Too Much Heaven: A Brief Look Back at 1979

With the new year starting, it is now forty years since 1979. Forty is a biblical number, which is fitting because 1979 was a year in which religious belief became decisively political. Some of these events are still well remembered: Iran’s Islamic Revolution, the Christmas Eve invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union, the Camp David Accords between Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat, and Menachem Begin. Other key events however are often forgotten, so that 1979 does not usually get the acknowledgment it deserves as being a year of unmatched religious and political action.

The year itself began with the full resumption of diplomatic relations between the US and China, on New Year’s Day, ending three decades of formal estrangement between the two countries. This was followed by Deng Xiaoping visiting the White House at the end of the month, the first time a Communist leader of China had ever made such a trip. The new relationship had an immediate political impact when, on January 7th, the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia fell to the invading Communist Vietnamese. Five weeks after that, China invaded Vietnam, launching a short but brutal war against  Vietnamese forces that had been fighting the US military only six years earlier.

While the political importance of China and America re-establishing their alliance is obvious, its religious significance tends to be overlooked. It has, however, helped lead to one of the largest increases in any religion in recent history: the adoption of Christianity by many tens of millions of Chinese since the 1970s. In 1979 China’s Three-Self Patriotic Movement church was legalized by the Chinese government. It and many other much smaller churches have been so successful in the decades since that today China and America have probably the two largest Protestant populations in the world. China’s overall Christian population is difficult to estimate, but 100 million is a common guess.

Of course, it was in the Middle East where the biggest religious and political upheaval in 1979 took place. In Iran, the Ayatollah came to power on February 11th, the Shah having fled to Egypt three weeks earlier. In a foreshadowing of events that would come at the end of the year, on February 14ththe US ambassador was kidnapped and killed in Kabul, while on the same day Iranian militants temporarily took control of the US embassy in Tehran, kidnapping a Marine there.

On March 26, the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty was signed. This was an event of great significance, considering that the two countries had fought four wars against one another in the preceding three decades, yet have not fought a single war against one another in the four decades since. Israel returned the Sinai Desert to Egypt as part of the deal, while Egypt became the first Arab state to recognize Israel. The three men involved in the peace deal, Jimmy Carter, Anwar Sadat, and Menachem Begin, were at the time the three most religiously committed political leaders of their respective countries, generations, and faiths

The month ended on a less peaceful note in a different arena of religious and political conflict: Britain. On March 30 Airey Neave, the Tory party’s Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, was assassinated outside of the British Parliament by a car bomb planted by Irish militants. The assassination took place just two days after a no confidence vote had brought down a Labour government. Margaret Thatcher was elected Britain’s first female PM a month later.

This assassination would be followed by an even larger attack later in the year. On August 27[1], the Provisional Irish Republican Army killed eighteen British soldiers with two roadside bombs in Northern Ireland, while on the same day killing Lord Mountbatten (an uncle of Prince Phillip, who had formerly been head of the Royal Navy, head of the Armed Forces, and Viceroy of India), his grandson, and two others by planting a bomb on his boat[2].

A month later, Ireland would host its own biggest religious event in decades, when the Pope visited the island. The Pope was welcomed by a crowd estimated to include 2.7 million people, nearly the entire population of the Republic of Ireland[3].

This however was not the Pope’s most important trip abroad in 1979, nor the one to attract the largest crowds. John Paul II, who had only become Pope at the end of 1978 (a rare “year of three popes”), was the first non-Italian Pope in 450 years. He was, even more importantly, Polish, at a time when Poland was the largest country in the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact. The Pope’s visit to Poland in June of 1979, often referred to as the nine days that changed the world, was the first trip by a Pope to a Communist country. It played a substantial role in the rise of the Polish Solidarity movement, and so in turn arguably helped end the Cold War.

The Pope’s influence also attracted enemies. When, at the end of 1979, the Pope was visiting Turkey, a man named Mehmet Ali Agca, who was then beginning a life sentence in prison for killing the editor of a Turkish newspaper earlier that year, escaped from jail and fled to Bulgaria. Two years later, Agca would shoot the Pope in St. Peter’s Square. Given Bulgaria’s position in the Warsaw Pact, many people speculate that the Soviet Union was behind this attack in some way[4].

