India: Challenge before Modi

Narendra Modi
Narendra Modi

Narendra Modi

If the scene at the headquarters of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in New Delhi resembled a carnival on Friday, it was not without reason. The success of the party in the general election to the Indian Parliament was beyond the wildest dreams of its candidate for prime minister, Narendra Modi.

For the first time in 30 years, a party has surpassed the 272 seats needed to secure a majority in the 543-member lower house of the Indian Parliament. With their allies, the BJP can claim a two-thirds majority. This means that on Wednesday, Modi will take power with the strongest mandate of any Indian leader since Rajiv Gandhi of the Indian National Congress took office in 1984.

The success of the BJP has been as spectacular as the defeat of the Congress has been ignominious, although the party’s President Sonia Gandhi and Vice President Rahul Gandhi won election from their traditional constituencies in Uttar Pradesh which sends the largest number of members to Parliament.

All exit polls predicted that Congress would slip below the 100 mark. In the event, the party has been reduced to a historic low, unable to win even 55 seats that would qualify it to become “the leader of the opposition” in the new Parliament. That the BJP won more seats from one single state in India (UP) than Congress’ nationwide tally gives you an idea of the contours of the defeat. Congress which has headed India’s government for nearly all its post-independence period and the Nehru-Gandhi family that has dominated it unchallenged are facing the biggest crisis in the history of the party.

Equally devastated is the new Aam Admi Party which fought the assembly elections to the Delhi legislature in January on an anti-corruption plank and captured the imagination of all Indians. Much was expected of this party but it has proved to be a flash in the pan. By splitting the anti-BJP votes, it seems to have played into Modi’s hands.

Although the BJP has been in power before, that was as head of coalitions which severely restricted its freedom of action. This time the party will be governing without the constraints imposed by a coalition of ideologically incompatible parties. But political stability need not mean social cohesion, given Modi’s controversial past.

Here is a leader who presided over what an Indian writer has called “a carefully planned genocide” of Muslims in Gujarat where he has been chief minister for 13 years. The pogrom killed 2,000 Muslims. Rather than showing any remorse, Modi had the audacity to state, in a rare comment last year, that he regretted Muslims’ suffering as he would that of a puppy run over by a car.

Although Modi refrained from all divisive issues at the beginning of the election campaign, there has been a slow but steady shift in his speeches from issues of development to subjects that have formed the core of the Hindutva which have kept minorities away from the BJP. Unfettered rabble-rousing by some members of the party has already vitiated the atmosphere.

Modi’s advocates hope he can transfer to the national stage what they think made Gujarat a success story in economic terms. Others fear he will polarize India by his divisive policies and his tendency to define the BJP’s exclusivist Hindu agenda in still more narrow terms. Some fear he will try to quash dissent and centralize authority. We hope Modi will reach out to minorities, especially Muslims, and his political opponents and prove all his critics wrong. If his first reaction upon hearing the election results was “India wins”, he should remember that this India includes people who do not belong to the BJP or to the Hindu religion.

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