India’s Uprising

Christopher Caldwell writes for Claremont Review of Books:

* Under Modi’s leadership the BJP, founded in 1980 and focused on the aspirations of the 80% of Indians who are Hindu, has become the world’s largest political party.

* India’s tiny sliver of Western-connected English-language opinion-makers tend to find Modi appalling. Their minoritarian take has hardened into Western conventional wisdom about India: Modi is understood as a subcontinental Viktor Orbán or Donald Trump. He is a demagogue, a populist, a reactionary. Some accuse Modi of religious fundamentalism, or of bigotry against India’s Muslims. He cares little for the rights of women and gays, say others. For certain opponents his sin is nationalism, for others it is cozying up to India’s billionaire tech moguls and venture capitalists. As the marching thousands of the Congress party poured into a village called Ghatiya in rural Madhya Pradesh, one English-speaking intellectual said he was marching against Modi to prevent the “onslaught of fascism.”

This is not how India’s modestly situated monoglots see Modi. Nor does it make sense. Western populist leaders are all, in one way or another, trying to stem the decadence of their once-great countries. Modi’s India has plenty of problems, but decadence isn’t one of them.

* The political advisory group Morning Consult keeps track of two dozen world leaders’ popularity, and Modi is generally in a class by himself. In February he stood at 78% approval and 19% disapproval—extraordinary for a leader nine years into the job. Only Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador, at 63%, is even in the ballpark. Joe Biden is at 40. Emmanuel Macron is at 27. Modi wins and wins big because Indians see him as the embodiment of a different idea of India, a majoritarian one that, necessarily or not, was suppressed in the 20th century.

* Gandhi had two heirs apparent among the Congress movement’s freedom fighters. They vied jealously with one another. One was his fellow Gujarati lawyer Vallabhbhai “Sardar” Patel, a politician of almost preternatural practical abilities and an intense loyalty to Gandhi. The other was Nehru, privileged, educated at Harrow and Cambridge (where his friends called him “Joe”), charming, shaped by modern progressive doctrines and curious about the Soviet Union. The historian Sunil Khilnani gives an elegant summary in The Idea of India (1997) of the choice that faced Gandhi: “One [Patel] wanted the state simply to express and tend the existing pattern of India’s society, with all its hierarchy, particularity and religious tastes; the other [Nehru] hoped to use the state actively to reconstitute India’s society, to reform it and to bring it in line with what he took to be the movement of universal history.”

* The Indian Constitution, one of the world’s longest, was ratified in 1949. It managed the relationship between faiths much as the British raj had, giving each of India’s major religions the leeway to run its own affairs. So an Indian Muslim, even today, has the liberty to practice polygamy, while an Indian Hindu does not. What was most innovative about the constitution was that it invented the modern practice of affirmative action. Its great conceptualizer and drafter was B.R. Ambedkar, a social-science polymath, a lecturer at Columbia University, a radical political reformer, and a dalit, or “untouchable,” from the lowest reaches of India’s complex caste system, against which he held an understandable grudge. One of the things that made the constitution so long is that it laid out a “schedule” of 1,109 castes and 775 aboriginal tribes who would be eligible for “reservations,” or quotas, securing them a quarter of the seats in India’s parliament and granting them a quarter of government jobs. But only government jobs—in this respect, India’s affirmative-action system, however much it may have been belittled for its complexity, was actually less intrusive than the American one, with its litigation-fueled undermining of meritocracy in the private sector.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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