Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party claimed an unmistakable mandate in India’s parliamentary elections. The BJP increased its seats to win a single-party majority in two consecutive elections, while the Indian National Congress virtually imploded in this ballot. Modi’s image as a clean politician and his promotion of a strong, vigorous and assertive India won over voters who some months ago were thought to be having doubts about his leadership. Now he must recommit to reform to ensure the economic base that is the foundation of his, and his nation’s, ambitions.
Indian elections are a breathtaking exercise in democracy. The world’s largest democracy has a population of 1.3 billion people, 900 million of whom are eligible voters who visit 1 million polling sites over five weeks to decide 543 seats in the Lok Sabha, or lower house of Parliament. This year turnout topped 67 percent, up about 1 percentage point from the last ballot in 2014. In that vote, the BJP won 282 seats; when combined with those of its partners in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), Modi presided over a comfortable majority of 342 seats. He rode to power atop a wave of disaffection with the then-ruling Indian National Congress party, and pledged to unleash the struggling Indian economy and create millions of jobs.
Early in the year, Modi was struggling in the polls. While he had delivered robust growth and honored his promise to invigorate Indian diplomacy, jobs proved difficult to create. Unemployment reached a 45-year high and farmers struggled to overcome years of drought and falling commodity prices.
Then in February, Islamic militants attacked a military convoy, killing 40 Indian soldiers in the disputed region of Kashmir. New Delhi responded with airstrikes against reported terrorist training camps in Pakistan. That strong response sparked a nationalist upsurge and allowed Modi to shift the focus of the campaign from economic issues to national security.
That also permitted him to promote Hindu nationalism, the foundation of the BJP and a touchstone for many Indian voters, although there are fears that Modi is turning a blind eye to a militant Hinduism that threatens the country’s Muslim population and undermines the secular basis of Indian national identify since independence. Since Modi became prime minister, there have been growing numbers of reports of violence by Hindu extremists.
The shift in campaign focus to national security worked. At this point, the BJP looks set to win over 300 seats, enough to secure a majority on its own. When its partners in the NDA are combined, the government will control about 350 seats.
As important as the BJP’s victory is the virtual collapse of the Indian National Congress party, which has dominated Indian politics since independence. The party, now led by Rahul Gandhi, the fourth generation of a political dynasty, is struggling. Congress won just 44 seats in the 2014 ballot — its worst showing ever. This year, it has secured 50 seats so far and looks set to win more. Gandhi himself is locked in a bitter fight to retain the seat that his family has held for nearly half a century.
Modi must use this win and the resulting mandate to reinvigorate his economic reform program. He needs to create jobs, a project for which Japan should be a vital partner. Our two countries concluded an economic partnership agreement in 2011 and Japan has promoted the economic relationship with investments, a burgeoning trade relationship and extensive amounts of official development assistance. New Delhi must do more, however, to ensure that India is more welcoming of foreign investment.
Perhaps more important is the diplomatic partnership between Japan and India. Modi has been one of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s most trusted partners. The two men, and their respective governments, have worked together to promote a free and open Indo-Pacific region. They are both skeptical of Chinese intentions, but at the same time both acknowledge that Beijing is a geographic and geopolitical reality. They seek to engage China to ensure that it promotes, rather than challenges, the prevailing regional order. Modi will visit Japan next month for the Group of 20 summit in Osaka that Abe will host, at which time they will likely hold a bilateral meeting to discuss these topics.
Modi has his work cut out for him in his second term. His most pressing task is the economic agenda. He must remain vigilant about security challenges, especially the threat of Islamic extremism: A provocation in the aftermath of this sweeping win is to be expected.
Meanwhile, he should do more to damp down the extremism of Hindu militants as well. His 360-degree diplomacy embraces not just Japan but also the United States, Australia, Southeast Asia, China and Russia, as well as Iran. It is, in many ways, more of the same after his first term — now, however, Modi should do it better.