The Economist declared in its latest issue that it could not endorse Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial candidate, for India’s most powerful position. Very quickly, the British publication learned a very important lesson – do not take sides in a political struggle in a foreign country. The article was immediately held up by the anti-Modi brigade as an example of fine and impartial journalism, while Modi’s supporters pilloried the magazine and sharply reminded the British magazine that the Raj ended in 1947.
While no one questions The Economist’s complete freedom and independence in its editorial policy, there is no way this could have ended well. The optics of being a foreign publication opining (interfering?) in the general elections of another nation cannot be good even without the added baggage of British-Indian history. Despite several international editions and offices in seven Asian countries, the magazine remains an outsider to the convoluted relations and intricacies common to Indian politics.
The 2014 national elections have made Indians of all stripes even more sensitive than usual; for the first time in Indian history, an outsider to the privileged corridors of power in Delhi has captured the imagination of the nation and is a viable prime ministerial candidate. For many, Modi represents a panacea to privilege, nepotism, corruption, and institutional decay – in short, all that is wrong with India. To the other side, any shift in the status quo threatens their cherished weltanschauungen and sinecures. It would be a brave outsider that wanted to swim in such currents.
The Economist’s interest in Modi is, however, understandable. The Gujarat chief minister has withstood a decade-long Western boycott for his alleged role in the riots consequent to the massacre of Hindu pilgrims at Godhra and emerged a victor. As the prime ministerial candidate favoured to win the upcoming elections, Modi is being courted by the same countries that shunned him earlier, only to find out that they may be replaced in a Modi cabinet by countries such as China, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore, which did not join the boycott. Modi’s rise and the 2014 elections, therefore, do contain an international footnote.
However, it was brave – foolish, some might say – to pen an article that refused to endorse Modi without even proper coverage of his rise. To Modi’s opponents, the story starts from during Modi’s days as a pracharak in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an association that raises question marks but Modi still embraces with pride. Yet to Modi’s supporters, the story starts with a weak democracy that implemented sectarian personal laws and went even to the extent of amending the constitution of the land to accommodate them; for them, Modi is the response to a long nightmare of the removal of Indic culture from mainstream discourse by a state-supported Marxian narrative.
Modi’s supporters see his ascent to the chief minister’s chair and the twelve years of development he has ushered in as the story of the success of the hindutva rate of growth over the oft mocked Hindu rate of growth under Jawaharlal Nehru. While Modi’s detractors raise the issue of his role in the 2002 riots in Gujarat, his supporters point to the Supreme Court’s investigation that uncovered no grounds for charges against the Gujarat chief minister. Modi’s supporters also raise the issue of the several riots that occurred when the Indian National Congress was in power, and whose leaders have gone unpunished, the suspension of democracy by the Congress’ putative prime ministerial candidate Rahul Gandhi’s grandmother, Indira Gandhi, for 18 months to cover electoral fraud, and the rampant corruption of the last decade of Congress rule. Needless to say, any editorial – even one that refused to endorse Modi – could have made sense only as a capstone to a long series on Indian politics and Modi’s rise.
The regional political calculus also adds a layer of complexity to electoral fortunes. India is a country with over 200 political parties, and even if only two dozen of them really matter, that is one score over most elections in the West. India’s vastness and complexity is so daunting that even Indian publications struggle to cover the country, and only few manage to do so with great difficulty. Also, the plethora of languages in India means that foreign publications have to rely heavily on the English press, which has itself been the focus of attention recently for all the wrong reasons. In this climate, The Economist’s refusal to endorse was quite courageous.
If, on the other hand, The Economist had wholeheartedly endorsed Modi, it would have hardly fared better in the Indian (~40,000 copies) public’s eye, for all the objections still hold. When Time magazine considered Modi for their Man of the Year list recently, his detractors organised a last-minute online voting rush to deny him the numbers. Despite such zeal on either side, The Economist chose to not opine but to vote negatively on the endorsement of a major candidate in India’s elections.
Most importantly, The Economist surely cannot hope to have made an impact on the Indian elections with such an editorial. Beyond complexities and cultural defensiveness is the matter of relevance. Imagine, for example, the effect of an Indian magazine like India Today having refused to endorse Margaret Thatcher for prime minister. Probably not even Thatcher was as divisive in Britain as Modi is in India, but an endorsement or the refusal to from an Indian magazine, despite the large Indian diaspora in the United Kingdom, would be meaningless. Similarly, The Economist’s ill-advised refusal to endorse Modi, for better or for worse, has only annoyed many Indians without any impact on the elections or an increase in the magazine’s subscriber base. As they say in India, begaani shaadi mein abdullah deewana.
Jaideep spends most of his time avoiding work; when not married to his books, he likes to cook, sail, and scuba. A great admirer of Hatshepsut, Jaideep refuses to live in the 21st century. He grew up in the Middle East and Europe. When forced into wage slavery, he is a doctoral student in History at Vanderbilt University. He tweets at @orsoraggiante.