What to think about Modi these days

Ian Bremmer offers one account of all the wrongdoing, which I will not summarize here.  In any case, many of you have asked me what I think of these recent events.

I do not at all favor replacing India’s secular democracy with “Hindu nation” as a ruling principle.  For one thing, I believe in strong libertarian protections for minority rights against state power, including for Muslims.  I also believe these moves will be bad for India’s economy.  Nonetheless I find most of the extant commentary on Modi fairly misleading and/or naive.

As this outsider sees it, India’s secular democracy was never liberal.  It had certain de facto liberal elements, but largely out of low levels of state capacity, necessitating a kind of tolerance but of course also leading to a very sub-par infrastructure.  Furthermore, it has been commonly described by political scientists as a “democracy without accountability.”  National voting has so much to do with religion, caste, and other particularistic principles that Indian democracy never enforced superior practical performance as it should have.

Then enter several forces at more or less the same time, including Modi, ongoing Indian economic growth, higher expectations and thus greater demands for state capacity, a rise in what is called “populism,” and also an increase in the focality of Islam and also terrorism around the world.

In essence that state capacity starts to be built and part of it is turned to wrong ends, in an attempt to appeal to the roughly 80 percent Hindu majority.  Here is the NYT:

The Modi administration has also done a better job than previous governments in pushing big anti-poverty initiatives, such as building 100 million toilets to help stop open defecation and the spread of deadly disease.

In other words, the positive and negative sides of the story here may be more closely related than is comfortable to contemplate.  The picture reminds me a bit of how parts of Renaissance Europe were often more anti-Semitic or racist than medieval Europe, in part because persecuting states had more resources and it was easier to mobilize intolerant sentiment, partly due to the printing press.  I don’t however idolize medieval times as being so libertarian, rather the earlier ideology contained the seeds of the Renaissance oppressions, which in time turned into foreign imperialism as well.

Similarly, oppression and religious conflict is hardly news in India, for instance you may recall the Partition which in the 1940s killed at least one million people and displaced at least 10 million more.

None of this is to excuse any of these oppressions, whether in India or elsewhere.  The libertarian rights still ought to apply, and should be written into the Indian constitution and laws more firmly.

(It is an interesting and much under-discussed result that the greatest violations of libertarian rights tend to come in periods of high delta in state capacity, not high absolute levels of state capacity per se.  The Nazi government was not that large as a percentage of gdp, but it was growing rapidly in terms of its efficacy along certain dimensions.)

The moral and resonant message here is “libertarian rights for minorities truly are important and beware state power!”  And somehow we need to think strategically, at a deep level, how that message can be combined with the inevitable and indeed desirable growth in Indian state capacity.  The libertarians only make this their issue by eliding the need for growth in state capacity.  So they moralize correctly about the situation, but they don’t see the underlying dilemma so clearly either.

Consider this NYT passage:

“Modi is not a normal politician who measures his success only by votes,” said Kanchan Chandra, a political scientist at New York University. “He sees himself as the architect of a new India, built on a foundation of technological, cultural, economic and military prowess, and backed by an ideology of Hindu nationalism.”

The real question here is — still mostly unanswered — “what else is the new ideology of state capacity supposed to be?”  I am happy to put in my vote for Anglo-American liberalism, but still I recognize that probably will not command either a majority or even a plurality.

Here is one proffered alternative to Modi:

“Rahul Gandhi felt people would support the Congress on issues of farmers, youth, employment, inflation. But, the core issues were left behind and surgical strikes and nationalism were highlighted. The Congress was dubbed a Muslim party. Aren’t we nationalists?” Gehlot asked.

I am not so impressed.  Or try this discussion “What is alternative to ‘Modi cult'”.  Again, on the ideas front underwhelming, at least for this classical liberal.  Maybe something good can come out of the current protest movement (NYT).

All the more, the “establishment media” just isn’t interested in framing the story in terms of individual rights and constraints on democracy.  That narrative is too…well…libertarian and also anti-statist.

For one example, blame either Nilinjana Roy or the person who titled her FT column “Democracy in India is on the brink.”  Last I checked, Modi was elected, then re-elected, and his party and its allies control almost 2/3 of the lower house.  That is truly an Orwellian column title.  It should not be so hard to write “The problem with Modi is the statism, and lack of respect for minority rights, sadly this is democratically certified and thus democracy requires real constitutional constraint of the powers of the government.”  But so many people today are mentally and emotionally incapable of thinking and writing such thoughts, having spent so much time in their mood affiliation glorifying “democracy” (or what they take to be democracy) above all other values.

So we should be spending our time developing and publicizing a new (non-Modi) ideology for greater state capacity in India, combined of course with greater liberty.

And yes, please do restore, redefine, re-enforce or in some cases discover all of the required minority libertarian rights.  Hundreds of millions of Indians and others are counting on it.


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