In a few weeks, India, the world's largest democracy, will elect its 16th Lok Sabha [lower chamber of its bi-cameral Parliament]. Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of Gujarat, currently, and during the 2002 Hindu-Muslim Riots, has taken the central stage in leading the main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, in its attempt to wrest power from the current government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Congress Party. Mr. Modi's opponents point to his failure to curtail mob violence and murders during the Gujarat riots, some accusing him of tacitly encouraging violence against Muslims, while his supporters claim superior economic performance in his home state. Unsurprisingly, eminent economists of Indian origin have joined the fray, armed with models and statistics in support of or refuting the claims.
I am not a macro-economist. I distrust interpretations of metrics derived from aggregate data, and doubt their usefulness in predicting economic growth and social development. To me, economic growth is driven by innovators, entrepreneurs, and traders. Social change begins at home and in families, not commandeered from the corridors of power.
During my recent visit to India I met with several young men and women in their twenties and thirties. They are my nieces and nephews, and like me, none of them was born into wealth. All of them are well educated, competent, and accomplished in their respective profession, ranging from arts through science and technology to owning and running their start-ups. They are no less match to their cohorts in the US I know personally. The future of India is in the minds and hands of such young people, not the chest-thumping, meddling hands in the capitol of Delhi, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, or W.Bengal.
Actually, their achievements are in spite of those meddling hands, I'd say. Driving in an air-conditioned car through the heavily polluted, chaotic streets of Bangalore at dusk, I noticed hundreds of young men and women walking, , waiting at the bus-stop, riding their motorcycles, presumably to their homes after long hours of work. How do they breathe and stay healthy? How do they manage to be so productive and competitive that multinationals flock to this once garden city reduced to a hellhole by the Reverse Midas Touch of the fellows in the Karnataka Legislature?
Those young men and women I met were not only professionally accomplished, but also making little waves of social change. The couples had married across caste, ethnic and religious lines, with or without their parents' support. They had cast aside social taboos against living together, remarriage, and working in jobs forbidden for their "caste" that was certainly not expressed by any of their genes. It is in these billion points of light that I see hope for social change, not in the empty words of self-serving politicians, pretending to be miracle makers.
So, what is left of the state? To me, the state is mostly a cheerleader. Beyond that, its paramount (only, in my view) responsibility is to protect the life, liberty, and property of its citizens. We, the people, have voluntarily yielded some of our fundamental rights to the state, so it can fulfill its fiduciary duties efficiently. Whether Mr. Modi "presided" over the 2002 Gujarat Riots or not, I don't know; I cannot, in good faith, claim to have more evidence than the Supreme Court of India. There is no doubt in my mind, however, that he failed in his primary duty to protect the lives and properties of so many in his state. That certainly is not "good governance" in my books.
This essay was motivated by a thread of email exchanges between my friends, with the subject line, "India crosses the moral line of no return if Narendra Modi becomes prime minister". Really? How many times do we know that India has crossed this "moral line" in the past? Take a look at this list of massacres in India, a tiny slice of the history of the sub-continent. To look farther back into its long history of violence and mayhem, please read this "alternative history of India" by Malati Shendge, The Civilized Demons: The Harappans in Rigveda, in particular, Part III on the conflict between Asuras and Devas. The line that India may cross now seems more like a short segment of the infinite spiral of its history!
Whether Mr. Modi has learnt from his mistakes or not, and which other contender could claim to be a better cheerleader than him, is for the citizens of India to judge in the coming months. As a citizen of the United States, I have no say, and not much stake either, in this election. My only hope is that, whoever is the next Prime Minister, they don't extinguish the billion points of light that actually will paint the future of India. That will be a colossal loss to humanity.