of complicity in the rioting. Based on that finding, a court in Gujarat found that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him.” The WSJ reports that Modi, who has been denied a visa to the US, will likely use the Indian Supreme Court investigation as a partial basis to lift the visa ban.
Despite this, 25 intellectuals wrote a letter that ran in the Guardian expressing concern for India’s democracy if Modi is elected. Similar concerns have been raised by others in India, yet these fears are misplaced. In 1999, the first full term Bharatiya Janta Party government faced similar concerns. Fears were raised about Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani, who became prime minister and deputy minister from 1999 to 2004. At that time the concern raised was their role in the 1991 Barbri Masjid controversy. And yet the Vajpayee government led India through a period of economic reform and he is now remembered as one of India’s best prime ministers. Modi is an Indian nationalist but he also who wants, needs, a vibrant, economically competitive India. Like Vajypee, he knows that riots and communalism are a hindrance to Indian economic growth and more importantly antithetical to the Indian ethos. As Gideon Rachman notes in the FT, “The Gujarat massacres took place more than a decade ago. Since then Mr Modi’s tenure as chief minister has been distinguished by his focus on economic reform rather than communal grievances.”
Vajpayee and Modi realized the best solution, and only solution, to India’s grinding poverty is growth. Twelve million Indians come of age into the labor force each year, the most of any country in the world. India’s greatest pogrom is the pogrom of hope of her young who have no hope of earning a decent living and joining the global economy. India needs a vibrant manufacturing sector, an invigorated agriculture base and accelerated growth in her service industry. Jagdhish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagriya have eloquently written about India’s need for growth to alleviate poverty in their book, Why Growth Matters: How Economic Growth in India Reduced Poverty and the Lessons for Other Developing Countries. As two of India’s most noted economists, they are rumored to play a significant economic role in a Modi government.
In a country where dynastic politics is the norm—a member of the Nehru or Gandhi family has ruled for the majority of India’s 67-year history—part of Modi’s appeal lies in his rise from a humble background. His story is an inspiring one, Horatio Alger come to life. Born in a small town Gujarat to a lower caste family, Modi started his life as a chaiwalla, a humble seller of tea. From chaiwalla to prime minister, Alger couldn’t have scripted it better himself. And that possibility is what the more than 100 million Indians about to enter the workforce hope for now.
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