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.