With Narendra Modi’s ascension to India’s apex political office, India is set to enter a new era in its politics. Modi is a remarkable phenomenon in Indian politics for several reasons. While his ascent would not have been possible without a decade of Congress misrule, leading to a wave of anti-incumbency sentiment, he represents a new sort of leader in India’s politics. Modi is India’s first prime minister to have been born following the country’s independence. His campaign appealed to India’s meritocratic middle-class because he was the son of a tea seller who rose to prominence through a determined work ethic (something that can’t be said for Rahul Gandhi, the Congress Party’s scion who was often perceived as aloof and disinterested). Narendra Modi won’t change everything in India, but he has already demonstrated that the country is capable of a new kind of politics.
After winning the largest single non-Congress legislative mandate in India’s electoral history, Modi and the BJP have ushered India out of an era dominated by the Congress Party and the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Jawaharlal Nehru’s grand old party currently hold 44 seats in the Lok Sabha, or 8 percent of the total. The BJP, even without counting its coalition partners, commands 52 percent of the lower house of India’s bicameral legislature. With its coalition partner, the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) counts 336 seats, or 62 percent of the Lok Sabha. Fed up with corruption and economic stagnation, India voted overwhelmingly for the BJP.
Modi’s development as a politician is also remarkably different from most of India’s previous prime ministers, with the exception of the most recent BJP prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee. Having joined the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh at an early age, Modi embraced Hindu nationalism and a classical vision of an India unencumbered by its colonial past.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
While his educational pedigree is fairly anodyne and mundane for an Indian politician, Modi demonstrates his devotion to his vision of India by favoring Hindi as his language of choice at official occasions. Outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh favored English by contrast. While this might seem like a rather inconsequential point, even Modi’s linguistic preferences highlight his distance from India’s traditional “Macaulayite” Congress elite — an elite that was at times seen as eager to abandon India’s unique heritage in favor of empty promises of development and economic growth.
What’s most interesting about Modi’s ascent to the Prime Minister’s Office is his focus on his economic credentials as well as his image as a humble Hindu man who started out as a tea seller. Critics of India’s newest prime minister have never given up trying to emphasize his alleged complicity in 2002’s deadly Godhra riots, but Modi managed to sell his image as the architect of the “Gujarat miracle” to India. It would seem that Indian voters see in Modi a man who can deliver the economic outcomes India deserves without abandoning its unique heritage.
Of course, Modi’s victory could mean the end of India’s relatively troubled brand of secularism. Following the wounds of partition, India has always maintained an uneasy communal equilibrium between its Hindu majority and several minority religious groups. As long as the Modi administration focuses on delivering on its economic promises and avoids communal fault lines, India should be able to avoid the sorts of communal conflagrations that it has endured in the past. This isn’t guaranteed given the degrees of Hindu nationalism present within the BJP government (and particularly among the BJP’s supporters and the RSS).
Finally, Modi’s victory is the wake-up call the Indian National Congress sorely needed after a decade of empty demagoguery and failed populism. Just as competition is good for firms in a capitalist economy, so too will it be good for India’s opposition. The Congress Party will have to reinvent itself in a manner befitting modern India. India’s voters demonstrated their willingness to punish inept incumbents over the past two months and could do so again in five years time should Modi and the BJP fail. In such a scenario, a Congress Party ready to look beyond its Nehru-Gandhi origins may find itself well positioned to retake some of what it lost in 2014.
Ultimately, with the ascent of the BJP and Modi, India is at a turning point in her political history. Modi and his party are poised to set the country back on the path to growth and prosperity that seemed to be elusive in the UPA government’s final year in office. Regardless of where India will stand five years from now, it will see this year’s election as the end of a political era.