At a glittering ceremony last week in New Delhi, Narendra Modi was sworn in as India’s 15th prime minister.
Modi is the latest in a line of (mostly) distinguished men and women who have held the post, some for a decade or more, some for only a few months or days. But as India's citizenry has grown, so have the expectations for a society in which many of the old problems of illiteracy, poverty, malnutrition, and religious and caste disability persist. A consumer revolution, contact with the wider world, and a generation of post-liberalization baby boomers have generated startling new aspirations and discontents.
How can Modi, the former chief minister of one of the nation's most conservative states, ensure that he brings not just the right attitude but also the right ideas to office? Why, by reading on the job. Books allow for an extended engagement with unfamiliar and challenging ideas and a rethinking of long-held and reflexive positions.
Modi is no intellectual, as India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and the most recent one, Manmohan Singh, were. He presents himself as a man of action, not of cogitation. But the responsibility of being the first citizen of such a vast, ancient and diverse civilization requires an advanced awareness of history, of ideas, of changing human realities. Here are three books that Modi and his team should read to help set an agenda for themselves and the country for the next five years.
The first tackles the subject of economics. Modi’s most successful move in his election campaign was promising to whip the flagging Indian economy into shape. There was a political, even cynical, aspect to this vow: By suggesting that economic growth lifts everyone, across lines of religion and class, he deflected questions about his record of prejudice toward the substantial Muslim minority of his home state, Gujarat. His recipe is a leaner state, both in terms of its size and what it hands out, and his vision of development emphasizes rapid industrialization and urbanization along the lines of his “Gujarat model.” Although it’s clearly business-friendly, it’s not quite laissez-faire; in some aspects, including on foreign investment in the retail sector, it’s unapologetically protectionist and nationalist.
Where does this materialist and pragmatic worldview come from, so unusual for the leader of a party with its roots in religious revivalism and nationalist dogma? And where could it find more sustenance? It echoes many notes in the legendary Indian courtier Kautilya’s “The Arthashastra” ("The Science of Wealth"), a 2,000-year-old treatise on economics so influential in Indian history that scholar Thomas Trautmann memorably called it “a book-killing book.”
Kautilya’s book is also a fascinating meditation on the wealth-generating role of kingship -- until quite recently in human history the default setting of political authority. “All undertakings presuppose the treasury,” Kautilya says to the imagined king. “Before anything, therefore, he should attend to the treasury.” In the absence of something like the modern corporation, Kautilya held that only the king -- today, the state -- had enough capital reserves to help raise the standard of living of the citizenry.
Kautilya was aware of the role of property rights in wealth creation, and he had a very progressive view on taxation: He held that taxes should not be high (to discourage tax evasion), and that activities such as gambling should not be banned (as they are in India today) but legalized and taxed. Here is an indigenous text that Modi could employ to carry out many necessary economic reforms -- India’s tax system is full of holes and contradictions, with its little-paid personal income tax and yet-to-be-implemented goods and services tax -- while also helping grow the state’s revenue.
The second book addresses the tricky matter of religion. Modi is a right-wing politician who has promised not to be a right-wing prime minister. This requires both acts of omission (such as an end to the ugly anti-Muslim rhetoric he’s employed in the past) and acts of commission in order to rein in the newly emboldened cadre of India’s many right-wing groups who see in Indian history a story of grievance and victimhood. It’s hard to let go of your most cherished beliefs about history, but Modi might make a small start by reading “A Place Within” by the Canadian novelist M.G. Vassanji.
In the 1990s, Vassanji began a series of trips back to the land of his forebears -- travels that took him to Gujarat. It also led him to the question of whether the modern religious categories of the subcontinent are really as stable as they seem. This was partly due to his own faith; he comes from the Ismaili Khoja community, an “odd, syncretistic faith” that is a melange of Hinduism and Islam. But at the time of Vassanji's travels, Hindus and Muslims had been killing each other in riots over controversies that had their origins hundreds of years in the past.
Vassanji does not deny or wish away that long history of religious violence -- a history that many modern, secular texts seek to place in a larger fable of tolerance and synthesis, as Patrick French perceptively noted. But neither does he think Hinduism and Islam were the same in the 16th century as they are today; the past is too much of a foreign country for us to be able to retrofit into present-day disputes and prejudices, and indeed notions of identity.
The religious disputes of the present day take place under a new legal and intellectual firmament: that of the secular Indian nation-state, a structure expressly devised by India’s founding fathers in the middle of the 20th century to counter the subcontinent’s cataclysm of religious violence. Armed with Vassanji, Modi could use more than just charisma or subterfuge to hold back the large brigade that wants to see India change from a Hindu-majority state to a Hindu state.
What about the other great responsibility of a democratic politician: making new laws? There’s a book for that, too. As the American experiment shows, a society may from its very beginnings assert “that all men are created equal” yet leave out many classes of human beings from the reach of this phrase -- and indeed subject them to the rankest prejudices. In India, this asymmetry holds true not just for some religious minorities, low-caste Hindus and tribals (who enjoy some protection from the law), but also for homosexuals (who don’t).
It's time to remedy this. It is plausible that Modi -- who was raised in an introverted, socialist India and whose beliefs were forged in a very different time -- is anti-gay; he even could argue that the law has reconfirmed his position. Earlier this year, India’s Supreme Court struck down a landmark 2009 High Court judgment decriminalizing homosexuality.
Before he makes up his mind on the subject for good, Modi should read Richard D. Mohr’s “A More Perfect Union.” Written in 1994, when America was “at a turning point on gay issues,” Mohr’s book is addressed to those who have no knowledge of, or imagination for, homosexuality but are willing to ask, as citizens of a democracy must do, “How am I to act toward you? Here is an opportunity for you to define yourselves to me.”
As he reads Mohr, Modi may also think the state has no business criminalizing what consenting adults do with their bodies or their lives. And further, that when the law criminalizes certain kinds of human behavior, it also contributes to the perpetuation of prejudice. “Taboos encourage, indeed enforce, the aping of opinions from one person to the next,” writes Mohr, “causing them to circulate independently of both critical assessment and authentic feeling.”
If Modi were to propose a reconsideration of the discriminatory Article 377 of the Indian Penal Code, he’d be setting the stage for the new era he has promised, making Parliament, rather than the courts, the stage for a more perfect Indian union.
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