A Watershed Moment for India

Global Challenges Counter-extremism

A Watershed Moment for India

Posted on: 20th May 2014
Sandhya Gupta
Asia Education Consultant

The largest democratic exercise in the world concluded on Friday afternoon, with a resounding victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, "Indian People's Party"). Narendra Modi is the new Prime Minister of India, and the BJP will enjoy spoils of victory unhindered by any coherent parliamentary opposition.

An estimated 67% of Indians went to the polls to cast their votes for 543 Parliamentarians. The election was conducted over 9 different phases spanning five weeks – a truly herculean effort. The major players in this election were Narendra Modi – formerly the Chief Minister of Gujarat and a stalwart of the BJP – and Rahul Gandhi, the dynastic young leader of the Congress Party and poised to be the face of Congress for many years to come. He was backed by his mother, Sonia Gandhi, current President of the Congress Party, widow to former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, and daughter-in-law of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Congress has led the coalition of parties that composed the national government for the past 10 years. It fought the 2004 election with a positive campaign of economic and infrastructure development, as opposed to the strident nationalism of the BJP's campaign. People cared less about building a coherent national identity – they wanted education, healthcare and anti-poverty measures. Congress surprised everyone by delivering the BJP a very decisive blow in that election, something that neither the exits polls nor the analysts had predicted. This year the BJP took their revenge, winning an absolute majority in Parliament; something that no party in India has done since 1984.

Narendra Modi and the BJP have been elevated to power by a massive grassroots campaign and media effort, which is already inviting comparisons to President Obama's well-oiled campaign machine in 2008. The party prides itself on rigid discipline and organisation – something that it used very well during this campaign. The state of Gujarat, under Modi's leadership, has been held up as an example of economic development by many in the country, with plenty of foreign investment and multinational companies finding a home there. However, the results of this election have much more to do with the Congress party's shortcomings than a stunning rise in the popularity of the BJP. Congress failed to deliver on many promises that they made with respect to infrastructure development and economic growth. The government has been plagued with corruption in the past 10 years, and amenities such as clean drinking water, good schools, paved roads, and regular electricity are still not available. Many people are fed up with the "Gandhi dynasty" and are desperate for a change.

Narendra Modi is not a politician free from scandal and controversy. He has been implicated in large-scale violence against the Muslim community in his home state of Gujarat in 2002, shortly after he became Chief Minister there. Although the courts cleared him of all charges, lingering questions remain. The BJP has historically been backed by a parent organization, known as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Singh (RSS, the "National Volunteer Organisation"), which is grounded in Hindu nationalism. Modi describes himself as a "Hindu nationalist". During their government of 1998 – 2004, the BJP had very close ties to the RSS and the influence of Hindu nationalism clearly showed in their policies – a factor that many commentators think led to their downfall.

Narendra Modi and the BJP have been distancing themselves from the RSS in recent months in an attempt to appeal to a wider section of the population. After all, at 15% India has a sizeable Muslim minority, in addition to significant numbers of Sikhs and Christians. The message of Hindu nationalism might not sit so well with them.

This is undoubtedly a watershed moment for India and represents a huge opportunity for Narendra Modi and the BJP government. An absolute majority will make it easier to push through legislation aimed at ending corruption, building infrastructure and providing jobs. However, it also means that there is less of a need to make compromises and build coalitions with different sets of voices. It remains to be seen if Narendra Modi as Prime Minister is able, over the long term, to address the concerns of India's minority populations and pursue a model of development that is truly inclusive.

There has been a smattering of election-related communal violence around the country, but not much more than is normally seen in an Indian national election. Right now the feeling is one of fragile optimism – so far nothing has been done to indicate that India is on a path to greater communal conflict, but the chances are always there. Narendra Modi has a responsibility to this country to ensure that his leadership and that of the BJP does not inflame religious tensions. In the meantime, Congress may need to sit back and gather its thoughts before their next opportunity comes in 2019.

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