NEW DELHI, India — Narendra Modi is to be the new prime minister of India, and the arithmetic of his victory is stunning. This has been an election of superlative numbers: a record 66.38 percent of an electorate of 820 million people cast its vote over the last month, and the results—announced today—have given his Bharatiya Janata [Indian People’s] Party the first absolute majority for any party in India’s parliament since 1984, when Thatcher and Reagan were in office, the Soviet Union was alive (if not quite kicking), and China’s economic heft was little more than a twinkle in Deng Xiaoping’s eye.
As of this writing, the Modi-led BJP is slated to get 286 seats out of 543. Throw in the seats won by its electoral allies and fellow travelers, and the number swells to more than 340. That would make it possible for Modi to enact virtually any law, program or policy he wishes to, given that the Congress Party, which has headed a ruling alliance in parliament since 2004, has been nuked by the Indian voters, nuked so devastatingly, in fact, that it has been reduced from 206 seats to 45—a charred rump that represents its lowest tally of seats in Indian parliamentary history. Its allies have fared little better, and even with them accounted for, a Congress-led alliance barely limps to 60 seats.
In addition to all of these, there are about 140-plus seats that have been won by a smorgasbord of regional and niche-interest parties, many of whom are likely to throw their weight behind Modi on an ad hoc basis. All of which means that his victory will count as one of the most lop-sided in any large, modern democracy, with his government able to act unchecked by any meaningful opposition. In fact, by a quirk of India’s parliamentary rules, there won’t even be a formal leader of the opposition: other than the BJP, no party has won a minimum of 10 percent of all seats (i.e., 54) that would confer the status of formal, upper-case-O “Opposition.” This has not happened in India’s parliament since 1984.
What does Modi stand for, and what can we expect from his government? He and his party have, habitually, been described as “Hindu nationalist,” by which is meant a combination—derided by critics on the left as unsavory—of Indian nationalism and Hindu revivalism. Certainly, the Congress Party is nationalist, too—it was, in fact, the vehicle for India’s independence movement—but the BJP differentiates itself from the older, formally secular party by its embrace of Hinduism, the religion of about 85 percent of India’s people. Modi, notoriously, presided over an administration in his home state of Gujarat that did little or nothing to stop the massacre of some 2,000 Muslims in 2002. Accused by his critics of complicity in the pogrom, Modi has never been found culpable by any judicial body, including a special investigating team set up by the Indian Supreme Court. Commentators have sought to explain Modi to non-Indians, deploying numerous comparisons to do so; but the one that works best, in my opinion, is to see him as a kind of Indian (or Hindu) Ariel Sharon.
To his credit, Modi conducted an election campaign in which he, personally, focused almost exclusively on his ideas for economic growth and better governance, two areas in which the Congress-led alliance had performed appallingly. Modi left the invocations of “Hindutva”—or Hinduness, a feature of his party’s identity—to his lieutenants, some of whom were incendiary on the stump, seeking to stoke divisions between Hindus and Muslims. But as the campaign wore on, Modi’s focus on “Arthatva”—or “economics-ness”—came to be reassuring to those voters who were repelled by the Congress party’s incompetence and corruption, while harboring, at the same time, misgivings about the BJP’s “communal” ideology.
Modi’s resounding victory at the polls inclines me to argue that it is time to wipe his slate clean. I have been a critic of his derelict handling of the Gujarat riots, and have expressed regular misgivings about the tone of the BJP’s “Hindutva.” But India’s electorate has made a clear choice, and one must respect that choice. There is nothing to be gained by harping on about events in 2002, however disconcerting those events were. Indians, and Modi’s critics, need to move on.
One might derive some hope, also, from the size of Modi’s majority, which would allow him to govern magnanimously, and with no vindictiveness toward those who did not vote for him. His parliamentary numbers allow him to enact economic reforms that Indians crave, with no need to buy off, or kowtow to, difficult coalition partners. They allow him, also, to extend a hand of reconciliation to India’s Muslims, who, at 11 percent of the population number just over 170 million people. Early analyses indicate that only 10 percent of Muslim voters cast their ballots for the BJP, although the party did win just over 40 percent of all seats with a significant Muslim population. (American Republicans will see echoes here of their problems with the African-American electorate.)
Were the story of Modi’s win not so eye-catching, so spectacular, one would have said that the most dramatic outcome of this election was the savaging of the Congress Party, a once-proud institution that has fallen on times so hard that it is impossible to foresee a recovery. The party of India’s independence movement has now become utterly dynastic, miserably sclerotic and entirely bereft of good ideas. It was profoundly depressing to see party hacks raising slogans, after their defeat, in favor of Priyanka Gandhi, sister of Rahul Gandhi, the man who has led his party to near-oblivion. The party will need to do much, much more than replace one scion with another if it is ever to come back to national prominence.
With each generation, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has grown less impressive, and more pedestrian. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, was, for all his flaws, a towering intellectual and political figure, a man of abiding education and culture. His daughter, Indira Gandhi, never finished her college degree, but she had political stature and an impressive, worldly sophistication. Her son, Rajiv Gandhi, was a retiring fellow who had politics thrust upon him, a pilot out of place in power. His son, Rahul Gandhi, represents the family’s nadir: he has nothing on his curriculum vitae that is not a family inheritance. There is nothing on it that is self-made. He is a cipher who has reduced his own party to near-cipher status.
India expects Modi to deliver the country from economic stagnation. India expects Modi to be decisive. India expects Modi to be everything that the previous government was not. There has never been a contrast as great between two contending Indian leaders as there was between Modi and Rahul Gandhi. The country was offered an irrefutable antithesis of style, manner, culture, class, ideology, language, heritage and political hunger. The country chose Modi. They have given him a massive mandate. And with that, they have also given him a massive burden. Modi must now show India that he can shoulder it without buckling.