An India ready to dream big

A sweeping election victory for Narendra Modi and his Hindu-nationalist party reflects an India with new views of its capacity for progress. But Mr. Modi must not interpret the voters' big dreams as a mandate for big-man rule.

Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, prime ministerial candidate for India's Bharatiya Janata Party, gestures to his supporters outside party's headquarters in New Delhi May 17.

Years before Narendra Modi won this month’s election that now allows him to become India’s next leader, the former tea-stall worker asked this question on behalf of the world’s second most-populous nation:

“It is often said that India does not dream big and that is the root cause of all our problems. Why can’t we dream like China, Europe or America?”

Note how Mr. Modi compares India to other continental powers. This reveals just how much today’s 1.25 billion Indians, who are digitally hitched to the global flow of ideas, have adopted new views of their capacity for progress – not only for India but for themselves.

During his campaign, Modi tapped into this rising aspiration for India to emulate the best in other countries. One in eight voters went to the polls for the first time, a sign of the fact that two-thirds of the population is under 35. He and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) promised economic growth, clean governance, and decisive leadership, all of which Modi delivered as chief minister of Gujarat state – although sometimes too harshly or divisively.

His record and his campaign promises really reflect an India ready to join the global community. Voter turnout was a record 66 percent. And the electoral results cut across the old divides of caste, rural vs urban, old vs. young, poor vs. middle-class. On those measures alone, India has surpassed China, which is not even allowed to have elections, and the political disunity in Europe and America.

The BJP’s election sweep was achieved in part out of public frustration with the long-ruling Congress party. Its corrupt, paternalistic, and dynastic style no longer fits an India of smart phones and social mobility. More than two-thirds of Indians are dissatisfied with their country’s direction, according to a Pew poll. In throwing off the past, voters have allowed the BJP to rule with a clear majority in the lower house of parliament. Such a feat was achieved only once before, in 1984, after the assassination of Indira Gandhi boosted the Congress party in an election.

As prime minister, Modi must not forget he is riding an awakening of Indian expectations as much as leading them. His checkered past as a Hindu nationalist, and in sometimes treating India’s Muslims as less than citizens, cannot color his leadership in a constitutional democracy. Religion, including Hinduism and Islam, can help Indians define their individual identity. But in a country of such size and diversity, one that is home to a third of the world’s poor, only secular rule can ensure the unity needed to fulfill people’s collective hopes.

“India has won,” Modi tweeted after his victory. This apparent humility may serve him well in preventing an overreach of his powers. India does not need big-man style rule now that a historic election has shown Indians are ready to dream big.

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