The results are in from the largest election in the world’s history. Narenda Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) not only won the election, pushing the long-ruling Indian National Congress from power for the first time in a decade, but in a huge way. The votes are still being tallied, but so far it appears that the BJP will have won enough of the electorate to not only top any government, but to rule without forming a coalition. There’s a lot to unpack in this news from the world’s largest democracy, but here are the basics:
Indians are betting on the potential for economic growth.
One of the largest issues going into this election — and the platform on which Modi ran and won — was the state of the Indian economy. A Gallup poll released just as voting was set to begin found that a record one in three Indians say that their economy is getting worse. While the country is still doing far better than the United States in terms of annual growth, it’s still been lagging over recent years, plunging to 4.7 percent in 2012 from 10.3 percent in 2010. Modi made a name for himself as the chief minister of Gujarat state in India, whose economic growth the prime minister candidate put forward as a main reason for him to replace outgoing prime minister Mohammed Singh and the Congress. Whether the policies enacted at the state-level can be replicated at the national level is a question that remains uncertain, but given the fact that 102 million people still live on less than $1.25 a day in India, any increase in economic growth that also includes them would be welcomed.
Large margin of victory = fewer extremist groups.
One of the biggest concerns for observers of Indian politics was that in victory, Modi’s party would be unable to have enough votes in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of the Indian parliament, to govern without drawing in support from some of the smaller parties. Given the right-wing nature of the BJP, the smaller, more extreme of Indian parties would likely have been the ones to fill the void. This would include its coalition partner during the last time they were in power, Shiv Sena, which many have called extremist for its ultra-Hindu nationalist positions. Current estimates, however, show that the BJP alone is on course to win at least 275 seats in the lower house — 272 are needed to be able to choose the Prime Minister According to The Economist, this is the first time since 1984 that a single party has had enough to rule without assistance. This could also end some of the gridlock seen in the Lok Sabha, as the coalition governments have had difficulty passing major legislation.
There are worries about rising Hindu nationalism.
For all that Modi came into power on the promise of economic growth for everyone, there’s still the fact that his government will be far more right-wing that the outgoing leaders to consider. While the BJP will be able to rule without the support of Shiv Sena in the cabinet, the party remains nationalist in nature. The principle belief of the BJP has been described as “Hindutva, Hindu-ness, an unabashed belief in the supremacy of Hindu religion and culture over Christian, Muslim and other minorities,” a mindset that has some of India’s large Muslim population concerned. And while Modi himself is viewed at least somewhat positively, other members of the BJP have voiced opinions that many in the U.S. would find repugnant. During a diplomatic row with the United States, one BJP official suggested arresting all gay Americans in India to prove a point. Another has been recorded describing just why Hindus should not sell property to Muslims. Given this company, Modi will have a lot of ground to make-up to convince the world that his government believes different.
The specter of the Gujarat Riots will be prominent.
The violence that took place in Gujarat in 2002, while Modi was executive in the state, will hang like a shroud over the new prime minister’s time in office. That year, a train filled with Hindu pilgrims making their way back from Ayodhya — the scene of 1992 riots over the destruction of a mosque built on top of a Hindu holy site — stopped in the town of Godhra. There several passengers got into an altercation with some of the local Muslims, leading to an escalating series of events culminating in one of the train cars being lit on fire.
Though the Indian government later ruled that the car’s ignition was an accident and not set by Muslims, the violence spread throughout Western Gujarat and in the following weeks Hindu mobs sought vengeance on Muslims. “About 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, are killed. Some 20,000 Muslim homes and businesses and 360 places of worship are destroyed, and roughly 150,000 people are displaced,” the New York Times says in its timeline of the riots. While Modi’s reputation has clearly improved since then, and he has never been officially implicated as being behind the riots, they still happened on his watch — a fact that not all of India’s voters have forgotten.
China, Pakistan, and the U.S. will be watching for foreign policy changes.
While Modi is going to be primarily focused on domestic challenges and economic issues, India’s role, at times, as a seemingly reluctant potential heavyweight in the region will mean that the BJP government will have to grapple with foreign policy. With his victory still fresh, key countries are already extending a hand to Modi to ensure stable relations with the incoming government. Modi had been previously banned from obtaining a visa into the United States, a situation that the State Department now says will be reversed once Modi takes office and forms a government. And Modi has already been in contact with his counterpart in Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, according to Indian newspaper Desh Gujarat. “Pakistan and India will wage a war against poverty,” the paper cited Modi as saying.
This outreach doesn’t mean that the potential for problems in relations between Modi’s India and other states no longer exist. While Modi is known for his economic acumen and is well aware of the potential for growing links with China, he has also warned of Beijing’s “expansionary mindset” when it comes to territory. And with Modi potentially looking east, towards southeast Asia and other neighbors, as opposed to west, the lynchpin of the Obama administration’s ‘rebalance to Asia’ may be at risk. Indo-American relations under Singh and Obama have had their high and low points, but finding common ground with the Modi government on matters such as managing China’s rise and engaging in counter-terrorism strategy in Afghanistan will be all the more difficult — and important.