Narendra Modi’s massive general election victory, now ratified, gives him a fresh chance to show that he has the executive ability to push through urgent changes in India’s economic development while also reining in the divisive aspects of his party’s Hindu nationalist agenda.
Counting of some 600 million is still in progress, but declared results and leads show that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has defied almost all forecasts by winning about 300 seats in the Lok Sabha, up from 282 in 2014. This has boosted its share of the vote from 33 percent to 38 percent and has increased its clear majority. Its National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has won a total of around 350 seats with 45 percent of the vote, underlining Modi’s powerful parliamentary position.
The new government will be formed in the next few days, almost certainly with fresh faces in senior ministerial positions. There are suggestions that this will be quickly followed by a series of new policy announcements – something Modi was criticized for not doing when he became prime minister five years ago.
Addressing a victory rally in Delhi, Modi struck a moderate nationalist tone saying, “If someone has won, it’s Hindustan that has won, it is democracy that has won, it is public that has won.”
The victory raises questions of how far Modi and Amit Shah, his chief ally and the BJP president, will drive their authoritarian Hindu nationalist agenda which, in the past five years, has weakened institutions, made many Muslims fear for their safety, and led to restrictions on personal and media freedom. There are specific fears about constitutional changes in Kashmir and the treatment of Muslim migrants from Bangladesh.
Modi countered these fears when he said the BJP is committed to the constitution and to federalism. “The spirit of our democracy and constitution gives us the responsibility to run the country by taking everyone along,” he declared.
The result is devastating for the Gandhi dynasty and its Congress Party, which is expected to have increased its seats by only eight from 44 to just 52, far short of the minimum 100 that it had been hoping for and not enough to be automatically named the opposition party in parliament. Its United Progress Alliance (UPA) looks like winning approximately only 90 seats, bolstered in southern India by the DMK in Tamil Nadu winning about 23 seats, and Congress winning against its traditional Communist rival in Kerala.
Rahul Gandhi has lost his seat in the family’s traditional Uttar Pradesh (UP) constituency of Amethi to Smriti Irani, a formidable film actress-turned-politician, though he won in Kerala where he was also a candidate. The only Congress victory in the state, which has 80 seats and was once the party’s stronghold, was won by Sonia, Rahul’s mother.
Rahul’s charismatic sister Priyanka, who was expected to rescue the party by boosting votes, having formally entered politics for the first time, had no visible impact. She appeared to be successful at electioneering but failed to turn this into votes.
Congress’s defeat is unlikely to change the Gandhi’s dynastic role at the top of the party because there is no potential leader with the nerve to challenge Rahul or the ability to hold the party together. The family holds the party together but also prevents it from moving forward.
Congress candidates were roundly defeated in the three states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh that the party won in state assembly elections last November. It has also lost badly in Karnataka where it is in power. The BJP can now be expected to try to unseat the Congress governments in these states.
Rahul Gandhi concedes
Modi has proved himself to be a savvy as well as a powerful politician. The victory is primarily due to that and to the organizational abilities of Amit Shah, who has been elected as an MP for the first time and will now play a bigger role in the direction of the government, either as a minister or from the party headquarters. He is 14 years younger than Modi, who is 69 in September, and will be seen as Modi’s heir apparent, or maybe even eventually his rival.
There will be many debates about how Modi has managed to achieve almost nationwide personal support after being widely criticized for leading a divisive government and for failing to provide jobs and address other economic issues. Maybe referring indirectly to his disastrous demonetization of bank notes in 2015, Modi said today that he may “have made mistakes,” but he did “not do things with bad intentions”.
He has also been criticized for conducting a brutally scare-mongering election campaign that demonized Pakistan and used a terrorist attack, and India’s military response, to galvanize patriotism that fed into the BJP’s Hindu nationalism.
Pavan Varma, a former senior diplomat and now a prominent politician belonging to a BJP ally, explained on a television discussion this evening how this approach appealed. He said that Modi understands the aspirations of India’s youth, with 65 percent of the population under 35. The youth, he said, “identify with Modi’s nationalism” because they want prosperity and “a country of which they could be proud”.
Rahul Gandhi, though some 20 years younger than Modi, has failed to understand this and has therefore not been able to galvanize the young with his softer all-inclusive non-nationalistic approach.
When he was elected five years ago, Modi said he wanted 10 years to implement change. He has now won his second five years and has a big enough parliamentary majority to build what he described today as the “New India.”
This is something that many people fear will end tolerant secular traditions, but voters have nevertheless given it their support. It is now for Modi to show that what he plans is good for the country.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.