05/27/2014 10:56 am ET Updated Jul 27, 2014

Modi Takes Delhi

The sweeping victory of Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has set journalists and commentators searching for themes and motifs. How else to fix readers' attention on a political phenomenon as multi-layered as that unfolding in the vastness of India without saturating them with masses of largely indigestible information and strange ideas. Unfortunately, the truths are blurred in the process and the election's implications simplified. The one requisite is that the theme be stated in a bold headline -- hence the preference for "revolution" of one kind or another.

The pop version refers to a revolution that topples the Nehru/Gandhi dynasty which has dominated New Delhi rule since independence in 1947 through the Congress Party. The facts don't quite match the assertion of a dynasty since other party coalitions have ruled, including two led by the BJP -- the last just a few years ago. In addition, non-family leaders of the Congress have held the prime ministerial post -- among them being the outgoing Manmohan Singh. Singh admittedly relied on the firm backing of Sonia Gandhi, Congress' forceful President and Italian widow of the assassinated Rajiv Gandhi (son of the assassinated Indira Gandhi who, in turn, was Jawaharlal's daughter). In this election, the figurehead of the Congress' campaign was Rahul Gandhi (Sonia's son) whose lack of aptitude for politics or leadership of any kind was pathetically evident. So, in that sense, the "dynasty" has reached its end, especially so since there is no successor on the horizon.

As for the Congress Party "dynasty," it crumbled decades ago. Repeated losses over the years in state contests and no decisive national victory have left it a shadow of its former self. That has more to do with endemic corruption, incompetent administration and inattentiveness to the needs of its voting constituents than a rejection of dynastic rule. Congress continued to deliver for the party apparatchiks and favored clients. It did not deliver good government. As for its uplifting ideology, that too is a casualty of time's corrosive effect on the idealism that inspired the generation of impressive leaders who gained for India its independence while inspiring hopes for a just society. Nothing much remains of Mahatma Gandhi's pious egalitarianism or Nehru's Third World "Socialism." To the extent that those ideas and aspirations live on in India's political culture, they are common property to be used and exploited by whomever finds its expedient to embellish a rhetorical line.

Congress has long since become a party beholden to business interests and controlled by self-serving politicians. That reality predates the decision made 20 years ago (and now accepted across most of the political spectrum) that the Indian economy should move in the direction of open markets and less government direction. So it is not surprising that the benefits from the ensuing economic boom have gone disproportionately to the wealthy while the standard of living of most lagged behind or remained stagnant (as is the case in large swaths of the countryside). Sweetheart deals between the government of Manmohan Singh and special interests are best exemplified by the giveaway of rights to rich coal deposits on public lands to business consortia whose terms are predicted to deny the federal government $60 billion in revenues. This analysis by independent auditors forced Singh to undertake a review, conveniently by his personal staff, which unsurprisingly found nothing amiss in the contracts.

Congress' well-earned reputation for corruption, its neglect of the poor it purports to represent, and the halving of the Indian economy's growth rate (from roughly 10% to 5%) made its crushing defeat a certainty. Modi's campaign fully exploited these weaknesses. It promised everyone everything, including what BJP didn't deliver the last time it ruled India, while playing up Hindu nationalist themes. Only the Muslim community (170 million) stuck with Congress which has been its most reliable guardian since Nehru's days.

Modi after all made his name as the Chief Minister of Gujarat where in 2002 communal riots killed a few thousand Muslims, produced many more casualties, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands. He was harshly condemned for being at best a passive accessory. Although eventually cleared of formal charges, he clearly did not fulfill his responsibility to maintain order. The only official punishment he received was administered by the American and British governments in denying him visas.

Modi's behavior was suspect because of his long activism in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the militant and at times violent group whose ideology and organization bear similarity to Europe's fascist movements of the 1920s and 1930s. It was a RSS member who assassinated Gandhi because he allegedly had betrayed the Hindus and was overly sympathetic to Muslims. Modi, a member from the age of eight, rose to be head of the Sangh's student wing. He left that post to work full time for the BNP whose ideological roots and general philosophy emerged from the RSS. It has, though, become progressively more independent as dictated by the realities of electoral politics. The RSS is a legal organization although its role in anti-Muslim agitation is monitored by the authorities. Its membership is in the tens of millions.

