India right now is in the middle of the most critical elections in its 67-year-old post-Independence history. That’s because the frontrunner, Narendra Modi, is directly challenging the development paradigm that was bestowed on the country by its founder, Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru was a Fabian Socialist who offered India democratic political rights — while sharply curtailing its economic freedoms.

Modi, a Hindu nationalist with a severe case of authoritarianism, has taken a hefty lead by effectively reversing this formula and vowing not to let India's messy democracy stand in the way of economic liberalization to generate growth and jobs, I note in Foreign Policy today.

Modi is a sham free marketer who has offered no clear policy agenda for economic reforms. But he has still earned a cult following by forging a rhetoric that gives voice to the soaring economic aspirations of IndiansNarendra ModiIndia Today. As I point out:

This is in stark contrast to the ruling Congress Party, which has been controlled by the Nehru dynasty since its inception.

It has taken inspiration from the National Advisory Council that Sonia Gandhi, the Congress Party head and the Italian widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, has stacked with like-minded NGO activists (essentially community organizers) and leftist intellectuals. Most of them oppose India's turn to "neoliberalism" and privatization and believe that the old recipe of "social spending" and industry mandates is the answer to poverty. Congress has followed this advice with a vengeance for the last 10 years, granting massive new entitlements for subsidized grains in the name of "food security" to 67 percent of the population, and guaranteeing a minimum income to all rural families. It also implemented the Right to Education Act that requires private schools to set aside 25 percent of their seats for the poor and lower castes.

Rahul Gandhi, Sonia's blunderbuss son who is Congress's undeclared candidate for prime minister, has made such "rights," rather than reform, the cornerstone of his campaign. In the past, this would have generated a voting bonanza. Not this time. A recent Pew Research poll found that 70 percent Indians are dissatisfied with the direction of the country. And with good reason. Such schemes won't even offset the double-digit inflation that has been playing havoc with household budgets. More importantly, they betray a complete tin ear, offering a mere subsistence existence when, thanks to the brief experience of real growth, people want something approaching dignified living…

That Indians seem ready to risk political repression for vague promises of an economic transformation shows just how desperate they are to improve their living standards. This suggests that Nobel laureate Milton Friedman was right that political freedom requires a foundation of wealth that only economic freedom can generate. (The Heritage Foundation ranks India 120th among 165 countries in its economic freedom index, putting it in the group of "mostly unfree" countries.) Political liberties are a luxury that people care about more when they have fuller bellies. Richer people also have more means of resistance and become costlier to oppress.

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