The South Asia Channel

Modi Sweeps India With Historic Mandate

As of 9:30 a.m. Indian Standard Time on May 16, "the Modi wave" has become a reality. News channels in India are competing with each other to take credit for predicting "the Modi tsunami," but the Indian voter is the real hero. India has elected the Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with an overwhelming majority.

This mandate has been unseen since 1977, the last time a non-Congress party won by such a landslide margin in the 543-member lower house of the Indian parliament. (Even then it was a coalition of parties, unlike the decisive numbers of this election.) The BJP made a complete sweep, almost effortlessly passing the 272 mark, the number of seats necessary to form a government. It won 283 seats on its own; together with its allies, it breached more than 300 seats, becoming the first party in opposition to return to power with such spectacular numbers. It was also the Congress party's worst defeat on record.

Celebrations began early outside the BJP headquarters. Many BJP leaders confessed on live TV that, while they were targeting 272 seats, no one expected this "landslide win." The BJP top brass was quick to credit the victory as a clear mandate for Modi and his leadership, as all detractors of a Modi-led cabinet quickly evaporated.

In this much publicized and almost presidential-style contest, Modi succeeded in connecting with India's aspirational youth -- unlike his rival, the Nehru-Gandhi scion and Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi. "The Outsider," as Modi called himself, won over the capital.

The media frenzy reached new levels by noon, when pictures of a triumphant yet subdued Modi emerged, making the first stop at his mother's residence and seeking her blessings. Swooning, emotional commentary on all news channels tried to dissect everything from Modi's body language to his frail mother's pride and joy, but the man of the moment had not spoken. Instead he used social media, a tool his party is credited with mastering to its potential, to announce, "India has won. Good days are here again." The victory tweet is now breaking records as the most retweeted tweet ever in the country.

Congress' Worst Ever Performance

The good days seem to be over for the incumbent Congress Party, which registered its worst-ever performance in India's electoral history. Rampant corruption, the sluggish economy, stagnant industrial production, rising food inflation, and the perception of a weak and divided leadership all contributed to the anti-incumbency wave that swept the Congress into oblivion.

Even the most accurate exit poll predictions proved to be optimistic in terms of the Congress numbers. Missing almost by half its assumption of getting a minimum of 100 seats, the Congress and its United Progressive Alliance (UPA) conceded defeat, admitting that the numbers looked bleak.

The party's projection of Rahul Gandhi as its next leader also received a massive drubbing. Rahul barely held on to the traditional Congress bastion of Amethi in the central Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. His rival Smriti Irani, a popular former television soap star that is now BJP vice president and a rising star within the cadres, gave him a tough fight, proving there were no "given" wins this election.

Rahul's leadership of the 2014 campaign has come under severe criticism for its mixed and vague messages. Despite his party swearing otherwise, the UPA rout will be his cross to bear. In a sign of changing political fortunes, media outlets reported that a group of Congress supporters shouted slogans in support of Rahul's more popular sister Priyanka outside party headquarters on Friday. And in a statement released a short while ago, Rahul along with his mother Sonia Gandhi accepted responsibility for the party's historic defeat.

Beyond the landslide victory for the BJP, the results threw up some surprises.

The BJP reclaimed the Hindi heartland of the central state of Uttar Pradesh by a landslide margin, with Modi winning his constituency Varanasi reportedly by over 50,000 votes. Modi also won his other constituency, Vadodara, by a record 570,128 votes, in his home state Gujarat that was swept by the BJP.

The BJP had several one-sided wins, claiming all the seats in the western state of Rajasthan, and retaining the central states of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, as well as the mountain states of Himachal and Uttarakhand. The BJP and its allies have in their bag the states of Haryana, Jharkhand, Bihar, Punjab, Goa, Maharashtra, and the newly bifurcated Andhra Pradesh.

The BJP won back Delhi from the Aam Admi Party, the anti-corruption party that had surprised everyone with its win in the Delhi assembly elections in December 2013.