Modi's prominence as an advocate of Hindu nationalist causes was the springboard to leadership of the BJP. With his eye fixed on Delhi, Modi began an assiduous campaign to clean up his act. Denigration of Muslims was swept into the shadows and the focus was put on his supposedly unique administrative talents which were advertised as being the reason for the great success of the Gujarat economy.

The reality is considerably more prosaic. Gujarat has done well but its performance is topped by a number of other states. During the recent downturn it has lagged like everyone else. Foreign direct investment is healthy yet again not sterling. Inequality, illiteracy and other social indicators are close to the country average. What Modi did accomplish was to tap into the latent desire of India's flourishing business committee, and its auxiliaries in the media and academia, to find a national spokesman for their version of market fundamentalism. More deregulation, lower business taxes, unrestricted exploitation of natural resources, weaker environmental controls -- the standard menu. Their money has helped to burnish the image of both Modi personally and the BJP as an alternative to Congress and its allies.

Modi speaks in grandiose terms about vast infrastructure projects, restoring double-digit growth, and opening a new golden age for (Hindu) India. China is the explicit or implicit reference point. India's matching, or even surpassing China, in some sort of contest to become Asia's number 1 preoccupied the country's educated class a few years back (as it did the Washington think tanks). The current hot-blooded rhetoric is giving it new life. What Modi and the BJP have to contend with on the ground are a host of formidable handicaps. India's literacy rate is 74% (women 65%); China's is 97%. Infrastructure of all kinds in India is leagues behind China's and will require huge investments that will divert capital from manufacturing, education and social services. 30% of all Indians live below the Asian poverty line -- earning less than $1.25 a day ($440 per annum). That is 350 million people. Population is continuing to grow rapidly with a birth rate of 2.4%. Poverty, illiteracy and high birth rates constitute a vicious cycle -- especially among the 750 million Indians who live in the countryside. Modi and the BJP have no concrete plans to deal with these structural problems. Opening the Indian consumer market to Walmart and open sesame to American financial operators will not do the job.

The BJP, like Congress governments before them, benefits from the absence on the Indian political scene of any broad based party that actively promotes the interests of the country's downtrodden. The once significant Communist Party is reduced to participation in a few state level Left Front governments, e.g. West Bengal where it long ruled with mixed results. There are a host of state parties that have aggressively pressed the interests of lower castes and Dalits. Some with considerable success. They do not serve, though, as building blocks of a national movement. Rather, they concentrate on using local power to obtain the spoils of government for caste members.

Where does Modi's Hindu nationalist philosophy figure in this? First, it has widespread populist appeal, in particular among the less educated whose economic interests implicitly clash with those of Modi's business backers. That was the main reason that the NJP lost control of the government at the time of the last national election despite economic progress. Hindutva, the promotion of Hindu solidarity and preservation of tradition, is the label given policies and programs that are at the heart of the BJP. That entails a rewriting of Hindu history as presented in school texts. It works in symbiotic relationship with economic growth in the sense that the BJP's advancement of Hindu themes will be credited as contributing to well-being if the economy improves. It can only go so far, though, in compensating for economic shortcomings and frustrated economic aspirations.

Second, were the economy to continue to stagnate, Modi could roll the dice and press Hindutva more aggressively, i.e. in ways that increase animosity with the Muslim community. One risk is that a marked rise in communal tensions could be counterproductive in terms of the economy. Another is that it could turn important segments of the Indian establishment against him and the BJP. India is indeed a working democracy with uninhibited media and an independent judiciary which, at the federal level, is less politicized than is the United States Supreme Court. An Indian counterpart to Anthony Scalia would be shunned in Indian legal circles. Its army, too, has a deep tradition of staying above partisan politics. The police, for their part, are controlled at the state level. Hence, there would be powerful resistance to Modi's playing the Hindu nationalist card too aggressively.

