How fleeting is glory! Back in 1998, the South Asian Journalists Association proclaimed me ‘Journalist of the Year’ for a newspaper article I had written about India.
But the next year the award was angrily rescinded after I wrote that India should compromise with Pakistan over the festering Kashmir conflict. Prickly Indians didn’t like being criticized, even by an old friend like myself.
This week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his rightwing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition won a landslide electoral victory, gaining 302 of the 542 seats in parliament. The venerable Congress opposition party, that long led India, was crushed.
We should pay attention. India is more or less the world’s largest democracy and is expected to be the third largest economic power by 2020. It’s also an important nuclear state with land and sea-launched ICBM’s that can strike the United States and Canada, Europe, and its rival, China.
I’ve been writing for decades about the threat of accidental or planned nuclear war with Pakistan over Kashmir. My first book, ‘War at the Top of the World,’ deals with the potential of future war between India and China over the high Himalayas and Burma, as well as India and Pakistan over Kashmir.
India, energized by growing economic power and nuclear Viagra is feeling its national oats. Prime Minister Modi is a hard-line religious nationalist determined to press his concept of ‘Hindutva,’ or religious power. He has vowed to confront India’s largest minority, some 200 million Muslims, 15% of its estimated 1.3 billion people, and make India a great Hindu power again.
Modi has sometimes been called ‘India’s Trump.’ He was governor of India’s most business-oriented state, Gujarat. Modi is openly antagonistic to Muslims and Sikhs, and failed to halt the massacre of thousands of Muslims during his tenure. He commands wide public support for his Muslim-bashing and anti-Pakistan invective. Modi likes to wave the scimitar and vaunt his military muscle.
Last February, he sent Indian warplanes to attack Pakistan after Kashmir nationalists (‘terrorists’ to Indians) attacked an Indian military convoy. India humiliatingly lost one of its MiG’s to Pakistan’s crack air force. Worse, Modi ran a very dangerous and totally unnecessary risk by attacking nuclear-armed Pakistan. But Hindu nationalist mobs loved it. Just as many ill-informed Americans love Trump’s war threats against Iran, Venezuela, North Korea, and, of course, Russia.
Like Trump, Modi keeps invoking India’s past without really addressing its current problems like entrenched cast problems, growing crime, terrible national sanitation, rampant corruption, lethal air pollution and endemic communal tensions. Interestingly, in the recent elections, a majority of low cast ‘untouchables’ (now called ‘Dalits’ but still as untouchable) voted for the BJP. So did India’s always restive eastern hills states. These are positive signs for Modi’s BJP.
By contrast, the Congress Party that brought India to independence from British colonial rule in 1947 and gave it the elite Gandhi ruling dynasty, was crushed in the vote. Dynastic politics is always bad medicine, be it Gandhis, Kennedys, Bhuttos or Romanovs. The youthful but disappointing heir to the Gandhi’s Congress political machine, Rahul Gandhi, had no heart in the fight and even lost one of his two ‘safe’ seats.
That’s too bad. Congress has a fairly moderate policy towards Muslims and Pakistan. Not so the BJP which remains based on an extreme Hindu movement founded in 1925 that promotes grassroots Hinduisation of the nation, or even expulsion of Muslims, as just occurred in Buddhist Burma (Myanmar). Many on the Hindu hard right also call for the ‘reabsorption’ of Pakistan into Mother India, though, confusingly, that would add 213 million angry Muslims.
Meanwhile, India’s formerly stagnant economy is bustling, thanks in good part to lifting of punitive tax and absurd government restrictions known as the ‘license Raj.’ Foreign investment is pouring into India, and highly educated Indian immigrants into the United States. Back in the early 1990’s, I was given a early look at India’s just formed version of Silicon Valley, the city of Bangalore, (home of the ‘bangalore torpedo’ for breaching barbed wire.) This complex grew into today’s IT powerhouse, the pride of India.
India is on a roll. Now, even more so thanks to a strong central government that favors commerce and big business. But it’s not all sitar music and incense. India is a modern nation of 600 million atop an ancient rural nation of 700 million. Modern India will struggle to escape ancient Mother India. The Indian colossus still has political and financial feet of clay.