The world’s largest democratic pageant — elections in India — has ended with a landslide victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). As a result, Narendra Modi, the Gujarat State chief minister, should be able to form a government without forging a coalition with smaller parties, a tendency that has hobbled predecessor governments. While the prospect of a strong Indian government led by Modi appeals to those who decry the horse-trading that has sapped the energy of other Delhi governments — and slowed the country’s once-impressive growth — others worry that Modi could also prove to be a Hindu nationalist who will ratchet up tensions in South Asia.
The BJP was expected to win the Indian ballot — a five-week process in which more than 500 million people voted in nine rounds at over 1 million polling stations — on the back of rising frustrations over the Indian National Congress party’s inability to tackle corruption and its ineffectual economic policies. Congress has dominated Indian politics since the country claimed independence in 1947, and has been in power since 2004 as head of a coalition government.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was expected to champion the reforms he introduced as finance minister in 1991, but coalition politics plagued his administration, which was battered by one scandal after another.
The inevitable horse-trading slowed reforms that, while much needed, threatened constituencies relied upon by the smaller parties that supported Congress rule. The result was sluggish growth — under 5 percent — and high inflation — 8.6 percent in April — that squeezed most voters.
Few, though, expected the Modi landslide. The party is set to claim 282 seats of the lower house’s 543 directly elected seats, the largest margin of victory in over three decades, a total that gives it a parliamentary majority without any coalition partners. (The BJP has alliance partners; with them it will hold 336 seats.) Congress and its allies won just 59 seats — its worst performance ever — while smaller regional parties won 148. The scale of the victory — not only in numbers but also in its crossing every significant social, religious and geographic divide — suggests a great national hunger for an activist government. If that is accurate, then Modi is the right man. He rose to fame as the chief minister of the state of Gujarat, the state that is home to 60 million Indians.
During his 12 years in that position, he has focused on building infrastructure and eliminating bureaucratic red tape. The result is an economic environment widely viewed as business friendly with growth rates that have rivaled those of China. The state’s per capita income increased nearly fourfold during Modi’s tenure, outpacing the national average.
His motto is “less government and more governance” and some more rapturous supporters liken him to Margaret Thactcher. No wonder, then, that the prospect of a BJP victory pushed national stock indexes to record highs and elevated the rupee to an 11-month high against the dollar. Foreign investors have already sunk more than $16 billion into Indian stocks and bonds over the last six months, a stake estimated to be worth $280 billion in anticipation of a Modi government.
The one dark cloud hanging over the prospect of a Modi government is his association with the Hindu nationalist group, RSS. Modi was chief minister when Gujarat was wracked by communal violence in 2002, in which 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus were killed.
While he has been officially absolved of any complicity in the violence by a Supreme Court investigation, questions linger over the efforts he took to rein it in. The suspicions were sufficiently strong for the United States to refuse to issue him a visa in 2005. Following the BJP win, the U.S. has said it looks forward to working with the new government.
Some speculate that relations with the U.S. may suffer as a result of that history. In fact, however, Delhi’s relations with Washington have been adjusting throughout President Barack Obama’s term in office as the initial enthusiasm for a renewed U.S.-Indian relationship was worn down by the inevitable divergence in the two countries’ national interests.
India seeks a greater role in regional and global politics, but on its own terms. And while Delhi has its issues with Beijing, any government that sees India as a willing partner in a policy to contain or confront China will be disappointed. Modi, like his predecessors, is foremost an Indian nationalist.
More troubling is the prospect of increased tension in relations with Pakistan. As an RSS activist, Modi would be expected to take harder line against Pakistan and escalate the struggle for influence in Afghanistan as the U.S. withdraws its forces from there. Fortunately Modi has promised continuity in dealings with Islamabad, and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has invited Modi to visit.
An early visit to Japan might also be in the cards, given Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s outreach to India and the strong Japanese investment in Gujarat. A genuine partnership with India makes sense for Japan, but that relationship must be founded on realistic expectations.
Modi faces several challenges. The first is overcoming the bureaucratic rigidity and political divisions that stifled the efforts of previous governments. His majority will help surmount those obstacles, but will it be sufficient?
Second is dealing with the great expectations of success that accompany his victory. They make his job harder by raising the bar for what is considered success.
Some fear that Modi might be tempted to fall back on more parochial appeals if he does not succeed. That’s just another reason to wish him every success in his new job.