Narendra Modi

India's Prime Minister Should Go Home and Get to Work

Prime Minister Narendra Modi's tasteless New York rally was embarrassing and demonstrated his warped priorities.


Narendra Modi

It's odd for a political leader to take a victory lap in a foreign country. But that's exactly what Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist who was elected in a landslide four months ago, is doing while visiting the U.S. He kicked things off with a big rally on Sunday with 20,000 Indian Americans feting him at Madison Square Garden while thousands more (who couldn't get tickets for the sold-out event) watching on giant screens in Times Square. The event featured Bollywood-style song and dance and an artist drawing a larger-than-life portrait of him as he speechified for an hour (all of which and more John Oliver hilariously lampooned).

Modi is officially here for the U.N. General Assembly meeting. But that's not what this is all about. The main purpose of his American extravaganza is surely to thumb his nose at the U.S. political establishment that placed a travel ban on him in 2005, after he presided over a pogrom of Muslims in the state of Gujarat when he was the chief minister. The Obama administration has been working to normalize relations with Modi—as it must and should—now that he is the duly elected leader of the world's most populous democracy. As such, the White House singled him out for a dinner with the president (although Modi declared that he won't eat anything because he's observing a nine-day religious fast, a flamboyant display of his fabled austerity).

But such quiet gestures were not enough for Modi who has the autocrat's instinct to be the star attraction. His gaudy displays—literally unprecedented for visiting leaders—are not merely unbecoming. They are also deeply disturbing, because they highlight Modi's need for self-aggrandizement. That does not bode well for the massive economic decentralization—the hands-off approach—that he himself touted as essential for offering a decent standard of living to all Indians.

Maybe he'll learn to keep a lid on this tendency as he grows in office. Right now, however, it seems to pervade his economic decisions, making even many of his cheerleaders nervous about his ability to lead India's socialist, centrally planned economy to a free market one. He has pushed piddly half measures—such as scrapping the 64-year-old Planning Commission, offering grades, headmaster-like, to the council of ministers, ordering government staff to maintain full hours, and asking cola makers to add five percent fruit juice to their drinks to help farmers — but ducked anything resembling transformative reforms.

Indeed, there are plenty of areas where sound policy seems to have taken a backseat to Modi's need for control and ego-inflating. Here are four.

1. Trade. For a leader who came to office with a mandate to focus on domestic issues, Modi has spent an inordinate amount of time tending to foreign affairs. Besides America, he has already traveled to neighboring Nepal and Bhutan, led a delegation of handpicked Indian business tycoons to Japan, and hosted the Chinese President Xi Jenping. Modi insists this is necessary commercial diplomacy to open India to investment and trade.

Those are laudable goals. But they'd be far better served if he hadn't scuttled a major trade agreement with the World Trade Organization. The deal required all member nations to simultaneously harmonize their tariff structures and other trade barriers so that no country's food imports would face a competitive disadvantage in another's market.

But Modi refused to go along. Why? Because it would have required him to suspend India's food security program under which the Indian government buys produce from farmers at exorbitant prices and then sells it to poor people at subsidized rates. This hasn't helped farmers who, uncoupled from price signals, haven't adjusted their crop mix to shifting demand; or the poor, whose share corrupt bureaucrats routinely skim; or consumers, who face higher prices; or the national budget.

What was particularly dismaying is that the WTO deal should have been an easy political call for a champion of free trade like Modi given that the previous administration had already done the tough work of inking it. The only plausible explanation why Modi walked away is to keep farmers dependent on his handouts, precisely the kind of populism that he blamed for India's economic backwardness.

2. Food. Just before Modi departed for America, he inaugurated the first of many new "food parks" that the Ministry of Food Processing (yes, such a thing still exists in India!) at great expense. The idea is to avoid losses from food spoilage that farmers incur while carting their produce to urban centers on India's horrible roadways. The food parks, scattered all over rural India, will house giant storage facilities and private food processing factories that will buy produce from farmers directly.

Such efforts are testimony that Modi is not ready to live up to his admonition that the "government has no business being in business." Modi would help farmers far more by allowing foreign retailers such as Walmart into the Indian market. This plan, that Modi previously rejected, would have cost Indian taxpayers nothing, and their capital and expertise would have modernized India's supply chains.

