With the election of Narendra Modi, India faces a critical turning point which could see not only greater prosperity but also sectarian violence, writes Ian Hall.
Narendra Modi’s win in India’s general election was genuinely historic.
Under Modi’s leadership, the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party) was the first party to win an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament, since 1985.
Its victory was so complete that it captured all or most of the seats in some States and reduced its main opponent, the Indian National Congress Party, to a fewer than 60 of the 543 in the Lok Sabha. In Gujarat, where Modi has served as Chief Minister for the past 13 years, and in Delhi itself, the BJP won in every constituency; in the northern State of Uttar Pradesh, the BJP seems to have claimed 73 out of 80 seats.
Modi’s landslide win was the product of a slick, Presidential-style, highly personalised campaign, in which he promised to deliver India growth, jobs, education and infrastructure, as well as better and less-corrupt governance. Modi was seemingly tireless in travelling the country, addressing dozens of rallies of tens of thousands of supporters, many wearing cardboard cut-out Modi masks, and bedecked in saffron, the colour appropriated by Hindu nationalists.
Playing on his humble origins – his father was a chai-wallah or tea seller – and casting himself in the role of India’s Deng Xiaoping, Modi also reached out to middle-class Indians on television and on social media, using YouTube, Google+ and Twitter to great effect, both to encourage voters to turn out and to thank them afterwards for their support. Within 24 hours of winning the election, the ‘victory wall’ of his new website, narendramodi.in, had been inundated with messages of congratulations and support.
Modi’s victory was also the result of a lacklustre effort by the leadership of the Congress Party – especially Rahul Gandhi, its Vice-President and the heir apparent to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that has dominated India since independence.
With his mother, Sonia Gandhi, the President of the Congress Party, choosing to take a backseat, Rahul was the principal orchestrator of its campaign. A poor public speaker, apparently unable – in stark contrast to Modi – to connect with ordinary people, Rahul failed to inspire. His brief, bizarre concession speech, delivered in English, a language the vast majority of Indians do not understand, captured all too well his failings.
Rahul said he would take responsibility for the defeat, but did not elaborate on what actions he would take. And to make matters worse, throughout his speech and his mother’s, who despite her Italian heritage spoke in Hindi, Rahul grinned, incongruously.
It is possible that this defeat might bring about a change of leadership for the Congress. Many leading figures, like the historian Ramachandra Guha, have called upon the Nehru-Gandhis to relinquish control and step aside. Whether they will do so remains uncertain.
It was rumoured on Friday that Congress party workers in New Delhi were openly agitating for a new leader, but for another Nehru-Gandhi, Rahul’s sister Priyanka Vadra, who is charismatic, apparently more politically-savvy, and who physically resembles her formidable grandmother, Indira.
The challenges facing Narendra Modi are quite different. Despite his controversial past, and lingering accusations that he was involved in anti-Muslim riots that killed hundreds in 2002, he has strong mandate for reform. His biggest immediate challenge will be meeting the sky-high expectations of his supporters – and India’s stockmarket investors, who pushed share prices up by more than six per cent on Friday. He will need to deliver rapid economic growth, in the short term, and significant improvements in India’s standards of governance, education and health system, and its creaking infrastructure, if he is to win another term.
Modi will also have to contend with a notoriously fractious BJP, and balance the competing demands of hardline Hindu nationalists and middle-class Indians. These may well prove hard to reconcile.
In the last BJP-led government, which ruled from 1998 to 2004, the hardliners lost out in key areas, such as foreign policy, where the then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and crucial allies like Jaswant Singh pursued a mostly non-ideological, ‘realist’ approach.
In the new government, the internal BJP dynamics are different. Unlike Vajpayee, whose relationship with the Hindu Right was complicated and often tense, Modi is very much a product of the hardline Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS - National Volunteer Organisation), for which he has worked since he was in his teens. As a result, many fear that the RSS and hardline elements in the BJP will shape important elements of Modi’s agenda, both at home and abroad.
Accompanying Modi’s triumph, then, there is anxiety, both among his supporters, who desperately want him to deliver growth and development to India, and among his critics, who fear a descent into anti-Muslian sectarianism and nationalistic chauvinism.
This truly is a crucial turning point for India and its people.
Dr Ian Hall is a senior fellow in the Department of International Relations, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. He works on Indian foreign policy, among other things, and tweets @DrIanHall.