That does not mean Modi will refrain from an active promotion of his Hindutva agenda. It is at the core of who he is; it is what animates his base; it will be pressed by the RSS militants. The closest approximation we have of who Modi is and the strategy that he will pursue is Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. They are both deeply religious, they have a sense of mission to return their lapsed secular societies back to traditional roots and forms, they have grand economic dreams tied to projects of symbolic renewal, they are assertive personalities and they are uncomfortable with compromise and accommodation. India's governmental institutions and political culture are more deeply entrenched than the tottering Kemalist system that Erdogan has taken on and defeated. But Modi may be clever enough to bend them to his will through targeted appointments and the marshalling of those segments of the populace responsive to his message. Much will ride on what Modi delivers economically -- for India and for the masses.

Finally, there is Pakistan. The two countries have never been reconciled, or reconciled themselves, to partition. The simmering dispute over Kashmir keeps the embers glowing. The Muslims of Pakistan are uneasy about relegation to second class status on the sub-continent - living in the shadow of an India reaching for great power status. Hindu nationalists still entertain fanciful visions of pre-Muslim India, the India that existed before 700 years of submission (largely passive) to Islamic dominance. There is enormous emotional content to those visions and images. For they are rooted in Hindu mythology that is also national mythology that also is racial mythology (e.g. the widely held belief that the Aryan India of Sanskrit and the Vedas grew indigenously and did not arrive via the same Northwest passes through which passed the Muslims 2,500 years later).

Just how pertinent any of this is for understanding the external relations of the new government in New Delhi is impossible to estimate. We can say, based on the experience of previous BJP government, that good sense and practical judgment probably prevail. Hindutva most likely will be directed inwards -- whatever the exact forms it takes, however hard it is pushed. Two developments encourage this line of thinking.

First, the Pakistan military and civilian leadership made the judgment two years ago that schemes to confront India indirectly by supporting the insurrection in Kashmir or giving some measure of backing to terrorist groups launching attacks in India were unavailing and, in the end, counter-productive. A contest for influence in Afghanistan is likely to continue but even there it no longer is deemed crucial to Pakistani security to have a dependent government in Kabul. The gravest threat to the country's security is presented by the Pakistani Taliban, and their allies, attacking the established state order within the country. The conclusion is that there will not be provocation from Pakistan that a Modi government could use to whip up Hindu Indian national sentiment. Provocative actions instigated by maverick elements in the ISI may remain a possibility, though.

Modi seemed to acknowledge this, and the attendant improvement in the climate, in extending to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif an invitation to attend his inauguration. An invitation also was extended to other heads of government on the sub-continent.

The other development is the enlarging and consolidation of the two countries' nuclear arsenals. We know from the history of the past 65 years that the logic of atomic arms has a profoundly conservative effect on the thinking and conduct of the leaders who have custody of them. This is especially so in a dyadic relationship. The intrinsic risks of military conflict at any level instills caution.

On this, Modi made one disturbing statement during the campaign. He said that his government would study the question of whether to pledge itself to a "no first use" doctrine rather than follow the lead of its predecessor. There has been some thinking in India strategic circles about circumstances in which a first use might be conceivable as serving the country's security interest. It would be a mistake, though, to place too much importance on this. It is par for the course in nuclear armed countries who find their neighbor similarly endowed. At the end of the day, they have concluded that any first use is madness -- running the unacceptable risk of mutual annihilation. It is impossible to foresee, of course, all future circumstances or to discount entirely the singular features of the Indo-Pakistan situation.

It is an odd historical twist that the one truly devout Hindu who held the Prime Minister's post, Morarji Desai (a Brahmin, also from Gujarat), suspended the Indian nuclear weapons program on moral grounds in the late 1970s. He was the first BJP leader to lead India and, today, his great-grandson Madhukeshwar Desai is the National Vice-President of the Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha, the youth wing of the BJP led by Modi years back.

Whatever fanciful daydreams certain Hindu nationalists might entertain of Arjuna launching tactical nuclear weapons to destroy the invading Muslim armies swarming through the Khyber Pass into India almost a millennium ago, they likely will not have a bearing on foreign policy in the here and now.