A reader writes:
The United States should feel some pressure to enhance relations with India and Prime Minister Modi. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited India this month andsigned signed three pacts meant to boost trade and investment between the two nations. Setting aside the economic impact, the visit indicated a significant trend in two ways: It was the first time India has welcomed a Chinese head of state with a public reception since the Sino-Indian War in 1962. The leaders were said to have had an easy chemistry and seem to be looking to ease border tensions through the pragmatism of economic trade. The other aspect worth noting is that the trade pacts weren’t signed in Delhi, setting aside the tradition of making international agreements in the capital. Prime Minister Modi’s tenure as Chief Minister of the western state of Gujarat saw rapid industrial growth. He clearly was aiming to highlight the impressive development the region has made since 2001.
The Obama Administration’s outreach toward the new Prime Minister has been circumspect. There was an understandable caution given Modi’s unabashed Hindu nationalism and the Gujarat religious riots in 2002. However, a détente between India and China would certainly complicate Obama’s “Asian Pivot”. The diplomatic dance over waivers on the Iranian sanctions certainly hasn’t helped matters. The “champagne and roses” probably aren’t a bad idea.
On a shamelessly self-promoting note, I recently covered these matters in their relation to the burgeoning Asian space race. There has been a good deal of discussion about India’s recent success with the Mars Orbiter, Mangalyaan. India is the only country to have delivered on its first Mars mission. There is undeniable prestige that comes with besting China and Japan in the race to Mars. However, this has overshadowed another important development from President Xi Jinping’s trip to India: There was an agreement to forge a closer bond regarding space activities. If this does indeed come to fruition, there would be tremendous consequences for the commercial space industry and for the geopolitical balance in Asia.
But Shikha Dalmia is worried about the fate of Indians under Modi:
The Obama administration has been working to normalize relations with Modi – as it must and should – now that he is the duly elected leader of the world’s most populous democracy. As such, the White House singled him out for a dinner with the president (although Modi declared that he won’t eat anything because he’s observing a nine-day religious fast, a flamboyant display of his fabled austerity).
But such quiet gestures were not enough for Modi who has the autocrat’s instinct to be the star attraction. His gaudy displays – literally unprecedented for visiting leaders – are not merely unbecoming. They are also deeply disturbing, because they highlight Modi’s need for self-aggrandizement. That does not bode well for the massive economic decentralization – the hands-off approach – that he himself touted as essential for offering a decent standard of living to all Indians. Maybe he’ll learn to keep a lid on this tendency as he grows in office. Right now, however, it seems to pervade his economic decisions, making even many of his cheerleaders nervous about his ability to lead India’s socialist, centrally planned economy to a free-market one.
Pankaj Mishra also views the prime minister with concern:
One of Modi’s political feats is to have tapped into the complex insecurities of rising Indians with his potpourri of fantasies tinged with defiant, if under-educated, Hindu nationalism. Thus, climate change, on which India rejects all compromise, can be tackled with the help of yoga, as he put it in his speech at the United Nations, and India, which was a “golden bird” before being enslaved for a thousand years by foreigners (read Muslims and the British), will regain its glory with “make in India” manufacturing. …
It’s not too early to worry about the pernicious fallout from the ambition to turn India into a golden bird in double-quick time. For Modi’s plan to redeem India’s thousand years of slavery through labor-intensive manufacturing may be about as realizable in these days of increasing automation as Mao Zedong’s project of overtaking America’s industrial production by making steel in backyard furnaces. Scapegoats are already being sought in India just three months after Modi’s ascent. A member of Modi’s own coalition protested last week that while “discrimination and the distrust of the Muslim were covert” in the past, “now the gloves are off and the hatred is in-your-face.”
There are no guarantees that Modi’s strategy will work. To become a manufacturing powerhouse, India will have to reform its ridiculously stringent labor laws, which are very much the third rail of Indian politics, and spend vast sums of money on roads and power plants and all of the other basics of industrialization. This will be an issue, as the Indian bureaucracy is famously terrible at spending money wisely.
If Modi succeeds, however, India will do more than alleviate poverty, important though that is. It will become the “big, powerful country” of Naipaul’s dreams—the kind of place that can afford to ignore Pakistan, its hostile, dysfunctional neighbor, and that won’t get pushed around by China. So you can see why Modi attracted support not just from India’s urban middle class, but also from hundreds of thousands of people of Indian descent in countries around the world, including the United States: He is promising that all of these people will be able to walk a little taller in a world that has long dismissed India as a land of “hunger and snakes.”
(Photo: A crowd of US-based supporters await the arrival of Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India for a community reception September 28, 2014 at Madison Square Garden in New York. By Don Emmert/AFP/Getty Images)