NARENDRA MODI: FROM TEA SELLER AT TRAIN STATION TO MASTER OF POLITICAL THEATRE

Narendra Modi, with BJP President Amit Shah and senior leaders of the party, arriving to a tumultuous welcome at the BJP Headquarters in New Delhi, May 23 to address party workers

By Ven Parameswaran

The scale of Thursday’s victory creates room for Modi to ram through reforms, but also the possibility that he may not have to, said Giles Verniers, a political scientist who teaches at Haryana State’s Ashoka University.  “It is a peculiar result because there were a multitude of ground realities that were clearly going against the BJP.   It won despite jobless growth, rural distress, a tepid economy,” said Verniers.  “It’s as if all those adverse factors did not matter at all.  “And so the worry is that it could translate into a belief that the BJP can win despite poor performance, and that may not necessarily translate into incentives to address the deeper issues with the economy.”

Narendra Modi, who once sold tea at a railway station has become the most influential Indian leader in generations, winning a landslide in election results announced, May 23, 2019.   Modi’s own party, BJP won an absolute majority – 302 seats.  The BJP combined with its alliance, the NDA, won 351 seats.   As votes were tallied early Thursday, May 23 afternoon, Modi’s chief rival, the Indian National Congress, was leading in just 50 races, the second consecutive dismal showing in a national election for what was once India’s most powerful political party.

Modi, 68, was born to a poor family in Gujrat State, where he developed a strong dislike for the ruling Congress Party as a result of hanging around a political office near his father’s tea stall.  While still a child, he started attending daily meetings of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), said to be the world’s largest volunteer organization, whose Hindu nationalist ideology envisions the country’s diverse Hindu population as a single nation with a sacred culture that should be given primacy in India.

Hindu nationalists were sidelined by India’s founding Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, whose vision of India was of a secular nation at ease with its bewildering plurality.  Their parties, including Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), struggled to win more than 10% of the national vote for decades until the 1990s, when they started to expand on the back of a national campaign to demolish a 16th-century Mughal mosque in Ayodhya, U.P. and replace it with a Hindu temple.  That push culminated in the destruction of the mosque by a mob of 150,000 Hindu activists, which triggered rioting across India that killed estimated 2000 people.  Still, the BJP’s support was limited to wealthier Hindus in the country’s north and west, with resistance to the party from poor, marginalized Hindus, Muslims, and South Indians thought to be permanent hurdles to Hindu nationalist domination.

Modi’s magnetism, especially his personal branding as a tea boy who climbed to the country’s highest ranks, has changed those calculations, drawing vast support from the country’s emerging middle and lower-middle classes.   “He has managed to create this voting bloc—other party’s voters who are voting for the BJP just for Modi,” said Rahul Verma, a fellow at the Delhi-based Center for Policy Research.  “The shifts are actually happening among the more aspirational voters, who think Modi can fulfil their economic aspirations…This leader, who has risen from the ranks of a poor family, has become a symbol.”   This symbolism was especially potent among young Indians, a vital and growing electorate in a country with a median age younger than 28.  “They have grown up seeing the way of life in the West and in places like Singapore and China,” said Vivan Marwana, a journalist who is writing a book on young Indians.  “And Modi came on to the scene in 2014 and promised them bullet trains, a million new jobs, the world’s largest statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, a former Dy. Prime Minister and Minister of Defense.  It is all very aspirational.”

Young Indians had grown up being told their country was on the cusp of becoming a superpower.  In Modi, they had a leader who spoke as if it already was.   Alongside aspiration, the BJP promotes a vision of Hindu cultural supremacy that sidelines the country’s 300 million minority population.  As Chief Minister of Gujarat state, Modi was a firebrand Hindutva campaigner.  In 2002, anti-Muslim riots in his state killed at least 1,000 people, resulted in the future Prime Minister becoming an international pariah who was banned from entering the U.S.  In response, Modi presented himself as an outsider being attacked by elites: a refrain that would become a central part of his political messaging.  “He would say he was constantly being targeted by the English-speaking media out of Delhi,” said Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, author of a biography of the Indian leader.  “He made himself the symbol of the underdog, projected himself as somebody who is against the status quo forces.   The times came to suit Modi.  When the popular disgust at corruption scandals plaguing the previous Congress government boiled over into street protests in 2011, it provided the rightwing populist leader a national springboard.