The BJP carried off surprise wins in Karnataka in the south of India (which previously had little loyalty to the BJP) and the eastern state of Assam (historically a Congress stronghold) cemented Modi's credentials as a game changer.

Most the senior Congress top brass lost their seats, though Congress President Sonia Gandhi and son Rahul Gandhi won their constituencies by thin margins.

The election was a major upset for the aspirations of the Aam Admi Party. AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal, who tried to project himself as the alternative to Modi, suffered a massive loss in Varanasi. The AAP only managed to make its presence felt in the state of Punjab, and Kejriwal said he was "disappointed."

Regional parties broke records, emerging as leading national parties. Mamata Banerjee, the firebrand chief minister of West Bengal and chief of the Trinamool Congress, retained her state, with her party winning more than 30 seats. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), led by political heavyweight Jayalalithaa, shunted out the incumbent government with a clean sweep in Tamil Nadu. Navin Patnaik, Orissa chief minister for the last 14 years and leader of the Biju Janta Dal, registered his fourth consecutive win, giving his party an important 20 seats in the parliament.

Left Parties and Third Front lost significance. The Left Front -- an alliance of Left-leaning Indian parties -- also recorded its worst performance ever. The communist parties -- which had proposed an alliance with regional heavy weights such as Samajvadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar's Rashtriya Janata Dal chieftain Lalu Prasad, and Tamil Nadu's Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam supremo M Karunanidhi, all of whom saw a clear loss of face -- will now find no takers.

The chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, was ousted. An alliance with the Congress seems to have cost Abdullah, with his National Congress becoming victim to the anti-incumbency wave.

Exit polls got Modi right, but everything else wrong. Apart from one accurate exit poll prediction, most of the pundits got their numbers wrong with wide margins of error. With Modi's emphatic win, though, all of it now seems like history.

Modi's Next Move

Making his victory speech in Vadodara in his home state of Gujarat amid cheering and screaming supporters, India's next prime minister thanked the people of India for their support, promising that his "his government will be for the common man." Calling himself "mazdoor" (or laborer) "number one", he promised to work tirelessly for the next 60 months to take India forward.

The support for Modi was palpable: The crowds interrupted his victory speech several times with chants of "Modi, Modi." A gifted political orator, Modi joked with the crowds, saying, "You have got your chance to speak, let me try now." His speech targeted all his constituencies and reiterated in no uncertain terms that the election outcome was a strong mandate for him.

The overwhelming support for Modi will also become his biggest challenge, since it comes with heavy expectations. This was an election with record voter turnout, with youth voting in favor of a decisive Modi who promised economic resurgence and effective governance. Modi will also have to be careful that this mandate is not seen as a vote for "Hindu triumphalism," riding on concerns of a BJP-led polarized election campaign, but rather a vote for change and the resurgent aspirations of a young and impatient India.

As Modi swears in his cabinet, the problem of plenty will rise; so many BJP leaders have won by massive margins. Balancing expectations and experience will be tricky. The media is already abuzz with rumors of radical restructuring of key ministries in Modi's government, which would be a historic departure in terms of Indian government thinking. Some journalists earlier in the day shared e-mails with me from the BJP's communication wing, asking for ideas for the "agenda for next 100 days of Modi's government" -- not a bad start, most of us would agree.

Modi's journey of transformation will soon lend itself to a Bollywood potboiler. It's quite the story: The 63-year-old son of a low-caste tea seller creating political history. Modi has reinvented himself from the image of a polarizing, controversial state leader accused of allowing religious riots in 2002, into an aspiring prime minister intent on fulfilling India's destiny.

Unlike his predecessor Manmohan Singh, who was a widely regarded economist with great relationships with the West, Modi's international persona has been troubled. Yet India believes Modi will put "India First." His challenge has only just begun, with the aspirations of a billion people riding on him.

Shruti Pandalai is a television journalist and foreign policy analyst currently working with Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, a New Delhi-based think tank. The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent views of the institute. Follow her on Twitter at @shrutipandalai.

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