05/22/2014 02:39 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Eye of the Tiger: Modi's India


Living in the United States puts me in a rather odd position vis-à-vis global news. More so than other countries, American news focuses on American issues. It's understandable given America's decades-long position atop the global hierarchy, but it also means that the only way a non-European country can work its way into the American psyche is by making Americans nervous.

Case in point: China. The People's Republic didn't matter until it clawed its way to its status as the second largest economy in the world, never fully accepting the liberal economic principles that are conventionally viewed as the source to international success. More importantly, I suspect it matters to Americans because it didn't ride a close strategic partnership with America to its current position like some of its neighbors (Japan and South Korea come to mind). It's a rule-breaker, in a sense, and warrants a watchful eye.

The two countries' perceptions in the West, I believe, are still shaped (perhaps unfairly) by their most famous leaders. China had Mao, a fiery Communist who was willing to fight and win a bloody war with the American-backed Kuomintang. India, on the other hand, had Gandhi, a lawyer who practiced civil disobedience.

Given this context, it makes sense that India is not really a factor in America's day-to-day conversation. It's a democracy, it's far away, and it has a history of docility. It's been very good at playing along ever since its economic turnaround in the 1990s, which came about when Manmohan Singh, the finance minister at the time, turned to the International Monetary Fund.

India is, ultimately, not a threat. Ever since the British left, the country's been ruled by the Congress Party, with a heart composed of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty.

(Key point: Mahatma Gandhi is not related to this family. The independence era leader to whom this clan can trace itself is instead Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister. The incorporation of the Gandhi name was a shrewd political move by Nehru's daughter Indira, who married Parliamentarian Feroze Gandhi -- no relation -- and changed her name to his. I'd argue it worked, as she became India's third prime minister.)

This nexus has produced a family that has run the country for essentially all of its independent years, carrying on a tradition of Indian political elites who were highly educated, pro-West, wealthy, and determined to latch onto and hold power perhaps more so than drive India as a whole forward. The Congress Party's foremost achievement came under PV Rao, the man in power when Manmohan Singh ignited its turnaround, but unfortunately for him he was not a Nehru-Gandhi and as such the Nehru-Gandhi clan has attempted to retroactively reframe his success as Congress' success.

The economic situation was grim, as Manmohan Singh ascended to prime minister but had to awkwardly share power with Sonia Gandhi, current head of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. India's momentum ran out, and the economy began to stagnate.

But India's democracy did what it is supposed to do, and held Congress accountable. The heir apparent to the dynasty, Rahul Gandhi, took a haymaker as his family's Congress Party was crushed in the largest election in human history. The people of India cast over half a billion votes, removed the elite and stood with another man.

His name is Narendra Modi.

He is the opposite of everything the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty stands for. He was born poor, he is India's first leader with no affiliation to anyone born before independence, and his rise is based on deed and not on name and inertia.

Modi is not the Indian politician the West has come to expect.

On the heels of Manmohan Singh, a quiet Oxford-educated economist who went from the classroom to the government of PV Rao, Narendra Modi comes to the office after being Chief Minister and architect of the economic acceleration of the state of Gujurat. His motto is "minimum government, maximum governance," a refreshing departure from India's famously slow, infamously corrupt bureaucracy.

His Bharatiya Janata Party mirrors his belief in business-friendly, corruption-free government. His election platform reached out to Indians my age, coming into adulthood, promising to undo the stagnation under the Congress Party and allow them the material improvements that they seek.

Whether or not Modi succeeds remains to be seen. His BJP has a majority of its own, having won the election without resorting to creating a coalition, but the economic reality is complex, and the jury is out on whether Modi can build the total consensus that a national leader needs.

Comparisons have been drawn to the excitement over Modi's election in India and the euphoria in the United States in 2008 when Barack Obama won the presidency. Both represent major democracies putting their faith in a new man who represented a new potential direction.

But Modi is not a saint. While he was acquitted by the Supreme Court, the massacre of Muslims in Gujurat over a decade ago happened on his watch. The reality of a fierce Hindu nationalist prime minister is that some minorities are justifiably worried about their safety should things sour. A man this determined to wreak change may knock over some delicately balanced -- and protected -- alliances and sensibilities.

I don't know what will happen moving forward. Modi faces all the immeasurable challenges of running -- and reviving -- a country of over a billion people and all their fears, desires and interactions. Promises are easy; change is hard.

But Indians have latched onto him for much the same reason I don't see India mentioned on the news. They have had enough of being the 'good child' in Asia, the docile giant and safe bet with which Obama publicly strengthens ties as he pivots to face China.

Under the Congress, India stagnated, then ignited, then began to fizzle out. And at this election, half a billion people chose to trust Narendra Modi because they were ready to see India earn not just admiration, but real respect. They are ready for India to rise, to grow from an elephant to a tiger.