Is Narendra Modi India’s Reagan or Nixon?

Gujarat's shiny free market reformer has a dark side. 

Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images
Photo by Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Narendra Modi, of the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is heavily favored to emerge as India’s next prime minister after the votes from the country’s five-week parliamentary election are counted on May 16. Modi’s supporters expect him to usher in an era of national optimism. The country’s youth, in particular, see him as ideally suited to reviving India’s self-confidence after a period of malaise under the current prime minister, technocrat turned politician Manmohan Singh, whose combination of personal integrity and weak leadership have made him the Jimmy Carter of Indian politics.

To an American eye, India’s voters seem to be yearning for the inspirational tonic of their very own Ronald Reagan. This is troubling enough for those who recall Reagan’s stigmatization of welfare recipients and adventurism in places like Grenada and El Salvador. It would be far more worrying, though, if India actually elected Modi, a leader who in many ways bears a greater resemblance to that other iconic California Republican, Richard Nixon.

Certain Reagan-Modi parallels are easy to spot. Both ran on their records as governors of prosperous, modernizing states on the western coasts of their respective countries. Gujarat, like California, has long been an engine of industrial growth. Modi’s business-friendly policies have helped per capita income triple in Gujarat since he took office in 2001 — though critics attribute these gains to previous reforms and complain that health and other human development indicators have not kept pace with economic growth. Like Reagan, Modi is committed to replicating his regional success on the national stage, while somewhat contradictorily pledging to decentralize power to the states.

Reagan and Modi each promised to unleash the pent-up capitalist energies of an entrepreneurial people. Modi’s policy agenda has been described as Thatcherite, a close cousin to Reaganomics. And Modi’s brain trust includes free market economists such as Columbia University professors Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya. Slashing dependency-creating welfare programs is a signature trope for Modi, as it was for Reagan. And Reagan’s other key campaign promise, to cut red tape in Washington, finds strong echoes in Modi’s plans for taming India’s bureaucracy.

Modi, like Reagan, is a master of the personal anecdote, effortlessly tying individual stories to larger principles. And both have employed catchphrases to mock adversaries. Reagan frequently replied to Carter in the 1980 presidential debates with a head tilt and a well-rehearsed "there you go again" — as if Carter kept repeating the same mistake. Modi refers to his main rival, Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party, as the "prince" — a barb that stings because it’s so true. His father (Rajiv Gandhi), grandmother (Indira Gandhi), and great-grandfather (Jawaharlal Nehru) were all prime ministers.

Similarities in style mask substantive differences, however. While associated with the religious right, Reagan was basically a centrist. Modi, by contrast, presents himself as a centrist, despite having spent much of his adult life with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an organization whose divisive ideology promotes the idea of India as a Hindu nation. In 1990, Modi helped organize a notorious, religiously themed tour by BJP leaders through India’s Hindu-Muslim flash points, which left a shameful trail of intercommunal violence in its wake.

Otherwise, much about Modi’s early life remains hazy, partly due to a Nixonian preoccupation with secrecy. In early April, when filing his election papers, Modi revealed for the first time that he is married and has been for decades. Previously, he had always left the marital-status line blank. The BJP explained away the marriage as a customary matter arranged by two traditional families when Modi was a child. But given that Modi has made his time as a chai-wallah ("tea-seller") a staple of his campaign oratory, why did he omit the part of his self-made-man narrative that involved defiance of community elders? Probably because it would not appeal to a certain segment of tradition-minded voters. This selective amnesia is classic Nixon, who talked up his humble Quaker roots only when politically convenient.

Like Nixon, Modi maintains a coterie of private-sector associates, some less savory than others. A 2012 report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, India’s top accounting body, found that the Gujarat state government had engaged in a range of financial "irregularities," many of which provided "undue benefits" to favored firms, including the Gujarati-based conglomerate Adani Group. A study of special economic zones in Gujarat published in March and conducted by social researcher Manshi Asher, claims that the state government helped the Adani Group to obtain land at favorable prices and to violate environmental laws with impunity.

Even more Nixon-like, however, is Modi’s effort to counter his image as the darling of India’s richest industrialists by embracing a tired genre of cultural populism. Modi’s surrogates frequently disparage the "Delhi-based intelligentsia" that has coalesced around the Congress party establishment. Substitute "East Coast" and "Ivy League," and you can almost hear Nixon speaking. Where Nixon loathed the Kennedys, Modi disdains the Nehru-Gandhi family, the dynasty that has dominated Indian politics for most of the nearly seven decades since independence in 1947.

Like Nixon, Modi is prone to bouts of self-pity. After losing the 1962 California gubernatorial election, Nixon famously informed his detractors that they would not "have Nixon to kick around anymore." Modi, who also occasionally refers to himself in the third person, recently stated that "Modi" should be "hanged" if found guilty of the main charge leveled
against him: that as Gujarat’s chief minister in 2002, he directed state police not to intervene as extremists burned, beat, and in some cases hacked to death approximately 1,000 Muslim residents. Yet Modi displays a hauntingly Nixonian persecution complex when journalists raise the substance of the accusations. In 2007, he walked out of a television studio when an interviewer persisted in asking about what happened in 2002.

In 2013, an investigation ordered by India’s Supreme Court found insufficient grounds to prosecute Modi. He says he has been given a "clean chit." That is an exaggeration. The investigation found damning — if not criminally prosecutable — evidence of questionable actions (and inactions) by Modi, as well as indications that crucial records had been destroyed. Some of Modi’s behavior after 2002 is puzzling too. Why, for instance, did he in 2007 appoint to his cabinet Maya Kodnani — a politician suspected of, and later convicted for, distributing swords to rioters and exhorting them to attack Muslims? Then again, why did Nixon make Spiro Agnew his vice-presidential running mate, knowing his reputation for corruption? (Agnew eventually resigned in disgrace, but never served prison time.)

Modi’s lack of contrition for his government’s failure to protect Muslims in 2002 is the clearest sign of his Nixon-esque penchant for denial. Nixon, likewise, never admitted his involvement in the Watergate scandal while in office and rejected claims that his administration violated international law during the Vietnam War, which he insisted had the backing of a "silent majority" of Americans.

Modi once compared his feelings about the 2002 violence against Muslims to the sadness anyone would feel if he or she accidentally ran over a puppy. His attempts to clarify this statement have not gone down well with his critics. Nixon fared much better with his own puppy story — his famous 1952 "Checkers speech," which saved his political career two decades before the Watergate break-in ended it. Accused of corruption, Nixon said that the only gift he ever kept during his years in office was a cocker spaniel named Checkers and that he would not break his children’s hearts by getting rid of the little pup.

Of course, Indian politics do not translate neatly into the American political idiom. The cultural chasm between the two countries is compounded by important institutional differences. India has no party primaries, for instance, and unlike presidents, prime ministers are not elected on the basis of the popular vote. Voting decisions in India are also more influenced by ethnically based patronage politics than they are in the United States. But the character of India’s next leader is of sufficient global significance that it is worth stretching a point to highlight the dangerous turn the country may be taking.

India’s strategic analysts have been asking whether Modi might end up as "Nixon in China" — a leader whose hard-line credentials allow him to pursue a radical foreign-policy initiative, such as redefining India’s relationship with Pakistan. My fear is not only that Modi is ill-equipped to pull off such a diplomatic coup, but that he will bring to India’s highest office the worst elements of the Nixon package: the concealment, paranoia, sulking, denial, vindictiveness, and outsized sense of entitlement.

<p> Rob Jenkins is a professor of political science at Hunter College and the Graduate Center at the City University of New York. </p>