There were hardly any earth-shattering new perspectives to emerge from Narendra Modi’s interview to Zee just ahead of his visit to Davos but a few truths were reinforced. We were reminded yet again that Modi remains the only mass leader in India with a vision, and a willingness to implement that vision to transform an enormous and complex nation. It was also evident that Modi is willing to stay the course despite deep transitory costs and consequent threats to his political capital.

This is important, because democracy is in a global retreat and India — with its huge population, firm commitment to democracy and the tag of being the world’s fastest-growing large economy — remains perhaps the last beacon of hope. India needs to succeed while staying within the democratic framework to show to the rest of the world that it is possible to achieve equitable growth without sacrificing freedom.

The liberal order is facing severe pressure from a China-led alternate political model where civil liberties, free media and rule of law are traded in favour of authoritarianism leading to inequitable, if faster growth.
Freedom House, a global watchdog for freedom and democracy, points out in its latest report that democracy worldwide is facing a crisis. Among its key findings, it notes that since 2006 when the slide began in basic tenets of democracy, “71 countries have suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties, with only 35 registering gains. This marked the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.”

The report cautions that “perhaps worst of all, and most worrisome for the future, young people, who have little memory of the long struggles against fascism and communism, may be losing faith and interest in the democratic project.”

The threat to democracy is grave from actors that are well-versed in sophistry. In Davos last year, China’s president Xi Jinping delivered encomiums in favour of free trade and earned accolades for his “leadership role”. The contrast with Donald Trump’s America-First strategy couldn’t be starker. Yet this stance is treacherous. Any country that has done business with China will know how the mercantilist force has subverted all rule-based architectures, and the WTO has been no exception.

For instance, the Trump administration has admitted that it had made a mistake in backing Beijing to join the WTO in 2001. In its annual report to US Congress, the White House on Friday acknowledged that WTO rules have proved insufficient “to constrain China’s market-distorting behavior”

China’s job has been made easier due to the rise of protectionism in the US as a backlash against globalisation. America might not be in ‘retreat’ but its focus has definitely turned inwards under Trump and its credibility as global leader has substantially eroded. China has stepped in to fill the void, and through its economic might, “propaganda and censorship apparatus” and use of coercive strategies, it is “blazing a new trail for developing countries to follow,” as Freedom House puts it in its report.

Authoritarian regimes such as China and Russia use tools of democracy to subvert it. Free media – that strengthens democracy – remains state-controlled in China and is used to manipulate the narrative. We are relentlessly fed stories of China’s ‘win-win’ connectivity project, the Belt and Road Initiative, but stories of repression lie under the radar.

For instance, China recently banned students in Muslim-dominated Gansu province from entering “religious buildings over their break and reading scriptures in classes.” Students and teachers have been asked instead to work to “strengthen political ideology and propaganda.”

This is where India, with its democratic institutions and principles can prove that the authoritarian model is regressive and unstable. In order for India to do that, however, it needs to have the right leadership that’s willing to take risks and shake the country out of somnambulism that it has long been accustomed to.

In Modi, India has found a leader willing to take risks. Ratings show that three years into his tenure, the prime minister still remains overwhelmingly popular. Pew Research says nearly nine-in-ten Indians hold a favourable opinion of him. . But it goes deeper than that. Modi has retained his popularity despite putting entire political capital at stake while triggering some transformative and utterly disruptive changes.

These reformative steps, as World Bank has pointed out in its latest report on India while projecting a 7.3 per cent growth in 2018, may unlock India’s “enormous growth potential”. It said: “So far we have seen ambitious policy initiatives and implementation like GST. And we have all the reasons to expect this government to continue economic policies to create friendly environment for businesses and push its growth potential up.”

In his interview, Modi pointed out that GST and demonetisation weren't the only reforms he had undertaken, though these were the most talked-about.

"If you consider only these two things (GST and demonetisation) as my government's work, it will be a big injustice to me...” He also “listed bringing unbanked people into the banking network, construction of toilets in over four lakh schools, cooking gas connections to three crore families, electrification of left-out villages, ramping up of urea supply, low-cost insurance for poor, LED bulbs to save power bills and environment as the other areas his government has focused on, " according a PTI report quoted by The Times of India.

The most disappointing aspect about India’s politics has been the fact that even as Modi has gone about implementing his vision with conviction and even stubbornness, the Opposition has failed to provide either a critique or an alternative. It has focused on the transitory costs, hoping to profit from the unrest arising out of the behavioural changes that Modi’ steps have forced on the polity.

Even more disappointing is the fact that young leaders, who have sprung from social movements, have been too willing to slip into the throes of anarchy. Instead of providing an alternative vision or a more inclusive model, they have threatened to pull back India into the vortex of caste politics.

Modi has a daunting task in taking India ahead while mitigating the social and economic disparities. However, it is quite evident, not just because he presents his case forcefully during the interview, that he is the only leader willing to even try to do so.