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Did India Just Elect Its Ronald Reagan?

Rohan Kalyan (rohan.kalyan@gmail.com) teaches at Virginia Tech University, United States. 

Narendra Modi’s decisive victory at the hustings and his pro-market stance has given rise to a spate of comparisons between him and other right-wing historical and contemporary world leaders. The article draws some striking parallels between Modi's recent win in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and the conservative icon Ronald Reagan's 1980 electoral triumph in the United States.

Comparisons are not always helpful, particularly when they are between countries as different from one another as India and the United States.  But as someone who grew up in both places, and as a scholar of politics in both countries, the following question has been buzzing around in my head these past few days: “Did India just elect its Ronald Reagan?”

While it is far too early to come to any definitive answer, there are some striking parallels between Narendra Modi's recent win in the 2014 Indian elections and Ronald Reagan's 1980 triumph in the United States (US).  Both rode a wave of anti-incumbency and popular dissatisfaction to sweeping political victories. Reagan benefited from the economic stagnation and foreign policy blunders associated with Jimmy Carter and the Democrats in the late1970s. Modi’s Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) profited from widespread resentment towards the beleaguered Congress Party. Riding the wave of anti-incumbency, conservative leaders emerged victorious in both India and the US.

Tapping the Conservative Voter Base

But more important than the popular backlash that catapulted both to office, were the cunning electoral strategies used by Reagan’s Republican Party and Modi’s BJP to win at the polls. In the end, both managed to re-map the political landscapes of their respective countries.

Before Reagan, the electoral map in  the US looked remarkably different than what it is today. In 1980, the Republican brain trust courted a growing Christian conservative movement in the south in order to assemble a powerful coalition, uniting fiscal and religious conservatives and constituting a "moral majority, that not only re-elected Reagan handily in 1984, but would continue to influence US politics thereafter.  This coalition decisively shifted the political centre of gravity to the right, polarising politics along a set of intractable “cultural” issues that could readily mobilise the Christian base.

Modi has potentially done the same thing under very different circumstances.  By capitalising on "post-ideological" urban middle class voters, particularly youth voting for the first time (65% of India's population is under the age of 35), Modi has potentially conjured a powerful coalition, adding to the BJP’s existing base of conservative Hindus and business elites. This new voter base was sold on the image of Modi as a change-maker, a man of humble origins with a proven track record of delivering economic growth in his home state of Gujarat, where he ruled as chief minister for more than a decade. Meanwhile, the urban middle class had increasingly come to see the ruling Congress Party at the centre as brazenly corrupt and inept at instituting long-term economic reforms.  Their growing frustration with the Congress was vividly demonstrated over the past two years in the swift rise of the Aam Aadmi Party (common man party), which brought the issue of government corruption to the forefront, energising an urban electorate that was eager for change. But ultimately it was the BJP, under Modi, that was able to capitalise on this anti-corruption sentiment and use it to unseat the Congress.

Neoliberal Economic Reform Agenda

In hindsight, Reagan has emerged as an almost saintly figure in US politics, placed upon a pedestal by Republicans and many Democrats alike.  But Reagan is also the president who pushed the US decisively towards neoliberal economic reform. Under Reagan, income and corporate taxes were dramatically reduced, labour unions were crushed, the financial industry was de-regulated and winner-takes-all capitalism took hold, with dire effects on income inequality.  Moreover, under Reaganomics and the "war on drugs", masses of under-employed urban populations were locked up.  As funding for schools, healthcare and other social services in impoverished areas decreased,  prison numbers swelled in the US into what is currently the largest incarcerated population in the world, comprised largely of ethnic minorities.

In India too, minorities may bear the brunt of the Modi revolution. As has been widely reported around the world, Modi is linked to one of the worst cases of ethnic violence against India’s Muslim minority in its post-independence history. Modi’s economic record in Gujarat may be one of relative success, but it is also tainted by his treatment of Muslims as second-class citizens in their own country.  Robust economic growth and industrial development has meant remarkably little to them as well as for much of Gujarat’s poor, Hindus and Muslims alike. 

Cultural Warfare

In the United States, Reagan’s conservative revolution consolidated a national coalition that promoted “Christian” values alongside elitist economic policies. Where a large part of this  electorate was once concerned with economic equality and social justice, they were now increasingly drawn to hot-button “cultural” issues like anti-abortion, anti-gay rights, religion in school and “family values”. This subterfuge made it easier for Reagan and Republicans to further dismantle the welfare state and allow “free-market” outcomes to reign supreme, creating the powerful one percent that dominates the US political economy today.

Many in India are fearful that Modi too will turn to “cultural warfare” in order to shore up electoral support for an economic reform agenda that is unabashedly pro-business. What will happen when these policies inevitably wreak havoc on the economically weaker sections of society?  What will such a culture war look like in a multi-religious, pluralistic, yet deeply stratified country like India? Will it come in the form of ethnic cleansing, as happened in February 2002 in Gujarat? Later that year Modi used vehemently anti-Muslim rhetoric to secure re-election as chief minister. He could certainly turn to such divisive tactics again, mobilising the Hindu vote on a national stage. Will it come in the form of war mongering with neighboring Pakistan, a nuclear-armed country that is always easy to blame for domestic (in)security issues? Will it come in the form of the repression of dissenting voices and civil liberties?  None of these can be easily dismissed.

One day after Modi’s election, newspapers reported that India’s richest billionaire, Mukesh Ambani, made another billion as stock prices rose in anticipation of Modi’s business-friendly agenda. Should we celebrate such “wealth creation” or mourn the fact that in a post-Reaganomics world, this passes for good news?

Every comparison reveals as much as it hides. But the consequences of a popular conservative coalition in India, combining religious majoritarianism with an elitist economic agenda, are indeed troubling for a country as historically divided and poor as India. It is now up to India’s forever restive political society to do what the US has yet to accomplish: mobilise its counter-Modi revolution. 

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