Acga would later claim that a reason for the shooting was that the Pope had orchestrated the siege of the Grand Mosque of Mecca, a siege which was taking place when Acga made his jail break in November of 1979. This siege, which lasted for two weeks at the holiest site in Islam, involved tens of thousands of hostages[5], several hundred gunmen, and one false messiah. It took place on the first day of the new millennium of the Islamic calendar (1400 A.H.), during the annual Hajj pilgrimage. Saudi forces finally ended the siege after a number of failed attempts and hundreds of deaths, by secretly enlisting the help of France, which sent three of its Special Forces soldiers to Mecca. They quickly converted to Islam in order to enter the holy city, then used gas to sedate the gunmen, who by then had taken refuge in the catacombs beneath the Mosque.

The siege arguably had a major impact on Saudi culture and foreign policy, and a direct legacy in future events such as the emergence of Al Qaeda. It is a sad, fascinating story worth reading about, one that is often forgotten due to the Iranian hostage crisis, which had begun several weeks earlier and was consuming much of America’s attention instead. The siege remains an overlooked subject within the Muslim world as well, mainly because the Saudis have been successful at hushing it up.

At the time, the siege had a number of immediate consequences, owing partly to confusion as to who had orchestrated it. As we have already seen, Acga claimed the Pope was involved. Many others believed the US was behind the siege. This resulted in the destruction of US embassies by mobs in Libya and Pakistan on December 3. Others believed Shia revolutionaries in Iran were behind it. This led to an uprising in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, where the country’s Shia minority population lives and most Saudi oil is located. People there had been attempting to celebrate Ashura on November 25, a major Shia holiday prohibited in Saudi Arabia.

Shia-Sunni political relationships were also deteriorating elsewhere in the Middle East in 1979, part of a process that helped lead to the most deadly war in the recent history of the region, the Iran-Iraq War, the following year. At the start of the year Iraq and Syria had been discussing the possibility of unifying their armed forces and merging into a single state[6], to counter Egypt’s new relationship with the US and Israel. The Shia Islamic revolution in Iran however created the possibility of a closer relationship between Iran and Syria. Syria’s government, led by Hafez al- Assad and the country’s minority Allawite (a branch of Shia Islam, sort of) elite, was at the time fighting Sunni groups such as the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Syria also had interests in the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990)[7], a religious sectarian war in which Shia forces – a few years later emerging as the Party of God, Hezzbolah – were being energized by the Iranian revolution as well as by Israel’s invasion and subsequent withdrawal from Shia-inhabited South Lebanon in 1978.

In Iraq the reverse situation existed. The Iranian revolution frightened Iraq’s Sunni elite, in part because a majority of Iraq’s population were disenfranchised Shia. This may have led Saddam Hussein, then vice president of Iraq, to overthrow his elder cousin Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr, the president, on July 16, 1979. A week later Saddam carried out a public purge of Iraqi politicians, claiming they had been plotting with Syria to overthrow the government of Iraq. The following April, he ordered the execution of Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al Sadr (whose son-in-law, the cleric Muqtada al Sadr, is today arguably the most influential politician in Iraq), along with al Sadr’s sister Amina, before beginning an eight-year war against the ayatollahs in Iran in the fall.

The year ended with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan on Christmas Eve[8]. This was followed two days later by the Soviets killing their former ally, Communist Afghan President Hafizulla Amin[9]. US president Jimmy Carter then signed the order for the CIA to provide lethal aid to the Afghan mujahedeen. Most of this aid was facilitated by the Pakistani regime of Zia ul Haq, who came to power in a coup at the end of 1978 and would, more than any other figure, be responsible for transforming the Pakistani state from secular to theocratic. The decade-long resistance of the mujahedeen against the Soviets and their allies would result in the deaths of perhaps a million people.

Thus it can be seen that 1979 was also a turning point in the extremely violent Cold War. From a time of “national malaise” in the US (to reference the famous speech by Carter that year[10]), which was dealing with an energy crisis, a hostage crisis, and recent memories of Vietnam[11], 1979 would set in motion forces that would lead to a US victory in the Cold War ten years later. But then, it would also lead the US to its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, at the start of another new millennium.

1979 was significant because of its mix of religion and politics, but that mix was obviously was not new at the time, and has not gone away since. What may be more relevant is that the events of 1979 helped to shape the views of a generation of people who, today having reached their fifties, sixties, or seventies, can now shape events themselves[12]. Perhaps this has contributed to the fact that American relationships with Iran and Russia remain hostile just like they were in 1979, while American relationships with countries like China, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt remain cooperative just like they were in 1979.  True, there are signs that some of these relationships may be beginning to change. But for today at least, 1979 remains a guide worth remembering.

