India’s Destiny Dilemma

As India’s elections draw to a close, one thing is clear: its potential is undeniable—and so are its problems.

On August 15, India will mark the sixty-seventh year of its independence. The results of its national parliamentary elections will be official well before then. This country of kaleidoscopic diversity will have again transferred political power democratically and peacefully.

This may not strike Americans as exceptional, even if they’re reminded that elections have become routine at all levels of India’s polity and that turnout often exceeds what it is in the United States. So it’s worth recalling that in India’s early years there was much skepticism in the West about whether it would hang together, let alone build democracy.

India, a congeries of cultures, languages, and religions covers 3.2 million square kilometers. Only six countries encompass more terrain. Its population, now 1.2 billion, is poised to overtake China’s. Beijing’s draconian population-control program would be a nonstarter in democratic India.

There were other reasons to doubt that India’s experiment with democracy would succeed. The country was desperately poor, and what passed for a middle class was miniscule. Indians were largely illiterate, and their experience with democracy was brief and uneven. India lacked the characteristics scholars identify as preconditions for consolidating democracy. Its decision to adopt this form of politics, nonetheless, was as audacious as it was admirable.

So India has passed two fundamental tests it wasn’t expected to: it has stayed whole and preserved liberty and stability. Has it done well enough? No. India’s politics are marked—to a growing degree—by corruption; the power of money; political dynasties; and appeals to parochial loyalties, whether of caste, subcaste, religion, or language. Elected bodies contain knaves and criminals or those, whose qualifications are limited to good looks (Bollywood is deep into the political game) or athletic prowess.

Milan Vaishnav has discussed these dismaying realities in a recentop-ed; and you needn’t spend much time in India to see that he’s right. Yet such assessments lack comparative perspective. Indian democracy’s deficiencies may be doubly deplorable because India has many massive problems, particularly large-scale poverty. But the role of money, privilege, corruption, family connections, special interests and divisive appeals to subnational loyalties in politics is scarcely peculiar to India, and it is evident in the United States and other democracies. Americans’ dismay over this is clear from opinion polls showing that a majority of our citizens believe that we’re on the wrong track and that the coming generationwon’t be as fortunate as we have been. Besides, Western democracies have had far more time to fix these problems. Yet they seem to be getting worse.

India tends to compare unfavorably to China in most assessments, and in economic performance, this verdict is justified. But for all the failings of their democracy, Indians enjoy basic freedoms that Chinese citizens lack, and China’s state-directed campaigns for modernization (the Great Leap Forward) or ideological purity (the Cultural Revolution) that killed tens of millions have no counterpart in India’s history. The Indian state has been brutal in places such as Kashmir, but its transgressions pale in comparison to Beijing’s.

Then there’s the army’s role in Indian politics. What’s extraordinary—certainly compared to other ex-colonial societies—is that it hasn’t had one. India’s soldiers stay in their barracks in peacetime. There hasn’t been an instance of what’s perennial in the politics of many developing countries: a military coup. India’s army has always been under strict civilian control.

Moreover, India’s political history lacks a Washington, Grant, Ike, Colin Powell, or Wesley Clark (for example). Military heroes are thanked for their heroism and, upon retirement, are expected to repair to their bungalows and clubs, sip scotch, and coddle their grandchildren. The closest India came to having a general as a contender for high political office was after the 1971 war against Pakistan. General Sam Manekshaw (a Parsi, it should be noted), the architect of India’s victory, became a national icon. But the love fest proved fleeting as a political matter. There were no cries of “Run, Sam, Run” or “Draft Sam” campaigns. Manekshaw was promoted to Field Marshal and retired to a bucolic hill station. The great warrior did what Indians always expect.

Don’t look to academic tomes for edification on India’s democratic success. The country contradicts the axioms and expectations of the “democratic transitions” literature. Paradoxically, some of the traits that made for skepticism about its democratic prospects proved to be advantages. This sprawling country houses what, in effect, are myriad civilizations organized largely as states that correspond to its numerous languages in a decentralized polity, albeit one that has some centralizing constitutional provisions.

Consequently, violence rooted in caste, religion, tribal identities, insurgencies, or labor disputes remains largely localized, and the shock waves seldom radiate far enough to generate national upheavals. Violence in Muslim-majority Kashmir (of which there has been plenty, and Kashmiri Muslims regard the Indian army, which metes out rough treatment, as an occupier) doesn’t disrupt the politics of other states with substantial Muslim populations (India’s Muslims being a diverse lot—not just in language, ethnic lineage and cultural customs, but in matters of religious doctrine and practice as well). Likewise, campaigns to change the borders of one state or to allow another to emerge from it don’t snowball. Ditto for squabbles over whether Hindi ought to be the national language (an issue that has mercifully petered out) or the wanton violence against Sikhs following Indira Gandhi’s slaying (by a Sikh guard) in October 1984.

