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India Needs Dramatic Growth, and Modi’s Not Helping

The prime minister’s tenure has been marked by tepid reform and world-class policy errors.
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Source: BJP; Photo illustration: 731

It was a sight to warm the heart of an Indian nationalist: Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at the Republic Day celebration on Jan. 26, welcoming one by one his 10 chief guests, the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or Asean. They stood alongside Modi and watched an hourslong parade that, in its cheerful mishmash of tanks, marching sailors in spats, kilted bagpipers, female motorcycle daredevils, camels, ballistic missiles, dancing schoolchildren, and tableaux representing such abstract concepts as ethical taxpaying, is a fair representation of this bewildering and vibrant country. You could see the presence of Asean’s leaders as a sign of India’s rise and allow yourself to hope that this most diffident of countries was finally stepping into a global role. Just the previous week, Modi had held forth at Davos’s opening plenary about India’s democracy, its diversity, and its resilience.

But, as is always the case with India, the reality is somewhat different. Truthfully, the nation isn’t quite ready for the role that most Indians—and many in the rest of the world—want it to assume. One day, perhaps, it will help stabilize the Indian and Pacific oceans and beyond. One day, certainly, it will seek to aggressively counter Chinese influence in Southeast Asia and Africa. One day it may serve as a beacon of liberal values and a counterexample to Beijing’s authoritarianism. But, if you look out at the country and the world from New Delhi, it’s clear that day hasn’t yet arrived. Even at Davos, as veteran journalist Shekhar Gupta pointed out, the sessions dealing with India were mainly filled by Indians. “Unless the world starts lining up to attend these,” he says, “India won’t have arrived on the world scene, never mind our chronic love of self-congratulation.”