Notes:

[1]This attack took place just as a public debate over whether or not it was appropriate to satirize religion was taking place in Britain, as ten days earlier the Monty Python movie The Life of Brian was released. The movie was banned in the Republic of Ireland until 1987.

[2]Another prominent figure assassinated in 1979 was Park Chung-hee, who had been the president of South Korea since 1963, first coming to power in a military coup in 1961. He was shot by his close friend, the head of Korea’s CIA. Park’s daughter was recently president from 2013-2017, but was then impeached.

[3]Two weeks before the Pope’s visit, Ireland passed the Health Act, which legalized the selling of contraception for the purposes of family planning. China then said I’ll raise you one better, launching, in effect, mandatory contraception: 1979 was the year the one-child policy was born.

[4]Actually, Agca himself later claimed the KGB was involved. But he has a track record of making untrue, self-aggrandizing statements, so this does not prove anything decisively.

[5]Most of whom were released at the beginning of the siege. There were an estimated 50,000 pilgrims in the Mosque to begin with, but only a relatively small percentage of them were kept hostage during the siege’s two-week duration.

[6]Like Syria and Egypt had done from 1958 to 1961.

[7]Another arena of political conflict, Cold War rivalry, and religious activity was Central America, where wars in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua were taking place around this time. A key event in El Salvador’s civil war (1980-1992) was the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, which took place while he was at mass in March of 1980, a day after he had publicly asked Salvadoran soldiers not to carry out orders to kill civilians.

[8]Though not in Orthodox countries like Russia, where Christmas is on January 7.

[9]He was not the only Amin to be ousted from power in 1979. Uganda’s Idi Amin (no relation) was removed too, by an invading Tanzanian army.

[10]Though Carter never actually used the word malaise in the “malaise speech”.

[11]At the 1979 Academy Awards, The Deer Hunter won Best Picture while Jon Voight and Jane Fonda won Best Actor and Best Actress for Coming Home. Both were films about Vietnam. Apocalypse Now then similarly went on to win the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1979 (but was snubbed in favour of Kramer vs Kramer at the Oscars in 1980).

[12]In 1979, Donald Trump started building Trump Tower. Bill Clinton was elected governor of Arkansas at the age of 31. An 18-year-old Barack Obama moved to the US mainland to attend a liberal arts college in Los Angeles. Xi Jinping finished his degree in chemical engineering, as a “Worker-Peasant-Soldier student” in Beijing. Angela Merkel too was becoming a chemist in a Communist state, having finished her physics degree at the end of 1978 in Berlin. Shinzo Abe finished his degree at the University of Southern California. Narendra Modi graduated from the University of Delhi in 1978 and began working for the Hindu nationalist paramilitary organization, the RSS, in 1979. Jeremy Corbyn entered politics as a local councillor in 1979; Boris Johnson, who recently beat Corbyn with the biggest vote share in any UK election since 1979, was (no surprises here) at Eton.

Additional notes:

  • In 1979, Mother Teresa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize
  • China has not really fought in a war since Vietnam in 1979.
  • In Iraqi Kurdistan, Massoud Barzani became the head of the Kurdish Democratic Party in 1979, and survived an assassination attempt in Vienna. Among other things, he would later be a central figure in the Iraqi Kurdish secession referendum in 2017.
  • All of the longest lasting presidencies in the world today began in 1979, in  Africa: Angola’s Jose Eduardo dos Santos (who finally left office in 2017), Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo of Equatorial Guinea (still in power), and Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Republic of the Congo (although with a brief stint out of office from 1993-1997)
  • Wikipedia: “On January 1, 1979, Chinese Vice-premier Deng Xiaoping visited the United States for the first time and told American president Jimmy Carter: “The little child is getting naughty, it’s time he got spanked.” On February 15, the first day that China could have officially announced the termination of the 1950 Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance, Deng Xiaoping declared that China planned to conduct a limited attack on Vietnam. The reason cited for the attack was to support China’s ally, the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia, in addition to the mistreatment of Vietnam’s ethnic Chinese minority and the Vietnamese occupation of the Spratly Islands which were claimed by China. To prevent Soviet intervention on Vietnam’s behalf, Deng warned Moscow the next day that China was prepared for a full-scale war against the Soviet Union; in preparation for this conflict, China put all of its troops along the Sino-Soviet border on an emergency war alert, set up a new military command in Xinjiang, and even evacuated an estimated 300,000 civilians from the Sino-Soviet border. In addition, the bulk of China’s active forces (as many as one-and-a-half million troops) were stationed along China’s border with the Soviet Union.”
  • Wikipedia: on November 18, 1978, a total of 918[ people died at the settlement, at the nearby airstrip in Port Kaituma, and at a Temple-run building in Georgetown, Guyana’s capital city. The name of the settlement became synonymous with the incidents at those locations. In total, 909 individuals died in Jonestown,[1] all but two from apparent cyanide poisoning, in an event termed “revolutionary suicide” by Jones and some Peoples Temple members on an audio tape of the event, and in prior recorded discussions. The poisonings in Jonestown followed the murder of five others by Temple members at Port Kaituma, including United States Congressman Leo Ryan, an act that Jones ordered. Four other Temple members committed murder–suicide in Georgetown at Jones’ command.

