LONDON: The global trend towards strongman leadership is now well-established, and runs from east to west.
The key figures are Xi Jinping in China, Donald Trump in the US and Vladimir Putin in Russia — with Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines occupying smaller places in this unappealing tableau.
But does India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, belong in that list?
INDIA MATTERS A LOT
The answer to that question matters a lot. India, with a population of more than 1.3 billion people, may be about to surpass China as the most populous nation in the world.
The country is now the third-largest economy in the world, ranked by purchasing power, and its economy is growing at over 7 per cent a year.
As James Crabtree writes in The Billionaire Raj, a forthcoming book: “As democracy falters in the west, so its future in India has never been more critical.”
The Indian prime minister is a serious economic reformer with a real popular touch. His style is not as thuggish as Mr Putin or Mr Erdogan’s; nor as wild as Mr Trump or Mr Duterte’s.
And he is subject to far more checks and balances than Mr Xi.
FIRING UP POLITICAL BASE
Yet conversations I had in India last week were reminiscent of similar discussions I have had during the past year in the US, China and Turkey.
There was the same anxiety about threats to press freedom and the independence of the courts. And there were familiar concerns that their country’s leader is deliberately polarising society to fire up his political base.
The comparisons between Mr Modi and Mr Trump are probably most suggestive. Both leaders operate in established democracies and rose to power by campaigning as the champions of a silent majority — and against corruption and allegedly pampered minorities.
Both men are associated with an increasingly extreme political discourse, on television and social media. Both have used identity politics to rally support, and identified Muslims as the “out group” they can campaign against.
PLAYING WITH FIRE
That is playing with fire in India, which is home to about 180 million Muslims — the largest such minority in any nation in the world.
Mr Modi’s political party, Bharatiya Janata, is often described as a “Hindu nationalist”. There was not a single Muslim among the 282 BJP members elected to parliament in the latest Indian election. Each week seems to bring some fresh controversy that stirs up communal tensions.
In one recent appalling case, an eight-year-old Muslim girl was gang-raped and murdered in northern India.
Some local BJP leaders took part in marches and rallies in support of the accused killers, who were Hindus. Yet Mr Modi was slow to speak out.
The case prompted 49 senior retired civil servants to write an open letter to the prime minister, accusing him of fomenting a “frightening climate of hate, fear and viciousness in India”, adding that in “post-independence India, this is our darkest hour”.
This kind of open condemnation of the prime minister requires some courage. Mr Modi’s critics are hounded on social media and can be put under heavy official pressure. The prime minister himself is careful about what he says publicly. But, as one Delhi journalist puts it:
Modi doesn’t say the worst stuff. He just poses for selfies with those who do.
Yet Mr Modi’s defenders also have a strong case to make. They argue that there will inevitably be some horror stories in a nation of more than a billion people.
However, the fears of nationwide violence that accompanied Mr Modi’s ascent to office in 2014 have not been borne out. Indeed, India saw much worse examples of inter-communal violence in the pre-Modi era, such as the anti-Sikh riots and killings in 1984.
DEVELOPMENT AND ECONOMICS ON THE AGENDA
Mr Modi’s allies argue that his real agenda is about development and economics, not cultural issues. Many of his supporters in the business community were motivated by the prime minister’s reputation as an effective economic reformer as chief minister of Gujarat.
On the national stage, Mr Modi’s performance has been mixed. Some actions, such as the 2016 “demonetisation” — the overnight cancellation of 86 per cent of the country’s cash to combat the black economy — probably did more harm than good.
But other Modi reforms — such as the creation of a nationwide goods and services tax — will improve India’s long-term economic prospects. The GST is over-complicated. Even so, it has helped to break down barriers to trade between India’s states, and widened the country’s tax base.
ANXIETIES LEADING INTO 2019 ELECTIONS
A combination of strong economic growth, Mr Modi’s personal popularity and relative social peace have helped to burnish the prime minister’s reputation, turning him from a near pariah, who was once banned from entering the US for allegedly supporting communal violence in Gujarat, into a respected international figure.
A second general election victory in 2019 would cement Mr Modi’s position as one of the leading political figures in the world.
But it would not end the anxieties about his political project. As the cases of Putin and Erdogan have demonstrated, strongman leaders have a tendency to become steadily more autocratic the longer they stay in office.
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