Guest post by PRAN KURUP
This article is in response to a piece published in The Hindu by David Cohen: “Is India about to elect its Reagan” An American backing Modi seems to have got BJP fans all excited, given that the western media has, for the most part, taken an anti-Modi stance driven largely by his rather suspect human rights record.
Cohen finds that Indian elites “look down their noses at Mr. Modi, cringing at the thought of being led by a common chai wallah who can barely speak English.” Cohen is completely wrong here and appears to have a superficial understanding of India and the controversies surrounding Modi.
India has elected any number of leaders over the years who rose from humble beginnings and don’t speak English. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, former PM and BJP leader, is widely revered across the country though he never spoke English in public. Even to this day, you have so many elites who back leaders like Achutandanan from Kerala, Mayawati in UP, or Mamta Banerjee in Bengal. In fact, there are a whole host of Indian leaders who fit this “humble beginning, don’t speak English” profile. So Modi is no exception in this regard.
Next, Cohen goes on to give Mr. Modi a clean chit for the 2002 riots, though the reality is that the case continues and is far from over. Given India’s judicial quagmire, it is highly likely that nothing will ever come out of it and if it does, it will probably be too many years too late. Meanwhile, human rights watch groups and various individuals who dare to write (or make documentary films) about Gujarat paint a very different picture. If you disregard the legal mumbo jumbo, perhaps where most elites (and for that matter the folks in the US State Department who refused to give Modi a US visa) have an issue with Modi is his refusal to take responsibility for brutal killings that happened under his watch as CM of Gujarat. In fact, it is widely believed that Vajpayee wanted Modi to resign after the riots and the BJP lost the elections in 2004 because of Vajpayee’s failure to act quickly and decisively. One can never imagine Reagan or, for that matter, any American President not taking responsibility for anything that happens during their watch. In fact, such a comparison is highly unfair to Reagan.
On the issue of dealing with Pakistan, Cohen tries to advocate the right-wing Republican predilection for war and the use of force across the world championed by George W. Bush. However, India can achieve better relations with Pakistan not by a PM with a tainted past, and bearing a 56-inch chest and indulging in irresponsible inflammatory sloganeering (like many in the BJP) a la Bollywood style or by a timid approach personified by Manmohan Singh himself. The answer lies in a balanced, pragmatic, diplomatic approach, which lies well between these two extremes.
Next, on the issue of crony capitalism, Mr. Cohen is quite clueless or chose to ignore that Modi is widely believed by many to have doled out land to industrialists (see Nano story) in the name of development, in the process paying little heed to the concerns of environmental groups or the poor who have often been unfairly displaced from their lands.
According to a recent study at Princeton University, Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page argue that over the past few decades, America’s political system has slowly transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy, where wealthy elites wield most power. “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” they write, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”
Modi has already engineered a similar transformation in Gujarat by laying out the red carpet for any industrialist (“Doing business in Modi’s Gujarat” Forbes Magazine 12.3.2014) who wishes to set up shop in Gujarat. Not surprisingly, he travels around in the private jets of major industrialists from one snazzy campaign venue to another. His campaign is fueled by unlimited PR funds and the BJP has a war chest of over 800 crores, 80% of which is unaccounted for. Cohen is either completely unaware of all this or it fits in well with Republican coziness towards big business.
Cohen should also be informed among other things that – Modi and his party are against FDI in multi-brand retail, Babu Bokhiria continues to remain in Modi’s cabinet after being sentenced to three years imprisonment in the Rs. 54-crore illegal limestone mining case, there are 32 BJP MLAs in the Gujarat assembly facing criminal charges, and Gujarat has had no Lokayukta for over ten years now. Besides, when it comes to specifics, many have questioned even his governance credentials (see Outlook article). Rather than take criticism head-on and respond to them, after extensive public pressure, Modi has slowly launched into carefully choreographed appearances with friendly TV hosts, quite in contrast to Reagan who seized every opportunity to charm his audiences.
Last but not the least, the Republican party has been chasing the ghost of Ronald Reagan for the last few decades. They landed themselves George Bush in the White House, under whose watch reckless excesses by the financial whizzes on Wall Street brought the world to its knees and a quest for non-existent WMDs launched a host of wars that threw the world into turmoil. And now, the Republican party has been taken hostage by the tea party which will go to any lengths to stall “anything” that America’s first black President proposes, including the healthcare law that has been upheld by the US Supreme court.
Given that the US is still recovering from the excesses of the Bush years, Cohen and his Republican friends must think again before advising India on racism, communalism, or any “ism” for that matter. At a minimum, he should get his facts right and, if possible, dig a little deeper to understand the complex social and political realities in India before doling out an endorsement.