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Modi Rising
India Yearns for an Enlightened Despot

When Indira Gandhi imposed the “Emergency” on India in 1975, she was given the authority to rule by decree, suspend elections, and curtail civil liberties. Rich Indians loved it, writes Ellen Barry, the South Asia bureau chief for the New York Times, in a piece from last week: “Trains ran on time; bureaucrats were more disciplined; the streets felt safer.” As a Times correspondent wrote at the time: “Many Indians feel that they are now better off, economically or in some other way.”

Barry points out that Indians often express a yearning for a strong yet kindly leader. This yearning has returned in force as the corrupt and ineffective Congress Party continues its decline. Narendra Modi, almost certainly destined to be the next Prime Minister, is just such a strongman. Despite lingering questions about his record as chief minister of Gujarat, Indians of all sorts—poor, rich, rural, urban, high caste, low caste, Christian, Hindu, even some Muslims—are excited by his rise to power.

“What India needs right now is a benevolent despot,” an elegant woman at a fancy dinner party told Barry, who comments: “It’s not unusual to hear this sentiment in New Delhi drawing rooms these days.” These sentiments “describe a yearning for restoration of control, and the hope that it will translate into growth.”

It’s not just the rich and elegant who look forward to such things under Modi. “I voted Congress before, but now I will vote BJP, for Modi,” a hotel worker told the FT‘s James Crabtree in the heart of Dharavi, one of Asia’s largest slums. “Not many here will be for him, but he is a good person. He is thinking about the next generation.” A recent Pew poll found massive support for Modi and the BJP to be consistent across India’s class, caste, and urban-rural divides.

Worried about recent setbacks in one of Asia’s rising economies, international investors and Indian executives are also backing Modi. An overwhelming 74 percent of executives polled by the Economic Times last year chose Modi over his rivals in the Congress party. India’s stock market has lately seen a number of record-breaking weeks, reflecting in part the hope that Modi’s BJP will be able to reverse the economic downturn. “India needs a jolt – and Modi is a risk worth taking,” writes the FT‘s international affairs columnist Gideon Rachman, who argues that Modi’s meteoric rise from humble origins will be an inspiration to Indians and others, shaking up dynastic politics from Delhi to Beijing to Seoul to Tokyo. “There is something thrilling about the rise of Narendra Modi,” he writes. “It would be a welcome change for India to elect a self-made man.”

Rachman dismisses concerns about Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which hundreds of people were killed, as something that happened “more than a decade ago.” Perhaps he’s right. If the aforementioned Pew poll is anything to go by, nearly 80 percent of India’s population doesn’t care what Modi did or didn’t do during those dark days.

The most recent poll from India predicts that Modi’s coalition will receive a clear parliamentary majority, and won’t have to cobble together an alliance with potentially divisive partners from other parties. If that forecast is accurate, Modi will have considerable freedom to maneuver once in power. But as Barry cautions, it’s not certain “that a consolidation of power [under one leader] can give India economic growth.” A strongman in India, a democracy, is not exactly the same as a strongman in, say, Moscow. There are limits to what Modi will be able to accomplish; he must satisfy the competing needs of many different interest groups. “[H]e would be wise to focus on building roads and factories, the accomplishments that have made him popular in Gujarat,” Barry writes. “He can’t behave like Mr. Putin. For that, you need 10 million barrels of oil per day.”

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  • Fat_Man

    I don’t know about India, but yearning for dictatorship is pretty common among NYTimes writers. Friedman has been quite open about it.

  • Bharati_shahida

    “It would be a welcome change for India to elect a self-made man.” PLENTY of Indian politicians/diplomats are from the lowest caste/class, like Khobragade. (India has the largest affirmative action program for decades with some failures, many successes.) It is very common to see Dalits in high positions in all government enterprises, the forces, corporations, railways, etc. India democratically elected K. R. Narayanan, a Dalit, as the nation’s President. (Also Muslims: Badruddin Tyabji became President of the Congress in 1887. The totally loved Zakir Hussain and Abdul Kalam became Presidents supported by the Hindu right wing.) Several Dalits have become multimillionaire businessmen/women. In any case, if you move town, no one will or can know your caste. The ruler of Baroda said any Dalit could take his last name, Gaikwad, as his own. Most rich Indians are self made. People who do little for the country are usually from English mission schools and can hardly read or write fluently in local languages, are raised to serve western institutions and look elsewhere for ideals or to give charity.

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