The Age Dependency Ratio – A Demographic Overview of the World

2008 was as significant a year from a demographic perspective as it was from a financial one. In 2008 the world’s age dependency ratio —  the number of people who are either younger than 15 or older than 65, relative to the number of people aged 15-65 — reached its lowest ever point. From a peak of approximately 77 in 1967, the world’s age dependency ratio fell to a floor of 54 in 2008, a level it has remained at every year in the decade since. (Or, to put it another way, which may be more intuitive, the percentage of the world’s population that is 15-65 years old reached its highest point in 2008 – 65 percent – and remains there today). This record is not likely to be broken any time soon. The United Nations predicts that the dependency ratio will rise again during the generation ahead, albeit gradually, as Baby Boomers continue to become seniors and as birth rates continue to fall worldwide.

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The age dependency ratio is a useful, though obviously imperfect, measure of economic potential. The larger a country’s dependency ratio, the heavier the economic burden (to put it crudely) its working-age population may need to bear. The country with the highest dependency ratio in the world, Niger, with a ratio of 112, has a burden 1.12 times as heavy as those who bear it. The country with the lowest dependency, South Korea, with a ratio of 38, has a burden that is only about a third as heavy as those who carry it. The Gulf Arab kingdoms have even lower ratios than that (the UAE’s is just 18!), but only because they have so many temporary foreign workers (mostly, men) living within their borders.

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It is not surprising that a lower dependency ratio tends to correlate with economic success. Not only is a country with fewer dependents more able to invest its time and money in increasing its productivity, but productive countries also tend to have low birth rates, which keep dependency levels low in the short-term (though not, of course, in the long term). As such, a low dependency ratio can be both a cause and an effect of economic growth. Even the oldest country in the world, Japan, only has a dependency ratio of 66.5, far lower than those of the young countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.

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In recent history, the correlation between economic growth and age dependency can be seen most clearly in East Asia. China’s rapid economic growth has tracked its dependency ratio’s steep fall, while Japan’s stalled economic growth has tracked its own dependency ratio’s rise. China’s dependency ratio, which is today the lowest in the world apart from South Korea (not counting city-states or the Gulf Arab monarchies), was almost twice as high a generation ago, and only fell below the US’s in 1990.

That same year, Japan’s ratio fell below Germany’s to become the lowest in the world, apart from Singapore or Hong Kong. A rapidly aging population has since made Japan’s become by far the highest in the developed world, however. Japan’s ratio has also risen higher than those of many developing nations in recent years, even than some of the world’s poorest nations, such as Haiti.

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Outside Japan, East Asia now has the lowest dependency ratios of any region, by far. Not only China and South Korea but also Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Malaysia, and even North Korea all have ratios between 38-44, the lowest in the world anywhere outside of the Persian Gulf. Indonesia’s too, at 48.5, is now lower than those of most countries in the world. And the Philippines, the major outlier in the region with a dependency ratio of 57.5, no longer has a high ratio by global standards either.

This trend, however, is finally beginning to change. China’s ratio has begun to rise since 2010, prompting many to worry that the country “will become old before it becomes rich”. The dependency ratios of Vietnam, Thailand, and South Korea have also begun rising during the past several years. And Japan’s already high ratio will continue to rise quickly unless it finally decides to raise its extremely low immigration rate.

