As Western media focus on China’s rise, India remains a geopolitical enigma. While America’s trade wars with Beijing dominate headlines, news outlets relegate India to buried stories of intrigue—a destructive monsoon, a derailed train, a guru in saffron robes with sacred cows.
Why the difference in treatment? Fault may lie with the Jesuits who, beginning in the seventeenth century, evangelized the Chinese instead of the polytheistic Hindus. Modern China also figures prominently in our daily lives. Look at your shoes or your telephone—they probably come from China, not India. India’s economy focuses on its internal market and on exports to poor countries, rather than on trade with the West. Yet India’s population now equals China’s, with its rate of growth projected to surpass the Communist country. And the Indian middle class, with a standard of living comparable with its counterparts in Europe and America, hovers around 200 million people—equivalent in size to the Chinese middle class. India, nonetheless, remains poorer than China, in part because it was late to reform its economy.
In 1979, Chairman Deng Xiaoping renounced collectivism and opened his nation’s economy to market reforms, permitting the Chinese to accumulate personal wealth. It wasn’t until 2004 that India embraced the free market, with former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh renouncing the state socialism that dated to the country’s independence in 1949. Under the long reign of India’s Congress Party, which claimed the mantle of Mahatma Gandhi, the country’s economy grew 1 percent annually. Without irony, economists, called this the “Indian rate,” as if it were a cultural sentence.
This anemic growth persisted until 2014, when Indians voted out the Congress Party, resulting in the victory of Narendra Modi, who won a second landslide as Prime Minister last week. Both elections signified India’s distinction from China—it is a democracy, however imperfect, where people vote freely and enjoy freedom of speech and the press. In India, notes sociologist Ashis Nancy, “the cost of dissidence is zero”; in China, the cost is prison. China went from collectivism to personal enterprise only with the approval of the Communist Party, suggesting that the country could always revert to its past. In India, a free-market, open-borders economy resulted from debates in the public sphere, from media and universities to the political arena. By keeping Modi and his BJP party in power, Indians are declaring that a free economy is good for them, particularly for the poor. This is not an expression of ideology, but experience: Indians favor the BJP, defender of the small entrepreneur, over the Congress Party, which supports redistributive socialism.
Modi’s party remains conservative, anchored by Hindutva, or “Hinduness,” and is sometimes hostile to Muslims. Consequently, Western media present the BJP as religiously zealous and nationalistic to the point of fascism. The Congress Party, meantime, is lauded as progressive and respectful of India’s diversity. But the media seldom describe the Congress Party as the Gandhi family dynasty. They avoid mentioning that the party notoriously buys the votes of lower castes, and that it is widely identified as a regime of corrupt bureaucrats offering zero-growth strategies.
Modi, for his part, is a pious man, but also—like his predecessors in Indian national life, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlar Nehru—a savvy politician. As prime minister, he has fought corruption while presiding over the country’s growth. During his five-year term, Modi built 100 million public toilets, keeping an electoral promise essential to Indians. His equitable reforms show that he is no despot; in India, civil society is readily mobilized for all causes, making despotism inconceivable. And it should be remembered that, under the guidance of the Congress Party, India engaged in military action against Pakistan. Under Modi, whom the Western press finds bellicose, India hasn’t gone to war once.
If Rahul Gandhi and the Congress Party had won the recent election, Western elites would have undoubtedly celebrated. Modi and the BJP are too right-wing, too Indian, and too religious for their tastes. Those willing to remove these blinders should rejoice, as I do, in an election that is good for India and indicative of its progress as a free, democratic society.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo by Atul Loke/Getty Images)