For the first time in India?s history, an avowedly right-wing party has won an absolute majority of seats in a general election. As had been widely predicted, the winner of the 2014 Indian elections—and India?s new prime minister—is Narendra Modi.
Modi, who rose from humble beginnings as a tea vendor and later served 12 years as premier of Gujarat, led the Bharatya Janata Party (BJP) to a clear majority, with 282 seats in the Lok Sabha. The Indian National Congress, formerly in power, was left with only 44 seats (see table).
The BJP landslide, coupled with the decimation of the opposition, gives Modi a mandate to shape policy without coalition support. It also raises people’s expectations that will test his capacity to meet the enormous political and administrative challenges he faces.
Modi has been a member from childhood of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is affiliated with several organizations advocating Hindu nationalism or Hindutva, under the umbrella of the “Sangh Parivar”(Sangh family), which includes the BJP.
Secularists, within the nation and beyond, worry about the new prime minister’s attitude towards minorities—especially Muslims, who make up 14% of India’s population. The February 2002 riots in Gujarat took place early in Modi’s premiership, at a time when intercommunal tensions were already high. The riots were triggered by the deaths of Hindu pilgrims on a train which had allegedly been set ablaze by Muslims, and continued for nearly three months. Police stood by while close to 1,000 Muslims were killed (and many more made homeless) by roving mobs of Hindu extremists.1
The Supreme Court later cleared Modi of charges that he had not done enough to protect Muslims during the riots. However, his links with the RSS—the party which planned the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948—and other Hindu zealots has caused minorities and secularists in general to fear the possibility of renewed inter-religious clashes.
Until recently, the US refused to grant Modi an entry visa; but this attitude changed when it became clear that he was going to be the next prime minister of India. President Obama was quick to roll out the welcome mat, with other nations following suit. How Modi shapes India’s domestic as well as foreign policy—particularly in her relations with China and Pakistan—is a matter that pundits will watch with intense curiosity and speculation.
Modi’s electoral victory last May is attributed largely to a team of smart young IT specialists he recruited in order to fully exploit social media. This enabled the BJP to reach beyond his circle of loyal followers and attract farmers, shopkeepers, industrialists and business people, many of whom had other political allegiances.
Shortly after his arrival in the capital, Modi placed a garland of flowers in front of a framed photo of Mahatma Gandhi, who was assassinated by a member of the very same RSS that has played a very influential role in the BJP campaign. This tribute was a telling symbol, marking Modi’s recognition that the days of aggressive campaign rhetoric are over; that governing Gujarat is vastly different from running a country as immense and diverse as India. Skeptics may argue that this metamorphosis was staged to allay the concerns of his opponents.
The conciliatory note was also visible in the signals sent to India’s neighbours. Heads of state from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Maldives, Mauritius, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka were all invited to attend the new prime minister’s inauguration in Delhi, over-ruling objections from several quarters.
Shashi Tharoor, a prominent Congress MP and former United Nations under-secretary-general, congratulated the new prime minister on his “hugely impressive” victory. To his astonishment, Modi replied on Twitter, and said “let us work together to move India forward.” Tharoor went on to say that “since his election on 16th May, we have seen a different Narendra Modi from the one who stoked the fears and anxieties that I have had occasion myself to express both personally and on behalf of my party.”
The new PM has promised to tackle India’s gravest problems—corruption, poverty, unemployment, and a sluggish economy. This is a formidable task, but given Gujarat’s significant progress this past decade while under Modi’s watch, even those who did not vote for him are cautiously optimistic.
The high expectations of millions of Indians, fed up with the previous administration’s faltering steps and failure to deliver, should motivate Modi to quickly prove that he is willing and able to implement badly needed reforms. If he meets the challenge, and is able to quell the dissatisfaction of dissidents—and armed insurgencies such as the Bodo uprisings in Assam—the new leader will create a wave of confidence and optimism the people have been anticipating.
Despite spectacular gains by the BJP in most states, the party did not far as well in India’s south and east. In West Bengal, where 25% of the population is Muslim, the incumbent Trinamul Congress won 34 of West Bengal’s 42 seats in the Lok Sabha; the BJP secured only 2. For several years, the inability of governments to stem the tide of illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh has been a major regional issue, with joblessness, food shortages, high prices, pollution and overcrowding further straining the state’s infrastructure.
Corruption has become endemic at all levels of government, primarily because the enforcement of anti-corruption laws is either non-existent or ineffective. Modi is regarded as an honest individual, but will he be able to instil his values among his ministers and bureaucrats to curb these practices? Time will tell; and citizens will be watching how he fares.
Younger voters today have a limited awareness of the rich legacy left by Jawaharlal Nehru, Mohandas Gandhi and the freedom fighters who led the nation under the Congress banner through the difficult years after Partition in 1947. The emphasis on heavy industries in the early years of independence—such as the establishment of steel plants, strict foreign exchange controls, stifling regulations for businesses and trade—all had their impact.
Today, the secular Congress Party has suffered a crushing defeat; India’s economy however, has been doing well over the long term. Incredible strides have been made in science, technology, and commerce. Modi, who has a reputation for being business-friendly, will want this trend to continue, while focusing on projects dedicated to infrastructure development—more roads, ports, electricity and trade.
Prime Minister Modi has the support of the nation’s industrial and corporate elite, but may not see eye to eye with them on every issue. Those close to the leader believe he does not favor allowing more foreign conglomerates into the retail trade, as this would inevitably affect the livelihood of millions of local vendors.
Subir Guin is an editor of Peace.
1 Manoj Mitta, a senior journalist with The Times of India, has just published a book (The Fiction of Fact-Finding: Modi and Godhra, published by Harper Collins India) that provides evidence of Narender Modi’s active involvement in the Gujarat riots of 2002. As we go to press, the impact of these disclosures on readers in India is uncertain.