3. Banking. Modi rose to fame—and office—by beating up on schemes that offered poor people handouts rather than opportunities. But his recent injunction to government banks to help make bank accounts universally available—with $85 of overdraft protection—is reminiscent of the heyday of socialism in the late 1960s. Then, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi nationalized India's banking sector to bring more Indians within the fold of the financial system.

Modi's puny dispensation won't uplift the poor. What they need is access to cheap credit to invest in businesses, education, and homes, which only a competitive banking industry can offer. This would require wholesale deregulation so that licenses for domestic private banks are not restricted and foreign banks are not scared away by oppressive regulations. Yet Modi has moved not an inch in that direction.

4. Manufacturing. While in America, Modi is pushing his much-hyped "Make in India" initiative to move India's industrial base from service to manufacturing and create jobs for the 10 million youth who join the workforce annually. He is trying to impress companies with cute slogans like India will greet them with "red carpet not red tape" and they'd get "single window assistance" in acquiring land and licenses for new factories. But this window will be operated under the aegis of the prime minister's office, whose economic agenda will determine winners and losers. Modi has already identified 25 sectors that he wants to prioritize. This might speed up some chosen projects, but won't end India's patronage economy that leaves small businesses and self-employed poor in the lurch.

Many commentators, including The Economist, have expressed bewilderment at the curious mix of bold and timid in Modi's economic plans. But all the boldness is in the direction of consolidating his power and the timidity in giving it up.

His fans should save their adulation till he shows real signs that he isn't planning to run the Indian economy like his personal fiefdom—but then such a man wouldn't court their adulation, would he?

A version of this column originally ran in The Week. Go here for Dalmia's full Week archive.

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  1. notes Shikha Damlia.

    Jesus, Reason’s hired John as a proofreader

  2. Do Indian conservatives label Bollywood as ‘Bollyweird’?

    1. India’s version of Breitbart made a website called “Big Bollywood”

  3. I guess we know who *somebody* didn’t vote for.

  4. Dude that makes no sense at all man.

  5. Time for Swami to fly back to Lotus Land on his Magic Carpet, or is that Muslim? In any event, this is typical of a leader of a country where approximately 50,000 people (these are the figures I have heard) die every day of disease and starvation. Must be part of that Hindu “philosophy” of condoms are bad. Population control lacking in one of the world’s most overpopulated countries? Karma at work here? The lesson from this could be that umpteen so called Indian-Americans care more about the Old Country of India ( and I mean really old), than they do about their New Country of America, which of course was not founded by Hindus.

    1. WTF are you babbling on about?

      1. cocaine is a helluva drug, man

  6. A regime favorable to some business beats one hostile to all business.

  7. Because it would have required him to suspend India’s food security program under which the Indian government buys produce from farmers at exorbitant prices and then sells it to poor people at subsidized rates.

    So basically the same policy every elected Dem and Rep in the US has.

    Shikha Dalmia you have spent a lot of time painting this guy as the new hitler…and he pretty much is. But he does not seem any worse then the hitlers that run the US….and he seems a bit better of a hilter then the hitler he replaced.

  8. Shikha Dalmia’s anti-Modi stance was well known long before this article, but two things stand out from this appalling article. The first is a picture of the Prime Minister of India disembodied, with his eyes and nostrils cut out, deigning to show him as a devil. What a horrible way to illustrate a story, and truly am editorial failure of a magazine that calls itself “Reason”.
    The second is her casual statement by Shikha “he presided over a pogrom of Muslims…when he was chief minister”. Any objective journalist would add words like “Alleged” to qualify these slanderous comments, or at least reference the fact that no court in India has ever indicted Shri Modi for these alleged crimes which Shikha passes to readers as fact. This is sloppiness at its height. Unfortunately, this slant has ruined whatever merit there may have been in the rest of the article.

    1. Ravi: And your open adulation of Modi — doing readings from his poetry and peddling it as some kind of high literature — is also well known! That picture is a mask of Modi’s that his supporters used to show their love for him. Did it bother you when they were waving such masks around during his rallies. And he did not “allegedly” preside over a pogrom. The pogrom happened and he was Chief Minister. Both facts are objectively true. If I had wanted to talk about his complicity then I would have said “alleged” complicity because that is a matter of dispute.

