Will Modi be India’s “Scott Walker” or “Chris Christie”…. Or, its Vladimir Putin?

Narendra Modi, who has won three of the last five elections in Gujarat, now vows he will do for India what he has done for his state of 60 million – encourage investment and fight corruption. As to whether the “Modi Model” will work on a country or 1.3 billion in the same way it has on a state with 1/20 that many people remains to be seen.

By John Gizzi | May 12, 2014

No. 7, Race Course Road, prime minister’s official residenceNarendra Modi on the campaign trail

Within days, there will be an announcement from New Delhi, India that will surely spark heated discussion in Washington, Beijing, Tokyo, Moscow and other capital cities. The votes for the 543-seat Lok Sabha (India’s lower house of parliament) will be officially counted. Barring unforeseen circumstances, the opposition Bharatiya Janata (conservative) Party will be in power with Narenda Modi as prime minister.

How this change of government will affect relations between India and other countries is uncertain. The recent election focused almost exclusively on economics and corruption and next-to-nothing was said about foreign policy. Barely a word on the campaign trail was said, for example, about Pakistan, India’s neighbor and longtime arch-nemesis.

New Delhi’s relationship with Beijing and Moscow, however, may be quite different. Rabid free marketer Modi seems poised to unleash the power of Indian business and at least try to give China and its annual 10 per cent growth (until recently) a run for its proverbial money.

The new Indian government’s dealings with Russia are far more uncertain and complex. This is due less to the elections and more to outrage over Russia’s heavy-handed involvement in Ukraine. India has had a close relationship with Russia going back to 1969, when the two nations signed a pact of “peace, friendship, and cooperation.”

Their long history of a “special relationship” aside, it is difficult to imagine things remaining the same between India and Russia after the Ukraine crisis.

For now, most of the world’s attention and its questions are on Modi himself.

The “Lion of Gujarat”

Not since South Africa’s Nelson Mandela has a world leader been as controversial before taking office as the 63-year-old Modi, onetime Hindu militant and strongman chief minister (governor) of the state of Gujarat.

To admirers, onetime tea seller Modi is India’s answer to such hard-charging Republican governors as Chris Christie of New Jersey or Scott Walker of Wisconsin.

Like Walker when he pushed the pension and healthcare reforms for public employees that led to his nationally-watched recall election (which he won), the chief minister known as the “Lion of Gujarat” has overseen controversial market policies that have worked.

Modi, who has won three of the last five elections in Gujarat, now vows he will do for India what he has done for his state of 60 million: “encourage investment, improve roads, electricity and water supply, and create the jobs desperately needed by the 10-12 million young Indians entering the workforce each year,” wrote Victor Mallet in the Financial Times.

“A leader among leaders, a king among kings,” is how Anil Ambani, head of Reliance Industries, hailed Modi at a recent “Vibrant Gujarat” business summit. Anil Ambani, brother Mukesh Ambani, and Esser Oil tycoon Shasi Ruia were just some of the Indian captains of industry promising billions in fresh investment for the Arabian seacoast state.

Auto kingpin Ratan Tata, whose empire counts the iconic British brands Jaguar and Land Rover, was frustrated by West Bengal politicians in his efforts to build a Nano mini-car factory in their state. He then approached Modi, who promptly cleared the way for the factory to be built in Gujarat.

As to whether the “Modi Model” will work on a country of 1.3 billion in the same way it has on a state with 1/20 that many people remains to be seen. Skeptics point out that Gujarat, an industrial mecca whose pumping stations handle 80% of India’s oil imports, is light years ahead of the other 27 states in a nation wracked by poverty.

There also are questions about Modi himself. Although he is likened to conservative Republican governors who have achieved success with bold agendas, it is also pointed out they have different styles. Wisconsin’s Walker is a convivial fellow who forgave the enemies who tried to recall him and promptly invited them to “beer and brats” at the Governor’s Mansion. New Jersey’s Christie works closely with Democrats in his state’s legislature and appoints Democrats to key offices.

