What kind of grade to give Narendra Modi, the current prime minister of India and a leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who in May of last year won a political victory equated with the force of a tsunami in which more than 550 million voters participated.
Ambassador Marion V. Creekmore Jr., distinguished visiting professor at Emory University, held back from extending a letter grade during a lecture at the monthly luncheon of the Atlanta Council on International Relations held March 25 at the Capital City Club downtown.
Perhaps after serving as a career diplomat from 1965-93, extending a specific letter grade so early in Mr. Modi’s career as prime minister would be unfair, or certainly at least too undiplomatic for a former ambassador to Sri Lanka and the Republic of the Maldives.
But after years of analyzing foreign affairs including serving as deputy chief of mission from 1981-84 in New Delhi, India, as well as a myriad of other posts including principal adviser to former President Carter concerning the 1994 nuclear crisis with North Korea, his opinion would be revealing.
He did call Mr. Modi’s first 10 months as prime minister “impressive,” while outlining some of the enormous problems that he will face as leader of a complex society of enormous size.
Dr. Creekmore credited Mr. Modi as having “tremendous charisma,” and a “proven vote getter,” who conducted a “masterful campaign,” including some U.S. methods such as door-to-door canvassing, reliance on information technology, large televised events and the use of focus groups to hone his agenda.
He also cited Mr. Modi’s extraordinary determination, having traveled 180,000 miles on the campaign, a distance he quantified as seven times around the earth.
Meanwhile, the ruling Congress Party faced with Mr. Modi’s “charm and checkbook” ran what Dr. Creekmore called “an unfocused, feckless” campaign led by a triumvirate that failed to generate the “hope and dynamism” that Mr. Modi unleashed.
Mr. Modi’s speeches were laced, he said, with promises to get rid of corruption and bureaucratic red tape for which India often is criticized, to develop 100 new cities, to build high-speed trains, to clean up the polluted Ganges river and to provide sanitation programs for 4,000 cities.
All this in a country, according to Dr. Creekmore, where half the population, 600 million people, still don’t have regular access to toilets.
He also praised Mr. Modi for his deft handling of foreign policy pointing to a strengthening of U.S. ties through greater cooperation in the development of India’s military and encouraging mutual trade and investment.
And he said that Mr. Modi “understands as well as anyone what is going on in China.” Dr. Creekmore should know; he has known India’s newly appointed foreign secretary, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, for years.
Already, India has made progress with economic reform in his first year and has reined in inflation. So why not give the prime minister at least an A-, or at the worst a B+ ?
“The bottom line is that he is changing India and providing a dynamism that has been missing the last five years,” he said. “There is hope and dynamism that was not there before. Now it is real.”
But whether “the tsunami will permanently change India,” he added, “is too early to tell.”
And he has good grounds for his restraint.
For Mr. Modi’s government to reach its goals, India will have to experience substantial growth of at least 9-10 percent a year for a decade, he said. To accomplish his goals, he also will have to remain in power for a decade, a significant challenge for even the most accomplished politician.
Additionally, he also will have to moderate Hindu nationalists, whom his BJP party represents, who have persecuted non-Hindus including Muslims as well as Catholics.
And then he won’t be exempt from external pressures such as the weather including the droughts that currently are affecting rural farmers.
In conclusion, Dr. Creekmore sidestepped answering his question, “Will the tsunami permanently change India?” by saying that “It’s too early to tell.”
But he said he remained an optimist and he was certain that India “was in the process of becoming one of the world’s great powers in the 21st century.”
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