India’s Thatcher?

by Reihan Salam

Some see Narendra Modi, leader of India’s right-of-center Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and one of Asia’s most polarizing politicians, as the second coming of Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan, thanks to his impressive achievements as chief minister of Gujarat, one of India’s most affluent and rapidly modernizing states. Others insist that he is a cryptofascist deeply hostile to India’s large and impoverished Muslim minority, in light of his (alleged) failure to intervene more aggressively to prevent anti-Muslim pogroms that rocked urban Gujarat at the start of his tenure. Ashutosh Varshney, a political scientist at Brown University and a leading expert on communal tensions in India, notes that in this year’s national election campaign, Modi has not just avoided the classic tropes of Hindu chauvinism — he has been making the case for his growth agenda to Muslim and lower-caste constituencies the Hindu right has tended to neglect.

While it is common for socialists, social democrats, and left-liberals across countries to cooperate with each other on developing common approaches, right-of-center political forces tend not to be quite so cosmopolitan, for the obvious reason that parties of the right are often the parties of national self-assertion. That said, I’ve always felt that Americans who favor market-oriented policies, permissionless innovation, and religious freedom ought to cheer on our counterparts in other countries, and to do more than just cheer them on when it’s appropriate. Modi is a controversial figure for a reason, and some of the charges against him are more compelling than others. It is also true, however, that the corruption and incompetence of India’s left-of-center United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition government have come at an enormous human cost. Getting policy right in the United States is of course very important. Yet the consequences of Barack Obama’s policy missteps pale in comparison to those of the UPA government, because the U.S. is a country in which democratic norms are firmly entrenched, the economic policy consensus has a strong (by international standards) pro-market orientation, and, most importantly, we don’t have hundreds of millions of citizens living in grinding poverty, for whom higher growth might very well mean the difference between life and death. There is no guarantee that a BJP-led coalition government would do much better than the UPA. But it’s hard to imagine it doing much worse, and all indications suggest that Modi understands how corruption and rigid labor market, land use, other regulations are limiting India’s growth potential.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.