Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is India’s new prime minister. His election is remarkable for a number of reasons. First, it is the first time that the BJP has won power on its own, without any need for a coalition, which means that Modi has a mandate to pursue his agenda, with the main focus on economic growth. Second, this time much of the caste and community configuration that has been a dominant feature of Indian elections has not been that prominent. Modi has won this election for his BJP party and not the other way around. His election has made the BJP into a national party. Though its Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) brand has won it many votes, it was largely Modi’s message of economic growth and resurgence that won him votaries even among those who are not inclined towards Hindutva. Modi and his advisers were able to skilfully cobble together a narrative of the economic wonders he did as chief minister of Gujarat and assert that he will replicate them nationally; even after that narrative was questioned by some. Third, it is important to realise that elections generally have an inbuilt anti-incumbency factor. They are, therefore, there for the government to lose rather than for the opposition to win. And in India’s recent elections, the Congress-led coalition was so unpopular that the people were keen to get rid of it. In Modi there was a charismatic leader with a message of Indian resurgence — a choice between a new future and a discredited past. Fourth, Modi’s personal story of his rise from a chaiwala (tea-boy) to chief minister of Gujarat and now the country’s prime minister, resonated with many and won over the country’s lower castes and communities to his banner. He sounded very much like one of them. Besides which there were no stories of corruption and malfeasance around him.
Even with so many pluses around him, we need to keep Modi’s victory in perspective. For instance, he and his BJP won in a first-past-the post electoral system where it got a majority of seats in the national parliament by polling an overall vote of about 31 per cent. In other words, nearly 70 per cent of the votes polled were fragmented between the Congress Party (which lost power), regional outfits and other groups. Therefore, Modi’s victory, though quite significant, does not reflect the real picture. But that is the way the first-past-the post electoral system works. It is true that the Congress Party led by Sonia Gandhi and her son, Rahul Gandhi, suffered a rout in terms of parliamentary seats. However, despite all its woes, it still managed to poll nationally about 20 per cent of the votes. Therefore, it still is an electoral force, second only to the BJP. How it goes from here is difficult to predict at this low point in its fortunes but it would be naive to write off the Congress Party completely, especially when one considers the tasks ahead for Modi.
Modi has been built up by his public relations machine and the business groups behind him as a messiah who will transform India to where most, if not all of its citizens, will become well-off — which is a herculean task that even Modi, despite all the hype around him, is not likely to pull off. In other words, expectations from Modi’s victory are so high that, sooner rather than later, many people will feel cheated. Even Modi’s record as a high achiever as Chief Minister of Gujarat is questioned by some since the poor in that state have missed out in a big way. Besides which, India is too heterogeneous to be reduced to the example (successful or otherwise) of one state. The policies of special incentives for businesses that worked in Gujarat might not be replicable in their entirety elsewhere and going by Modi’s political temperament, he is likely to have difficulty dealing with people who do not share his political views. If his government tries to grab land from tribes and farmers for industrial and mining interests or ride rough shod with labour unions or a myriad other things, this might create social unrest over a wide swathe of the country. Considering that his support base consists of about 30 percent of voters, there are a lot of people who are not in sync with him. Initially though, he might be able to create a sense of hope with a series of measures designed to encourage investments leading to a hike in stock market indicators. India needs foreign investments on a large scale to rebuild and restructure its infrastructure and simultaneously invest in human capital to support such nation building. However, foreign investors need a good return on their capital and to do that India’s highly subsidised economy will need to be freed up to charge consumers higher prices, which the country’s poor and needy will not be able to afford. This has the potential to create widespread unrest over time. In India’s noisy and democratic political culture (which is not a bad thing), it will not work to hand directives from the top and expect results. It is a messy business of negotiating and compromising with a whole host of intermediaries and groups to get things moving. Modi only has the Gujarat model before him and whether or not it really worked the way the narrative is spun is still open to question.
In other words, for any government to function, much less perform to heightened expectations, it has to be inclusive. But Modi’s Hindutva is hardly inclusive, by its very definition. It tends towards excluding India’s large Muslim minority of 150 million people. He already bears the stigma of the 2002 Gujarat riots where Muslims were targeted, though an investigation by the Supreme Court found that Modi had no cause to answer. He blamed the media for the smear campaign against him but the riots happened under his watch as Gujarat’s chief minister. The argument of BJP supporters is that the Gujarat riots were provoked by the burning of a train of Hindu pilgrims by some Muslim miscreants, but to hold a community hostage for the crimes of a few is abhorrent. If the BJP and the Modi government want to become really inclusive, they will need to reach out to the Muslim population of India. Hindutva might work with some people as a national ideology but by its very definition it is not inclusive. And in a secular Indian democracy, whatever is not inclusive will cause serious problems and obstacles to nation building.
The writer is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney, Australia. He can be reached at email@example.com