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The years 2008-2010, in addition to being when the global dependency ratio and the Chinese dependency ratio both reached their lowest levels, was also when the EU’s dependency ratio rose higher than that of the US, for the first time since 1984. The EU’s dependency burden has continued to rise relative to the US in the decade since, a fact that has perhaps contributed, at least to a minor extent, to the US’s stronger economic performance during this period.

Indeed, at the risk of attributing far more significance to the age dependency ratio than is justified, I will also point out the fact that countries in Central Europe have enjoyed a much lower ratio and a much stronger economic performance than has the EU as a whole. Similarly, Canada has had the lowest dependency ratio and, especially before oil prices fell in 2015, one of the strongest economies among rich Western nations during the past two decades. Dependency burdens in Canada and Central Europe were particularly low during the financial crisis:

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Another intriguing case is Italy, which has a ratio that has been rising at fast pace since 2010, reaching the highest level in its modern history in 2017, at the same time as its economy has become perhaps the primary point of concern in European politics. A similar trend has existed throughout Southern Europe, with the ratios of Greece, Spain, and France reaching high levels in the years after 2010. Although it is actually France which has the highest dependency ratio of these countries, a result of its having a relatively large population of children, it is Italy which has their highest old age dependency ratio (population older than 65, relative to population 15-65):

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If we look at Europe as a whole, including countries in its surrounding region, we can see there is a divergence occurring between northern and southern countries. Northern countries such as Germany, Russia, and Poland, which have had some of the lowest dependency burdens in the world in recent decades, will see sharp increases in the years ahead because their largest population cohorts are approaching 65 years old and they have few teenagers approaching 15 years old. (An exception to this is Ireland, where the largest age cohort is 35-40 years old. Irish birth rates were relatively high until the 1990s).

Mediterranean countries, in contrast, will have their dependency ratios rise more slowly, either because they have more children or because (particularly in Spain) their largest age cohorts are now only in their forties rather than their fifties. Within the EU this is especially true of France, which has had high birth rates by European standards. It is, however, even more true of non-EU Mediterranean countries such as Turkey and Tunisia. These countries used to have far higher ratios than the EU or Russia, but no longer do today:
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This fall in dependency in places like Turkey and North Africa is part of a greater trend, in which countries in the “global south”, particularly those outside of Sub-Saharan Africa, have recently seen their ratios fall much more quickly than countries in Europe, North America, or Northeast Asia. India’s dependency ratio, for example, fell below both the US’s and Germany’s in 2016. So did Bangladesh’s. (Pakistan’s ratio is falling too, but still remains high, around the level of Japan’s). Latin America’s is even lower; it recently became the lowest of any region other than East Asia. The major country that has had the most significant fall in dependency, however, is Iran:

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Of course, age dependency ratios are simplistic. They treat all people above the age of 65 and below the age of 15 as if they were the same, and all people between 15 and 65 years old as if they were the same. Yet if (for example) we were to change the upper limit of working age from 65 to 70, Japan’s dependency ratio would fall substantially as a result, because Japan’s largest age cohort today is 65-70 years old. If, on the other hand, we were to change the lower limit of working age from 15 to 20, many middle-income countries’ ratios would rise substantially.

A primary lesson that can be learned from the analysis of age dependency ratios is that the common “young population good, old population bad” view of countries’ economic prospects is a misleading one. In reality countries with young populations tend to remain poor, in part because the youngest countries in the world (in Sub-Saharan Africa) are much younger than the oldest countries in the world are old. It will still be a number of decades before aging populations lead Europe or North America to have a higher age dependency ratio than Sub-Saharan Africa. And even that assumes that no unexpected shifts in migration or fertility will occur.

What age dependency ratios do show is two big trends, both of which have to do with middle-income economies. The first trend is the emergence of what we might call a goldilocks belt, located between the aging populations of North America, Europe, and Northeast Asia and the youthful populations of Sub-Saharan Africa. Places in South Asia, North Africa, and Latin America all appear to be in the process of supplanting high-income countries in terms of having the demographic trends that are arguably most conducive to (or at least, indicative of) economic growth.

