The Modi Mirage

Why I Fell Out of Love With India’s Reformist Prime Minister

BJP supporters wearing cut-outs of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the party president Amit Shah at a campaign event in Ahmedabad, April 2019  Amit Dave/REUTERS

India in 2014 was a troubled and discontented nation. Inflation was in the double digits, growth was declining, and corruption was rampant. Sick of the drift and paralysis in the government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, many Indians longed for a leader who would get the nation out of the mess. The situation was not unlike Britain’s in the late 1970s. Britain found Margaret Thatcher; India found Narendra Modi.

The sudden ascent of the tough and stocky 63-year-old as a serious contender for the nation’s highest office caught everyone by surprise. As chief minister of the state of Gujarat, Modi had built a vibrant economy and reduced corruption. His campaign speeches, with their single-minded focus on vikas (development) were fresh and mesmerizing. But people were also wary. Modi was considered dictatorial and anti-Muslim. Above all, he carried the stain of Hindu-Muslim riots in 2002, when his state government looked the other way as nearly a thousand people, most of them Muslims, were killed over several days.

I, too, worried about electing a politician like Modi. Yet I also believed that the Indian government was not doing enough to capitalize on its extremely young population, about half of which is under the age of 25. If those millions of working-age women and men could be lifted from underemployment in the informal sector to well-paying jobs, the gains in overall prosperity would far outweigh the burden of supporting the old and the very young. Economists call this the “demographic dividend,” which is known to spur GDP growth in developing countries. If managed well, India’s economy had the potential to lift millions from poverty and send the country on a path to middle-income status. But within a dozen years, the window of opportunity would close as India’s youth began to age. Among the candidates in the 2014 elections, Modi seemed to be the only one to grasp this, making him the country’s best hope for reaping the demographic dividend. The alternative was Rahul

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