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Can India’s next prime minister deliver on economic promises?

May 16, 2014 at 6:10 PM EDT
Why did Narendra Modi resonate with so many voters in India’s record-breaking election? Sumit Ganguly of Indiana University and Tanvi Madan of the Brookings Institution join Judy Woodruff for more on his background and his appeal, concerns about whether he will be inclusive and predictions for how he will change India-U.S. relations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that was Hari Sreenivasan reporting.

In a phone call today, President Obama invited the prime minister elect to visit Washington.

And to tell us more what the Modi victory means for India and for the United States, I’m joined by Sumit Ganguly. He’s a political science professor at Indiana University in Bloomington. And Tanvi Madan, she is director of the India Project at the Brookings Institution.

And we welcome you both to the program.

Tanvi Madan, let me start with you. Tell us more about who Narendra Modi is.

TANVI MADAN, Brookings Institution: Narendra Modi is the prime ministerial candidate of the center-right Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, in India. He is the chief minister of the western state of Gujarat.

He’s a man who generates some hope and some concern amongst Indian voters, and clearly the voters have said that hope has trumped concern in this case.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And let me turn to you, Sumit Ganguly. Why is — did his message resonate with so many voters this time?

SUMIT GANGULY, Indiana University: I think his message resonated so clearly with so many voters on this particularly occasion is because of three reasons, first, the rank ineptitude of the Congress Party in terms of governing the country over the last five years, the anemic record of economic growth, and the widespread corruption scandals that are associated with the party.

All these three things combined really sank the Congress Party, and simultaneously, Modi’s message of hope, of prosperity, of bringing employment opportunities to a whole generation of aspiring Indians, I think, worked exceedingly well with the electorate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tanvi Madan, what would you add to that? What was he saying to the voters that made them want to support him?

TANVI MADAN: He seemed to run on one platform, development: I’m going to deliver good growth, good governance and I’m going to get things done.

And as Sumit said, this was in opposition to — or at least he was portraying it in opposition to what the current government of — led by the Congress Party in a coalition was standing for.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what does he want to do differently? What was he saying that he would — because I have read a couple of stories today that said many voters were for him, but they’re not sure what he is going to do once he is in office.

TANVI MADAN: I think the challenge for him — there are two challenges that he is going to face. One is to actually deliver on the economic promises that he has made, including increasing investment. So a better investment climate is something that he promised.

The other challenge for him is going to be to actually convince Indians, not just the 31 percent of Indians who voted for him, that he can be a truly inclusive prime minister.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are those his main challenges, Sumit Ganguly?

SUMIT GANGULY: I think those are his principal challenges.

And also he has raised expectations to such a high extent. Now, unless he can deliver, particularly on the promise of economic growth, I think there is going to be a great deal of disillusionment. I also wish to underscore a point that Tanvi made, namely that there’s a segment of the population, particularly amongst the Muslim community, that remains understandably and deeply skeptical of this particular prime ministerial candidate and on the verge of becoming the prime minister.

And their reasons are quite sound. And he has to find a way to reassure them that, as prime minister, he will not be completely oblivious to their concerns and to their interests.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Skeptical of him why?

SUMIT GANGULY: Skeptical of him because of his record in Gujarat, in the wake of this terrible pogrom that swept through the state in February 2002.

He has scarcely apologized for the terrible tragedy. In fact, when he sought to apologize in response to a question, the characterization was, in my view, rather distressing, because he said, yes, he felt the same sort of sorrow that one might feel if a car ran over a puppy.

That’s hardly the manner in which a national leader should talk about a colossal human tragedy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If he has this serious thing in his past, Tanvi Madan, why then do you think he won such a big victory?

TANVI MADAN: I think the voters, at least 31 percent in the parliamentary system that actually gets you — can get you the majority, believe that he can actually focus on the development side of his platform and stay away from what they think will be these other issues that would be of some concern, but some of his base might actually push him towards. So, the challenge for him…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Might push him, I’m sorry, to…


JUDY WOODRUFF: Might push him — I didn’t…

TANVI MADAN: Push him towards taking a more divisive approach towards…


TANVI MADAN: … so more Hindu nationalist approach, as opposed to a growth-first approach.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hindu nationalist approach, meaning? Explain what that would mean to an American audience.

TANVI MADAN: It would mean essentially saying that India is a country first and foremost for Hindus and that others had to fit in within that, as opposed to a message of tolerance, of inclusiveness, which is what he today in his speech said he is actually going to govern on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We reported, Sumit Ganguly, President Obama has already invited Mr. Modi to come to visit, to come to Washington. How do you think his being in office will change, if at all, U.S.-India relations?

SUMIT GANGULY: Much depends on what Mr. Modi can do to foster a more conducive economic climate, make it more attractive to American investors, and also tackle a number of ongoing issues in Indo-U.S. relations which remain in abeyance, for example, the law — legal regime that was created for foreign investment in the India nuclear power industry in the wake of the U.S.-India nuclear agreement of 2008.

It has such draconian provisions that no American company is going to dare invest in India, and this has been a seriously contentious issue in Indo-U.S. relations, and the past government sought to soften the law, but really had — didn’t succeed.

And this is something that the Obama administration obviously is going to look forward to. And I can think of a whole host of other similar issues where there are important differences between India and the United States, primarily in the economic realm. And if Modi is serious about grasping the economic nettle, these are some of the issues he will have to tackle.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tanvi Madan, just quickly to wrap up, what should we look to, to measure the new shape of the U.S.-India relationship under him?

TANVI MADAN: I think the first thing we will see is who he actually appoints to certain key positions.

We will see amongst those — we will have to look at who he is going to make national security adviser, foreign minister, defense minister, but also, broadly, what is the message that he sends on the economic side and the foreign policy side, not just vis-a-vis U.S.-India relations, but on other issues that impact U.S.-India relations, including Pakistan and China?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tanvi Madan, Sumit Ganguly, we thank you both.