The second trend is that Northeast Asia’s dependency ratio, which has been the lowest in the world for a generation and probably played a significant role in helping the region emerge from a low-income to middle-income level, bottomed out almost a decade ago and will soon be rising quickly. Japan, in particular, where today the two biggest age cohorts are 65-70 years old and 45-50 years old, might become, 15-20 years from now,  the first developed economy to have a higher dependency burden than Sub-Saharan Africa.

Modi’s in Lucknow: the importance of good luck, and Uttar Pradesh, in the political success of Narendra Modi

With a slowing economy, a rival Congress Party forming alliances with regional parties in states like Tamil Nadu, and a separate alliance being formed between two prominent former Chief Ministers of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, many had expected Narendra Modi to risk losing his majority government, and perhaps even his position as prime minister, following the elections held in India last year. Instead, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) increased the size of its majority, winning 56 percent of seats—or 65 percent, when combined with smaller BJP-allied parties—in the lower house of India’s parliament. BJP’s rival the Congress Party, which had held the office of prime minister in 55 out of India’s 67 years prior to Modi’s being elected, won just 10 percent of seats. Congress’ alliance won 17 percent of seats, mainly thanks to voters in Tamil Nadu.

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Figure 1– Note: the All India Trinamool Congress, the leading political party in India’s most populous coastal state, West Bengal, is incorrectly included in the Mahagathbandhan (“Grand Alliance”) in the right-hand map above. That alliance, which was formed recently between the Bahajun Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP), is led by two former political rivals of one another — Akhilesh Yadav and Mayawati – who had consecutively been Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh from 2002 until 2017

As in the previous election in 2014, the BJP and its alliance dominated the north and west parts of India, leaving Congress’ alliance, along with several parties unaffiliated with either Congress or the BJP, to split the smaller south and east[*]. The unaffiliated BSP-SP alliance in India’s north, meanwhile, which was formed in response to the BJP sweeping Uttar Pradesh in 2014 and then winning state-level elections in Uttar Pradesh in 2017 (for the first time since 1996), won just three percent of seats[**].

[*]More so than in 2014, however, the BJP now made inroads into the south and east, notably in West Bengal, Odisha, Telangana, and Karnataka
[**]the BSP-SP alliance won just three percent of seats despite receiving a sizeable chunk of India’s popular vote, because of how populous Uttar Pradesh is. This occurred to an even greater extent in the previous election: in 2014 the BSP received more than 20 million votes, the third most of any party in India, yet did not win even a single seat in parliament!

Modi’s BJP was thus able to be re-elected with a majority government for the first time in its history. The only politicians who had ever previously been re-elected with a majority were India’s founding prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi. By defeating Indira’s grandson Rahul in the past two elections, Modi has now joined this illustrious list.

Modi has many skills that have contributed to this political success. He is notoriously hard-working and uncorrupt, for example. Yet Modi has also been in possession of an even more important attribute thus far during his political career, the most important a politician can have: luck.

A Quick Analysis of Modi’s Career

Modi’s political career, first as Chief Minister of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014 and then as Prime Minister of India since 2014, has been based on two pillars:

  1. Economic Ability
    • Gujarat was often the most dynamic economy in India while Modi was leading it
    • India, despite slowing along with much of the world economy, has maintained a decent economic performance since 2014, and recently overtook China’s growth rate
  2. Hindu Nationalism
            Arguably, some of the most extreme examples of this include:

These two aspects of Modi’s appeal have contributed to his political success in northern India in particular, where Hindi(-Urdu) is spoken relatively widely and where, especially in inland states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, poorer populations live who may be more susceptible to BJP-style nationalism or promises of economic growth (or at least, of reduced corruption). Modi himself represents the constituency of Varanasi, in Uttar Pradesh. 20 percent of BJP seats are from that state.

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With more than 200 million people, Uttar Pradesh is by far the most populous state not just in India, but anywhere in the world. It is home to a larger Hindu population than any other state in India, and a larger Muslim population than any Arab country apart from Egypt! Its neighbours too are populous: Uttar Pradesh directly borders India’s third and fifth most populous states, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. It also directly borders India’s capital city-state, Delhi. Modi, in addition to being MP for the holy city Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, has had his political career intertwine with this state in other significant ways. Notably, by way of the 2002 Gujarat Riots’ direct connection to the Ayodhya Mosque/Temple Dispute (a long, complex story that is analogous to, though in many ways different from and even more tragic than, the Middle East’s dispute over Jerusalem’s holy sites), and the continuing involvement in that dispute by BJP leaders such as Modi’s designated Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, Yogi Adityanath. The BJP’s rival, the Congress Party, also has roots in Uttar Pradesh. Its city of Allahabad (now renamed Prayagraj by Yogi Adityanath’s government) was the home of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty (unrelated to the Gandhi), a family that has supplied four generations of Congress’ top leaders. The current scion of the family, Rahul Gandhi, is however an MP for a constituency in Kerala, in India’s far south. Rahul also contested, but lost, his family’s historic seat in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh (located just outside Lucknow, the state’s capital).

