Is India about to elect its Reagan?
India, the world’s largest democracy, is in the midst of a marathon five-week election that will result in the selection of its next prime minister. Although Nate Silver has yet to make it official, most pundits and prognosticators predict that Narendra Modi will be India’s next leader.
Modi bears striking similarities to a celebrated American president: one Ronald Wilson Reagan. Both men rose from humble origins. Modi, in particular, worked from childhood hawking tea in railway stations. Both were popular and successful state governors: Modi is the chief minister (equivalent to a governor) of Gujarat, an Indian state whose gift to the world was Mahatma Gandhi. Modi, like Reagan, is an unabashed proponent of free market economics: “Modinomics,” the term coined to describe Modi’s free market and anti-corruption reforms, is of course a nod to “Reaganomics”; it has unleashed an economic boom in Gujarat.
A major common denominator between the two men is the nature of their detractors. Like the U.S., India has cultural elitists who seem to desperately crave the approval of their former colonial masters in Europe. The Indian cultural elite despises Modi every bit as much as the American cultural elite despised Reagan. They look down their noses at Modi, cringing at the thought of being led by a common “tea seller” who can barely speak English. (Can you imagine Chinese or Russian citizens, proud of their own heritage, being ashamed that their leaders don’t speak English?)
The American elites, of course, believed that Reagan was an unsophisticated simpleton who was too extreme to be president. Prior to his election, they issued dire warnings about the calamities that would ensue if Reagan came to power. The rest, as they say, is history, and the collapse of the Soviet empire left Reagan’s critics on the wrong side of it.
The cultural elites labeled Reagan a racist. That’s a term they use for anyone who believes that a robust and growing market economy, rather than massive government bureaucracy, is the best way to promote upward mobility for the poor and minorities.
Modi, a proud Hindu, is also labeled by his critics as a racist. As with Reagan, the charge lacks merit and is stoked by political opponents seeking to sow fear (and hence cement support) in minority communities. In Modi’s case, the charge is linked to tragic events that occurred in Gujarat in 2002: A train carrying hundreds of Hindu pilgrims was set afire, killing about 60. Following reports that Muslim arsonists were responsible, anti-Muslim violence broke out and hundreds were killed. Modi took several steps to protect the besieged Muslim communities, including imposing curfews, issuing shoot-on-sight orders against rioters, and calling in the army.
Still, political opponents accused him of not doing enough to prevent the violence, and even of condoning it. The Supreme Court of India launched a special investigation of the incident, and found the accusations against Modi to be unsubstantiated by the evidence. The Supreme Court’s conclusions have been ignored by Modi’s political opponents; they continue to profit politically by smearing Modi with India’s version of the “race card.”
It is a testament to the tolerance of India’s Hindu-majority society that it hosts several flourishing communities of other faiths. Neighboring Pakistan, by contrast, is a highly inhospitable environment for those who don’t subscribe to the majority Muslim religion. The religious minority communities that have managed to survive there are tiny and constantly under siege. Bangladesh has similar problems. When critics lob the evidence-free accusation that Modi is “intolerant” of religious minorities, they are certainly not applying the standards that prevail in the region.
Modi promises to take a tough stand against Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. In this regard, Americans would do well to remember that the Islamists are not fighting against the “West.” Islamists are fighting against all non-Islamic societies, including Buddhists in Thailand; Christians in Nigeria, the Philippines, Chechnya, Cyprus, Kosovo, Bosnia, Macedonia, Côte d’Ivoire, Sudan, and Timor-Leste; Jews in Israel; minority communities throughout the Muslim world — and, quite prominently, Hindus in India. India is very much on the front lines of what we used to call the War on Terror, before our leaders lost the nerve to name it. Modi — with his assertive posture against Pakistan reminiscent of Reagan’s stance against the Soviet Union — should be a valuable natural ally.
If Modi were to become prime minister, it would mark a major shift in Indian politics. Modi’s chief competitor for India’s top office is Rahul Gandhi, scion of the Nehru dynasty that has, except for relatively brief interludes, ruled India since its independence from Britain. Rahul Gandhi’s mother, the Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, is the leader of the ruling Congress Party. Sonia Gandhi is the widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, who was the son of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who was the daughter of India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
These Gandhis bear no relation to India’s great hero Mahatma Gandhi. Indira married a man who changed his name to Gandhi and voilà, the magical Gandhi name became forever attached to the Nehru political dynasty. Under the Nehrus and their Congress Party, India has labored under a kleptocratic crony socialism that has kept it from realizing its vast economic potential. Many believe that Modinomics will unleash India’s natural entrepreneurial dynamism and send its economy soaring. The evidence shows that economic growth in Gujarat under Modi has been a boon to all segments of society, especially the poor.
In the U.S., Modi is a pariah in the same circles that made Reagan a pariah. The State Department, whose career bureaucracy has long been dominated by the left-leaning cultural elite, continues to deny Modi a visa to visit this country. Modi’s primary critic in the U.S. has been Democrat Congressman Keith Ellison. Other than a few unsuspecting Republicans that Ellison has managed to enlist, the crowd that would deny Modi a visa is the same crowd that would deny Ayaan Hirsi Ali an honorary degree.
In his fierce opposition to government interference in the economy, to cronyism, and to corruption, the “tea seller” has much in common with the Tea Party, at least as that movement was originally focused. India, indeed, may have found its Reagan. And as America continues to struggle under misguided policies that have greatly expanded the government’s burden on the economy, when will we find our Modi?
David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. He is the author of Left-Hearted, Right-Minded: Why Conservative Policies Are The Best Way To Achieve Liberal Ideals.