- Narendra Modi addressed a gathering of Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry Ladies Organization, April 8.
In India, the death of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has sparked comparisons between the “Iron Lady” and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.
The comparisons are tempting. Mrs. Thatcher – a politician who left a divisive legacy in her native U.K. – was a British nationalist and champion of free-market capitalism. She revamped her country’s declining economy in a process that also triggered social unrest.
Mr. Modi, chief minister of India’s western Gujarat state, has presided over an economic boom in his region. Foreign investors say he has cut down on red tape and improved infrastructure in a country where red-tape-ism torpedoes many business deals and has held back economic growth.
At speeches on Monday and Tuesday to business executives in New Delhi and Kolkata, which are widely seen as part of Mr. Modi’s attempts to kick-start a run for prime minister in 2014, he hit many notes that would have been familiar to Mrs. Thatcher.
Mr. Modi, who is a member of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, talked about how governments should play only a small role in an economy, a dig at the national ruling Congress party’s massive social welfare programs.
He regularly cited examples of entrepreneurial achievement in Gujarat as evidence of the power of individual choice as an economic driver. Mrs. Thatcher would’ve liked this, too.
(By comparison, a speech last week by Rahul Gandhi, touted as Congress’s likely prime ministerial candidate, was more focused on inclusive growth and wealth redistribution.)
Champions of free markets are hoping Mr. Modi can emulate Mrs. Thatcher, who took over the U.K. government in 1979 amid a broken economy and labor strife.
“I think he’s our Iron Man,” said Naveen Aggarwal, a Indian-based analyst at KPMG LLP.
Gurcharan Das, an author and former executive with Procter & Gamble India, believes the comparisons are valid. “I think there is a lot in common between them,” he said. “In his inclination for small government and a high level of governance, in that respect he’s close to Thatcher.”
Mr. Modi, on his Twitter account, had this to say: “Inspirational leader of immense stature & fortitude, Baroness Margaret Thatcher was an epoch maker. A sad loss for UK and the world.”
The parallels between Mr. Modi and Mrs. Thatcher didn’t go unnoticed by others on social media.
“RIP Mrs. T. Watching Modi and hearing of your death, this must be cosmic,” Ashok Malik, a popular political columnist, said on Twitter.
Mr. Modi has been compared to Mrs. Thatcher before.
“In the 1980s there were President Reagan and PM Margaret Thatcher, who forever changed the world we live in. Now, it is Hon. Modi’s turn to make a similar impact,” Indian Americans for Freedom, a pro-Modi group based in the U.S., said in a notecongratulating him for his re-election in Gujarat state elections in December.
But is a comparison between Mr. Modi and Mrs. Thatcher appropriate?
In a way, that’s like asking whether one can compare the challenges of heading India’s government over those of steering the U.K.’s.
Regardless of his commitment to free-market reforms, Mr. Modi is likely to find a job on a national scale a lot more trying than managing Gujarat, which is home to some of India’s most entrepreneurial people.
Central governments in India are beholden to parties that are strong in the country’s many regions, on whom they depend to make up numbers in the national Parliament. And that makes it difficult to push through economic reforms.
The government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh unveiled a series of overhauls in September, including allowing foreign companies to invest in Indian supermarkets for the first time. Many states opposed the move, saying it would kill local businesses and have refused to implement the law.
Mr. Modi’s response at the time hardly showed him to be a free marketer of the Chicago school of economics.
While he didn’t reject the proposal completely, he said India needs to modernize its smaller industries before allowing in the Wal-Marts of this world. His party, meanwhile, opposed the reforms.
But there’s another way Mr. Modi and Mrs. Thatcher could be compared. Both figures polarized opinion in their countries.
Mrs. Thatcher, an uncompromising politician and a British nationalist, sidelined trade unions through sweeping privatizations. Hundreds of people died in the military campaign she spearheaded to retake the Falkland Islands from Argentina. In the U.K., some went as far as cheering her death.
Mr. Modi faces criticism for his ties to right-wing Hindu groups, even from some BJP allies. Critics also say he didn’t do enough to stop anti-Muslim violence during communal violence in Gujarat in 2002. He has denied any wrongdoing.