This has led to an obvious, arguably misleading debate in Western media, over whether Modi’s economic pros justify his political cons. This might or might not be a legitimate debate, but it also overlooks one of the key realities of Modi’s career: the fact that much, maybe most, of his economic success has been due to factors beyond his control. Modi has been extremely lucky in relation to factors such as global economic growth, oil and gas prices, and the utterly different economic characteristics of Gujarat (the state where Modi rose to fame) compared to India as a whole.

Gujarat, 2001 to 2014

Modi was Chief Minister of the state Gujarat from October 2001 until May 2014, when he became India’s prime minister. Two facts must be recognized to put Modi’s time in Gujarat into context: the exceptional status of Gujarat, and the exceptional nature of the period from 2001-2014.

The period from 2001 to 2014 was the 2000s commodity boom, the period that followed the early 2000s recession when, apart from a sharp dip during the 2008-2009 recession, energy and other commodity prices were high and global economic growth was significant, particularly in China and other developing markets but also in North America and (before the 2010s) Europe.  Brent crude oil, for example, rose from all-time lows of $9 in 1998 to $144 in 2008 and $128 in 2012. Modi came into office in Gujarat when oil prices were $20, exited office with oil at $110, then watched from his new office in New Delhi as oil prices fell to $46 in the subsequent seven months.

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The characteristics of Gujarat’s economy are similarly exceptional. Together with its next-door neighbour the city of Mumbai, the state of Gujarat is India’s leading commercial hub. This is partly a result of Gujarat’s comparatively long and sheltered coastline, which has helped allow it to account for an estimated 69 percent of all cargo volume handled at India’s private ports, as well as being home to India’s busiest public port, a remarkable feat considering that Gujarat’s 60 million people are only 5 percent of India’s population.

Just as remarkable is the Gujarati diaspora, which leads in commercial activity throughout much of the Indian Ocean, particularly in eastern Africa. (The most famous Gujarati abroad was, of course, Mohandas Gandhi, who lived in South Africa for more than two decades. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founding leader of Pakistan, was also a native Gujarati speaker, who was trained as a barrister in England). The diaspora thrives as far away as the US, where 20 percent or so of US-Indians are Gujaratis, and are one of America’s most successful groups.

The Gujarati diaspora has historically also been prominent in the nearby Gulf region of the Middle East. It remains active in the Gulf today, particularly in Oman. Gujarat itself, moreover, holds the most prominent position in India’s oil and gas industries, in terms of oil production, oil refining, oil pipelines, gas pipelines, LNG regasification, and petrochemicals.

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As such, the commodity boom and global economic growth both helped Gujarat remain the fastest-growing Indian economy in the 2000s (apart from the small Himalayan states Uttarakhand and Sikkim).


India, 2014 to 2019

India’s economy is the opposite of Gujarat’s. It is relatively insular rather than dependent on global economic activity, the major exception to this being the large amount of oil it imports, more than any country apart from the US or China. Global economic conditions since Modi became prime minister are unlike those which existed prior to 2015, however. Oil prices have fallen to a range of $30-$70, benefiting India. Global and developing markets have slowed, which has hurt India but not nearly as much as it has hurt most other economies, in particular commodity exporters like Brazil or Russia.

There is even a possibility that India’s slowing economy has helped Modi. It may be that the slowing was not severe enough to undercut Modi’s reputation as a great economic steward, yet  was significant enough for people to want a great economic steward – Modi – to remain in charge in order to deal with it. In other words, the lucky timing that helped Modi to build up his economic reputation in Gujarat, combined with the fact that India’s recent economic slowdown has not been as severe as many other countries’, may have helped lead to Modi’s huge victory.

This is not a unique situation. Politicians, no matter how praiseworthy or skilled, often do not control their own fortunes. Modi remains in luck now. More troublingly, perhaps, so does Yogi Adityanath.

Modi