Mr. Modi

It was the late Richard Holbrooke who said: “Suppose elections are free and fair and those elected are racists, fascists, separatists — that is the dilemma.”

That, indeed, is a dilemma. For the Americans, even the election of a remotely anti-American government was a dilemma and they spared little effort in overturning the verdict of electorates whenever such an ugly possibility reared its fearful head.

So, it could have been an occasion of smug satisfaction for the rest when the American electorate voted in Bush except that he inflicted incalculable harm on the world while driving the US deep into the hole.

That highlights the other dilemma – whether those freely and fairly elected are racists, fascists, separatists, or just megalomaniacal fools and simpletons, the damage they end up doing to themselves and others is serious business.

Enter Mr. Modi.

Mr. Modi has not been elected yet but it seems almost all opinion-makers have conceded that he will. If he is, it would force us to come to terms with Richard Holbrooke’s painful dilemma.

No matter what you say about him, Mr. Modi is not a nice man. Indeed, that is part of his attraction. If one is to believe what one is being told, the Indian electorate is tired of nice men and women. It craves the savior who gets things done, no matter what it takes. It wants the train to run on time and if it has to mow down some obstacles in the way, so be it.

Development at any cost is what the electorate wants, a desire that brings together the poor despairing of the promise of democracy, the rich impatient with its constraints, and the young unburdened with a sense of history. Let us use the opportunity provided by democracy to vote in the authoritarianism that would deliver development. Quite akin to the thinking of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, it would seem.

Governance in India has been so abysmal that one can sympathize with the desire for quick development. Except for the fact that almost all serious analyses of the experience of Gujarat call into question the fact of development under Modi and almost none question the lagging indicators of human well-being. (As examples, see the following: and this old post on this blog.) And yet, just repeating the myth often enough has turned into reality for the voters something that has little basis in fact. Yes, Iraq does have weapons of mass destruction because Mr. Bush said so.

The more astounding aspect is that it is not just poorly educated voters who have had the wool pulled over their eyes. Here are two former directors of the World Bank pinning their hopes on Mr. Modi’s “solid record in Gujarat.” For them, even secularism is to be demonstrated via development: “Indeed, the best way to neutralise his critics would be for Mr. Modi to show that secularism thrives, not through public arguments and abuse, but through development. As he has demonstrated in Gujarat, he is serious about making a difference by delivering results, and does not get distracted by playing the blame game.”

Thinking how a myth like this can assume such proportions that it can take in the entire spectrum of voters from the very poor to the very influential brings us face to face with yet another dilemma of modern democracies – campaign finance. We know the Supreme Court in the US has ruled (in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission) that corporations cannot be restricted from contributing to electoral campaigns. In India, the failure to limit what parties can spend on general propaganda, as opposed to on individual candidates, essentially means big money can pretty much drive the narrative it wishes to promote.

And that is what it seems to be doing. “One estimate pegs the BJP’s advertising spend across all media including hoardings at a staggering Rs 5,000 crore. That’s just a bit less than the Rs 6,000 crore — roughly $1 billion the Obama campaign spent under all heads in the 2012 US presidential election! Once other expenses are added, the overall BJP budget will exceed that.” (

Where is all that money coming from and why? What will it ask for in return? Development, of course – but for whom, and at whose cost?

There will be time enough to answer these questions if the electorate does indeed vote in Mr. Modi. Ironically, democracy in India has survived thus far because of its incredibly fractured polity and a continuation of that pattern might help keep Mr. Modi under check. It would indeed open up a new and unprecedented chapter if the voters overcome those fractures and are swept up behind the myth of Mr. Modi.

That would really bring us face to face with the dilemma of democracy. And it would be left to Indians to work through its consequences given that India is much too big for America to undo the verdict of its voters. Indeed, the Welcome to the US mat is out, dusted, and ready for Mr. Modi.

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