NEW DELHI–Watching the national election play out here the past few weeks has brought me back to a late October evening in 1980, when America stood on the verge of making the same choice that India seems poised to make by the time voting ends on May 12. That night, in the only televised debate between the two major candidates running for President of the United States, incumbent President Jimmy Carter repeatedly appealed to voters’ fears by contending that challenger Ronald Reagan’s right-leaning political views were careless, dangerous, and a threat to world peace. While assailing Reagan’s “heartless approach to working families,” Carter charged that Reagan’s eagerness to inject American military force in places like North Korea would lead to the “actual use of it;” and that his “dangerous and belligerent” insistence “upon the nuclear superiority of America as the basis for negotiation in the future with the Soviet Union” would bring a “very dangerous nuclear arms race.”
But none of those strong words were remembered the next day. Instead, all coverage of the debate led with a simple, now iconic question that Reagan asked directly of voters in his closing statement: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” For a country that had lived through four years of Carter-led malaise, inflation and unemployment; endured more than 400 days of American hostages held in Iran; and perceived a softening of America’s military in the face of Soviet aggression in Afghanistan, the answer was an emphatic “no.” It didn’t matter how conservative Reagan seemed to be. People were desperate for strong leadership and wanted a change–proving, as future U.S. President Bill Clinton would later observe, that “when people feel uncertain, they’d rather have somebody that’s strong and wrong than somebody who’s weak and right.”
“Strong and wrong” could very well be the slogan that opponents of Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance, have tried to pin on him since campaigning began a year ago. A right-wing Hindu Nationalist who is the longest-serving chief minister in the history of the Indian state of Gujarat, Modi’s political adversaries have assailed him as an autocratic leader who will stir hatred between Hindus and Muslims, blatantly disregard minority rights, dangerously escalate India’s regional confrontation of nuclear powers China and Pakistan, and promote economic policies that enrich business at the expense of poor. Most damningly, they accuse him of sanctioning and even assisting a Hindu slaughter of at least 1,000 Muslims to avenge the killing of 59 Hindu pilgrims by Muslims on a Gujarat train in 2002.
And yet, at a time when voters in democracies from Egypt to Ukraine to Turkey have taken to the streets to attempt to overthrow ultra-nationalist strongmen with murky pasts and dictatorial styles, the latest polls in India predict a massive, landslide victory for Modi and the BJP. Why? Because, as the Editor-at-Large of India’s largest newsmagazine, S. Prasannarajan, has written, India is a “hurt and humiliated nation.”
After ten years of “rudderless” leadership at the hands of the Indian National Congress party, as the Economist recently put it, “growth has fallen by half, young Indians remain unemployed, reforms go undone, roads and electricity remain unavailable, and children are left uneducated–all while politicians and officials are reckoned to have taken bribes worth between $4 billion and $12 billion.” Meanwhile, the terrorists who planned the killing of 164 people while wounding 308 others in a deadly series of 2008 attacks in Mumbai–India’s 9/11–remain free, despite evidence linking the killings directly back to arch-enemy Pakistan.
Whether or not Modi is India’s Reagan as some have claimed, there is little question that outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been its Carter. While a high-ranking member of the Singh Administration insists to me that “there’s been an improvement in living standards the past 10 years” he also concedes that “it’s accompanied by an expectation that things need to move faster.” He acknowledges what everyone seems to know: there is little that Congress Party candidate Rahul Gandhi–himself a greatly flawed candidate–can say or do to convince voters that the incumbent party deserves another chance. Or, as leading Indian strategic thinker Brahma Chellaney tells me more bluntly, “The only certainty about the elections is that Congress will have a huge defeat, their biggest since independence (in 1947).”
By contrast, Modi is known as an effective leader who has a reputation for getting things done. While his aides like to compare him to another icon of the 1980s–British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, known for privatizing a good chunk of Britain’s socialist economy–Modi has been known to admire the icy authoritarian efficiency of China’s leaders. The economic story he has helped write in Gujarat–India’s so-called “jewel of the West”–compares favorably to the revolution driven by Beijing.
With just five percent of India’s population, Gujarat now produces nearly a quarter of India’s exports–not by accident, but by design. As chief minister (the Indian version of “governor”) since 2001, Modi has dedicated his administration to the very un-Indian twin virtues of smaller government and privatization, transcending India’s socialist past to deeply cut layers of bureaucratic red tape and root out corruption while working to attract record levels of foreign investment. Despite Gandhi’s recent claim that Modi has exaggerated his record “to fool India,” Gujarat’s Beijing-like average annual growth rate of more than 10 percent has voters dreaming that he can do the same for the rest of India. “A vote for Modi,” as journalist David Pilling puts it, could very well “make India more Chinese.”
But there are many people here, even within BJP, who worry how Modi’s style will translate nationally, in a country whose parliament makes the U.S. Congress look like a model of efficiency. “I greatly question how he would fit into the current framework of today,” says one elected official. “Local leaders can make their own decisions and not have to listen to Delhi and that could be a problem for Modi’s dictator style.” A leading military veteran and strategist agrees, telling me, ” The number of seats BJP wins is critical. If it’s below 200 seats, Modi will have to depend on allies. If it’s 240 seats or above (which the latest polls predict), he won’t be as dependent–and will have less incentive to be moderate.” As an aside, he adds, “I hear from people inside BJP saying that Modi has to atone for 2002, but he has not said he made a mistake, he fell short of saying it.”
While an investigation by India’s Supreme Court cleared Modi of intentionally allowing the violent Muslim massacre in 2002, critics insist that’s only because credible evidence was destroyed. Modi is still reportedly haunted by one judge’s observation that “when men and children were going up in flames, Modi looked away like a modern-day Nero.” In January, Prime Minister Singh weighed in on the election, calling Modi a man who “preside(d) over the massacre of innocent citizens on the streets of Ahmedabad” who would be “disastrous for the country to have as the next prime minister.”
Yet, an exceptionally high-ranking Muslim elected official surprises me by saying, “I’m not worried about his past. I spoke to him candidly on a one-to-one basis and there are good points about him.”
For the average Indian, the question seems to be less about what Modi did or didn’t do 12 years ago, and more, as Ronald Reagan asked, whether they feel better off today after 10 years of Congress Party rule. Average Indians are so desperate to vote for change that a local teacher this week reportedly crossed crocodile-infested mangrove swamps and a stretch of open sea before hiking through a jungle in blazing midday sun–just to deliver two voting machines to a remote village. Whether Modi brings morning in New Delhi or mourning in New Delhi, one thing is certain: by this time next month, India will have a new prime minister. What happens from there is anybody’s guess.