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India's Election: The Next Prime Minister Is A Dangerous Man


The results of India's election, which are rapidly appearing today, seem to show a huge win for the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). A victory had been expected, but this looks like a massive landslide. The next prime minister is almost certain to be Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, a state in western India. He is known for his economic agenda, which is seen to be relatively business-friendly (expect stocks to react very positively to the news), and his controversial brand of Hinduism. Modi's ideology is certainly going to be important over the next several years, but his worrying personality might end up mattering more. It may be time to bring back an old slogan: over the next five years in India, the personal will be political, and probably not in a good way.

It's easy to describe Modi to people who have never heard him speak, or read about his past. He is a depressingly familiar type. He is secretive; he is vindictive; he has creepily authoritarian tendencies (a woman in Gujarat was placed under surveillance by Modi for months in a controversy that somehow didn't seem to register with voters); he ricochets between aggression and self-pity in a manner familiar to anyone who has heard nationalists of any stripe; and he is simply incapable of sounding broad-minded. During the 2002 Gujarat riots, hundreds of people (mostly Muslims) were killed in communal violence on Modi's watch. (This is why he has been denied a United States visa for many years.) The extent of Modi's role in spurring on the horrors has been extensively debated; suffice it to say that he once said his only regret about the mass murders was that he didn't handle the media well enough. 

Modi is also known for his close ties to unsavory, right-wing Hindu fanatics, notably in the Rashtriya Swamyamsevak Sangh (RSS), which he joined when he was very young. Arguably Modi's closest confidante is Amit Shah, who has been accused of numerous crimes, including murder, and whose attitude to Muslims might be euphemistically described as unwelcoming. (He likes to talk about "appeasement" of Muslims and said this election was about "taking revenge" on them.)

For more on Modi's personality, I encourage everyone to read Vinod Jose's brilliant profile of him from 2010, which gets at the way he deals with dissent, and takes a disturbing trip through Modi's psyche. (The dizzying summary: this is how a fascist person thinks.) The biggest question thus may be the degree to which India's institutions and democratic checks and balances can contain Modi's worst tendencies. It's possible that Modi himself will moderate in office, but moderation usually refers to ideology; Modi may simply be incapable of keeping his worst instincts under control. Indian society has shown a disturbing willingness to disregard freedoms of speech and expression, and the country's institutions are often weak in defending these encroachments. (See here for a good example.) Modi has never shown any interest in civil liberties; nor has he made the slightest positive noises about the communal violence that still frequently afflicts the country. 

On a policy level, Modi's has presided over strong economic growth in Gujarat, although his state has not done as well on various social development indicators. Still, the combination of corruption and inefficiency in the national government and within the Congress Party seems to have led many Indian voters to embrace the so-called "Gujarat Model." (Texas, with its economic growth and lagging welfare indicators, is a very rough but not entirely inapt comparison.) 

The election results also display the depths to which the ruling Congress Party has fallen after being led for over a decade by a weak prime minister, Manmohan Singh. The central campaigning role of Rahul Gandhi, the heir to the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty (whose mother still controls the Party, and limited Singh's maneuverabilty), didn't do much good either; Congress was soundly defeated and Rahul appears to many observers (and voters) as someone who combines inanition and intellectual lightness. If dynastic politics takes any sort of blow, the election will at least have accomplished something positive.