      1. Are you under the impression that presided doesnt denote complicity? What naked ethnic score settling.

      2. Shikha: I don’t believe you have read the poetry (correct me if I am wrong), so you really should not comment on it. Besides, I am the translator so I am quite delighted to do poetry readings, although neither Modi nor I have ever claimed that it is high literature. Now let’s come back to the topic at hand, which is not poetry, but your appalling prose. “Presided over a pogrom when he was Chief Minister”. Please ask any objective reader what that sentence means…it means that you are stating as fact that he led the pogrom. You are far too intelligent and experienced to be hiding behind semantics by parsing the sentence and coming up with two objective facts, when the combination of the two facts is what results in perpetuating a slander. Please take ownership of what you wrote and meant, that would be more consistent with your beliefs as well. Respectfully yours, Ravi.

        1. I’m afraid “appalling prose” is one in which Modi boosters write little Valentines to him when he has yet to accomplish anything, which is what, with all due respect, you’ve been doing, Ravi. You have long been a cheerleader of Modi, just as I have long been a critic of Modi. Please accept that. This kind of blind adulation of a politician — any politician (even Obama as was the case in America when he first ran for presidency) — is always laughable because politicians, by definition, are in it for the power and should be treated with skepticism. But in Modi’s case, give his many transgressions and his non-existent results at the national level yet, it is downright disturbing. I don’t know any Hindi scholar of any merit who has deemed Modi’s poetry of such value as to make it his personal project to shout it from roof tops. That you have speaks volumes. As for my prose, it would be idiotic to say “allegedly” presided over a pogrom as if there was any doubt about him presiding over it given he was in office — just as Rajiv Gandhi presided over the Sikh pogrom (in which he had far less culpability than Modi had in this one). I’m sorry you are offended but splitting hairs to defend your man just won’t do.

          1. I spent six months full-time as part of his election campaign so my support for Modi’s candidacy to become PM is a given. Regarding the poetry, since you accept that you have not read it, I have no response to your second-hand views. 1. Mr. Modi ran Gujarat for 12 years and ran and won the election on his long track-record of good governance and personal integrity, so your comment “yet to accomplish anything” is incorrect. 2. Your insinuation that I have “blind adulation” for anyone is also incorrect. I chose and backed Mr. Modi as the best alternative among the viable candidates to run the country. 3. I am not the right person to edit your prose and add or subtract words, but am merely pointing out that your choice of sentence amounted to slander. 4. The election campaign is over, and Mr. Modi is the PM of all of India. The issue I have is your misrepresentation of basic facts to present your viewpoint, that too before a largely Western audience who know little about India. For example, your “clickbait” headline, asking him to “? get to work” is another slander on someone universally acknowledged as having an outstanding work ethic, a man who works 16-18 hours a day. To a casual western reader, the headline implies that our PM is a slacker, which he most certainly is not. By the way, I am not offended, merely perplexed that Mr. Modi’s biggest and long-standing critics are focusing on these kinds of things when there are so many serious issues to debate.

          2. And one small point, Shikha, regarding the perils of commenting on something one has not read. I refer to your comment “I don’t know any Hindi scholar of any merit who has deemed Modi’s poetry of such value…That you have speaks volumes.” This is not surprising (as I said before, we have never claimed it is high literature), but one simple explanation could be because Mr. Modi writes poetry in Gujarati, and not in Hindi.

            1. Yes, but the point is that no Hindi scholar, plenty of whom can read Gujerati, felt that it was worthy of translation. If the only person that Modi could find to translate it was a “full time campaign” worker, it speaks volumes about the said person’s neutrality and objectivity in things Modi. Please forgive me, but I have to take your protestations on Modi’s behalf with a shaker of (Dandi) salt.

              1. But here’s what intellectually honest Modi supporters such as Tavleen Singh have to say about his record. So don’t take my word for it; read her:

                1. As for reading his poetry, but, sorry, what little I’d seen of it did not inspire me to read more. As the Guardian puts it, “It is not so much poetry as florid campaign poster.” Here’s a sample: “A flame of hope has burst forth today/ To sear the darkness with its might?.Hope, according to Modi, is “Unshakeable resolve and steadfast righteousness / The twin armours of the bearer of progress.” This “warrior for progress nurtures no likes or dislikes / Nor any concern for the adulation of crowds / With Lord Rama filling his heart / Full of forgiveness he treads the path / And becomes that light of hope, that slayer of darkness.”…..modisphere

  9. Who cares what this guy does while he’s in NYC? I thought all you people were of the opinion that foreign countries and their leaders ought not to be impinged?

    1. I thought all you people were of the opinion that foreign countries and their leaders ought not to be impinged?

      Who the fuck are you talking about?

