India is about to experience its biggest-ever change of national politics and of government style and policies with the unprecedented country-wide landslide victory for Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition, and the decimation of the Congress Party that calls into question the leadership of the Gandhi dynasty.
The latest forecasts for the result of India’s general election, based on who is leading in constituencies as counting takes place, show the BJP and its allies exceeding the top end of all forecasts with well over 300 seats in the 544-seat Lok Sabha, including an astonishing 270-plus for the BJP on its own. Congress is falling to a humiliating figure as low as 50, far below the 100 that it had hoped would be its worst result.
Virtually everything to do with government will now change, not just ministers and policies but how the people at the top react to events and even the language they speak – many leading politicians, including Modi, prefer to use Hindi. Modi will bring in top bureaucrats from his home state of Gujarat and elsewhere and little-known politicians will have important ministries. For business, as in other areas, a new era is about to begin, with new relationships and ways of working.
Modi elected for growth not Hindu nationalism
It is no use liberal Congress sympathizers bleating, as they have been for weeks and months in India and abroad, about a man with Modi’s questionable history in Gujarat’s 2002 riots and his membership of the arch Hindu nationalist RSS organization becoming prime minister. Modi and his party have not been elected primarily by sympathizers with his rightist politics but by voters, especially the young, who are tired of the Congress Party’s woolly politics and self-serving dynastic leadership and want India to grow into an economic success. That success is surely also Modi’s primary aim, not Hindu nationalism.
The BJP has been elected to deliver economic growth and an efficient government that takes decisions and then implements them, streamlining procedures and developing new partnerships with the private sector. India does not need new policies to be introduced to achieve most of this. What is needed is implementation of existing policies in areas ranging from power generation and coal mining to defense production and procurement, plus the operation of the railways, construction of highways, and improvement in education and health services.
If Modi can transfer to Delhi the government management skills he showed, albeit autocratically, in Gujarat, then much of that can be done. For the past 10 years, India has lacked a strong political prime minister because Manmohan Singh was reluctant to flex his political muscle and Sonia Gandhi’s courtiers undermined his role.
That will change the moment Modi walks into the prime minister’s office, maybe on Monday. Masses of people will be celebrating the election result. They range from top businessmen who have helped to facilitate the Modi victory to the young people in their early 20s who want the economy to grow as it was in the 2000s so that their prospects and life style improves. '
There are also those who fear the downside of such an overwhelming Modi victory with concerns that include not just his Hindu nationalism but also the risk that he and his ministers will be intolerant of criticism and will muzzle a cowed media. Modi will almost certainly ensure that there are no major riots or high-profile persecutions of Muslims and other minorities, but he may have to let the fringes have some leeway. That leads to the risk that activists in the Sangh Parivar movement, of which the BJP is the political wing, may incite communal clashes.
There is also a real fear that, with Modi as prime minister, the doctrine of Hindu nationalism will be extended, as happened when the party was last in power (1998-2004), for example by rewriting school textbooks and appointing sympathizers to top positions in universities and other similar institutions.
How far Modi goes along with such an approach will become evident if he is pushed by the RSS, which lays down the Sangh Parivar’s doctrine, to appoint a hardline nationalist to be minister of human development.
On foreign policy Modi might well be slow to improve relations with the US, which cancelled his visa in 2005 because of the 2002 riots, and he may taunt Washington by ostentatiously courting Beijing. He will certainly give priority to relations with Japan, which wants to become a major partner in the financing and developing India’s infrastructure.
He will probably sound more aggressive than the outgoing government on Pakistan without actually changing the existing policy of gradually improving relations. There is a risk however that Islamic terrorists based there might try to provoke him into a military confrontation by staging major attacks in India.
Indira Gandhi’s introduction of a state of emergency in 1975 is probably the nearest example of the sort of dramatic change of government style that will begin next week. Indira and her son Sanjay then tried to get India moving, often cruelly and crassly. Unlike that blot on India’s democratic history, the new government has been overwhelmingly elected in the world’s biggest general election, and Modi has the mandate to change the way that India is run. The test will be whether he can do that while keeping India as an open, broadly tolerant, and secular country.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel's New Delhi correspondent. His blog,"Riding the Elephant," also appears at the bottom right corner of our front page