Stratton and Sawhney: Is Narendra Modi right for India?

Abby Stratton and Asha Sawhney

On May 26th, 2014, Narendra Modi was sworn in as India’s 15th Prime Minister. Although Modi won by a landslide with the second-highest margin for an Indian election, he is a contentious figure throughout the nation. He promises to bring economic and legislative reform and has launched large-scale campaigns to promote female education. However, many people in India are wary of his political party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a group known for its Hindu nationalism. This, combined with his alleged connections to the 2002 Gujarat riots that killed at least a thousand Muslims, leaves notable figures such as Nobel Prize winner Amartya Sen hesitant to show their support, despite agreeing that Modi brings great hope to the Indian economy. So the question stands, is Modi destined to uplift or damage his country’s increasing development?

Abby Stratton:

The BJP won India’s most recent election by no small margin. The party now occupies 282 of the 543 seats in parliament for a 51.9% majority. The BJP’s majority is particularly significant because the previous parliament was generally regarded as an institution of corruption with an inability to maintain control and cultivate a new generation of leaders for the country. Modi and the BJP drew large amounts of support from India’s youth, with their votes contributing to Modi’s 33% popular vote in the polls. Part of the reason the BJP is so popular with the youth is due to its support for the anti-corruption campaign, a hot-button topic in India. Choudhury Dilichand, a teacher from Dwarka, claims “the young people voted for Modi because he is honest, and there is hope that something can be done for jobs and development and so on. If Modi can keep clean people only in government, then something can be done. But if he can’t, then there will be problems.”

The stagnation of India’s legislative progress under the Congress party, Modi’s opposing party, has India hoping for momentum under Modi’s leadership. His party, the BJP, promises to fix this by moving toward significant economic and legislative reform. Given India’s political structure, it is difficult to maintain a central or cohesive power which Modi hopes to work towards. A significant amount of power is delegated from the central government to the 29 individual states that constitute the republic. Maintaining central power or governance has, historically, proven to be difficult with more than 240 political parties vying for a piece of the action. According to reporter Jason Burke, India has recently experienced a “general sense of instability, insecurity, and drift.” These feelings are part of the reason Modi rose to power, as he presents a dependable, almost father-like figure. His entire campaign centered around the promise that he would revitalize India’s slowing economic growth. Since he came to power, Modi has promised to make bank accounts for everyone, to build toilets in schools and announced his Make in India campaign to turn the country into an international manufacturing focus.

The widespread confidence in Modi’s reforms is largely due to the success in his home state of Gujarat which, under his leadership, became an economic powerhouse. According to analyst , “Gujarat has not out-performed other states in terms of healthcare, education, and empowerment of women,” but it does have a reputation for promoting industry and commerce. The economic progress of Gujarat built confidence in Modi during his campaign, but his personal life story also helped him connect to his voters, specifically the youth. Modi is an entirely self-made man in the political system without any politically powerful relatives to support his campaigns. He built himself up from “humble origins and modest means.” His background offers him further separation from the perceptions of government being corrupt and fraught with nepotism.

He also wants to change the way that India thinks about women. “When we hear about incidents of rape, our heads hang in shame,” Modi said. “I want to ask every mother and father, you ask your daughters, ‘Where are you going, who are you going with?’ But do you ever ask your sons these questions? After all, those who rape are also someone’s son.” He continues to promote modernizing not only the economy and legislator, but social constructs and traditions in India.

Judging by his previous track record of success in Gujarat and the incredible amount of support he has garnered through his campaigns, I believe Modi could implement the ambitious reforms of his campaign. His 33% popular vote proves that the people have confidence in Modi and, in many ways, he may represent the future of India. He champions the need for reform and, according to the polls, the youth are especially ready for Modi and his vision.

Asha Sawhney:

I must admit, when I speak about Narendra Modi, my personal bias shines through. It is by no means a bias I inherited from my Indian family members, who are almost all staunch supporters of the new prime minister. However, I come from a religious minority group in India and I do not believe that economic progress can fix a nation where tensions run high.

The 2002 Gujarat riots are eerily similar to the 1984 anti-Sikh riots that killed thousands of my people in a mere three days. In both situations the police and government oversaw slaughter and were accused of helping rioters identify religious minorities; in 1984 the targets were Sikh and in 2002 they were Muslim. However, “accused” is definitely an understatement. In both instances eyewitness accounts recall the government distributing voting and property lists. Modi’s connection to the riots was solid enough that the United States denied him a visa.

While some argue that Modi’s wrongdoings are in his past, Christian churches are continuously vandalized across the nation and religious leaders are sure it is at the hands of the BJP party. Worse still, Modi supporters have attempted to remove the word “secular” from the Indian constitution to make it a Hindu state. People argue that it is Modi’s followers who incite religious violence, not him. But since Modi is a unilateral leader of his party, it is difficult to make such a distinction. In addition, it’s unlikely that both Muslims and Christians, historically divided groups in India, would conspire to tarnish the name of the new prime minister. It is likely that, instead, these stories of government-supported religious violence corroborate each other.

Some might say economic growth and development take precedent over religious conflict, which has been a reoccurring problem since India’s inception. However, history shows that religious conflict is not a petty concern. In 1984 religious tension led to the creation of a Sikh extremist group that used the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of Sikhism, as a human shield. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi did not let the presence of innocent civilians stop Operation Bluestar, an effort to take down said extremists. This back and forth conflict culminated with the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, leaving the nation in chaos, and thus causing street riots that killed thousands of innocent Sikhs. This narrative proves that if instances of religious conflict are treated as random and not addressed as a part of the system, they can develop into a national crisis.

However, I agree wholeheartedly with Modi’s women’s rights campaigns against rape culture and educational inequality in India, but his personal actions towards women do not match his promises. It was discovered after the election that Modi is actually married, to a woman he has not seen in 43 years, after she left to pursue her education to become a teacher. This makes me wonder if the support for Indian girls and women will continue.

Some also say Modi is not the hero that saved the Gujarati economy. The state was already well-developed thanks to historically sound infrastructure, and was on a trajectory for growth without Modi as their chief minister. Perhaps his praise as a hero is just a testament to his skills of creating a cult of personality that worships him. In the end, it’s wise to wait and see how Modi’s term plays out before jumping to immediate conclusions. However, I strongly believe it is the duty of the world’s largest democracy to ensure safety and equality to all its citizens, and if a crisis comes to international light, it will probably be too late for many.

Abby Stratton is a Weinberg freshman. She can be reached at [email protected]. Asha Sawhney is a Weinberg freshman. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]