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#4441, 16 May 2014
Modi: Perspectives from Europe
Kai Fürstenberg
South Asia Institute, Heidelberg University
Email: Fuerstenberg@uni-heidelberg.de

The recently-concluded general election in India was the largest democratic election in history. However, it isn’t the size of the electorate that makes this election interesting. Instead, it is Narendra Modi, the controversial lead candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and potential prime minister of India 

The German perspective on Modi is strongly divided: On one hand he is the politician-cum-businessman, and on the other, he is the far-right leader with ties to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Modi’s alleged business acumen, his success in attracting large enterprises and his industrialisation policies have earned him a reputation concerning the economic growth of India. Many Indians, especially the urban middle classes, hope that his leadership style will bring an end to the wide-spread corruption and produce economic development; and with it jobs. After a steep decline of German investments into India over the past two years, the German business community views Modi as someone who could make investing into India lucrative again.

The BJP’s election manifesto which promises tax-reforms and especially simplification of the tax-code is a good sign for German enterprises. Additionally, the BJP’s promise to reform the labour laws may be in favour of foreign businesses to hire and fire as needed. Although Modi rejected the influx of foreign investments in retail, it is just a minor concern for German enterprises that are heavily centred on automobiles, services, machines and chemicals.

The German economy is also dependent on exports, especially of cars, consumer goods and machines. These are products usually aimed at a middle class that is wealthy enough to afford them. A Modi-led government will favour the middle class – it is his electoral stronghold after all – and that may give some incentives to Germans entering Indian markets. The BJP manifesto also promises banking reforms probably focused more on investment activities and less on regulation. This could be interesting for German banks that will probably face increasing regulation in the European Union.

However, one should be careful with too much enthusiasm. While it is true that Gujarat is an economic and industrial powerhouse, it is not all Modi’s ‘genius’ and it is not all well in the state. The industrialisation of Gujarat is the product of policies which were set in motion well before 2001. And in terms of the Human Development Index, Gujarat stands 11th and 14th in people below poverty line - which are, at best, mediocre results. Even the glorified GDP per capita growth of Gujarat has decreased.

When in the Prime Minister’s Office, Narendra Modi would face a challenge much larger than he currently does in Gujarat. Besides, he might not be able lead and decide at the Centre like he did in his home State. To expect investor’s paradise under a Modi regime is foolish, also for German enterprises.

The other narrative in Germany is that Modi is the Hindu-nationalist, RSS member and alleged accessory to the 2002 Gujarat communal riots. In Germany, there lingers a fear of a religious-fascist dictatorship in India under ‘Führer Modi’. This narrative, to a large extent, is also a result of the coverage by the mainstream German media; and less part due to a relative ignorance towards India’s political system. The term Hindu-nationalist has a different connotation in Germany and has a much more negative sound to it for German ears. Without much knowledge of the Indian system of government, Germans who follow the Indian elections causally may get the impression that Modi would have much more influence on politics as head of government than he would actually have as a prime minister with a strong opposition party and a phalanx of states ruled by the Congress or other regional parties. The biggest factor of concern evoked by Narendra Modi is probably his membership in the RSS.

Viewed as a fascist organisation not only in India or Germany, it evokes old fears in Germans of uniformed and militaristic hordes terrorising minorities; and media reports strengthen that picture. Modi is of course not a tolerant and liberal man and he is certainly not innocent of enticing anti-Muslim sentiments, especially in connection to the 2002 riots, but he will not let loose the hordes of the RSS to bring terror upon minorities. He already mellowed in his speeches and he has mellowed even more as the candidate for the prime minister of India, when he had to appease the party establishment of the BJP, their allies; of chief ministers in the States and of course of foreign politicians and investors.

The much needed ‘manager of India Inc.’ and the ‘evil Hindu-nationalist’, these are the two personae of Modi in Germany. Both sides of the Modi medal are prevalent, but Germans will deal with a completely different Modi when he assumes office.

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