How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Until just a few weeks ago, Varanasi, the holy city on the banks of the sacred river Ganges, was packed with its usual crowd of pilgrims, funeral-goers, and backpackers. These days, though, the streets are a sea of saffron, and the sounds of politics and prayer seem strangely in tune. This town, historically a center of Hindu teaching and pilgrimage, is also the base for Narendra Modi’s parliamentary run. As 819 million Indians cast their ballots over the past few months, all eyes were on the city, with its Modi posters plastered on storefronts and new highways, on temple walls and ancient alleys.
It is in Varanasi that I meet Ram Paswan. He runs a shop selling materials for cremating dead bodies. (Varanasi is also where Hindus go to die, so his is a lucrative business.) Paswan, who has long been a supporter of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is thrilled that Modi, the future prime minister, ran from his city. His neighbor, Alam Khan, who runs a barbershop, is not. Khan belongs to the 19 percent of Varanasi’s population that is Muslim and which sees Modi, who has been charged with complicity in the 2002 riots and pogroms against Muslims in Gujarat, as dangerous.
Hindus and Muslims have co-existed peacefully in Varanasi for centuries. But Modi’s campaign there has changed things, creating a rift between Paswan and Khan -- and between many others. “My religion comes before my friendship,” Alam tells me. “We don’t have too many options in this election, but Modi is not the right choice for our people.” Alam has traditionally supported the secular Congress Party, but, when we first spoke, he was unsure whom he would vote for. He eventually pushed the button next to “NOTA,” or no vote.
THE ECONOMIC ILLUSION
The focus on Modi this election season was not surprising. The outgoing Congress Party, led by the 43-year-old Rahul Gandhi, is in a shambles. Over the last few years, it has presided over embarrassing corruption scandals, lackluster economic growth, and deadlocked policymaking. During the campaign season, Gandhi, who is uninspiring and uncomfortable on the stump, was ridiculed by young Indians, the very audience he needed to inspire.
After years of Congress rule, the Indian public has not been impressed. A recent survey released by the Pew Research Center found that 70 percent of respondents were discouraged by India’s prospects and more than 80 percent were gloomy about the economy. It thus made some sense for them to flock to the opposition candidate, Modi, who promised economic growth and job creation. And he has the track record to back it up. During his stint as chief minister of Gujarat, he was widely (although not universally) credited for bringing the state higher economic growth than any other region in the country.
But in this election, Modi's economic track record is almost beside the point. He might have emphasized growth, development, and industrialization, but the BJP, at its base, is a Hindu-nationalist party. As the economists Maitreesh Ghatak, Parikshit Ghosh, and Ashok Kotwal have pointed out, unlike in the West, India’s political parties are not organized along the traditional spectrum of left and right but on issues of identity and culture. “Positions on economic policy are usually a derivative,” they write in a recent paper, “influenced by vote bank calculations or the need to attract funds for election campaigns. Since policy choices do not arise from deep ideological commitments to preferred economic paradigms, they are often incoherent.”
Incoherent, indeed: in this election, Indians seemed to be voting for economic progress but, by doing so, were undermining it. There is no doubt that the economic development Modi promised is important. But there is also no doubt that social development -- more equality for religious groups, more gender equality, and the end of the deep-rooted corruption and crony capitalism that India is notorious for -- is the best way to ensure economic success in the long term.
It thus seems unlikely that a politician who stands for the empowerment of one group over others could ever give India -- where communal riots still rage (in 2013, Hindu-Muslim riots in Muzaffarnagar killed 62 people and left more than 50,000 people displaced), where Maoist terrorism is disrupting the country’s interior, and where a woman is raped every 22 minutes -- what it really needs.
AN UNEQUAL NATION
According to the 2007 report of the Sachar Committee, a high-level government committee formed to analyze the social, economic, and educational condition of India’s Muslim community and of other socio-religious groups, the status of Muslims in India was grim at best. Muslim children are less likely to attend school than children in any other community in the country. Their dropout rates from school are the highest. And compared to other socio-religious groups, Muslim participation in work in the public and private sector is disturbingly low, especially among women. Muslim representation is also low across government departments. A larger proportion of Muslim workers than workers in any other socio-religious group are employed as street vendors and the like, without employee benefits or long-term (or even written) contracts.
