For the first time since it became an independent nation in 1947, India has elected a right-wing party to power with an overwhelming majority in the lower house of Parliament. No one even in the ranks of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had expected such a resounding success. Neither did astrologers, let alone political pundits. There was a broad consensus that the BJP would emerge as the single largest party – but one that would need to rope in smaller parties to form the government. The assumption, as it turned out, was hopelessly off the mark.
The architect of this triumph, Narendra Modi, will also be the first prime minister who was born after independence, the first to belong to a caste that ranks low in India’s social pecking order, the first to have experienced poverty in his childhood and youth, and the first who has never been part of New Delhi’s incestuous political elites. Moreover, no other leader has been subjected to pitiless criticism by the country’s left, liberal and secular opinion-makers as Modi has for over a decade. They have accused him of hating minorities, especially Muslims, mocked his autocratic style of functioning and challenged his claims that he has turned the state he has ruled since 2001, Gujarat, into a model of development.
Modi, however, turned all these handicaps into assets during his high-voltage election campaign across several platforms. With his powerful oratorical skills, he tapped into the resentments and frustrations of voters. No one else gauged the depth of their yearning for change as accurately as he did. He knew that they had had enough of the Congress-led alliance government that has been in power for 10 years. That period saw a decline in economic growth, a high rate of inflation, fewer jobs, corruption on a humongous scale, atrocities against women, terrorist attacks, inadequate public services, and so forth.
The strategy he fashioned for the campaign was nothing short of brilliant. For one thing, he aimed his barbs at a single target: the Gandhi family that treated the 129-year-old Congress party as its personal fiefdom. In one electrifying speech after another, he took the party’s president, Sonia Gandhi, and the party’s vice president, her son Rahul, to task for everything that had gone wrong in the country. By turning the campaign into a presidential-style one, he thus put them on the defensive. Their own campaign appeared to be weak, directionless, and disjointed. That only lent greater credence to Modi’s claim that to realize its full potential, India had to get rid of the Gandhi dynasty and make India a “Congress-free” nation.
The other element of the strategy was to project himself as a strong and decisive leader who alone would be able to cleanse the rot in the system – much as he had done in Gujarat – to allow it to deliver on two counts: rapid development and sound governance. By and large he steered clear of divisive rhetoric. His narrative stood in sharp and refreshing contrast to the narratives of other political parties. These harped on mobilizing voters along lines of caste and community and regional pride with promises of doles and freebies.
What Modi offered to voters was in effect a mix of market-friendly growth, muscular nationalism rooted in Hindu lore and the promise of a militarily strong India. The extent to which this mix proved to be an elixir, particularly for India’s young, aspirational, technology-savvy generation, would be obvious from the outcome of the elections. The Congress party has suffered its worst defeat in its history. Parties that banked on the votes of the lower castes and Muslims have been routed. And those controlled by families in the states have been flattened.
Modi’s appeal has thus cut across India’s traditional fault lines. In one fell swoop, the BJP has widened its social base and, no less important, established its presence in virtually every state of India. It can now legitimately hope to fill the void created by the debacle faced by the avowedly secular and populist parties. This election therefore heralds a tectonic shift in Indian politics.
But here is the rub. Modi has raised expectations so high that he cannot possibly meet them in the near future, even if he deploys his prodigious energy, grit, and drive with added vigor. To bring down prices of food and fuel, create some 10 million jobs every year, halt and reverse corruption in public life, provide effective civic services, curb terrorism and crime, and make institutions of governance efficient, transparent, and accountable would require a divine intervention.
But God, Modi believes, is firmly on his side – and He will remain on his side for the next 20 years. That belief carries both promise and peril. Right now India is high on the promise. That explains why stock markets have boomed to dizzying heights, world leaders have rushed to congratulate him, foreign investors are once again answering calls from Indian corporate houses, and why the reflexes of those who have been debunking Modi have gone numb.
The euphoria of some and the fears of others will, however, both calm down a bit when Modi gets down to the hard business of governing a large, diverse, chaotic India that desperately seeks its place in the sun. For now, all that one must do is to hail India’s vibrant democracy yet again and applaud the Indian people for booting out the knaves, crooks, and mediocrities who brought their country to a sorry pass.
Dileep Padgaonkar the former editor of The Times of India and author of “Under Her Spell: Roberto Rossellini in India.”
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