When Narendra Modi has made mistakes, this column never hesitated to point them out. There have been big mistakes in the past five years. In my short list, I would put demonetisation at the top. His next big mistake was to remain silent when rabid gangs of cow vigilantes attacked and killed Muslims and Dalits. At number three in my list comes his change of economic direction, because he was taunted by Rahul Gandhi with running a government for the suited and booted. This veering off course and returning to the ‘socialist’ path set by our Imperial Dynasty was probably his biggest mistake. Private investment dried up, as did jobs, and this may have been the objective of the taunt in the first place.
But under Modi, many things have also changed for the better. At the top of this list is Swachh Bharat. It is a formidable achievement that in five years, sanitation in rural India has gone from less than 40 per cent to more than 90 per cent. In this period, he has also dragged India into the digital age. Forcing nearly every Indian to open a bank account is another huge achievement. It is because of this that rural corruption has come down since beneficiaries of government welfare schemes now get money transferred directly into their bank accounts.
There has also been a political upheaval. That tiny group of entitled heirs who once controlled all the levers of power from Lutyens Delhi are now threatened by people who are more representative of the real India. Of course, there is much, much more to be done. But it is important to remember that Modi inherited a country that was in such bad shape that most of India continues to resemble a vast, hideous slum. He should have done more to introduce planned urbanisation, and more to bring sanitary living conditions to our squalid urban settlements. But he cannot be denied credit for drawing attention to these unsightly flaws. If India’s impatient, aspirational voters feel that he has not been a good enough prime minister, then he will be voted out in two weeks.
This will happen without The Economist’s advice to Indians to throw him out because he is ‘despicable’ and ‘dangerous’. This British newspaper endorsed the Congress party in 2014 as well. But what really annoyed me about the leader it published last week was that the writer seemed ignorant of events that happened in India before Modi. If this were not true, he would never have dared suggest that the Congress party deserved India’s votes as it did not ‘set Indians at each other’s throats’. You do not need to delve deep into history books to discover just how many times the Congress party did this. Google will do the job.
The other astonishingly ignorant bit of analysis was of Modi’s Kashmir policy. The Valley has been in turmoil for more than three years now. But, it was not because of Modi that the movement for ‘azaadi’ changed into a movement for the creation of an Islamic state. It was the killing of Burhan Wani that began the turmoil. And Wani had made it clear in all his videotaped messages that his struggle would end only when Islamic law was imposed in the Valley. The Economist may believe this to be a worthy cause, but most Indians do not.
One of the reasons for the ugly, belligerent Hindutva we see today in too many parts of India is because of the ugly, warped secularism that parties like the Congress have preached and practised for too long. When an Indian prime minister says that Muslims have the first right to India’s resources, it is not just sick but provocative. When a senior Congress leader tries to blame 26/11 on the RSS, it is truly wicked.
As someone who worked for many years for a British newspaper, I need to add that this experience taught me that most foreign correspondents see India through the lens of a Delhi drawing room. It also taught me that foreign correspondents are more comfortable when the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty rules because they can at least talk to them in English. And, also because they are westernised enough for westerners to not think of them as natives.
Modi has brought with him some very nasty Hindutva leaders, and if he wins again, he should get rid of them. But, he has also given a voice to Indians who do not speak a word of English and who have never put a foot in those rarefied spaces where India’s levers of political power exist. This is a very good thing for India because it deepens the roots of democracy and weakens the roots of dynastic succession. It may not be a good thing for The Economist. The new genre of Indian politicians has probably never heard of this magazine.
This article first appeared in the May 5, 2019 print edition under the title ‘Advice from the Raj’.