India's Tryst with Destiny
India could offer the world a signal electoral drama next spring, with geopolitical repercussions for the whole Eurasian rimland. Narendra Modi, the charismatic chief minister of Gujarat in northwestern India, will likely run for prime minister against Rahul Gandhi, the great-grandson of the political forefather of India's modern republic, Jawaharlal Nehru.
Modi, though considerably older than Gandhi, represents an efficient, new style politics that is nationalistic and unapologetically abrasive, and thus comfortable with civilizational tension. The youthful Gandhi, through his name, embodies an old-style politics that, while portrayed as corrupt and complacent, is also universalist. Modi has many enemies yet promises to shake things up in a country with vast potential but stuck in the economic and institutional doldrums. Gandhi, who has far less experience and is half-Italian, is actually the less-disruptive, more conservative choice. His mother, Sonia Gandhi, is the real authority within the Congress party. If Congress wins in 2014, his rise to the premiership is not expected to change the balance of power within his party.
Modi presently represents the Hindu nationalist BJP, or Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People's Party). But even within the BJP he is seen as edgy and controversial. The very word "Modi" in India connotes the shocking events of February 2002 in Gujarat, when Modi, it is alleged, played a critical role as a Hindu chief minister in a pogrom that killed 2,000 Muslims, led to 400 rapes of Muslim women, and left 200,000 homeless. Modi has never officially apologized or offered a detailed explanation for those events. And yet throughout four terms as chief minister he has demonstrated a financial probity and a machine-like bureaucratic dynamism that has made Gujarat a leader within India for economic development, so much so that Muslims along with many others have flocked to Modi's Gujarat in search of jobs.
Modi is a hypnotic orator who, as one corporate executive after another has said, offers the best model of governance in a country rife with corruption and red tape. His actions in February 2002 have led him to be compared with Adolf Hitler, while his obsession with management details have led him to be compared with Lee Kuan Yew. Of course, Modi is neither. He is a new kind of hybrid politician: both media-savvy and manifestly ambitious. He is the first authentically charismatic Indian politician since Indira Gandhi -- the late grandmother of his opponent in next spring's election.
Rahul Gandhi is an empty vessel compared to Modi. Gandhi, despite being educated at elite schools, is close to ultimate power only because of his family name and connections, not because he is particularly brilliant. Compared to Modi, who rose on his own from truly humble beginnings, there is simply little original one can say about Gandhi. The mere election of his Congress Party next spring, it is alleged by some, will cement nepotism and corruption. The status quo will simply have a better chance to survive with the fourth generation of the founding political family, whereas Modi offers more of a break with the past, for better or for worse.
In fact, this upcoming election will reveal how India suffers from a profound leadership vacuum: the only selection appears to be between someone tainted by inter-communal mass violence and someone who has essentially inherited his position by way of his family.
Just as the political system could offer a stark choice to Indian voters, India, too, is at a crossroads. Just consider the geopolitical environment:
This will be the first general election in a decade to take place at a time of slower economic growth. It will be the first election since nearby Sri Lanka has ended its civil war and has been demonstrably leaning toward China, thereby threatening the balance of power in South Asia. Meanwhile, American troops will be drawing down in large numbers in Afghanistan -- a place that throughout history has functionally been part of the Subcontinent. A rapprochement may loom between Iran and the United States. Bangladesh on India's northeastern border is in quasi-chaos, as is Nepal on India's northern frontier. Myanmar, also bordering India in the east, may be slowly disintegrating into religious and ethnic regions. China is in the early stages of a tumultuous economic and social transition. Japan is more nationalistic than in decades and is poised to become a natural ally of India balancing against China. Finally, there is Pakistan, India's fundamental nemesis, which, though in the hands of a relatively capable and experienced prime minister, is institutionally and strategically ever more fragile. Indeed, the Greater Subcontinent is in flux, and in this turbulent political landscape, India's new prime minister in 2014 will have increasingly less room for miscalculations. Both innovation and maturity will be required.
Gandhi will likely play it safe and may confuse conciliations with strategy. His father, Rajiv, was assassinated by Tamil extremists, and, according to a Wikileaks cable, Rahul believes the growth of radicalized Hindu groups is a greater threat to India than Islamic extremists. Remember that the Congress Party (at least compared to the BJP) relies on Muslims and other minorities for its power base. Moderation, therefore, is central to Rahul's identity. He will likely rely on his advisers and the elite foreign policy bureaucracy for direction. In pursuing economic reform, he will be hampered by Congress' populist, pseudo-socialist governing philosophy and historical identity, forged in the independence struggle against the British.
Modi, on the other hand, will attempt to be his own man -- a force of nature overriding the bureaucracy and the New Delhi nomenklatura. He will likely be pro-business with an ideological passion, wanting to eviscerate as much red tape as possible from the debilitating Indian system. For the sake of further developing lucrative bilateral trade he will be pro-China, even as he will be pro-military and move closer to Japan and Australia in order to balance against China. He will want to move closer to Iran in order to provocatively balance against Pakistan (without ruling out meaningful negotiations with the latter). And while Modi currently cannot enter the United States because of human rights concerns stemming from the events of February 2002, it is easy to see him unapologetically court the United States as a strategic ally -- something the Indian political establishment has been unofficially willing to do, while wanting to deny it all the same. In sum, Modi will try to craft a more naked, assertive, power-oriented foreign policy to go hand-in-hand with his business-friendly agenda.
If Modi succeeds, he will move India boldly out of the post-colonial Nehruvian era defined by an elite class friendly to socialism and indifferent to bureaucracy, however less and less so. But Modi is not likely to succeed: running India from New Delhi is not like running Gujarat from Gandhinagar. India is simply a vast assemblage of far-flung states with their own power structures and regional identities. The Indian system -- an upshot of India's geography -- is not friendly to dynamic change-agents with centralizing, dictatorial tendencies like Modi.
More likely is that whoever is elected will be defined by crises that impinge on India from Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, combined with the usual drumroll of internal unrest. For reforming such a teeming, unruly, and diverse country like India is hard: Modi will certainly try; Gandhi might not even do that.