Whether he is cutting through red tape or wooing investors to his state, Modi clearly likes things done his way. Coupled with what critics say is a heavy-handed approach to those who disagree with him, Modi’s “my way or the highway” persona invites comparison to that of another international player who tolerates little disagreement – Vladimir Putin.

Historian Ramachandra Guha, author of “India After Gandhi,” wrote of an incident early in Modi’s stint in Gujarat in which “there was a pogrom against the Muslim minority, which a [government] minister has been convicted of abetting. More recently, books have been banned and artists harassed in Gujarat, while teaching standards have slipped.”

There is an even darker side to Modi that was widely discussed but had little impact on the 800 million-plus voters who went to the polls from April 7 through May 12.

As a young man, Modi was active in Rashtria Swayamasevak (Organization of National Volunteers), a militant Hindu organization.

Soon after Modi became chief minister in 2002, Muslims rioted in Gujarat and police fired on the crowds. Nearly 1,000 were killed and tens of thousands of Muslims fled from their homes. For years afterward, several European countries and the U.S. denied Modi a visa. (With his election as prime minister increasingly inevitable, most of the countries have since lifted their ban on a visit; the U.S. did so earlier this year.)

Modi never apologized for the violence under his watch a dozen years ago. Indian courts have exonerated him from any personal involvement. But suspicion and fear of the incoming prime minister are still strong among the roughly 15 to 18% of the Indian population who are Muslims, exceeding the population of Gujarat’s neighbor Pakistan.

Sea Change in India

As Modi prepares to enter No. 7, Race Course Road (the official residence of the Indian prime minister), the once-mighty Indian economic growth rate has slid below 5% under the ruling Congress Party.

Noting that deficits are high and Congress has enacted such costly programs as those providing massive public works projects and a right-to-education, Indian political scientist Akash Kapur concluded in Business Week recently: “The elections are in many ways a contest over economic ideas, over the model of development best suited to India. This contest raises the stakes for Indian voters; the outcome of these elections could very well determine the fortunes of an economy that has recently fallen into stagnation.”

In India’s 16th national election since British independence in 1947, one could say the nation’s longtime ruling party has also fallen into stagnation. With the retirement of Prime Minister Singh at age 81, the helm of Congress was turned over to the heir to India’s most illustrious political legacy: Rahul Gandhi, son and grandson of prime ministers, and great-grandson of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharal Nehru.

The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, in historian Guha’s withering words, is “a family whose charisma declines with every generation.” At 43, young Mr. Gandhi has never been a Cabinet minister and was ineffective as a campaigner.

Narendra Modi is, in many ways, Gandhi’s polar opposite. A self-made man of humble origins, he shuns traditional Indian suits for casual Friday-style short sleeve shirts and slacks. Even political opponents concede Modi is the most spell-binding orator India has produced since V.I. Krishna Menon, the fiery UN ambassador of the 1950s and ’60s.

Modi on the stump denounced the powers in the Congress Party as “the Rome Raj” – a not-so-subtle jab at Sonia Gandhi, party boss and Rahul’s Italian-born mother.

When a government minister questioned whether a tea seller could be prime minister, Modi shot back: “A tea seller is a better person than those who sell the country” – a slam at both elitism and corruption under Congress.

He ran an American-style campaign modeled on that of Barack Obama’s vision of “hope and change” in 2008. But, as many concluded about Obama when he was president-elect, no one is quite sure just what Narendra Modi will now do in office.

Whether he governs more like Walker and Christie than Putin will depend in part on his eventual partner in a coalition government. That would appear to be the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi (Common Man) Party, which competed in a national election for the first time and scored significantly in parliamentary seats.

One thing seems certain: before he has even taken up the reins of government, Modi has captured the world’s attention like few other incoming world leaders. And the whole world will surely be watching him.

John Gizzi is the White House correspondent and chief political columnist for Newsmax. He is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis.