India’s Pivot

by Conrad Black
Last week’s election may mark the birth of a new Great Power.

While the Indian election that concluded last week has received significant attention, its implications have not been very widely appreciated. About 70 percent of India’s 815 million voters voted in 900,000 polling stations, and the balloting was conducted on nine different dates as the 8 million security and electoral personnel required to conduct the vote moved around the country. There was no serious disturbance or any serious charge of irregularities. This is an astonishing victory for democracy, a much-maligned system with whose governmental management most advanced Western countries are currently disappointed, but which is still generally reckoned by its users as preferable to alternative ways of elevating a government and of governing a society. The decisive victory of Narendra Modi, 13-year chief minister (governor) of Gujarat State and candidate of the Bharatiya Janata party, is seen by the international Left as a victory of a semi-fascist sectarian implicated in the massacre of up to 2,000 Muslims in 2001, and by the international moderate Right as India’s ticket to ride more quickly and comfortably into prosperity than China.

Conceivably, they could both be correct, but there is no recent evidence that Modi is carrying out a religious mission. All concede that, in his time in Gujarat, he tore down the state government, dispensed with reams of regulations and encumbrances, and justified his claim in the late election that he was dispensing with red tape and replacing it by rolling out a red carpet for investors. He racked up 10 to 14 percent annual economic-growth rates in Gujarat, a state of 60 million people, and attracted heavy investment by sophisticated and high-paying manufacturers, including Ford and Tata. He greatly expanded hydroelectric generation in the state and made electricity universally accessible, which assisted in the improvement of irrigation, soil, and the quality of cotton and other crops; the rural economy grew even more quickly than urban industries, at a steady 14 percent annually.

All of us who remember the country’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, sitting in the garden of the sumptuous Edward Lutyens–designed official residence in New Delhi, fondling a rose and explaining in his Harrow and Cambridge and Inner Temple accent the moral superiority of India precisely because of its teeming poverty and the resulting virtue of the country’s disregard for materialism, will be relieved to see the unprecedented defeat his Congress party suffered last week. That sensation will be more intense for those who also remember Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, fondling a rose off the same bush and parked in the same chair and giving essentially the same claim to moral exaltedness despite the squalor and corruption of her country, which her policies (like those of her father) did little to alleviate. The Congress party and the Nehru-Gandhi family clung to the headship of that vast country like limpets for all but about twelve of the 67 years of Indian independence. As in many other formerly colonial entities, the party that agitated most effectively for an end to colonial status reaped a post-independence dividend of prolonged incumbency. It cannot be said that Congress abused that right on the scale of Mugabe in Zimbabwe or even of the African National Congress in South Africa, but corruption was rife and, while democracy was not stifled, the pious affectation of moral superiority grated severely for decades.

Despite Mahatma Gandhi’s championship of non-violence — he advised Jews to accept their fate and go quietly to the death camps, and to bear no bitterness against their Nazi executioners — he urged free passage for the Japanese armed forces through the British Indian Empire to carry the war into the Middle East and join up with Field Marshal Rommel’s Afrika Korps. Nehru claimed to be the founder of the neutral movement after Indian independence, hobnobbing with such neutrals as Sukarno of Indonesia, Nasser of Egypt, and even Castro. The whole stance was a monstrous fraud, as most of the member states of the movement were either Communist-dominated, like Indonesia; heavily paid by the USSR, like Egypt; or intimidated by the threat of Communist aggression. This last would have been true of India if it had not had implicit Western Alliance protection, and indeed the Chinese gave Nehru a good thrashing along their lengthy mountainous border. Indira Gandhi was still warbling about peace and respect for the dignity of all human life when she promoted war with Pakistan, helped engineer the breakup of that country, and then, for a sorbet, brought in compulsory sterilization on capricious criteria to ease the demographic burden of India’s high birthrate.

Inevitably, the international Left is deeply distressed at the prospect of serious economic progress in India. The New Statesman, London’s upper-middle-brow far-left magazine, ran a lengthy report from William Dalrymple (whom I banned from London’s Telegraph newspapers twelve years ago for rampant, foaming-at-the mouth anti-Semitism in Middle East reporting, in his Islamist enthusiasm) detailing the massacre of the Muslims in Gujarat twelve years ago. On the magazine’s cover, the Dalrymple piece was headlined “India’s Worst Nightmare? Narendra Modi, neo-fascism and the making of a tyrant.” The tired, punch-drunk London journalistic Left adheres timelessly to its ancient subterranean standards of fair political reporting, and the lengthy article within was an appropriate farrago of leftist bigotry.

Certainly, the 2002 incident in which up to 2,000 people died was dreadful, and is a legitimate concern (though Modi was cleared by India’s Supreme Court). While Modi avoided anything tendentiously sectarian in his campaign, he may not yet be an overly tolerant man — but he doesn’t have to love India’s 160 million Muslims (despite its 800 million Hindus, it is the world’s third-largest Muslim country) as long as he doesn’t oppress them. The appeasement of Muslims has not been a successful policy in the recent past, and some degree of reciprocity toward the widespread Muslim official hostility to Christians, Hindus, and Jews, though unedifying in the abstract, might be a better bet than the groveling to Iran and Pakistan that the Obama administration and much of the West have engaged in so fruitlessly. 

The outgoing Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, had, in his previous term, brought in some elemental financial reforms that torqued economic growth up to almost 10 percent; but in the past five years he went back to Nehru-Gandhiism and piled regulations and enhanced welfare benefits on large categories of voters, with no incentive for the country’s 300 million illiterate people who make less than $1.25 a day to bootstrap themselves up. Modi has won the first one-party majority in India in 30 years and has a clear mandate to “Thatcherize” the country (as he says). He has the formula from Gujarat and if he replicates it country-wide, shrinking government and encouraging investment and economic growth, the results could change the world and alter the world balance of power for the forces of democracy and against militant Islam. (He is a strong supporter of Israel, and the arrival of India beside the Canadians and Czechs and Greeks could make life for the Jewish state less lonely than it has been.) The GDP per capita of India rose almost fivefold between 1992 and 2012, from $324 to $1,503. If Modi were to achieve across India the growth rates his policies produced in Gujarat for ten years, GDP would jump from $1.8 trillion to $5.1 trillion in ten years, and per capita GDP from $1,503 to $5,000. If the same growth stretched out another ten years from there, Indian GDP would be $13.1 trillion and per capita it would be about $9,700.

Of course, these extrapolations never quite match up with the eventual reality. China’s have not, any more than those of Latin American population growth in the U.S. have; nor are the recent demographic trends in Western Europe really going to drive all those European nationalities into extinction like the carrier pigeon, as the trends of recent decades have indicated. But India does not have a 40 percent command economy like China’s; it does have, from the British, a reasonably plausible legal system; and Indian growth figures could be both harder to lay down exactly and also more spontaneously robust than China’s, in the highest traditions of capitalism.

Whatever Modi’s opinion of Muslims, he is unlikely to submit to the temptations of general persecution and has shown an admirable disposition to share the benefits of economic growth with all elements of the population, including, in Gujarat, that state’s 5 million Muslims. If India progresses at anything like these rates, the impact on the world will be at least as great as that of the rise of Deng Xiaoping’s and his successors’ China. Winston Churchill, who did not hesitate to imprison Gandhi and Nehru during the war, may have meant, when he greeted Nehru at a Commonwealth prime ministers’​ meeting in 1952 as “the light of Asia,” that democracy could lead to an economic miracle. It was a stretch with Nehru, but it may not be with Modi.

Those who have been shouting from the rooftops that China was about to take over the world may have noticed that the Chinese overplayed their hand and have been shown the door in Burma, and are not receiving the deference they have always thought they deserved from the Vietnamese. Japan and the Philippines are not rolling over either, and the rise of India, not any more “pivots” in the White House, is the best source of a strategic balance in eastern and southern Asia and Australasia. As Europe wallows and dithers and America retrenches, the arrival of India as the next Great Power in the world will be a providential stroke of fortune for the forces of democracy and of resistance to Islamic extremism and to the aggressive tendencies of the Russians and Chinese. This is the real importance of last week’s Indian election.

— Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full, A Matter of Principle, and Flight of the Eagle: The Grand Strategies That Brought America from Colonial Dependence to World Leadership. He can be reached at [email protected].

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