This is why India’s considerable political violence, V.S. Naipaul’s “million mutinies,” doesn’t threaten the political system. Differences stemming from religion, language, and culture remain local, affirming Tip O’Neill’s quip about politics. While India doesn’t lack issues of national political salience, cultural multiplicity, decentralization and the (increasing) power of local parties reduce the number of issues with a countrywide scope and allow the central government to co-opt and divide in order to forestall national mobilization. This does create a trade-off between stability and efficiency by enabling the center’s inattentiveness to local needs and ensuring a steady supply of crooked, incompetent politicians who rule their own fiefdoms (not terribly well—and often terribly).

So far, this piece has been a positive portrait, but there’s another side to Indian politics, which is worth considering because we’re now at an important juncture in modern India’s history. Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party or BJP) will trounce the Congress Party in the national elections. The Congress has dominated Indian politics for all but a few years during the past six decades, helped by the Nehru dynasty: Jawaharlal Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi, his grandsons Sanjay and Rajiv, and most recently, Rajiv’s Italian-born widow, Sonia, widely considered the true wielder of power during what will soon be the decade-long tenure of the current Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh. Rahul Gandhi, son of Rajiv and Sonia and heir apparent, has been (fecklessly) leading the Congress’s desperate effort to retain power. Quite a run for one family.

The advent of Modi constitutes a big change. Unlike the blueblood Nehrus and Gandhis, he’s a former tea vendor who relishes contrasting his humble origins to the silver-spoon-in-mouth privilege of India’s preeminent political clan. Anyone who’s watched him address the multitudes—you can catch him on YouTube, but it helps to know Hindi if you want the authentic flavor of the oratory—knows that the everyman theme works for him because it doesn’t look like a character impersonation. In that respect, he’s the real deal, and Rahul is a cardboard figure. The end, or at least decisive interruption, of dynastic rule is one change this election will bring, and whatever one may think of the BJP, it’s a welcome change.

Another change in the offing concerns ideology and personality. Modi cut his political teeth in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, loosely translated: National Volunteer Society), an organization that has been part of Indian politics since its formation in 1925. The RSS is a mélange of Hindu nationalism, martial drills and uniforms, and an India-is-superior trope that reeks of chauvinism. The political principle it’s most notorious for is “Hindutva,” which conflates “Indian” with “Muslim” and demeans Islam as an alien imposition on a glorious Hindu civilization harking back to the Vedic age.

There is much historical revisionism here, fantastical claims about ancient India’s achievements, and not a little bigotry. It’s not hard to understand why the RSS makes India’s Muslim population uneasy. They may constitute only 13 percent of the population but are 177 million strong, making India the third largest Muslim country, after Indonesia and Pakistan. India has nearly as many Muslims as Pakistan, and according to some calculations more.

It’s not just Modi’s regular homage to the RSS (though not during the election campaign) that makes him a controversial, polarizing persona. He was Gujarat state’s Chief Minister during a horrific episode of violence against Muslims. In February 2002, the torching of a train in Godhra killed over fifty Hindus, and there followed an anti-Muslim pogrom that killed 790 Muslims (and 254 Hindus) according to the authorities (other accounts assert that that’s an undercount) and spread to other parts of Gujarat. The police were condemned for inaction, even complicity, and Modi was condemned for negligence, even culpability. Though he has steadfastly denied the charges, the controversy dogs him and has figured in the election campaign.

So this election is significant, because it also bears on what is arguably the greatest threat to India’s stability: the specter of massive and sustained violence pitting Muslims against Hindus, who constitute 80 percent of the population. Such an outcome could prove calamitous, which is precisely why the specter of a Prime Minister Modi occasions anxiety—and not merely among India’s Muslims. There has been much speculation about which Modi we will see as Prime Minister. The Hindutva firebrand tied to RSS discourse and in thrall to Hindutva? Or the manager-professional of the campaign season determined to build on his record as the architect of Gujarat’s economic success?

The answer matters—both for India’s stability and its prosperity. Despite the advances in education, the boom that began in the early 1990s and the global success of India’s companies (Tata, Mahindra, Infosys and others), India has a poor economic record.It places 102 out of 132 on the Social Progress Index, a composite measure of how countries fare in meeting people’s essential social and economic needs. India’s poverty is so pervasive that forecasts that trumpet its emergence as a global power seem surreal. Whether it’s the quality of schools, access to clean water and health care, the proportion of those living in poverty (nearly a third of India’s people live on $1.25 a day in purchasing power parity terms compared to 13 percent in China), or infant mortality, India’s leaders have failed their citizens.

It’s often said that the Congress Party will lose this election for lack of a compelling leader. True, Rahul Gandhi’s campaign performance gives new meaning to the phrase “a deer caught in the headlights.” Milling with the hoi polloi and delivering stump speeches (which he does badly) is not his thing. But Congress’s real problem is that Indians are fed up with the accumulation of problems and blame the ruling party, which can’t duck responsibility, having dominated politics for so long. Even its record of having overseen a long spell of rapid economic growth hasn’t helped. So now it’s Modi turn at the tiller, and he has promised to create the “Gujarat Miracle” on a national scale. He has his work cut out for him.

