Historical Ascension to India’s Lotus Chair: Can PM Narendra Modi’s Initiatives Blossom?

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Written by Chris C. Rondem, Guest Contributor

Growth, either in a garden or an economy, is a welcome sign of health. And since the world economy is ruled by the principles of capitalism, such growth must be sustainable. In the global West, gardens typically take two distinct patterns: English or French. The latter is neatly manicured, almost homogeneous in nature, but exquisite in detail and precision. The former, however, is a melee of variety, creating a diverse scene in which no one species is dominant. Will the newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi simultaneously transform India’s English-garden-society and socialist leaning economy into the structured French-garden-society, coupled with a neoliberal penchant without uprooting civil society?

Like English gardens—callously ironic, perhaps—heterogeneity rules in India. The subcontinent has a storied history of invasion. PM Modi, coupled with his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has a unique, subversive undertone of Hindu nationalism: Hindutva, which contradicts the reality of India’s historically variegated society. The BJP’s economic manifesto also rewards the interests of a select few, effectively disrupting any attempt at social or economic equity, and potentially disenfranchising millions of his supporters through austere policies. What is the social cost of economic efficiency in the world’s second most populous nation? Moreover, in the garden of the world economy, can Modi and the BJP prune nationalistic sentiments in order to sustain economic growth in the short and medium run?

These two sentiments hardly seem to correspond. In fact, heterogeneity and nationalism offer a potential catalyst for substantial economic disruption in the subcontinent if the ideology of Hindutva grows weight-bearing roots. The rise of BJP and Modi are significant for the Hindu national movement. Nationalism is not immanently evil like fascism, but the border that separates the two is easily crossed and can allow for incidents like the Gujarat riots in 2002 to be neatly trimmed from history’s branches. Modi’s mandate, the sweeping nationalistic pride, and the dangers that attach themselves to such a movement are fertilizing a different spring in the subcontinent.

If the nationalistic sentiments are allowed to bloom in India, then how will the roaring tiger from the north react? Nationalism is tricky business for economics. On one hand, a rally behind a common economic goal that sustains growth could happen; while on the other hand, there is economic condemnation, usually coupled with sanctions. Both options depend on the economic gravity in each country. China currently holds the economic and foreign policy weight, and will continue to do so in the foreseeable future. The numbers of the Indian economy grow year to year, largely due to the decrease in poverty seen during Mr. Singh’s tenure—although most attribute poverty initiatives to Sonia Gandhi. The poverty levels are still high, ensuring future growth in the subcontinent, but only if the poorest are given the light to grow. In this manner, nationalism, in conjunction with neoliberalism, are annuals in the economic garden, where perennials are needed within the capitalist model.

Herein lies China’s internal predicament: if China invests in India, they are cleaning the path for sustained economic growth in India and prudently fertilizing a trade partner closer to home; but, if China denies any substantial foreign investment to India, growth across all sectors becomes unlikely during Modi’s reign, making for a weaker and potentially more desperate neighbor to the south. China’s investment could indirectly substantiate the nationalistic wave in India by giving Modi regional credence. The northern neighbor’s decision to invest can solidify Modi’s persona and provide an undesirable platform to the Hindutva movement.

Only if China and India allow the entire garden to grow, and not just one section, will they both sustain economic growth in the long run. China’s authoritarian regime is able to redirect sunlight to the sections that don’t receive enough; whereas India’s newly minted neoliberal economy is hoping one section will fertilize the rest, never mind the sunlight. Upon this assessment, medium-run growth looks shaky at best for India, while long-run growth is wilting.

Furthermore, if Hindu nationalism does take root in India, their economy will be competing with the sentiments of the country for the sparse sunlight coming through the canopy. India does not have the economic gravity to ensure sustained growth when policies are combined with Hindutva, directly or not. Foreign companies will surely redirect their investment to other periphery of the global economy, somewhere less tumultuous. Employment for non-Hindus will become less certain, potentially creating yet another diaspora in the subcontinent.

The transformation of India’s heterogeneous garden cannot be done with mere trims and snips; everything will need to be uprooted for Modi’s economic and social initiatives to grow unimpeded. India’s desired economic transformation is commendable, but Modi must chose between economic interests and promoting a non-secular state, for both will not grow together.

This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier’s November/December 2014 print edition.