The Sanchar committee suggested that inclusiveness was key to greater equality between socio-religious groups. The issue is not only moral, it is also political and economic. Some of India’s darkest hours have been times of communal violence, and with Muslims making up close to 15 percent of India’s population (the second-largest Muslim population in the world), religious equality and communal harmony are imperative. In addition, as the Sachar committee pointed out, the more education and job opportunities each socio-religious group gets, the stronger India’s economy will be.
Perhaps even more severe than the disparity between Hindus and Muslims is the disparity between India’s men and women. According to the India Human Development Survey (IHDS), four out of ten women in India still have no say in their marriage, eight out of ten need permission to visit a doctor, and the average Indian household gives over Rs. 30,000 in dowry (over $500, more than many Indians earn in a year) with each marriageable daughter. In addition, about 70 percent of women in India experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. According to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, India is a lowly 101st out of 136 countries when it comes to gender parity. In other words, it is the worst country in the G-20 in which to be a woman.
Gender equality is a key factor in a nation’s economic health. According to the United Nations Population Fund, “gender inequality holds back growth of individuals, development of countries, and the evolution of societies, to the disadvantage of men and women.” The empowerment of women through women’s rights, education, and access to resources is key to economic development.
In other words, without social growth -- that is, progress towards equality -- Modi and the BJP’s economic plans may be for naught.
YOUTH IN REVOLT
India is ripe for social development. Around half of its 1.2 billion people are under 26; two-thirds of the population is younger than 35. By 2020, India will have 12 percent of the world’s college graduates, and according to estimates, around 51 million job seekers by 2019. Many of these young people, faced with a declining economy, bleak job prospects, and social problems, are worried about their country’s future. And they are ready to do something about it: in this election, 150 million young people were eligible to vote for the first time, and their willingness to show up at the polls led to a record voter turnout.
History shows that a high ratio of young people and lots of unhappiness with the status quo can lead to large-scale political and cultural movements: the sexual revolution in the United States, Mao’s youth movement in China, and the Arab Spring. In India, too, the young have already started to mobilize for social change -- protesting against corruption, the gruesome rape of a student in December 2012, or the recriminalization of homosexuality late last year. According to nationwide polls and surveys, more than 90 percent of Indian voters thought that combating violence against women should be a priority issue during the election, second only to corruption. (As of yet, few have rallied for socio-religious equality. Given India’s factious history, that might be longer in coming.)
As their champion, many young voters picked Arvind Kejriwal, a 46-year-old ex-bureaucrat who, in 2006, quit his job in the notoriously corrupt Income Tax Department to protest corruption and then formed the Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man Party, AAP). The one-year-old AAP won a startling victory in the Delhi administrative election last year, where Kejriwal ousted Sheila Dixit, the three-term Chief Minister of Delhi and a veteran Congress politician. Kejriwal led the government for a mere 49 days before he quit in protest because it failed to pass anticorruption legislation.
In a bold move, Kejriwal contested for a parliamentary seat against Modi in Varanasi. In a matter of months, the AAP has gone from becoming a political party confined to Delhi to a bona fide national-level party fielding some not-so-common men, such as actors (Jaaved Jaaferi), a former Miss India (Gul Panag), and Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson (Rajmohan Gandhi). Modi won big, but only time will tell how AAP will fare in the long run.
READY FOR CHANGE?
By all accounts, India is ready for social change -- and needs it. But, as a team from the University of Pennsylvania, Carnegie Endowment, and India’s Lok Foundation, which interviewed 68,500 voters before the vote, and will talk to them again after it, found, 57 percent of respondents cite economic matters (growth, inflation, personal income) as the most important factors in this election. Just three percent mention caste or identity. Although resolving India’s social issues might be the best way to ensure India’s sound economic and political future, voters simply don’t connect the two things yet.
Back in Varanasi, people did want change -- record voter turnout suggested it. Still, as Modi’s apparent victory shows, it can be hard to select long-term progress when short-term promises beckon. As the sun sets over the Ganges, Ram Paswan takes his daily dip in the polluted holy river, alongside the roving swamis, flea-infested street dogs, and wandering cattle. “Funny that this ancient city is going to decide the future of a modern India,” he says. “At the end, everything comes full circle to Varanasi.”