If Modi becomes mired in the muck of an anti-Muslim millenarianism, the result could be political chaos. The managerial skills he touts won’t matter much then. The betting is that he is savvy and understands this, that the responsibilities of governing a nation of multiple faiths and cultures will moderate the man. Here’s hoping.

India’s election has also garnered attention because of its foreign-policy implications. Modi markets himself as a business-friendly, pro–economic growth administrator, and a doer, but he also trades on his reputation as a nationalist and tough guy. To the delight of the RSS faithful, he declares that India is destined for greatness and that its leaders have been pusillanimous toward the outside world, particularly Pakistan and China. He promises to turn the page. Heady stuff, this—and dangerous, too.

Yet Modi’s bark will be worse than his bite if only because India holds a weak hand, certainly relative to China. China’s GDP is valued at $8.4 trillion, India’s at $1.9 trillion. China’s per capita income is $10,900 (113 in rank) in purchasing parity terms; India’s is $5,000 (151 in rank). China leads the world in foreign exchange reserves, with $3.8 trillion in the bank; India has $295 billion, comparable to the stash of tiny Singapore. China sold the world $2.2 trillion of goods and services in 2013 and has racked up steady surpluses. India has a long record of negative trade balances, which have gotten worse in recent years. Its exports totaled $313 billion in 2013—19 in rank, just ahead of Switzerland’s. The gap in military power is similarly stark. China’s 2013 defense budget was $126 billion (and probably larger), while India’s was $46 billion. China is also ahead in military modernization and indigenous armament production.

I could offer more such statistics but the picture should be clear by now: China surpasses India in the indices typically used to gauge national power. Whatever Modi’s dreams, he’s fated to deal with China from a weaker position.

Could an alliance with the United States help reduce the imbalance? To a degree; and military cooperation between India and America has increased substantially during the past two decades. Yet while the BJP’s nationalists are hardliners on China, the party also contains leaders who oppose an alliance with the United States on the grounds that it will foster dependence, reduce autonomy, and connote weakness. Besides, because India and the United States were often at loggerheads during the Cold War, there remains apprehension, on the right and the left, about America’s reliability and its apparent reflexive attachment to, and naïveté about, Pakistan. India and America are said to have a natural affinity as fellow democracies. (Never mind that the two countries were at odds during much of the Cold War and that India’s most reliable partner was the Soviet Union.) What’s overlooked, but was illustrated during the recent kerfuffle over the nanny problems of a New York-based Indian diplomat, is that democratic kinship sometimes makes it harder to contain controversies.

Disagreements can’t be bottled up. They get played out in the public square, igniting passions. So don’t expect big changes from Modi on policy toward the United States. The manager in him will seek more trade with, and investment from, the United States, but the impediments to these transactions include India’s cumbersome bureaucracy and antediluvian infrastructure, neither of which can be fixed quickly. Then there’s the enduring suspicion, on the left and the right—including in the BJP, often simplistically seen as the free-market party—toward economic globalization, especially its threat to India’s farms, shops, and industries.

Pakistan is a different story. Don’t expect conciliatory moves from Modi on Kashmir. Do expect India’s rhetoric toward Pakistan to get more heated and the reaction to terrorist attacks, especially on the Indian heartland, to be tougher than it has been under Congress-led governments. The United States was able to restrain India when terrorists that New Delhi insisted were tied to Pakistan attacked the national parliament (Lok Sabha) in December 2011. Modi will be harder to hold back if there’s a comparable incident. Yet his ability to punish Pakistan will be limited by the risks of initiating a spiral toward nuclear war.

An India-Pakistan competition is already underway in Afghanistan and will intensify as foreign forces depart that country. Terrorism against India’s embassy and consulates and the abductions and killings of Indians will continue to be part of the efforts by the Taliban and the Pakistani intelligence services to raise the costs of New Delhi’s quest for influence in Afghanistan. The ripple effects of rivalry in Afghanistan could create crises between New Delhi and Islamabad. We’ll know then whether Modi’s persona and worldview matter. I suspect that there will be more changes in style than substance given the strategic realities, particularly nuclear weapons and Pakistan-China alignment. Beijing has shown that it can create plenty of problems along the 3,400-kilometer Sino-Indian frontier.

India has much to be proud of as it ends its latest election. Still, it faces massive challenges—above all, providing basic necessities to millions of its people. If Narendra Modi wants to transform India, this should be his priority. Yes, he must safeguard national security and conduct an effective foreign policy; but he can do both while resisting great-power fantasies and the concomitant blustering and posturing. They will not benefit India, at home or abroad.

Rajan Menon is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of Political Science at the Colin Powell School, City College of New York/City University of New York, and Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.

Image: India Gate, a national icon in New Delhi, reflects the 20th-century changes in India's destiny. Built by British colonial rulers, it now also shelters India's post-independence tomb of an unknown soldier. (Image: Flickr/Larry Johnson/CC by 2.0)