“Modi was at the forefront of projecting this strong, centralizing leadership,” said Milan Vaishnav, the director of the South Asia program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.  “He realized what people are looking for is somebody who gets stuff done.”  

HIS MASTERY OF POLITICAL THEATRE, AND FINGER ON THE PULSE OF INDIANS, HAS NOW SECURED HIM THE STRONGEST MANDATE OF ANY LEADER IN DECADES.

But it will do little to create jobs, alleviate financial stress in the country’s vast agriculture sector or grow the economy on the backdrop of a US trade war and a global slowdown.

“Issues of economy will be the focus of his first 100 days,” said Rajat Sethi, a fellow at the influential BJP-aligned India Foundation think-tank.   He said Modi could also look to broaden a program of targeted payments to farmers and other struggling groups. 

The scale of Thursday’s victory creates room for Modi to ram through reforms, but also the possibility that he may not have to, said Giles Verniers, a political scientist who teaches at Haryana State’s Ashoka University.  “It is a peculiar result because there were a multitude of ground realities that were clearly going against the BJP.   It won despite jobless growth, rural distress, a tepid economy,” said Verniers.  “It’s as if all those adverse factors did not matter at all.  “And so the worry is that it could translate into a belief that the BJP can win despite poor performance, and that may not necessarily translate into incentives to address the deeper issues with the economy.”

UNEMPLOYMENT has gone up from 2.2% in 2011 to 6.1% in 2019.  It is hoped that Modi will finally build the necessary infrastructure to build large scale factories to manufacture 100 million pieces of varieties of clothing needed by American consumers.   The former Reserve Bank of India Governor, Raghuram Rajan, now Professor at the University of Chicago has argued that India needs to create an export-oriented economy.   Fortunately, President Trump currently negotiating terms of trade with China is anxious not to depend on China for many of its imports.  President Trump will be happy to do business with India provided India has the capacity and capability to deliver the needs of American consumers. 

100% TRANSFER OF TECHNOLOGY will allow India to manufacture for several reasons.  First, India has a large supply of engineers and professionals. Second, India has a comparative advantage with China and the USA. Third, President Trump must also cope with the skyrocketing prices of drugs manufactured in the U.S.A. Fourth, India has a large supply of biotechnologists, microbiologists, and other health care scientists and professionals. Sixth, making drugs in India will cost a miniscule of what it costs in the USA.   The US drug industry can expand its global market share by making drugs in India.   

Lockheed Martin, United Technologies, Ratheyon, General Dynamics and other military manufacturers can cut the cost of production if they were to make their products in India.   Thus, a confluence of factors such as supply of engineers, scientists and professional managers; comparative advantage in wages and salaries; skyrocketing prices of drugs and military hardware in the US; deterioration of US-China relations in trade; national security and cybersecurity problems; and others look attractive for Prime Minister Modi.  He has a huge mandate now and nothing but a Modi economic revolution could solve many problems with one stroke.

Never before, Modi had the good fortune of not facing any major opposition for his initiatives or policies.  Modi has almost two thirds majority in the Parliament.   Modi must translate the mandate and the extraordinary goodwill from the electors and the global community into Modi economic revolution that will modernize India.   The roadmap should call for GDP growth of 10 to 12% for the next decade.    Hope Prime Minister Modi comes up with a roadmap for the next 100 days.

(The author, former CEO, First Asian Securities Corporation, NY and Senior Adviser, Imagindia Institute, a New Delhi think tank lives in Scarsdale, NY.  He can be reached at vpwaren@gmail.com)

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