  10. It’s odd for a political leader to take a victory lap in a foreign country.

    Obama, Berlin, before he was elected.

    1. I’ll tell you what this lack of class definitely makes me think we should limit work visas for tech workers. Was that the intention? Don’t tell me this was some inter-caste score settling that’s all supposed to immediately disappear when the statue of liberty waves her wand.

  11. This is a really biased and a poor excuse for an article.
    I agree that the Indian diaspora in the US went overboard in making this a victory celebration, but to say that Modi’s primary purpose in visiting the US is to thumb his nose at the political establishment is plain stupid. His intent to bring manufacturing to India could not be clearer with the slogan, meeting the big CEOS, etc.
    Also, why call him a “Hindu Nationalist”? Do you call Obama a “Christian xxx” or whatever every time you refer to him? Or, should that be assumed because Obama had to insist he was a Christian during the election campaigns? Is being a Hindu bad?
    Should he change his fasting schedule which he has been doing for over 30 years just so that it does not appear “flamboyant”?
    “Presided over a pogrom of muslims …”!? So far, no court has declared him guilty and he himself has asked to be hanged should the court find him guilty. “Alleged” would have been more appropriate.
    As for Shikha’s four points, it would have been better had she done some research.
    1. Trade: India has a lot of problems today – inflation, poverty, unemployment, infrastructure, terrorism, etc. All of them are quite inter-related and no matter which gets tackled first, you can always point your finger at another problem that is not attended to with the same energy and intent. Getting FDI from Japan and China is a major win;

  12. continued from last post …
    Getting uranium for nuclear power plants from Australia is another win; if India gets some manufacturing and FDI from the US, that would help a lot too;

    Meeting with Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, etc is to have friendly relations with the neighbors to control terrorism from across the border.
    2. Food: It is well known in India that a huge amount of food grains rot at the ports because we don’t have a good public distribution system. Something has to be done about it – that’s why the food parks – even though it is true that the government should not be in this business.
    As for the WTO, it was too soon after he took over for him to sign the treaty without fully analysing the implications it would have on the Indian farmers and people.
    3. Banking: There is no doubt that people need bank accounts so poor people are not excluded from the financial world. Yes, they do need credit as well for starting business, but it has been just 4 months and too soon to say that nothing has been done about it.
    4. Manufacturing: There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that this will be a great source of skill development and employment for a lot of the people in India. And, clearly, he is trying to address the issues that big companies would have in India – red tape, multiple licences, etc. So, other than a deep bias against Modi, there is nothing logical about what Shikha is saying here.

  13. There are not enough hours in the day to debunk all this misinformation by Modi trolls. I will let Tavleen Singh speak about Modi’s record thus far. She was as solid a Modi booster as they come during the election. But has the intellectual independence to evaluate Modi objectively and honestly without trying to spin his lackluster record:…..a-mandate/

  14. Governance In India Can Be Decentralized Only When Each State In India Have A Separate Currency.
    The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.

  15. I have been following Shika’s articles right from the recent Indian elections.
    She is NOT objective and is very biased. I believe the only reason she is allowed by to write for them is because she is Indian But guess what, she is doing a terrible job at it. Most of her articles make no sense, there is no libertarian perspective, no objectivity, no empirical or any other validated analysis based conclusions. NONE of those things that make a good journalist especially a libertarian one. Please get rid off her. I am not a Modi supporter but an Indian Libertarian and I find her views appalling. You need a new writer to write India based articles.

  16. Hi Shikha we all enjoy freedom of speech. However, as a public persona you ought to exercise some intellectual honesty, and not let your hatred and prejudice stand in the way of your writing. Obviously you did not actually listen to his speech at MSG. If you had you wouldn’t have called it vulgar. By all accounts it was a very refreshing, and uplifting recognition of Indian origin people residing abroad. In so far as such a gathering in NY is concerned, it is again obvious that you are not aware of what the representatives of Israel do in the US.
    Without going into all your other points, suffice to say that Modi’s rejection of WTO is concerned, it is not to enslave Indian farmers, rather to free them from multi nationals’ strictures that have led to their horrendous suicides. Even Canada has objections to the WTO, as it has wheat marketing, egg marketing, and milk marketing boards to ensure fair prices.
    Finally, compare these achievements in 100 plus days to what has been done in the preceding 60 plus years of the previous Indian regimes.
    It is the first time there is hope for India. You don’t have to love him, or even like him, but don’t be dishonest in your characterization.

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