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Wednesday, 6 February 2013

By Dr. Richard L. Benkin, reporting from India

Indian Conservatives are about to do what US Conservatives refused to do for the last eight years.  During the 2008 and 2012 primaries, Conservatives were split over what kind of Conservative to nominate.  One faction insisted on someone identified unambiguously as a Conservative who would eschew compromise on the gamut of issues associated with the right.  Only by emphasizing our basic principles and sticking to them, the narrative went, would we show voters that we offered them a real choice.  The other insisted that would mean sure defeat.  They believed that only a “moderate” standard bearer who would appeal to the vast number of voters in the middle had any chance of success.  The latter camp won out, and the results were two terms of Barack Obama as President. 

Whether the result would have been different if he first group prevailed is a matter of speculation, but Conservatives are going to have a chance to see how it works in the upcoming Indian elections that are scheduled for 2014, but according to several New Delhi insiders, could very well occur in time to have a new Prime Minister take office this October.

While India has many political parties, the battle is primarily between the Conservative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the left-center Congress Party, heir to the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty.  It is a parliamentary democracy which means that the party with the largest number of seats in the legislature, the lok sabha gets to name the Prime Minister, generally in coalition with other like-minded parties.  The Congress party has maintained that position for all but 12 years of India’s existence as a nation and for the past eight years unbroken.

For months, there had been a great deal of debate and speculation that the BJP would nominate the Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra  Modi as their candidate for Prime Minister and as the face of the party.  The position of Chief Minister is roughly the same as a US Governor, and under Modi’s ten-year rule and the strength of his character, Gujarat has become India’s state with the most consistently increasing prosperity.  That is a big part of his appeal.  Very early in his tenure, Modi took a strong hand in scrapping entitlements and big government programs in favor of a pro-growth, pro-business agenda.  He also helped eliminate India’s notorious corruption in his state.  The results have become canon here with Gujarat’s per capita income in the most recent measure rising by 17 percent.  Gujaratis are hopeful about their economic direction while polls show that much of the Indian population is pessimistic about theirs.  My own, unscientific survey of Delhi taxi drivers, hotel workers, vendors, and others of modest means found that Indians want Modi to stimulate the same prosperity in the rest of India.  Universally, they praised Modi as someone who would bring better jobs and an increased standard of living while eschewing more government handouts.  Many remember how he stunned the country by bringing the automotive giant Tata to Gujarat in 2008.  Tata was ready to abandon its not yet open plant in West Bengal, which was to produce an entirely new line of cars.  At the time, West Bengal was ruled by India’s Communist party, and concerns about land appropriation, government regulations, and violence in a state where the government was often part of it convinced Tata that it was time to go.  Several states were vying to become Tata’s new site, but Modi and Gujarat put together the right package of incentives, reliable labor, and a lack of government overreach to win the day and help create thousands of jobs in their state.   Modi told me that he would intervene personally to create the same favorable conditions for any “joint ventures involving the United States or Israel.”  (He is also a longstanding friend of Israel.)

Modi, however, has been a demon to the left both in India and worldwide.  They share an article of faith that Modi was somehow responsible for the 2002 inter-religious riots that killed 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus (although Modi’s vilifiers rarely mention the latter).  At the insistence of groups like the Congress on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) and others, the US State Department refused Modi entry to the US on the basis of these accusations.  Even though every Indian court, including the Supreme Court, has exonerated Modi (as have the millions of people—Hindus and Muslims alike—who consistently vote for him); former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently re-affirmed the administration’s position.

How embarrassing for our country if this man becomes India’s Prime Minister and we ignore the people of India and their legal system.

While the mass of Indians, however, are focused on Modi’s administrative genius and the benefits he has brought his constituents in Gujarat, the left has already begun reprising their tedious and discredited arguments about 2002. 

The good news for Modi, as I said to one activist on the right and a major Modi supporter, is that the left has raised the issue of 2002 so frequently that it is old news; that is, if it has not already swayed voters away from Modi, it is unlikely to do so during the campaign.  They are unlikely to come up with other dirt, as Modi’s personal life is impeccable and there never has been even the hint of scandal associated with him.  The left may vilify him as “anti-Islamic,” but they cannot dismiss the vocal support he receives even from imams in Gujarat who appreciate the prosperity he has have brought their followers.

Americans are probably tired of hearing about “historical election,” but it is no understatement to characterize India’s as one.  Its economic miracle has stalled while its government has grown, and people have seen their purchasing power fall significantly under its increasing entitlements and handouts.  Moreover, while many of us recognize the Islamist threat that might already have come to our shores, there is no question of it in India.  Narendra Modi and the people around him who will help shape foreign policy under a Modi government, have made it clear to me and others that they not only recognize the threat but also known that it must be fought unequivocally.  Under Modi’s tenure, Gujarat has been free of the Islamist and Leftist terrorism that has plagued much of India and claimed the lives of over 10,000 Indian civilians and security personnel since 2004.  Amitabh Tripathi, a long time Modi supporter and someone with his finger on the pulse of things here, told me that he expects the two foes “to test us with soft and hard attacks and see how we react.”  He believes that the current policies would be disastrous in that context.

Right now, Narendra Modi’s popularity and intense backing seems to be at a zenith.  Will it continue at that level or even higher once the media and his opponents unleash their fury in the campaign?  And the left has started already.  This week, for instance, as Modi made a major policy speech at a Delhi school, setting out a pro-growth agenda for India to thunderous applause, leftist students engaged in noisy protests.  The more leftist media outlets spent more time on the noisy students outside than on the significant events inside.

I am betting that Modi’s popularity will continue.  For ten years, he has refused to address the left’s accusations, preferring to let the Indian court system do so.  It has proven a good strategy that allowed him to pursue his conservative principles without letting his opponents set the agenda.  Should Narendra Modi become India’s next Prime Ministers, expect him to usher in a new age for India and new opportunities for a mature US-India relationship.  His victory might also provide US Conservatives with some guidance in how to approach the next round of elections.

Posted on 02/06/2013 7:36 AM by Richard L. Benkin
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