Is India about to elect its Reagan?

Modinomics can be the perfect antidote to the kleptocratic crony socialism that has kept India from realising her vast economic potential

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:21 pm IST

Published - April 21, 2014 12:14 am IST

NATURAL ALLIES: Narendra Modi — his assertive posture against Pakistan reminiscent of Ronald Reagan's stance against the Soviet Union — should be a valuable natural ally for the U.S. Picture shows him with former U.S. ambassador to India, Nancy Powell, in Gandhinagar, Gujarat.

NATURAL ALLIES: Narendra Modi — his assertive posture against Pakistan reminiscent of Ronald Reagan's stance against the Soviet Union — should be a valuable natural ally for the U.S. Picture shows him with former U.S. ambassador to India, Nancy Powell, in Gandhinagar, Gujarat.

I recently offered my perspective on India’s elections to an American audience. Writing in The Daily Caller (, a popular online newspaper run by conservative television journalist Tucker Carlson, I compared Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to former U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Through the magic of social media, my piece quickly made its way throughout the Indian diaspora and all the way back to India. It has clearly struck a nerve: Indian readers were amazed to see a western media perspective on Mr. Modi that was not reflexively negative.

To make my biases clear from the outset, I am a great admirer of President Reagan. I am also a great admirer of India. Where my piece offers some criticisms of certain segments of Indian society, please don’t take that as an American looking down on India. These are the observations of a pro-India American who looks for commonalities — both good and bad — between his own society and yours. And I see several commonalities between Gujarat’s Chief Minister and America’s 40th President. Here is an adaptation of what I told my readers:

Both Mr. Modi and Mr. Reagan rose from humble origins. Both were popular and successful State leaders: Reagan was “chief minister” (governor, as we say) of my home state of California. Mr. Modi, like Mr. Reagan, is an unabashed proponent of free market economics: the term “Modinomics” is of course a nod to “Reaganomics.”

The elite as detractors A major common denominator between the two men is the nature of their detractors. Like the U.S., India has cultural elitists who seem to desperately crave the approval of their former colonial masters in Europe. The Indian cultural elite despises Mr. Modi every bit as much as the American cultural elite despised Mr. Reagan. They look down their noses at Mr. Modi, cringing at the thought of being led by a common chai wallah (“tea seller,” as I translated it for my U.S. readers) who can barely speak English. (I could never imagine Chinese or Russian citizens, proud of their own heritage, being ashamed that their leaders don’t speak English.)

The American elites believed that Mr. Reagan was an unsophisticated simpleton who was too extreme to be President. Prior to his election, they issued dire warnings about the calamities that would ensue if Mr. Reagan came to power. The rest, as they say, is history, and the collapse of the Soviet empire left Mr. Reagan’s critics on the wrong side of it.

The cultural elites labelled Mr. Reagan as a racist. That’s a term they use for anyone who believes that a robust and growing market economy, rather than massive government bureaucracy, is the best way to promote upward mobility for the poor and the minorities. American elites frequently resort to name-calling when facts and reason fail them.

Mr. Modi, of course, is also labelled by his critics as a “communalist.” I would call that roughly equivalent to the “racist” epithet that Americans hurl at one another. As with Mr. Reagan, the charge lacks merit and is stoked by political opponents seeking to sow fear (and hence cement support) in minority communities. Mr. Modi’s critics, of course, still constantly blame him for the >2002 riots in Gujarat. Those riots, and the train burning that preceded them, were indeed great tragedies. But I suspect the motives of Mr. Modi’s political opponents who ignore the results of the Supreme Court of India’s special investigation of the incident. They have no incentive to acknowledge that Mr. Modi has been cleared of any wrongdoing. They continue to profit politically by smearing Mr. Modi with India’s version of what we call, in American politics, the “racecard.”

I must admit that as an outside observer, I often find the terms of debate in India’s mainstream media to be confusing. As I understand it, if you favour allowing citizens to be treated differently on the basis of their religious beliefs, then you are an open-minded “secularist.” If, on the other hand, you favour treating all citizens equally under the law, without regard to their religion, then you are a “religious extremist.” It is comforting to learn that my country is not the only one with a mainstream media that uses Orwellian doublespeak to support its left-leaning agenda. (And I say that with all apologies and due respect to this great newspaper, which has kindly offered me a forum!)

It is a testament to the tolerance of India’s Hindu-majority society that it hosts several flourishing communities of other faiths. Neighbouring Pakistan, by contrast, is a highly inhospitable environment for those who don’t subscribe to the majority religion. The religious minority communities that have managed to survive there are tiny and constantly under siege. Bangladesh has similar problems. When critics lob the accusation that Mr. Modi is “intolerant” of religious minorities, they are certainly not applying the standards that prevail in the region.

Stand on terror Mr. Modi, of course, promises to take a tough stand against Pakistan-sponsored terrorism. In this regard, I reminded my American readers that Islamic extremists are not fighting against the “West.” Islamist extremists are fighting against all non-Islamic societies, including Buddhists in Thailand; Christians in Nigeria, the Philippines, Chechnya, Kosovo, Bosnia, Macedonia, Côte d’Ivoire, Sudan and Timor-Leste; Jews in Israel; minority communities throughout the Muslim world — and, quite prominently, Hindus in India. India is very much on the front lines of what we Americans used to call the War on Terror, before our leaders lost the nerve to name it. Mr. Modi — his assertive posture against Pakistan reminiscent of Mr. Reagan’s stance against the Soviet Union — should be a valuable natural ally for the U.S.

As one who lived through Reaganomics, I believe that Modinomics can be the perfect antidote to the kleptocratic crony socialism that has kept India from realising her vast economic potential. If India’s natural entrepreneurial dynamism is ever fully unleashed, the sky will be the limit. I am persuaded by the evidence (hotly debated in an election season, of course) that shows that economic growth in Gujarat under Mr. Modi has been a boon to all segments of society, especially the poor. I am just sharing my view as an observer, and of course respect that it is for the people of India to decide what is best for them.

In the U.S., Mr. Modi is an undesirable in the same circles that made Mr. Reagan an undesirable. The U.S. State Department, whose career bureaucracy has long been dominated by the left-leaning cultural elite, has denied Mr. Modi a visa to visit my country. We routinely grant visas to the leaders of countries that virtually outlaw minority religions, and teach hatred of other religions as national policy. That we would single out Mr. Modi to be shunned, especially after the Supreme Court investigation, is shameful.

In his fierce opposition to government interference in the economy, to cronyism, and to corruption, the “tea seller” has much in common with the Tea Party, an American conservative movement that the elites detest. India, indeed, may have found its Reagan. And as America continues to struggle under misguided policies that have shackled our own natural entrepreneurial dynamism, when will we find our Modi?

(David B. Cohen served in the administration of President George W. Bush as U.S. Representative to the Pacific Community, as Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Interior, and as a member of the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.)

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