On May 16, the world’s greatest exercise in democracy concluded in India after an exhaustive five weeks of voting. The election had a record turnout of just over 66%, translating to roughly 551 million votes cast to determine the next Prime Minister of the largest democratic country in the world. In what was a widely expected result, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) achieved a resounding victory, winning 283 of India’s 543 parliamentary seats to form a majority government. The BJP’s triumphant ascension to power is a crushing blow to the National Congress Party and their ruling dynasty the Nehru-Gandhi family, who have been in office for the past decade and have had a tight grip on Indian politics since the state’s independence in 1947. With the rise of the BJP, a significant shift in India’s political landscape is underway, and as a result the global community should be introduced to the nation’s new leader – Narendra Modi, the son of a poor tea salesman whose rags-to-riches story and promise of economic reform appealed to millions of voters across the country.
The 2014 election hinged on one central issue: the economy. Throughout his campaign Modi pledged to reinvigorate India’s stagnant economy through aggressive reforms, and while ambitious, his track record lends credibility to his plans. For the past twelve years, Modi has governed the state of Gujarat, where under his leadership the state’s economy grew by an average of roughly 10% per year and attracted scores of new investors. Modi’s campaign strategy revolved around drawing attention to these accomplishments, and persuading voters that he could replicate them on a national scale. Fixing India’s economic woes is a daunting task – annual growth rates have spiralled down to under 5% from the previous high of 10% and the country is facing high inflation. Nevertheless, Modi is determined to revive India’s economy by attracting foreign investment, making tax and labour market reforms, adding more jobs, and investing in much-needed infrastructure.
Furthermore, Modi is in a good position politically to follow up his campaign rhetoric with real policy. The BJP’s sweeping win in the election has given Modi a majority government with an extensive governing mandate. Consequently, the new government is in a good position to push through economic reforms as the opposition’s efforts to stifle or stall legislation is limited. As well, India’s business community and foreign investors have a great degree of confidence in Modi. Since being named the BJP’s candidate for Prime Minister last September, stock markets in India have risen steadily across all sectors and skyrocketed on May 16 in anticipation of a BJP victory. Modi’s promises to revive the economy have not only resonated with the general public, but evidently are also backed by India’s business elite, which gives tremendous authority to his plans for economic reform.
Despite his electoral performance and the widespread support for his economic policies, Narendra Modi is an extremely divisive political figure, primarily due to his Hindu nationalist ideology. With the Congress Party in power for much of India’s post-colonial history, the state has been governed by a secular authority that has acknowledged and protected the diverse ethnic and religious groups that exist in India. The BJP on the other hand believes that India should be governed as a Hindu nation, considering Hindus account for 80% of the population, and as the party’s leader Modi strongly supports this belief.
Modi himself has been mired with controversy regarding his religious agenda. In 2002, when he was chief minister of Gujarat, a riot broke out between Muslims and Hindus in his state in the aftermath of the burning of a train – allegedly by Muslims – that was carrying a number of Hindu activists. Over a thousand people died in the riots, most of them Muslim, and Modi’s handling of the crisis was highly criticized. Although he escaped criminal charges, Modi has been accused of tacitly supporting the violence perpetrated against Muslims – allegations he continues to deny. However, his management of the riots drew international condemnation, with the US refusing to issue Modi a visa in 2005 and Britain enforcing a diplomatic boycott against him. In the wake of his electoral victory though, the US and other Western states have reversed their opposition to Modi and have expressed a willingness to work with the new government.
The rise of Narendra Modi and the BJP is undoubtedly a monumental event in India’s political history, with the vast majority of the population embracing economic reform and rejecting the status quo socialism that has characterized India’s governing policies for much of the state’s modern history. Just as significant as the BJP’s rise, and in conjunction with it, is the fall of the National Congress Party. With the Indian public disillusioned by allegations of widespread government corruption and a floundering economy, Congress’s stunning defeat was preordained and could mean a permanent end to the Nehru-Gandhi dynastic rule.
The Indian public may be squarely behind the new government, but how Modi will be received by the international community remains uncertain. His eagerness to pursue economic reforms and attract foreign investment may play well with Western states looking to do business with India, but his staunch Hindu nationalism and connection to the religiously-motivated Gujarat riots are concerning. Surely, the international community is betting on the fact that Modi’s social agenda will take a backseat to his economic policies, and consequently tensions between ethnic and religious groups in India will not become too inflamed. In this sense, Modi’s rise to power represents as much of an opportunity as it does a risk. On the one hand, India has recommitted itself to its goal of becoming an economic superpower. On the other, the divisive social politics of the country’s newly anointed leader could spur a backlash from fearful religious minorities, exacerbating deeply-rooted tensions and threatening to tear India’s delicate social fabric.