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Narendra Modi: temptation of the middle class

The sudden ascent of stocky, 62 year old Narendra Modi as a serious contender for the nation’s leadership has taken people by surprise. The general election is still a year away but the average, open minded, middle-of- the-road Indian wonders how to think about the polarizing chief minister of Gujarat. Either you love him or hate him, which is precisely why one must not react with a knee-jerk but try and go beyond the shallow surface of a flawed but remarkable human being.

India today is discontented and troubled as a result of corruption scandals, high inflation, declining growth, and a government in denial. Sick of the drift and paralysis, people desperately seek a strong leader, and insistently ask if Narendra Modi might be the one. Clearly, he has proven the ability to build a vibrant economy and usher in corrupt free governance. Could he be India’s best chance to ungum the bureaucracy, tackle corruption and restore the economy to health? But Modi also has a clear downside: he is dictatorial with communal tendencies. Should one risk India’s precious secular and collaborative traditions for the sake of good governance and prosperity? It is a dreadful moral dilemma between equally important values--a classic dharma-sankat.

No Indian leader in recent times has spoken with such passion about ‘governance’ and ‘development’. His talk of ‘less government and more governance’ resonates with the aspiring young middle class. He has changed the language of politics with words like outcomes, accountability, and unbureaucratic service delivery. Visit a municipal office, he says, and you will only see clerks; but an urbanizing nation needs technical people to solve sanitation, transport and infrastructure problems; so, he hired engineer interns and gave them an opportunity to solve municipal problems in Gujarat. Implementation is his obsession and he compares two canals of equal size--the Sujalam Sufalam Yojana, which he completed in two years while the old Sardar Sarovar canal from Nehru's days is still incomplete.

Every country must protect its environment, he argues, but none stops 750 industrial projects and delays them for years. By covering Gujarat’s canals with solar panels, he is conserving water and has made Gujarat a model of solar power. India’s schools face a serious problem of quality, and the Right to Education Act refuses to measure outcomes; so, he plans to make Gujarat’s schools accountable through continuous, quality testing. He inspires young people, saying ‘IT + IT = IT’ (Indian Talent + Information Technology = India’s Tomorrow.) Not since Jawaharlal Nehru has a politician given people such a sense of possibilities. They see in Modi an underdog, a David challenging the Goliath of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.

But every temptation has a price. Modi is considered anti-Muslim and many cannot forgive him for the events in Gujarat in 2002. He may not have actively connived in the violence, they say, but why doesn’t he show remorse? After all, it happened under his watch, and he is responsible. By polarizing the country, people fear he might alienate India's Muslims and this might enhance the risk of domestic terror. The temptation to vote for prosperity and good governance must be tempered by the imperative to keep the nation united and secular.

Those who dismiss the middle class’ impact on elections forget that a new generation of voters has joined the middle class after 1991, and it is in a rage over violence against women and children and longs for a leader who is tough against crime. But it also does not want an Indira Gandhi who will subvert the institutions of democracy. Modi is not likeable--Rahul Gandhi is far more affable--but people today seek an effective, not a friendly leader. India's dilemma is that Modi is the most likely candidate to provide corrupt free governance and restore the economy to high growth, create masses of jobs and lift millions into the middle class. But his communal past is a threat. In the end, each voter will have to choose in 2014 between several imperfect candidates and make a trade-off. Those who think corrupt free governance and prosperity are more important will vote for Modi. Those who worry about communal harmony and domestic security, will not vote for him. It is an unhappy but unambiguous choice.

Gurcharan Das May 24th 2013

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