Narendra Modi has grand ambitions for his country, and self-confidence to match. But he has yet to show how he will deliver, says Adam Roberts
May 23rd 2015 | From the print edition
YOU WOULDN’T KNOW by looking at scruffy Vadnagar that it has a famous son. Tourists occasionally visit the walled part of the Gujarati town for its ornate wooden doors and balconies. A pair of stone gateways hints at a history stretching over two millennia. The town claims a mention in the Mahabharata, a saga of ancient India.
The railway station is single-track. Next to it, where the celebrity’s father once ran a tea stall, is a motorbike-repair shop. Over the road is his modest, whitewashed former school. Only in a street nearby, beyond a Sufi shrine, do you find hints of the great man. Neighbours all introduce themselves with the same surname: Modi, Modi, Modi.
Most of them recall something of the childhood of Narendra Modi, such as when he brought home a baby crocodile from a lake. They speak with respect more than fondness. He rarely helped his father with the tea stall. Friends from the school recall that he liked theatre and insisted on taking the part of a king. From childhood his passion was politics, and he soon joined the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) movement. A fellow RSS member recounts a playground scrap with Muslim rivals. A neighbour attended his teenage wedding. An unwilling groom, he soon fled town, leaving his wife behind. He rarely goes back.
This report is about the country of which Mr Modi became prime minister a year ago, and its nearly 1.3 billion people. Vadnagar is a useful starting point for understanding India today and making sense of his plans for the next 10-15 years. Even that time scale implies ambition. Elected politicians usually look no more than five years ahead. But this 64-year-old has never lost an election, and after the landslide victory in May 2014 that propelled him into the top job he made a triumphal speech insisting that “ten years is all that is needed” to modernise India. By 2022, the 75th anniversary of India’s independence, it will be clear that this is “India’s century”, he says. Sit with him and you come away impressed by an intensely driven outsider determined to leave his mark on national affairs. He can sound arrogant, vainglorious or hubristic. More than any Indian prime minister since Indira Gandhi, he personally embodies power. Last year’s parliamentary election pitted his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) against the incumbent Congress Party, plus regional parties, in 543 constituencies. It became a presidential contest in which Mr Modi, an energetic campaigner and charismatic speaker, steamrollered rivals. Congress, weakened by years of corruption scandals, poor leadership and slowing economic growth, failed to put up much of a fight. The media mostly fawned.
A Modi election delivered a Modi government. He appointed nonentities to many ministerial posts and is keeping the more impressive ones on a tight leash. It was Mr Modi, rather than Arun Jaitley, the finance minister, who crafted many details of the budget delivered in February.
During 70-odd interviews conducted for this report, including many with enthusiastic supporters, it was notable how often (and unbidden) words like “megalomaniac” and “authoritarian” were used to describe him. But Mr Modi’s ego seems easily big enough to leave him untroubled by such views. For a visit in January by America’s president, Barack Obama, he wore an expensive-looking navy blue suit with pinstripes made up of his name, repeated hundreds of times, stitched in gold thread.
One of the ways he has made his presence felt is by cutting bureaucrats down to size. He sacked the heads of the finance, home and foreign ministries soon after coming to office. That may have been necessary, since many civil servants have resisted reforms, but his style has spread dismay. He dominates his government but has struggled to silence members of the RSS as well as Hindu-nationalist-inclined members of his own administration who try to spread religious discord.
This report will explain how he uses the power he has accumulated, and how India is changing on his watch. It should be noted, however, that the country was already in the throes of considerable structural upheaval before he took over, including broad demographic change. Southern Indians are relatively old, urban, educated and middle-class and have ever fewer children. Similarly, Indians living on the west coast are becoming more like people in South-East Asia, both socially and economically. Largely because of those changes in the south and the west, India’s total population should reach replacement levels of fertility (an average of 2.1 children per couple) before 2020. That will be a historic turning-point, though there is so much momentum elsewhere that the population will keep on growing for quite a while, peaking at about 1.64 billion in 2065.
Much of that growth will be in the north. In landlocked states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (which between them have over 300m people, almost as many as America) people remain mostly poor, rural and ill-educated, and have larger families. Their problems are similar to Africa’s. Public hygiene is poor and many treatable diseases linger. The economy relies heavily on rain-fed farming, and electricity is in short supply. Women, girls and female fetuses are discriminated against. Add religious clashes and the menace of Maoist revolutionaries in rural pockets, and it is no wonder that southerners can sound exasperated by their northern kin.
But there are common trends too, most of them uplifting. One is a steady stream of people moving off the fields. Over the next 40 years about 11m extra people a year are expected to push into Indian towns and cities. As a consequence, demand for non-agricultural work is growing. By one estimate, India needs to create 10m additional jobs a year to employ a youthful and increasingly literate population.
The virtues of impatience
Indians everywhere are becoming more demanding. Consumers expect better phones and internet connections, a chance to own a scooter or take a holiday. They want education, hospitals and reliable power. A vocal minority worries about a toxic environment, complaining of rivers like sewers and urban air thick with deadly particles from bad fuel.
Voters are now holding politicians responsible for things they can control, such as corruption or economic prospects, and even those they can’t, such as rainfall that damages crops and puts up the price of onions. Voting by religion or caste has not yet disappeared. But the young, urban and educated treat their politicians as they might a phone supplier: if the service is disappointing, they switch.
That impatience is a wonderful thing. Politicians are now pressed to deliver or get ejected, even sent to jail if found to be corrupt. Voters increasingly expect them not just to dole out a few freebies but to create conditions for their lives to become materially richer. They can see that many other countries are better off than theirs. Talk of a $2 trillion economy sounds good, but income per person in 2014 was still only $1,627, according to the IMF. (National statistics, shown on our map, use a different basis and put it at $1,364.) And inequality is rising. Credit Suisse last year counted 182,000 dollar millionaires in India. A far wider circle than that needs to prosper.